March 19th, 2023
The Nicene Creed is a confession of faith in the Triune God. The one true God has revealed himself in Scripture as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Gospel declares that the Son is “the only-begotten from the Father” (John 1:14) and the Spirit “proceeds from the Father” (John 15:26). What does this mean? How should we understand the Son’s generation and the Spirit’s procession?
In the fourth century, Gregory of Nazianzus considered these questions in his sermons on the Trinity. First, he asks, “How, then, was [the Son] begotten?” His answer:
"God’s begetting ought to have the tribute of our silence. The important point is for you to learn that [the Son] has been begotten. As to the way it happens, we shall not concede that even the angels, much less you, know that. Shall I tell you the way? It is a way known only to the begetting Father and the begotten Son." (Oration 29.9; trans. Wickham)
Second, he asks, “What, then, is ‘proceeding’?” His answer:
“You explain the unbegottennes of the Father and I will give you a physiological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding – and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets.” (Oration 31:8; trans. Wickham).
Scripture reveals that the Son is begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. Scripture does not explain how the Son is begotten and the Spirit proceeds. Such knowledge belongs to God and we dare not pry into such a divine mystery.
That does not mean there is nothing to be said about the identity and relationship of the Father, Son, and Spirit. Gregory warns us, however, that when we confess our faith in the Triune God, we must avoid straying into heresy. He shows us the straight path in one of his sermons:
"So we adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, distinguishing their personal properties but uniting their Godhead; and we neither blend the three into one thing, lest we be sick with Sabellius’s disease, nor do we divide them into three alien and unrelated things, lest we share Arius’s madness. Why should we act like those who try to straighten a plant bent over completely in one direction by forcibly training it the opposite way, correcting one deviation by another? Rather, we should straighten it midway between the two, and so take our position within the bounds of reverence.” (Oration 20.5; trans. Daley)
Gregory here positions orthodoxy between the opposite errors of Sabellianism and Arianism. Sabellius was concerned that speaking of three persons implied polytheism and so denied that there are three persons in the Godhead. This meant blending or confusing the Father, Son, and Spirit. This heresy is also known as modalism and is taught in Oneness Pentecostalism. Arianism denied the divinity of Son and the Spirit, making the Father, Son, and Spirit three alien and unrelated things. This heresy is taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Orthodoxy is a straight plant, neither bent to one side or the other: “we adore the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, distinguishing their personal properties but uniting their Godhead . . . and so we take our position within the bounds of reverence.”
Gregory was concerned that we have right belief. To believe rightly is to be orthodox, but orthodoxy cannot be reduced to right doctrine. Orthodoxy is right worship. Right theology rightly orients and defines our worship by placing us “within the bounds of reverence.”