St. Gregory the Theologian and the Literal Interpretation of Scripture

by Fr. John Whiteford

On interpreting Scripture, one must be intellectually honest about quotations.

George Demacopoulos gave another lecture at the Eagle River Institute which was recently posted on Ancient Faith Radio, and in the course of that lecture he made the following statement:

“St. Gregory the Theologian actually wrote, in one of his most famous orations on the Trinity, that a Christian who insists on a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith. Let me repeat that… St. Gregory says, quote: “a Christian who insists upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, does so to mask his lack of genuine faith”” (“Was Byzantine Christianity the Normative Orthodox Experience?: Part 2,” beginning at about the 12:20 mark).

The first time he referenced the alleged quoted, it could have been taken as if he was giving the gist of the quote, rather than an exact quote: “St. Gregory… wrote… that…” But he then repeated it, and prefaced it by saying “Quote,” which would normally only be used to preface a precise quotation. However, the actual quote bears very little resemblance to what he referenced in this lecture.

Here it is, at least as it is translated in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers translation:

“They then who are angry with us on the ground that we are bringing in a strange or interpolated God, viz.:—the Holy Ghost, and who fight so very hard for the letter, should know that they are afraid where no fear is; and I would have them clearly understand that their love for the letter is but a cloak for their impiety, as shall be shown later on, when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power” (“Oration 31, A Selected Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, series 2, vol. 7, eds. Henry Wace and Philip Schaff (New York: Christian, 1887-1900), p. 318).

For comparison, here is a more recent translation:

“Certain people, then, thinking that we have introduced the Holy Spirit as a strange or counterfeit god; are angry at us and fight very hard to defend “the letter”. But they should know that they are afraid where there is nothing to fear; 6 and I would have them clearly understand that their love for “the letter” is but a cloak for their impiety, as we shall see later on when we refute their objections to the utmost of our power” (Gregory of Nazianzus: Five Theological Orations, Translated with an introduction and notes by Dr. Stephen Reynolds, 2011, p. 98, <> )

This translation provides an interesting footnote to the phrase “the letter”:

“the letter”. I.e. of the Scriptures. Gregory does not say “the letter of the Scriptures,” because he will not concede to the opponents he now has in view that they are, in truth, faithfully interpreting the Scriptures. Cf. Oration 4, § 1 (page 71), where Gregory spoke of “difficulties and objections which were ripped from the holy Scriptures by those who profane the Bible and pervert the sense of its texts in order to win the mob to their side and confuse the way of truth.”

When you look at the actual quote, it is clear that Dr. George Demacopoulos has not even accurately presented the gist of the actual quote. St. Gregory was not attacking those

“who insist on literal interpretations,”

he was attacking those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, who insisted on exclusively literal interpretations as a cloak for their impiety — and their impiety was not that they interpreted Scripture literally, but that they denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It may be that when he was writing the notes to this lecture, he was referencing this by memory, and so we may charitably assume that he did not intentionally misquote the text, but the fact is, he has misquoted it, for whatever reason, and the actual quote does not even come close to justifying the assertion he made based on it.

If he had loosely said that St. Gregory the Theologian attacked those who insisted on an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture, that would at least be a plausible take on what he is saying, but in the actual context of the quote, even that is a stretch, because he is not attacking the idea of interpreting the Scriptures literally. He is attacking their pretense of doing so, which he makes clear later on in the oration, when he says:

“But since you hold so very close to the letter (although you are contending against the letter)…” (NPNF2, Vol. 7, p. 323).

So in actual fact, St. Gregory is saying that these heretics are not even getting their literal interpretation of Scripture correct. If his point had been to attack literal interpretations per se, he would have spent a good bit of time arguing that point, and showing what a non-literal interpretation was preferable. But that is not what you find in this text.

The Fathers do not deny the legitimacy of literal interpretations of Scripture (at least ones that are no more literal than the texts are intended to be taken in), though they certainly do affirm other senses of Scripture as well. But here he is not arguing, for example, that you have to take an allegorical interpretation of Scripture to defend the Trinity — you just have to take a non-willfully-stupid interpretation of the Scriptures:

“But now the swarm of testimonies shall burst upon you from which the Deity of the Holy Ghost shall be shown to all who are not excessively stupid, or else altogether enemies to the Spirit, to be most clearly recognized in Scripture” (NPNF2, Vol. &, p. 327).

Also, when it comes to St. Gregory the Theologian’s view of Scripture, one should consider the following statement:

“We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation” (NPNF2-07 St. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration II: In Defence of His Flight to Pontus, and His Return, After His Ordination to the Priesthood, with an Exposition of the Character of the Priestly Office , ch. 105, p.225).

Here St. Gregory references the words of the Lord:

“And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail” (Luke 16:17, c.f. Matthew 5:18).

St. Gregory not only affirms the verbal inerrancy Scripture, but in fact affirms every jot and tittle inerrancy (jots and tittles being the smallest strokes of a pen).

What is not obvious is what exactly is it about taking the literal sense of Scripture seriously that George Demacopoulos is objecting to? I “insist” on a literal interpretation of “Thou shalt not murder,” for example, but I also accept the more spiritual interpretations that Christ gives the commandment, and I think the Fathers of the Church would back me up both counts.

As I discussed in “Fundamental Errors: A Response to “Tradition Without Fundamentalism” by George Demacopoulos,” I suspect the issue behind this, is the question of the Church’s teachings on the subject of homosexuality (for the reasons stated in that article), though if George Demacopoulos wishes to dispute that, he need only clearly state what he believes to be the teaching of the Church on that subject. I would be happy to be corrected, if he simply affirmed that he believed that homosexual sex was inherently sinful, as opposed to arguing that somehow the literal sense of the Scriptures and canons on that subject should be reinterpreted to mean something else.



St. Gregory the Theologian and the Literal Interpretation of Scripture

About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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