This post is part of the series Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers, in which our goal is to read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles: i.e. not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness and inspiration—but simply as any other theologians, whose work can and should be subject to critique in the same manner as anyone else’s. Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation? Above all: is it actually good theology?
At present, we’re working through Gregory of Nyssa’s late 4th century Catechetical Oration (see the intro post for texts and editions).
Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Chapters 1-4
In the 16th C, at the beginning of a work on Christian doctrine that could be considered a very distant descendant of Gregory’s Catechetical Oration, Philip Melanchthon wrote this famous line:
“…to know Christ is to know the things he has done for us, and not, as they [the medieval theologians] teach, to contemplate his natures and the modes of his incarnation.”1
Melanchthon was one of Luther’s disciples, and here he is summarizing a central idea of his teacher. Its essence is that, contrary to the catholic or “imperial” synthesis, we should never start our teaching about God/Christianity from abstract philosophical reflection on God “in general”, the nature of God and God’s being (ontology)—for example, with things like reason’s ability to know God, the attributes of God, the essence of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ. Instead, theology must begin its reflection on God from Jesus and what Jesus did—his actions. Specifically, we must begin with his saving work in suffering for our sakes and granting us salvation completely gratis:
“The gospel is not philosophy neither law, but forgiveness of sins and proclamation of the reconciliation and eternal life for the sake of Christ.”2
“About these things, the human reason has no idea.”3
In other words: the Gospel is not really a subject of abstruse speculation.
And ultimately, for Luther and Melanchthon, the only and final locus of theology—of our idea of God—is the cross:
“In Christ crucified is true theology and the knowledge of God to be found.”4
For Luther and Melanchthon, to understand God, you must start with the Jesus of the Gospel, on the cross, and then work from there to your idea of God. You don’t start from some generic idea of “God in the sky”, the eternal One, the absolute Good, and so on, and then work “down” to figure out who Jesus is and how he relates to this “God in the sky”—as most traditional theology does. You instead let your image of God be completely and authoritatively defined by the Jesus of the Gospel. Any abstract notion of God must be corrected and modified to shape that Jesus.
Here’s an example of how Luther put it, in a rather poetic way:
“Paul is in the habit of connecting Jesus Christ and God the Father so frequently: he wants to teach us the Christian religion, which does not begin at the very top, as all other religions do, but at the very bottom. … [If] you would think or treat of your salvation, you must stop speculating about the majesty of God; you must forget all thoughts of good works, tradition, philosophy, and even the divine Law. You must run directly to the stable and the lap of the mother and embrace this infant Son of the Virgin. Look at Him being born, nursed, and growing up, walking among men, teaching, dying, returning from the dead, and being exalted above all the heavens, in possession of power over all. In this way you can cause the sun to dispel the clouds and can avoid all fear…” 5
In the history of Christian doctrine, this idea of starting formal reflection on the nature of God with Jesus (however obvious it may sound today) is of incredible significance. It’s hard to overstate the tectonic change this represents. It may well mark the boundary line between pre-modern and modern Christianity.
Today, this idea has become increasingly absorbed and appropriated across the denominations, albeit often indirectly and implicitly. (It has spread, I think, largely through the influence of Barth (?)—although it’s not characteristic of the Reformed tradition as a whole). But it is very hard to find in the earlier tradition.
Gregory the Philosopher?
Gregory is an excellent example of the older, traditional approach. He opens his oration (starting in the second half of the prologue) by suggesting that bishops begin with their audiences’ basic notions of what “God” is in general, i.e. a perfect unity. They should then proceed to demonstrate—via a kind of analogical analysis of human and divine natures—that this perfect and unified God can still have a separate “Word” (Logos) (ch. 1) and also a “Spirit” (Pneuma) (ch. 2). Next (ch. 3), they should show that this plurality-and-unity makes Christianity a kind of perfect mean between Judaism and paganism: “For the number of Trinity is like a treatment (θεραπεία) for those who are astray as to the One, as is the idea (λόγος) of unity for those who are scattered among a plurality” (NB the intellectual illness vocabulary again). For Jewish audiences, Scriptural exegesis can then be added as a further proof (ch. 4), demonstrating the arguments of chs. 1-2.
In sum, Gregory clearly envisions Christian teaching on God as beginning with an abstract philosophical ontology of God’s nature, starting with divine unity and then proceeding to God’s Trinity. Sound familiar? This will become a classical opening structure in expositions of systematic theology.
We shouldn’t imagine that Gregory is employing this structure as simply a rhetorical or apologetic strategy, i.e. a framework meant merely to ease philosophically-minded pagans/Jews into Christianity, and not reflective of Gregory’s “real” theology. As we will see, the ideas of God that he introduces here will be integral to the work as a whole, and will drive his later conclusions and observations: if these introductory ideas about God are somehow not meant to be taken seriously, then the entire work must be regarded as an elaborate fraud, to be later corrected or dispensed with by his audience—which is absurd. No: like other intellectuals of his age, Gregory takes these type of metaphysical speculations very seriously. Gregory is teaching his audience, in good faith, the method and approach to understanding God that he believes is true and necessary.
In fact, if Gregory sees anything to be inadequate about his presentation, it is that our reason limits us from achieving even greater speculative-ontological knowledge of God—i.e. greater insight into the abstract divinity. The first sentence of chapter three is very revealing in this regard (NB the translation at ch. 3 is a mess):
“Therefore, he who explores carefully the profundities of the mystery [τὰ βάθη τοῦ μυστηρίου] is able to receive a certain measure of apprehension of the teaching of God-knowledge [θεογνωσίαν] in their soul [or possibly: through an analogical analysis of the soul], but is not able by reason to explain that inexpressible depth of the mystery [τὴν βαθύτητα τοῦ μυστηρίου]: how the same thing is both countable and eludes counting, is seen as divisible and apprehended in unity, is distinguished in person but is not divided as to substance.”6
Here he makes it plain that the “depths” of the “mystery” of Christianity, the true “knowledge of God”, is found precisely in subjects of abstract contemplation—things like the problem of countability or divisibility. For Gregory, like almost everyone of his age, the real heights of Christian teaching are found in further, higher ontological/philosophical speculation about the divine being—not in a concrete message about the actions of Jesus, as for Luther and Melanchthon, for whom the “depths” and “mystery” of Christianity would unquestionably be the cross and grace.
Fine. So what do we make of this?
This highly philosophical approach to Christianity presents two fundamental problems.
The ultimate problem, facets of which we’ll explore over the whole span of this series, is that this approach can easily transform the core message of Christianity into a doctrine about a philosophical God (cf. the “Trinity” and “Two Natures of Christ” as shibboleths of the old synthesis). In effect, the whole point of Christianity suddenly becomes the assertion and defence of an abstract “God in the sky” and his attributes—his Goodness, Perfection, Omniscience, Justice, etc.—instead of, for example, the proclamation of God’s radical forgiveness and salvation. The Gospel becomes the assertion of the rightness of a specific ontological construct about divinity, and not primarily a message about the relief of the good news of the saving actions of Jesus (whatever the precise ontological framework). Faith turns from trust into knowledge. (For further reflection on the distinction between faith as trust vs. knowledge, see here (“Kicking the Gnostic Habit”), and also here.)
Ultimately, inasmuch as Gregory does end up turning the Gospel into a proclamation of a “philosophical God” (and I’m not sure he entirely does—we’ll see), this will vindicate one of the oldest and severest accusations made against the entire patristic synthesis: that it’s all just Hellenistic philosophy in Christian guise (i.e. Harnack was right).
There is a more immediate issue. This emerges when we start to look carefully at the content of Gregory’s philosophical arguments. To state the problem brutally: a lot of Gregory’s arguments are, for a modern reader, a bit bunk. I mean, bunk.
I’ll spare you a line-by-line analysis, but to take a few examples:
- He assumes that the existence of God is easily demonstrable from the “skillful and wise economy of the universe” (prologue), and also that the cosmos is self-evidently “good”, and that everything in it is perceived as “wise and skillful” (ch.1). What?! What about the chaos, purposelessness, and daily horror observed in the natural world? Surely the opposite observations are at least as credible – probably much more so. (And I am told by my philosopher-friends that even on a mere logical level this type of “cosmological argument” doesn’t hold up.)
- He assumes that perfection is a static, unitary concept. But why can’t perfection include change, variation, diversity? (Especially in a religion that proclaims at its core a humiliated and despised God?)
- He thinks that a serious argument for the existence of the Word (Logos) is that a) we can’t conceive of God without Reason (Logos), and b) since God’s Logos must be, unlike our Logos, perfect, it must be a separately subsistent reality, with a perfect will, power, etc. But why should we conceive God as having a Logos as all—why is this necessary? Why should any parallel be made with our anthropological self-perception? How is this valid? Why can’t God be something totally other? And if we do perceive God this way, as having a Logos, why does this Logos have to be completely simple, transcendent—in ancient terms, “perfect”— in Gregory’s mind (and not composite, varied, immanent)? And why do these qualities require separate subsistence? And if we allow that God’s Logos and Spirit have to be separate entities because this is somehow how God’s “perfect” attributes subsist—well, why not God’s Goodness, Wisdom, Justice, etc. too? Let’s have a whole pantheon of God’s hypostasized attributes! Why just two (Logos and Pneuma)? (Elsewhere, patristic authors do give reasons for this—but they up as equally problematic, relying on various forms of number mysticism, or simple proof-texting.)
- Gregory assumes that, because he can cast Christianity as some kind of theological mean between Judaism and paganism, Christianity must somehow have greater truth value. But why? The mean could be completely wrong if one of the extremes is right! What is inherently correct about a mean? And is “mean” thinking a particularly obvious fit for the radicality of the Christian Gospel?
You could push much further. For example, there are immense problems with Gregory’s underlying assumption that there is an actual—and fairly accessible—connection between reality and our perception of it; or, to put it differently, that he thinks realist ontology is a thing (it’s not; it’s been pretty much dead since the late 18th C). Today, this is sort of “flat earth” philosophy, if we’re honest.
What do we do with all of this? It’s a much bigger problem than is commonly admitted.
It’s interesting to watch how theologians react to this problem. Theologians whose identities or traditions are invested in the patristic tradition tend to deal with this by a kind of sleight of hand. They’ll present the results of patristic theology as a touchstone of orthodoxy as a whole—i.e. take the fathers as theological authorities in their conclusions—but when pressed on any specific philosophical building-blocks of that synthesis, they suddenly do a “cognitive switch” to a historical mode of analysis, dismissing any probing questions as anachronistic, and not sensitive to the “historical context”! Patristics becomes “theology” in its conclusions, but “history” in our analysis of those conclusions. This, unfortunately, makes the fathers unfalsifiable. It effectively places their own theological argumentation beyond reach of critique, carefully hidden behind the precepts of historical method.
A more sophisticated way of dealing with this is to try to read the fathers, in their pre-modern distance and exoticism, as somehow ancient post-moderns (e.g. ancient philosophers of language). There are numerous versions of this: the patristic fathers become ancient existentialists, or post-structuralists, or Wittgensteinians, etc. But this rapidly becomes a bit silly. I mean: do we really need to demonstrate that 4th century folks weren’t doing the same thing as 20th century philosophers? In these instances the fathers just become ciphers for modern theological debates transacted, for whatever reasons, behind the masks of ancient authorities. But why are we even bothering with these ancient authorities, then? Are there any good reasons? (I can think of some bad ones!)
In both cases the fundamental conundrum is simply being sidestepped: can you really take patristic theology seriously if you don’t subscribe to its philosophical underpinnings? And if we consider that their philosophical arguments were central to their own understanding of the integrity of their theology, what do we do now that their philosophy has become obsolete? (What would they do?) Is their theology obsolete too? And if we want to hang on to their theology, are their conclusions really worth the intellectual contortions that “saving the appearances” of their philosophy requires? Well… let’s see!
(Updated: June 2019 – stylistic changes.)
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- Ηoc est Christum cognoscere beneficia eius cognoscere, non quod isti docent, eius naturas, modos incarnationis contueri. Transl. from Commonplaces, tr. C. Preus, Loci Communes (1521), St. Louis, 2014, p. 24. [↩]
- Melanchthon, “Disputatio de discrimine et Philosophiae” (1536) in C.G. Bretschneider (ed.), Corpus Reformatorum/Collected works, 1884, vol. 12, p. 690; trans. and cited Van Wyk, Ignatius, “Philipp Melanchthon: A short introduction”. HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, v. 73, n. 1. Available at: <https://hts.org.za/index.php/hts/article/view/4672/10006> [↩]
- ibid. [↩]
- In Christo crucifix est vera theologia et cognition Dei, Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Proof 20, 1518, trans. mine [↩]
- Lectures on Galatians, Luther’s Works vol. 26, St. Louis, 1963, pp. 29-30, altered. [↩]
- Ὥστε τὸν ἀκριβῶς τὰ βάθη τοῦ μυστηρίου διασκοπούμενον ἐν μὲν τῇ ψυχῇ κατὰ τὸ ἀπόρρητον μετρίαν τινὰ κατανόησιν τῆς κατὰ τὴν θεογνωσίαν διδασκαλίας λαμβάνειν, μὴ μέντοι δύνασθαι λόγῳ διασαφεῖν τὴν ἀνέκφραστον ταύτην τοῦ μυστηρίου βαθύτητα· πῶς τὸ αὐτὸ καὶ ἀριθμητόν ἐστι καὶ διαφεύγει τὴν ἐξαρίθμησιν, καὶ διῃρημένως ὁρᾶται καὶ ἐν μονάδι καταλαμβάνεται, καὶ διακέκριται τῇ ὑποστάσει καὶ οὐ διώρισται τῷ ὑποκειμένῳ. Translation mine. Text and punctuation as per Strawley, Catechetical Oration, 1917. [↩]