BMCR 2006.09.07

Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections

Jostein Børtnes, Tomas Hägg, Gregory of Nazianzus : images and reflections. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2006. 349 pages, 1 unnumbered leaf of plates : 1 color illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 8763503867 $72.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) is, along with St. John the Evangelist, and St. Symeon the New Theologian, one of the few saints in the Eastern Christian tradition bearing the honorific “Theologian.” This is, perhaps, a bit puzzling, especially when his work is considered alongside that of his friend St. Gregory of Nyssa or the extraordinary contributions of St. Maximus the Confessor (to name but two patristic giants). However, it took more than sophisticated philosophical theology to win the hearts and minds of the Byzantines—beautiful words were required as well. And the poetry and oratory of Gregory of Nazianzus combined keen theological insights with glorious and uplifting images, coupled with deeply introspective glimpses into the mind of this great thinker. The volume under review, subtitled “Images and Reflections,” aims to delve into that side (or sides) of Gregory that was of such great appeal to his contemporaries, while demonstrating how innovative were his contributions to an increasingly confident and vigorous Christian literary and theological tradition.

The stated purpose of the present volume is to provide us with more than just an account of Gregory’s theology; it is to give us a portrait of the man, to the extent that such is possible. In the thirteen essays presented here, along with an introduction and “Retrospect,” the various authors treat us to reflections on Gregory’s approach to poetry, his culture, relationship with his family and friends, and his attitude toward the noble project of theology.

The introduction, by Jostein Børtnes, “Prompting for meaning in Gregory’s rhetoric,” makes clear that the approach to Gregory in this volume—the person and his work—is more than just a textual affair, but involves a creative engagement on the part of the reader, who gives life to Gregory’s words. Børtnes writes: “Gregory the ‘philosophical rhetorician’ knows that theology is not merely a matter of words, that words are expressions of cognitive processes and that texts, in order to be understood, require the active mental response of readers and listeners as well” (12). A simpler way of putting this would be to state the obvious: all texts arise from the author’s intention, and the reception of any text is equally dependent upon the reader’s (or listener’s) intentions.

A body of writing as deeply personal as Gregory’s invites a creative union of authorial and interpretive intentionality. When John A. McGuckin declares, in his excellent contribution “Gregory: The rhetorician as poet,” that: “It is no accident that in Gregory we find the first ever Christian autobiography, the principle for which (long before Augustine) being the desire to scrutinize the inner soul as the revelatory icon of God” (210), a refreshing essentialism rears its head—a veiled promise that the Gregory we may yet still encounter (McGuckin’s essay occurs approximately two-thirds into the book) will turn out to be more than just a textual construct. Gregory’s creative balancing of the evaluative theories of poetry in Plato and Aristotle is not innovation for innovation’s sake, but a concrete expression of the union of the mantic poet and the teleological philosopher, accomplished within the context of a Christian discourse seen as the fulfillment of a Hellenistic paideia originating in Classical Athens. Gregory, radically, saw this fulfillment in his own life and work, which he did not hesitate to describe as inspired by the Holy Spirit—effectively placing it on par with revealed scripture. “In this regard his own implicit claim to be the supreme keryx, the herald of the divine Spirit of God, is used as the basis for claiming the revitalization of the principle of ‘inspiration’ (divine afflatus), which both Aristotle and Plato had undermined in relation to the classical poetic tradition” (211).

Yet, as Phillip Rousseau’s “Retrospect: images, reflections and the ‘essential’ Gregory” clarifies: “We do not even have a verbal report of [Gregory’s] appearance, his voice, his gesture, from the pen of any reliable and disinterested observer. We have to decipher and interpret, in ways that reflect light back upon an historical individual, the desires, convictions and insights (not to mention conceits) dispersed through what Virginia Burrus calls ‘the actual diversity of compositional practice and the consequent plasticity and hybridity of literary forms'” (284). With a few exceptions—especially Torstein Theodor Tollefsen’s excellent contribution (discussed below)—the Gregory sought by the various contributors to this volume is not the Theologian whose works have informed the Christian tradition for many centuries, but the man of his times, who expressed himself through a rhetorical tradition that he both strained, or “transgressed,” and in which he found the perfect medium for self-expression. To this end, some of the essays here provide fascinating glimpses into the mind of a sensitive and oft-misunderstood intellectual; others border on mere antiquarian gossip or degenerate into hilarity or self-parody.

Not surprisingly, the most successful essays in this book are those which find the source of Gregory’s inspiration in the lofty task of theology and in the Hellenic Christian tradition informing his thought. “Gregory contemplating the beautiful: knowing human misery through and being persuaded by images,” by Frederick W. Norris, is such an essay. Acknowledging that the contemplation of beauty was at the center of Gregory’s theology, Norris shows that the Theologian was no simple idealist. The rigors of Neo-Arian logic, when applied to the mysteries of God, could not, according to Gregory, possibly provide an adequate understanding of divinity. Images, for Gregory—pictures painted with words—provided a surer method of approaching the divine mysteries than wooden logic. Norris quotes a key passage from Gregory, which “makes clear his dependence upon finding images, rather than solving logical puzzles” (21): “Our noblest theologian is not one who has discovered the whole—our earthly shackles do not permit us the whole—but one whose mental image is by comparison fuller, who has gathered in his mind a richer picture, outline or whatever we call it, of the truth” (Oration 30.17, tr. Wickham).1 Images, as employed by Gregory, are not only representations of ideal beauty, of humanity (the image of God) as it ought to be, but how it is. Norris writes: “Beauty as the focus of contemplation is clear in Gregory’s works. When he concentrated on human life he had both a strong ideal of what humans made in the image of God should become and a developed sense of the extreme difficulty they had in reaching the goal. His anthropology always included a modicum of hope, an understanding that however great was the influence of sin, the image of God in which humans were shaped was marred but still struggling” (23). Theology, then, for all its reliance upon logic and philosophy, must not lose sight of the point at which beauty lifts such discourse above and beyond analysis and debate, into the realm of poetic inspiration. The “baffling understandings of various postmodernists” (33) which view theology as one discourse among many, serve to render the notion of privileged flights of inspiration suspect. As Norris concludes: “Only within the search for beauty does the fullest recognition of Christian faith occur” (35).

Jostein Børtnes second contribution to this volume (after his introduction), “Rhetoric and mental images in Gregory,” attempts to understand Gregory’s work as a sort of post- (or proto-) Derridean arche-writing, exonerating him of “logocentrism” or “conceptual idolatry” (45) and finding in his rhetoric “a kind of ‘intertextuality'” (46). After stating the obvious point that, in Gregory’s time, the practice of memorization of texts did not mean that they were intended to be reproduced verbatim in rhetorical discourse, Børtnes leaps to the conclusion that “in rhetoric the whole point was that memorized texts could be played around with, taken apart, and recombined into new patterns and new discourses” (48). This post-structuralist attitude toward the use of quotations in discourse seems suspiciously anachronistic here, especially when one considers the earnestness that pervades Gregory’s theology. If Gregory was not “logocentric,” he was certainly striving to express an eternal truth; and for all of his textual creativity, he felt compelled to remain faithful to a long literary and interpretative tradition. This did not involve “a discourse in which [the divine] presence is continually postponed and displaced by the never-ending generation of new and different images” (57) but a theology in which the eternal transcendence of God is expressed in words that lead beyond language, to the experience of the διάστημα (to borrow St. Gregory of Nyssa’s term) where human yearning is sanctified by the infinite energies of God. There is a reason why Gregory (like the other Cappadocian Fathers) is traditionally referred to as an apophatic theologian.

In “Gregory and the constraint of sameness,” Stratis Papaioannou treats the reader to a discussion of Gregory informed by all-too-familiar post-modernist concerns with texts, selves, and gender. Yet, unlike Børtnes, Papaioannou is patently conscious of the essential ‘mysticism’ of Gregory—even though he avoids that term. In discussing the notion of the self mirroring the other in the quest for divine (self-)transcendence, Papaioannou helpfully invokes Gregory of Nyssa’s concept of διάστημα and the yearning ( ἐπέκτασις) it produces in the soul, showing how Gregory of Nazianzus’ “images of the self—as an infinite mirror of the infinite other or as always becoming another in the infinite pothos for God—run into the danger of identifying the infinity of desire with God himself, that is to say, of identifying the self-as-other with the Other (79). One of the strengths of this essay is the author’s copious references to the ancient literature, with which he is clearly well-acquainted. However, as is to be expected in a paper written under the constraint of space, some misleading generalizations do occur. For example, Papaioannou characterizes the Neoplatonist Iamblichus’ philosophy in a single sentence as the “view of ultimate reality as a mode of being that remains always self-same, just like the philosophy that is able to approach this ultimate reality” (62). This is a surprising summary, given the fact that Iamblichus often speaks of the soul as being allied with various aspects of reality, combining in itself a plurality of essences and activities, even mortality and immortality (see, for example, Iamblichus, De Mysteriis 2.2; Ps.-Simplicius, Commentary on Aristotle’s De Anima 89).

Edgars Narkevics’ substantial and insightful ” Skiagraphia : Outlining the conception of God in Gregory’s Theological Orations” takes us through the argumentative and demonstrative strategies employed by Gregory in his response to Eunomius’ bold attempts at defining the essence of God, notably the use of the privative term ἀγέννητον. Narkevics shows how, for Gregory, the construction and use of conceptual images is like the construction of a stage upon which meaning may be represented or established, but never apart from the purpose—or intentionality—of the act of representing (110). In the special case of providing an “outline of God’s being” ( skiagraphia), the meaning represented is given through inspiration, and cannot be confined to or by words and images (112).

“The Cappadocians on the Areopagus,” by Samuel Rubenson, explores the respective attitudes of Gregory of Nazianzus, and his friends Basil and Gregory of Nyssa, toward their received Hellenic culture, by focusing on their use and interpretation of Acts 17—St. Paul’s famous encounter with philosophers in Athens. From this, Rubenson shows how the Nazianzen “continued to uphold the glory of Athens” (127), specifically in his “refutation of the idea that the simplicity of the apostles, and by implication the gospels, makes education unnecessary, even inappropriate, for a Christian bishop” (124).

The contributions by Tomas Hägg, Neil McLynn, and Stephanos Efthymiadis—on Gregory’s funeral orations, his relationship with the sophists, and autobiography, autohagiography, and hagiography, respectively—combine textual analysis, historical contextualization, and biographical portraiture, in an account of Gregory’s life and times, personality, and compositional techniques. Consequently, these essays will be of interest primarily to the historian and literary critic.

Virginia Burrus’ “Life after death: The martyrdom of Gorgonia and the birth of female hagiography” is an exercise in playful pomo-speak that, after provoking some initial guffaws, eventually degenerates into a parody of feminist interpretation and succeeds only in giving us a caricature of Gregory and his oration for his sister as an effusion of a repressed practitioner of spiritual BDSM. References to Christian marriage as advantageous “for a woman who prefers to play the dominatrix” (159), to the relationship between Christ and Gorgonia as that of a “top” and a “bottom” (who don’t mind switching roles) (163), and other terms common to alternative lifestyle discourse (such as “vanilla”), serve to elicit some smirks, but finally give the impression that the author simply does not wish to be taken seriously and that this essay is, in fact, a window into her own fantasies (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Indeed, she admits as much in a closing comment: “If my own reading of Gorgonia—both more positive and less positivistic—has any particular merit, it is certainly not because it is any less my own projection than is McGuckin’s (on the contrary! I’ll warrant it is more so), but rather because of the relative (im)modesty of its mimetic ploy…” (169).

“Gregory’s women: Creating a philosopher’s family,” by Susanna Elm, is a fascinating exploration of concepts of manhood and masculinity in Gregory’s time, and his attempts to construct an identity for himself as a true Christian philosopher. Elm explores the Neoplatonic conception of the Platonic successors as a “holy race,” and how Gregory’s familiarity with the writings of Porphyry and Iamblichus offered him opportunities “in his own task of creating the true Christian philosopher” (186). Familial relations, both biologically and spiritually (his role as bishop), are shown as crucial in Gregory’s project of casting himself as a representative of the true “holy race” of Christian teachers.

The gem of this volume is Torstein Theodor Tollefsen’s ” Theosis according to Gregory.” The doctrine of theosis or “deification” is one of the most difficult theological concepts in the Eastern Christian tradition. As Tollefsen points out: “The language of deification is daring. It says that human beings will literally become God. ‘To become God’—this sounds unfamiliar to the ears of what one often calls ‘western’ Christians, especially when it is presented in the shape of a Christian doctrine of salvation” (258). While most Orthodox Christian theologians—including this reviewer—would not define theosis as becoming God—rather, we would say, becoming God-like, or divine (with Plato’s Theaetetus 176b and its caveat “as far as possible” firmly in mind)—Tollefsen clearly grasps the scriptural and theological foundations of theosis doctrine, as well as its attendant problems: problems that Gregory sought to correct. Most notable is the supposition that theosis involves a loss of self-identity, or a relinquishing of the authentically human in the face of an overpowering divine essence. As Tollefsen explains: “There are texts in which Gregory speaks of Christ in terms of mingling, but whatever that may mean, there are reasons to believe that he does not think in terms of complete essential formation of humanity into deity. It seems that as early as in the fourth century the idea of the integrality of nature is basic to Christian thought” (259). In a footnote, Tollefsen clarifies his meaning here and cites St. Maximus the Confessor as one who later worked out this idea in a “philosophical way” (259, note 7). The choice of Maximus here is rather problematical, given his monothelite tendencies (as explored by some recent studies).2 Anastasios of Sinai, or St. Macarius of Egypt, both champions of the autonomy of human will in the drama of salvation, would have served as better—if not better-known—examples of the working out of theosis doctrine by later writers. But that is a minor criticism and does not detract from Tollefsen’s acute analysis, which goes on to show how Trinitarian doctrine is an essential component in the development of Orthodox soteriology, which finds in theosis not a transformation of the human nature into the divine (which would mean that the human being becomes a hypostasis of the divine Triad) but a radical participation of the human soul in divine life (269-270). Tollefsen’s is a rare essay: impressive in its scope and clarity in the face of a very difficult topic of theology. After reading it, one is left with no doubt that Gregory is wholly deserving of the title “Theologian.”

Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections concludes with a helpful discussion of the role of Cappadocian theology in the Iconoclast controversy, by Andrew Louth, and a “Retrospect” by Philip Rousseau, which provides some insight into the relationship between the various essays collected in this volume. As in any such publication of collected essays, the reader will pick and choose the works he or she finds of interest and gauge their value accordingly. That said, this book succeeds in offering up a wide variety of interpretations and approaches to Gregory, properly reflective of his importance and complexity as a key figure on the development of the Christian theological tradition.


Introduction: prompting for meaning in Gregory’s rhetoric, Jostein Børtnes (9)

Gregory contemplating the beautiful: knowing human misery and divine mystery through and being persuaded by images. Frederick W. Norris (19)

Rhetoric and mental images in Gregory. Jostein Børtnes (37)

Gregory and the constraint of sameness. Stratis Papaioannou (59)

Skiagraphia: outlining the conception of God in Gregory’s Theological Orations. Edgars Narkevics (83)

The Cappadocians on the Areopagus. Samuel Rubenson (113)

Playing with expectations: Gregory’s funeral orations on his brother, sister, and father. Tomas Hägg (133)

Life after death: the martyrdom of Gorgonia and the birth of female hagiography. Virginia Burrus (153)

Gregory’s women: creating a philosopher’s family. Susanna Elm (171)

Gregory: the rhetorician as poet. John A. McGuckin (193)

Among the hellenists: Gregory and the sophists. Neil McLynn (213)

Two Gregories and three genres: autobiography, autohagiography and hagiography. Stephanos Efthymiadis (239)

Theosis according to Gregory. Torstein Theodor Tollefsen (257)

The appeal to the Cappadocian Fathers and Dionysios the Areopagite in the iconoclast controversy. Andrew Louth (271)

Retrospect: images, reflections and the “essential” Gregory. Philip Rousseau (283)

Plus bibliography, notes on contributors, and indices.


1. Frederick W. Norris, Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning: The Five Theological Orations of Gregory Nazianzen, trans. L. Wickham and F. Williams (Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae, 13) Leiden.

2. See, for example, Aidan Nichols, Byzantine Gospel: Maximus the Confessor in Modern Scholarship (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark 1993), and Edward Moore, Origen of Alexandria and St. Maximus the Confessor: An Analysis and Critical Evaluation of Their Eschatological Doctrines (Boca Raton: Universal Publishers 2005).