In the Company of the Fathers: Gregory of Nyssa

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Read more from the series, In the Company of the Fathers:

In the Company of the Fathers: An Introduction
In the Company of the Fathers: Irenaeus
In the Company of the Fathers: Origen
In the Company of the Fathers: The Female Martyrs

While the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the determinative event of Christianity, the central belief of the community of faith constituted by that event is the Trinity, the belief that the one God of creation eternally exists in three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. Unlike the core doctrines of other religions, however, the Trinity is not immediately recognizable in the Church’s scriptures. For this reason, the Trinity often is assumed to have been invented by the fourth century Church. Last decade’s massively popular Da Vinci Code franchise captured this critique for a popular audience. To paraphrase the character Leigh Teabing’s summation of the alleged coup of Nicaea, “For most fourth century Christians, Jesus was mortal one day and divine the next.”

In response, many Christians went on the defensive writing scores of books and blog posts centered on an array of biblical passages that purportedly demonstrated the scriptural foundation of Trinitarian theology. Arguments in favor of the Trinity, thus, were reduced to little more than list making, the assumption being that the longer the list of scriptures, the more persuasive the argument. The accumulation of lists, paradoxically, revealed less about the nature of God and more about the state of a Church profoundly unsure of the reasons for, not to mention the meaning of, her defining belief.

The Fathers show us a better way.

Although most are Trinitarian, the Fathers never argue for the doctrine’s veracity on the basis of lists of scriptural passages. Rather, on the Fathers’ reading of scripture, every aspect of the redemptive story–from creation to the cross–necessitates the cooperative, unified divine action of the three dramatis personae. Therefore, their writings demonstrate the scriptural grounding of the doctrine by uncovering the logic of this story that finds both its source and denouement in the Trinity. This manner of argumentation is nowhere clearer than the fourth century Bishop of Nyssa, Gregory (c. 335 C.E. – c. 395 C.E.).

Known to history as one of the illustrious “Cappadocian Fathers,” Gregory possessed a theological acumen unseen in the Church since Origen. His writings were formative to the developed doctrine of the Trinity that was officially promulgated by the Council of Constantinople in 381 C.E. and remains orthodox to this day. In one of his more accessible works, a short letter to a bishop named Ablabius (c. 380 C.E.), Gregory argues for the unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit, whose distinctiveness he assumes in the letter, in their common work or operation (ἐνέργεια). Although few scriptures are quoted directly, the argument is thoroughly scriptural.

The position against which Gregory argues holds that what unifies Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a common nature, similar to the human nature that unifies all individual human beings. Thus, the position infers, in the same way that we call three individual humans three men, despite their common human nature, we ought also to think of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three Gods, despite their common divine nature. Gregory rejects this manner of speaking about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and maintains that the nature of the unity shared by the three divine persons demands us speaking of them as one God.

First, Gregory argues that the scriptural titles used of God reveal something about God, what he does or an attribute he possesses, without revealing anything about God’s essence. Some titles clearly conform to his description, Redeemer, Deliverer, and the like, but Gregory argues that all scriptural titles act in this manner. So, the title “Godhead” (Θεοτής), which means “beholding,” names not God’s essence but his power of “beholding, whereby He surveys all things and overlooks them all…” But according to scripture, the power of beholding, and this is the key move, belongs not to one person of the Trinity, but to all three. Accordingly, the Psalms are full of references to the Father’s protective oversight, but the Son also sees the thoughts of those who question him in the Gospels, just as the Spirit knows the secretive actions of Ananias in the book of Acts.

Anticipating an objection, Gregory asserts that the beholding that is common to each divine person is not equivalent to a work performed by multiple humans. Three farmers, for example, are still named as three and thought of individually despite their common action for they perform the same work separately. By contrast, the works of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit participate in one another such that the divine work that is performed commonly by the three is experienced always as one action. He writes, “every operation that extends from God to the Creation…has its origin from the Father, and proceeds through the Son, and is perfected in the Holy Spirit.” Gregory proceeds to offer Trinitarian interpretations of the divine work of creating, judging, and saving. His poetic description of the latter action must suffice: “And the Savior of all men…is spoken of by the Apostle as one…but God who is overall, is the Savior of all, while the Son works salvation by means of the grace of the Spirit…”

Three persons. One action. One God.

Gregory’s argument for the divine unity is not definitive and there are perhaps other ways of forming the argument for diversity in unity that work better in today’s context. But what Gregory patterns for us is a method of appropriately using scripture in argumentation, a method that is concerned not with individual verses but with the logic and tenor of the entire redemptive story. This method of argumentation is more difficult, requires a more in depth knowledge of scripture and, ironically, does not lend itself to blog formats or sound bite theology. It demands that we reject easy answers, opting instead for the long obedience and daily emersion in the scriptures that reveal the God who cannot be fully known. If we follow Gregory’s example, we may find ourselves more able defenders of the Trinity. More likely, we may find ourselves silent in adoration.

 

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Jackson Lashier is Assistant Professor of Religion at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas. He holds a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Marquette University where his studies focused on the Patristic Era of Church History. He is the author of Irenaeus on the Trinity (Brill, 2014). He is married to Julie and the father of children Ruthie, Rachel, and David. He loves reading fiction, playing golf, and all things baseball. He is a longtime member of the United Methodist Church.

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