The Trinity and the Fourth Century
D. Blair Smith
Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology
Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte
This year’s Paideia Center’s reading group made its way through Gregory of Nazianzus’s (hereafter Nazianzen) Theological Orations. Consequently, I will use his writings, and later his friend Basil’s, as a guide for looking at the Trinity and the Fourth Century. In reading Nazianzen, a beautiful, though maybe a little spooky, yet still enchanting world opens to the reader.
An Eloquent Guide
In reading Nazianzen’s Theological Orations one is immediately struck by two things:
One: Nazianzen would have been amazing on Twitter. This man could turn a phrase quicker than an Allen Iverson cross-over. Listen to a few of these lines when he was giving expression to the depth and beauty of nature. In its own way, nature – a created reality – startles us in its incomprehensibility. Yet it, of course, is far surpassed by its Creator:
Who puts a sounding-board in the cicada’s chest with the chirping songs it makes in the branches? Whenever the Sun sets them going they make mid-day music, stirring the groves and giving the traveler an escort of sound. Who wove the web of song for the swan, when it spreads out its wings to the breeze, turning its hissing into melody? (Oration 28.24)
His words are reflective of the beauty of his subject yet skillfully modulated to bring great effect to his audience. He was a masterful rhetorician.
But perhaps if you were tempted to tweet a Nazianzen quote you paused like I often have with a sense of guilt: Nazianzen would have hated Twitter. All this theological chit-chat would have taken him back to the streets and public gatherings of Constantinople where the people of the day all-too-readily spoke of the mystery of God. The deep resources of theology should not be aired like yesterday’s or today’s news. The nature of the object should govern the where and the when and then manner of our speaking, which leads to the second initial observation.
Second: In contrast to reading Twitter, in reading Nazianzen one is frequently drawn into prayer, and worship, and contemplation of the mystery that is the Triune God.
If you go away with nothing else from this talk I hope it will be that fourth-century Trinitarian thought was, yes, concerned with giving a faithful expression to who the Triune God is, but this was in service of a more fundamental desire. That is, a desire to protect the “simple faith” of the church that is expressed in something as basic as the baptismal formula. Basil (of Caesarea or “the Great”), who I will introduce later in the talk, said he would rather confess the “simple faith” of the church than write volumes on the Trinity; yet, he felt pressed to engage and refute those threats he discerned to the faith which the church confessed in its worship. And if one is going to engage in theological battle, which will mean theological refinement, one must not be only motivated to protect the Church’s worship of the Triune God, but also deepen that worship. That is, draw the people of God deeper into the mystery of the Trinity through theological reflection.
To quote Scott Swain from his talk last night: “Theology, in its most sophisticated academic expressions, is only ultimately about helping us sing…hymns in greater harmony with the scriptural score.”
Basil would say, as would Nazianen, what is confessed simply at baptism (and we could add the Creed) and marks the distinctive character of Christian worship becomes, for the Christian, the outline for one’s faith and, consequently, for one’s own spiritual growth in that faith. In short, engaging in Trinitarian theology is engaging in spirituality. This is the note I want to strike here at the beginning, and it is the note we will return to at the end.
It is the note Nazianzen struck in the First Theological Oration (Oration 27). He’s vexed that his opponents have advanced their leaders too quickly. They do not understand how important it is to live by the sense that theological study engaging the mind goes together with devotional meditation. They are inseparable. This is what Nazianzen would call theoria or contemplation.
Theological “Mood Lighting”: Oration 41
To start off I want to quote a paragraph from one of Nazianzen’s other writings, from an Oration on Baptism (Oration 40) that he gave when he was bishop in Constantinople. While it was on Baptism, its setting is Epiphany, the Feast of Lights. Light is a prominent theme in the Oration. He specifically wants his audience to understand the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit.
It’s a dense quote but it sets the theological mood for us in looking at pro-Nicene trinitarianism in the fourth century. Now, if you listen carefully to this quote you will most likely recognize lines you have heard before—lines that that left an indelible mark on one of the great Reformers.
Above all, guard for me the good deposit…, the confession of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. I entrust this to you today. With this I will both submerge you and raise you up. This I give you as a partner and protector for all your life, the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three, and gathering together the three as distinct; neither uneven in substances or nature, nor increased or decreased by superiorities or inferiorities; from every perspective equal, from every perspective the same, as the beauty and greatness of heaven is one; an infinite coalescence of three infinities; each God when considered in himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Spirit; each preserving his properties. The three are God when known together, each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy. When I first know the one I am also illumined from all sides by the three; when I first distinguish the three I am also carried back to the one. When I picture one of the three I consider the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part has escaped me. I cannot grasp the greatness of that one in order to grant something greater to the rest. When I bring the three together in contemplation, I see one torch and am unable to divide or measure the united light (Oration 40.41) (Found in Calvin’s Institutes I.13.17).
Within this passage – you’ll notice it is just as packed with evocative rhetoric as with theological content – we perceive Nazianzen’s characteristic connection between the knowledge and experience of God as with who God is himself. That is to say, God is not approached as a neutral object from which we can glean certain facts or characteristics; he is one upon whom we affectionately gaze, who progressively reveals himself to those who pursue that vision with their whole lives. For Nazianzen, the vision of God is synonymous with the knowledge of God. The “greater part” always escapes view. Light, even a three-fold light, dawns upon the theologian through a contemplative vision—the theologian is not left in darkness. Yet, while what is gained in Trinitarian knowledge is real, it is also mysterious; as soon as the spiritual eye is “filled” it is overwhelmed, for it cannot survey – “divide or measure” – the whole. What it attempts to take in will always lead it to what is beyond limit.
Indeed, the drumbeat of divine incomprehensibility accompanies any Trinitarian inquiry within Nazianzen (He has a “Big God theology!”). As much as divine incomprehensibility cautions us as we endeavor to know God, all hope is not lost. There is light. And that light coupled with God’s incomprehensibility is an invitation to pursue a more penetrating vision of God.
My talk has 3 main points:
- A contemplative vision leads one to consider a “dizzying” manifestation of three and one.
- The Trinity’s “Timeless” Beginning
- The Holy Spirit and Inseparable Operations
As I fill out these points it is my intent for the conclusions to actually point to something more expansive within the fourth century than just understanding a bit of Nazianzen and a bit of Basil. It is my purpose for this outline to point to something wider, to guide us to the central principles of pro-Nicene Trinitarian theology, and so you will see that as a point of conclusion within each of these three points.
A contemplative vision leads one to consider a “dizzying” manifestation of three and one.
Three and One Simultaneously
In the contemplative vision of God brought about by the Spirit one is led to a “dizzying” manifestation of the threeness and oneness of God, his unity and diversity. Nazianzen pictures himself as a seeker who is continuously led in his contemplation from one to three and from three back to one: Again, “When I first know the one I am also illumined from all sides by the three; when I first distinguish the three I am also carried back to the one.”
There is much to unpack here, both in theological content and rhetorical framing. In fact, in Nazianzen’s rhetorical framing of the theological question at hand he is suggesting something of the reality to which he speaks. Take Nazianzen’s description of light that portrays the three and one dynamically and at the same time. For example, in Oration 39.11 Nazianzen says,
When I speak of God, let yourselves be surrounded with a lightening flash of light that is both one and three: three in properties, or indeed in hypostases, if one wants to call them that, or persons—for we will not become involved in a battle over names, as long as the syllables point towards the same notions—and one with regard to the concept of substance, or indeed divinity. It is divided without division, if I may speak in this way, and is joined together in the midst of distinction. The divinity is one in three, and the three are one—in whom the divinity exists, or, to speak more accurately, who are the divinity.
After this Nazianzus goes on to situate this description between two extremes: on the one side, the Sabellians who aggregate the three into an “unholy mass” and, on the other side, the Arians and their “alienation” of the one which cuts God into “inequalities.” Rather than Nazianzen giving description to the Trinity in a way that moves from the three to the one, or the one to the three, he upholds both simultaneously, characterizing his perception of this simultaneity as being somehow “surrounded” on “all sides”. Thus, within his vision he holds together that the divinity is simultaneously three in one and one in three. Bringing these two together is a rhetorical construction where two things that appear in tension are actually complementary, and given the nature of what is under consideration such rhetorical description is appropriate. That is to say, the mysterious nature of the divine requires certain tensions in speech concerning it. And this “both/and” concerning the nature of God stands in contrast with the “neither/nor” vis-à-vis heretical constructions of the divine. It is as if after ascending the mount and attempting to reveal the fullness of his theological vision which demands rhetorical “both/ands”, he descends back to earth and clearly marks off its false theological attempts with “neither/nors”. This gives him a certain vigor in the key of mystery, while rejecting clear positions to his “right” and “left”. Carving a “golden mean”, he then makes positive assertions that sit in tension. A case in point of Nazianzen juxtaposing his rhetorical “both/and” with his “neither/nor” is found in Oration 20.5-6:
We worship the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, dividing their properties but uniting their Godhead; and we neither blend the three into one, lest we be sick with Sabellius’s disease, nor do we divide them into three alien and unrelated things, lest we share Arius’s madness. For why should we act like those who try to straighten a plant bent over completely in one direction by forcibly training it the opposite way, correcting one deviation by another? Rather, we should straighten it midway between the two, and so take our position within the bounds of reverence. When I speak of such a middle position, I mean the truth, which we do well to have sight of alone, and rejecting both a bad approach to unity and even as fouler version of distinction.
What Nazianzen is not saying is that simply navigating a “middle way” will lead one to the truth. Rather, the two “rival” positions on each side emphasize either “one” or “three” to an extent unworthy of God’s Triune character. In Nazianzen’s understanding, both unity and diversity must be mysteriously held together in order to account for the richness of his vision.
The Three are equally known because the Three are equally God.
In probing that vision further, I first take into account Nazianzen’s assertion that each of the three “lights” or divine persons can be known and is directly present to him. The picture provided by Oration 40.41 is of three lights – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – surrounding him, each God when considered in himself and, therefore, each an object of worship. Earlier within the same oration, Nazianzen introduced this image of light within the Trinity in apophatic terms initially by saying there is a “highest light” that is “unapproachable” and “ineffable.” Yet, through a purified contemplation it is able to be known, and is equally evident in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. While Nazianzen again upholds the knowability of each of the divine persons, and utilizes evocative light imagery to picture his direct knowledge of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, there is also the suggestion of the singularity of the light which provides the “wealth” that, so to speak, manifests the divinity of each of the Trinitarian persons. Consequently, as Nazianzen speaks of the three divine persons he is brought back to what holds them together, to what, as it were, “funds” their shared character. This move is not, therefore, a mere assertion of the mutual presence of the three and one or of the diversity and unity. It is, rather, a suggestion of underlying patterns that contribute to an understanding of their complementarity.
In his Fifth Theological Oration, when addressing the unity and diversity of the Godhead, Nazianzen again utilizes the image of light and connects it to suns:
To us there is one God because there is a single Godhead, and what proceeds from him is referred to one, though we believe in three…. To express it succinctly, the Godhead exists undivided in beings divided, and there is a single intermingling of light, as it were, existing in three mutually connected suns. When then we look at the Godhead, the first cause, the monarchy, what we have a mental picture of is one. But when we look at the three in whom the Godhead exists, and at those who derive their timeless and equally glorious being from the first cause, there are three whom we worship (Oration 31.14).
In our integrating text, Oration 40.41, Nazianzen uses the phrase “infinite coalescence of three infinities” to vaguely describe how the persons of the Godhead are three and yet are united. This gives way to his perception of the dynamic simultaneity of one light yet three lights. Here, in Or. 31.14, the image provides more description for the relationship between the one and three. For you do not simply have a whirling perception of the three and one; there is, rather, the image of one “intermingling of light” existing in “three mutually connected suns.”
Pro-Nicene principle 1: the person and nature distinction
Now, as I said in giving this outline through these points I want to highlight what are the central principles of pro-Nicene theology as given in Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy. The first principle is a clear version of the person and nature distinction. Within this it is understood that whatever is said of the divine nature is said of the three persons equally and understood to be one. Well, in these texts from Nazianzen we see highly mature and refined expressions of what is three and what is one in God. The language is not always consistent (using person or hypostases for the 3 and nature or substance for the 1), but the grammar is there and that grammar is controlling his evocative expressions of three-in-oneness.
The Trinity’s “Timeless” Beginning
Our second point returns to Nazianzen’s light imagery and whether it speaks to something more than just what is Three and what is One. There are three mutually connected lights yet one intermingling light. This suggests an underlying relationship that is further clarified when Nazianzen speaks of the “Godhead” which is also the “first cause.” While this text has a certain logic within it, it is not entirely clear on its own whose is the Godhead and who is the primal cause. It would seem, then, that if we can identify the single light with the Godhead or primal cause, we can begin to understand how the three and the one complement, or “fit together” within the Trinity according to Nazianzen.
Relations of origin
This is my shortest point, which addresses the Father as the one whose dynamic relationship with the Son and Spirit accounts for their unity in diversity and diversity in unity. To return again to our integrating text, Or. 40.41. Within it, Nazianzen begins a long sentence on the Triune God by asserting “the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three, and gathering together the three as distinct” and then closes that same sentence by saying each divine person is “God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy.” Like the ambiguity in Or. 31.14, it is not abundantly clear within this section if the Father is equated with “one divinity” or has “the monarchy.” But, if he is, then it is clear that he provides a coherence to Nazianzen’s account of “dynamic simultaneity” between the three and one.
To give brief evidence for this, I turn to two theological poems that Nazianzen wrote late in his life when in a reflective state. They mirror the content of the Theological Orations, and provide a clarity on Nazianzen’s understanding of the Father as he gives poetic attention to the Son and then the Spirit. In his Theological Poem “On the Son” he writes of the eternal birth of the Son from the Father:
Nothing ever existed before the great Father. For he who contains the universe and is dependent on the Father knows this, the one who is sprung from the great Father, the Word of God, the timeless Son, the image of the original, a nature equal to his who begot him. For the Father’s glory is his great Son and he was manifested in a way known only to the Father and to the Son made known by him (Poems 1.1.2).
The eternal birth or generation of the Son necessitates an eternal equality, which Nazianzen briefly translates in terms of image and shared glory. Distinction between Father and Son is held up by the order demonstrated through begetting, but equal nature means that, despite having an ordered “beginning”, the Son is as eternal as the Father: the Father is the Son’s “timeless beginning.” Nazianzen goes on within this poem to note the distinctiveness of the Father: “As God, as progenitor, he is a mighty progenitor. But if it is a great thing for the Father to have no point of origin for his noble Godhead, it is no lesser glory for the revered offspring of the great Father to come from such a root.” Nazianzen is arguing for two things at the same time here: on the one hand, he is upholding the full divinity of the Son through his origin and “root” in the Father and, on the other hand, he is arguing for the uniqueness of the Father’s divinity as having no origin. What the Son has he has by way of relation with the Father. Lest the Spirit be left out, Nazianzen in his Theological Poem “On the Spirit” describes the Spirit’s divinity “coming from the Father,” the “unoriginate root.” What the Father has is the origin-less “divinity”: he is the “endless beginning” of the Trinity. He is the timeless “starting point” of the Trinity, even if that starting point must be discerned from the vantage point of the Son and Spirit who provide the vision of the Father.
What is being described here is what is known as the relations of origin where the Father is the eternal origin of the Son (by begetting) and Spirit (by procession). You perhaps recall these are clearly upheld in a similar way in the Third Theological Oration: The Son and Spirit “are from him, though not after him. For “Being unoriginate” necessarily implies “being eternal” but “being eternal” does not entail “being unoriginate,” so long as the Father is referred to as origin. So because they have a cause they are not unoriginate” (Oration 29.3).
Pro-Nicene principle 2: the eternal generation of the Son
This brings us to the second principle of pro-Nicene Trinitarianism within the fourth century: eternal generation, a generation which, along with the procession of the Spirit, In arguing through the relations of origin for the Son’s relationship to the Father and the Spirit’s relationship to the Father a common thread is seen that establishes both the unity and diversity of God, the unity is founded in the reality that the Father causes, or is the origin of those who share his being. It brings only a “false honor” to the Father to argue that he causes, within begetting or procession, lesser beings. Genuine dignity is accorded to him when it is acknowledged that the one he begets, or causes to proceed, fully shares his Godhead. Likewise, the diversity is founded through the unique relations each divine person shares with the other—relations established out of the origin of the Father.
The Holy Spirit and Inseparable Operations
In our last main point we turn from Gregory of Nazianzus to his friend, Basil. They were college roommates together in Athens and enjoyed a lifetime relationship that oscillated between true friendship and frustrated estrangement. Theologically, however, they are both firmly pro-Nicene even if they differed in their expressions and, at times, clarity (For example, I think Basil gives a much clearer articulation of inseparable operations than does Nazianzen.).
Basil was in agreement with Nazianzen that Trinitarian theology is engaged through a contemplative vision, a vision inaugurated through the Spirit’s work in the believer, the Spirit who opens eyes, and brings light to dark souls. In the knowledge of God, he has a certain epistemological priority.
The Spirit “casts” the vision
According to Basil’s work On the Holy Spirit, it is only “in” the Spirit that Christians make way through the Son to the Father. The preposition “in”, however, directly relates to the Spirit’s relationship to those of faith, to “the grace given to us” and “the grace that works in those who share it.” Basil says that as a “giver of grace” the Spirit gives of his own authority as one “contemplated in the Trinity” (Homily 15.3). He gives without any personal diminishment because, as divine, he can ever give without losing anything of himself. His gracious presence is one interior to the soul. The gifts he brings include rebirth and adoption, which begin the purification process necessary to see God while also placing one into a real relationship with God where we call upon him as “Father”. Thus, the Spirit is the one who by grace enables worship from a familial place of “sonship”.
Just as it is proper to say the Spirit resides in human souls, so, according to Basil, should we speak of our “place” in the Spirit. He grants purification and knowledge of God by being “in” us, but it is our place “in” him that speaks to our adoption and ascent to the Father in worship. Basil elaborates on how “knowledgeable worship” in the Spirit proceeds:
Just as the Father is in the Son, so the Son is seen in the Spirit. Therefore, worship in the Spirit suggests that the activity of our thought is like light…. We speak of worship in the Son as worship in the image of God the Father, so also we speak of worship in the Spirit as worship in him who manifests the divinity of the Lord. Therefore, in worship the Holy Spirit is inseparable from the Father and the Son, for if you are outside of him, you will not worship at all; but if you are in him, you will in no way separate him from God – at least no more than you will remove light from objects of sight. For it is impossible to see the image of the invisible God, except in the illumination of the Spirit, and it is impossible for him who fixes his eyes on the image to separate the light from the image. For the cause of seeing must be seen together with the things seen. And so fittingly and consequently, through the illumination of the Spirit we behold the radiance of the glory of God; and, then, we are led up through the character to him of whom he is the character and duplicate seal (On the Holy Spirit 26.64).
In this wonderful quote Basil teaches it is the Spirit’s role in human knowledge of the divine is to bring illumination, an illumination that comes from his very self. The Spirit brings illumination by making believers like himself – spiritual – through communion with himself. In an earlier passage in On the Holy Spirit. Basil illustrates this spiritual reality by comparing the Spirit to a ray of light that “falls upon clear and translucent bodies” which are consequently “filled with light and gleam with a light from themselves. Just so are the Spirit-bearing souls that are illuminated by the Holy Spirit: they are themselves rendered spiritual.”
When speaking about the Spirit, then, Basil on the one hand sees it as proper to understand him as interior to the soul, as “in” believing humanity. On the other hand, as the Spirit makes a home in us, it is appropriate to see human beings as “in” the Spirit. From this place – “in the Spirit” – believers are able to contemplate and see God.
The course of contemplation: the “texture” of divine relations
Now, the “journey” of this contemplation follows the texture of the divine relations that we considered in the previous point. Therefore, the one “seen” in the Spirit is the Son, and “the must be seen together with the things seen.” In this language Basil highlights the inseparability of the Spirit and Son, an inseparability experienced by the illuminated worshipper who, through the light, is inevitably brought to the image that is seen with the light. It is the Spirit who grants illuminating power for the eyes to be fixed “on the beauty of the image of the unseen God.” Yet, even as the Spirit moves the eyes to see “another” (the Son, who is the image), that vision takes place “in himself”. Basil connects Psalm 36:9 (“in his light we will see light”), which he sees as speaking of the illumination of the Spirit, with John 1:9 (“the true light that enlightens every man coming into the world”), in order to demonstrate the Spirit’s work of illumination as a revelation in himself of the glory of the Only-begotten. Worship in the Spirit, then, is illuminated worship where the divinity and glory of the Image are made manifest.
We have followed Basil in this initial move in divine knowledge “in the Spirit” that is according to the logic he has adopted where “light” and “image” are interrelated. For a worshipper to be illumined by the Spirit means a beholding of the image, because an image cannot be “seen” without light. This is an epistemological move – from light to the image – while also being a Trinitarian one. By that I mean while the worshipper is growing in divine knowledge by beholding the image, he or she is also understanding the relationship obtaining between the divine persons. The next “step” in human knowing of the divine keeps with the Trinitarian texture outlined above and moves to the image, the Son.
To speak of the “image” leads to the question “of what?”. Just as to see an image one needs illumination, so for there to be an image there needs to be an “original”. In this metaphor each of its elements in the order of knowing suggests the other, making it especially suitable to express the interrelationships of the divine persons. In expressing those interrelationships it “moves” quickly from one to the other, meaning the light is about the image and the image is about the “original”. That is, in the image what is seen is an expression of the archetype: “in the blessed vision of the image you will see the unspeakable beauty of the archetype.” As this metaphor is used in the context of “worshipful knowledge” that “ascends” the divine persons, Basil uses “archetype” in order to show how the honor brought to the image “passes over” to the archetype. Indeed, Basil presents this movement as an inevitable one that moves when with illuminating power worshippers “fix their eyes on the beauty of the image of the unseen God, and through the image are led up to the more than beautiful vision of the archetype” (On the Holy Spirit 18.47). The beauty of the archetype seen in the image that Basil has in mind here is the “radiance of glory” (Hebrews 1:3). Perfect radiance – the image – proceeds from the perfect glory, and through that radiance we are led to the beauty of the glory.
What Basil presents in this metaphor of light-image-archetype is a fully Trinitarian vision that moves for the worshipper from the light through the image to the archetype. The metaphor draws out the connections between elements that then correspond to the divine persons. The texture presented is a spiritual vision of “ascent” or “progress” that moves up or to the archetype, that is, the Father. Yet, because of the interrelationships displayed in the metaphor, the presence of each of the divine persons is never “left behind”. When beholding the image, the illumination (Spirit) is present. One is drawn to the archetype (Father) through the image, and so the image (Son) is always present to those beholding the vision of the archetype. This must be so, according to the logic of the metaphor as laid out by Basil, for one “needs” the illumination of the Spirit to see the image and through that image one has vision of the archetype. Thus, Basil’s metaphor not only teaches the order of knowing that proceeds “up” the Trinitarian persons to the Father; it also draws out, at the same time, the inseparability of the divine persons and their work. Following John 14:23 (“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”) Basil connects this inseparability to the previously mentioned presence of the Spirit within the soul of the worshipper: “When sanctified by the Holy Spirit, we receive Christ who dwells in our inner person [Ephesians 3:16], and along with Christ we also receive the Father who makes a common home in those who are worthy” (Homily 24.5).
Many of you are probably aware that an element of the growth of pro-Nicene thought in the latter half of the fourth century is a growing pneumatology, which translates, at least in Nazianzen and Basil, into a penetrating vision of God. In both of these Cappadocians the Spirit is a sanctifying personal light who in himself and his unmediated presence brings worshippers into the “contours” of the Trinity. This move of “spirituality” has “theological” consequence because in its articulation Trinitarian dynamics were opened for greater depth of understanding. As the Spirit’s work was highlighted in redemption (and creation) attention was brought to the reality of a divine action that was inseparable among the Trinity. While the Spirit himself is a divine person sanctifying human beings, looking at his work inevitably drew theological attention to the “course” of his redemption leading from the Father, through the Son, in himself, and, in turn, in himself, through the Son, to the Father. At the same time that it reveals a distinct shape to the Godhead, this course entails a co-presence of the persons leading from and to the Father.
Pro-Nicene principle 3: the divine persons work inseparably
And so we have our third principle of pro-Nicene trinitarianism. Once it is established that each of the persons share one nature with one power, every work done by a person of the Trinity is done out of that shared name or power. Thus each person is present and working inseparably.
I want to draw out three points for reflective application.
I began commenting upon how well Nazianzen could turn a phrase. There’s a danger in merely being impressed by him or other skilled wordsmiths. But his love of well-placed words came out of, first and foremost, his love of the Word. To give you a feel for the levels of culture he and Basil conversed in, they were at Athens when the future emperor, Julian, was there. When he rose to power and began a program of soft persecution of Christians, they would have nothing of it. Gregory wrote what are called invectives against him. In his first invective against Julian Nazianzen wrote, “I cleave to the word alone and make no complaints about the labors I have undergone, on land and sea, that procured me the chance to make it mine!”
Nazianzen is talking here about his love of the Word, obviously. But he’s also talking about the rigors of his education which have enabled him to hold that word deep within him and, then, be able to communicate it effectively in his theology. We all have been afforded different opportunities of education. Whatever those might be, Nazianzen and Basil hold before us an inspiring examples of men who didn’t waste theirs. And because they pursued theirs with vigor and excellence (formally and informally) it was not wasted. Rather, God used it in ways that still startle and inspire 21st century Paideia reading groups.
Secondly, in that pursuit of learning, both broad and theological, they developed a deep passion for fitting words: appropriate words about God as well as those fitting to the occasion. This starts, of course, with the reality that God cared enough to reveal himself through words. Therefore, we should love words and attend to them carefully. We should especially attend to our words that seek to express the Trinitarian mystery. Think of the care these men took that their words reflected that basic Trinitarian grammar.
I often wonder, what would these great Cappadocian men say to us about our care for our words about God? Especially for those of us who might be teachers or pastors or writers, do we endeavor to speak rightly of God, to avoid the danger of self-promoting babble, or vacuous theological chit-chat?
But also, in Nazianzen and Basil there is a care for where and how words are spoken that is medicinal in its specificity. These men were physicians of souls and through their ability to discern symptoms could wisely apply, yes, a word true about God but also a word needed.
And, finally, when we do theology: when we preach, teach, write on divine matters, is it zealous to guard Trinitarian grammar? And more, does it lead people into a posture of worship.