Stephen Holmes (Quest for the Trinity) summarizes Gregory of Nyssa’s response to Eunomius’s use of divine names:
“Gregory is scathing about Eunomius’s assumption that the divine essence can be adequately named. His arguments on this point are often unsatisfactory, turning regularly on the assumption that the same divine names apply to the Son as to the Father, which is rather the point to be proved, but within it all he is offering a distinctively different account of how God is named from that of Eunomius. In contrast to Eunomius’s insistence that we can accurately speak of the divine essence, it will be recalled that Basil had suggested that all our names for God are the result of epinoia. In Basil’s usage, this term was an acknowledgement of the fact that we have no unmediated perception of the divine, so that all our language about God derives from reflection on divine works – Athanasius’s theme of divine ineffability. We call God ‘immmutable’ because we see that his works do not change, and so we infer that his essence does not change” (104).
He quotes Gregory’s argument that Eunomius descends into confusion by insisting on simplicity while also affirming that God is Ungenerate: “if Eunomius argues that God is both simple and ingenerate, and that these terms are held to adequately define God’s essence, then Eunomius . . . is postulating two realities in God’s confessedly simple essence” (105).
Gregory too insists that God is simple, and at the same time insists that the multitude of names of God have meaning: “What we see and know are the divine works, and we reflect on those works to discover names of God. But each name is the result of our reflection on the ways in which we have experienced God’s effects, and so stands at several removes from being a straightforward property of God” (105).
Later, Holmes summarizes Gregory’s “deployment of divine simplicity, ingenerateness, and the rest”: “The divine essence is fundamentally beyond our conceptions; all our language and thought, limited as it is by created categories, is inadequate to speak of what God is. Through God’s gracious revelation of himself, we have been given names to name God, and actions by which we might perceive God at work. However, our names suffer from the same limitations as our language and thought: they point towards the ineffable; they do not define or grasp it.” This is evident from the very multiplicity of names: “We know that the simple essence of God cannot be subject to composition, because composition is one of those created realities we can grasp” (108).
To this, I have two lines of query, one about the logical coherence of Holmes’s presentation and another about its theological coherence and import. (I leave to the side the question of whether Holmes gets Gregory right.)
First, as to logical coherence: Holmes several times says that our thought, language, and names are “inadequate” to name the essence of God. In several places, he’s even willing to say that we cannot speak “accurately” of God’s essence.
Later, he makes the more modest claim that our names “do not define or grasp” the ineffable divine essence. “Inadequate” and “not accurate” aren’t synonymous with “do not define.” The latter suggests that we cannot comprehend God’s essence, though we may know truth about it; the former that our terms fail. A description may be true as far as it goes without “defining” a thing.Besides “inadequacy” can’t stand on its own. We have to ask, “inadequate for what purpose?” If Holmes means that our terms are “inadequate for the purpose of defining or grasping the divine essence,” then he’s speaking, uncontroversially, of our inability to comprehend God, to understand Him exhaustively, or to set Him within the limits of definition.
If he means that our thoughts and terms are “inadequate for the purpose of speaking sensibly about God” or “inadequate for the purpose of prayer and worship,” then his argument seems self-contradictory. After all, he uses a number of terms to describe God’s essence that he appears to believe are adequate (indeed necessary) to sensible speech and thought about God – simplicity, immutability, etc. That our terms don’t exhaust what God is isn’t the point in question. The question is whether they are adequate to know truth about God’s essence.
Second, theological issues: Holmes says that Gregory appeals to epinoia, the fact that our language about God derives from reflection on His works. He appeals to the example of immutability: We use this term because we “see that his words do not change, and so we infer that his essence does not change” (104).
It sounds plausible, until we look at the works that, according to Scripture, God is actually recorded as doing. From the first page of the Bible, God seems to do this and then do that. Several passages speak of God “changing” or “repenting.” Of course, the Bible also contains passages that deny God changes.
My point here isn’t to harmonize these passages nor to deny immutability, but to highlight the problem this presents for Holmes’s (Gregory’s?) argument. One might dismiss the Scriptural evidence, something neither Holmes nor Gregory does. If, in spite of Scripture’s testimony that God’s works change, we conclude that God’s essence doesn’t change, then we aren’t really drawing our understanding of God’s essence from reflection on His works. We seem instead to be positing something about God’s essence in spite of what Scripture tells us about God’s works.
The testimony of Scripture undermines the method Holmes commends from another direction too: If we aren’t in fact deriving our language about God’s essence from reflection on His works, then we must have some access to the divine essence that is not mediated through God’s works. But that contradicts the premise of the whole approach; it undermines the reason we relied on the works in the first place.
There may be a way of rescuing Holmes’s approach, but it seems to me it founders on the specifics of Scripture. If taken seriously, Scripture’s witness complicates the issues considerably; if the Bible is not taken seriously, then we’re truly left with no knowledge of God.