“Epistemological Humility” and Gregory of Nazianzus

The church yesterday commemorated the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus. (The Episcopal Church apparently marks Gregory’s day on May 9; not sure why it is different.) Gregory is one of the great theologians of the early church and is remembered for his many contributions to the way we think about God. For instance, he argued that we should think of the Holy Spirit as fully divine, which I always like to note because it allows me to mention the Pneumatomachi, or Spirit Fighters, who sound like a cartoon superhero gang but were really people who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

But what I appreciate most about Gregory’s theology is his emphasis on what we might call “epistemological humility.” That is, we should be careful about how and what we say about God. No matter how good your theology, it can never fully wrap itself around the mystery and wonder that is God.

In his famous Theological Orations, Gregory compares himself to Moses ascending Sinai. When he reaches the peak, he saw

as it were, shadowy reflections of the Sun in water, reflections which display to eyes too weak, because too impotent to gaze at it, the Sun overmastering perception in the purity of light. Thus and thus only, can you speak of God…. For were a thing all heavenly, all super-celestial even, far more sublime in nature than ourselves, far nearer God, its remoteness from him and from his perfect apprehension is much greater than its superiority to our low, heavy compound. (28.3)

God is such a different kind of being from humans that our knowledge of God will always be imperfect and incomplete. As a result, any inquiry about God begins in an odd place: with the recognition that no matter what we do, our inquiry will never reveal everything we want to know.

This is not to say that we can’t say anything about God; Gregory is a theologian after all and his recognition of his own fallibility doesn’t prevent him from expounding on the nature of the Trinity. But in order to do theology, Gregory argues, we have to be “purified,” that is, we have to be constantly converted to closer relationship with God.

One of the trickiest issues in the church, I think, is how easy it is to rely on the hermeneutic of self-justification and to interpret divine revelation in a way that suits the way we are already living. This obviates the need for the transformation that is at the heart of the Christian Gospel. As we commemorate Gregory, we might recall that rather than transforming God to meet our expectations, we might perhaps transform ourselves to meet God’s.

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