Using theology to cleanse the theologian

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February 28, 2013 by mattwilcoxen

ImageGregory of Nazianzus describes the first of his five great theological orations (Oration 27) as an attempt to use “theology to cleanse the theologian” (28.1). The short piece is highly polemical as Gregory takes aim against some who “have undermined every approach to true religion by their complete obsession with setting and solving conundrums” (27.2). These are clever people who are always looking for a theological debate. So grave is the situation, so flippant the attitude of these people that “‘the great mystery’ of our faith is in danger of becoming a mere social accomplishment” (27.2). We do not really know who Gregory is aiming at here, despite the traditional title “against the Eunomians”. 

Speaking into this situation, Gregory instructs us that theology is not to be done at all times. It is not to be discussed by all people. And where it is done it must observe certain limits. The right time is when we are able “to be still” before God, free from the distractions that would pollute our reflection. The audience of theology must be those who recognize the sanctity of this task–not those who find it to be a field for competition. And the limit set to theology is this: we can investigate only the things that are within our grasp and the grasp of the audience (27.3).

What Gregory is trying to guard here is “theology”–not an academic discipline, but the rich, purposeful exegesis of scripture as entry into participation with God. It’s fascinating that what he’s on guard against might be something quite like what we would call “theology” today–a realm for the demonstration of human genius, a place that is as much a field for speculation and even academic competition as any other. According to Gregory, this is only a theology so-called because the object of theology is only found along the “narrow way” (27.8), and even when we do know God, our knowledge is quite limited (28.10). 

This is the practical and spiritual significance of the apophaticism inherent in classical Christian theology. It reminds us that knowledge of God is a grace, a grace that declares judgment upon us as those who do not and cannot know God. It does this as it gives us a share–however fragmentary–of God’s own knowledge of himself. 

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© Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed, 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Matthew A. Wilcoxen and Canon and Creed with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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