Archive Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

The Hermeneutics of the Two Natures of Christ in Gregory of Nazianzus

In his famous “Third Theological Oration,” Gregory of Nazianzus gives this rule for interpreting biblical passages about Christ:

To give you the explanation in one sentence.  What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate… (Oration 29.17).

Notice the two categories Gregory gives: 1. The Godhead, which posses an incorporeal nature that is superior to sufferings (impassible) and 2. The “composite condition” of Christ after His humiliation and incarnation. Gregory believes that certain passages in the gospels refer properly to one condition and other passages refer to the other. In fact, Gregory believes that some expressions in Scripture refer to “His Nature” and some refer to “His assumption of Human Nature” (ibid). This way of speaking indicates that the Son of God has “His Nature,” which is to say His original and proper nature, and then an additional nature after assuming it, which is to say the human nature He assumes.

With this understanding, Gregory goes on to explain the various paradoxes presented by Christology. The Eunomians would point to these as proof that Christ must be lower than God, but Gregory explains them as variously corresponding to Christ’s two natures:

For He Whom you now treat with contempt was once above you.  He Who is now Man was once the Uncompounded. What He was He continued to be; what He was not He took to Himself. In the beginning He was, uncaused; for what is the Cause of God?  But afterwards for a cause He was born.  And that cause was that you might be saved, who insult Him and despise His Godhead, because of this, that He took upon Him your denser nature, having converse with Flesh by means of Mind. While His inferior Nature, the Humanity, became God, because it was united to God, and became One Person because the Higher Nature prevailed in order that I too might be made God so far as He is made Man. He was born—but He had been begotten:  He was born of a woman—but she was a Virgin.  The first is human, the second Divine. In His Human nature He had no Father, but also in His Divine Nature no Mother. Both these belong to Godhead.  He dwelt in the womb—but He was recognized by the Prophet, himself still in the womb, leaping before the Word, for Whose sake He came into being.  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes—but He took off the swathing bands of the grave by His rising again.  He was laid in a manger—but He was glorified by Angels, and proclaimed by a star, and worshipped by the Magi.  Why are you offended by that which is presented to your sight, because you will not look at that which is presented to your mind?  He was driven into exile into Egypt—but He drove away the Egyptian idols. He had no form nor comeliness in the eyes of the Jews—but to David He is fairer than the children of men. And on the Mountain He was bright as the lightning, and became more luminous than the sun, initiating us into the mystery of the future. (29.19)

The various editors and translators all note how difficult the original Greek is in this section. The above version, taken from Schaff’s NPNF set, certainly shows a number points of ambiguity and equivocation. Still, the main argument comes across clearly. The one person of Christ is “God,” and yet He is, after the Incarnation, a “compound.” The one “He” has two natures, and these two natures are understood according to what is appropriate to them. That which is high and lofty is attributed to Christ’s divine nature, and that which is lowly is attributed to His human nature. Gregory says that the higher nature (the deity) “prevailed,” but this explains how the lower nature can be the recipient of various blessings, including, chiefly, immortality.

But having said this, Gregory still allows Himself the freedom to speak of the one nature and not the other. He believes that certain things correspond only to the one nature. This is evident when He says the human nature of Christ had no father, implying that the divine nature did, and the divine nature had no mother, implying the human nature did. This becomes even more obvious in what Gregory says next: “He was baptized as Man—but He remitted sins as God… He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God” (29.20).

For Gregory, the proper way to understand apparent exegetical challenges to the deity of Christ is to apply a hermeneutics of the two natures. We might call this a Chalcedonian paradigm, but of course the Council of Chalcedon had not yet occurred. We might also be tempted to call this a forerunner to the Reformed Christological hermeneutics, as it employs all the same hallmarks. In the one person, Christ acts according to each nature, and each of His works corresponds to each nature in way appropriate to it.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.