St. Gregory of Nazianzus
If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
John’s gospel takes up the theme of truth with notable frequency, and it is worthwhile for us as Christians constantly to take up this theme as well. Whether in our prayer, work life, or social life, our play, creative pursuits, or our time alone, we should remind ourselves that Jesus has claimed to be the Truth. Truth for us is therefore not some celestial force or an impersonal ideal; it is rather a person who graciously invites us into a deep and intimate knowing.
It is this very personhood, however, that begins to present our normative categories with some resistance, confusion, and misunderstanding. We may theorize about an idea all we like; but the depth and profundity of a personality will never fit easily into any theoretical category you or I propose. For if God is not simply an impersonal force or ideal, but a person, we may know of God only that which God has revealed. About a force, we may speculate; but to know a person is to open one’s self to the vulnerability of encounter. Encounter that might even change the nature of the inquirer.
It is clear that we need to be careful and discerning about the ways we speak and think about truth and the ways we suppose we understand who God is. St. Gregory of Nazianzus whom we remember today, spent his life thinking deeply about God’s nature and defending a particular way of understanding who God has revealed God’s self to be: namely, a trinity of persons ὁμοούσιονin one substance.
Hailed as one of the great Cappadocian fathers, Gregory lived in the fourth century in what is now Turkey. The son of wealthy landowners, Gregory trained in rhetoric and philosophy at Athens, where he befriended Basil of Caesarea—another of the Cappadocian fathers. Following his education, he had hoped to pursue a solitary life of contemplation. When his father (then bishop of Nazianzus) forcibly ordained him, Gregory called it an “act of tyranny.”Yet despite this intrusion on the vocation he had imagined, Gregory rose to meet the needs of the communities under his care. When he arrived in Nazianzus, he found the community split over theological controversies. So began his work as both pastor and apologist, a calling for which his training in rhetoric and philosophy proved invaluable.
His life was marked, in particular, by the fiery fourth century theological controversies concerning the doctrine of the trinity. What is the nature of God? Is Christ human? Divine? Somehow both? Does it matter? Though these concerns may seem fussy to us, Gregory’s work reminds us that these early disputes are important for how we know and speak about God. Why do we think about God in this way?
While the trinity may confront many as an embarrassment or a scandal, Gregory understood that the significance of the diversity in oneness and oneness in diversity of God’s self is essential for understanding the truth of who Jesus is and the kind of freedom he has promised to those who trust him. As an orator, poet, lettered scholar, priest, and bishop, Gregory helped the early church to articulate the truth of God’s being as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and in scripture and the church’s shared experience in the Spirit.
As the Arian controversy raged, Gregory articulated the divinity of Christ against a school that would see Jesus as only human. Just as we hear in John this morning that Jesus’ contemporaries did not comprehend the implications of his claims to divinity, so Gregory recognized that we can only be set free by Jesus if he is indeed God. Whether we know ourselves to be enslaved or not, only God knows what truly subjugates each of us. God knows that the only thing capable of freeing us is Love. Not power, money, reputation, security, pleasure, or our own sense of goodness; but Love—that is, God. And if God is truly Love, then God must in some sense be truly communal in God’s self, for Love is not a force or emotion, but an act of the will. For God’s love for us to be real and salvific, God must not need to create us in order to realize Love. As our rule puts it, “The very being of God is community; the Father, Son and Spirit are One in reciprocal self-giving and love. The mystery of God as Trinity is one that only those living in personal communion can understand by experience. Through our common life we can begin to grasp that there is a transcendent unity that allows mutual affirmation of our distinctness as persons. Through prayer we can see that this flows from the triune life of God.”
If we continue in Christ’s word, we continue attuned to the movement of Love. If we continue in Love, with our hands out-stretched and empty to the Lord of Life, we will be made truly free. “Let us become like Christ,” writes Gregory, “since Christ became like us. Let us become gods for his sake, since he for ours became human. He assumed the worse, so that he might give away the better. He became poor, so that we through his poverty might become rich. He took the form of a servant, so that we might receive back our freedom. He descended, so that we might be exalted. He was tempted, so that we might conquer. He was dishonored, so that he might glorify us. He died, so that he might save us. He ascended, so that he might draw us to himself, who were lying low in the fall of sin. Let us give all, let us offer all to him who gave himself as a ransom and an exchange for us.”
John 8:31b-32 NRSV
Accusative of ὁμοούσιος(homoousias), or “of the same substance (ousia).”
Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gregory of Nazianzus: Rhetor and Philosopher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 32.
The Rule, the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, chapter 4.
Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 1.5
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