Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity

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Today I’m sharing one of my favorite quotes from Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity. Gregory of Nazianzus was a fourth century Bishop who helped defend and articulate the Scriptural understanding of the Trinity.

By way of preface, I have two thoughts:

1. I want to encourage my readers to see this quote, not as speculation, but as prayerful and reasoned contemplation on the Trinity.

2. The Trinity is not an abstract doctrine that has little to do with life, on the contrary, when a person becomes a Christain, they are caught up in the life of the Trinity. When someone confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, they do so through the work fo the Holy Spirit, and to the glory of the Father. We confess Jesus and believe in him by faith, and when we ,do we are brought into his eternal relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. For our salvation to truly be salvation, Jesus must be God, the Holy Spirit must be God, and the Father must be God, and not three Gods, but one God.

With this in mind here is the quote:

I give as a companion and protector for all your life, the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three and gathering together the three as distinct; neither uneven in essences or natures, nor increased or decreased by superiorities or inferiorities; from every perspective equal, from every perspective the same, as the beauty and greatness of heaven is one; an infinite coalescence of three infinites; each God when considered in himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Spirit; each preserving his properties. The three are God when known together, each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy.

When I first know the one, I am also illumined from all sides by the three; when I first distinguish the three, I am also carried back to the one. When I picture one of the three, I consider this the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part has escaped me. I cannot grasp the greatness of the one so as to grant something greater to the rest. When I bring the three together in contemplation, I see a torch and am unable to divide or measure the united light. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40.41.

The first thing to note is that confession occurs in the context of a baptismal sermon. In other words, this is Gregory’s passing on the mystery of the Trinity to those who are about to be baptized. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not mere knowledge; this is the heart of the Christian life.

In the first paragraph, Gregory offers the basic contours of the Christian understanding of the Trinity: God is One and Three who are totally equal and eternally God. When considered separately Father, Son and Spirit are each fully God, while they are distinct because of their particular properties (i.e.,. The Father, begets, The Son is begotten, and the Spirit processes from the Father through the Son). Their equality and distinction establish eternal and real relations who are all one God. In this tightly packed paragraph, Gregory offers an outline of what God has revealed about himself in Scripture. This outline does not comprehend God, but it gives us a door into the mystery of who God is. The fact of the matter is that Gregory confesses what he does because he has already been caught up in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the second paragraph, Gregory offers the same material through a different lens: the lens of prayer and rational contemplation. The first paragraph confesses the boundaries of the mystery of the Trinity; the second paragraph invites us to enter that mystery by means of personal communion. When we pray to God the Father, in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God brings us into his very life. We are illumined by the Three who are One and the One who is Three. When Gregory contemplates God he does not comprehend God, but he is embraced by God. As he is embraced by God, he catches a mere outline and a glimpse of who God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This glimpse does not discourage him but encourages him to contemplate and seek the face of God.

Humanity was made to know God and be known by God; this is an eternal journey that begins now, by confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. As we come to know our triune Savior more, we start to catch a taste for the incomprehensible joy of life eternal with him.  Though we only now see as in a mirror dimly, we will one day see God face to face. This quote from Gregory enlivens my desire to know and love the Triune God. I hope it does the same for you.

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