A Great Ocean of Being: Gregory Nazianzus on Divinity and Theosis


Having spent a good deal of time focused myopically on Or. 41:15-16, I decided that I should broaden my knowledge of Gregory of Nazianzus and read from some other orations.  His Greek is difficult in most places, so I proceed slowly, but I stumble often upon passages which are utterly captivating.  Since I already had the Sources Chrétiennes text on hand from my work on Or. 41, I decided to start reading Or. 38 (On the Theophany, or Nativity of Jesus), and have quickly come upon a passage I’d like to share: the first part of 38.7 (PG 36.317).  Gregory himself must have liked the passage, because he used it again in Or. 45, word for word.  In it, Gregory contemplates the nature of divinity itself, and then our own process of theosis, by which we are transformed into gods ourselves, “partaking in the divine nature” as 2 Peter 1:4 puts it.

Naturally, I managed to pick a passage that is full of text critical problems, mostly of ο/ω confusion.  They don’t affect major points of interpretation, but I do note in the Greek text where I’ve opted for a different reading from the SC text.  My translation is quite free, but do look at the Greek if possible: it’s quite lovely I promise!


God has always been, is now, and will be forever.  “Is” is the best term, however, for “has been” and “will be” are our own divisions of time, which are due to our mortal nature.  But the One who eternally Is, used this name when he revealed himself to Moses on the mountain. He comprises within himself existence itself, an existence that neither begins nor ends, a great, boundless ocean of being, which effortlessly surpasses any notion of time or natural law.  He is perceived dimly through the mind alone, and even this, though sufficient, is extremely dim.  This perception originates not from the divine being itself, but from those who surround it.  The image in the mind is formed with another’s aid into one coherent perception of reality, which then flees before complete apprehension, skirting off before the idea is fully grasped.  Thus, like a lightning-bolt, which illumines the night sky for but a fleeting moment, so this image surrounds our reasoning faculties with purifying light, but then disappears once more into darkness, leaving our minds completely cleansed. 

It seems to me that, insofar as we can perceive this image, it draws us to itself, for we can neither hope nor strive for something that is entirely beyond perception; but to the extent that the image is utterly beyond us, it invokes our wonder, and as we wonder, our desire increases, and the more we yearn for it, the more we are purified, and this purification makes us glimmer with divinity [1].   With a bit of boldness, I’d even suggest that it is at this stage, once we have been suitably transformed, that God unites himself fully with us, his gods [2], and is known fully to us, and perhaps known to the degree that he now knows us, who “know him even as we are known” (1 Cor 13:12).

[1] Grk. καθαῖρον δὲ θεοειδεῖς ἐργάζηται.  We have here a play on words, which evokes both Homer and the Gospels.  θεοειδής is a fairly common term in Homer, and means in the passive sense “godlike in appearance” or “shining like a god.”  Purification, though, reminds us of the beatitude “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8), and Gregory no doubt has this in mind too.  Adjectives of this formation in Greek are ambiguous, and can be used in the active or passive sense.  Gregory thus combines the classical and the Christian to describe another New Testament idea, that as we become like God as we behold him (cf. 1 Jn 3:2).  

[2] Cf. Ps. 82:1-6. (81:1-6 LXX).


θεὸς ἦν μὲν ἀεὶ καὶ ἔστι καὶ ἔσται · μᾶλλον δὲ « ἔστιν » ἀεί. τὸ γὰρ « ἦν » καὶ « ἔσται », τοῦ καθ᾽ἡμᾶς χρόνου τμήματα καὶ τῆς ῥευστῆς φύσεως · ὁ δὲ ὢν ἀεὶ καὶ τοῦτο αὐτὸς ἑαυτὸν ὀνομάζει, τῷ Μωϋσεῖ χρηματίζων ἐπὶ τοῦ ὄρους. ὅλον γὰρ ἐν ἑαυτῷ συλλαβὼν ἔχει τὸ εἶναι, μήτε ἀρξάμενον μήτε παυσόμενον, οἷόν τι πέλαγος οὐσίας ἄπειρον καὶ ἀόριστον, πᾶσαν ὑπερεκπίπτον[1] ἔννοιαν καὶ χρόνου καὶ φύσεως.[2] νῷ μόνῳ σκιαγραφούμενος, καὶ τοῦτο λίαν ἀμυδρῶς καὶ μετρίως, οὐκ ἐκ τῶν κατ᾽ αὐτόν, ἀλλ᾽ ἐκ τῶν περὶ αὐτόν, ἄλλης ἐξ ἄλλου φαντασίας συλλεγομένης εἰς ἕν τι τῆς ἀληθείας ἴνδαλμα, πρὶν κρατηθῆναι φεῦγον καὶ πρὶν νοηθῆναι διαδιδράσκον, τοσαῦτα περιλάμπον[3] ἡμῶν τὸ ἡγεμονικόν, καὶ ταῦτα κεκαθαρμένoν, ὅσα καὶ ὄψιν ἀστραπῆς τάχος οὐχ ἱσταμένης.

ἐμοὶ δοκεῖν, ἵνα τῷ ληπτῷ μὲν ἕλκῃ πρὸς ἑαυτό — τὸ γὰρ τελέως ἄληπτον, ἀνέλπιστον καὶ ἀνεπιχείρητον — τῷ δὲ ἀλήπτῳ θαυμάζηται, θαυμαζόμενον δὲ ποθῆται πλέον, ποθούμενον δὲ καθαίρῃ, καθαῖρον δὲ θεοειδεῖς ἐργάζηται, τοιούτοις δὲ γενομένοις, ὡς οἰκείοις, ἤδη προσομιλῇ — τολμᾷ τι νεανικὸν ὁ λόγος — θεὸς θεοῖς ἑνούμενός τε καὶ γνωριζόμενος, καὶ τοσοῦτον ἴσως ὅσον ἤδη γινώσκει τοῦς γινωσκομένους.  

[1] SC reads ὑπερεκπίπτων.

[2] SC reads ‘,’ instead of ‘.’  This does result in an asyndeton, which is undesirable, but given the almost “hymnic” character of the prose here, I think it may be permitted.  

[3] SC reads περιλάμπων. Update: I’m not sure why, but I marked a difference from the SC text here even though there wasn’t one. Thanks to Gregoris in the comments for catching this. He left some very useful feedback on my textual decisions (arguing in favor of Moreschini’s text), so take a look if you’re interested in technical details.

[4] SC reads κεκαθαρμένων.  

I’ve transcribed this text directly from the SC text, which no doubt means I’ve made some typos.  If you notice something that looks off, let me know in the comments.

ἐν αὐῷ,

5 thoughts on “A Great Ocean of Being: Gregory Nazianzus on Divinity and Theosis

  1. Hi Alex,
    I like the work that you are doing here. Keep it up!

    I wanted to make a few observations on this text, because I think that you have been a bit too hasty in emending the SC text. Yes, the scribal tradition has confused -ον and -ων, but the editor, Moreschini, has noted the manuscript evidence in his app. crit. and has tried to choose the most likely original.

    [1] ὑπερεκπίπτων/-ον: Moreschini has restored this to the masc. participle to show that it in fact describes the original subject, an understood θεός, not the neut. πέλαγος of the preceding clause, which is really parenthetical (hence the οἷόν τι). In translation, we might even start a new sentence here: “He exceeds every notion of both time and nature.” Indeed, it doesn’t even make sense to speak of a sea that exceeds such notions.

    Also, it seems that the same impulse that led many scribes to write the neut. ὑπερεκπίπτον also led them to make the same change to the next participle: Moreschini’s app. crit. records several instances of σκιαγραφούμενον. These two participles should logically have the same subject, and it makes sense for both to describe [θεός], not πέλαγος.

    [2] I don’t see this anywhere in Moreschini’s edition. The Greek is the same as what you type, with the exception of a comma instead of a semicolon. The French translation has nothing that would correspond to “instead of” at this point.

    [3] περιλάμπων/-ον: You have this backwards: Moreschini prints περιλάμπον, but notes that a good number of mss. preserve περιλάμπων. I think that Moreschini has opted for the neuter because it has better textual witnesses and because it makes better sense in the context: we can arrive at some fleeting vision of God, not in his essence, but in his energies, and this vision, like a fleeting flash of lightning, illumines our minds.

    [4] κεκαθαρμένων/-ον: From Moreschini’s app. crit., it seems that there is roughly an equal number of ms. witnesses for each reading. The question boils down to whether the participle describes ἡμῶν or ἡγεμονικόν, and both make sense (“when we have been purified” vs. “when it [sc. our mind] has been purified.”). I think that Moreschini has chosen the former because the gen. pl., describing ἡμῶν, is certainly the lectio difficilior, and it is much more likely that a scribe would simplify κεκαθαρμένων to κεκαθαρμένον than vice-versa. That being said, one could certainly argue that it makes more sense to speak of purification of the mind as the prerequisite for glimpsing God. In this regard, the fathers were especially fond of the sixth Beatitude: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.”

  2. Wow, that’s some excellent feedback: thanks for pushing me to think through these a bit more carefully. As a disclaimer, I’ll say first that I’m far less conservative with the text here than I would be in another setting. That is, however, no excuse to make bad textual decisions! Let’s see if I can defend my choices here:

    [1] I made went with the manuscripts here mainly because I wanted to extend the metaphor. Strictly speaking, you’re right: a sea exceeding space and time makes no sense, but God exceeding space and time like a rising sea covers the land sounds good in my ear.

    [2] Sorry, I didn’t mean to indicate ‘instead of’ was anywhere in the text, but rather meant to indicate that I’d placed a full-stop instead of the SC’s comma. My main concern was to indicate the end of the ocean metaphor and the return to θεός as the noun being modified by the participles (hence, νῷ μόνῳ σκιαγραφούμενος). I’m pretty sure σκιαγραφούμενος is right, because by the time we get down to ἐκ τῶν κατ᾽αὐτόν, it’s clear that θεός is mind, rather than πέλαγος. I must say though, that I’m not entirely happy with the asyndeton this creates, and so should probably not print the full-stop here.

    [3] You’re absolutely correct! I must have gotten confused while looking at a manuscript. I agree with Moreschini here, and will update the post accordingly.

    [4] I think it was concept of “purified mind results in seeing God” that drove this decision, which you laid out quite nicely. The genitive is the lectio difficilior (an argument I should have considered), but it almost strikes me as too awkward. It’s probably because I’ve spent a good deal of time working with less literary texts (i.e. in mss where the scribe can’t spell the article correctly!), but I find it quite easy to see ο/ω getting confused even if the original is κεκαθαρμένον. That said, a look through the TLG shows that while Gregory does use the phrase κεκαθαρμένος νοῦς at least once, he uses it far more frequently to describe people. I’ll leave it as is for now, but you were right to push me here: I was probably too hasty to post the alternative reading.

    Thanks again for the feedback! It’s quite nice to get this sort of engagement with the text.

  3. Hi, again. A bit of feedback on the feedback:

    I would not call your textual decisions “less conservative” than Moreschini’s. You have essentially restored the Maurist text reprinted in Migne. Although the Maurists did invaluable work, their editions cannot be called “critical” in the modern sense. If anyone has been less conservative, it is Moreschini, who has taken the liberty to emend their text on the basis of ms. evidence unavailable to them.

    [1] “God exceeding space and time like a rising sea covers the land sounds good in my ear.” This is exactly right, and notice that, even in your paraphrase, it is God, not the sea, that exceeds space and time, which would be reflected in Greek by ὑπερεκπίπτων, not ὑπερεκπίπτον.

    [2] Sorry, the first time around, I didn’t understand what your note was trying to say. Now that I do, I’ll point out that this is not unrelated to issue [1]. The reason that Moreschini prints a comma is to show that ὑπερεκπίπτων and σκιαγραφούμενος are coordinate. If you leave ὑπερεκπίπτων in the masc., this becomes a list of participles modifying the original subject, and the issue of asyndeton becomes moot. If you punctuate with a full stop here, the real problem is not asyndeton, it’s that you wind up with a very long sentence with no finite verb (νῷ μόνῳ … οὐχ ἱσταμένης). Gregory may have a poetic touch to his rhetoric, but not so poetic that he forgets to insert the verb.

    [4] Having read a good amount of Gregory (I am his namesake, after all!), I would not at all regard the gen. pl. as too awkward for him. Also, remember that in Byzantium, Gregory was regarded as the Christian Demosthenes, and his orations (not sermons!) were part of any good education. In fact, Gregory’s orations are some of the most abundant mss. that are preserved from Byzantium. I don’t think that these were being copied by semi-illiterate scribes, who would have been hard-pressed to reproduce his difficult prose. Some of the confusion may be due to phonetic equivalence of ω and ο, but I think that it is more likely that scribes were trying to make sense of what they were reading, and therefore banalized the more elegant use of the gen. pl. masc. into the straightforward acc. sing. neut.


  4. Thanks again for the comments: I really appreciate this interaction.

    [1] I think you’ve convinced me that ὑπερεκπιπτ(ο/ω)ν doesn’t belong with πέλαγος, as I thought originally, but I see now that το εἶναι would be a good antecedent (being). τὸ εἶναι also governs the prior two participles ἀρξάμενον and παυσόμενον. I’m really at a loss here! I think it’s clear that once we get to νῷ μόνῳ κτλ. that God is now in view: I don’t think we’d say that “being” is perceived by the mind alone (and the ms. evidence for σκιαγραφούμενον is quite weak). I’m not sure whether Gregory switches back from “being” to “God” with ὑπερεκπίπτ(ω/ο)ν or σκιαγραφούμενος, though in terms of meaning it doesn’t make too much different whether it is God who surpasses all, or God’s being that does.

    [2] How did I not consider the main verb! I guess I got lost in the participles and forgot the ἔχει does indeed seem to govern the period which runs ὅλον γὰρ ἐν ἑαυτῷ to οὐκ ἱσταμένης. I must say, that noticing that fact makes me sympathetic to those who wanted to read both ὑπερεκπίπτον and σκιαγραφούμενον as neuter participles. It seems a bit unpleasant to switch back to God from “being” as the referent for the participles, if Moreschini’s choices are right. Perhaps my aesthetic sense just needs to be re-calibrated.

    [4] I think you’ve convinced me here. The genitive still strikes me as a more difficult reading (to it’s merit). What troubled me in the first place was the lack of ἡμῶν to make the genitive absolute more clear. When I supplied it though, I realized how tacky it would be to have ἡμῶν repeated so soon. Given Gregory’s almost universal application of the that participle to people, I agree with you (and Moreschini) that the genitive is better reading.

    I may make a few further updates to the post in response to these comments, but I also want to make the comments comprehensible for future readers, so I’ll try to be as un-invasive as possible.

    1. After mulling over it some more, I do think υπερεκπίπτων makes the best sense, and is actually a good place to make the transition from being to back to God.

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