Inevitably when reading the Fathers of the Church, we will run into a polemic style like that in Section 14 of St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38. To the modern ear, it sounds angry, mean, over the top and even bigoted. However, we must understand that our own politically correct, post-Holocaust context is extremely different than the context that St. Gregory found himself in.
Christianity, despite being adopted by the emperor St. Constantine at the beginning of the fourth century was still on precarious ground. Not only had it suffered persecution under the emperor Julian the Apostate only two decades prior, but St. Gregory’s faith, expressed in the Nicene Creed, was not held by the majority of clergy or the emperor when St. Gregory was preaching this homily. As I stated in my introduction to St. Gregory, despite being bishop, he was forced to serve in a house church because every single church in the city was controlled by Arians. In addition, Judaism not only had had special privileges within the empire, they were a source of persecution against the Church.
In the same way we might be comfortable with the polemic cries of bigotry aimed at those who would persecute Jews or other minorities today, we should not allow our modern ear to allow us to dismiss Oration 38 because St. Gregory’s polemics are entirely appropriate for the context in which they were said.
If we can look past these contextual polemics, what we actually find is a apologetic style that we modern Christians should actually find quite useful. In essence, St. Gregory is challenging his foes (the Arians, in his case) to answer for their rejection of the Christianity preached by St. Gregory. He does so in a wonderful way that is still applicable today: “Do you bring as a charge against God his good deed?”
So often we Christians must defend ourselves from personal attacks by secularists. We are seen as ignorant, non-rational, backwards thinking and un-scientific. The assumption is that only non-rational and ignorant people would be foolish enough to believe in an old-fashioned idea like God. Rarely do they have to answer to St. Gregory’s challenge: Do you accuse God because He loved you so much so as to send you His Only Begotten Son? Do you accuse God because Christ humbled Himself for you? Do we need to dismiss God because Christ loved you enough to go to the Cross and experience death? Does God need to be persecuted because He gave us the gift of the resurrection?
Rather than having to get into an argument over who we are as Christians (an argument we cannot win, because there is no way to prove or disprove faith), we should talk about the real issue: God and His Gospel. At issue isn’t our faith, our intelligence or our ignorance. At issue is the rejection of God and all the good He willingly gives us.
Today’s atheists are used to Christians talking about morality, avoiding punishment and operating from a negative view of who God is. St. Gregory powerfully demonstrates that we shouldn’t operate that way. The Gospel isn’t about morality, hell or punishment, it is about the ultimate expression of love. It is this love that is rejected. It is this love that is attacked. It is with this love that we should be challenging the secular world around us.