St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Cult of Numbers

About Gregory

Gregory the Theologian, (1408), Dormition Cathedral, Vladimir, Wikimedia Commons.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 326/330 – 390), nicknamed since antiquity as ‘The Theologian’, was a fourth-century bishop, born in the rural setting of modern-day central Turkey. He is venerated as a Father of the Church, and is one of the Cappadocian Fathers, along with Ss. Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory fought strenuously for spiritual orthodoxy, particular in relation to a doctrinal understanding of the Trinity, championing the Nicene perspective, and developing a unique Trinitarian language. He viewed the Nicene stance as a midday between the heretical extremes of Sabellianism and Arianism.[i]

Classically trained in rhetoric and philosophy, he is responsible for transposing Hellenism into the Early Church. In fact, “Gregory’s literary ability was regarded so highly by the learned connoisseurs of Byzantium that they ranked him with the great stylists of classical poetry and prose.” [ii] For example, Psellos (c. 1017 – 1028) describes Gregory’s style in glowing terms as embodying the gifts of figures such as Demosthenes, Pericles, Lysias and Herodotus, whilst outranking them, in wit, persuasive power, beauty and skill.[iii] He was even well regarded by Renaissance humanists for his literary prowess.[iv]

Gregory has left the Church with a large corpus of written works: letters, poems and orations. It is through his orations—speeches delivered in homilies and sermons, and polished and edited in his later life—that he has extended his greatest influence, both theologically and literarily.

Oration 42

Among his 44 orations is Oration 42—a Farewell Address; a kind of apologia directed at his flock at Constantinople upon his resignation. A resignation made for the purpose of quelling the dissensions and controversy surrounding his Canonically awry position in Constantinople. He thus stepped aside, to keep the peace.

The audience included the 150 bishops of the Eastern Church gathered for the First Council of Constantinople (381), and various rivals low and high. It is also addressed to the Nicaean faction in general. He is defending accusations against his style of ministry in Constantinople, whilst raising the banner of his Trinitarian faith. He says his farewells with a mix of sadness, joy, and satire, and leaves by throwing a few preacher-punches at the “great and Christ-loving city!” a descriptive term he calls unenlightened, while at the same time it is expressive of his hope of what could be.[v] Still, the tenderness of his delivery is undeniable—in Gregory is a pastor who loved his people.

The Cult of Numbers

The portion of this Oration I’d like to draw attention to is section 7, where Gregory alludes to a worldly, economic kind of religious way of thinking, that can be described as the cult of numbers. This can simply be understood to be a measuring of spiritual success and fruitfulness in Christian communities, based solely on numbers—on the population of a group in the Church or the Church as a whole. It is an outlook that focuses on the external of quantity, to the exclusion and neglect of the quality of such members. A quality defined by sound spirituality and doctrine, manifesting in holiness and love.

The Context of His Farewell

In the context of his Farewell Oration, he speaks to a church where the Nicene community has recently regained power from the Anti-Nicene’s; finally having the support of imperial policy on its side. It is “a people now grown from small to great, from scattered to well-knit, from a pitiable even to an enviable state”—and Gregory testifies to this increase as the work of God, the rich harvest won through his ministry with the support of his companions.[vi] Yet he does not praise the increase in numbers as the real reason to rejoice, but the increase in this people’s quality: a people who soundly “worship the Trinity”.[vii]

Gregory—God and Numbers

In the following extract Gregory shares what he thought he “heard God saying” (Or 42:8) in those days when the faithful adherents of the Trinity in Constantinople were a mere remnant, “tiny and poor” (Or 42:4), vastly outweighed by those who “wickedly divided” the Godhead in their false doctrines: many of whom, brought from darkness to light, falsehood to truth, now stand before Gregory as he speaks.

“But you build walls around me, and marble slabs and mosaic floors, long colonnades and porticoes; you glitter and shine with gold, spending it like water and gathering it up like sand, forgetting that faith camping in the open is worth more than the richest impiety, and that three-people gathered in the name of the Lord are worth more to God than tens of thousands who deny the divinity. Do you value the Canaanites more than Abraham, all by himself? Or the Sodomites more than Lot on his own? Or the Midianites more than Moses—though all of these were aliens and strangers? What of the three hundred of Gideon, who manfully lapped up the water, while thousands were rejected? What of Abraham’s household slaves, a few more than these in number, who pursued and defeated many kings and their armies of thousands of men, few though they were? And how do you understand this passage: ‘If the number of the children of Israel should become as the sand of the sea, only a remnant will be saved?’ Or this: ‘I have left for myself seven thousand men, who have not bent their knees to Baal.’ No this is not the solution—God does not delight in numbers![viii]

The Approach of a Spiritual Man

Gregory understood this Scripturally-derived lesson of God so very clearly. His understanding was applied in the way he went about his ministry. Faced with a tiny remnant Gregory did not conjure up systematic methods to increase his flock, with the mind of an accountant and tact of an administrator. Nor did he subject himself to human standards at the compromise of the Gospel message to gain sympathizers (Or 42:19). Nor did he play politics, to win members to his flock—siding with one faction against another, but he simply delineated between truth and falsehood, paying no regard to human groupings. And nor did he lord his authority over the Anti-Nicene’s in order to crush them, and consolidate the numbers of his Nicene-flock, when the tables turned in his camps’ favor, but rather he acted mercifully, to the point of being blamed for leniency by his very own.

For St. Gregory was a spiritual man, who saw things with a spiritual eye. Seeing success in the quality of his people, not in their numbers; to the point he even lost favor with much of his own due to his steadfastness to the Gospel of mercy. He knew what was at stake — “the salvation of the soul”— and saw his pastoral responsibility with a sharpness of vision: “to guard and protect his flock” but above all “by distributing the word” in teaching, example and the sacraments, which he calls “the first of our tasks” (Or 2:35).[ix]

In one of his poems he defends his Word-focused approach as a Bishop; an approach carried out from the motive of saving souls, not to increasing numbers for the sake of numbers:

You’ve been considering a bishop as you would an accountant, laying stress on mere rubbish, where I’ve been concerned with important issues. A priest should have one function and one only, the sanctification of souls by his life and teaching… Other matters he should relinquish to those skilled in them.[x]

Learning from Gregory

There is so much we can learn from St. Gregory on the cult of numbers. The lesson he understood so well, is perennially relevant to the Church in all its spheres: on the universal scale, the local parish scale, on the level of the religious community, and even to the microcosm of every youth, bible study or prayer group. The value of all of these is not weighed by the numbers of attendants or alleged adherents, but on the quality of the interior fruits of sound spirituality and doctrine, brought forth as the harvest of the Word; nourishing the real spiritual growth of its members, shown to be authentic by a visible and practical love.

It is easy for groups to become ‘accountant-minded’ and focus on numbers as the measure of spiritual success. Acting in ministry from the motive to “increase numbers,” and investing efforts to win “bums in seats.” Yet by focusing on numbers, we lose our focus of love—depersonalising the face of ‘the other’ into a mere number, thus losing sight of the face of Christ in our neighbour; and this is all a consequence of chasing after numbers instead of a deepened relationship with the Word and the lived proclamation of His Truth—a proclamation that reaches out to ‘the other’ as the image of God, not as the means to bump up a statistic.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus shows us that we need not focus on numbers, for “God does not delight in numbers!” but we need only focus on God the Trinity, seeking to increase the quality of the “tiny and poor” remnant in our midst—above all by seeking the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ourselves (in prayer, instruction and the sacraments); and this labour will be blessed by God who in time, will bring forth an increase far greater in quality and quantity, than we could ever achieve by our quest for greater numbers.

God did so in Constantinople in the fourth-century A.D., and He can do so again in our day; so long as we see like Gregory that our strength lies not in numbers, but in our God, and the unconditional Love He has for us (Ps 28:7). That Love of the Father for the Son, the Love who is the Holy Spirit—and increasing in this Love, which always reaches out, and not in numbers, must be our sole and only focus.

 

[i] Brian E. Daley, S.J., Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2006), Oration 42:16, pp. 147-148.

[ii] Ibid., p.1.

[iii] Ibid., p.27. Direct source, see Michael Psellos, “The Characteristic of Gregory the Theologian, the Great Basil, Chrystostom, and Gregiry of Nyssa.”

[iv] Ibid. pp. 26-28.

[v] Ibid. Oration 42:27, p.154.

[vi] Ibid. Oration 42:9, p.144.

[vii] Ibid. Oration 42:7, p.143.

[viii] Ibid., pp.143-144.

[ix] Ibid. Introduction, 53.

[x] On Himself and the Bishops, as it appears in Gregory of Nazianzus, The Early Church Fathers p. 52.