Certainty of God

I recently picked up Gregory of Nazianzus’ famous Five Theological Orations (which are actually Orations 28-32) in which the Nazianzen tackles the relationship of God and Christ. My purpose is to understand how Gregory uses metaphors, so I can then better understand his use of both masculine and feminine metaphors in describing his own priesthood. In these Orations, the orator of Nazianzus beautifully undermines our rather modern assumptions about the possibility of objective knowledge and the certainty of our concepts and the language with which we express them. I must admit, I am a bit struck to read a pre-modern thinker who sounds a bit like a post-modern theorist. So, the first part of what could be a short or long series on Gregory of Nazianzus.

Gregory of Nazianzus, quoting Jeremiah, calls us “prisoners of the earth” (Or. 28.12; Lam. 3:34).1 “Sight,” he says, “cannot approach its objects without the medium of light and atmosphere; fish cannot swim out of water; an no more can embodied beings keep incorporeal character with things ideal. Some corporeal factor of ours will always intrude itself, even if the mind be most fully detached from the visible world and at its most recollected when it attempts to engage with its invisible skin” (Or. 28.12).2 Proof is evident in our inability to envision fire without color or movement or shape, to try to pass off reason as something other than what it truly is, our inner conversation, or to imagine justice and love that does not change our dispositions “as complexions do our bodies” (Or. 28.13).3 Our minds cannot get beyond the material, and so our ability to understand an incorporeal God is always informed and limited by our materiality. To neglect “our limited gifts for hard speculation” (Or. 28.12).4 when speaking of God means that the theologian “looks at things visible and makes of these a god.” The alternative is that she “discovers God through the beauty and order of things seen, using sight as a guide to what transcends sight without losing God through the grandeur of what it sees” (Or. 28.13).3 To use slightly different language, if we forget that we always see through our own bodies and experience, and forget that we really cannot be objective, we create idols. Or, we see icons. In the first case, our glance is arrested at the tree, the wood and paint, or a name, and we worship it. In the second case, we see the same objects, hear the same names, and allow them to point to the reality beyond which we can see, but not fully comprehend. To use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, we allow our gaze to meet the gaze of the one behind the object, whether the object is a thing or concept.

Postmodernism is maligned by many religious as a pernicious philosophy which denies certainty and reduces truth to merely relative experience. While the latter is hardly an accurate portrayal of many postmodern theorists, the former is most certain, as certain as any postmodernist philosophy can be. Gregory however, has an interesting contribution. He says, “Conviction, you see, of a thing’s existence is quite different from knowledge of what it is” (Or. 28.5).5 Gregory, who allows the conviction of faith through revelation to give fullness to reason (thanks to Frederick Norris for that emphasis) without denying or dictating reason, understands that while we may speak of God as this or that, or not that or the other thing, none of this tells us all of what God is. We do not, and probably will not know absolutely the nature of God. As Gregory says, "there is always some truth left to dawn on us" (Or. 28.21).6 This does not reduce our conviction, but it should inject some humility into our theology.

  • 1. Nazianzus, Gregory of. On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius. Vol. Crestwood, N.Y. Popular Patristics Series, ed. Frederick Williams, Lionel Wickham, R., and Gregory of Nazianzus. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002, p. 46
  • 2. Ibid.
  • 3. a. b. Ibid., 47.
  • 4. Ibid., 45.
  • 5. Ibid., 40.
  • 6. Ibid., 53

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