BMCR 2014.10.53

Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus. Oxford early Christian studies

, Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus. Oxford early Christian studies. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. xi, 270. ISBN 9780199681945. $99.00.

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Disclaimer: The author asked the reviewer to read the manuscript before he submitted it for publication and the reviewer offered several suggestions at that time.

Andrew Hofer’s Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus, a revised doctoral dissertation from the University of Notre Dame, draws our attention to the way in which Gregory’s doctrine of Christ informs his depictions of his own life, and vice-versa. To students of late antiquity it comes as no surprise that an accomplished Greek orator and leading Christian bishop should infuse his public message with aspects of his personal experience, yet in Gregory’s case we are dealing with far more than rhetorical convention. First-time readers of Gregory’s work are often surprised to see that the major theological authority in Eastern Orthodox tradition often sounds like an eighteenth-century Methodist or a modern Evangelical. For one of the characteristic marks of Gregory’s work is his habit of including himself in serious Christological statements—such as, Christ “bears the whole of me, and all that is mine, in himself” ( Or. 30.6); or, “You who are God became human and mingled with mortals. . . . Come to me with helping hand, O my propitious God” ( De rebus suis 13-18, trans. Meehan)—and he regularly describes his life and sufferings in terms of Christ’s own. Hofer terms this reciprocal phenomenon Gregory’s “autobiographical Christology” and “Christomorphic autobiography” (5, 9, and passim). The book’s chief aim is to elucidate this typical mode of Gregory’s doctrinal exposition, autobiographical expression, and pastoral direction, giving as much attention to Gregory’s words of praise and lament as to his more familiar didactic instruction and theological argument. The book tends to succeed best at the task of basic exposition; however, it fares less well at explaining the rationale of the interconnection, and its doctrinal analysis is positively misleading.

The book is divided into six chapters, the logic of which is not apparent in their given titles. Following an introductory Chapter 1, three chapters advance the book’s main argument (Chapters 2, 5, and 6), with two intervening chapters on technical Christology (Chapters 3 and 4), which detract from the main argument.

Chapter 1, “Gregory’s Theology of the Word,” gives an introductory account of the connection between the doctrinal and rhetorical elements of Gregory’s works. Hofer casts in his lot with John McGuckin and others who accept Gregory’s poetic self- representations as a reliable portrayal of his inner life, against other attempts to dissociate the two more severely. Hofer aims to improve on the seminal account of Gregory’s philosophical rhetoric given by Frederick Norris, arguing that Gregory’s Christian philosophy, which is “the life of intimacy with Christ,” takes precedence over rhetoric as the Greeks understood it (26-27). Yet Hofer’s point does not advance the discussion, since the synthesis that Norris describes already includes the prioritization of substance over form—as do the theories of Plato, Aristotle, and the Second Sophistic Hermogenes. Finally Hofer notes that, for all their classical form, Gregory’s works are suffused with biblical words and images, and their ultimate aim is to promote his readers’ “performing the gospel life” (42). To this general observation Hofer appends an able summary of Gregory’s Trinitarian and Christological exegesis, which aims to discern the single Word of God (more accurate would be “Son of God,” or “Christ,” which are the more frequent titles) throughout the Bible’s many different references to him.

Chapter Two, “Gregory’s Christomorphic Autobiography,” lays out the central idea of the book. Hofer handily demonstrates Gregory’s identification with Christ in his autobiographical works, showing how he “blends Christ into the troubles, fears, and joys of his own life” (56); the chapter concludes with a detailed study of the poem De rebus suis. In Hofer’s reading, Gregory’s public self-presentation is informed by his sincere conviction that Christ heals his life through the process of poetic narration, and it aims to heal others through their reading and imitating of Gregory (9). Hofer provides a helpful survey of Gregory’s use of Christian and non-Christian models in his autobiographical poetry (following John McGuckin), his handling of biblical narrative (Michael Williams), his use of biblical paradeigmata (Christoffel Demoen), and Gregory’s invocation of Christ in the various stages of his life. Accordingly, De rebus suis is a didactic epic (Celica Milovanovic) of Christomorphic autobiography, and Gregory’s poetry functions as an autobiographical “logostherapy” for his readers. Given the nature of Gregory’s works, it a relatively easy case to make, but Hofer has done it well in these first two chapters.

Chapters Three and Four steer us into more strictly doctrinal waters, and at this point the argument comes undone. Chapter Three, “Autobiographical Christology I: The Mixtures of Gregory and Christ,” offers a new interpretation of Gregory’s language of mixture and mingling (μίξις, κρᾶσις). Although these terms were later forbidden by the Council of Chalcedon, Gregory regularly uses them to speak about the original mixture of heaven and earth in the creation of human beings, Christ’s Incarnation as the “new mixture” of God and humanity, and Gregory’s own experience of Christ, whose life is mixed in with his own. Hofer gives a well-informed account of the various philosophical theories of mixture in late antiquity, from Aristotle and the older Stoics to the more recent Alexander of Aphrodisias, Porphyry, Plotinus, and Bishop Nemesius of Emesa, together with modern scholars who prefer one scheme or another. At first Hofer concludes, rightly, that no single ancient scheme accounts for Gregory’s meaning; then, without explanation, he prefers the Aristotelian notion of mixture as the predominance of the stronger over the weaker. While Gregory does believe that the divine nature predominates over Christ’s human existence, Hofer’s privileging of Aristotelian predominance theory, and his downplaying of Gregory’s language of composition (σύγκρασις, p. 118, e.g.), neutralizes Gregory’s deliberately shocking claim that God predominates over humanity in Christ through the mixture of the incarnation, which is radically unlike any other form of divine-human relationship. Chapter Three also contains some puzzling misreadings of the scholarship, in this case my own. Hofer misunderstands my position as a black-or-white choice between unitive and dualist Christological schemes (I have argued that Gregory’s unitive Christology preserves Christ’s two natures entirely, much as Maximus Confessor would later), and he ignores my account of Gregory’s facility with both single- and dual-nature Christological expressions (94-95). This line of argument becomes a hornet’s nest of problems in the following chapter.

Chapter Four, “Autobiographical Christology II: Ep. 101 in the Christological Controversy,” undertakes a wholesale reinterpretation of Gregory’s famous Letter 101 to Cledonius.

Hofer aims to show that Gregory’s letter is aimed almost uniformly at Apollinarian Christology, against the prevailing scholarly consensus that it is predominantly anti-Antiochene, which includes John McGuckin, Christopher Beeley, Lionel Wickham, and the recent critical edition of Diodore of Tarsus’s works by John Behr ( The Case against Diodore and Theodore: Texts and Their Contexts, Oxford Early Christian Texts, 2011). There are several major flaws in the argument.

First, Hofer’s exegesis Gregory’s text ranges from the irresponsible to being positively misleading. His discussion of Oration 22, for example, a text in which Gregory depicts Apollinarian and Antiochene doctrines as equally pernicious, avoids telling the reader that Gregory is referring to non-Apollinarian theologians at all (127-28), and he studiously avoids mentioning Diodore in several other important passages (114, 118, 129, 141, 143). Despite his professed intention to take Gregory’s rhetoric seriously, Hofer puzzlingly interprets hyperbolic statements at face value, such as Gregory’s ludicrous remark in Letter 202 that Apollinarianism is the very worst of all heresies (129). Not only does Hofer ignore the fact that Gregory is here writing to a bishop sponsored by the Antiochene party in order to secure legal action against Apollinarians who have just attempted to take over his church, but he ignores the evidence of Gregory’s wider corpus, which is aimed at Eunomian theologians more than anyone, is directed against Antiochenes just as strongly as Apollinarians, and most often characterizes the true faith as “neither Arian nor Sabellian.” At the heart of the chapter, Hofer’s analysis of the letter’s ten anathemas verges on the fantastical. In anathemas that plainly pertain to Antiochene doctrine, Hofer casts about for other groups to whom Gregory might be responding—to the point of suggesting Ebionites and Manicheans!—and he searches far and wide for evidence of a grand Apollinarian threat.

Second, Hofer bafflingly turns to the old heresy lists as reliable categories of doctrinal analysis. The council of 381, for example, produced “the most authoritative list of heresies at the time,” which scholars should now employ as a reliable barometer of Gregory’s position (137). Hofer fails to mention that the council, which anathematized Apollinarius and established Diodore as a standard-bearer of orthodoxy, was controlled by the Antiochene faction that rebuffed Gregory’s own attempts to reach a true ecclesiastical settlement. Similarly, Hofer refers to Nicene theology as if it required no further qualification, against the weight of the last thirty years of patristic scholarship (125 n7).

Third, Hofer’s use of source material is erratic. He relies on the testimony of Epiphanius solely on the authority of Epiphanius himself (he “thought these documents to be central,” 141), and he mishandles evidence from Sozomen given by Charles Raven, Maurice Jourjon and Paul Gallay (128 n22). In the end, Hofer grasps for Eusebius of Caesarea as the real source of Antiochene two-Sons Christology, despite Eusebius’s strong arguments against the dualism of Marcellus of Ancyra, which receive only brief mention in a footnote (138 n69).

Chapter Four thus amounts to a quixotic attempt to rescue Diodore and his Antiochene colleagues from Gregory’s opprobrium, based on methods of argument that are shocking to find in a work of higher scholarship.

Setting aside formal Christology, Chapter Five, “Autobiographical Christology III: The Mysteries of Christ,” gives a straightforward exposition of Gregory’s festal orations on the Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, along with his various treatments of the stoning of Christ. Like his poetry, Gregory’s festal orations provide ample evidence for his autobiographical Christology. Hofer wisely follows Odo Casel and Verna Harrison in seeing past, present, and future melded in Gregory’s performative liturgical works. Hofer aptly depicts Gregory in these texts as a spiritual director who urges his people to follow him in experiencing the mysteries of the Savior.

Chapter Six, “Gregory’s Christomorphic Ministry,” demonstrates how Gregory’s autobiographical Christology informs his account of lay and ordained Christian ministry, covering Gregory’s Oration 2 on the priesthood, his works on marriage and virginity, and those on wealth and poverty. In each case, Gregory depicts Christ as being directly involved in the respective ministry, through both positive and negative examples, in such a way that life, doctrine, and ministry are intertwined.

Gregory’s rhetorical-theological synthesis is indeed an important and even central mode of his work. Hofer has brought together a good deal of recent research, and his translations are often felicitous. Aside from these qualities, the book’s main argument is in a sense too obvious, and its Christological analysis is severely flawed. The strongest sections of the book are Hofer’s discussions of Gregory’s works, yet these tend to be seriatim expositions and not terribly illuminating. In the end, we learn little about why Gregory’s autobiographical Christology demands the particular Christological position he maintains, or vice-versa, and it remains unclear why Hofer is so concerned to rescue Gregory for the anti-Apollinarian cause. A stronger case could be made, I think, that the reverse is true—that a steadfastly unitive, anti-Antiochene (and also anti-Apollinarian) Christology serves to integrate Gregory’s life with Christ more effectively than a uniformly anti-Apollinarian one, which keeps them further separated along Antiochene lines. And while it is certainly the case that Gregory’s Christology informs his autobiography, the reverse is not true in the same way: Gregory hardly considers the exigencies of his life essential to understanding Christ’s, any more than human existence could prevail over the divine nature in the Incarnation. Consequently, the book will be useful for introducing students to Gregory’s autobiographical Christology, yet it does not succeed as a work of scholarship.

[For a response to this review by Andrew Hofer, please see BMCR 2015.02.11.]