There are only three in the Orthodox Church who hold the title “theologian.” The first was the Apostle John, the last to be given this special honor was St Simeon the New Theologian. The second to have been given this title is St Gregory, also known as Gregory of Nazianzus.
It is more accurate, however, to call him St Gregory the Theologian and not St Gregory Nazianzus because his father, Gregory, was bishop of Nazianzus. So, the elder Gregory is better known as St Gregory Nazianzus and his son as St Gregory the Theologian. Also, the latter was not bishop of Nazianzus, rather Archbishop of Constantinople.
St Gregory the Theologian studied in Athens with his contemporary and close friend, St Basil the Great. They were both from Cappadocia and after years of study in Athens, lived as ascetics in a hermitage in Pontus. They were regarded as “two souls in one body.” Both these men would be instrumental in defeating Arianism, the Eunomians and the Πνευματομάχοι (“Spirit-Fighters”). The former two denied the divinity of Christ, the latter, the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Although reluctant to becoming Archbishop of Constantinople, Gregory was elected in 381 AD at the 2nd Ecumenical Council. When Gregory arrived in Constantinople, he did not find too many Nicene Christians, but only a slight trace and relic of a flock, without order or shepherd or bounds, with neither right to pasture nor the defense of a fold (Oration 42).
All the churches were in possession of non-Nicenes at this time. So Gregory set up a villa on the property of his cousin Theodosia. He named this church Ανάσταση to signify the resurrection of faith in the City which was in dire condition. His task was simply to preach the Nicene faith to the population of Constantinople. After only two years, the Arians did not have one church left to them in the City. He overcame the heresies by his brilliant theological works which were sweeter than honey.
In total, St Gregory completed forty-two orations. Orations 27-31 are known as The Theological Orations and have a triadic structure. Orthodox theology can be applied in two ways: positive or cataphatic theology and negative or apophatic theology.
The former uses terminology that describes or refers to what God is believed to be. An example would be to say: God is Love (1 Jn 4:8). However, to attempt to define what God is we limit God. The apophatic approach, on the other hand, attempts to speak only in terms of what may not be said about the perfect goodness that is God. It stresses God’s absolute transcendence and unknowability in such a way that we cannot say anything about the divine essence because God is beyond being.
An example is: For you, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit… (a prayer intoned by the priest in the Divine Liturgy). For St Gregory, the negative approach is better incorporated within the positive. He said in Oration 28: it is much simpler, much briefer, to indicate all that something is not by indicating what it is, than to reveal what it is by denying what it is not.
Gregory stresses that we can only know what God has revealed of Himself to us. It is his vision to approach God with awe and reverence rather than limit Him to man-made definitions and logical reasoning. To do the latter is to reduce God to a creature instead of glorifying Him as the Creator. In his 18th Oration, Gregory makes reference to Jn 8:28: When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I AM He… in explaining that Christ is divine, though dying a human death and is known only from the perspective of the Cross.
There are two sets of properties, divine and human that are attributed to the same subject, Jesus Christ. He is the One agent of both sets of actions. Gregory explains that the divine and the human natures in Christ must not be conceptualized in terms of “parts.” His humanity is visible, while His divinity is invisible but knowable through its activities.
There are not “two sons,” one from God and the other from the mother… There are, therefore, two natures, God and man, since there are both soul and body, not two sons or two Gods… It is necessary to speak concisely: the Savior consists of one [thing] and another (άλλο καί άλλο τά έξ ών ο Σωτήρ) The pair are one by coalescence, God is made man and man is made God (τά γάρ αμφότερα έν τή συγκράσει, Θεού μέν ενανθρωπήσαντος, ανθρώπου δέ θεωθέντος), or however one may put it. I say “one [thing] and another,” whereas in case of the Trinity the reverse holds: in that case there is one [person] and another [άλλος καί άλλος], in order that the hypostases might not be confused; but there is not one [thing] and another, for the three are one and the same in divinity
(Letters to Cledonius).
The Holy Trinity is one God in three Persons [Υποστάσεις]: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They share one nature and essence: divine. The proper name of the one without beginning is ‘Father,’ of the one begotten without beginning, ‘Son,’ and of the one who has issued or proceeds without generation, ‘Holy Spirit’ (Oration 30). The divinity would also be “incomplete,” lacking holiness, if there were no Holy Spirit (Oration 31).
The Son, Jesus Christ took on flesh in His Incarnation, being one Person [Υπόστασις] in two natures [φύσεις]: divine and human. Divinity and humanity are predicated of one and the same Christ, rather than being subjects of predication or action in themselves. On speaking about the virginal birth, Gregory says: that it was from a woman makes it human, that she was a virgin makes it divine. On earth He has no father, but in heaven no mother (Oration 19).
In nearly every homily Gregory produced, he defended the one essence and nature of the Holy Trinity which is why he is regarded as the “Trinitarian Theologian.” Nevertheless, he was also instrumental in Christology. When St Gregory returned back to Nazianzus, just before his death in 391 AD, he contended with another heretic, Apollinaris of Laodicea.
The said heretic upheld the unity of divinity and humanity in Christ, however, denied the existence of a rational human mind (νούς). He claimed the Divine Logos took its place instead. Apollinaris believed the human mind is created, therefore, is inherently unstable and changeable.
For this reason, if Christ had such a mind, salvation would not be possible. Gregory clearly saw that Apollinaris misunderstood communicatio idiomatum (a Christological concept about the interaction of the divinity and humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ). Furthermore, Gregory said: a drop of water is not eliminated by a river nor is a human mind in the presence of that of divinity (Letters to Cledonius). The human mind provides a meeting place for God and man, divinity and humanity. If Christ was not truly human, including having a human mind, then our salvation would not be possible.
You exposed the delusion of those who erred and expounded the Scriptures most piously, O hierarch worthy of admiration, transmitting thus dogmas sweeter than honey delighting believers' hearts, teaching all to adore the one Godhead in Trinity. Hence you advocated that the form of the Savior in icons, His humanity, receive relative worship. O Theologian Gregory, intercede with Christ our God, that He grant forgiveness of offences to those who with longing observe your holy memory (3rd Kathisma of Festal Matins)
O St Gregory, intercede for us before Christ our God!
A graduate of Long Island University, College of Pharmacy, and Saint Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, John works to share the richness and beauty of the Orthodox Faith with the wider community.