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Gregory of Nazianzus on the Development of Doctrine

Earlier this summer I posted and discussed a passage on progressive revelation from Gregory of Nazianzus’ fifth Theological Oration (= Oration 31).

I’d like to return to that passage today, but in order to discuss it from a different vantage point.

In 31.26-27, Gregory gives a three-stage view of revelation, in which the deity of the Father is clearly taught in the Old Testament, the deity of the Son is clearly taught in the New Testament, and the deity of the Holy Spirit is only fully understood in the age of the Church, the post-canonical age.

XXVI. To this I may compare the case of Theology except that it proceeds the reverse way. For in the case by which I have illustrated it the change is made by successive subtractions; whereas here perfection is reached by additions. For the matter stands thus. The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself. For it was not safe, when the Godhead of the Father was not yet acknowledged, plainly to proclaim the Son; nor when that of the Son was not yet received to burden us further (if I may use so bold an expression) with the Holy Ghost; lest perhaps people might, like men loaded with food beyond their strength, and presenting eyes as yet too weak to bear it to the sun’s light, risk the loss even of that which was within the reach of their powers; but that by gradual additions, and, as David says, Goings up, and advances and progress from glory to glory, the Light of the Trinity might shine upon the more illuminated. For this reason it was, I think, that He gradually came to dwell in the Disciples, measuring Himself out to them according to their capacity to receive Him, at the beginning of the Gospel, after the Passion, after the Ascension, making perfect their powers, being breathed upon them, and appearing in fiery tongues. And indeed it is little by little that He is declared by Jesus, as you will learn for yourself if you will read more carefully. I will ask the Father, He says, and He will send you another Comforter, even the spirit of Truth. This He said that He might not seem to be a rival God, or to make His discourses to them by another authority. Again, He shall send Him, but it is in My Name. He leaves out the I will ask, but He keeps the Shall send, then again, I will send,—His own dignity. Then shall come, the authority of the Spirit.

XXVII. You see lights breaking upon us, gradually; and the order of Theology, which it is better for us to keep, neither proclaiming things too suddenly, nor yet keeping them hidden to the end. For the former course would be unscientific, the latter atheistical; and the former would be calculated to startle outsiders, the latter to alienate our own people. I will add another point to what I have said; one which may readily have come into the mind of some others, but which I think a fruit of my own thought. Our Saviour had some things which, He said, could not be borne at that time by His disciples (though they were filled with many teachings), perhaps for the reasons I have mentioned; and therefore they were hidden. And again He said that all things should be taught us by the Spirit when He should come to dwell amongst us. Of these things one, I take it, was the Deity of the Spirit Himself, made clear later on when such knowledge should be seasonable and capable of being received after our Saviour’s restoration, when it would no longer be received with incredulity because of its marvellous character. For what greater thing than this did either He promise, or the Spirit teach. If indeed anything is to be considered great and worthy of the Majesty of God, which was either promised or taught.

This is an interesting idea, and is one particular way of understanding what Jesus meant when He said that the Spirit would guide His people into all truth (and in that respect the theory is based on Scripture itself), though the reader should be advised that it is, as far as I know, a theological novum of Gregory’s and was more or less an ad hoc construction (more on this momentarily): it seems to be a potentially effective way of doing battle with the Pneumatomachians, who denied the deity of the Holy Spirit and alleged that it was unscriptural. Gregory, then, appears to grant the point that the doctrine is not taught in Scripture and to formulate an argument for why it should be believed anyway.

We know that this is a charge that was brought by the later Arians and Pneumatomachians, because Gregory himself tells us so: “But, they go on, what have you to say about the Holy Ghost? From whence are you bringing in upon us this strange God, of Whom Scripture is silent?” (31.1). Again, “Over and over again you turn upon us the silence of Scripture” (31.21).

Gregory’s argument about progressive revelation must then be seen against the backdrop of this particular accusation. It is a rhetorical move: even if we grant the force of the charge, he says, here is rearguard way of getting to the same doctrine–what Simplicius, in his commentary on Aristotle’s De caelo, said Plato called “saving the appearances.”1

But even there, Gregory can’t quite free himself from the necessity of Scriptural foundation for his theory that is supposed to show the deity of the Spirit apart from Scripture: as was seen above, the theory itself is based on some of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John, and even in his description of the theory he claims that the New Testament “suggested the Deity of the Spirit” (31.26). He additionally notes that the doctrine actually is the result of exegesis:

But that it is not a strange doctrine, nor an afterthought, but acknowledged and plainly set forth both by the ancients and many of our own day, is already demonstrated by many persons who have treated of this subject, and who have handled the Holy Scriptures, not with indifference or as a mere pastime, but have gone beneath the letter and looked into the inner meaning, and have been deemed worthy to see the hidden beauty, and have been irradiated by the light of knowledge. (31.21)

This passage makes clear what he believes the charge of unscripturalness means, and what it does not: it means that the doctrine is not stated explicitly in words, as such: “The Holy Spirit is God, fully consubstantial with the Father and the Son, One Person of Trinity in Unity.” It does not mean that the doctrine is not contained in the meaning of the words such that it cannot be seen through exegesis. Even if he grants that Scripture is less explicit than one might have expected, the doctrine is there, in the text itself (this issue was discussed previously here):

But since the fact, that Scripture does not very clearly or very often write Him God in express words (as it does first the Father and afterwards the Son), becomes to you an occasion of blasphemy and of this excessive wordiness and impiety, we will release you from this inconvenience by a short discussion of things and names, and especially of their use in Holy Scripture. (31.21)

So, even in attempting to account for the Spirit’s deity on his opponents terms, he does not extricate himself from Scripture altogether, as though there were another source by which he could know this truth: even as he grants for the sake of argument that his opponents are right about the words themselves of Scripture, he does not grant that they are right about the exegesis and interpretation of those words–and so even on this account the doctrine of the Spirit is still achieved through reflection on Scripture. The deity of the Spirit is already implicit in the words of the Bible and need only be drawn out by exegesis.

But, as I said above, Gregory is only granting this for the sake of argument, which is why this rhetorical concession can be called ad hoc rather than his actual, principled position. Shortly after the passages quoted at the beginning of this post, he makes the concessive nature of his previous argument absolutely clear: “This, then, is what may be said by one who admits the silence of Scripture” (31.29).

But Gregory, of course, does not admit the silence of Scripture, nor does he think that this doctrine is derived from an extracanonical source. Indeed, he thinks it not only clear in Scripture, but obvious to everyone who bothers to take the time to look:

XXIX. This, then, is what may be said by one who admits the silence of Scripture. But now the swarm of testimonies shall burst upon you from which the Deity of the Holy Ghost shall be shown to all who are not excessively stupid, or else altogether enemies to the Spirit, to be most clearly recognized in Scripture. Look at these facts:—Christ is born; the Spirit is His Forerunner. He is baptized; the Spirit bears witness. He is tempted; the Spirit leads Him up. He works miracles; the Spirit accompanies them. He ascends; the Spirit takes His place. What great things are there in the idea of God which are not in His power? What titles which belong to God are not applied to Him, except only Unbegotten and Begotten? For it was needful that the distinctive properties of the Father and the Son should remain peculiar to Them, lest there should be confusion in the Godhead Which brings all things, even disorder itself, into due arrangement and good order. Indeed I tremble when I think of the abundance of the titles, and how many Names they outrage who fall foul of the Spirit. He is called the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Christ, the Mind of Christ, the Spirit of The Lord, and Himself The Lord, the Spirit of Adoption, of Truth, of Liberty; the Spirit of Wisdom, of Understanding, of Counsel, of Might, of Knowledge, of Godliness, of the Fear of God. For He is the Maker of all these, filling all with His Essence, containing all things, filling the world in His Essence, yet incapable of being comprehended in His power by the world; good, upright, princely, by nature not by adoption; sanctifying, not sanctified; measuring, not measured; shared, not sharing; filling, not filled; containing, not contained; inherited, glorified, reckoned with the Father and the Son; held out as a threat; the Finger of God; fire like God; to manifest, as I take it, His consubstantiality); the Creator-Spirit, Who by Baptism and by Resurrection creates anew; the Spirit That knows all things, That teaches, That blows where and to what extent He lists; That guides, talks, sends forth, separates, is angry or tempted; That reveals, illumines, quickens, or rather is the very Light and Life; That makes Temples; That deifies; That perfects so as even to anticipate Baptism, yet after Baptism to be sought as a separate gift; That does all things that God does; divided into fiery tongues; dividing gifts; making Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors, and Teachers; understanding manifold, clear, piercing, undefiled, unhindered, which is the same thing as Most wise and varied in His actions; and making all things clear and plain; and of independent power, unchangeable, Almighty, all-seeing, penetrating all spirits that are intelligent, pure, most subtle (the Angel Hosts I think); and also all prophetic spirits and apostolic in the same manner and not in the same places; for they lived in different places; thus showing that He is uncircumscript. (31.29)

If Gregory is right, the deity of the Spirit was always taught by the Christian faith, going back to the writers of Scripture themselves. It was always there, not just in meaning but in the very words. Not everyone has admitted this to be true or understood it distinctly, but Gregory is clear that it was not a secret: and the advantage of  arguing in this way is to make the doctrine subject to public and publicly-disputable criteria. He can meet his opponents on the field of rhetorical argumentation, but he can also meet them on the field of exegesis, where doctrine is achieved and formulated through the unfolding and explication of both the words and the meaning of Scripture, a public activity subject to public scrutiny, but also capable of public persuasion.


  1. The reference there was to astronomy.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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

2 replies on “Gregory of Nazianzus on the Development of Doctrine”

When reading the oration, Gregory seems to be answering his opponents point by point. When the heretics go to scripture, he provides alternate interpretation, when they claim scriptural silence he admits extra-biblical revelation. Same with Athanasius and Basil in their writings on the Spirit.
I sense that this article is trying to argue that Gregory indeed relies only on the Holy Writ whether explicitly or implicitly, rather than a shotgun approach using lots of scripture with a single reference to an outside source. The latter seems to me his course of action.

Dear Phillip,

Thanks for your comment.

My point here was that he is answering a charge regarding the supposed silence of Scripture in a couple of different ways. Rhetorically, he grants the charge and shows that it still doesn’t disprove the divinity of the Spirit (in saying which he doesn’t get completely away from ultimately rooting doctrine in Scripture, since he still says it was “suggested,” even if it took time for it to be grasped); then, he makes clear that he doesn’t *actually* grant the charge and argues forcefully that Scripture is *not* silent.

Basil, it seems to me, was ultimately more willing to grant the silence of Scripture after trying for a time to rely on it, and to have recourse to “tradition” in arguing for the status of the Holy Spirit. (But here we have to be a little careful as well: what he meant by “tradition” was basically liturgical practice: the Creed, the doxology, the why in which the sacraments were practiced (e.g., baptism into the triune name)). But this is not actually something that Gregory does, it seems to me (especially in what I have cited above): he is perfectly happy to make his case from reason and Scripture.

I’m not sure I understand the last part of your comment.

Thanks for stopping by.


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