Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Theology: Nice or Nicene, Do we have to choose?

Creeds and Confessions

Gregory of Nazianzus – The Theological Orations – A Nicene Way of Doing Theology

Arguments from Philosophy

In the oration on the Father, Gregory poses many scenarios that move our minds to inquire into mysteries that our observations cannot penetrate. Gregory argues (p. 157) that scientific description provides a mechanical type of knowledge, but cannot claim to provide Wisdom.[1] In order to enter into Wisdom, a more sublime level of reflection is necessary. Gregory’s discussion implied that if we cannot penetrate the mysteries of creation by observation, we will certainly find ourselves frustrated if we attempt to understand heavenly realities through the same kind of simplistic use of observation and reason. Scripture informing reason is the approach he advocates.

Gregory also points out several false dichotomies in his opponents arguments. For example, the question of how the term “Beget” should be understood when used of the Father and the Son. Is the Son begotten of the Father as a matter of “essence” or as a matter of “action?” Eunomius seems to posit that in either case the divinity of the Son is discounted. If a matter of essence, then God is divided and therefore must in fact be something less than God; if a matter of action, then the Son is a creation and not eternal – there is a when when the Son was not. To this point, Gregory points out that these are not the only ways the term “Begotten” must be understood, in fact the best way is the Scriptural way of “relationship”. Begotten describes the eternal relationship between the Father and the Son. Even so, Gregory also postulates ways that even essence and action both may be understood piously, and this portion of the argument hints at a Nicene way of doing theology. The terms are not necessarily the essential issue, but what is meant, implied, included, and excluded about God in the terms. We saw this with the term homoousius in the previous discussion, when originally introduced it was used to promote Saballianism, but was incorporated into the Orthodox Nicene Creed under a new interpretation.

In fact, Gregory cites an extensive list of terms which have entered the Christological controversies to this point and essentially sweeps them all into the summary statement:

“What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that nature in him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of him wo for your sakes made himself of no reputation and was incarnate—yes, for it is no worse thing to say—was made man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and groveling doctrines, and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with his Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to his nature, and which to his assumption of the human nature.” (173)

Arguments from Scripture in the Fourth Oration

Along with the discussions of Proverbs 8 and Philippians 2 familiar from Athanasius’ treatment, Gregory takes up passages which use the term “until” with relation to the Parousia, as though Christ’s Heavenly Reign would end at that point, but as other Scriptures assert and the Nicene faith affirms, Christ’s Kingdom is “without end”; therefore, the term “until” should not be understood as excluding Christ’s continued reign after the Parousia, but simply to affirm that the Son of God will not be conducting continued post resurrection appearances as He did during the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension, instead He must remain to reign in heaven until the Parousia. Nicene theology guides the understanding of the term “until” and provides teaching on what type of Real Presence Christ’s disciples should expect during the interregnum. 

Proposal for a Nicene approach to theology

In the first oration, Gregory speaks of the faith channeling the flowing water of the thought implying that the Nicene theology provides banks within which Orthodox Christian teaching flows. To that end, the teaching of individual passages will affirm the Triune Godhead. Each person of the Godhead is distinct, yet all share the essential unity of God. Further, the Son takes into the divine Godhead the human nature received from His mother, Mary, whereby it is proper to refer to her as the theotokos. References to the Son which indicate any type of subordinate position or work do not subordinate Him as regards His divinity, but instead relate to the human nature for our sakes and for our salvation. These references indicate Christ’s unity with us men, in our human nature, bear our sins willingly and innocently, be our Savior, earn for us and deliver to us eternal life.

Further Considerations

In the introductory oration, Gregory elaborates on the question of theology stemming from impiety. True Theology is only possible under certain idyllic conditions. For the theologian’s thoughts to be aligned with the Truth, such thoughts must be free of sin (“pure”); they must originate from a serious mind; theology requires deliberate, thoughtful reflection; finally, it must seek to give honor and glory to God and to His Word. This opening description made me consider the many pastoral, evangelistic, and apologetic conversations I have had with people who seemingly took great delight in positioning themselves as scoffers – modern scientific people who had no intention of being taken in by superstitious Christianity. It appeared that they were getting much of their material from Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins by way of Bill Maher.

More recently, this past weekend, another college Biology professor published an opinion piece on Evolutionary Biology and Religious Faith.
I bring this up simply because it is a very common conversation in our congregations and Gregory’s discussion presents a few thoughts.

A simplistic reading of his list of questions might lead an empiricist to equate Gregory’s mode of argument with a “God of the gaps” approach. Empiricists love this approach because it puts the question of God within the realm of the creation. “If we can fill in the gaps,” they argue, “we can eliminate the consideration that God exists.” There will essentially be no more reason to need God in order to explain the way things work. While this is an exceptionally poor theological or philosophical argument, it is a very effective pragmatic argument because, by and large, Lutheran Teenagers are ill equipped to think through the shallowness of this argument. Scoffers get them to buy into the God of the Gaps argument by citing it as a classic Christian argument and then posit that all or most of the gaps are now gone based on improved modes of observation through technology. However, if we were to grant that everything about creation could be described by means of observation, how would that actually prove the non-existence of God who stands outside of creation? Such an argument still assumes that we are expecting to leave earth’s orbit and find God in space; yet, Christians still allow this kind of argument to “make them squirm.”

Further, however, is the question how to conduct ourselves in relation to scoffers. On the one hand, if we are remotely dismissive we come communicate arrogance; on the other hand, if we are too lenient, we give credence to their arguments, especially as people who may be close by generally have very short attention spans and may only listen in until the first verbal blow is struck.

[1] Hardy, p. 157, “For, granted that you understand orbits and periods,… and all the other things which make you so proud of your wonderful knowledge, you have not arrived at comprehension of the realities themselves, but only at an observation of some movement,… But if you are very scientific on this subject, and have a just claim to admiration, tell me, what is the cause of this order and this movement?” Gregory then does touch on “First Cause” considerations on the following pages.