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  • « The Covenant of Grace | Main | The Covenant of Grace (Quote) by Thomas Boston »

    Why We Should Read the Church Fathers, with an Excerpt from Gregory Nazianzen

    In the Reformed world, it sometimes seems as though godly, Christian literature began to be written in the sixteenth century. The most uneducated person who was raised in a Reformed Church will at least be able to tell you who Calvin was, and something of his importance and theological output. But that same person, when asked about the Church fathers, might be apt to say, “Ambrose Who?”

    Even among us who know something of the Church Fathers, most of us, I think I may say without presumption, are less at home with them than we would be with the Reformers and Puritans. We can give a fairly detailed description of the Institutes off the tops of our heads, we can produce for any occasion an incisive and brilliantly worded one-liner from Luther, but even if we know who Ambrose was, do we know what his major writings were? And if so, can we give an overview and description of them? Have we read any of them?

    Now, there are certain good reasons for this. The theological struggles they dealt with are less commonly encountered today than the doctrinal struggles of the Reformation, which still rise up against us on every side. But even that fact should tell us something about the amazing output of these Spirit-filled giants who struck down such subtle and insidious and at times all-but-ubiquitous heresies with such faith and vigor that only a stray, pitiful remnant of them remains today.

    I speak to myself here as much as to anyone else. But of late, I have taken to extended forays into the massive 38 volume series of Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and Post-Nicene fathers, edited by Schaff; and although at times I have been a little (or even a lot!) uncomfortable, I have much more frequently been hugely helped in my theological precision and practical devotion. Why let the Catholics have exclusive dibs on these treasures? Although in some points they would side with the modern Catholic Church against us, yet in the most fundamental truths of the gospel, they are on our side. We are their true heirs, we are the true Catholics, holding to the catholic faith once for all delivered to the saints. If you read the Church Fathers extensively, you will be challenged much, you will find yourself sometimes in sharp disagreement, but I think you'll also find in many places a robust Gospel of justification by faith alone, penal substitution and imputation of active obedience, some of the issues for which we still ardently contend today.

    And of course, the Trinitarian theology. Why were the Church Fathers sometimes obscure or (we think) even wrong about certain issues which we hold so vital today? Because they were so busy pouring out their lives, giving all their immense labors and wisdom, to preserving and clarifying for us the most precious heritage any people has ever been given – the doctrine of the Trinity. The passion, precision, and skill with which they preserved these foundational truths from the struggles and assaults which were in their day every bit as important as the struggles over soteriology in the Reformers' day are simply stunning.

    One of my favorites is the Cappadocian Father Gregory Nazianzen. His orations are brilliant, fervent, and always worth the read, and the best of them, his five “theological orations” (for which he received the nickname, “The Theologian,” an appellation he shared first with the apostle John and now with John Calvin!) are pure gold. In them, he combines an Edwards-like skill of logic and argumentation with a deep reverence and humility characteristic of the best of the Puritans. I give you here an excerpt from the third of these theological orations.

    XX. He was baptized as Man— but He remitted sins as God — not because He needed purificatory rites Himself, but that He might sanctify the element of water. He was tempted as Man, but He conquered as God; yea, He bids us be of good cheer, for He has overcome the world. (John 16:33) He hungered— but He fed thousands; yea, He is the Bread that gives life, and That is of heaven. He thirsted— but He cried, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me and drink. Yea, He promised that fountains should flow from them that believe. He was wearied, but He is the Rest of them that are weary and heavy laden. (Matthew 11:28) He was heavy with sleep, but He walked lightly over the sea. He rebuked the winds, He made Peter light as he began to sink. He pays tribute, but it is out of a fish; yea, He is the King of those who demanded it. (John 19:19) He is called a Samaritan and a demoniac; — but He saves him that came down from Jerusalem and fell among thieves; the demons acknowledge Him, and He drives out demons and sinks in the sea legions of foul spirits, (Luke 8:28-33) and sees the Prince of the demons falling like lightning. He is stoned, but is not taken. He prays, but He hears prayer. He weeps, but He causes tears to cease. He asks where Lazarus was laid, for He was Man; but He raises Lazarus, for He was God. (John 11:43) He is sold, and very cheap, for it is only for thirty pieces of silver; (Matthew 26:15) but He redeems the world, and that at a great price, for the Price was His own blood. (1 Peter 1:19) As a sheep He is led to the slaughter, (Isaiah 53:7) but He is the Shepherd of Israel, and now of the whole world also. As a Lamb He is silent, yet He is the Word, and is proclaimed by the Voice of one crying in the wilderness. (John 1:23) He is bruised and wounded, but He heals every disease and every infirmity. (Isaiah 53:23) He is lifted up and nailed to the Tree, but by the Tree of Life He restores us; yea, He saves even the Robber crucified with Him; (Luke 23:43) yea, He wrapped the visible world in darkness. He is given vinegar to drink mingled with gall. Who? He who turned the water into wine (John 2:1-11), who is the destroyer of the bitter taste, who is Sweetness and altogether desire. (Song of Songs 5:16) He lays down His life, but He has power to take it again; (John 10:18) and the veil is rent, for the mysterious doors of Heaven are opened; the rocks are cleft, the dead arise. (Matthew 27:51) He dies, but He gives life, and by His death destroys death. He is buried, but He rises again; He goes down into Hell, but He brings up the souls; He ascends to Heaven, and shall come again to judge the quick and the dead, and to put to the test such words as yours. If the one give you a starting point for your error, let the others put an end to it.

    XXI. This, then, is our reply to those who would puzzle us; not given willingly indeed (for light talk and contradictions of words are not agreeable to the faithful, and one Adversary is enough for us), but of necessity, for the sake of our assailants (for medicines exist because of diseases), that they may be led to see that they are not all-wise nor invincible in those superfluous arguments which make void the Gospel. For when we leave off believing, and protect ourselves by mere strength of argument, and destroy the claim which the Spirit has upon our faith by questionings, and then our argument is not strong enough for the importance of the subject (and this must necessarily be the case, since it is put in motion by an organ of so little power as is our mind), what is the result? The weakness of the argument appears to belong to the mystery, and thus elegance of language makes void the Cross, as Paul also thought. (1 Corinthians 1:17) For faith is that which completes our argument. But may He who proclaims unions and looses those that are bound, and who puts into our minds to solve the knots of their unnatural dogmas, if it may be, change these men and make them faithful instead of rhetoricians, Christians instead of that which they now are called. This indeed we entreat and beg for Christ's sake. Be reconciled to God, (2 Corinthians 5:20) and quench not the Spirit; (1 Thessalonians 5:19) or rather, may Christ be reconciled to you, and may the Spirit enlighten you, though so late. But if you are too fond of your quarrel, we at any rate will hold fast to the Trinity, and by the Trinity may we be saved, remaining pure and without offense, until the more perfect showing forth of that which we desire, in Him, Christ our Lord, to Whom be the glory for ever. Amen.

    Posted by Nathan on October 12, 2009 03:11 PM


    I tend to agree with you about the worth of reading the Church Fathers. I well remember reading one of Tertullian's sermons and thinking: he could be talking about the very problems in our Church today.

    One wonderful thing I recently discovered was the existence of a CD which contains all the Early Church Fathers - the set you spoke of as well as Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica and others ... While they need to be read with caution, to have a search facility on the set (as is the case with the CDs) is GREAT news.

    Once again, thanks for the encouragement to read

    Thanks for commenting, Hone. Do you have a link to where that CD might be purchased?



    Thanks for this post.

    Do you much about Gregory of Nyssa who was another Cappadocian Father and a contemporary and friend of Gregory of Nazianzus? I have been told that Gregory of Nyssa(and also Origen) believed in Universal Salvation. Do you know if this is true?

    If so, do you know if Gregory of Nazianzus rebuked his friend for this kind of heresy? Or did he simply view it a weak spot in his theoloy?

    I tend to believe that a belief in Universal Salvation is first rank heresy and that those who hold to it fall outside the bounds of orthodoxy. Of course, belief in Universalism does not stop with doing away with the doctrine of the eternality of hell. Those who hold to it usually attack the doctrine of penal substitution and other vital doctrines as well.

    The reason I ask is because someone close to me has recently embraced universalism and is using Gregory of Nyssa as one of his reasons for doing so.

    Anyway, thanks in advance for your thoughts on this,


    Hi Alan,

    Gregory of Nyssa, as I recall, was one father that tended to make me a lot uncomfortable at quite a few points. He was a brilliant thinker, certainly, but he seemed to me to be too much of a philosopher to be a thoroughly biblical theologian. I think he was undoubtedly influenced by Origen (who had some really weird views himself) and likewise by Platonic philosophy, prob. mediated through Origen to some extent. I think it's an ongoing debate whether he actually taught universalism. The way I understand it, he was agnostic on the point, and believed that, as we couldn't see into the heart of a man on his deathbed, we couldn't presume that anyone died in an unrepentant state, and should hope the best and pray for all the dead, assuming they may be in a state of grace. Now, prayers for the dead in itself is a point that makes me a lot uncomfortable, as widespread as it was among the fathers -- but that's another topic.

    I appreciate about Nazianzen that he has a true reverence/humility that seems to prevent him from relying on his own brilliance, which I suspect is a full match for Nyssa's, and so he is content to unpack the scriptures, and not pry into matters beyond which they do not go (a theme very strong in Calvin). He has his faults, of course -- the asceticism and mysticism that were so predominant in that age are definitely found in him too (e.g. his oration in Defense of his Flight to Pontus), and sometimes the boldness of his statements on theiosis shocks me (although the language of Peter in 2 Pet. 1 and some of Jesus' statements in John 17 are likewise a little shocking).

    I guess I'm rambling a bit, but in sum, I don't think Gregory of Nyssa is the best support to use for universalism, for one thing, and I think that universalism itself is not just a very destructive error, it is furthermore very clearly refuted in the scriptures, which I would encourage you ti use with your friend, no matter whose name he dredges up in his defense.


    Gregory of Nyssa too much a philosopher? What of Augustine and Aquinas who were trained as such? Maybe they should be suspect. The problem is that Reformed theology doesn't exist among the Fathers - Augustine and later Aquinas included. Reformed theology has in fact more in common with medieval theology (e.g., God's omnipotence is only then emphasized as Calvin picks up on it and seeks to take it to its logical conclusion, again, like a typically philosophically minded medieval thinker would desire). As such, Calvin is more philosophically minded in some areas than any early Father. Moreover, universalism was a common belief in the early church and held by many orthodox leaders. Question is, who's nearer the apostolic witness time-wise and faith-wise?

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