Although Nazianzen insists that God’s nature is incomprehensible, he is willing to make general statements about God that were a part of his Christian and Greek heritage. He does not deny all assertions about deity, only those from his Arian opponents that demand God’s essence be encapsulated and clearly expressed in his being “unbegotten.” For Gregory, God’s titles could be gathered under the categories of power and providential ordering and related subsets under incarnational and non-incarnational acts. He can say positive things about God’s economy that indicate certain aspects of God himself.

On this basis Gregory refuses to say only what God is not: he rejects a via negativa. Any speaker must eventually say what the subject is. What Nazianzen combats is the later Arian one-word definition of the divine essence, as if all other words or statements of Scripture and tradition either must be viewed as synonymous with it or must be deduced from it. God’s nature, for him, is not so incomprehensible that God’s existence, goodness, power, providential ordering and his lack of composition, conflict, disorder and dissolution are unknown. Perhaps the Theologian could argue for a number of these attributes as established, but in most cases he asserts them with a sense that there will be little or no disagreement about the appropriateness of his claims. Philosophical justification of these descriptions is not his concern.

Frederick W. Norris, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: The Five Theological Orations of Gregory Nazianzen (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991), 41.

This is interesting and completely contradictory to what Pelikan argues in his book Christianity and Classical Culture. Although, when Pelikan wrote his book he quotes Nazianzen only to support Nyssen as was and still is the common way to treat Nazianzen. Maybe its time to stop referring to the Cappadocians as one coherent theological aggregate; as the Augustine of the East divided between three persons.


7 thoughts on “Gregory of Nazianzus against the Via Negativa

  1. Thanks for this citation. I have been immersing myself in the orations of St Gregory the past six months and have wondered about his understanding of the incomprehensibility of the divine essence.

    FWIW, I have started to share my own very amateurish (I’m not scholar!) ruminations on St Gregory over at my blog: Eclectic Orthodoxy ( I would welcome your comments, criticisms, suggestions.

    1. Fr Aidan, Thanks for your comment, and sorry for the late response. It’s always great to hear from someone else interested in Gregory. I’ll check out your blog and see what your doing. How far along in the Orations are you?

      1. Greetings, Ryan. I read the Theological Orations last spring, but I decided not to blog of them first. Instead I began my blogging with the Epiphany Orations, followed by Oration 20, 34 and 41. I hope to begin blogging on the Theological Orations next month, after the holidays. Please do visit my blog. I welcome your thoughts, insights, and criticisms. I am neither a patristic scholar nor theologian, just a retired (and tired) priest.

  2. Do you have access to Frederick Norris’ commentary on the Theological Orations (Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning, I haven’t worked my way through it, but the introduction was particularly helpful. I do have access to it, so if you ever want to know what he thinks, just shoot me an e-mail and if I get a chance I’ll see what I can find.

    Also, you may want to check out On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus if you haven’t yet (I just got it for Christmas: Some of the poems published in the book correspond to the Theological Orations and so might help bring out what Gregory took to be particularly important to his argument.

    1. I just recently obtained a copy of Norris’s book through ILL. I hope to tackle it this month, before I have to return it on Feb 1st. Thanks!

      Right now I’m trying to get a handle on the teachings of Eunomius. Unfortunately I lack the philosophical training to understand his theory of language, etc.

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