“The divine nature cannot be apprehended by human reason” (St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Second Theological Oration, pt. 11)
When discussing the issue as to whether or not God can be comprehended St. Gregory of Nazianzus maintains that, “it is impossible to express him, and yet more impossible to conceive him” (STO, pt. 4). St. Gregory is compelled to address this question due to the theological controversy revolving around the doctrines of Eunomius. Eunomius taught that mankind could comprehend the essence of God by means of the title ‘unbegotten.’ For Eunomius, “the divine name [is] something as an emanation of the divine essence. Human beings simply receive this emanation, whose material expression is the word ‘unbegotten,’ and confess the reality with they passively receive” (Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, pg. 167). The term ‘unbegotten’ delineates the divine essence and grants men a knowledge of the divine essence through it. For St. Gregory there is nothing which is able to contain the entirety of the divine nature; when discussing the concept of the nature of God being incorporeal he says, “but this term ‘incorporeal,’ though granted, does not yet set before us – or contain within itself – his essence, any more than ‘unbegotten,’ or ‘unoriginate,’ or ‘unchanging,’ or ‘incorruptible,’ or any other predicate which is used concerning God or in reference to him” (STO, pt. 9). It is in response to this doctrine of the know-ability of the essence of God that St. Gregory wrote his second theological oration.
St. Gregory’s own approach to the subject of the knowledge of the essence of God is fundamentally apophatic; ie: to describe God by negation. As he begins his oration he describes his contemplation of God using imagery of ascending Mount Sinai into the dark cloud containing the presence of God while being sheltered by the Rock striving to behold the nature of God (invoking to his hearers Ex. 24:18, 33:17-23), “and when I looked a little closer I saw, not the first and unmingled nature, known to itself – to the Trinity I mean; not that which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the cherubim; but only that nature , which at last reaches even us” (STO, pt. 3). In the description of his spiritual contemplation St. Gregory reveals a distinction between two different natures within God; one which is incomprehensible, being known by the members of the Trinity alone, and one which reaches down to created beings. Since the time of St. Gregory Palamas (14th) Eastern theology has defined these two natures of God as being the ‘essence’ and the ‘energies’ of God; the notable 20th century Russian-emigre theologian Vladimir Lossky says that the, “distinction is that between the essence of God, or His nature, properly co-called, which is inaccessible, unknowable and incommunicable; and the energies or divine operations, forces proper to and inseparable from God’s essence, in which He goes forth from Himself, communicates, and gives Himself” (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, ch. 4, pg. 70). St. Gregory of Nazianzus affirms that we know God not through (to use his language) His ‘first nature’ but through the ‘nature which reaches us’ which he describes as, “the back parts of God, which he leaves behind him, as tokens of himself, like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun himself, for by his unmixed light he is too strong for our power of perception” (STO, pt. 3). Elsewhere when he speaks about the nature of God he speaks in apophatic terms such as ‘incomprehensible,’ ‘illimitable,’ ‘infinite,’ ‘intangible, ‘invisible,’ among other negative terms. He shouldn’t be thought of being exclusively apophatic however; he states that it is necessary to, “go beyond [saying] what he is not, and say what he is” (STO, pt. 9).
The Cosmos as Icon.
Having laid down his apophatic context in the approach the knowledge of the essence of God St. Gregory begins to rhetorically ask his opponents, the Eunomians, what it is that they conceive God to be. St. Gregory had already asserted that not only is the nature of God incomprehensible but even in respect to an accurate knowledge of creation we comprehend only in a very small degree (see STO, pt. 5). Since it is that which is created, ie: material, that we have some degree of comprehension he asks his opponents if God is a body. Through a series of arguments he establishes, like Origen before him in the 3rd century, that God is incorporeal, immutable, and everywhere present (see STO, pts. 7-9) as well as uncircumscribed (see STO, pt. 10). Since the nature of God transcends all corporeal categories it is impossible to conceive of him since we are corporeal. Due to our dense carnal nature, “it is quite impossible for those who are in the body to be conversant with object of pure thought apart altogether from bodily objects,” (STO, pt. 12) and thus, “our mind faints to transcend corporeal things, and to consort with the incorporeal, stripped of all clothing of corporeal ideas, as long as it has to look with its inherent weakness at things above its strength” (STO, pt. 13). Due to this many have decided to simply look at visible things and make gods out of them or, “through the beauty and order of visible things to attain to that which is above sight” (STO, pt. 13). The proper way to come towards to knowledge of God for St. Gregory is to contemplate the beauty and order and creation and to allow it to lead the mind beyond towards it’s creator, “now our very eyes and the law of nature teach us that God exists and that he is the efficient and maintaining cause of all things” (STO, pt. 6). St. Gregory not only advocates a form of ‘natural theology’ here but by looking at the order and beauty of creation develops cosmological arguments for it’s origins, “how could this universe have come into being or been put together unless God had called it into existence, and held it together?” (STO, pt. 6). While the nature of God is left to the realm of silence and incomprehension nonetheless we are able to go beyond saying what He is not to make some positive statements about Him through the order and beauty of creation; creation points beyond itself as an icon towards it’s Fashioner and Maintainer.
The Ascent to the Knowledge of God.
The climax of St. Gregory’s oration comes in the final points where he ascends from the knowledge of man towards the knowledge of God (see STO, pts. 22-31). The order of this passage moves forward in a reversal of the creation narrative; starting where the Genesis narrative ends; with man. He begins the passage stating that the subject of God is more difficult than any other so turns instead towards the constitution of man and nature. Moving beyond man he muses next on the animals that walk the earth then on the fish, the birds, and the insects. He moves on to the trees and the plants, the rivers, the mountains, and the surface of the earth itself. Next he moves upwards to the skies, clouds, thunder, and rains until he reaches the very space itself, filled with the sun, the moon, and the stars. Leaving the material realm behind he moves on to the realm of the incorporeal and the angels. Throughout his treatment of the material creation St. Gregory displays an impressive amount of scientific knowledge regarding all of the subjects that he treats. As he moves on to the incorporeal he says very little before rhetorically asking, “do you see how we get dizzy over this subject, and cannot advance to any point, unless it be as far as this” (STO, pt. 31). As he approaches the very knowledge of God he ends his oration with these words, “this is what we were laboring to show, that even the secondary natures surpass the power of our intellect; much more then the first and (for I fear to say merely that which is above all) the only nature” (STO, pt. 31). The final passages of the oration display clearly the points St. Gregory had mad earlier in his oration regarding the knowledge of creation and man. He maintains that we hold only a small degree of knowledge concerning creation and thus as he speaks on the various elements of creation he displays and degree of knowledge concerning his subjects yet he treats them in the manner of asking a question (for example,”how is it that the earth stands solid and unswerving?” STO, pt. 26). When he reaches finally the knowledge of God, to which he maintains is beyond human comprehension, he remains silent.