If Athanasius was too big for words—too grand, too dominating, too heroic—Gregory of Nyssa comes as a refreshing change of pace. A married man (meet Mrs. Nyssa, probably named Theosebeia … an option to consider, all you future young parents), a guy devoted to his big brother (St. Basil), and even a man who got into some trouble and lost his job. (What? a saint lost his job?? what’s to become of the rest of us??)
Gregory, like Athanasius, recognized that the singular term “Unbegotten” was problematic insofar as it described the essential character of God. Athanasius tackled this by redirecting the focus from God’s “unbegottenness/otherness” to God’s unique identity as the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. Gregory tackles the problem in a different way.
He begins by pointing out that the term “Unbegotten” is a negative term; it tells us what God isn’t but it doesn’t tell us what God is. And besides, Gregory argues, one word cannot do justice to the great mystery of the divine essence. The tension he’s identifying here is that between “epistemological humility” and “dogmatic affirmation” – between acknowledging our own limited understanding and believing that we can actually say we know real things about God. In theological language, this is the tension between kataphatic theology (positive statements about God—e.g., I know God is holy) and apophatic theology (negative statements about God—e.g., whatever I understand about the holiness of God is so far from the reality of it that I don’t know what I’m talking about). Kataphatic theology sees God in the light; apophatic theology clings to God in the darkness.
Gregory writes eloquently about the incomprehensibility of the divine essence, and yet bids us enter into the knowledge of God. We can’t know God, but we must know God. How do we reconcile this apparent conflict?
Gregory helps us by examining the nature of true knowledge, knowledge about anything. He argues, as Anatolios writes, that “the act of knowing is not an act of comprehension in the sense of enclosing a reality with the powers of the mind.” We don’t really know much in that sense, not even ourselves. Gregory rejects the Greek idea of knowing as a static grasping, your hand enclosing completely the object, in favor of a way of knowing that is dynamic, constantly in motion, “approaching” or “traveling” in the direction of the object.
This makes all kinds of sense to me. Even in all this exploration of Trinitarian language and belief, as enriching and meaningful as it is, I recognize deep inside that we’re only scratching the surface here. The depth of the Triune God cannot be captured by our creeds, our formula, or our doctrines. Human language is finite, material, limited. But I do believe that Trinitarian faith is believing in the right direction. We’re facing the truth, even if we cannot grasp its fullness.
Gregory uses Abraham as a model of this kind of “faith-knowledge, which is characterized primarily by the dynamism of quest, wherein the luminosity of being and the receptivity of the mind to that inexhaustible luminosity animate a journey that leads upward from sensible things to the divine infinity.”
I know this is a long quote, but take a moment to really listen to Gregory, who writes so beautifully:
This then was the secure path which guided him on the way to what he was seeking, that he did not let himself be guided by any of the things that were immediately at hand for understanding the thoughts that pertain to God. Nor did he allow his mind to be deterred from its journey to what is beyond all that is known by any of the objects of sense. But having advanced beyond the wisdom of his land … and ascending high above what is knowable by sense perception, he proceeded from the beauty of what is beheld in contemplation and the harmony of the heavenly wonders to the desire of seeing Archetypal Beauty. Likewise, with all the other things which he apprehended in the course of his reasoning as he journeyed on, whether the power of God or his goodness, or his being without beginning, or his infinity, or whatever else is conceivable with respect to the divine nature, he made all of them into provisions and supplies for his upward journey. He was always transforming his discoveries into stepping stones along the way, and stretching forward to what lies ahead and placing in his heart, as the prophet says, each of these beautiful advances, and going beyond all that he had grasped by his own power as less than what he was seeking. When he had advanced beyond every hypothesis concerning the divine nature and purified his reasoning from such suppositions and arrived at an unalloyed faith pure from every imagining, he made this the fixed and manifest sign of the knowledge of God: to believe that he is greater and higher than every sign by which he is known.
“Always transforming his discoveries into stepping stones.” “Stretching forward to what lies ahead.” “Placing each of these beautiful advances in his heart.”
Never being “finished” with the quest. Always seeking. Pushing onward into the mystery. This kind of “knowing God” is both humbling and exhilarating. Gregory firmly “locates the act of knowledge radically within the movement of receptivity and wonder.”
If this is true, then of course the highest act of knowing God requires worship, what Anatolios calls “doxological knowledge.” You remember the Doxology: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise him all creatures here below, praise him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” Gregory suggests that genuine knowledge of God both issues out of and flows into praise—“the knowing-in-adoration of the transcendence of the glory perceived, traveled in, but not enclosed” (Anatolios).
Some might argue that all this wonder and mystery and incomprehensibility and awe can lead us into a diminishment of the gospel and an uncertainty about the Trinitarian claims. But Gregory foresees this, and once he lays the foundation about the dynamic and adoring quality of knowledge, he returns to the elementary Christian teaching: we only know anything at all about God because God has chosen to reveal himself. It is God who communicates. Our wonder, our humble worship is only possible because God gives himself, and we know that self-giving in scripture. Even this revelation is given in human language, and thus does not “grasp” divine totality, but there is an unbreakable correspondence between the Word of God as divine communication and the Word of God as scripture.
Here again, the eloquent and tender words of Gregory who, I suspect, knew something about parenting:
So the divine power (dynamis) … while being infinitely exalted above our nature and inaccessible to approach, is like a compassionate mother who joins in the inarticulate cries of her infants, and so grants to our human nature what it is capable of receiving. Thus, in the various divine manifestations to humanity, he presents himself in a form appropriate to human beings and speaks in human language and puts on the guise of anger and pity and such emotions, so that by everything that corresponds to our infantile life, we might be led by the hand by providential words and lay hold of the divine nature.
Note the references to “the form appropriate to human beings.” We are, of course, recognizing Jesus here. Gregory’s Trinitarian teaching begins with a holistic understanding of the knowledge of God as a journeying into relationship with him; it continues with the insistence that such knowledge is essentially worship; it moves then directly into worship as a response to God’s self-revelation in scripture; and it concludes with the good news of Jesus as the ultimate act of divine condescension and mercy.
I was speaking with a woman last Sunday whose graduate work at an Ivy League school was fraught with notable hostility to Christianity. When she asked about this in her exit interview, the school representative sneered, “Oh yes, it’s all about Jesus, isn’t it?”
Well, yes, as a matter of fact it is. The early church fathers, in concert, affirmed the “absolute primacy of Jesus Christ.” And really, if Jesus is who he said he was, if Jesus is who the early Church believed him to be, then indeed, it’s all about Jesus, who in his divine-human person, brings the Trinity into our world. As Anatolios puts it, Gregory’s “purpose is to present a Christian account of reality that is christologically determined at every point.” The Lordship of Christ, as revealed in the scriptures, is the key to Trinitarian theology.
To explore the Lordship of Christ, Gregory turns to the names, titles, and descriptions given to Jesus in scripture. The world wants him to stay in his proper place as itinerant Jewish rabbi, prophetic preacher, maybe a revolutionary, a martyr for his cause. Gregory’s eyes would pop out if he heard some of the soft talk about Jesus today. There are some BIG names for Jesus in scripture; Gregory embraces every one of them and launches them like theological missiles into the hostile territory of our world. Ka-bam!
Photo: Petra, Flickr C.C.
Note to Reader: This series on Trinitarian Spirituality explores the history and spirituality behind the shaping of the Nicene Creed using Khaled Anatolios' Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) as guide and inspiration. It's best to begin at the beginning: An Introduction.