Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Gregory of Nazianzus

A recent seminary graduate is the last person you should ask for doctrinal advice. At that point, the newly ordained is more like a college sophomore than a well-seasoned priest. He thinks he knows everything, but really he just remembers a lot of stuff from seminary that he hasn’t figured out how to apply yet. In time, he’ll realize the answers don’t come that easily.

It was at that point—right after I was ordained—that I received an e-mail from my best friend from childhood. We hadn’t communicated much in the past five years—only bumping into each other when both of us were home for the holidays—so I was glad to get his e-mail. But my joy turned to full-tilt rapture when I read what he was asking me. “Since you’ve been to seminary, I need to ask you something,” he wrote. “I’m in a Sunday school class, and the teacher said that Jesus is God, but that’s not right, is it? He’s God’s son, but he’s not God. There is only one God, right? Isn’t that what we learned in Sunday school?”

It was the perfect setup. I was being asked to defend orthodoxy against the perilous though well-intentioned inquiries of heresy. This was what I had been trained for. This was my chance to show off all that I knew and, more importantly, to save Christianity from the slow creep of heterodoxy that comes from a lack of substantial Christian formation at all levels. (Why aren’t we teaching our four-year-olds about the doctrine of the three hypostases?)

Since then, I’ve discovered that it isn’t easy being a Trinitarian. How do you explain to someone that God is one yet in three persons? How to you talk about the coeternal Son and Spirit even though they remain hidden in the Old Testament? If Jesus said that he was going to send the Spirit to earth to comfort his followers after he was gone, what can we say about the work of the Spirit before the Ascension? Where in the bible does it say that there is a Trinity?

Those questions are exactly the sort of issues that St. Gregoryof Nazianzus, whose feast day is today, dealt with in the fourth century. The premier Trinitarian theologian in the Church’s history, Nazianzen did as much to help us believe in God as three-in-one as anyone else. He has lots of ways of describing it, even inventing a whole new theological concept for the Spirit’s relationship with the Father—“spirated.” When it would have been easier to say that the three persons were of like substance, he insisted they were of same substance. When it would have been more popular to say that the Spirit came after the Father and Son, Gregory of Nazianzus insisted they were coeternal. When it would have been simpler to say that Christians are saved because their sins are paid for by the bloody cross, he claimed that we are saved because God assumed our nature and thus invites us into assimilation with the Holy Trinity.

The point of Nazianzen’s witness, though, isn’t simply the content of his teachings, which were remarkable. It was what he didn’t say about God that makes him a saint. He proclaimed that we cannot know God. There is no explanation or logic that can circumscribe the infinite God. In today’s post-Enlightenment world, in which we seek to explain and understand everything before we can believe in it, Nazianzen’s doctrine of the unknowable Trinity is refreshingly other. I find it odd to invite people to believe in something they cannot understand, but that’s the beauty of our faith.

The journey of faith starts at that place: we are not God. If God were something we could comprehend, then he would be something we could master. And that wouldn’t be God. As human beings, buffeted by hardship and disaster, we cling to a belief in something bigger and stronger than we are. Without that, God is nothing more than a pat on the back. In order for salvation to be real, we must have faith in that which we can never understand. And that’s hard for today’s Christian—to accept that we are giving our whole heart and soul over to something that we cannot explain. But isn’t that what faith is? If we understood it all, why would we call it faith?

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