St. Gregory the Theologian on our Ransom by God

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One of the greatest orators of his age, St. Gregory the Theologian (also known as Gregory Nazianzus), is considered among the most central of Church fathers. His work, and that of St. Basil the Great, did much to win the day for the Nicene Creed (by God’s grace) and to secure its completion at the first Council of Constantinople, where the Creed received its final and present form. He is not as easy to read for moderns as Augustine or some of the Latin Fathers. But is well worth the read. Below is a portion from his Second Paschal Oration in which he asks the question: “To whom was the ransom (Christ’s death on the Cross) paid?”

Now we are to examine another fact and dogma, neglected by most people, but in my judgment well worth enquiring into. To Whom was that Blood offered that was shed for us, and why was it shed? I mean the precious and famous Blood of our God and Highpriest and Sacrifice. We were detained in bondage by the Evil One, sold under sin, and receiving pleasure in exchange for wickedness. Now, since a ransom belongs only to him who holds in bondage, I ask to whom was this offered, and for what cause? If to the Evil One, fie upon the outrage! If the robber receives ransom, not only from God, but a ransom which consists of God Himself, and has such an illustrious payment for his tyranny, a payment for whose sake it would have been right for him to have left us alone altogether. But if to the Father, I ask first, how? For it was not by Him that we were being oppressed; and next, On what principle did the Blood of His Only begotten Son delight the Father, Who would not receive even Isaac, when he was being offered by his Father, but changed the sacrifice, putting a ram in the place of the human victim? Is it not evident that the Father accepts Him, but neither asked for Him nor demanded Him; but on account of the Incarnation, and because Humanity must be sanctified by the Humanity of God, that He might deliver us Himself, and overcome the tyrant, and draw us to Himself by the mediation of His Son, Who also arranged this to the honour of the Father, Whom it is manifest that He obeys in all things? So much we have said of Christ; the greater part of what we might say shall be reverenced with silence.

His final summation puts my garrulousness to shame.

5 Responses to “St. Gregory the Theologian on our Ransom by God”

  1. earthboundkid Says:

    You’re right that the language there is a little confusing to the modern sensibility. I take it though that in paraphrase the Blood is offered to mankind as an aid to theosis?

    Unrelated, but today I was thinking (by way of CS Lewis and the icon/idol distinction): “Apart from theosis, idolatry is inescapable, since as limited human beings, we are incapable of addressing our prayers to its proper source. The only way for us to communicate with God properly is by His interpenetration of our very faculties. Thus, even the greatest iconoclast is still an idolator, since (apart from God’s love in him) his own reason is his only image of the divine.”

  2. Meg Says:

    Yeah, but if you weren’t garrulous, the rest of us would be the poorer. For my own part, reading what you have written underscores a conversation I had with my own priest just yesterday. Thanks!

  3. William Says:

    I was just reading from St. Gregory’s poetry and found this parallel passage rendered in a few lines, and I thought I’d share it here:

    “Shall I ask to whom went the blood which Christ shed forth?
    If to the wicked one — alas, Christ’s blood for him who is evil!
    But if to God — why, when we were under another’s power?
    For it’s always to one who holds power that a ransom is paid.
    The truth is this: he offered himself to God,
    so as to snatch us from him who had us in his power,
    so that, in exchange for him who fell, he might take
    the Christ: but he who christens cannot be caught.
    This is our opinion. We respect, however, the typologies.
    The sum of it is this: worship the Trinity.”

    These are the final lines of a longer poem against Apollinarius describing the nature of Christ as the God-man. The translation is from the Popular Patristics edition “On God and Man.”

  4. Christopher Orr Says:

    How does this square with patristic language such as:

    “Thou hast taken upon Thyself the common debt of all in order to pay it back to Thy Father – pay back also, O guiltless Lord, those sins with which our freedom has indebted us. Thou hast redeemed us from the curse of the law by Thy precious blood. Deliver also those redeemed by Thy blood from harsh justice!” (St. Ephrem the Syrian, *A Spiritual Psalter* #102)

    There is also a great deal of language like this in the early Western Fathers: Cyprian, Ambrose, etc.

  5. fatherstephen Says:

    The are a host of metaphors to be found in the fathers – including some that St. Gregory would not have particularly cared for. The payment to the Father for a debt owed to Him is not a dominant image in Eastern liturgical usage, that is the lex orandi. Certainly not on the scale that you would find later in the West.

    Other metaphors are far more dominant.

    The difference, it seems to me, is that some modern Western Christians have made a minor metaphor into a dogma, even writing it into statements of faith that people must subscribe to in order to teach in their schools, etc. It has been raised to the level of dogma, a status never given to a particular atonement metaphor by the Orthodox Church.

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