5 Great Sermons from Church History – #1 Gregory the Theologian on the Grandeur of God

This is the first installment of a five-part series called, “5 Great Sermons from Church History.” This is not meant to indicate that these are the greatest or the best sermons, or even the five most important in the history of the church. However, these sermons were selected based on historical significance, content, accessibility (both good translations and comprehensibility), and each as exemplary of the particular era in which it occurred. Given the scope, the five sermons stretch over the entirety of church history. Extreme redaction is unavoidable with such a project. Each of the entries will take a similar approach, namely: Brief background on speaker and sermon, redacted block quote to capture the heart of sermon, and brief commentary on the whole sermon.


GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS, ORATION 28 — “ON THE DOCTRINE OF GOD”

Brief Biography

Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 330–390), was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, who stand with the likes of Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, and Augustine as measuring sticks of patristic theology. Gregory was a friend to the two brothers Basil the Great (AD 329–379) and Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–390), bishop in Caesarea and bishop of Nyssa, respectively. Gregory of Nazaianzus was called the “Theologian,” and appropriately so.  Lionel Wickham admitted, “As bishop of Constantinople Gregory was a failure,[1]however, neither Wickham nor any other ecclesial historian minimizes the theological perspicacity or significance of this bishop. Gregory was, indeed, Theologian par excellence among the Cappadocian Fathers and his ecclesial contemporaries.

Gregory was baptized shortly after the Council of Nicea (325), as a catechumenate under the tutelage of Bishop Leontius of Caesarea, and was then ordained to the episcopate of Nazianzus in 329.[2]He stood out among his contemporaries given his unique combinations of abilities in rhetoric, theology, and linguistic style. Some of his most lasting works were his Five Theological Orations, dated between AD 379–381.[3]These orations necessarily go together, though not at the total loss of each standing individually as wellsprings of theology. The sermon of particular attention in this article is Oration 28, the second of the five.

Excerpt (Primary Source)

Well, now let us go forward to discuss the doctrine of God, dedicating our sermon to our sermon’s subjects, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, that the Father may approve, the Son aid, and the Holy Spirit inspire it—or rather that the single Godhead’s single radiance, by mysterious paradox one in its distinctions and distinct in its connectedness, may enlighten it. (1)…So we must begin again with this in mind….To tell of God is not possible, so my argument runs, but to know him is even less possible. (4)…to make plain the point my sermon began with, which was this: the incomprehensibility of deity to the human mind and its totally unimaginable grandeur. (11)… though every thinking being longs for God, the First Cause, it is powerless, for the reasons I have given, to grasp him.…Either it looks at things visible and makes of these a god—a gross mistake, for what visible thing is more sublime, more godlike, than its observer, and how more so, that it should be the object he the subject of worship?—or else it discovers God through the beauty and order of things seen, using sight as a guide to what transcends sight without losing God through the grandeur of what it sees. (13)…No one has yet discovered or ever shall discover what God is in his nature and essence. (17)…But, I beg you, admire the instinctive intelligence of unthinking beings [animals] and present your explanations. (25)…If you have understood the intelligence at work here and can explain it, turn your attention to the different kinds of plants, to the artistry displayed in their foliage, affording at once the maximum of pleasure to the eyes and of advantage to their fruit….Reason has no explanation of what upholds the world except the will of God. (26)…But now leave the earth and earthly themes, soar up into the air on the wings of your mind, letting the argument move forward on its path. (28)…Who made heaven rotate and set the stars in order? Can you tell me what heaven and the stars are? (29)…What do you say? Shall we stop our preaching here at matter and objects of sight?…Scripture recognizes the tabernacle of Moses as a symbol of the whole world…of things “visible and invisible”…You see how we become dizzy with the theme and can get no further than the stage of being aware of angels, archangels, thrones, dominions, princedoms, powers, of glowing lights, ascents, intellectual powers or minds, beings of nature pure and unalloyed. Fixed, almost incapable of changing for the worse, they encircle God, the First Cause, in their dance. What words can one use to hymn them? He makes them shine with purest brilliance or each with a different brilliance to match his nature’s rank. So strongly do they bear the shape and imprint of God’s beauty, that they become in their turn lights, able to give light to others by transmitting the stream that flows from the primal light of God.…they hymn God’s majesty in everlasting contemplation of everlasting glory…If our hymn has been worthy of its theme, it is the grace of the Trinity, of the Godhead one in three; if desire remains incompletely satisfied, that way too my argument can claim success. For it has been engaged in a struggle to prove that even the nature of beings on the second level is too much for our minds, let alone God’s primal and unique, not to say all-transcending, nature. (31)

Commentary

With its place as the second of the Five Orations, the first was introductory for the series, and this sermon, then, outlined both Gregory’s Trinitarianism and human knowledge of the Trinitarian God. In the next three sermons, two were given to defend the deity of the Son and one to that of the Holy Spirit.

In the current sermon, God, in his nature and essence, is ultimately unknowable. However, his ineffability is not a ruthless ploy of powerful, if not vindictive, God. Rather, by and because of his very nature God is unknowable. Gregory defended, nevertheless, that while God’s nature was unknowable, it could still be known to human beings that God existed (in his very same nature). The problem with knowing God, then, was not a deficiency on God’s part, but the revelatory outworking given the distinctiveness between an eternal God and finite human beings.

Again, this did not mean that God could not be known or known to exist by human beings. The point of Gregory in this sermon is quite the opposite. Human beings are always looking for God, but all too often are seeking after and replacing him with false gods. Moreover, the inability to know God was not limited to the perverse minds of those who reject him, replacing the creator with created things. Rather, even the prophets of the Old Testament and apostles of the New, knew not the nature or a total vision of God. So, Gregory explained, philosophy was hard to comprehend, but theology was even fuller—“like applying the reins suddenly to galloping horses, making them veer round with the surprise of the shock” (21).

Despite the incomprehensibility of God’s nature, his grandeur is shown all the more in that he made himself known. In order to show the supremacy, greatness, and beauty of God, Gregory took his listeners on a tour of the universe. He pondered with inexplicability how the seas ceased precisely in their place and took in all the rivers of the world yet remained constant in their capacity. He considered the terrestrial animals—the vast variety of types and sizes, their intelligence, and their abilities to move, survive, and produce offspring. He spoke with awe of the fish that fly through the sea, and the birds that fly through the air. He contemplated the beauty and artistry of flowers, trees, and foliage. He marveled at the sun, moon, and stars, and the incomprehensibility of their sheer magnitude. He wondered at the majesty of the incorporeal—angels, principalities, princedoms, light, intellectual powers, and the mind.

For Gregory, reason alone fell insufficiently short to explain how all the universe was held together with such order. The only explanation for the working together of everything was the will of God, who is incomparably grander than any of the (awe-inspiring) created things, visible or invisible. If the listener could hear this and recognize the beauty and transcendence of this Trinitarian God, then Gregory was satisfied in the work of the Spirit toward such an end. However, if upon hearing the listener was left dissatisfied at the ineffability of God, then Gregory was likewise pleased that the listener was rightly responding to the indescribable nature of the Triune God.

Gregory’s sermon stands as exemplary in showing the patristic wrestling with the unknowable God who has revealed himself in truth. He displayed the majesty of the transcendence of God, seen through the greatness of his creation. The Theologian praised the grandeur of God and defended his Trinitarian existence as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This sermon is a hallmark to the careful work (by God’s grace) of the church fathers to set the foundation of orthodox Trinitarian theology, in the midst of great controversy, and to leave a legacy of fearless defense in fear of the one true God, who is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

To purchase the recommended translation of this work (from which the excerpts here were taken), click here: https://www.amazon.com/God-Christ-Theological-Cledonius-Patristics/dp/0881412406


[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 10. Parenthetical references indicate the paragraph number of the sermon and not the page number of this volume.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3]Johannes Quasten, Patrology, vol. III (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1950), 240.

3 thoughts on “5 Great Sermons from Church History – #1 Gregory the Theologian on the Grandeur of God

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s