Gregory of Nazianzus on the limits of knowing God

Gregory of Nazianzus is best known for his five theological orations (collected in On God and Christ in the Popular Patristics Series), one of the defining patristic texts on the doctrine of God. The orations are primarily a rebuttal of some of the major Trinitarian heresies plaguing the early Church, and Gregory spends the majority of his time untangling the arguments of his opponents, before ending each oration with a string of references to what Scripture says about God.

There are two main points to Gregory’s argument. The first is very simply that God cannot be comprehended. ‘To know God is hard’, he writes, and ‘to describe him impossible’ (39; references here are to the page numbers in the PPS book). He continually returns to this point, criticising his opponents for attempting to rationally work out God’s nature and essence. ‘What can your conception of the divine be,’ he asks, ‘if you rely on all the methods of deductive argument’ (41)? You will have a God who is bounded by the limits of your mind, and the product of your own preconceptions. No, Gregory says, in the midst of a discussion on what it means for the Son to be begotten of the Father, ‘we count it a high thing that we may perhaps learn what it is in the time to come, when we are free of this dense gloom’ (79). For now, we simply accept what God says of himself.

And that leads to the second point in Gregory’s argument – that the attempt of his opponents to use logic to make sense of God belies a deeper desire, namely, to undermine the God of Scripture. Gregory will have none of it, and states that the twists and turns of their logic are not an effort to truly know God; they merely ‘mean to fight foul’ (84). If his opponents really want to mount a challenge against Gregory’s theology, ‘let us see what strength you can muster from Holy Scriptures’ (84). Indeed, he says, ‘it is not a hard task to clear away the stumbling block that the literal text of Scripture contains – that is, if your stumbling is real and not just wilful malice’ (86). What is to be done instead? We are to ‘let the Spirit aid us, and the Word will have its course and God be glorified’ (118). For Gregory, this is about humility: probing into the nature of God can only be an enquiry that has ‘yielded to faith’. In the end, ‘it is better to have a meagre idea…than to venture on total blasphemy’ (126). A God who makes sense is a God made in our own image.

Gregory’s point is simple: Only a very little can be known of God. But we get nowhere near that knowledge if we rely solely on our own speculations. Faith must be given priority. What we know of God we know from Scripture, and while at times we might not be able to make sense of everything revealed to us, faith calls us to accept it. Why? Because even though ‘the knowledge we shall have in this life will be little, soon after it will perhaps be more perfect, in the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (34).

 

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