Everyone once in a while one finds a book that is illuminating, easy and fun to read, opens doors, and leaves you larger than you were before. Fr. John McGuckin’s St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography is such a book. I read it before (it was published by SVS Press in 2001) and I recently re-read it. It is (if he will forgive the comparison) like re-watching Bogey’s Casablanca—McGuckin’s St. Gregory of Nazianzus gets better with each viewing, as all classics do.
The book is packed with information, and not just about Gregory, but about the church in the fourth century in which Gregory lived and moved and had his aristocratic being. Who knew that the average life expectancy at that time was 45 years? (Gregory died at the age of 61.) Or that Cappadocians were widely considered to be hicks by those at the capital? (Thus an epigram that asked rhetorically, “Can a Cappadocian speak intelligently? Can a tortoise fly?”) Or that so many of the Church Fathers sprang from aristocratic families where they all kept rich family connections?
But apart from such informational bits, the book lets you actually meet Gregory. After reading the book’s 402 page narrative of his life and times, one feels that one knows Gregory as well as if he had been your house-guest for a month. Happily, this is no sanitized hagiography. One meets Gregory the man himself, so that one finds oneself wincing over his mis-steps and mistakes, grieving for him over the hurts he experienced with the loss of family and over his long relationship with his old school chum Basil (concerning which, as they say on Facebook, “it’s complicated”), toasting him hopefully when he was summoned to Constantinople to try to turn things around before the emperor arrived, and being angrily indignant on his behalf when he was derided and sidelined by scheming episcopal politicians during and after the Council of Constantinople in 381. Short of jumping into a time machine and arriving in the fourth century to check it out for oneself, this book offers the best possible experience of immersion into the pivotal fourth century world that Gregory knew.
There were also some interesting revelations that cause one to take a second look at stuff you thought you knew. Like most Orthodox priests, I used to explain to my people that in 381 the Council of Constantinople added a bit to the Nicene confession of Christ’s full divinity, affirming the full and substantial divinity of the Holy Spirit against the so-called “Pneumatomachians” or “Spirit-fighters”, the heretics who fought against the notion that the Spirit was fully divine. Those heretics denied His full divinity, and the Council slapped them down by affirming it.
It all seemed pretty straightforward: the last part of our present Creed declared that the Holy Spirit was as divine as the Father and the Son, for it affirmed that the Spirit was “the Lord”, that He was the Giver of Life (just as God was the true Giver of Life), that He proceeded from the Father so that He was as divine as the Father from whom He proceeded, that He was glorified with the Father and the Son, so that whenever one worshipped the Father and the Son one thereby also worshipped the Spirit, and that He was Yahweh Himself—i.e. the One who spoke by the prophets. What could be clearer or more emphatic? Surely Gregory, who presided over the Council, must have considered it a personal triumph? Well, actually, as it turns out, no. It’s complicated. McGuckin, in bringing us way back into the rough and tumble of the fourth century with all its theological mess and conflicts, allows us to see those complications.
The so-called “Cappadocian Fathers”—i.e. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Basil, and St. Basil’s younger brother St. Gregory of Nyssa—did not walk in lockstep. In fact, Gregory of Nazianzus was pushing his friend Basil to be bolder than Basil was apparently willing to be. In particular, Gregory wanted him (and his brother Gregory of Nyssa) to boldly affirm that the Holy Spirit was homoousios with the Father, just as Nicea had affirmed that the Son was homoousios. Basil was not willing to do this, even though his teaching that the Spirit should receive the same honour as Father amounted to the same thing. Gregory publicly attributed this to Basil’s tact, his “economia”, and his desire not to alienate possible allies by using a controversial term. But he was certain that the word should be used and was frustrated no end at Basil’s lifelong refusal to do so.
Those who shied clear of confessing the Spirit to be homoousios with the Father were a varied lot. Some, like Basil, were just nervous about the word; some pointed out that their tradition included no prayers to the Spirit, and they worried if confessing the Spirit as homoousios didn’t perhaps sandpaper out this difference. Others were content with the vaguer confession that the Spirit was closely associated with and glorified with the Father.
For Gregory the issue was that the attribute of deity was either total or completely lacking, for the God was separated ontologically from His creation by an infinite distance. Either the Son or Spirit were fully God, or they were parts of God’s creation; there was ontological midway. As Gregory preached it, “Is the Spirit God? Certainly. Is he homoousion? If he is God, yes”.
In other words, being divine, then, is rather like being pregnant: either you are or you aren’t. One cannot be “a bit pregnant” or “almost pregnant”: one is either completely pregnant, or not pregnant at all. (Note: Gregory did not use this analogy, and it is not clear that he would have appreciated it.) That was why he pushed so hard for the use of the term homoousios in the conciliar confession of the nature of the Holy Spirit, for it confessed unambiguously that the Spirit was fully divine, rather than “a bit divine” or “almost divine”.
As we can now see, he did not get his way in having the creed declare the Spirit as homoousios, either because the other council fathers didn’t believe in the Spirit’s full divinity, or because (like Basil) they accepted it, but thought it too politically explosive. The conciliar statements, when read in their immediate theological and political context, are a bit vague.
In McGuckin’s words, “In the cause of finding a vague enough commonality of confession that could unite the Neo-Nicenes, the old Homoiousians, and even the rump of the Macedonian party (later disparaged as the Pneumatomachians), the conciliar confession opted for a comparable vagueness in regard to the Spirit. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is capable of being interpreted according to Gregory’s theology only if ‘conglorification’ is further specified into mean ‘co-equal glory’ [rather than as ‘associative glory’ or ‘inferior glory’]”. That is why when Gregory left town to return home to Cappadocia in comparative disgrace, he said that though his tongue would be silent in Constantinople, he would carry on the fight for a full homoousion confession in his writings.
He did that, of course, and did it so successfully that his writings became the standard teaching about the Trinity in the Church ever afterward. That is why we unconsciously read the Creed as if it confessed that the Spirit was fully homoousios. It seems self-evident to us, but that is only because everyone in the Church has so thoroughly interiorized Gregory’s theology and made it their own. His understanding became that of the entire Church. I like to imagine that he is looking down from heaven at this unexpected posthumous development with some smug satisfaction, and perhaps whispering quietly to the council fathers, “Ha! Howzat grab ya?” Or maybe not.
But what is certain is that God guides His Church into all truth, even if He sometimes does it belatedly and messily. That is because, one suspects, He has to use people like us and like the politicians of 381 and we are all a bit of a mess. But the truth will always out, and St. Gregory, revealed by history to be the Church’s true Theologian, has his reward.
It is also certain that McGuckin’s book is worthy of reward too. Until a time machine is invented to whisk us off to the fourth century, McGuckin’s book offers an excellent substitute. It can be ordered here.