“…The Divine Nature cannot be apprehended by human reason, and…we cannot even represent to ourselves all its greatness.” -St. Gregory the Theologian
St. Gregory of Nazianzus is one of only two Doctors/theologians to be called “The Theologian” (if you’re a westerner), as was bestowed upon him by the Fifth Ecumenical Council. The purpose of this note, however, is not to cite him as an “authority prooftext.” I want to examine the Second Theological Oration, which, having re-read it last night, literally blew me away with several things I had not previously noticed.
The “Five Theological Orations” are some of the most important patristics texts ever written on the formation of the dogma of the Trinity (and the Incarnation). They are not very long and are a must-read for real students of theology. No one who reads and loves the Fathers should be unfamiliar with these 5 treatises (although all the dozens of St. Gregory’s Orations are awesome).
That being said, I want to use him as the paradigm for the Doctor who is saying everything I keep saying and arguing. We will see him reject analogia entis as an application to the divine nature. We will see him reject “natural theology” as conceived of by Thomas and we will see him utilize the essence/energy distinction (later on) as did St. Basil his fellow Cappadocian, since both are writing with Eunomius in mind. I have included Protestantism in with Thomism in the title because western Christianity holds the same view of simplicity as Augustinian-Thomism, and that across the board.
The entire treatise should be read (more than once), but I am highlighting the sections where the argumentation is the same as mine (and is flawless).
To begin with, St. Gregory discusses the concept of the theophanies of the OT (which are divine eneriges made visible). He writes of Moses’ experience of one of God’s operations (goodness):
“III. What is this that has happened to me, O friends, and initiates, and fellow-lovers of the truth? I was running to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the Mount, and drew aside the curtain of the Cloud, and entered away from matter and material things, and as far as I could I withdrew within myself. And then when I looked up, I scarce saw the back parts of God; Exodus 33:23 although I was sheltered by the Rock, the Word that was made flesh for us. And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not the First and unmingled Nature, known to Itself— to the Trinity, I mean; not That which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the Cherubim; but only that Nature [energy], which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the Majesty, or as holy David calls it, *the Glory* which is manifested among the creatures, which It has produced and governs. For these are the Back Parts of God, which He leaves behind Him, as tokens of Himself like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then shall you discourse of God; even were thou a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; Exodus 4:2 even were thou caught up like Paul to the Third Heaven, 2 Corinthians 12:2 and had heard unspeakable words; even were thou raised above them both, and exalted to Angelic or Archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of His Nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.”
In other words, if the angelic powers and dominions cannot “see” that essence, how can we? It is absurdity and an impossibility. I don’t know the Greek here, but what does reach us is not the divine essence as it is, but the essence as revealed to us, which is the divine operation – in this case, the divine “glory.” This is how the apparent contradiction in the Bible is resolved between the statements that no man can see God and live and that we will see God. When Moses looked at the burning bush, he saw the divinity – but not the divinity as it is in itself. This is how Solomon can say God doesn’t dwell in Temples since even the kosmos cannot contain Him, and yet God did really and actually “dwell” via theophany above the Cherubim of the Ark when Solomon prayed. Moses and Solomon saw the divinity as revealed – in it’s operations/energy, not as it is, since God told Moses that would be impossible.
St. Gregory continues and speaks of the analogia entis – and explains perfectly what created nature teached us about God. It DOES NOT teach us about His divine substance (as per Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas), giving us the ability to predicate “attributes” of a super-simple Great Monad. It teaches us about His wisdom and skill (operations), and how God’s nature is not like creaturely attributes. Notice that he anticipates the childish argumentation of Larson and others that true apophatic theology means a denial of God’s existence (in fact, in St. Basil’s famous letter on the essence/energy distinction, St. Basil responds to this very “argument” from Eunomius). At first glance it will appear that he is advocating “natural theology” – but if we look closer, we see that he is, in fact, denying it:
“V….For even of this I would have you know that you have only a shadow when you hear the words, I will consider the heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, and the settled order therein; not as if he were considering them now, but as destined to do so hereafter. But far before them is That nature Which is above them, and out of which they spring, the Incomprehensible and Illimitable— not, I mean, as to the fact of His being, but as to Its nature. For our preaching is not empty, nor our Faith vain, 1 Corinthians 15:19 nor is this the doctrine we proclaim; for we would not have you take our candid statement as a starting point for a quibbling denial of God, or of arrogance on account of our confession of ignorance [the Eunomian/Larson accusation]. For it is one thing to be persuaded of the existence of a thing, and quite another to know what it is.
VI. Now our very eyes and the Law of Nature teach us that God exists and that He is the Efficient and Maintaining Cause of all things: our eyes, because they fall on visible objects, and see them in beautiful stability and progress, immovably moving and revolving if I may so say; natural Law, because through these visible things and their order, it reasons back to their Author. For how could this Universe have come into being or been put together, unless God had called it into existence, and held it together? For every one who sees a beautifully made lute, and considers the skill with which it has been fitted together and arranged, or who hears its melody, would think of none but the lutemaker, or the luteplayer, and would recur to him in mind, though he might not know him by sight. And thus to us also is manifested That which made and moves and preserves all created things, even though He be not comprehended by the mind. And very wanting in sense is he who will not willingly go thus far in following natural proofs; but not even this which we have fancied or formed, or which reason has sketched for us, proves the existence of a God. But if any one has got even to some extent a comprehension of this, how is God’s Being to be demonstrated? Who ever reached this extremity of wisdom? Who was ever deemed worthy of so great a gift? Who has opened the mouth of his mind and drawn in the Spirit, so as by Him that searches all things, yea the deep thing of God, 1 Corinthians 2:10 to take in God, and no longer to need progress, since he already possesses the Extreme Object of desire, and That to which all the social life and all the intelligence of the best men press forward?”
In other words, “natural proofs” like design/teleology and causation don’t “prove” our Triune God. They are pointers to be sure, but they don’t prove our God and they certainly don’t tell us about “attributes of His essence” as Thomism would have. Consider Aquinas:
“I answer that, Since everything is knowable according as it is actual, God, Who is pure act without any admixture of potentiality, is in Himself supremely knowable….Hence, it must be absolutely granted that the blessed see the essence of God.” (I, Q.12, A.1)
“VII. For what will you conceive the Deity to be, if you rely upon all the approximations of reason? Or to what will reason carry you, O most philosophic of men and best of Theologians [Eunomius], who boast of your familiarity with the Unlimited? [ascribing “attributes” to the essence!] Is He a body? How then is He the Infinite and Limitless, and formless, and intangible, and invisible? or are these attributes of a body? What arrogance for such is not the nature of a body! Or will you say that He has a body, but not these attributes? O stupidity, that a Deity should possess nothing more than we do. For how is He an object of worship if He be circumscribed? Or how shall He escape being made of elements, and therefore subject to be resolved into them again, or even altogether dissolved? For every compound is a starting point of strife, and strife of separation, and separation of dissolution. But dissolution is altogether foreign to God and to the First Nature. Therefore there can be no separation, that there may be no dissolution, and no strife that there may be no separation, and no composition that there may be no strife. Thus also there must be no body, that there may be no composition, and so the argument is established by going back from last to first.”
Again, we know facts about creatures. But God’s nature is wholly unlike creatures – how would we describe It? Thus the Thomistic approach to predicating things about the divine essence is an impossibility. God’s Being is not like “created being.” God’s “simplicity” is not like “the number 1.” God’s “essence” is not like the “essence” of some created thing. St. Gregory goes on to say that the things we learn of God from creation are not at all a definition or means of predicating “aspects” or “attributes” of His sublime, ineffable essence:
“IX. And thus we see that God is not a body. For no inspired teacher has yet asserted or admitted such a notion, nor has the sentence of our own Court allowed it. Nothing then remains but to conceive of Him as incorporeal. But this term Incorporeal, though granted, does not yet set before us— or contain within itself His Essence, any more than Unbegotten, or Unoriginate, or Unchanging, or Incorruptible, or any other predicate which is used concerning God or in reference to Him For what effect is produced upon His Being or Substance by His having no beginning, and being incapable of change or limitation? Nay, the whole question of His Being is still left for the further consideration and exposition of him who truly has the mind of God and is advanced in contemplation.[night and day with Thomism!]. For just as to say It is a body, or It was begotten, is not sufficient to present clearly to the mind the various objects of which these predicates are used, but you must also express the subject of which you use them, if you would present the object of your thought clearly and adequately (for every one of these predicates, corporeal, begotten, mortal, may be used of a man, or a cow, or a horse). Just so he who is eagerly pursuing the nature of the Self-existent will not stop at saying what He is not, but must go on beyond what He is not, and say what He is; inasmuch as it is easier to take in some single point than to go on disowning point after point in endless detail, in order, both by the elimination of negatives and the assertion of positives to arrive at a comprehension of this subject.”
“XIX. To Elias neither the strong wind, nor the fire, nor the earthquake, as you learn from the story, but a light breeze adumbrated the Presence of God, and not even this His Nature. And who was this Elias? The man whom a chariot of fire took up to heaven, signifying the superhuman excellency of the righteous man. And are you not amazed at Manoah the Judge of yore, and at Peter the disciple in later days; the one being unable to endure the sight even of one in whom was a representation of God…”
Note that the thophany of Manoah was not a manifestation of the divine essence, nor was it an Augustinian “hologram.” Again, night and day, as the three “As” say precisely the opposite: that the predicates of God are descriptions of His sublime essence, although admittedly not definitional. He continues, and makes the very argument I made against Cyril, which Cyril accused of being from David Hume and an Enlightenment/masonic argument. When you make a bunch of arguments from causation and creatures, you have not observed “causation” – you have observed phenomena interpreted as “causation”:
“XXIX…For, granted that you understand orbits and periods, and waxings and wanings, and settings and risings, and some degrees and minutes, and all the other things which make you so proud of your wonderful knowledge; you have not arrived at comprehension of the realities themselves, but only at an observation of some movement, which, when confirmed by longer practice, and drawing the observations of many individuals into one generalization, and thence deducing a law, has acquired the name of Science (just as the lunar phenomena have become generally known to our sight), being the basis of this knowledge. But if you are very scientific on this subject, and have a just claim to admiration, tell me what is the cause of this order and this movement.”
Why does he say this? Because:
“For indeed even [human] reason has nothing to lean upon, but only the Will of God. And how is it that part of it is drawn up into mountain summits, and part laid down in plains, and this in various and differing ways? And because the variations are individually small, it both supplies our needs more liberally, and is more beautiful by its variety; part being distributed into habitations, and part left uninhabited, namely all the great height of Mountains, and the various clefts of its coast line cut off from it. Is not this the clearest proof of the majestic working of God?
…Have your natural philosophers with their knowledge of useless details anything to tell us, those men I mean who are really endeavouring to measure the sea with a wineglass, and such mighty works by their own conceptions? Or shall I give the really scientific explanation of it from Scripture concisely, and yet more satisfactorily and truly than by the longest arguments? He has fenced the face of the water with His command. This is the chain of fluid nature.”
Thus we see that there is not really any concord between St. Gregory and the western scholastic approach. He even sounds like Van Til towards the end. We will not truly see the kosmos and God rightly until our logoi is moved back to it’s archetype – the Logos Himself, whom we know as a divine Person – not as an abstract super essence:
“XVII. …Whether it [divinity] will ever be discovered is a question which he who will may examine and decide. In my opinion it will be discovered when that within us which is godlike and divine, I mean our mind and reason [logoi], shall have mingled with its Like, and the image shall have ascended to the Archetype [Logos], of which it has now the desire. And this I think is the solution of that vexed problem as to We shall know even as we are known. But in our present life all that comes to us is but a little effluence, and as it were a small effulgence from a great Light.”