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Gregory of Nazianzus

The Trinity as the Core of the Christian Life

The Council of Nicaea convened in 325 to deal with Arius and his heresy concerning the relationship of Jesus to the Father. Arius proclaimed that the Son was not eternal and thus not a part of the Trinity in His very being. Arius stated that the Son existed as a creation of the Father. Arius’s heresy caused Christianity to face a universal, ecclesiastical crisis: Who is Jesus in relation to the Father? Is the Logos eternal? Depending on how Christians answered, Christianity was in danger of losing its foundation from a threat within the parameters of orthodoxy.

The Council heard Arius, rejected his theology as deviant, and adopted the Nicene Creed, which became the official doctrine of the universal Church. The Nicene Creed established that the Son was the same substance (homoousia) as the Father, defeating Arianism. Yet, the Arians did not take defeat well and managed to live on. Thirty years later, in the mid-350s, the Heterousians revived Arianism. These people believed that the Son was unlike the Father in His substance and denied the Trinity, stating that there was only a monarchy. They gained solid position in the universal Church and ruled Christendom in the 350s and throughout most of the 360s. During this era, Gregory of Nazianzus performed his ministry.

Second Generation Minister

Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as Gregory the Theologian, was born in 329 at Nazianzus in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). His father, also named Gregory, served as a bishop of Nazianzus. His mother, Nonna, taught him the Scriptures and made certain that he received an extensive education. He studied rhetoric with his friend Basil, later named Basil the Great, and Julian, who became an emperor known as Julian the Apostate. At the completion of his studies, Gregory taught rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. In 358, Gregory returned to Cappadocia. Gregory’s father baptized him when he was thirty-three. His father, as bishop of Nazianzus, had Arian tendencies and even signed a statement of faith that was, at best, ambiguous in meaning concerning the Trinity.

Gregory soon left Nazianzus to be with his friend Basil at Pontus. After a few years, Gregory’s brother died, which compelled him to return to help his father in the work of the church. His father’s church was in turmoil because of the Arian heresy. Gregory began to convince his father of the deviant theological nature of Arianism. Gregory substantially impacted his father, as the elder Gregory did eventually embrace the Nicene position.

During this same time, Basil had been made a bishop of Caesarea. Basil’s rival, the Arian Bishop Anthimus, wanted to divide Cappadocia into two provinces. This prompted Basil to make Gregory a bishop of Sasima, which was a strategic, small town between Caesarea and Tyana. Gregory never accepted the role, as his father began to experience declining health. Gregory returned to Nazianzus and assumed more responsibility for the church. After his father’s death, Gregory guided the flock until 374.

The ecclesiastical world was subject to the political world of emperors. When Patriarch Valentus of Constantinople died, a council of bishops invited Gregory to help at the church at Constantinople because heretical Arian theology infiltrated the church. Gregory’s task was substantial, as the Arians were members. Over time and with consistent preaching, Gregory slowly began to see an increase in orthodox believers against seemingly impossible odds and circumstances. For example, in April 379, an angry mob of Arian heretics interrupted a baptismal service and threw stones at the Orthodox priest, killing one bishop and wounding Gregory. Yet, Gregory’s determination to persist through the adversity allowed him to realize victory in Nazianzus. The following year, in 380, Gregory was consecrated as Bishop of Constantinople.

Gregory served at Constantinople for a couple of years then retired at Nazianzus. During the next six years, he wrote poetry. Gregory died in 390 after a long and fruitful ministry.

Gregory’s Orations

Gregory had a unique gift: He was a writer. His impact during his own time and ours is one of sheer brilliance. Even though he made many contributions to Christianity, his five sermons, known as The Five Theological Orations, stand out as his “magnum opus.” Gregory addresses the themes of the qualifications of theologians, the ability to theologize, and the topics of God and the Trinity. Basically, Gregory states that only those who are pure in soul and body, as being selfless in heart, may have the confidence to successfully contemplate God’s nature.

This seems to be a reference to the Arians who are less than pure in heart and, as a consequence, have denied the Son’s divine nature. For Gregory, the Trinity is at the heart of the Christian faith. Gregory’s Fifth Oration proves beneficial to understanding the Trinity. Gregory, addressing the Arian axiom, “There was a time when the Son did not exist,” counters this false claim by writing, “If ever there was a time when the Father was not, then there was a time when the Son was not. If ever there was a time when the Son was not, then there was a time when the Spirit was not. If the One was from the beginning, then the Three were so too,” (Oration 5.4). For Gregory, the Trinity is at the heart of the Christian faith. Click To Tweet

Building on the difference between the Son and the Spirit, Gregory uses the word “procession,” which is found in the Greek text of John 15:26. Gregory’s exegesis moves Trinitarian thought to a different level than Basil the Great. Gregory states, “The Holy Ghost, which proceeds from the Father; Who, inasmuch as He proceeds from That Source, is no Creature; and inasmuch as He is not Begotten is no Son; and inasmuch as He is between the Unbegotten and the Begotten is God,” (Oration 5.8). The Spirit is not the Son because the Son is begotten, whereas, the Spirit “proceeds from” the Father. The Holy Spirit’s procession precludes him from being classified as a mere creature. The Holy Spirit is not the Son, as He is different from the Unbegotten (Father) and the Begotten (Son). In fact, the Holy Spirit stands “between” them (Oration 5.8), indicating distinct persons in their unity. Gregory refined the relationship of the Trinity by focusing upon the procession of the Spirit. Gregory earned the title of “Gregory the Theologian” from The Five Theological Orations, which is a must-read, preferably the edition in the Popular Patristic Series by St. Vladimir’s Press as it is an easier English translation.

Gregory’s Christology is equally impressive. He defended the position that the Logos (Jesus Christ) was fully human and fully God, which struck at the heart of Appolinarius, who advocated that Jesus had a divine mind (the Logos) in a human body. Gregory’s stunning reply has become a classic phrase in Christianity: “What is not assumed is not saved.” This phrase set the tone and anticipated the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

The Trinity

In the Third Theological Oration (which is also Oration 29), Gregory elaborates on the fact that God is a monarchy composed of a Trinity that has no division in substance. In other words, the Trinity is one substance that is produced by the Father’s eternal generation of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit. In this manner, the Trinity is perfected as the monarchy has equal honor of their nature and numerical distinction without division within the substance of the Trinity. Gregory’s reasoning preserves the monarchy of the Trinity (Third Theological Oration 2). The Holy Spirit is not the Son, as He is different from the Unbegotten (Father) and the Begotten (Son). Click To Tweet

Yet, the point of the old Arian argument revised through the Anomeans and their primary representative, Eunomius, was that God as Father is monarchy. Their position, that the monarchy of God must consist of only the Father, as the Son was generated in time and was thus not eternal, denied the eternal nature of the Son and the Spirit. However, Gregory emphasizes the Trinity as the monarchy. Gregory anticipates their objection by addressing the eternal generation of the Son by the Father in regard to 1) the timing of generation and 2) the Father’s nature to generate.

Concerning the timing of generation, Gregory uses a clever set of questions designed to focus on the Father’s generation of the Son. Gregory upholds the eternal nature of the Trinity by emphatically stating that the Father always existed along with the Son and the Spirit. The Trinity is not bound by time as if the Son and the Spirit should come after the Father. The eternal nature of generation is not according to passion as accomplished in time but passionless, as the nature of the Father is to eternally generate. The meaning of Gregory is obvious: the cause of generation by the Father is not time-construed. The cause of generation is not time-compelled in a time-bound movement by the Father, but it is the Father’s nature to eternally generate (Third Theological Oration 6).

Gregory also anticipates the Anomean objection that if the Son is like the Father, then the Son must also be ingenerate. Gregory admits this would be “True, if ingeneracy were God’s substance” (Third Theological Oration 12). Gregory argues that the Anomeans would “mix-up” the Trinity by having an “unbegotten-begotten.” Gregory argues that the Father is ingenerate (which means he has no beginning) and the Son is eternally generate, which means he is eternally the same substance as the Father. The basis of the Trinity is not their substance but their names, i.e., “Father” and “Son” reveal their relationship. Gregory states this concept well when he writes, “‘Father’ designates neither the substance nor the activity, but the relationship, the manner of being, which holds good between the Father and the Son. Just as with us these names indicate kindred and affinity, so here too they designate the sameness of stock, of parent and offspring” (Third Theological Oration 16). The point is that the Trinity has the same substance.

In Oration 32.5, Gregory recognizes the distinct persons of the Trinity while placing emphasis on their shared substance. He states, “We must recognize one God, the Father, without beginning and unbegotten, and one Son, begotten of the Father, and one Spirit who takes his existence from the Father and who, while yielding to the Father his ingenerateness and to the Son his generation, is yet in all other respects their equal in nature, dignity, glory, and honor.” This allows Gregory to present the Trinity as monarchy on the basis of their distinction and their unity with the Father. Gregory concludes the same thought in Oration 23.10 when he writes, “The Trinity my brothers is truly a trinity. Trinity does not mean an itemized collection of disparate element…Trinity is a comprehensive relationship between equals who are held in equal honor; the term unites in on word members that are one by nature and does not allow things that are indivisible to suffer fragmentation when there number is divided.”

The Holy Spirit

Gregory’s Fifth Oration is the hallmark of his trinitarian position. Gregory’s distinctive approach presents the Trinity as perfected by the Father’s generation of the Son and the proceeding of the Spirit. This Oration (known as Oration 31) also seems to target the Pneumatomachians (Spirit-fighters) who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The focus of the Fifth Oration is that Gregory punctuates the Spirit’s person with soteriological implications. “From the Spirit comes our rebirth, from rebirth comes a new creating, from new creating comes a recognition of the worth of him who effected it” (Fifth Theological Oration 28). His approach to understanding the Holy Spirit is predicated upon a proper interpretation of the Scriptures. The Spirit’s person is responsible for the personal soteriology, eschatology, glorification, and even doxology of the redeemed.

Gregory’s unique approach is much akin to his friend Basil in admitting that the Holy Spirit is never called “God” in the Scriptures. Therefore, Gregory argues that the Spirit is God on the basis of understanding the Spirit’s divinity as the Spirit reveals himself. It is the Holy Spirit who discloses the meaning of Scripture to the reader. This is sometimes called “spiritual exegesis.” This seems out of place in the contemporary hermeneutical fray, but it held significant meaning for the too literal Pneumatomachians, as Gregory demonstrated that one cannot interpret Scripture properly unless related to God via the Holy Spirit.

The focal point of Gregory’s work on the Spirit is found in The Fifth Theological Oration 7-10. Gregory’s contribution to the role and person of the Spirit is his emphasis on John 15:26 and the word “proceed.” Gregory understands distinction of the Spirit from the Son in the manner in which both relate to the Father. The Son is begotten, or generated, by the Father, whereas, the Spirit proceeds from the Father. “Insofar as he proceeds from the Father, he is no creature; inasmuch as he is not begotten ingeneracy and generacy, he is God…God lack nothing. It is their differences in, so to say, ‘manifestation’ of mutual relationship, which has caused the difference in names” (The Fifth Theological Oration 8-9). Gregory recognizes the distinct persons of the Trinity while placing emphasis on their shared substance. Click To Tweet

Gregory understands that the names of God identify with their description of their relationship to the Trinity. In other words, it is God the Father who is ingenerate but generates the Son. It is the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father but is not generated (unbegotten) so that the Spirit has a different relationship to the Father. “The aim is to safeguard the distinctiveness of the three hypostasis within the single nature and quality of the Godhead” (The Fifth Theological Oration 10). In Oration 23.7 Gregory denounces the theological conclusion that should one not allow for the same substance but differing hypostasis, the end result would be to “face the terrible risk of dishonoring God or of setting up a rival deity.”

The fact that God is one in substance but acts in three personages in soteriology proves the unity that exists in God. The argument for the Spirit’s divinity is realized by the Christian’s salvation and subsequent experience of the divine life within the Trinity. Gregory argues that sanctification can only be accomplished in the Spirit within the ministry of the church beginning with baptism. This action proves the deity of the Holy Spirit (Fifth Theological Oration 28) in that only God can sanctify (deify) the person.

Gregory, in a fine attempt to explain his meaning, gives the example of the physical sun and its light. The light from the sun is not older than the sun itself nor is the sun older than its light. The illumination of light from the sun is the same as the sun. The light and the sun subsist together as one. By using this analogy, Gregory is stating that the Father, Son, and Spirit have one nature with distinct properties to their personhood.

Gregory’s Contribution to the Nicene Tradition

Gregory is known for his defense of the Trinity. His contributions to the study of pneumatology helped solidify the person of the Holy Spirit during the latter Arian controversy. Gregory establishes the differing relationships between the Son and Spirit by recognizing that the Spirit proceeds from the Father, whereas, the Son is begotten of the Father.

Basically, Gregory maintained the integrity of the Nicene Creed (325) by expounding the biblical language as the primary means of understanding God. For that matter, Gregory never wavered from the position that the Nicene Creed properly understood the person of Christ in relation to the Father. Gregory expanded this position by reading the Scriptures to be inclusive of the Holy Spirit in the internal relationships of the Trinity. Thus, Gregory reads scripture with the individual members being three distinct personages as one being. He understands the Father to be the source of the Trinity but not in a time-movement but an eternal existence. Thus, his theology stays within the bounds of the Nicene tradition of “belief in One God.”

Gregory’s trinitarian theology gave the Council of Constantinople (381) the impetus not to adapt the Nicene Creed but to expand upon the meaning of the Creed to reflect current trinitarian challenges of the day. For Gregory, the Trinity is the very core of the Christian life. The negative aspects of denying or relegating the Trinity to a secondary doctrine have devasting consequences for the Christian and the Church as there is no foundation for spiritual growth.


The influence of Gregory of Nazianzus impacted both the Eastern and Western churches. Rufinus translated Gregory’s writings, particularly his Orations, from Greek to Latin in 400 A.D. Gregory’s writings circulated throughout the empire, influencing Christian thought. By 431, the Council of Ephesus quoted Gregory as authoritative. By 451, the Council of Constantinople designated Gregory as a “theologian.” He is a saint in the Eastern Orthodox Church and considered a defender of the Faith. Gregory definitely influenced the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381, which finally considered Arianism as unorthodox. Perhaps Gregory’s greatest achievement is making known the Trinity as the foundation for the Christian life.


Marvin Jones

Marvin Jones (Ph.D., Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) teaches Theology and Church History at Louisiana College. He also is a pastor at First Baptist Church Hargis. Dr. Jones has written several books including, Athanasius’ Concept of Eternal Sonship as Revealed in Contra Arianos, Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact, Beginning of Baptist Ecclesiology: The Foundational Contributions of Thomas Helwysand Historical Christology for the Contemporary Church. Dr. Jones is married to Stacy and they have two children and a daughter-in-law.

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