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The Grammar of Divinity (On Theology)

Gregory, a bishop of Nyssa in 371, was part of the Cappadocian trio, who was instrumental in the development of Trinitarian orthodoxy. His theological prowess proved vital in response to the Arian and Sabellian heresies. Key to Gregory’s theology we find “an emergence of a pro-Nicene ‘grammar’ of divinity through his developed account of divine power,”[1] conceived through a nature-power-activity formulation revealed in the created order and articulated in Scripture. Understanding the Triune God in this manner afforded a conception of the Trinity that was logical and thoroughly biblical. And this letter is paradigmatic on Gregory’s account of the divine nature.

Not Three Gods

To Ablabius, though short, is a polemical address whereby Gregory lays out a complex argument in response to the claim that three Divine persons equal three gods. Basically put, Ablabius (his opponent, to whom the letter is addressed) charges Gregory with teaching that there are “three Gods.” It is an objection that many of us might have thought about or maybe have had to explain to others, even a Jehovah’s Witness. Gregory’s Trinitarian (Eastern) theology differs from the Western view, most notably in its monarchial form,[2] which was consistent with many of the early church fathers. The Eastern view posited that in order to affirm One God, there has to be One God. And, as that one God—the Father, which Scripture and the early creeds of the church affirm, is the source from which the Son and the Spirit come.[3] We moderns see such language and think Gregory is drifting away from a Trinitarian doctrine. However, that is not the case. We moderns see such language and think Gregory is drifting away from a Trinitarian doctrine. However, that is not the case. Click To Tweet The Son and the Spirit are of the same nature as the Father. According to Gregory, when the divine persons are referenced together in the NT, we see an order in the Godhead: the One God, the Father and One Lord, Jesus Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6). For Gregory, what classifies all three to be of the same nature is their power and activity as manifested in creation and Scripture. And this letter details Gregory’s development of this argument in order to demonstrate that we believe in One God, not three Gods.

The Grammar of Divinity

The crucial issue in the debate concerns the grammar of divinity. Lewis Ayres points out that “the fourth century controversies are, in part, easily misunderstood if they are conceived as concentrating on the question ‘is the Son (and the Spirit) divine?’”[4] It was understood that that the Father was the arche, the Source, from which the Son and the Spirit come. The challenge, then, was in accepting that the Son was truly the same nature as the Father. The divine essence was understood to be simple and inseparable. Therefore, to affirm “real” distinction in the divine essence, where the persons exist as individual hypostases was problematic.[5] As noted, it is the grammar of divinity that needs developing. Gregory’s approach marks a broad shift in pro-Nicene theology in its discussion of the Son being homoousios with the Father, sharing the divine essence, while both the Son and Spirit coming from the Father and acting in creation.[6]

On the surface, Ablabius’ charge seems valid. How is our belief in a Triune God consistent with monotheism?

Gregory begins his letter by stating Ablabius’ argument, which goes like this:

Peter, James, and John, being in one human nature, are called three men: and there is no absurdity in describing those who are united in nature, if they are more than one, by the plural number of the name derived from their nature. If, then, in the above case, custom admits this, and no one forbids us to speak of those who are two as two, or those who are more than two as three, how is it that in the case of our statements of the mysteries of the Faith, though confessing the Three Persons, and acknowledging no difference of nature between them, we are in some sense at variance with our confession, when we say that the Godhead of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is one, and yet forbid men to say “there are three Gods”? (Ad Abl., 331).

Gregory is very forthright about the difficulty of this issue. We have a language problem. We enumerate the Divine Persons but do not admit the plurality, as we would Peter, James, and John. The crucial issue in the debate concerns the grammar of divinity. Click To Tweet We would say they have the same nature as humans, but we designate them as distinct beings from each other. Thus, we have three men; whereas, when it comes to Persons of the Godhead each having the divine nature, we do not have three Gods. Gregory delineates this further. When we speak of men, we say Luke is a man or Stephen is a man, but we don’t say Stephen is Luke or Luke is Stephen. There’s a separation of persons—beings, though having the common nature of man they are considered separate from each other. “Man” isn’t proper to Luke; it is common to him, as it is to Stephen, and any other man that has lived, lives, or will live. The nature of man is inseparable, not capable of increase or decrease. Although it appears in a plurality, it is nevertheless complete and not divided with the individuals—Stephen and Luke—who participate in it.

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Brian J. Orr

Brian J. Orr (PhD, London School of Theology) is a pastor at Sovereign Way Christian Church in Hesperia, California, he is the author of, A Classical Response to Relational Theism: A Reformed Evangelical Critique of Thomas Jay Oord’s Evangelical Process Theology. 


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