The Theological Orations
The Theological Orations are widely regarded as some of Gregory's finest rhetorical and theological work. In 5 orations, delivered probably in the summer of 380 in the Anastasia church in Constantinople, from which Gregory was leading the Nicene Christians of the Capital, Gregory discourses about theological method, ascetic purity, and the Trinity.
First Oration (Or. 27)
The first oration serves really as a prologomenon (in a non-technical sense) to the others. Gregory caricatures the Eunomians and their eloquent rhetoric and impenetrable logic. He depicts the discussion of theology to be a reverent affair, approached with proper restraint, with purity of life and mind. The topic of theology should be “matters within our reach, and to such an extent as the mental power and grasp of our audience may extend” (27.4), and our conversation should first be with God himself, not with ourselves.
Second Oration (Or. 28)
The opening of the Second Oration contains some brilliant rhetorical moves, as Gregory seems to lead on a tantalising ascent into the knowledge of God (28.1-3), before awakening us to the fact that God is, in his essence, incomprehensible, “not, I mean, as to the fact of His being, but as to its nature.” (28.5).
Next Gregory treats of philosophical speculation about God (7-11), how we may rightly conclude his incorporeality, immateriality, etc., but that all these privatives tell nothing positive about God. They are like the man who is asked 'what is 2x5' and answers 'not 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, etc. (28.9).
Moreover, when we approach God through his names and titles (28.13), we are lead to think in creaturely and material conceptions, which is the root of so many idolatries (28.13-16). Indeed the saints of old (28.17-21) fell silent at the contemplation of what God is in himself. In 28.22-31 Gregory embarks on a marvellous “poem of creation”, so that we might marvel at the vast scope of God's work. He concludes this section with all that has been able to be said about God apart from the Incarnation, in terms of God's majesty. This paves the way for the 3rd Oration, on the Son.
Third Oration (Or. 29)
In the 3rd Oration, Gregory begins from the conception of God as monarchia, but he carefully refers this to one God, not one 'Person'. The Son is begotten, the Spirit 'emitted', but without reference to time nor in a corporeal manner. They are eternal, and co-eternal with the Father, yet have a causal relationship with him. “They are from Him, through not after Him” (29.3)
29.6 shows a piece of Gregory's dialectic brilliance. Confronted with the question whether the Son was begotten voluntarily or involuntarily, Gregory asks his opponents the same question, with the same dilemma: if voluntarily, they are sons 'of will', if involuntarily, then what tyrant compelled their father? Rather, the Father wills it but this does not make the Son a 'son of will', further the manner of his generation is unknown to us (29.8). Gregory continues in the same vein, demolishing Heterousian 'dilemmas' of this kind.
In 29.15 Gregory makes an important technical argument, which flows as follows: 'the Father is greater, as cause', the Eunomians would add 'cause by nature', then conclude 'greater by nature'. Gregory says this is an error, for they have shifted from the particular to the general. Predicates are affirmed “'of some particular thing in some particular respect'”. To say that man X is dead, one cannot generalise and say 'man' is dead. 'the Father' is greater as Father, ie. as cause of the Son, not as God, for the Son is God.
Gregory then turns to a great number of scriptures, and in 29.17 states his principle of partitive exegesis: “ What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made himself of no reputation and was Incarnate – yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted”. In 29.19-20 he then applies this, with a brilliant recitation of alternating ascriptions to Christ's divinity and humanity, and then concludes in 29.21 with a prayer for his opponents, “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.”
Fourth Oration (Or. 30)
the Fourth Oration treats 10 sets of texts that the Eunomians raise. It is the most exegetically focused of the orations. Here are some key quotations:
“Whatever we find joined with a cause we are to refer to the Manhood, but all that is absolute and unoriginate we are to reckon to the account of His Godhead.” (30.2, re: Pr 8.22)
“ Your mistake arises from not understanding that Until is not always exclusive of that which comes after, but asserts up to that time, without denying what comes after it” (30.4, re: 1 Cor 15:35)
“the evident solution is that the Greater refers to origination, while the Equal belongs to the Nature” (30.7, re: Jn 14:28)
In treating of Jn 6:38, since Gregory is committed to taking it to refer to the Godhead, he understands it to be saying that the Son has no will other than the Father's, so that the one God has one will (30.12)
In the second half of the Oration (30.17f), Gregory treats of titles of God and of the Son, noting which are said absolutely, which in relation to other things, which refer to the incarnate Christ, and which are common with the Father. In all these, however, he maintains the principle that names do not define the essence, but sketch the attributes (so 30.17)
Fifth Oration (Or. 31)
The Fifth Oration forms the capstone to the series, and treats the Holy Spirit. Gregory says the Spirit must be either Substance or Accident (31.6), but the logic shows that he is substance, not accident, for he effects, and is not effected. He is not begotten, as the Son, nor unbegotten, as the Father, but proceeds: “What then is Procession? Do you tell me what is the Unbegottenness of the Father, and I will explain to you the physiology of the Generation of the Son and the Procession of the Spirit, and we shall both of us be frenzy—stricken for prying into the mystery of God.” (31.8) Nor does he lack something that he should be or not be a 2nd Son, but rather has a different mutual relation to the Father and Son. 3.10 drops the bombshell, as Gregory just comes out and declares that the Spirit is God. In 31.13 he answers the objection that they are tritheists, but asking whether or not the Spirit-Deniers aren't equally ditheists. In 3.15 Gregory goes to some length to show that the one human nature and the many instances of it are not a suitable analogy for the simple unity of God's essence. Behr writes, “the singularity of the one God, for Gregory, lies in the fact that the being of the Son and the Spirit is none other than the being of the Father himself.” (Behr, p361); again, “Gregory rejects the analogy of a single humanity and a plurality of human beings. Instead, “the being of the Father is what divinity is and, as such, is also what the Son and the Spirit are, for they are of his being.” (p365).
In the final section, 31.21-30, Gregory defends against the attack that calling the Spirit 'God' is unscriptural, with the simple but powerful point that 'unbegotten' is an entirely unscriptural term that the Eunomians are always using. In his concluding remarks, 31.31, Gregory speaks about the limits and failings of analogical language. That though we approach God in our speech about him, there is no suitable analogy in nature for the Creator of nature. Finally it seems best to Gregory to give up on analogies, and cling to the truth as given in a few words, and guided by the Spirit (31.33).