While Section 7 of St. Gregory the Theologian’s Oration 38 might seem like the most difficult to decipher of anything yet encountered in this homily on Christmas, it is something we ought to be paying attention to. St. Gregory is talking about the nature of God. Given that he is only one of three men in the entire history of the Orthodox Church to be given the title Theologian — one who knows God — what he has to say in Section 7 is extraordinarily important when it comes to understanding how the Orthodox Church approaches who God is.
There are two key elements to St. Gregory’s exploration of God’s nature in Section 7. Intriguingly, they say as much about ourselves as they do about God.
The first key is that “He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to himself but from things around him.” In other words, our minds cannot begin to grasp the nature of God. This flies in the face of modern man’s understanding of himself. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that, through our rational capacities, we can and should be able to understand and control everything around us. Our scientific world view, our dependence upon technology and our desire to save the world through various applications of science, technology and political theory speak to this self image.
In contrast, St. Gregory humbly declares that such an understanding of humanity is foolishness. Our rational powers cannot begin to comprehend the nature of God. Indeed, the only thing he is willing to concede that we truly know about God’s nature is that it is without limit. Thus, one cannot approach God with our modern self image. It severely limits not only who we are, but our ability to understand who God is.
God, the ungraspable, can only be grasped through a personal encounter. He draws us towards Himself so that we may catch glimpses of Him. It is through these encounters that He purifies us. It is through the personal relationship we have with God that we are able to learn how to become like God.
The second key comes from St. Gregory’s statement “Let us inquire further, for simplicity is clearly not the nature of this being.” St. Gregory lived at a time when the philosophy known as Neo-Platonism held a huge sway in the way people of the Roman Empire looked at the world. So much so that, at the very least, Christians had to frame their discussions about God in Neo-Platonic language. Some, however, let Neo-Platonism color and even determine their approach to an understanding of God.
Neo-Platonism holds that what is Good (aka Divine) is simple. The more complex something is, the further away from the Good it gets. Thus, for example, the flesh is further away from the Good than is the soul.
A mistake made by Christians throughout the ages is that we have a tendency to approach God with a philosophical presupposition. In other words, we have an idea of what we want God to be and then try to make God fit our idea of what we want. Since God is beyond the mind — a mediocre instrument for understanding God — approaching God in a philosophical way will necessarily lead to errors. Indeed, one can trace every heresy in the history of the Church to a philosophical presupposition.
At the time St. Gregory was preaching, the primary philosophical presupposition that was causing error and heresy was the Neo-Platonic concept of simplicity. Thus, he dismisses it by pointing out that not only is the mind too mediocre to begin to understand God, but that the concept of simplicity flies in the face of the Church’s experience of God. No philosophical concept can contain that personal relationship.
Thus, we cannot approach God with what we want Him to be. Rather, we must accept Him as He is. This is why God revealed His name to be “The One Who Is” (O ΩΝ, the Greek translation of God’s name revealed to Moses at the burning bush). He reminds us that no human concept can determine or contain the nature of God.