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Archive E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Inspiration and Application

In his second Oration, Gregory of Nazianzus contrasts the continuing relevance of the ancient histories of the Bible with the legends of the Greeks. The reason for this continuing relevance seems in his view to be the Spirit’s exhaustive inspiration of every element of the text, down to “the merest stroke and tittle.”

This inspiration means that nothing in Holy Scripture is accidental; everything is true, and everything has its purpose–which is to instruct the reader. If everything there is true, the Bible cannot be a mere entertainment for those who listen, one that is forgotten as soon as the story is ended like an amusing but insubstantial action movie, but rather one must see oneself and the situations in one’s own life in Scripture’s light. The care with which Scripture was composed brings along with itself for Gregory an abiding applicability: it becomes a “counselor” for the reader in his own time.

One wonders if he sees the connection he does between past and present in the fact that the Spirit who took such concern over the whole of the composition of Scripture is the same Spirit now at work, with the same care and concern, in the believing reader of Scripture: the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus (as Luke calls Him in Acts 16:6, 7). To use the now-somewhat-hackneyed phrasing of our own day, one can find one’s story in that Story, or at least can gain some understanding of the former by means of the latter.

The way in which the ancient text is linked to present life is, in the following passage, based on a similarity of circumstances: when the reader finds himself in a situation like some situation described in Scripture, he can find in that part of Scripture warnings and examples for imitation in his own circumstances. So Gregory:

104. There is a third reason of the highest importance which I will further mention, and then dismiss the rest. I remembered the days of old, and, recurring to one of the ancient histories, drew counsel for myself therefrom as to my present conduct; for let us not suppose these events to have been recorded without a purpose, nor that they are a mere assemblage of words and deeds gathered together for the pastime of those who listen to them, as a kind of bait for the ears, for the sole purpose of giving pleasure. Let us leave such jesting to the legends and the Greeks, who think but little of the truth, and enchant ear and mind by the charm of their fictions and the daintiness of their style.

105. We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, Matthew 5:18 will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation.

For Gregory, the story is the story, but the story also has its applications in the present. It is not simply a question of “apply yourselves to the Bible” or “apply the Bible to yourselves.” It is both, and must be both.

Reason combined with reflection on Scripture, Gregory claims, caused him to cease his flight and to return to Nazianzus to take up the office in the Church to which he had been ordained. As he says below, it was to the testimonies of God–that is, to Scripture–that he had “entrusted his whole life,” and through thinking about himself through those testimonies, and not through a supposed private communication of the Spirit separate from them,1 he changed his course of action returned to his congregation.

115. By these arguments I charmed myself, and by degrees my soul relaxed and became ductile, like iron, and time came to the aid of my arguments, and the testimonies of God, to which I had entrusted my whole life, were my counsellors. Therefore I was not rebellious, neither turned away back, Isaiah 50:6 says my Lord, when, instead of being called to rule, He was led, as a sheep to the slaughter; but I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God1 Peter 5:6 and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience, if this is at all laid to my charge. I held my peace, Isaiah 42:14 but I will not hold my peace for ever: I withdrew for a little while, till I had considered myself and consoled my grief: but now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders. If my former conduct deserved blame, my present action merits pardon.

  1. And separate, therefore, from the Word.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.