Gregory Nazianzen’s Trinitarian Relationship

Here’s the abstract for my paper on Gregory of Nazianzen’s understanding of Trinitarian Relationship

Gregory Nazianzen used very specific terms to demonstrate the deity of the Son and Spirit by showing their relationship to the Father. He based his proof in the unquestioned deity of the Father, and then used relational terminology to explain how the Son and Spirit both shared in the deity of the Father and were distinct persons in and of themselves. The two terms which he primarily used to do this were begotten and procession. These terms were biblical and expressed the essence of their relationship, yet Gregory drew a sharp distinction between the two. Begetting is not procession and vice versa. To interchange the two would invalidate only-begotten and create either 2 Sons of a Son/Grandson relationship. But in his use of Begotten and procession Gregory described the Father as the Source of their divine nature and simultaneously refuted Sabellian Monarchism by establishing the presence of separate persons within the Godhead.

Posted on May 6, 2010, in Historical Theology and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. In your paper, you argue that Gregory’s use of the term “relation” does not refer to the essence of the divine being, but that it only has to do with how we understand the terms Father, Son, and Spirit – i.e., they are terms of relationship rather than essence. As you’re probably aware, many would reject such a distinction and would argue that relationships are always “essential” – i.e. they define who and what we are. If this is the case, then relational terms are inherently ontological, and terms like “Father” and “Son” say something about the divine essence. This would be the more “social trinitarian” interpretation of the Cappadocians, placing a greater emphasis on the ontological reality of the trinitarian relations.

    What do you think? Is this a good reading of Gregory? Or, do you think that he would want to unpack this a little differently?

    • I have been thinking about your comments trying to decide if there are previously unconsidered implications of what I said that lead to your assessment of my paper or if I should have said something differently to better convey what I mean.

      In using the term “relation” I was not intentionally precluding an essential understanding, and indeed my understanding of Gregory is that he specifically does NOT draw a distinction between relationship and the inherent essence. To quote him again “For it is in fact a necessary truth that they are the same. For the nature of the relation of Father to Child is this, that the offspring is of the same nature with the parent” Oration 29/10″ However, terms such as Father & Son cannot be solely relegated to that of expressing essence since Gregory makes the point of distinction between Son & Spirit, begetting & proceeding.

      Perhaps I would have done better by giving an explanation of what I meant by relationship.

    • If I may humbly contribute, I tend to think Gregory would avoid saying that the relationships are essential. What’s at stake for him is the Eunomian argument that something’s name denotes its essence. “Things which are dissimilar in nature are stated dissimilarly,” Aetius quoted by Basil in De Spiritu Sancto 2.4. The Eunomians continued from there that if the Father is called “Unoriginate” than it becomes a condition of deity that it be Unoriginate. Therefore anything Begotten, or Emitted, or sourced in anything/Anyone other than itself cannot be said to have the divine nature (since that nature is unoriginateness). (See Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, pp. 605-613) This is precisely what’s behind his language in 29.16, which you quoted in your paper, “Father is not a name either of an essence or of an action, most clever sirs. But it is the name of the Relation in which the Father stands to the Son, and the Son to the Father.” He had just argued directly against the Eunomian “names=substance” argument in 29.12 and it reasserted itself again in 29.16. This does not preclude God’s being relational. It does seem to indicate, though, that the “peculiar characteristics” (“idiotetes”–Fatherhood, Sonship, Spiritness, Unoriginateness, Begottenness, Procession, etc.) are not essential.

  2. I tried to download your paper, but my pc wouldn’t recognize the encoding. Is it a Word version issue, or a I’m-not-a-ThM-student-at-Western issue? I’m interested in reading it, though.

    • Sorry about that. I’ll see if I can get Tim to save it in a different format and upload it again. I can’t open it either.

    • Tyson, I apologize. I use Word 2007 and was just not thinking about ease of access for others. I have reposed the paper as a pdf so you should be able to access it with out problem – Tim

  3. Tim,

    You should contribute your paper to the 2010 Trinity Blogging Summit:

    I am touching up and sending my Athanasius paper. It would be a good representation for the program!

    • That’s a great idea. Thanks for suggesting it. Billy will be posting a paper here soon on Origen and subordinationism that should probably also be included.

    • I suspect it would need a LOT of touching up to be worth submitting.

  4. Tyson, I think you’re right. Gregory was keen to emphasize the importance of relationships, but not in such a way that they were part of the divine essence. If we make that latter move, there seems to be no escaping either subordinationism, modalism, or the kind of overemphasis on divine threeness that one finds in many social trinitarians. Gregory seemed to be trying to find a language for the Trinity that could avoid all three of these.


    With respect to the above paper which was posted on your site, I understand, do I need to register to down load a copy? Thanks for your reply.

    • Nope. We post those for the benefit of whoever wants to use them. So feel free to download and enjoy. The only thing we ask is that if you ever use the material elsewhere, you attribute it to the original author and provide a link back to the blog.


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