A Patristics Primer

I spent the past few days on Facebook debating soon-to-be-Socinians in the CBMW on why you shouldn’t tinker with the Trinity.  Some friends have asked me for a primer on basic Patristics texts.  This is more or less an impossible request but I can start to lay the groundwork.  If you devote at least a good six months to working through these issues, you will begin to see why tinkering with the Trinity must end badly.

Primary Sources

Hilary of Poitiers, “De Synodis.”  St Hilary explains how the early Fathers had to break the back of certain categories before they became acceptable.

Athanasius.  Contra Arianos.  This work is very difficult to read but it is his best work.

Gregory of Nazianzus.  On God and Christ: Five Theological Orations.  The best thing ever written on Trinitarianism.

Gregory of Nyssa.  “Great Catechism” and “On Not Three Gods.”  Advances the argument that the Trinity is one mind, will, power, and energy of operation.  This is why Gospel Coalition types won’t engage me when I ask them how many minds are in the Trinity.

Basil.  On The Holy Spirit.

Pseudo-Dionysius.  The Divine Names.

Basic Trinitarianism

Letham, Robert.  The Holy Trinity.  Letham has a number of blind-spots but he covers the material better than any.

Lacugna, Catherine.  God for Us.  She is a liberal Jesuit and that comes out in her writing, but she does a fine job on the Cappadocians.

Torrance, Thomas.  The Trinitarian Faith and One Being: Three persons.  The two best texts by a modern on the Trinity.  Torrance has few equals.  And no, his so-called “neo-orthodoxy” does not come out in this.

Intermediate Issues

McGuckin, John.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy.  Excellent survey of Cyril’s thought and he makes the argument that Chalcedon, far from being a Western council, specifically made Cyril the standard for Christology.

———–.  St Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography.  Just fun.

Beeley, Christopher.  The Unity of Christ and In Your Light We See Light.

Advanced Issues

Barnes, Michel.  The Power of God.  Explores Gregory of Nyssa’s use of “dynamis” in Christology.

Farrell, Joseph.  God, History, and Dialectic.  Be careful but some good analysis.

Photios.  Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit.  Perhaps the Filioque can be salvaged, but not by positing the Father-Son as a single cause.

Jenson, Robert.  Systematic Theology, vol. 1.

Philosophical Foundations.

Perl, Eric.  Theophany: Dionysius’s Philosophy.

Gould and Davis (eds).  Loving God with Your Mind: Essays in Honor of JP Moreland.   Some outstanding essays on what it means for universals to be exemplified.

Maximus the Confessor.  The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ.

Moreland, J. P. Universals.

Cooper, John. Body, Soul, and Life Everlasting.

Morris, Thomas.  The Logic of God Incarnate.  This is tough and I am not sure I agree with all of his conclusions, but it is an important study nonetheless.

Plantinga, Alvin.  Does God have a Nature?  Yeah, yeah, classical theism and all.  Plantinga’s arguments can’t simply be brushed aside.


In Your Light We See Light

Christopher Beeley gives a fine summary and exposition of Gregory’s key orations. Beeley argues that Knowledge of God is a two-fold dialectic of purification and illumination. Our knowledge of God is intimately rooted in who God is. In the sense of God’s grandeur, he cannot be fully known or mastered (95). God isn’t different from us in degree, but kind. He is fully beyond time and space (Or. 2.5; 76).


Gregory’s epistemology: anything that can be understood, and all language, is mentally ‘embodied,’ so that we are incapable of transcending the corporeality of our knowing (99-100). This is the negative way of saying we know God. The positive is by the concept of “illumination.” God’s being/light overflows and fills us. This is a dynamic process in which we grow.

Jesus Christ: The Son of God

Gregory’s Christology is connected to the theosis tradition (116ff). As Beeley notes, “We have been created in a state of dynamic movement towards God” (118). Gregory is primarily interested in the dynamic economy of Christ’s divinity. Beeley has a fine explanation of Kenotic Christology: Kenosis and condescension are relative, not absolute terms. They describe the shape of Christ’s assumption (127).
The Holy Spirit

Like his Christology, the Holy Spirit is soteriological in character. Since the Holy Spirit deifies and is not deifies, then he is God, full stop. Gregory is drawing upon Origen’s Spirit-Letter dichotomy (166).

The Spirit is involved in the self-revelation of the Trinity. “The sequential self-revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit reflects an increase in the power and intensity of that revelation, so that each successive stage prepares the recipients for the next one” (171).

The Trinity

Gregory is more interested in the theology of the divine economy than he is in consubstantiality. “Economy” refers to God’s governance. Monarchia of God the Father: Gregory anchors each person in the unique role of God the father as source and cause (204). It is the ground of the divine unity. In response to Meyendorff, Beeley notes that the first principle of the Trinity is not simply “personhood” but hypostasis + divine essence (212).


The book is top-notch scholarship. While it can’t stand alone as a text on St Gregory, if read in conjunction with McGuckin it will give the student a firm foundation in Patristic studies.

Gregory for Origen

I don’t think I am an Origenist.  I don’t think his protology survives Maximus’s deconstruction of it.  But I do think it is wrong of “Trad Fundies” to bash Origen as a “heretic” when few of the greatest fathers of the church would have done that.  This is from Christopher Beeley’s work on Gregory of Nazianzus.


Gregory had a largely positive view of Origen.  

  • “From Origen Gregory learned the rudiments and the great heights of Christian theology, and he found in Origen a clear model of the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of his own life” (Beeley 7).
  • “During the first years of his return to Cappadocia, Gregory’s formation in strongly Trinitarian, Origenist Christianity seems to have been largely completed” (10).
  • “By habit, he would have continued to steep himself in the Bible and Origen” (16).
  • Gregory structured his “Five Theological Orations” along the same loci as Origen’s De Principiis (39).
  • “We may note that Gregory showed himself to be a more faithful disciple of Origen than either of his Cappadocian contemporaries” (75).
  • “Gregory is led by the Alexandrians, above all Origen, in the adaptation of certain Platonist themes for his Christian program” (78).
  • Adopts Origen’s dual hermeneutics (89).


I’m aware of the 5th councils condemnations of Origen.  I just don’t found them morally compelling.  Especially as they would have condemned the Cappadocians for not condemning Origen–and the excuse that the former didn’t live during the 5th council and so are excused is both ad hoc and probably false.  Justinian was nowhere near the theologian as Gregory.

David W. has a very good summary of the issues.

On God and Man

Review of On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus (SVS Press)

On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of Gregory of Nazianzen

{1} Some have compared this work to Augustine’s Confessions, but that’s misleading. True, Gregory does open his soul to outsiders, and the literary skill is magnificent, but it isn’t nearly as introspective as Augustine’s work. But echoes certainly remain. One theme in this book, similar to that of Ecclesiastes, is the evanescence of life. Gregory ties this with our materiality. Yes, matter is good and created good, but matter’s fallen mode is one of change and flux.

{2} Only eternal things remain.

{3} Of particular importance are Gregory’s stirring accounts of the human soul. The soul has mind and reason (Gregory 82). It is superior to flesh (96). Indeed, it is the very breath of God (lit. “the efflux of the divine Mind, 103 passim).

{4} As we would expect with St Gregory, he displays a high and holy view of God. The Father is “Mind” and the Son is the Father’s intellect (53, 38). The Son is the archetype’s image. Echoing some Neo-Platonic themes, man, indeed creation, proceeds from God and returns to God (157). While he rejects the eternality of creation, nonetheless creation was an idea in the mind of God–and God’s ideas are eternal per the doctrine of simplicity.

{5} Gregory combats pagan ontologies, Paganism is agonistic. If two forces struggle (light/dark; God/chaos), then who/what is the third term that brings harmony (49ff)?

{6} This work ends with one of Gregory’s most famous poems, including the prophetic dream he had of the Two Virgins. (Incidentally, if you are a cessationist then you will have problems with Gregory).


This work is magnificent. In many ways it is better than “On God and Christ.” Because it is poetry, it is more accessible (if occasionally incomplete in thought). Some lines, even in translation, are simply sublime.


Unleash the theopoets

Flow and Highlights

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus [PB]

I will capture the flow of Gregory’s life along with crucial highlights. McGuckin’s thesis suggests something along the lines that Gregory “midwifed” a new Christian vision into the old imperium.

Gregory’s Post-Hellenic Vision

Gregory opted for something like a Christian Hellenism, or rather the New Byzantine vision (I understand this language is somewhat anachronistic, since Gregory would have seen himself as a Roman). This method and vision allowed him to bring order to a then inchoate biblical theology. It was a bridge between the Hellenic and Semitic worlds. He was able to hold apparent opposites in creative tensions, and he refused to collapse mystery and symbol into logical deduction (McGuckin10). In fact, in Gregory’s hands Christology is never allowed to escape its proper context of reflection: “the dynamic mystery of the economy of God’s salvation of humankind” (390).

In order to counteract Julian, Christians had to offer an inspiration for a new imperium and society (117ff). Both Gregory and Julian agreed that “a culture cannot be divorced from its religious inspiration without being fatally compromised.” In this battle Gregory forges a keen anti-Hellenic apologetics. Much of it is similar to Augustine, albeit with the promise that Christianity is able to synthesize old and new (121).

Indeed, the birth of Byzantium is the new public confession of the Spirit as homoousion. Gregory’s confession of the Spirit is the positive triumph of what was best in Origen: it is the present spiritualization of the current order and the ascent to divine vision (309). Gregory is able to do what his master could not: correlate the eschatological vision with historical unfolding. Gregory’s social program is connected with his anthropology (151). Image and archetype are reconciled in the hominisation of God as a poor man. The human condition is mixis between clay and divine image.

Theological Method

This is not merely an attack on Eunomios. It is a vision for theology (263). He attacks two theological positions: a) that the Son and Spirit are without cause (agenetos); and b) they are caused by the Father as something other (hetera) to him.

principle of causality: it is something other than what is meant by God’s causing the created order. It indicates the manner in which the Father relates his being to the other two persons.

The Theological Orations

They have a triadic structure to them.  Or. 27 and 28 deal with theologia as our perception of God.  Orations 29-30 deal with the Son’s relation to the Father.  Oration 31 deal with the Spirit.

The Monarchia of the Father

  • The Son is generated, not from the ousia, but from the Father’s person.  Otherwise, the Son, having the same essence, would generate himself!  Contra Eunomius, this means ingeneracy or generation is not constitutive of the divine essence.
  • The divine being is primarily the Father’s being, not a generic class of being (McGuckin 294 n352). The Father personally communicates this being to the hypostases of the Son and Spirit.
  • Gregory draws from the earlier church’s vision of the triad as a single coherent process of unfolding the life of the Father.  Therefore, threefoldness is just as much a principle of unity as of differentiation (296 n355).

Feasting in the Spirit

The doctrine of the Spirit is the mean between Jewish monism and Hellenic polytheism (273). Jews celebrate feasts by the letter, Greeks in the body. Christians feast in the Spirit. As McGuckin notes, this fits in with Gregory’s “matrix of liturgical discourse.”

It is through the Spirit that the Father is known and the Son glorified. The idiomata do not define the essence, but are themselves defined in relation to the essence. The three stages of revelation are progressively perfected.


This is a hard read. And it is not quite the same “kind” of work as McGuckin’s masterpiece on Cyril. The latter is a theological commentary; this, as the subtitle makes clear, is an intellectual biography. Still, McGuckin’s scholarship is world-class and this is easily the best biography on Gregory.

Midwifing a Byzantium

Harnack had it backwards.  Did the early church “Hellenize” and thus negate Gospel purity?  The question defies any easy answer.  We will look at a few.

(1) Harnack held that the early church imported Greek concepts into the sweet biblical faith and polluted it.

There might appear an element of truth in this.  Some early Greek Christian writers do appear at odds with a literal reading of Song of Songs.  But that’s not what Harnack meant.  He had in mind something like,

(1*) The Greeks imported the miraculous into the Biblical faith and ruined the message of Jesus and love.

In other words, Jesus was a good German professor.  Harnack is too easy to attack.  Let’s look at other options.

The guys represented by Calvinist International (and this is not an attack on them, so please don’t flood my inbox) say the opposite:

(2) Greek categories were already embedded in the New Testament.

Well, kind of.  Paul uses words like “nature” (doth not nature teach you…) and Peter talks about theosis (2 Pet. 1.4).  Is this the same thing as the NT teaching Hellenization?  The problem is that Hellenism also implied other stuff:

(2a) Definition = limit.

Apply that to Triadology and you will see why early fathers were reticent to define God.  Now, is (2a) wrong?  Not necessarily (right or wrong is beyond the point for now).  But you can’t find that key Hellenic thesis in the NT.  Therefore,

(~2) There is no systematic Hellenization in the New Testament.

Now for my view, which I got from John McGuckin and John Zizioulas.

(3) Immediately after the Constantinian settlement Gregory of Nazianzus posited a new vision of the Roman Imperium, now Christian, as the new intellectual logos (using logos as rational order, not as Jesus).

Therefore, there is no reason to defend “Hellenism” as such.  Gregory’s writings are superior in content and style to anything ancient Greece has to offer.  But someone could counter,

(~3) Should we not go back to the Bible?

The objection implies a going back to the Hebrew ontology, such as it is.  Of course, we should always go back to the prophets, who offered their own social order.  But as to going back to a Hebraic intellectual system, the problem is what is meant by it.

(~3′) What is this Hebraic logos?

I suggest, however, we say with the apostle Paul, “The cross is foolishness to the Greeks and a Stumbling block to the Jews.”   Therefore, we see Paul rejecting both (2) and (~3).  Paul rejects Hellenization and it is doubtful he would be thrilled with reading Aristotle back into the NT.