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[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Entryways and Ineffability (Part 2)

Categories Theology Common Places


Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church. For introduction to the series, see the first part of this post.

Our entryway to this series should begin where Gregory Nazianzus started his theological orations on God and Christ.[1] In Oration 27, Gregory does not cut right to the issue of deity or number, of unity or essence. Rather, he introduces this cycle of theological homilies by attending to fundamental matters of divine self-revelation and, correspondingly, of human knowledge of the true God. He observes that theology, the knowledge of God, is the greatest need for everyone, for all need to remember God; yet he immediately qualifies the statement by adding that “it is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and … have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul.” He observes that many subjects are of little significance and the dilettante ought to turn elsewhere. Here one deals with fire.

That Oration 27 offers a theological stiff-arm to the arrogant and presumptive; we dare not believe our own questions will always find answers, and we do well not to think our metaphors, analogies, and words can attest God as such.[2] But Gregory continues. He concludes that oration with a blessing: “But of God himself the knowledge we shall have in this life will be little, though soon after it will perhaps be more perfect, in the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” He picks up this positive assertion in Oration 28, where he will address the impossibility, the reality, and the character of our knowledge of the triune God. His own summary of this second oration goes as follows: “I wanted to make plain the point my sermon began with, which was this: the incomprehensibility of deity to the human mind and its totally unimaginable grandeur.” Gregory moves upward, at times ploddingly, noting that we have difficulty enough understanding creation and ourselves amidst it, that we fail to ponder the heights of angelic existence, and that, to a far greater degree, we do not scale the mountain to know the divine.

Yet there is hope. “If our hymn has been worthy of its theme, it is the grace of the Trinity, of the Godhead one in three; if desire remains incompletely satisfied, that way too my argument can claim success.” The homily has come with a hymn, and Gregory is not denigrating it but identifying the miracle of its existence. For, though we cannot know God in himself, triune grace enables our song attesting his glory. And as we are given words enough to proclaim, to praise, to pray, we still long and yearn after that which will fully satiate our longings for ever-deeper contemplation of the one who alone fulfills the restlessness of our hearts. The fundamentals of theology must involve both assertions: the grace of knowledge, yes, but also the beauty of knowledge’s ever-deeper insatiability precisely because of God’s ever-deeper reality. In other words, mystery and concomitant longing are not a sign of failure; they are an achievement—better, a gift—of illuminating grace.

Gregory’s first two orations not only sketch the moral character of knowing God, but they also locate that understanding within the spiritual journey of triune grace.[3] By considering the stories of Moses ascending Sinai or Paul experiencing the third heaven (and many others besides), Gregory attests the necessity of grace: only God can reveal God, and only God can enable knowledge of God. But by invoking these stories, Gregory also prompts us to observe that the mount is one of mystery, whether of darkness or of light, and the heavens are a place of ineffability (or, as later scholastic theologians would say more precisely, we must attend to the doctrine of divine incomprehensibility). “None saw, none told, of God’s nature.”

As we begin our tour of pro-Nicene theology, we do well to remember the epistemological framing of all that follows. The early Christian understanding of God and creation, humanity and grace, shapes the very scope and sequence of Trinitarian dogma. Gregory does not offer a systematic theology even of the Godhead, but his theological orations do work synthetically. Later traditions will develop to attest the fundamental impact of these revealed truths: for example, medievals and their descendants will take to speaking of theological language and the doctrine of analogy (as in Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, 1a.13.5). Even in the fourth and fifth centuries, the distinction of theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia) will be employed to help expound not only God’s being and action but the availability of such for knowledge by humans. And there is a long, sad story to be told of the loss of analogy—especially in many facets of modern, purportedly conservative American evangelicalism (oftentimes in an unfortunate over-reaction to the ills of neo-orthodoxy, which ironically allowed a modern movement to set the terms of debate rather than returning to the productive categories bequeathed us by the catholic and classical Reformed traditions)—and the myriad ways in which theological epistemology has been modified. Both open theism and social trinitarianism (and its diverse applications to gender ethics) depend upon such a loss of analogy and of divine ineffability and of the theology/economy distinction to even be a discussion point, much less a convincing position.

J. K. Rowling has inscribed into our culture the notion that “he who must not be named” is unutterable precisely due to his evil. We do fear to face, much less speak that which is like us and yet harrowing. Lord Voldemort stands in for that timidity. Far more significant, however, to remember what Gregory Nazianzus will restate later: “Our starting-point must be the fact that God cannot be named” (Oration 30.17). We do confess him in ways that correspond to him, but he is and remains ineffable and incomprehensible. Better still, his glory and grace come—powerfully, creatively, and, yes, savingly—only as they come in resplendently overwhelming ways that transfigure our reality and perception. Gospel will not be gospel if it is wholly utterable, for genuine help from one beyond our plight demands that our witness to him bespeak something beyond our grasp. Grace, if it is to come, arrives only with glory. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of him! … To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:33, 36).


[1] Helpful commentary may be found in John Behr, The Formation of Christian Theology, volume 2: The Nicene Faith, part 2 (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2004), 334-342. Behr helpfully hones in on the specific denial of knowledge of God’s nature, a topic which will be addressed in our final entry to this series (considering the distinction between theology and economy).

[2] The great Western Trinitarian theologian, Augustine of Hippo, also focused on such concerns amidst his Trinitarian exposition. So-called modern Trinitarian revivals—enthused on all sides, it seems, by social analogies projected upon the Godhead—would do well to attend again to this seemingly global concern of the fourth- and fifth-century fathers.

[3] A careful scan of his pan-biblical exegesis repays the effort profusely, as it takes in the contemplative dimensions of key moments in the divine economy. Indeed, one might say that it offers a fascinating parallel to Hebrews 11, reflecting on saints from the Old Testament (Enoch, Noah, Jacob, and the rest). Interestingly, Gregory does not mention the transfiguration account in this oration (though it will appear later in his orations as, e.g., in Oration 29.19). The transfiguration received widespread attention, however, in shaping not only patristic Christology but also much regarding human being and knowing; see Light on the Mountain: Greek Patristic and Byzantine Homilies on the Transfiguration of the Lord (trans. Brian Daley; Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013).


Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Michael is a Presbyterian teaching elder and is the author of several books, including Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (with Scott Swain) and Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, as well as many articles on Christian doctrine and historical theology.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors


9780310491491_imageLearn more about The Triune God forthcoming this fall in the New Studies in Dogmatics series.

[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Entryways and Ineffability (Part 1)
[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Entryways and Ineffability (Part 1) The doctrine of the Trinity serves as the fundamental lodestar of all Christian belief, the shining center of all Christ...
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