The Need For and The Use Of Doxological Language in Theology

"It may indeed be undignified to give any answer at all to that statements that are foolish" (315).  This is Gregory Nyssen's dilemma, namely, answering a fool according to his folly.  Yet, Gregory is compelled to answer in order that the "rotting sore of this heresy" may not infect the truth. (315)  Proper belief in the Trinity is essential to the Christian faith.  Those who deny the proper doctrine have in Gregory's words, "denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel, and belies the name of Christ which he bears" (321).  Thus, it behooved Gregory of Nyssa as well as his brother Basil and colleague Gregory of Nazianzus to set aright the doctrine of the Trinity.

Nevertheless, if one is looking for a positive explication of dogma, one must look elsewhere.  The Cappadocians are not interested in delving into the mysteries of God.  All theological talk must be apophatic.  According to Pelikan:

The Nicene dogma did not abolish the need for apophasis, as a shallow interpretation of orthodox doctrine might have led someone to suppose.  If anything, orthodox trinitarianism intensified that need, for any increase in knowledge about God (above all, the revelation of the knowledge of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) ultimately consisted in an increase in the knowledge that God was and remained incomprehensible and transcendent. (233)

In more direct terms, Nazianzen writes: "Do you tell me what is the Unbegotteness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy-stricken for prying into the mystery of God" (320).  Even orthodox doctrine was inadequate. (Pelikan 234)

Nevertheless, what can be said concerning God?  In other words, can language describe God in God's being?  The debate surrounding this question inspired Gregory of Nyssa to write his response to Eunomius' Second Book.

According to Gregory, Eunomius was attempting to describe the very essence of God with the term ungeneracy.  The essence of God is, according to Eunomius, ungeneracy.  This, according to Gregory, had grave consequences, consequences that affected Theology (God as Trinity) and thus orthodoxy.  If the essence of God was ungeneracy, and if the Only-begotten was generate, then, the Only-begotten could not be God because his essence is not ungeneracy.  Gregory writes: "For after saying that the Only-begotten God is not the same in essence with the true Father, and after sophistically inferring this from the opposition between generate and ungenerate, they work in silence to the conclusion, their impiety prevailing by the natural course of inference" (255).

According to Eunomius, words must have an univocal correspondence to the subject to which they refer.  Therefore, when speaking about the divine, human language is sufficient to describe God in God's essence.  Eunomius' argument is as follows:

They (Eunomius and his followers) say that God is declared to be without generation, that the Godhead is by nature simple, and that that which is simple admits of no composition.  If, then, God Who is declared to be without generation is by His Nature without composition, His title of Ungenerate must belong to His very nature, and that nature is identical with ungeneracy. (252)

This is the point to which Gregory objects, namely the idea that human words can describe the divine essence.  Human language, according to Gregory, is the language of accommodation.  It is merely our conception of reality, not reality per se.  Gregory states: "it was shown that these terms significative of our Lord are not of His essence, but are formed by the method of conception in our minds respecting Him" (286).  Language is a human work.  Words do not have eternal duration.  Concerning the Cappadocians, Pelikan writes:

It was fatuous, indeed blasphemous, to suppose that because, according to the opening verses of the Bible, "God said, 'Let there be light,'" there had to be a divine language, Greek or even Hebrew, which human hearing could understand and, in understanding it, could use as a means to understand God.  Languages, including Greek and even Hebrew, were a product of historical development and of national character, not of direct divine invention.  Things came first, and God created these; but the names for things had developed afterward, through human history. (42)

All language was inadequate, even the language of scripture. (Pelikan 44, Gregory of Nyssa 290)  Moreover, not only is human language insufficient, but human reason as well.  Quoting Basil, Pelikan writes: "…Basil made clear his position not only that ultimate reality was 'inexpressible by human voice' but that it was at the same time 'incomprehensible to human reason'" (50).

All speech concerning the divine had to take the form of analogy or metaphor.  Defining analogy, Pelikan writes: "A form of speech which, by means of one set of ideas immediately presented, points to something else, which is hidden, or a form of speech that does not point out the aim of the thought directly, but gives its instruction by an indirect signification" (44 emphasis mine).  Yet, even analogy and metaphor are inadequate. (Pelikan 45)

All this was due to the total transcendence of God.  There is a ontological gap between the creator and the created.  Even creation itself is impossible for humans to comprehend. (Gregory of Nyssa 257-58)  "If, then, the lower creation which comes under our organs of sense transcends human knowledge, how can He, Who by His mere will made the worlds, be within range of our apprehension" (Nyssen 258)?

Nevertheless, is there no hope for knowledge of the divine?  Yes, there is hope.  God can be perceived (though, using Kantian categories, not conceived) through God's "wonders" and God's "Names" (Gregory of Nyssa 260).  These wonders and names:

lead men, as by the hand, to the understanding of the Divine nature, making known to them the bare grandeur of the thought of God; while the question of His essence, as one which it is impossible to grasp, and which bears no fruit to the curious enquirer, they dismiss without any attempt at its solution. (260)

Even scripture is silent concerning God's essence. (261-62)  This understanding of the Divine nature through wonders and names Gregory describes as "glimmering for the comprehension of what we seek" (264).  Gregory states: "reason supplies us with but a dim and imperfect comprehension of the Divine nature; nevertheless, the knowledge that we gather from the terms which piety allows us to apply to it is sufficient for our limited capacity" (263 emphasis mine).  One will note that the knowledge is sufficient not comprehensive.  In the words of Gregory, reason "stretches out its hand and just touches His unapproachable and sublime nature" (264).

One may speak concerning the nature of God; yet, the speaker must assume his proper place, the place of creature.  Gregory writes:

Knowing, then, how widely the Divine nature differs from our own, let us quietly remain within our proper limits.  For it is both safer and more reverent to believe the majesty of God to be greater than we can understand, than, after circumscribing His glory by our misconceptions, to suppose there is nothing beyond our conception of it. (260)

In other words, God is God and we are not!

Yet, some speech concerning God is necessary.  "At the same time," Gregory continues, "we do not deny that we endeavor, by words, and names devised with due reverence, to give some notion of its attributes" (265).  These are the "gropings" of theological speculation. (Pelikan 56)  These "gropings," however, use words of conception rather than apprehension.  Thus, Gregory can speak of ungeneracy as a conception of the deity rather than the deity's substance. (282)

Even scripture uses language in this fashion.  It does not give knowledge of God's essence. Its language is one of accommodation rather than direct knowledge.  Using the analogy of sign language, Gregory writes:

But just as we cannot call a man deaf who converses with a deaf man by means of signs, -- his only way of hearing -- so we must not suppose speech in God because of His employing it by way of accommodation in addressing man.  (292)

He continues: "…the Scripture descends to such language in accordance with our understanding, to teach is emblematically (sacramentally?) that the things which we know not are accurately known to God" (293).  It points to something else.  (See Pelikan's definition of analogy above.)  God, according to Gregory of Nyssa, "gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving; and thus in the various manifestations of God to man He adapts Himself to man and speaks u=in human language…" (292).  Knowledge is indeed possible, but this knowledge is conceptual knowledge based upon wonders and names rather than actual knowledge of God's essence. 

This is the point of contention between Gregory of Nyssa and Eunomius.  God's ungeneracy was not the issue; the issue was whether ungeneracy described God's essence in totality.  Gregory writes:

Well, if he means by this that the Father's essence is ungenerate, I agree with what is said, and do not oppose his doctrine: for not one of the orthodox maintains that the Father of the Only-begotten is Himself begotten.  But if, while the form of his expression indicates only this, he maintains that the ungeneracy itself is the essence, I say that we ought not to leave such a position unexamined, but expose his attempt to gain the assent of the unwary to his blasphemy. (288) 

Nyssen's colleagues would agree.  Gregory Nazianzen in a portion of Oration 29 that seems to be attacking the Eunomians states:

Then how do you describe the Essence of God?  Not by declaring what it is, but by rejecting what it is not.  For your word signifies that He is not begotten; it does not present to you what is the real nature or condition of that which has no generation.  What then is the Essence of God?  It is for your infatuation to define this, since you are so anxious about His Generation too; but to us it will be a very great thing, if ever, even in the future, we will learn this, when this darkness and dullness is done away for us, as He has promised Who cannot lie. (305) 

In Oration 31, Nazianzen states: "…but I have been unable to discover any thing on earth with which to describe the nature of the Godhead" (328).

Yet, something must be said!  Heresy must be answered.  (See Nyssen quote at beginning of this paper.)  "…But the fact is under the present circumstances I am even more bold to declare the truth, that I may not (to use the words of Scripture) by drawing back fall into the condemnation of being displeasing to God" (Nazianzen 301).  Answering heresy is wearisome but is must be done. (Nazianzen 318)  Furthermore, the language one employs must be the language of "visible things" (Nazianzen 301).  (Note: A sacrament is a visible and outward sign of an inward and invisible reality.)

According to Basil these "visible things" may take the form of types:

But the faith in Moses and in the cloud, as it were, in a shadow and type.  The nature of the divine is very frequently represented by the rough and shadowy outlines of the types; but because divine things are prefigured by small and human things, it is obvious that we must not therefore conclude the divine nature to be small. (19)

Note: Basil uses this discourse on types to reinforce his argument on the divinity of the Holy Spirit as typologically displayed in Holy Baptism.

In spite of all the warning concerning delving into the nature of the Divine, for the good of the Church, the Cappadocians did speak.  According to the Cappadocians, God exists as one ousia and three hypostasei.  One hypostasis is the Holy Spirit.  Thus, right thinking concerning the Holy Spirit is right thinking concerning the Godhead.  In other words, it is an important doctrine.  Although the Cappadocians never tried to comprehend the nature of the Holy Spirit, they did attempt to apprehend using emblematic terms (illustrations from "God's wonders and names.") some knowledge concerning the Deity.  Although he was "unable to discover any thing on earth with which to compare the nature of the Godhead" (328), Gregory of Nazianzen did indeed use analogy in his orations.  The same is true concerning the other Cappadocians.

One such analogy (illustration from God's wonders), one employed by both Gregories and Basil is the doxological language of Christian baptism.  Christians were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  This was extremely significant for the Cappadocians for faith did not consist of doctrines alone. (Pelikan 234)  Christianity is a faith of right worship.  "and the doctrine of the Trinity, being a doctrine about why Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must (as the Nicene Creed required) 'be worshipped and glorified together,' was no exception to this rule" (Pelikan 234).  Thus baptism, being the first act of worship, serves as a prime example of Trinitarian faith.  Pelikan writes:

For the Cappadocians, baptism was in many ways the most cogent example of what Nazianzen called "the spirit of speaking mysteries and dogmas" -- which meant both mysteries and dogmas, and ultimately neither dogmas without mysteries not mysteries without dogmas.  This can, then, be taken as an enunciation of the principle, "The rule of prayer determines the rule of faith [lex orandi lex credendi]" (300).           

Concerning Baptism and the Deity of the Holy Spirit, Nazianzen states:

For if He is not to be worshipped, how can He deify me by Baptism?  But if He is to be worshipped, surely He is an Object of adoration, and if an Object of Adoration He must be God; the one is linked to the other, a truly golden and saving chain.  And indeed from the Spirit comes our New Birth, and from the New Birth our new creation, and from the new creation our deeper knowledge of the dignity of Him from Whom it is derived. (327)

As links in a golden chain, knowledge (however scanty and inadequate) flows from Baptism which flows from the Spirit.  Only Deity can impart deification; only Deity can impart knowledge of Deity.  Thus, the Holy Spirit must be divine and because deity knows no degrees, the Spirit must be divine in the same manner as the Father and the Son.  If deity could be thought of as having degrees, an absurd hybrid would result. (Nazianzen 319)  Using baptismal imagery, Gregory of Nazianzus concludes that the Holy Spirit is indeed God, not a minor deity, but co-equal with the Father and the Son.  He writes: "If he is in the same rank with myself, how can he make me God, or join me with Godhead" (319)?  Gregory continues, "Now, if He is a creature, how do we believe in Him, how are we made perfect in Him" (319)?

The other Gregory would concur.  He writes: "In Holy Baptism, what is it that we secure thereby?  Is it not a participation in a life no longer subject to death" (322)?  Although baptism is with water, it is not the water that gives the life.  It is the Spirit that gives life.  But according to Gregory of Nyssa, "belief in our Lord must precede, in order that the lively gift may come upon the believer" (322).  Yet, this grace "administered through the Son is dependent on the Ungenerate Source" (322).  Thus, it is by and through the Trinity that life is imparted in Baptism.  "This life-giving grace should be completed, for those fit to receive it, after starting from that Source as from a spring pouring life abundantly, through the Only-begotten Who is the True life, by the operation of the Holy Spirit" (322).

To the language of baptism, Gregory of Nyssa adds the analogy of the Kingdom. The Only-begotten is the King.  This, Nyssen says, no one will deny.  What is the unction of the King?  It is the Spirit. (Nyssen 321)  "For the Son is King, and His living, realized, and personified Kingship is found in the Holy Spirit, he anoints the Only-begotten, and so makes him the Anointed, and the King of all things that exist" (321).  Gregory continues with an analogy closely linked to baptism, the Chrism:

For as between the body's surface and the liquid of the oil nothing intervening can be detected, either in reason or in perception, so inseparable is the union of the Spirit with the Son; and the result is that whosoever is to touch the Son by faith must needs first encounter the oil in the very act of touching; there is not a part of Him devoid of Holy Spirit. (321)

Thus, through doxological language (baptism and chrism), Gregory of Nyssa concurs with Gregory of Nazianzus that the Holy Spirit is co-equal with the Father and the Son.

Basil, too, uses the concept of baptism to put forth a doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  He writes:

Whence it is that we are Christians?  Through our faith, would be the universal answer.  And in what way are we saved?  Plainly because we were regenerate through the grace given in our baptism.  How else could we be?  And after recognizing that this salvation is established through the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, shall we fling away "that form of doctrine" which we received?  …But for myself, I pray that with this confession I may depart hence to the Lord, and them I charge to preserve the faith secure until the day of Christ, and to keep the Spirit undivided from the Father and the Son, preserving, both in the confession of faith and in the doxology, the doctrine taught them at their baptism. (17 emphasis mine)

Using baptism as a type, Basil continues:

So before beginning the second (life), it is necessary to put an end to the first.  …How then do we achieve the descent into hell?  By imitating, through baptism, the burial of Christ.  …For there the death on behalf of the world is one, and one the resurrection of the dead, whereof baptism is a type.  …the water receiving the body as in a tomb figures death, while the Spirit pours in the quickening power, renewing our souls from the deadness of sin unto their original life. (21-22)

For Basil, baptism typologically displayed the doctrine of the Trinity.  One is baptized by three immersions, each displaying typologically first the Father, then the Son, and then the Holy Spirit.  Baptism in the name of the Son is a type of death.  Baptism in the name of the Holy Spirit is a type of illumination.  This illumination is not brought about by the water but by the Spirit.  The water used is only a type.

By using the "language of doxology," baptism is a fitting example of the principle lex orandi lex credendi.  "'As we were baptized,' Basil summarized the orthodox axiom, 'so we profess our faith; and as we profess our faith, so also we offer our praise" (Pelikan 300).  The most appropriate speech concerning the deity is not the language of dogma but rather "the language of doxology and worship" (Pelikan 300).

The Cappadocians used many analogies besides that of the doxological language of baptism to illumine the doctrine of the Holy Spirit and thus the Trinity.  Baptism, however, was an experience common to all Christians; it was a day to be remembered and reflected upon throughout one's life.  Mentioning the Holy Spirit to a Fourth Century Christian immediately brought to mind baptism.  Using this rite of initiation to illustrate this important dogma served the Cappadocians well.  It allowed the faithful to understand a difficult concept using a common experience, thus defending orthodoxy against the attacks of those who would deny the Trinity.  It is yet another example of the theological genius of the Cappadocians.


Works Cited

Basil the Great.  "The Treatise De Spiritu Sancto."  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  Ed. Philip

Schaff and Henry Wace.  Vol. 8.  Second series.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.  1-50.

Gregory Nazianzen.  "The Third Theological Oration: On the Son."  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.  Vol. 7.  Second series.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.  301-309.

Gregory Nazianzen.  "The Fifth Theological Oration: On the Holy Spirit."  Nicene and Post- Nicene Fathers.  Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.  Vol. 7.  Second series. Hendrickson, 1994.  318-328.

Gregory of Nyssa.  "Answer to Eunomius' Second Book."  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.  Vol. 5.  Second series.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.  250-314.

Gregory of Nyssa.  "On the Holy Spirit: Against the Followers of Macedonius."  Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace.  Vol. 5.  Second series. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.  313-325.

Pelikan, Jaroslav.  Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism.  New Haven: Yale, 1993

The Reverend Robert C. Gresser is a priest in the Charismatic Episcopal Church. He currently serves as battalion chaplain for the 1st Battalion, 10th Field Artillery in Fort Benning, GA.

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