Gregory and Practical Theology

gregory-the-theologianTheology is the application of the Word of God to the World, which means that if theology does not connect to life it is not really theology. Whatever else it might be (academic pursuit, scholarly inquiry, philosophy, etc.) it is not theology. Theology is concerned about the relationship of God to His creation. This is the tradition of the church, if it has not always been perfectly upheld. It is the legacy of the early church fathers in particular, most notably Gregory of Nazianzus. The Great Cappadocian father wrote beautifully about the practical nature of theology. In his Theological Orations Gregory argued for a theological reciprocity between life and doctrine. Fundamentally, life and theology belong together.

At the outset of his First Theological Oration, the father establishes that there are two limitations to doing theology: (1) it is only for Christians, and (2) it is bound to Scripture. The first limitation stresses the importance of one’s life for the practice of theology. Theology was not something just anyone could do, it required a heart oriented towards God himself. So Gregory writes:

Not to everyone, my friends, does it belong to philosophize about God; not to everyone – the subject is not so cheap and low – and, I will add, not before every audience, nor at all times, nor on all points; but on certain occasions, and before certain persons, and within certain limits (The First Theological Oration- Introductory in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy, 129).

His point is not to suggest that theology is only for the “professional,” but rather it is only for those who actually love God. The man of a pure heart, “as far as [he] may be,” is the one for whom theology is possible. Theology is possible for the person to whom Christ is an honest desire.

For the impure to touch the pure is, we may safely say, not safe, just as it unsafe to fix weak eyes upon the sun’s rays… And who are the permitted persons? They to whom the subject is of real concern, and not they who make it a matter of pleasant gossip, like any other thing, after the races, or the theater, or a concert, or a dinner, or still lower employments. (130)

Gregory’s major concern was that there were plenty who participated in theological discussion from a place of either arrogance or disinterest. They loved the pursuit of knowledge or mastery of material, but they did not love the one whom they were studying. Gregory says this is not true genuine theology. The heart of the theologian matters.

Theology that is disconnected from life, theology that is nothing more than a mental game is “in danger of being made a thing of little moment” (129). He compares it to those who “in theaters perform wrestling matches in public, but not that kind of wrestling in which the victory is won according to the rules of the sport, but a kind to deceive the eyes of those who are ignorant in such matters, and to catch applause” (128). Theology must be connected to the heart and the life to be true and genuine. Theologian and historian Christopher Hall agrees when he observes the following:

Gregory warns his audience that they and he are attempting a high and holy task. Theology, while employing the mind, also involves the heart. A pure heart, one grounded in the worship of the church and a life of prayer, will produce clear and fruitful theological reflection. A murky heart and a dark mind, on the other hand, will produce a sick, thorny theology; it will offer no nourishment, only harm. (Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, 56)

The state of one’s heart is of paramount importance in the doing of theology.

In his criticisms against the Eunomians Gregory expounded upon this connection between life and theology. Had I more space I could elaborate on this, but let it suffice to say that the Eunomians were arrogant of their abilities to grasp any truth, any theological point. They neglected the Word of God and built everything upon their own reason.[1] It was their pride which mutated their theological methodology. Professor Hall comments:

The Eunomians were a cocky, self-assured bunch, ready to use rational syllogisms to poke holes in the ideas of their opponents, but all the while blind to the drastic implications of their own theological methodology. (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 69)

The Eunomians fell into sin because their “philosophizing,” or doing theology, was for self-promotion, and not out of a genuine heart of worship. They fell into sin, because they left the Word of God, and relied upon themselves. Such men serve as a reminder of how our hearts, our lives, our very attitudes, affect our theology, and Gregory would have us be wiser than they.

This affectedness travels both ways. There is a mutual reciprocity between life and doctrine. Gregory provides his readers with a concrete example of how, not only does our life affect our theology, but our theology affects our lives. He focuses directly on the doctrine of the Trinity, which during the mid-300s was under severe attack by the Arians.

Arianism was, in part, a belief that Jesus was a created being, that the Word of God was not coeternal with the Father. The Arian motto was “There was when He was not.” As such, then, Arianism denied the Trinitarian nature of God. To deny this was, according to Gregory, to deny God himself. Their theology had massive implications for their worship. To worship God meant to worship Him as Triune. As Gregory writes:

When, then, we look at the Godhead, or at the first cause, or the monarchia, that which we conceive is one; but when we look at the Persons in whom the Godhead dwells, and at those who timelessly and with equal glory have their being from the first cause, there are three whom we worship. (The Fifth Theological Oration – On the Spirit, 202)

To believe wrongly about God was to fail to worship God. Theology affects life. God is tri-une, anything less than this is not God.

Contrast Gregory’s conception of the importance of the Trinity for life with our modern understanding of the doctrine. Contemporary Christians have often made such a disconnect between our doctrine and life that the Trinity means absolutely nothing for how we worship. In fact, the Trinity tends to mean little to us at all. Fred Sanders has wondered:

How has it come about that so many evangelicals today are cold toward the doctrine of the Trinity, confused about its meaning, or noncommittal about its importance? Even though solid biblical and theological teaching on the subject is available, the doctrine of the Trinity continues to be treated as an awkward guest in the evangelical household. (The Deep Things of God, 7-8)

Robert Letham has pointedly contrasted Gregory’s worship with that of the modern church. His contrast observes the disconnect between doctrine and practice that Gregory warns us against. Letham writes:

Today most Western Christians are practical modalists. The usual way of referring to God is “God” or, particularly at the popular level, “the Lord.” It is worth contrasting this with Gregory Nazianzen, the great Cappadocian of the fourth century, who spoke of “my Trinity,” saying, “When I say ‘God,’ I mean Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” This practical modalism goes in tandem with a general lack of understanding of the historic doctrine of the Trinity. (The Holy Trinity, 5-6)

Our view of God is often quite anemic compared to that of the Fathers of the early church. This conception of God affects then how we worship, indeed how we live. Theology affects life just as much as life affects theology.

Theology effect on life is not found just in regards to the Trinity and worship, though this was Gregory’s concern. We see these same dynamics play out as we consider a host of other doctrines. How we conceptualize doctrines like justification, imputation, and atonement affect the Christian life. My own sense of guilt, or my understanding of repentance, good deeds, and Christian growth are all impacted by these doctrines. Christians who walk around with an immense amount of guilt probably have a poor theology of justification and sanctification. Our theology affects how we live. Gregory’s point may be seen, then, from many angles.

Life and theology are intertwined and mutually inform one another. My life and character will dramatically affect my theology, but my theology will also dramatically impact my life. This reciprocity has significant ramifications for those of us who are involved in teaching theology (pastors, teachers, parents, etc.). It means that each of us must stay in humble relation to the Scriptures, for they inform both our lives and our doctrines. As we submit to God’s Word to guide and shape our practice and belief we can better safeguard our orthodoxy. Life informs theology, theology informs life, and Scripture informs both.

[1] For Gregory, reason is certainly a good tool given to man by God, but it fails to do a sufficient job alone in the contemplation of the things of God. God, however, has revealed Himself to man and through His Word. See The Fifth Theological Oration- On the Spirit, 209-210.


David Dunham is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Baptist Church in Roseville, Michigan. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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