A Humble Silence
Silence is a sort of nothingness. In spite of this, silence often possesses a variety of qualities. We may experience the angry silence of a hurt loved one, the peaceful silence of the person at rest, or the patient silence of a watcher. The silence of persons turns out to be something. It may be a lack of sound, but it is filled by the quality of a human person. Humans spend much of their lives dealing with silence, alternately hating and desiring it, fearing and welcoming it. Silence plays an important part in human life, for good or ill. And just like any other human, the theologian must face silence in his or her own life as well. But the quality of that silence is all important.
Gregory of Nazianzus was a fourth century Greek church father who spent much of his life speaking. One of his crowning achievements was five Orations given in Constantinople, defending the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. These have become widely known as the Theological Orations. These orations draw my attention because of a peculiar quality: they begin and end with a call to silence, a silence born of humility and awe.
In Gregory’s first Theological Oration (Oration 27), he begins his discussion of the Trinity by arguing that the person who delves into such topics ought to have a certain sort of character. They ought to demonstrate care for others and not just interest in their own brilliance or fame. But they also ought to only speak out of personal contemplation and an attitude of piety, out of a stillness that is not distracted by passing fads. Gregory calls upon his hearers to only speak about such deep things as the Trinity when “we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images, leading us, as it were, to mix fine script with ugly scrawling or sweet-smelling scent with slime. We need actually ‘to be still’ in order to know God…” Theology should not merely be a topic used to display clever conversation and argumentation.
Gregory further argues that while we should regularly meditate upon the things of God, we should avoid continuous theological discussion. “It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe … [I] approve of the precept that commands us to ‘meditate day and night,’ to tell of the Lord ‘evening, and morning, and at noon,’ and to ‘bless the Lord at all times,’ … and by this mindfulness be molded to purity. So it is not continual remembrance of God I seek to discourage, but continual discussion of theology. I am not opposed either to theology, as if it were a breach of piety, but only to its untimely practice, or to instruction in it, except when this goes to excess.”
For Gregory, theology is a deeply serious matter. Theology attempts to describe, in some small measure, the Creator, Lord, and Savior of the cosmos. When humans engage in theology, it is the infinitesimal attempt to describe the infinite, the weak attempt to describe the Almighty, the impoverished attempt to describe the owner of all, the embodied attempt to describe the one who is Spirit, and the morally impure attempt to describe the righteous one. Such an endeavor should never be attempted lightly. Such an endeavor can only be successful with the aid of the God we attempt to describe. Such a project should not begin with impulsive babble, but with silence. This silence is a humble and sober silence, a silence that recognizes the enormity of the task we undertake and the reliance upon God we require to succeed in it.
This is a challenge to our culture, both inside and outside of academia. In the academy, one gets ahead by writing and developing fresh insights. Such writing can often be driven by a desire to demonstrate one’s intelligence or acquire a higher position. A similar challenge exists outside academia, for pastors and lay people who enjoy the study and discussion of theology (often cheerfully self-identified as “theology nerds”). We live in a culture of instant reaction, where a quick google search leads us to consider ourselves experts in vast and complex topics, and the best reaction is the quickest and/or most outrageous one. These influences, if left unchecked, vitiate one’s theological discourse and explanation. Both academics and non-academics must consciously resist such influences. Our fundamental goal should not be fame or a demonstration of our own cleverness. The best answer is not identified by the speed with which it is given, the amount of acceptance it receives, or the level of controversy that it generates. Our goal is to speak truly of God and to invite and edify those who also seek after him. We best accomplish this goal when we begin from the silence of humble contemplation rather than the bustle of personal ambition.
For Gregory, a humble silence provides more than a beginning for the theologian. It provides an end as well. This silence is not that of the speaker who has exhaustively explained its subject. Language rarely functions in such a manner, and especially not when applied to the infinite, Triune God. This silence need not be permanent, and the theologian may yet embark upon further discourse (as Gregory certainly does). In some ways such silence is a physical necessity: we cannot continuously speak or write. Yet this silence is a chosen, purposeful silence. It is a silence that both mirrors and yet is fuller than the silence with which one begins one’s discourse.
Gregory provides an example of such silence in the end of Oration 31, the final Theological Oration. He is here concluding his discussion of the Holy Spirit and the whole concept of the Trinity. He attempts to provide examples and images of the Trinity and finds himself dissatisfied with all of them, saying that “there is nothing to satisfy my mind when I try to illustrate the mental picture I have, except gratefully taking part of the image and discarding the rest … I resolved to keep close to the more truly religious view and rest content with some few words, taking the Spirit as my guide and, in his company and in partnership with him, safeguarding to the end the genuine illumination I had received from him, as I strike out a path through this world.”
Gregory does not completely reject the use of words and images in this passage, though it may seem so upon first glance. Instead, he recognizes their validity, noting that we can gratefully recognize the truth of aspects of the various images we use, especially when we put these images into a patchwork conversation, weaving a tapestry of pictures. But these words and images do have limits. They only go so far. We must then rest in silence, rest with the insights God has given us, the basic truths revealed by the study of His Word and contemplation of His revelation. This too is a humble silence. It is a silence of trust and adoration. It is the silence of the explorer astounded by what she has found while knowing that a vast wilderness with many more wonders remains. It is the silence of the art lover who has meditated upon a beautiful painting and now returns to his home, chastened and delighted by the beauty he has found while knowing that greater depths remain within the masterpiece. It is our silence, the silence of the finite, embodied creature awed by the glimpse of the infinite God who is Spirit and whose depth and power and glory knows no end. We are richer than when we begun. We are silent with humility and awe once more, but with a deeper and fuller awe as we bask in the glory of God’s character and activity.
To do theology well requires a deliberate pursuit of such silence. Speech inevitably begins and ends with silence, but the quality of such silence is all important. Gregory helps us to see that the silence of the theologian (the academic and the pastor, the evangelist and the “armchair theologian”) must be a humble one. Our silence should be the sober silence of one beginning a great task and the final, sober silence of someone who has spoken something of value and now returns to contemplation of unplumbed depths. Meditate upon the glory and beauty of God this day. I pray that I and other theologians will pursue the same goal that Gregory describes in the final sentence of his Theological Orations: “To the best of my powers I will persuade all men to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the single Godhead and power, because to him belong all glory, honor, and might for ever and ever. Amen.”
Caleb Little is a doctoral student at Baylor Univeristy. He is a Reformed theologian who possesses a deep interest in the insights of the early theologians of Christianity. When not studying, he enjoys wood working, biking, and reading a wide variety of fiction, with a particular taste for mythology, scifi, and fantasy.Show Sources
 Rowan Williams makes a similar argument when he says that silence “necessarily betokens.” See Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words, (New York, NY: Bloomsbury, 2014), 156-157.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 27.3 (Translated by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham in On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002.).
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 27.4.
 See Williams, The Edge of Words, 66-94, for an excellent discussion of the “unfinishable” business of language.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.33.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31.33.