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Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God (Christopher A. Beeley)

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#1 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 24 July 2012 - 10:12 PM


Title: Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God
Author: Christopher A. Beeley
Publisher: Oxford University Press, 2008
ISBN-10: 0195313976.
ISBN-13: 978-0195313970.
Pages: 396
Price: $41.94
Links: Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble
Description: Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390 CE), "the Theologian," is the premier teacher on the Holy Trinity in Eastern Christian tradition, yet for over a century historians and theologians have largely neglected his work. Christopher Beeley's groundbreaking study -- the first comprehensive study in modern Western scholarship -- examines Gregory's doctrine of the Trinity within the full range of his theological and practical vision. Following an overview of Gregory's life and major works, Beeley traces the central soteriological meaning of Gregory's doctrine in the spiritual dialectic of purification and illumination; the dynamic process of divinization (theosis); the singular identity of Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God; the divinity and essential presence of the Holy Spirit; and the interpretation of Scripture "according to the Spirit." The book culminates in Gregory's understanding of the Trinity as a whole -- which is "theology" in the fullest sense -- rooted in the monarchy of God the Father and uniquely known in the divine economy of salvation. Finally, Beeley identifies the Trinitarian shape of pastoral ministry, on which Gregory is also the foundational teacher for later Christian tradition. Beeley offers new insights in several key areas, reinterpreting the famous Theological Orations and Christological epistles within the full corpus of Gregory's orations, poems, and letters. Gregory stands out as the leading ecclesiastical figure in the Eastern Roman Empire and the most powerful theologian of his age, who produced the definitive expression of Trinitarian orthodoxy from a characteristically Eastern tradition of Origenist theology, independent of the work of Athanasius and in several respects more insightful than his Cappadocian contemporaries. Long eclipsed in modern scholarship, Gregory Nazianzen is now brought into full view as the major witness to the Trinity among the Greek fathers of the Church.

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#2 Aidan Kimel

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 02:38 PM

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God by Christopher Beeley is one of the best theological works that I have read in a very long time. For one thing, Beeley is simply a very good writer. He writes clearly, directly, and comprehensibly. It is a refreshing to read a theologian who not only has a command of his material but has a command of the English language.

Beeley presents a synthetic look at the Trinitarian vision of St Gregory the Theologian. He does not restrict himself to the Five Theological Orations. His articulation of the theology of St Gregory is grounded in a thorough and deep reading of all of St Gregory's writings. This is crucial, for as Beeley remarks, if one restricts oneself to the Theological Orations, which are defensive and polemical in nature, one will get a skewed picture of St Gregory's theology. It's like reading the epistles of the Apostle Paul but never reading the gospels, yet thinking one has achieved a full grasp of the New Testament. After reading Beeley's book I am now eager to dig into the Festal Orations, in particular.

Beeley clearly loves St Gregory the Theologian, whom he describes as "the greatest theologian of the Christian fourth century." He believes that patristic scholarship of the past century has unfairly ignored St Gregory's theological contributions, as well as having advanced a distorted view of St Gregory by its reading of him through the lens of Sts. Basil and Gregory Nyssen, as if there existed a uniform Cappadocian theology. Beeley seeks to correct both of these problems. He wants us to hear the distinct voice of St Gregory the Theologian in all of its power and profundity. And he wants us to understand the great debt the Church owes to this man, who, while building on the work of Origen, St Athanasius, and St Basil, bequeathed to us the orthodox understanding of the Trinity that we confess today:

It was Gregory, more than anyone before him, who made the Trinity the centerpiece and the cardinal doctrine of orthodox Christianity. … Through his life's work as a pastoral, polemical, and literary theologian, Gregory contributed enormously to the construction of an explicit and unified Christian focus on the Trinity—the only theologian in Greek tradition comparable to Origen in terms of comprehensiveness, theological and exegetical acuity, and depth of vision. For Gregory, as for no one else before him, God is the Trinity: the unbegotten Father, source of the divine light, who eternally generates his equally brilliant Son and sends forth his equally brilliant Spirit, in whom and by whom God is known in the divine economy--all three being equally the object of devotion, the focus of theological reflection, and the subject of many a poem. Among his theological, ecclesiastical, and literary accomplishments, Gregory's greatest achievement and the just cause of his renown was to show with practical and theoretical skill that the divine light of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the very meaning of the Christian life and indeed of all creaturely existence.

Beeley devotes chapters to the following topics: Gregory's Life and Work, God and the Theologian, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, The Holy Spirit, The Trinity, Pastoral Ministry, Gregory Among the Fathers.

Beeley's book will raise a few questions for Eastern Orthodox readers, specifically on one question: May we know, in whatever limited fashion, the essence of the Triune God? Beeley believes that Gregory believes that God does indeed grant the baptized in this life true, though limited, knowledge of himself as he truly is. He thus sees a difference between St Gregory and St Basil of Caesarea on divine incomprehensibility and our knowledge of God:

In Against Eunomius Basil argues that humans have direct knowledge of God's energies alone, not (even partially) of God's essence. By comparison with Gregory's vivid mysticism of the divine light, Basil's is, in the end, a less fully participatory doctrine than Gregory's. Whereas Gregory joyously proclaims Christ to be the illumination of believers, the more they are purified and ascend to the divine Light, for Basil Christ's identity as Light also signifies the inaccessibility of the glory in the Divinity. In sum, Gregory has a stronger doctrine of revelation and a greater sense of theological unities.

I'm sure that scholars will want to engage in a lively debate with Beeley on this point. Assuming that Beeley is correct in his interpretation of Gregory (and he may not be), I would love to see a conversation between St Gregory, St Basil, and St Gregory Palamas.

Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God is a wonderful theological book. Christopher Beeley is to be congratulated for re-introducing St Gregory the Theologian to the world. I recommend it highly.

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