Ekphrasis and Epistemology in Gregory of Nazianzus

I recently participated in a competition where I had to take the conference paper I delivered at the 2015 International Conference on Patristic Studies at Oxford and turn it into a poster. It was an interesting exercise and I enjoyed it more than I originally thought I would. So here is my poster that represents my paper, “Ekphrasis and Epistemology in Gregory of Nazianzus.”

Ekphrasis Poster


One Swallow Does Not a Platonist Make

In his book Image, Word and God in the Early Christian Centuries, Mark Edwards makes the following observation about Philo:

Philo is counted among the middle Platonists—he is indeed the author of more than half the extant writings which fall under this description—but he was also a Jew and a sedulously observant one, the legatee of a wisdom centuries older than the oldest traditions of Greece. Commentarie on the first five books of the Septuagint make up the greater part of his work, and the few surviving texts that are not exegetic are celebrations of peculiarly austere modes of discipleship or vindications of the Jewish people in the teeth of oppression and mockery. ‘Platonist’ is therefore not the best term for him if a Platonist is one who professes to navigate by resaons alone with Plato as his lodestar.”

That last line is particularly interesting. Is that a sufficient definition of what is means to be a ‘platonist’? I’ve been wondering about how to identify platonists for a while now and still am undecided. Besides Edwards’s, I’ve come up with the following options:

  1. School Adherence: This would mean that one is a Platonist if and only if one is associated with a Platonic school. This has the benefit of clear boundary markers but requires a type of “apostolic” succession to succeed. This would mean that there have been no platonists anymore after the closing of the school by Justinian (or maybe even earlier with the death of Philo of Larissa).
  2. Doctrinal Aggregate: By this I mean one determines what a “true” Platonist believes—perhaps identified with Plato himself—and judge everyone else according to this standard. Again, this seems to make it easy for establishing clear boundary markers, but there are problems. First, if “everything Plato believed” is the standard then, historically, Plato was the only Platonists. However, there are many who not only call themselves Platonists but hold to many of the same beliefs as Plato. Must one hold to everything Plato believed? If not, then at what point would one cease to be a platonist? Must one hold to at least three-quarters of Platonic doctrine? One-half? Three-eighths? Is one shared doctrine enough to establish one’s platonism? Platonism on this account then seems to become a vague concept (like baldness): everyone knows it when they see it but there is no clear marker of when one goes from not-platonist to platonist. If one wants to use platonism as an adjective to map out various thinkers, I think one would have a very confused map on this account.
  3. Conceptual Convergence: By convergence, I mean that two people could hold similar beliefs for different reasons and never know anything about the other person. There is much to this that I like. Individuals are allowed the freedom to articulate their own beliefs without needing to have some genealogy of influence. Even if we know, for example, that Philo knew the doctrines of Plato, it does not mean that he merely passively received beliefs. I’ve actually experienced something like this myself in the past. I was working on a paper for a class only to find—after the whole thing was over—that another author whom I did not read ended up saying what I was trying to say all along (and did a better job of it, too!).
  4. Ur-Platonism: Ur-Platonism is the term coined by Lloyd Gerson in his book From Plato to Platonism. Here he argues that all Platonists can be subsumed under this category that is marked by a commitment to anti-materialism, anti-mechanism, anti-nominalism, anti-relativism, and anti-skepticism. This is also an idea I find attractive but haven’t gotten into Gerson’s book so it’s hard for me to evaluate here. Some of the reviews I’ve read suggested that it may not fit nicely into the actual history of Platonism, but if there are only a few exceptions to his rule it could still be a profitable heuristic.

Are there any other options that I’m missing?

Scholia on Gregory of Nazianzus

A helpful resource on the commentators on Gregory of Nazianzus is Jan Sajdak’s Historia Critica Scholiastarum et Commentartorum Gregorii Nazianzeni (freely available in PDF here). At the end of the work, Sajdak has a wonderful table that lists Gregory’s works and shows which commentators commented on which work. So, if you want to know what others thought of Gregory’s work it lets you know where to look! I excerpted the relevant pages for your researching pleasure.

View this document on Scribd

Not Your Father’s Enthymeme

I first learned about enthymeme’s from Frederick Norris’s excellent commentary on Gregory of Nazianzus’s Theological Orations, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, which needs to be reprinted in paperback for the general betterment of humankind. Norris defines an enthymeme as a rhetorical syllogism: a syllogism that has one of its premises unstated as it is assumed to be supplied by the audience. But this “missing premise” definition is, at least according to James Allen in his book Inference from Signs: Ancient Debates about the Nature of Evidence, not really what an enthymeme is about.

It would be a mistake to picture the orator trimming  premisses from full-blown categorical syllogisms that he has first framed before his mind’s eye in order to present them in the form suitable to the rhetorical occasion (p. 24).

Inference from SignsSo then what is an enthymeme? And why is one of the premises so often missing?

Enthymemes are the rhetorical counterpart to dialectic’s syllogisms (likewise, paradigms are the rhetorical counterpart to induction) (p. 19). However, they are not concerned with valid deduction, but reputable (ἔνδοξος) arguments (p. 20). An enthymeme is further divided between 1) enthymemes from likelihoods and 2) enthymemes from signs (Rhet. 1.2 [70a9–11; 1357a32–3]), the former being a more reputable form of enthymematic argument (p. 23). What is a likelihood? That, Aristotle says (Rhet. 1.2, 1357a34), is “something people know comes to be or not for the most part” (p. 23).

An enthymeme from likelihoods is an argument bringing a particular case under an acknowledged general rule permitting exceptions (1357a34–b1) (p. 23).

What is a sign? For Aristotle (An. pr. 2.27, 70a7), a sign is “a premiss that is or is such as to be reputable (ἔνδοξος)” (p. 23). In an enthymeme from signs,

the sign—a particular fact or alleged fact—is put forward as a ground for the conclusion of which the orator wishes to convince his audience (p. 23).

How does this affect the shape of the enthymeme? Allen says (p. 25) that

In an enthymeme from likelihoods the crucial element on which the argument turns is the generalization under which the particular item in question is being brought. This must in all cases be stated, while the minor premiss, which states that the subject term of the major premiss belongs to the item under discussion, can and often will go without saying. And it is the generalization stated in the major premiss that is also the potential object of controversy. An orator who needs to oppose an argument from likelihood will try to show that his opponent’s conclusion is not likely because it is based on a generalization that is false or in some way not appropriate to the case at hand . . . By contrast, he will treat the syllogistic structure of this argument and the truth of its minor premiss as unproblematic. This is what it is to treat an argument as an argument from likelihood, and to evaluate its merits and faults as such.

In the case of an argument from signs, on the other hand, the new element on which the argument is seen to hinge will be the new piece of evidence to which the orator wishes to direct his auditors’ attention and which counts as evidence against a background of uncontroversial assumptions. If we concentrate for the moment on the relatively simple case of the valid first-figure sign-inference [i.e., Barbara], it is clear that the sign functions as a ground in this way in virtue of what we should call a covering generalization (cf. An. pr. 1.32, 47a16–27). And it is this covering generalization, e.g. that the feverish are ill, formulated in the major premiss, that is typically treated as part of the background of uncontentious assumptions in virtue of which the sign is able to serve as evidence for the conclusion at issue. For this reason, it can and typically will be omitted in the presentation of the sign-inference.

So, Allen is arguing that a missing premise is not the definition of an enthymeme, but a characteristic of it. What premise is assumed (and so missing), depends on the type of enthymematic argument being pursued. If one is arguing from likelihood, the minor premise may be assumed (and so not explicitly stated), whereas if one argues from a sign, then the major premise may be assumed (and so not explicitly stated).

Interestingly, only one type of sign-inference is valid, which Aristotle calls a token (τεκμήριον). This takes the Barbara form. Aristotle’s example is:

P1: All those with fever are ill.
P2: This man has fever (the sign)
C: Therefore he is ill

The two other sign-inferences (not given a technical name but associated with Cesare and Darapti respectively) Aristotle says are invalid, but according to Allen, they are still enthymemes (Rhet. 1357a27–32; b5, 14, 22; cf. 1403a11) (pp. 28, 30). This adds to his argument that it is wrong to define an enthymeme merely as a syllogism with one of the premises because some enthymemes are not valid syllogisms but are still, in Allen’s argument, reputable (ἔνδοξος, though Aristotle does not specifically state this) (p. 30).

Theology within Quotation Marks

In his essay “Philosophy within Quotation Marks,” reprinted in Method and Metaphysics: Essays in Ancient Philosophy I (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 23–42, Jonathan Barnes weighs in on a disputatio (his word) between Jacques Brunschwig and Pierre Aubenque about the legitimacy of a non-philosophical historian of philosophy. At the end of his essays, Barnes doesn’t draw a conclusion but offers four “glosses,” the first (p. 42) of which is:

First, though I am convinced that a good interpreter of philosophy will philosophize, I do not think that in this respect the history of philosophy is a special sort of discipline. On the contrary, everything I have said about the history of philosophy can be said, mutatis mutandi, about any other sort of interpretation whatsoever. Indeed, so far as I can see there are no interesting differences between the interpretation of ancient philosophy and the interpretation of ancient geometry—or the interpretation of yesterday’s Times. There are certain practical difficulties which confront interpreters of other stripes. But that does not show any essential difference between the interpretation of philosophical texts and the interpretation of non-philosophical texts. An historian of philosophy ought to philosophize because any interpreter ought to be ready to invoke material reasons in favour of his interpretations.

Since I am a historian of theology, I’m led to ask: do historians of theology have to theologize if only “to invoke material reasons in favor if his (or her!) interpretation?” Barnes would seem to say “yes,” but this doesn’t surprise me if one is working in the history of ideas. But what about studies of late antiquity outside of the history of ideas? Is theologizing excluded from this, or is it necessary constituent of it, at least in the sense that Barnes has articulated in his last sentence?


Is Lack of Evidence the End or the Beginning?

One of the many things that I appreciated about Markschies book Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire is his willingness to refrain from speculation where there isn’t any evidence. Many times he would begin to say something about the lack of evidence for something and I would expect him to then give some sort of qualified speculative guess only to be sadly disappointed. I was shocked to see someone just stop and admit that we don’t—and probably—can’t know.

A German friend said that this is not uncommon for German historians. A lack of evidence is where a German historian ends and where German biblical scholars begin. He was joking—I think. Anyways, what to do with absence of evidence is a constant struggle that I have not only as I do history but also in life in general. I find that I am daily confronted with a striking absence of evidence from which I am supposed to draw some sort of conclusion. How should I go about that? Or, is there a point at which I must stop and say, “this far and no further”? A little bit of evidence is a dangerous thing if one does not know how to move from that little bit of information to conclude something for which one has no direct evidence.

Of course, this has been a problem since the beginning of time (sorry, currently grading papers…). Actually, I should say this is a problem that has been addressed in various ways in classical Greek literature. The first that comes to mind is the eikos argument in the rhetorical tradition. I’ve written on this before, but briefly put, the eikos argument is an argument from probability. Is it more likely that so and so, being of a certain character type, did X than Y? An early example of this is Homer’s Hymn to Hermes, in which he relates a story of Hermes stealing some cattle from Apollo who subsequently takes him to court (i.e., before Zeus). In an elaborate speech, Hermes characterizes himself as a small and weak child, asking the judge if he looks like (ἔοικα) a mighty man who herds cattle. Hermes is arguing that he couldn’t have stolen the cattle because only a mighty man could do such a thing, and he looks nothing like a mighty man. We might think this type of reasoning is weak and rhetorically manipulative, but it’s a persistent form of argument that is not difficult to find. I think the contemporary title for it is “the internet.”

Inference from SignsThis question was also addressed extensively by the philosophical schools. James Allen, in his book Inference from Signs: Ancient Debates about the Nature of Evidence, gives good summaries of how various philosophical schools (Aristotle, the Epicureans, the Stoics, the Skeptics, and the medical schools [Rationalists and Empiricists]) answered this question. I’m excited to jump into this book and see the different approaches to “inference from signs.” I’ll blog about it if I’m able.


On Death

My last post was unusually personal for my blog, but I have been thinking about death more than usual lately. Early Christian authors often reflect on death and dying, more so than I think we do today.

For example, Gregory of Nazianzus’s wrote four funeral orations: three were for his family (his brother Caesarius, his sister Gorgonia, and his father Gregory), and one—and perhaps one of his greatest orations—was for his friend Basil of Caesarea. Gregory also wrote many epitaphs for himself and others. Two-hundred fifty-four are preserved in the Palantine MS and are translated in volume II, book 8 of the Loeb Greek Anthology.

Also, this year The Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies is co-sponsoring with The Center for Scriptural Exegesis, Philosophy, and Doctrine (Mundelein Seminary) and the Chicago Theological Initiative a colloquium On Christian Dying. The colloquium will take place on March 17–18. Here is the schedule:

Thursday, March 17th
9:30—12:00 Gilbert Meilaender (Valparaiso University)
Paul L. Gavrilyuk (University of St. Thomas)
Michel Barnes (Marquette University)
12:00—2:00 Lunch
2:00—4:30 Sheryl Overmyer (DePaul University)
Cyril O’Regan (University of Notre Dame)
Marcus Plested (Marquette University)
5:00—7:00 Dinner
7:30—9:00 Public Lecture
John Cavadini (University of Notre Dame)
Friday, March 18th
9:30—12:00 Brian E. Daley (University of Notre Dame)
Brent Waters (Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary)
Mark McIntosh (Loyola University Chicago)
12:00—1:30 Lunch
1:30—4:00 Marc Cortez (Wheaton College)
Cherith Fee Nordling (Northern Seminary)
David Luy (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)

[N.B.– The colloquium is limited to 75 people, but the public lecture by John Cavadini is free and open to the public; I will be posting more information on that in the near future]

To be honest, when I heard of the topic for the colloquium last year, I wasn’t that excited. However, as my grandfather’s passing drew near, I began to realize how little death and dying is discussed in contemporary theology. There are exceptions, but it seems to me that it doesn’t occupy the attention of modern theologians as much as it did early Christian writers. It seems to me that a theology that neglects death and dying isn’t doing it’s job.

Finally, here is a interview with Dr. Ellen Muehlberger on the topic of death and repentance in early Christianity that is worth a listen.

On My Grandfather’s Passing

Last week I attended my grandfather’s funeral and had the chance to speak for a few minutes. I had the blessing of having both set of grandparents for most of my life, only to lose them in the last ten years. In many ways, what I said about my grandfather applies to them all. I forgot some of what I wanted to say when I spoke, so here is a slightly expanded version of what I said:

I was told to be brief, so I will be succinct—just like my grandpa.*

One of the saddest stories I’ve ever read is Lord of the Rings. Sad because you get to walk with Frodo through the good, the bad, and, sometimes, the very very boring. Then Frodo boards the ship and sails into the west. You turn the last page and close the book. His story is done.

Now I only knew my grandpa for a third of his life, so I had to learn to walk with him through the stories that he and other people told me about his life. Stories of growing up on a farm in Indiana. Stories of meeting my grandma. Stories of serving as a cook and driving the chaplain around in Korea (and even getting kissed by Debbie Reynolds). Stories of starting a family, of living with a wife, four daughters, a mother-in-law, and a sister-in-law—all at the same time! Stories of working day and night to provide for his family.

Then there are the stories that I remember. Stories of our vacations to see him in Tennessee. Of moving back to Michigan—I vividly remember helping my grandparents move into their new house. Of mentoring my cousin and helping him get his life back on track before his untimely death in 2007. Of his love for the Detroit Tigers: listening to the radio broadcast of the game and keeping his own stats even when he was at the stadium! Or the time he called my dad in the final minutes of the 2000 NCAA mens basketball championship to tell him that Tigers started spring training. Then there was that subtle smirk that would appear when he asked you if you knew of or about “X”, which meant he was about to tell a joke. And finally, the stories of the sudden death of his wife and of his battle against cancer.

But now he has turned the last page and closed the book. His story is done.

Actually, if you knew my grandpa, you would know that he would say that his story is not done. You see, at the end of Lord of the Rings, Frodo says goodbye to his friend Sam, the one who has travelled with him through the good, the bad, and the boring. When Frodo boards the ship and sails to the undying lands in the West, Sam returns home and starts a family. But those who read the appendices know that after Sam has lived his life and grown old, he too boards a ship and sails to the undying lands in the West.

If you knew my grandpa, you would know that he would say that if you know Jesus, you too will one day board a ship and sail to undying lands as he has. My grandpa would say that his story isn’t done. His story has just begun.

*My grandfather was never succinct.


On Diversity in Early Christianity

Christian Theology and Its InstiutionsI’m slowly working my way through Christoph Markschies magnificent book Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology (see other posts here and here). I wanted to summarize what I take to be an important part of his argument for explaining diversity (and unity) in early Christianity. I’ve only finished chapter two, so I will have to see if my summary matches up with what comes later in the book.

As I said before, Markschies makes two important points about institutions:

  1.  The definition of what counts as an institution needs to be broader than it was in the days of Harnack, et al. to incorporate a wider array of relevant phenomenon.
  2. Institutions are where new ideas are embodied. I take this to mean that when new ideas arise, they will naturally become institutionalized in some way. Without institutions, new ideas cannot survive.

With these two points in mind, Markshies examines three different institutions found in early Christianity (this is by no means meant to be exhaustive):

  1. Free teachers and Christian schools (31–91)
  2. The Monanist prophets and their circle (91–116)
  3. The Christian worship service and its prayers (116–187)

I’m not going to summarize each of these sections, which are each well-researched case studies which seek to attend to the culural and ideological surroundings within which these particular insitutions flourished. It is worth the time working through, and I will say that he shows considerable restraint when he refuses to speculate where there is no evidence, which is quite refreshing. What Markschies shows is that in each of these institutions, the “new idea” of Christianity embodied itself in particular ways appropriate to its context and audience. The audience of the popular philosopher Justin Martyr differs from the classroom of Origin. These differ from the Monanists, who show both similarities and dissimilarities to pagan oracles and prophets, and their audience. And finally the more widespread Christian worship service whose theology (remember his definition of theology!) was articulated for an audience that differed (generally speaking) from the schools and the prophets.

If the question of diversity in early Christianity is framed this way, it then becomes clear why we see diversity in early Christianity. Different contexts and different audiences’s call for different types of discourse. As much as some might like Origen’s school to be representative of early Christian theology [author’s note: guilty!], it would be misleading to try and analyze the other institutions in the terms and discourse of it because such an analysis cannot attend to the ways in which each institution seeks to institutionalize the new idea of Christianity in its particular context with a particular audience in mind. Or at least the picture that such an analysis creates will lack sufficient explanatory power.

Gregory of Nazianzus’s Christmas Sermon

I have posted an English translation of Gregory of Nazianzus’s Oration 38 – On the Theophany from the Nicene Post-Nicene Series. It works (and it’s public domain), but I would highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of either Brian Daley‘s or Nonna Verna Harrison‘s translation.

I would hazard a guess that for majority of English speakers who have heard of Gregory have heard of him only for his Theological Orations (Orations 27–31). While these are important, I have come to appreciate his so-called festal orations maybe even more, especially Oration 38. Indeed, as I worked through this Oration for my research, I began to see how in many ways Gregory recapitulates his arguments from the Theological Orations in the form of a panegyric (a speech given at a festival celebrating someone or something). It is truly remarkable how Gregory is able to articulate the same ideas in very(!) different styles.

I outline the oration in the following way:

  1. §1–6: Introduction (Προοίμιον)
    • Here Gregory introduces his oration. Two key features of this long introduction are 1) the paradoxical nature of the incarnation, i.e., the coming together of the heavenly and earthly realms, and that for our salvation and 2) the supriority of Christian festivals over Greek festivals.
  2. §7–16: Narration (Διήγησις)
    1. §7–8: Birth (Γένος)
      • A panegyric usually includes some account of lineage to demonstrate either that they came from good stock or that, despite humble beginnings, the individual accomplished much (rhetoricians can spin anything). Since Gregory thinks Jesus doesn’t have a lineage like the Greek gods he begins with a discussion on the infinite transcendent divine nature (again, remember the paradox set out in the introduction).
    2. §9–13: Acts (Πράξις)
      • A panegyric usually focuses on the acts of the individual which demonstrate their virtue. Here Gregory takes his time describing the goodness of God in not only creating a spiritual realm (which is similar to God), but also of creating a material realm (which is other than God). Above all, God crowned creation by mixing together these two realms in humanity. Even though humanity fell, God, like a good doctor, tried every remedy possible until at last the greatest wonder of all by which we are saved: God became incarnate. “O new mixture, O paradoxical fusion!”
    3. §14–16: Comparison (Σύγκρισις)
      • After a rousing virtuoso climax in §13, Gregory turns to answer objections—principally Eunomian objections I think—to the idea that God became incarnate. This might not properly be called a comparison, but I think he is in some ways comparing his view of God incarnate with that of those who deny it.
  3. §17–18: Conclusion (Ἐπίλογος)
    • Here Gregory finally gets to an actual description of the birth of Christ and calls us, as is common in a panegyric to virtuous imitation.