Summary of Gregory of Nyssa’s “On Not Three Gods”

In this essay (a letter, actually) Gregory is arguing against those who say there are three deities.

I.    Some argue for three deities based on the idea of deity (that is, what Father, Son and HS have in common) as essence or ousia.

  • This argument is based on analogy with the way we speak of human persons, or in this case, of men. The argument is that we can refer to “Peter, James, and Paul” because of what they all three have in common: man-ness. So what is going on here is that they are being referred to as individuals by reference to what they have in common.
  • But this is actually problematic or misleading (though it would be futile to try to change the way we speak) and though this linguistic problem is relatively inconsequential for created things like men or pens, it matters supremely when we are speaking of God. What is going on here that the individual things are being referred to by their (common) nature.
  • Gregory’s argument runs something like this. I might say “I have three pens in my backpack.” But formally speaking that is not actually correct. I don’t have three distinct essences of pen-ness in my backpack; I actually have three distinct participants in  or intstantiations of  “pen-ness” in my backpack. The essence of ousia of God is like “pen-ness,” and the hypostases of God are like the individual “things” which are subsumed under the category “pen” or “pen-ness.”
  • To employ another analogy. Consider matter or materiality. If in my backpack I have three items: a pen, a rock, and a ball, I don’t say that I have “three matters” in my backpack. (It would even be a bit strange to say that I have “three materials” in my backpack.) It would be more formally correct to say “I have three material objects” in my backpack: three distinct hypostases, all of which participate in materiality or matter.

II.    Some argue for three deities based on the idea of deity (that is, what Father, Son, and HS have in common) as operation or act or energeia. But this cannot be the case because we know that all of God’s actions are shared or indivisible. We know this in two ways:

  1. In Scripture we see that all of God’s actions are one. Father sees (Ps 84:9); Son sees (Mt 9:4); Spirit sees (Acts 5:3).
  2. In our Christian experience we see that all of God’s actions are one. I have one “crown of free gifts,” one graciously given life which is from Father, Son & Spirit. I don’t have three lives, and so it must be the case Father, Son, & Holy Spirit are jointly at work in this activity of bestowing life to me.
  • Therefore, even if one conceives of deity as operation / energeia (and we know that all our categories fall short of the infinite God, cf 152), one still must admit that there are not three deities.
  • Note: Gregory’s argument here concerning the operations or actions of God, it seems to me, presupposes the neoplatonic principle that  energeia is revelatory of essence (see here).
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This is really helpful! Thanks for putting this together.

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