Knowledge, Language and Intellection from Origen to Gregory Nazianzen

A Selective Survey

by Anna Usacheva (Author)
©2017 Thesis 212 Pages
Open Access


Epistemological theories of the patristic authors seldom attract attention of the researchers. This unfortunate status quo contrasts with a crucial place of the theory of knowledge in the thought of such prominent authors as Origen and the Cappadocian fathers. This book surveys the patristic epistemological discourse in its various settings. In the context of the Church history it revolves around the Eunomian controversy, Eunomius’ language theory and Gregory Nazianzen’s cognitive theory, where the ideas of Apostle Paul were creatively combined with the Peripatetic teaching. In the framework of Biblical exegesis, it touches upon the issues of the textual criticism of the Homeric and Jewish scholarship, which had significantly shaped Origen’s paradigm of the Biblical studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Language and Theological Knowledge in the Teachings of Origen, Basil and Eunomius
  • Introduction to Part One
  • Chapter 1. Epistemological and Pedagogical Debates of Late Antiquity: Language, Logic and Theology
  • 1. Epistemology from the Hellenistic epoch to Late Antiquity: Aristotelian methodological turn
  • 1.1 The epistemological conundrums of the Hellenic grammatical and medical studies
  • 1.2 Philological paradigm of Hellenic paideia
  • 2. Logic and a verified belief in Christian education
  • Chapter 2. Epistemological and methodological principles of Origen’s biblical studies
  • 1. Institutional framework of Alexandrian scholarship and Origen’s biblical studies
  • 2. Origen’s exegetic methodology and Hellenic grammarians
  • Chapter 3. Eunomian teaching in the context of philosophical and pedagogical debates
  • 1. Philosophical background of Eunomian teaching
  • 2. Historical and social context of Eunomian teaching
  • 2.1 Gregory vs. Julian: a pedagogical debate
  • 2.2 The Cappadocian fathers vs. Eunomians: how the debate started
  • 2.3 Polemical rhetoric of the Cappadocians and Eunomians: an unjustified reasoning
  • Chapter 4. Logical, linguistic and grammatical theories in the doctrines of Origen, Basil and Eunomius
  • 1. The post-Nicene debate: a terminological introduction
  • 1.1 Stoic linguistics at the service of Christian thought
  • 1.2 The categorial theory and correlation between logic and linguistics
  • 2. Hellenic philosophers, Eunomius and Origen on the correctness of names
  • 3. The language theories of Origen and Basil, and Stoic linguistics
  • 4. Methodology of the theological discourse of Origen and Basil
  • 4.1 Conceptual theology and the notion of epinoia
  • 4.2 The categorial theory in the Trinitarian doctrine
  • Conclusion
  • Part Two: Epistemology and Human Intellection in the Theological Orations of Gregory Nazianzen
  • Introduction to Part two
  • Chapter 1. The methodological framework of the theological orations
  • Introduction
  • 1. Method in the theological orations: historical evidence and modern scholarship
  • 2. A reception paradigm of the theological orations
  • 3. Style and argumentative strategies of the theological orations
  • 3.1 The objectives of the theological circle: Gregory’s explicit testimony
  • 3.2 Dialectical argumentation in the theological orations
  • 3.3 Exegetic theology and Aristotelian categorial theory
  • Chapter 2. The essential predication of the divine nature in the context of Eunomianism
  • Introduction
  • 1. Aristotelian epistemology and the essential predication theory
  • 1.1 An ontological account of essential predication
  • 1.2 An epistemological account of essential predication
  • 2. Essential predication in Gregory’s system
  • 2.1 Disproving the Eunomians: scientific accuracy in theological reasoning
  • 2.2 “Being” as a predicate of the divine nature
  • 2.3 The efficient and final causes and the hypostatic relationships
  • 2.3.1 The causal relationships of the divine hypostases
  • 3. God as a primary nature and a cause of the universe
  • 3.1 The Peripatetic definition of primary nature
  • 3.2 Gregory’s understanding of primary nature
  • Summary
  • Chapter 3. The physiological and anthropological aspects of epistemological theory
  • Introduction
  • 1. The epistemological aspects of the Aristotelian theory of the soul
  • 2. Gregory on the theory of knowledge and the intellective faculties of the human being
  • 3. God as maintainer and rationale of the universe
  • 4. Intellection as the image of God and τέλος of the human being
  • Conclusion
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Series Index

← 10 | 11 →


I started to think about the methodology of the theological discourse according to Gregory Nazianzen when I was reading his theological orations with my students. Although I deeply yearned to explore this issue in detail and in a broad philosophical context, this intention of mine would never be realized unless Anders-Christian Jacobsen had not suggested to me to apply for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie individual fellowship for experienced researchers.1 Not only had Anders-Christian suggested this, but he even insisted and helped me throughout my fellowship. It has been an immense privilege and delight to work on this project together with Anders-Christian and the colleagues from the Department of Theology, School of Culture and Society, at the University of Aarhus.

I wish to particularly thank Jakob Engberg and the Centre for the Study of Antiquity and Christianity and René Falkenberg and the New Testament research unit for the enlightening and thorough academic discussions and friendly support.

My especial and profound gratitude to René for his instructive critique, bright suggestions, fascinating discussions and an unmeasurable amount of help with the improvement of my thoughts and texts. I am sincerely grateful to Karla Pollmann and Tobias Georges for the time they spent on reading my texts and providing me with their precious and illuminating suggestions. A critial reading of my work by Jörg Ulrich proved to be immensely helpful and enriching in various ways. Jörg encouraged me to ameliorate my book at the final stage of the project and I am deeply grateful for this. Special thanks also to my English editor Michael Rayson, whose amazingly sharp eye and profound engaging with my text allowed me to improve and specify my ideas. I am particularly grateful to the editorial board of the ECCA series for accepting my manuscript for publication.

I am delighted to dedicate this book to my mother Elena Frolova, who always encouraged me in pursuing my aspirations in spite of all difficulties and obstacles.

All in all, it has been a pure pleasure to work on this project and I sincerely hope that at least some glimpse of my fascination with the process of scholarly research may also please the readers of this book. ← 11 | 12 →

1 The investigation was realized with the assistance of the financial support of the European Unions Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the grant agreement No 660894.

← 12 | 13 →


Actual knowledge is identical with its object.2

After a brief excursus into Aristotle’s concept of ‘actual knowledge’ Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Taylor in the first chapter of the book Retrieving Realism describe, as they call them, the modern contact theories of epistemology characterized by an attempt to re-embed thought and knowledge in the bodily and socio-cultural contexts in which it takes place.3 Taylor remarks that these theories launched primarily by Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein do not depend on ancient philosophy, and indeed, as we know, these modern thinkers very often decisively rebelled against some of the ancient concepts. Yet one cannot help noticing a certain parallelism between, on the one hand, Aristotelian holistic and multivocal ontology and epistemology broadly applied and developed in the Hellenistic period,4 and, on the other hand, some of the modern epistemological and hermeneutical discourses bridging textual, historical, philosophical, linguistic, socio-cultural, ethical and anthropological contexts and frameworks.5

Speaking of the epistemological discourse of the Hellenistic epoch and the period of Late Antiquity6 the following cluster of problems should be mentioned. An enigmatic provenance of the Corpus Aristotelicum entails questions concerning the reception and hence interpretation of Aristotelian legacy.7 Since recent scholarship suggests new readings of Aristotelian treatises and rethinking the impact of Aristotelian concepts on the Hellenic ← 13 | 14 → and Christian philosophy and theology,8 it also appears to be an ideal time to rethink and question patristic texts in terms of Hellenic epistemological and methodological discourse developed in a productive dialogue between the representatives of the philosophical schools, non-affiliated thinkers, and Christians (some of whom held a philosophical affiliation).9

Taking into account the problematic setting of the Hellenistic epistemology, I suggest considering patristic texts within the multidimensional and complex Hellenistic framework including socio-cultural, institutional, historical, and, especially important in this case, intellectual contexts characterized by an undivided and productive collaboration of humanitarian and scientific disciplines.10 ← 14 | 15 → Following from this methodological setting11, an initial ambition of my research is to map and outline various contexts relevant to the texts of Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Eunomius and Gregory Nazianzen that I study. Sketching a multicolour background of the texts allows me to question them in various ways and to engage with various problematic settings that were at stake when these texts were composed.

A chief purpose of my research project is to study how Christian and Hellenic authors of the third–fourth centuries regarded knowledge, language and intellection. Within these chronological frontiers the intellectual milieus engaged in the discussions of epistemological issues primarily included members of the philosophical schools, specialists in medicine and grammar, Christian educated elite, and members of the monastic communities. The daily routine of these groups of intellectuals was shaped by the life of the scholarly and philosophical communities, libraries, and scriptoria and for some of them, by the life of the church institutions.

Whatever religious beliefs and philosophical teaching these communities supported, they were similarly engrossed in studying, copying, interpreting and producing texts,12 and, hence, in pondering various strands of the epistemological and exegetical issues. One of these strands belongs to the field of language theories. Linguistic discussions sharpened by the socio-cultural challenges and shifts accompanying the processes of Hellenization, revolved around the legacy of the classical Greek and its literature (e.g., the phenomenon of the Second Sophistic13). From early on, linguistic problems featured ← 15 | 16 → prominently in the agenda of Hellenic grammarians and textual critiques and later on made their way into the Jewish and Christian exegetic milieus.14

Another strand of epistemological discussions featured also within philosophical and theological context. In such a way, studies of the physiological prerequisites of human intellective capacity featured in the Hellenic philosophical and medical discourse and proved particularly useful to some of the patristic authors in their partaking of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies.15 At the top of all the philosophical and scientific puzzles adopted by the Christian authors from their environment, the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire was followed by the entrance of big politics in the Christian church agenda.16

It is no surprise that appreciation of the multidimensional intellectual horizon of Late Antiquity enhances our understanding of the language, explicit and implicit ideas and nuances of patristic texts. Yet, although sketching a historical context of the text is a traditional tool of the historical-philological method, I am unsatisfied with the traditional lineaments of this research methodology. What I find problematic and insufficient about this method is that it frequently predisposes patristic scholars to question theological texts chiefly within the Christian theological framework and to make little of other relevant contexts. As a result of a long-term privilege of the ← 16 | 17 → historical-philological approach, investigation of the epistemological theories of the Christian authors is seldom a topic of the patristic studies.

For instance, the heritage of such a prominent Christian author as Gregory Nazianzen, as far as I am concerned, has never been questioned within the problematic field of Hellenic epistemological discourse. This fact appears particularly surprising in light of Gregory’s brilliant classical education and professional status of teacher of rhetoric, which he never completely abandoned.17 Not only did Gregory feel at home with contemporary philosophical discourse but pedagogical and methodological issues were also some of his preeminent concerns.18 Bowing to Gregory’s heritage Byzantine authors named him the Theologian par excellence and included his orations in the curriculum of rhetorical school.19 Distinguished Christian theologians such as John Damascene, Maximus the Confessor, Gregory Palamas and others borrowed widely from Gregory’s orations and teachings. Nevertheless, in spite of all this evidence, the general scholarly consensus apropos Gregory’s heritage proclaims him mostly a philosophical rhetorician20 and such a conclusion naturally precludes further investigations into Gregory’s pedagogical methodology and philosophical epistemology. I problematize this status quo and look at Gregory’s theological orations within the framework of the epistemological discourse of Late Antiquity shaped by various intellectual, institutional and socio-cultural contexts. Viewed in the light of epistemological discussions the theological orations show a new anthropological and cognitive strand of Gregory’s teaching and also reveal a remarkable Peripatetic aspect of his doctrine.

As Gregory borrowed many of his insights from Origen and Basil of Caesarea, I also devote significant attention to the epistemological and linguistic theories of these authors, and especially to Origen. Despite the richness of Origenian studies, the epistemological teaching of Adamantius has not been sufficiently investigated. In the introduction to his recent monograph Robert ← 17 | 18 → Somos expresses his complaint.21 His book opens the door to a further investigation of this topic and indeed there is a way to go. Concentrating on the study of Origen’s method of argumentation Somos drew revealing parallels with Aristotelian logic and Platonic teaching. Focused on the doctrine of Origen, he did not take into account such important institutional contexts as Hellenic grammar studies and Alexandrian and Jewish textual criticism, which had a decisive influence on Origen’s scholarly method and without which a picture of Origen’s epistemological teaching cannot be sufficient. Before Somos, scholars did pay attention to Origen’s relation to the methodological heritage of Hellenic grammarians and textual critiques,22 but these studies never exceeded the format of an article and I believe this field still holds a potential for new discoveries.

Investigation of the epistemological and methodological concepts of Origen and Gregory embedded in their peculiar socio-cultural, intellectual and institutional contexts not only reveals some new aspects of their teaching and connections with various Hellenic intellectual milieus, but also allows one to approach the ancient text with clear recognition of the inevitable limitations of our reading. That is to say, it is difficult to be optimistic when looking at the text as a reflection of the complex life of the society, and as a result of a long and enigmatic track of transmission and reception. Nevertheless, I believe that this approach holds an extensive academic potential for interdisciplinary studies. In my investigation I follow methodological guidance of contemporary scholarship, which bridges cognitive and literary theories and contends that the epistemological framework23 and environmental context24 of a literary composition is just as important for the formation of meaning25 as words and sentences, which constitute the textual tissue. ← 18 | 19 →

Owing to the amplitude of this research methodology I was obliged to limit my investigation of Knowledge, Language and Intellection from Origen to Gregory Nazianzen to a selective survey of the relevant issues. Among these issues are particularly influential events of the Christian intellectual history of the third–fourth centuries.

The first major focal point of my study focuses on the biblical studies of Origen, which comprised the Hexapla project, the formation of the biblical canon, and an attempt to create a Christian research institution akin to the Alexandrian Mouseion and to formulate a coherent system of Christian theological knowledge.

The second focal point of my research revolves around the linguistic-ontological-cosmological debates that arose from the teaching of Aëtius and Eunomius, and the comprehensive anti-Eunomian polemic of the Cappadocian fathers, which resulted in the formation of the chief Christian doctrines and hence structured the Christian system of education, monastic communities, Church rituals, etc. Thus, in this monograph I explore the heritage of Origen, Eunomius, Basil of Caesarea and Gregory Nazianzen, and trace the interconnections between their concepts and the relevant teachings of Hellenic and Jewish philosophers, grammarians, scientists and exegetes.

My study comprises two major parts. The first part provides an introduction to those aspects of Hellenic social life and culture (libraries, schools, scriptoria) which are relevant to the formation of the Christian paideia and biblical exegesis. It also surveys the notions of Peripatetic and Stoic logic, linguistics and grammar and shows how these terms and conceptions were adopted by Origen, Eunomius, Basil and Gregory in their theological argumentation. On the whole, the purpose of the first part is to sketch a comprehensive background for the discussions about knowledge, language and intellection, which featured in the doctrines of the mentioned authors and occasioned the composition by Gregory Nazianzen of his theological orations.

The second part of the monograph illuminates the crucial clusters of epistemological, linguistic and ontological puzzles which resound throughout the theological orations of Gregory Nazianzen (written in reaction to Eunomian teaching); it also shows in what way the epistemological and cognitive theories that had emerged in Hellenic philosophy penetrated Gregory’s theological discourse and shaped his anthropological, Christological and Trinitarian teaching.

In the conclusions to each of these two parts I highlight various aspects of the knowledge, language and intellection peculiar to the theological discussions of the third–fourth centuries that were shaped by different relevant institutional, socio-cultural and intellectual contexts. On the whole, I hope that the selective survey given in this book will provoke further questioning and investigation of the epistemological theories of the patristic authors within their relevant multidimensional contexts. ← 19 | 20 →

2 Cf.: τὸ δαὐτό ἐστιν ἡ κατ ἐνέργειαν ἐπιστήμη τῷ πράγματι (Arist., De anima 430a20; transl. J.A. Smith, 1931, available on-line).

3 Dreyfus, H. / Taylor, Ch., Retrieving Realism. Cambridge 2015, 25.

4 In his recent monograph Edward Feser draws a vivid picture of an Aristotelian revival in modern scholarship and particularly in the spheres of epistemology, ontology and scientific and philosophic methodology. Feser, E., Aristotle on Method and Metaphysics. New York 2013.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2017 (September)
Cappadocian theology Eunomian teaching Origen’s exegesis Cognitive theory Textual criticism Peripatetic epistemology
Frankfurt am Main, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 212 pp., 1 b/w ill., 4 b/w tables

Biographical notes

Anna Usacheva (Author)

Anna Usacheva holds a PhD in Classical Philology and was a lecturer in Patristics and Ancient Languages at St. Tikhon Orthodox University (Moscow, Russia). Currently, she is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Theology, Aarhus University (Denmark).


Title: Knowledge, Language and Intellection from Origen to Gregory Nazianzen
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