Gregory of Nazianzus, Five Theological Orations


  • Author: St. Gregory of Nazianzus (AKA Gregory Nazianzen; Gregory the Theologian)
  • Title: The Five Theological Orations (Orations 27–31)
    • Available in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002).
    • Also available in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 2.7: S. Cyril of Jerusalem, S. Gregory Nazianzen.

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–90)

Gregor Chora

Gregory, also known as Gregory the Theologian, was one of the three great Cappadocian Fathers (with Basil and Gregory of Nyssa). He formed a close friendship with Basil, later the leading figure of the group, while they were students in Athens. After his return to Cappadocia, Gregory reluctantly submitted to be ordained a presbyter to help his aged father, the Bishop of Nazianzus. A sermon preached subsequently (Oration II) is a seminal work of pastoral theology. Later Gregory was consecrated bishop against his will to help Basil, by then the metropolitan Bishop of Caesarea, in an ecclesiastical power struggle. After Basil’s death, he was called to lead the tiny remnant of orthodox Christians in Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. Gregory’s outstanding oratory and the accession of the Emperor Theodosius I led to the triumph of orthodoxy over Arianism. After becoming Bishop of Constantinople and briefly presiding at the Council of Constantinople (381), Gregory resigned and retired thankfully to Cappadocia.

Gregory’s theology is to be found in his sermons, letters and poems. The five Theological Orations, preached in Constantinople in 380, contain his classic exposition of the doctrine of the Trinity. After emphasizing the purification necessary for the theologian and the incomprehensibility of God, he expounds the doctrine of the Trinity in terms of relationships within the Godhead. The Father is the begetter and emitter, the Son is the begotten and the Holy Spirit is the emission. The begetting of the Son and the procession of the Spirit are beyond time, so that all three are coeternal. While the Father may be greater than the Son in the sense that he is the cause, he is not greater by nature, for the two are of the same nature. The names, Father and Son, make known to us an intimate relation within the Godhead.

On this basis, Gregory strongly defends the deity of the *Holy Spirit. The Spirit must be either a creature or God, and only the latter alternative can give coherence to Christian doctrine. The Spirit, however, is neither begotten nor unbegotten, but the one who proceeds (to ekporeuton). The distinction of the three is thus preserved in the one nature. Gregory unequivocally proclaims what Basil had expressed so guardedly, that the Spirit is God and consubstantial with the Father.

Gregory’s main contribution to the development of *Christology was in his opposition to Apollinarius. He argued that the whole of human nature which fell in Adam must be united to the Son, body, soul and mind, ‘for the unassumed is the unhealed’.

SOURCE: T. A. Noble, “Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329–90),” ed. Martin Davie et al., New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (London; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press; InterVarsity Press, 2016), 379.

Oration 27: An Introductory Sermon against the Eunomians

  • Anomoeans (Anomoians) (Gr. anomoios, “unlike, dissimilar”) Extreme group in the 4th-century Arian controversy who taught that the Father and the Son had “dissimilar” natures. Also known as Aetians, Eunomians, and Exoucontians. The view was condemned in 381 CE at the Council of Constantinople. (McKim, WDTT, 14)
  • “Not to every one, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to every one; the Subject is not so cheap and low; and I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits.” (NPNF 2.7, 285)
  • To do theology well, character matters.
  • We should only discuss and debate theology when the subject matter can be taken seriously.
  • When discussing/debating theology, we should stick to topics that are within our grasp (to the extent that is possible, given our training).

Oration 28

  • A plea for theological modesty. God exceeds our grasp.
  • “It is difficult to conceive God but to define Him in words is an impossibility, as one of the Greek teachers of Divinity taught, not unskilfully, as it appears to me; with the intention that he might be thought to have apprehended Him; in that he says it is a hard thing to do; and yet may escape being convicted of ignorance because of the impossibility of giving expression to the apprehension. But in my opinion it is impossible to express Him, and yet more impossible to conceive Him.” (NPNF 2.7, 289-90)
  • Yet, we can still know certain things about God. For example: God exists.
  • However, it is very difficult to get clear on God’s incorporeality and his presence.
  • It is easier to say what God is NOT, but we must press on and try to say what God IS. Theology ought not be merely apophatic. “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.” (NPNF 2.7, 291)
  • “For every rational nature longs for God and for the First Cause, but is unable to grasp Him, for the reasons I have mentioned. Faint therefore with the desire, and as it were restive and impatient of the disability, it tries a second course, either to look at visible things, and out of some of them to make a god … (a poor contrivance, for in what respect and to what extent can that which is seen be higher and more godlike than that which sees, that this should worship that?) or else through the beauty and order of visible things to attain to that which is above sight; but not to suffer the loss of God through the magnificence of visible things.” (NPNF 2.7, 293)
  • Gregory gives several examples of idolatry.
  • Argument from general revelation to theism through use of reason (logos).
  • “What God is in nature and essence, no man ever yet has discovered or can discover. Whether it 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, shall have mingled with its Like, and the image shall have ascended to the Archetype, of which it has now the desire.” (NPNF 2.7, 294)
  • “Now if you have in your thought passed through the air and all the things of air, reach with me to heaven and the things of heaven. And let faith lead us rather than reason, if at least you have learnt the feebleness of the latter in matters nearer to you, and have known reason by knowing the things that are beyond reason, so as not to be altogether on the earth or of the earth, because you are ignorant even of your ignorance.” (p.299, Orat. 28.28)
  • “If we have told these things as they deserve, it is by the grace of the Trinity, and of the one Godhead in Three Persons; but if less perfectly than we have desired, yet even so our discourse has gained its purpose. For this is what we were labouring to shew, that even the secondary natures surpass the power of our intellect; much more then the First and (for I fear to say merely That which is above all), the only Nature.” (p.300-301, Orat. 28.31)

Oration 29: On the Son

  • Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are coeternal. (29.3)
  • God is still immutable because the process of begetting is eternal and incorporeal. (29.4)
  • Personal incredulity doesn’t suffice as an objection to begetting. Gregory Nazianzen makes an a fortiori argument: We don’t even understand our own begetting/genesis! How much more mysterious is the eternal begetting of the Son! (29.8)
  • The Father and Son share the same essence/substance. (29.10)
  • There is an important difference between essence/substance and Persons/relations. (29.12)
  • Addresses scriptural arguments that would seem to imply that Christ was not God. (29.18)
  • KEY PRINCIPLE: “What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate—yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted.” (p. 307-8, 29.18)
  • Rhetorically powerful defense of Christ’s humanity and divinity in 29.20.
    > XX. He was baptized as Man — but He remitted sins as God — not because He needed purificatory rites Himself, but that He might sanctify the element of water. He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God; yea, He bids us be of good cheer, for He has overcome the world. John 16:33 He hungered — but He fed thousands; yea, He is the Bread that gives life, and That is of heaven. He thirsted — but He cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink. Yea, He promised that fountains should flow from them that believe. He was wearied, but He is the Rest of them that are weary and heavy laden. Matthew 11:28 He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea. He rebuked the winds, He made Peter light as he began to sink. He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, He is the King of those who demanded it. John 19:19 He is called a Samaritan and a demoniac; — but He saves him that came down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves; the demons acknowledge Him, and He drives out demons and sinks in the sea legions of foul spirits, Luke 8:28-33 and sees the Prince of the demons falling like lightning. He is stoned, but is not taken. He prays, but He hears prayer. He weeps, but He causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God. John 11:43 He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; Matthew 26:15 but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood. 1 Peter 1:19 As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, Isaiah 53:7 but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also. As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness. John 1:23 He is bruised and wounded, but He heals every disease and every infirmity. Isaiah 53:23 He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restores us; yea, He saves even the Robber crucified with Him; Luke 23:43 yea, He wrapped the visible world in darkness. He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine John 2:1-11, who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire. Song of Songs 5:16 He lays down His life, but He has power to take it again; John 10:18 and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. Matthew 27:51 He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again; He goes down into Hell, but He brings up the souls; He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead, and to put to the test such words as yours. If the one give you a starting point for your error, let the others put an end to it.

Oration 30: On the Son

  • Revisits key interpretive principle from Oration 29: “attributing to the Deity the higher and diviner expressions, and the lower and more human to Him Who for us men was the Second Adam, and was God made capable of suffering to strive against sin” (p. 309, 30.1)
  • Regarding Prov. 8:22 (“The LORD created me at the beginning of His ways with a view to His works”), he notes that certain verses/statements in the Bible refer to the economy of salvation, and not directly to the Godhead in eternity. (30.2)
  • Addresses titles of the Son in 30.20-21.

Oration 31: On the Holy Spirit

  • Note that Gregory of Nazianzus presided over the Council of Constantinople in 381.
  • Keep in mind the additions to the third article of the creed in 381: “And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
  • Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal. You can’t demote one without destroying the Trinity. “If the One was from the beginning, then the Three were so too. If you throw down the One, I am bold to assert that you do not set up the other Two.” (p. 318-19, 31.4)
  • Interesting argument in 31.6.
    • Holy Spirit is either a substance or an accident.
    • Holy Spirit acts, so must be a substance rather than an accident.
    • If the Holy Spirit is a substance, he must either be a creature or God.
    • “But if he is a creature why do you believe in him, why are we baptized in him?”
    • Lex orandi, lex credendi!
  • Note the limits of theological language: “For it does not follow that because the Son is the Son in some higher relation (inasmuch as we could not in any other way than this point out that He is of God and Consubstantial), it would also be necessary to think that all the names of this lower world and of our kindred should be transferred to the Godhead. Or may be you would consider our God to be a male, according to the same arguments, because he is called God and Father, and that Deity is feminine, from the gender of the word, and Spirit neuter, because It has nothing to do with generation” (p. 320, 31.7)
  • The Holy Spirit PROCEEDS. Appeals to John 15:26 “The Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father.” (31.8)
  • There is no subordination in being in the Godhead. “For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of Essence; but the very fact of being Unbegotten or Begotten, or Proceeding has given the name of Father to the First, of the Son to the Second, and of the Third, Him of Whom we are speaking, of the Holy Ghost that the distinction of the Three Persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the Godhead. For neither is the Son Father, for the Father is One, but He is what the Father is; nor is the Spirit Son because He is of God, for the Only-begotten is One, but He is what the Son is. The Three are One in Godhead, and the One Three in properties; so that neither is the Unity a Sabellian one, nor does the Trinity countenance the present evil distinction.” (p. 320-21, 31.9)
  • There is a difference between the unity of the Godhead and the unity of humanity. (31.15)
  • Interesting claims re:scriptural interpretation: In the Bible “Some things have no existence, but are spoken of; others which do exist are not spoken of; some neither exist nor are spoken of, and some both exist and are spoken of.” (p. 324, 31.22)
  • There has been progressive revelation of the Trinity from the Old Testament to the New Testament and to the Church: “The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely. The New manifested the Son, and suggested the Deity of the Spirit. Now the Spirit Himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of Himself.” (p. 326, 31.26)
  • There are no good earthly analogies for the Trinity. Not even “sun, beam, and light” work(s) well! (31.31–33)


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