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

God’s Will as God’s Act in Gregory of Nazianzus

In Oration 29.6 (the third Theological Oration), Gregory of Nazianzus responds to a charge attributed to the opponents of Nicaea and its Trinitarian reception. They attempt, Gregory says, to force a dilemma upon those who do not limit deity to the Unbegotten but claim it also for the Son: did the Father beget willingly or unwillingly? If the former, there is something higher and more powerful than God. If the latter, then the Son is the son of Will rather than of the Father–He is made the Son of His “mother” the Will.

Gregory has already said earlier that he will not say that the Father begets unwillingly, an idea he associates with Neoplatonic construals of an involuntary overflow of the goodness of the One (29.2). As far as the second is concerned, it is absurd, as Gregory demonstrates grammatically. There is a difference between the verbal activity expressed by a participle (e.g., “willing,” “moving”) and the corresponding noun (e.g., “will,” “motion”). These kinds of nouns express the result, the effect, of the activity expressed by the participle. Participles in turn modify nouns or stand as substantives with the definite article–thus, “the one willing,” “the one who wills.” It is only to such nouns or substantives that agency can be attributed, not to the nouns that represent the effect of the action. And so it makes no sense to speak of the will as a “mother.” If Gregory’s opponents had a better grasp of grammar, they would know this. In the land of logic, grammar is king.

Everything Gregory has just said about participles and nouns pertains to men as well as to God. But, in the case of God, there may be a crucial difference. Gregory writes:

τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ δὲ καὶ ὑπὲρ πάντα ταῦτα, ᾧ γέννησις ἐστιν ἴσως ἡ τοῦ γεννᾶν θέλησις, ἀλλ’ ούδεν μέσον, εἴ γε καὶ τοῦτο δεξόμεθα ὅλως, ἀλλὰ μὴ καὶ θελήσεως κρείττων ἡ γέννησις.

But the things that pertain to God are in fact beyond all these things, for whom the will to beget is perhaps begetting [itself], but with nothing intermediate–if indeed we shall really accept this, unless generation is in fact superior to will.

Gregory here suggests that the will to beget may be equivalent to the act of begetting for God–there is nothing intermediate for Him, such that, for Him, to will is to act. Gregory’s “perhaps” (ἴσως) is significant, because it marks his speculation as speculation: it is hard to know, for it is impossible to comprehend a God who transcends our experience (ὑπὲρ πάντα ταῦτα).

By E.J. Hutchinson

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