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CHRISTOLOGY, SOTERIOLOGY, AND GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS:


A PATRISTIC MODEL FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY

By Jacob D. Gerber

Introduction

The doctrine of Christ—that is, the theology of who and what Christ is—holds a place of

obvious importance for Christians. We should note, however, that the Church Fathers who

originally worked out the standards for orthodox Christology did not think that the issues of

Christ's humanity, deity, and personhood represented subjects for disinterested speculation, but

rather that these issues were the very battlegrounds where humanity's salvation would be won or

lost. Representative of this tendency among the Fathers is Gregory of Nazianzus, who focuses

heavily on Christology precisely because of his soteriological concerns. John McGuckin, one of

Gregory's biographers, insists that “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 human

kind. It was Gregory who underscored the inalienable connection of the Christ mystery to the

doctrine of salvation. In short, for Gregory, if the soteriological principle could not be

demonstrated at every turn, the Christology had to be suspect.”1

Specifically, Gregory argues that (1) Christ must be fully human if humans are to benefit

from Christ's work; (2) Christ must be fully divine in order to be able to conquer sin, death, and

Satan in his humanity; and (3) Christ must be comprised of two distinct natures yet remain fully

unified in personhood in order to make humans into gods (deification) to the same extent as

Christ was made human. Although Gregory's robust description of Christ's natures and

personhood do eventually became the standard for orthodox Christology, the ultimate goal of this

1 John A. McGuckin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's
Seminary Press, 2001), 390.
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paper is to argue that Gregory's particular approach to Christology stands as an invaluable

patristic resource for Protestants, particularly those in the Reformed tradition.

Christ's Humanity

Gregory's theology of Christ's humanity does not begin with a study of Christ, but with a

study of the human race. That is, Gregory does not seem to believe, as other theologians have

suggested over the centuries, that the Word of God being made incarnate would have taken place

regardless of whether humanity had sinned. Instead, Gregory suggests that Christ's incarnation

came as a direct result of humanity's fall:

If we had remained, then, what we were, and had kept the command, we would
have become what we were not, having access to the tree of life as well as the tree
of knowledge. And what would we have become? We would have been made
immortal, and have drawn near to God. But since, by the envy of the Evil One,
death came into the world and took man captive by deceit, God has come to suffer
in the way we suffer, by becoming human, and has endured the poverty of being
constituted as flesh, “so that we might become rich by his poverty.”2

Because Adam did not keep the command, no one was made immortal, nor did any draw near to

God. (Gregory explains elsewhere that we participate in these consequences since all of us “have

died in Adam,” sharing his “old humanity” of death and sinfulness.3) In order for us to obtain

immortality and to draw near to God, God had to draw near to us by becoming—and by suffering

as—a fellow human being. For Gregory, it is our necessity that breeds the Word's incarnation.

The motivation behind the Word's incarnation—our salvation—becomes the operative

principle that drives and guides Gregory's theology of Christ's humanity. If Christ is to create a

“new humanity...so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with him and

buried with him and raised with him,”4 then he must become fully human, for how could he
2 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 44: For a New Sunday,” in Gregory of Nazianzus, ed. Brian E. Daley (London:
Routledge, 2006), §4, p. 157.
3 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 38: On the Theophany,” in Gregory of Nazianzus, ed. Daley, §4, p. 118.
4 Ibid.
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redeem humanity if he himself were not human? More precisely, Gregory argues that Christ

must be like us in every respect if he is to save us to the uttermost.

In this connection, Gregory writes his best known statement: “For that which He has not

assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead is also saved.” 5 Here,

Gregory is arguing against Apollinarius, who suggested that Christ took only human flesh, so

that his Godhead supplied Jesus' soul and mind. Primarily because of soteriological concerns,

Gregory insists that such an explanation of Christ's nature will not do, for an incomplete

humanity would mean an incomplete salvation: “How does this touch me? For Godhead joined

to flesh alone is not man, nor to soul alone, nor to both apart from intellect, which is the most

essential part of man. Keep then the whole man, and mingle Godhead therewith, that you may

benefit me in my completeness.”6 Christ's salvation “touches” human beings in their totality

only if Christ himself bears humanity in its totality.

On the subject of Christ's humanity, Reformed Christians would greatly benefit from

listening carefully to Gregory's theological reasoning. First, although Calvin does not indicate

any particular indebtedness to Gregory on this point, he opens his magisterial Institutes of the

Christian Religion on a note that resonates strongly with the starting point of Gregory's

Christology. Calvin writes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound

wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves....The miserable ruin, into

which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward....Each of us

must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some

knowledge of God.”7 Calvin's study of theology (like Gregory's study of Christology) begins
5 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Letter 101,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, vol. VII, trans. Charles G.
Browne and James E Swallow (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1955), p. 440.
6 Ibid.
7 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford L. Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, vol. I (Louisville:
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with an assessment of humanity's miserable condition, leading us to recognize our great need.

Moreover, when Calvin opens the second book of his Institutes, concerning “The Knowledge of

God the Redeemer,” he again begins not with explicit Christology, but once more with self-

assessment: “But knowledge of ourselves lies first in considering what we were given at

creation....Secondly, to call to mind our miserable condition after Adam's fall.”8 In fact, Calvin

does not turn his attention toward Christ and away from human depravity until the sixth chapter

of the second book. Calvin, like Gregory, sees Anthropology as the starting point of Christology.

Second, Gregory's Christological arguments against Apollinarius lend support one of the

most controversial aspects of Reformed Anthropology. Let us examine the fuller quotation of

what Gregory writes to sum up his attack on Apollinarius's deficient view of Christ's humanity:

“For that which He has not assumed He has not healed; but that which is united to His Godhead

is also saved. If only half Adam fell, then that which Christ assumes and saves may be half also;

but if the whole of his nature fell, it must be united to the whole nature of Him that was begotten,

and so be saved as a whole.”9 Again, Gregory's concern here is primarily soteriological, so that

Christ had to assume full humanity in order to secure full salvation. Subsequent Christians have

fully affirmed Gregory's arguments as the definitive critique on Apollinarianism.

What Reformed Christians should notice, however, is that Gregory's presuppositions

strongly seem to endorse the particular anthropology that the Synod of Dort famously named

“Total Depravity.” Often, this doctrine is misunderstood to mean that fallen human beings

commit sin as often and as perversely as possible; however, Total Depravity refers not so much

to the extent of sin that human beings commit as it does to the extent to which sin infects human

Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 1.1.1, p. 35-36.


8 Ibid., 2.1.1, p. 242.
9 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Letter 101,” p. 440.
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nature. That is, there is no part of human nature that I might use in order to direct myself to God

because every part of human nature is touched by sin. Calvin (writing in advance of the Synod

of Dort) explains that, “none of the soul remains pure or untouched by that mortal disease [of

sin]. For in his discussion of a corrupt nature Paul not only condemns the inordinate impulses of

the appetites that are seen, but especially contends the mind is given over to blindness and the

heart to depravity.”10 Sin touches not only our bodies (“impulses of the appetites”), but our

souls, minds, and hearts and hearts as well.

Not all Christians would affirm the doctrine of Total Depravity (e.g., Peter Lombard,

whom Calvin directly chastises immediately before the above cited passage of the Institutes);

however, Gregory's Christological reasoning makes it difficult to reach any other conclusion.

Gregory's argument runs like this: (1) Christ assumed every part of human nature that had fallen

into sin; (2) “the whole of [humanity's] nature fell,” including body, soul, and mind; (3)

therefore, Christ assumed a human body, soul, and mind. By this logic, if some part of human

nature did not fall into sin, then Christ did not need to assume that part, which is exactly what the

Apollinarians wanted to affirm. Therefore, to reject Total Depravity is tantamount to authorizing

Apollinarianism, which the orthodox Church has long maintained to be heresy. Either humanity

fully fell, and so Christ became fully human, or “only half Adam fell, [and] then that which

Christ assumes and saves may be half also.” Reformed Christians would do well to argue their

anthropology on the basis of Gregory's universally accepted Christology.

Christ's Divinity

Gregory, a vocal defender of the fullness of the Nicene faith, makes no secret of his faith

in the full divinity of Jesus Christ. For example, he writes that Christ “was God from on high,

10 Calvin, Institutes, vol. I, 2.1.9, p. 253.


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coeternal with the Father, both divine Word and Maker of all things, superior to time and

passions and body.”11 As in the issue of Christ's humanity, however, Gregory writes more about

the soteriological necessity of Christ's divinity than about its ontological reality. Specifically,

Gregory defends the full divinity of Christ in order to maintain that Christ's righteous life could

extend salvifically to the rest of the human race.

To Gregory, Christ's divinity is the key reason that Christ was able to live a perfect life as

a human being. The first human beings had fallen into sin despite not having any inclination to

do so. So, Satan knew how to corrupt mere human beings; he did not, however, know how to

corrupt God. Gregory dramatizes Christ's temptation narrative to tell the story:

For since the clever salesman for evil thought he was invincible, deceiving us
with the hope of being gods, he is himself deceived by the screen of flesh, and
thinking he was attacking Adam, he encountered God. In this way the new Adam
succeeded in saving the old Adam, and put an end to the condemnation of the
flesh; death, in that flesh, was put to death.12

The suggestion here is that, if Christ had merely been a sinless human being, Satan would have

been able to trick him just as he tricked Adam; however, when Satan began his invincible

(against mere humans) sales pitch, Christ's divinity made the difference in withstanding the

temptation. Then Gregory ties this success to the salvation of “the old Adam,” in that it “put an

end to the condemnation of the flesh.” Although Gregory does not describe very explicitly what

he means here, he clearly sees a direct connection between Christ's obedience and our salvation.

Gregory speaks more clearly, however, in another passage, where he speaks of how the

Father counts Christ's submission as my own:

11 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Against Apollinarius,” in On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of
Nazianzus, trans. Pter Gilber (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2001), l. 13-15, p. 81.
12 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 39: On the Holy Lights,” in Gregory of Nazianzus, ed. Daley, §13, p. 134.
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No—look at this fact: the one who releases me from the curse was called “curse”
because of me; “the one who takes away the world's sin” was called “sin” and is
made a new Adam to replace the old. In just this way too, as head of the whole
body, he appropriates my want of submission. So long as I am an insubordinate
rebel with passions which deny God, my lack of submission will be referred to
Christ. But when all things are put in submission under him, when transformed
they obediently acknowledge him, then will Christ bring me forward, me who
have been saved, and make his subjection complete. In my view Christ's
submission is the fulfillment of the Father's will. As we said before, the Son
actively produces submission to the Father, while the Father wills and approves
submission to the Son. Thus it is that he effects our submission, makes it his own
and presents it to God.13

In this passage, Gregory contrasts our lack of submission with Christ's submission. As in the

above passage, Gregory describes Christ as succeeding where the old “Adam” failed, so that he

replaces the old with a “new Adam.” Here, however, Gregory makes the link between Christ's

obedience and our salvation clear: Christ “appropriates my want of submission....Thus it is that

he effects our submission, makes it his own and presents it to God.” In other words, Christ takes

our own lack of submission upon himself, and then presents his own obedience to God on our

behalf, so that Christ's submission counts for us as “the fulfillment of the Father's will.”

Furthermore, Gregory describes this as a divine act within the Trinity: “the Son actively produces

submission to the Father, while the Father wills and approves submission to the Son.” Again,

Christ's divinity is responsible for Christ's success in pleasing the Father, and Christ's success in

pleasing the Father is the source of our salvation. Christ must be fully divine if he is to save us.

Gregory's language here, though, sounds strikingly like the later-developed Reformed

concepts of the “active obedience of Christ.” Of this, Louis Berkhof writes, “Christ as Mediator

entered the federal relation in which Adam stood in the state of integrity, in order to merit eternal

life for the sinner. This constitutes the active obedience of Christ, consisting in all that Christ did

13 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 30: On the Son,” in On God and Christ, trans. Lionel Wickham (Crestwood,
NY: St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2002), §5, p. 96.
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to observe the law in its federal aspect, as the condition for obtaining eternal life....Moreover, if

Christ had not rendered active obedience, the human nature of Christ itself would have fallen

short of the just demands of God, and He would not have been able to atone for others.”14 While

Gregory discusses obedience/submission to God in a general way, Berkhof focuses particularly

on Christ's obedience to and his fulfillment of “the law in its federal aspect.” This is not so much

a difference in substance as it is in specificity, for Berkhof is working within a theological

framework (Reformed Federal Theology) that would obviously be anachronistic to expect from

Gregory. Nevertheless, the two seem to be making the same point: Christ's submission (or

obedience) fulfills the Father's will for me. Calvin similarly declares, “To declare that by him

alone we are accounted righteous, what else is this but to lodge our righteousness in Christ's

obedience, because the obedience of Christ is reckoned to us as if it were our own?” 15 I am

righteous not because of any act of righteousness that I have done, but because Christ's

righteousness counts for me.

The active obedience of Christ, however, often becomes muddled and even gets ignored

in much Christian preaching; instead, many proclaim exclusively the “passive obedience of

Christ”—the doctrine that Christ underwent suffering in punishment for our sins. The problem

with this is that Christ's having died for our sins on its own is not enough for our salvation. Even

if we have been forgiven of our wrong-doing because Christ has been punished for it, we have

nevertheless still failed to obey God as we ought. God demands perfect obedience and

submission, and so we need more than moral neutrality—we need to be counted righteous! If

Christ's passive obedience is the salvific work that counts for us, we still fall short. Gregory

14 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 4th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1941), 380.
15 Calvin, Institutes, vol. I, 3.11.23, p. 753.
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avoids this problem by saying, “As we said before, the Son actively produces submission to the

Father, while the Father wills and approves submission to the Son. Thus it is that he effects our

submission, makes it his own and presents it to God.” The Father approves of the Son's active

submission, which he effects for us—by this, God is pleased with us. No longer neutral, we

become pleasing in God's sight. Christ's active obedience is crucial for our salvation.

The Unity of Christ's Personhood

Gregory discusses the unity of Christ's personhood in relation to one of the most

cherished tenants of his soteriology: theosis, or deification—our being “made God.” Gregory

writes, “Through the medium of the mind he had dealings with the flesh, being made that God on

earth, which is Man: Man and God blended. They became a single whole, the stronger side

predominating, in order that I might be made God to the same extent that he was made man.”16

Gregory insists that the blending of Christ's two natures into “a single whole” happened so that

“I might be made God to the same extent that he was made man.” Gregory understands our

being “made God” not only as the pinnacle of human salvation, but also as the pinnacle of

Christ's accomplishments as “blended” human and God. Of course, Western theologians in

general, and Reformed theologians in particular, have typically shied away from describing our

future salvation in the language of deification. My goal in this section is (1) to understand what

Gregory means by our being “made God” as completely as possible, and (2) to explore the

connections between Gregory's concept of deification and Calvin's concept of union with Christ.

The standard objection to deification is that our being “made God” would confuse the

Creator-creature distinction. Such a confusion would not only be metaphysically impossible

(How could that which is created ever become eternal?), but also a blasphemous assault on God's

16 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 29: On the Son,” in On God and Christ, trans. Wickham, §19, p. 86.
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unique status as God. But does Gregory actually mean that we will become God? In his oration

“On the Theophany,” Gregory suggests that he does not:

And he does this [the incarnation], it seems to me, so that, insofar as it can be
comprehended, the Divine might draw us to itself—for what is completely beyond
our grasp is also beyond hope, beyond attainment—but that insofar as it is
incomprehensible, it might stir up our wonder, and through wonder might be
yearned for all the more, and through our yearning might purify us, and in
purifying us might make us like God; and when we have become this, that he
might then associate with us intimately as friends—my words here are rash and
daring!—uniting himself with us, making himself known to us, as God to gods,
perhaps to the same extent that he already knows those who are known by him.17

On one hand, Gregory acknowledges that what he is describing is beyond human experience,

imagination, and even hope—he even describes his words as “rash and daring.” We should not

easily underestimate the scope of what he conceives this to be. On the other hand, however,

Gregory maintains a clear distinction between the God and whatever it is that we might become.

Gregory does not say that he “might make us God,” but that he “might make us like God.”

Furthermore, he does not say that he will relate to us as “God to God” (as though we attain some

divine status equal to the persons of the Trinity, each of which he constantly maintains to be

homoousios with the others), but as “God to gods.” Yes, we will be exalted; yes, we will be

purified; yes, we will attain to a knowledge of God that we can scarcely fathom at the moment;

however, Gregory stops short of asserting that we will gain God's very identity. That he will

make himself known to us “perhaps to the same extent that he already knows those who are

known by him” is strong evidence that Gregory still imagines a distinction between God and

humanity. Gregory does not think that we will become self-same with God.

Instead, let us follow Gregory in a different direction, when he describes our being made

“divine” as an end result of Christ's role as Mediator:

17 Gregory, “Oration 38: On the Theophany,” §7, p. 120.


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“Ever living to appeal for us.” Yes indeed—what deep significance and humanity
it expresses! “Appealing” does not imply here, as it does in popular parlance, a
desire for legal satisfaction—there is something humiliating in the idea. No, it
means representing us in his role of mediator, in the way that the Spirit too is
spoken of as “appealing” on our behalf. “For there is one God, and one mediator
between God and men, the man, Jesus Christ.” Even at this moment he is, as
man, making representation for my salvation, until he makes me divine by the
power of his incarnate manhood.18

Gregory understands Christ's role as mediator to be an ongoing role that is happening now “even

at this moment,” and that will happen “until he makes me divine by the power of his incarnate

manhood.” I would argue that the key to understanding Gregory's position on deification is this

explanation of Christ's role as mediator. Because he is the “one mediator between God and

men,” Christ has united God and men. The salvation that he has worked—and continues to work

as he appeals for us—draws us ever-nearer to God as we become united to Christ's “incarnate

manhood.” In other words, our connection with divinity happens through our connection with

Christ's (divine) humanity.

At this point we can see a correlation between Gregory and Calvin. Calvin emphasizes

Christ's mediatorial role heavily, explaining a vast amount of his theology in terms of the benefits

that flow from our union with the one Mediator, Christ:

As if we ought to think of Christ, standing afar off and not rather dwelling in us!
For we await salvation from him not because he appears to us afar off, because he
makes us, ingrafted into his body, participants not only in all his benefits but also
in himself. So I turn this argument of theirs back against them: if you
contemplate yourself, that is sure damnation. But since Christ has been so
imparted to you with all his benefits that all his things are made yours, that you
are made a member of him, indeed one with him, his righteousness overwhelms
your sins; his salvation wipes out your condemnation; with his worthiness he
intercedes that your unworthiness may not come before God's sight. Surely this is
so: We ought not to separate Christ from ourselves or ourselves from him.19

18 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Oration 30: On the Son,” §14, p. 105.


19 Calvin, Institutes, vol. I, 3.2.24, p. 570.
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In this passage, Calvin emphasizes the importance that believers not think of themselves, but of

Christ, which is “sure damnation,” but to understand themselves as participants in Christ

“himself.” Calvin here articulates something very close to divinization, even if he does not call

it that. In the final analysis, it still seems to me that Gregory probably imagines a little more

“divinizing” than Calvin does; however, Reformed Christians would do well to give full weight

to the strength of Calvin's theology of our union and participation in Christ. If we completely

reject Gregory's statements about being “made God,” then they lose even Calvin's hope of glory.

Conclusion

Rather than ransacking one of the Church Fathers for proof-texts to support a particular

denominational perspective, I am hopeful that this paper will help lead more Reformed

Christians into appropriating the rich heritage of the early church into our own theological

tradition. This is important for several reasons. First, to examine our own convictions in the

light of a Christian who lived over a millennium before the Reformation will help to bring fresh

insight to issues that have often been examined without any reference whatsoever to the Church

Fathers. Second, by growing to understand our continuity to the early church, we gain a sense of

the catholicity of our Reformed faith—we stand on the shoulders of two thousand years of

Christianity, rather than merely on the shoulders of the Reformers onward. Finally, by

interacting with (and growing to appreciate) the founders of another theological tradition, we

learn the depth of the commonalities that we share with members of that tradition. The Eastern

Orthodox and the Reformed do not often interact; however, unless Reformed Christians listen

carefully to figures like Gregory of Nazianzus, we lose untold amounts of fellowship with one

another in the common worship of our incarnated, crucified, and resurrected Savior Jesus Christ.