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Naming God, Defining Heretics, and the Development of a Textual Culture: Gregory of Nyssa and the Eunomian Controversy

Matthew Lootens

One thread that weaves through the debates about the nature of God that occupied much of the fourth century is the concern over the interpretation of biblical and other traditional language about God.  These hermeneutical issues took center stage with the appearance of Eunomius of Cyzicus (360s-380s), who directly questioned how names apply to God and where they originate.  This paper focuses on Eunomius’ main opponent, Gregory of Nyssa, and offers a new reading of Gregory’s refutation of Eunomius by connecting it with Gregory’s method of heresiology and understanding of Christian textual culture.

Most recent scholarship on the Eunomian controversy is decidedly theological in orientation (Ayres 2004; Radde-Gallwitz 2009; DelCogliano 2010), but other scholarship suggests that the debate extended beyond the immediate concerns of an intra-Christian theological dispute.  Richard Lim, for example, has argued that articulating a theory of language was also an attempt to control access to the divine and to maintain social order in the contested world of late-ancient Christianity by privileging and denying ways of speaking about God (Lim 1995; see also Vaggione 1993; Schott 2009).  This paper will position itself along this latter scholarly trajectory while also drawing on the insights of Kendra Eshleman’s work on the social dimensions of earlier Christian heresiological discourse (Eshleman 2011, 2012) and on studies of textuality in late antiquity (Schott 2013).

The paper first briefly outlines the competing theories of language and the degree to which they appropriated the classical philosophical background. Both parties agreed that the word “unbegotten” (ἀγέννητος), the word central to the debate, was an appropriate title for God. Eunomius argued, however, that names are established based on a natural connection between names and things, whereas Gregory held that names originate by human convention. These theories had direct implications for knowledge of God. According to Eunomius, because names are natural, knowing God’s name implies knowledge of the essence of God. Gregory argued the opposite: since language is conventional, it leads only to provisional, limited knowledge.  Of course, such theorizing extended deep into the classical past, and these fourth-century thinkers drew upon the ideas of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, as well as contemporary Neoplatonic philosophers to argue their specific positions.

The paper’s second section focuses on examples from Gregory’s anti-Eunomian writings. These examples show that Gregory casts Eunomius as a writer and exegete, whose way of writing and reading is inconsistent with both the conventional and natural theories of language.  In making such a claim, Gregory develops a novel heresiological method that does not implicate Eunomius by mapping genealogical lines of succession between philosophical traditions and Eunomius’ thought, which was standard procedure in Christian heresiology and in the literature of the successions of philosophical schools, but rather does so by recasting the heretic as someone who remains outside of a normative textual community (compare the idea of “reading cultures” and “reading communities” in Johnson 2010). For Gregory, this textual community and its accepted rules of engagement, on the one hand, and his own understanding of language as conventional, on the other, mutually reinforce each other. Gregory argues that one should use words according to common usage and that the limits of exegesis are likewise constrained by an imagined common exegetical community starting with the apostle Paul. Gregory’s position, therefore, is not only a claim about language but is also redeployed as a polemical tool for the heresiological work of constructing an imagined textual community and of denying Eunomius’ membership thereof.  The paper concludes by suggesting that it is hardly surprising that Gregory used the form of refutation that he did.  By adopting a line-by-line refutation, in which he quotes Eunomius’ words directly, Gregory shows his own readers that his opponent’s writing, use of language, and reading strategies lie outside of an orthodox textual community.

Session/Panel Title

The Intellectual Culture of the Second to Fourth Centuries CE: Christians, Jews, Philosophers, and Sophists

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