The Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Modern Western Theology
Schematization of the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa (Mike Bone, 1998)
1. A Schematization
The following schematization of the thought of Gregory of Nyssa is drawn from sections 2-4, below.
Concept of God
Ethics and Society
2. Notes from Hardy
The following notes are taken from Edward R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 235-250. This was a preliminary schema based solely on Hardys introduction to Nyssa.
Concept of God
Ethics and Society
3. Notes from Gregory's An Answer to Ablabius
The following notes are taken from Gregory of Nyssa, An Answer to Ablabius: That We Should Not Think of Saying There Are Three Gods, edited by Edward R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 256-267.
Nyssa gives two answers to the question of why it is inappropriate to speak of three Gods in the Christian faith, even though we are accustomed to using such expressions as "three men" when referring to more than one person. The first, simple answer is that we speak of God as one, resisting the plural expression for a single nature in order to avoid the semblance of polytheism.
He then offers a more subtle answer:
4. Notes from Gregory, An Address on Religious Instruction
The following notes are taken from Gregory of Nyssa, An Address on Religious Instruction, edited by Edward R. Hardy, Christology of the Later Fathers (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 256-267. (This work is generally called the Catechetical Oration or the Great Catechism.)
Chapter 1 The Doctrine of God and His Word
The divine reason/speech (Logos) subsists eternally and possesses life. Since Gods Word cannot be a composite being, life belongs to it properly, that is, it is not received from another. As alive, the Word has the will and the capacity to act. Finally, Logos wills and does whatever is good, and this includes creation.
The Word differs from "Him whose it is," though the difference is not one of nature. (272) Nyssa here used a psychological analogy: "In our own case we say that a spoken word comes from the mind, and is neither entirely identical with it nor altogether different. So the Word of God, by having its own subsistence, is distinct from Him from whom it derives its subsistence. On the other hand, by manifesting in itself the attributes to be seen in God, it is identical in nature with Him." (272)
Chapter 2 The Holy Spirit
Again using anagogy, Nyssa pictured spirit (pneuma) as breath, that is, as the drawing in of something which is foreign to us, but which enlivens us and makes possible our speech. "Yet we must not imagine that, in the way of our own breath, something alien and extraneous to God flows into him and becomes the divine Spirit in him." (273) Rather, we think of the Holy Spirit as "a power really existing by itself and in its own special subsistence," inseparable "from God in whom it exists, or from Gods Word which it accompanies." Like that Word, the Holy Spirit "is capable of willing" and "ever chooses the good." (273)
Chapter 3 The Mean Between Judaism and Hellenism
In terms of mission, Nyssa saw Christianity as superseding every other religious expression, especially Judaisms strict monotheism and Hellenisms polytheism, though trinity itself is a mystery.
Chapter 4 Reply to the Jew
This consists entirely in an appeal to Jewish scripture, particularly to the LXX version of Ps. 33:6.
Chapter 5 The Creation of Man
This begins Nyssas argument for the incarnation of God which he defended against both Judaism and Hellenism. Logos created all, not out of necessity, but out of gratuitous goodness. Humanity was created to share in that goodness. In order to participate in divine goodness, and based on the principle that like draws like, Nyssa posited that humanity had to be fashioned with a certain affinity for the divine, namely the image of God. This image included immortality and freedom from passion (pathos = moral weakness).
The Nature of Evil and the Fall of Man
Our present mortality and misery is unnatural for us. God who is good could not have created us this way, so evidently something happened to make us mortal. That something came about through "the gift of liberty and free will." (277) The problem Nyssa had to address [though it does not become explicit until chapter 7] was the Manichaean dilemma that, given our current wretchedness, either God is not creator or God is not good. Nyssas response anticipated that of Augustine, namely that "evil in some way arises from within. It has its origin in the will, when the soul withdraws from the good. For the origin of evil is not otherwise to be conceived than as the absence of virtue." (278)
Chapter 6 (Evil and the Fall continued)
How did this error in judgment arise? Nyssa pushed the problem back without really solving it adequately. In all creation, there is the intelligible and the sensible, two separate and distinct realms. Creation established a harmony between the two so that the sensible may "participate in the good." (278) When the intelligible existed, but not yet the sensible, Lucifer received the assignment of managing the earth. When God then created humanity in the divine image, Lucifer became envious. [Envy was the original sin rather than pride!]
Keeping in mind that "vice should be viewed as the privation of the good," (279) and that created nature constantly changes as the consequence of its finitude, Lucifer was carried into depravity by the tendency to evil unleashed by his envy. Lucifer "mingled evil with mans free will and so quenched Gods blessing. (281)
Chapter 7 God and Evil
In addressing the Manichaean dilemma directly, Nyssa cited St. Pauls distinction between the spiritual man and the natural man to say that judgments of good and evil cannot be made on the basis of sensation. One cannot simply equate good with bodily pleasure and evil with suffering, sickness and pain. Rather, evil has no being. "For nothing evil lies outside the will as if it existed by itself. If a man in broad daylight of his own free will closes his eyes, the sun is not responsible for his failure to see." (282)
Chapter 8 The Restoration of Man
Death is not an evil. Gods intention in giving us mortality was to allow the evil to drain away from our flesh at death (image of a broken pot, smashed and reformed) and then to refashion us in our "original state through the resurrection." (283) Death is the "mark of irrational nature" with which God clothed humanity provisionally after the Fall. Since it was by our senses that we were led astray, the sensible is dissolved to be reconstituted in perfection.
Nevertheless, soul and body "share together in evil." (284) The soul, as non-composite, cannot lose the stain of evil by the act of decomposing and being reconstituted. Instead, either "the medicine of virtue... has to be applied" in the present life or the soul will encounter "a harsh means of correction" at the future judgment. (284) Nyssa used the image of a mole on the soul, i.e., "material excrescences...hardened on the surface of our souls," to depict how our souls are affected by their association with the passions. (284) Once humanity had lost its original perfection through "thoughtlessness," then, the mutability of finite being ensured that humanity could not regain such perfection apart from the One who created human nature, that is, the Logos.
Chapter 9 Incarnation
Nyssa at this point returned to the central thrust of the argument: the incarnation. Again, he stressed that the only thing "by nature shameful" is evil. (287) Thus, it is not unbefitting to the divine to assume human nature, including death and the return from it.
Chapter 10 Incarnation (cont.)
Is not finitude, however, unbefitting to God? "How, then, could the infinite be contained in an atom?" Nyssa answered this by using the analogy of how human intellect is unconstrained by the body. He then illustrated his answer with the image of a "flame hugging the [wick of a lamp] and yet not encased in it." (288)
Chapter 11 Incarnation (cont.)
The incarnation of God is a mystery. If we cant even understand how the soul and body form a union in human beings, we certainly cant understand the how of incarnation. That it happened is evident from the miracles recorded in the gospels.
Chapter 12 The Incarnation and The Miracles
Just as we believe in a creator by considering the handiwork of such, so we have proof of the incarnation of God by examining the activities of such. Further, those activities reveal the attributes of God that we likewise see in creation.
Chapter 13 & 14 The Incarnation and The Miracles (cont.)
Birth and death are fleshly events, "the two limits of our human life," (289) characterized by pathos (weakness, primarily in the moral sense; viz. n.22, p.292). In the case of the incarnation, however, the endpoints were unmarked by this weakness, i.e., sensual pleasure in conception and the corruption of the body after death. Those who object that such miracles transcend the natural, affirm the contention that the divine stooped to assume humanity.
Chapter 15 The Incarnation and The Miracles (cont.)
We know God from the blessings we enjoy, particularly from the love for humanity that characterizes the divine. "Our nature was sick and needed a doctor." (290) "The prisoner was looking for someone to ransom him." (291)
Chapter 15 (cont.) & Chapter 16 Why Did Not God Redeem Man by a Sovereign Act?
In addressing this point, Nyssa returned to his theme that nothing created is a vice in itself and, thus, incarnation does not run counter to the conception of God as "genuine virtue." (292) The issue of Gods immutability and impassibility, however, remained to be addressed. Why should God sully Godself by coming into contact with the weakness/pathos of created nature? Nyssa delineated two senses in which weakness/pathos pertains:
In the incarnation, God came into contact with weakness/pathos in the extended sense, one in which no shame attaches to being human. The birth of God incarnate was "free from sensual pleasure and his life from wickedness." (293)
In addition, God entered fully into both elements of human being, the sensible and the intelligible, in order that, once the elements were dissolved in death, God might rejoin them permanently in the resurrection. "This is what resurrection means - the restoration of elements into an indissoluble union after their separation, so that they can grow together. In this way mans primal grace was restored and we retrieved once more eternal life." (293) Nyssa spoke of a principle of resurrection that, like the principle of death, entered the world through one person and yet extends to all humanity. "For when in the case of the man in whom [God] was incarnate the soul returned once more to the body after the dissolution, a similar union of the separated elements potentially passed to the whole of human nature, as if a new beginning had been made." (294)
Chapter 17 - 19 Why Did Not God Redeem Man by a Sovereign Act? (cont.)
Again, this does not answer why, if God is so powerful, this devious method of redemption was taken. After saying that sick people dont tell the physician how to treat them, Nyssa offered the following as reasonable solutions.
Chapter 20 - 25 The Union of Gods Goodness, Wisdom, Justice, and Power in the Incarnation
All the attributes that suggest excellence are ascribed to God, though never singularly, since that would mitigate the various attributes. For example, power "if it is separated from justice and wisdom, cannot be classed as virtue." (296)
Divine justice takes into account both that humanity has free will because of being created in the image of God and that humanity is subject to change because of its created being. (This mutability when oriented to the good yields unlimited improvement, but when oriented to evil devolves into non-existence.) The mind discriminates between real goodness and the appearance of goodness, but humanity was caught on "the fishhook of evil...with an outward appearance of good, as with a bait" and so through free will became "subject to the enemy of life." (298)
Gods justice lay in not taking from the enemy by superior force what he had caught. Switching to the metaphor of a person who had sold himself into slavery, Nyssa said that Gods justice demanded that God "give the master [of the slave] the chance to take whatever he wants to as the price of the slave." (299)
Since envy began the devolution of Lucifer into evil, getting a better bargain for the humanity he had enslaved would satisfy his pride. Lucifer saw in Christ the best human there had ever been and "chose him as the ransom for those he had shut up in deaths prison." (300) Hidden in that appealing human flesh, however, was the fullness of the Godhead. It was veiled so as not to scare Lucifer off the deal. "In that way, as it is with greedy fish, he might swallow the Godhead like a fishhook along with the flesh, which was the bait. Thus, when life came to dwell with death and light shone upon darkness, their contraries might vanish away." (301) Now with Christs resurrection, "our mortal race might begin its return to immortal life." (302)
Chapter 26 Did God Use Deceit?
Not really. This is just a fine example of the divine goodness, justice and wisdom combined. God rendered the devil his due while achieving the divine aim. That aim was not only our redemption, but that of Lucifer, too. Caught on the hook of Christs divinity, Lucifer is being purged of evil, a painful process he will appreciate when it is completed. "When over long periods of time, [evil] has been removed and those now lying in sin have been restored to their original state, all creation will join in united thanksgiving, both those whose purification has involved punishment and those who never needed purification at all." (304) [apokatastasis]
Chapter 27 & 28 Why God Assumed Human Nature
God was "united with us in all our characteristics" from birth through death in order that the whole of sick humanity might experience the cure in itself. (305) It would not have spared the divine dignity any to assume an angelic, purely intelligible nature since all created being is "equally beneath the power that rules the universe." (306) Again, what is created is, as such, not shameful to the divine. Further, "the whole anatomy of the body is uniformly to be valued," including the "generative organs" by which "nature wars on death." (306f)
Chapter 29 & 30 Why Was the Incarnation Delayed?
God waited until "no form of evil remained concealed in our nature." (307) How is it that evil still unfolds? Like a snake whose head is crushed, but whose body still struggles, " it is possible for evil to have been struck a mortal blow, and yet for life still to be harassed by its vestiges." (308)
Chapter 30 (cont.) & 31 Why Do Not All Believe?
Is God unable or unwilling to extend the gospel reality to all? Nyssa opposed the view that not everyone is called to salvation. Pentecost showed that God calls all nations to faith, but "out of his high regard for man, the Sovereign of the universe left something under our own control... the will... grounded in the freedom of the mind." (308)
Chapter 32 Why Did God Die?
Against the charge that death demeans the divine, Nyssa argued that "the birth makes the death necessary." (309) Christ died so that "by means of his own body [he might] grant our nature the principle of the resurrection, by raising our total humanity along with him by his power." (310) [note the organic view of human nature: what happens in one part, happens to all.] Nyssa then launched into a discurses on the "higher, divine meaning of the cross." [This discurses, along with his reference to the "inner meaning" of the law and his description of the Logos and the Holy Spirit, exemplifies the theological method of anagogy.]
Chapter 33 - 36 Baptism
The second birth comes about by "prayer... and water and faith." (312) To explain, Nyssa pointed to how the initial, "moist" seed becomes a human person. While such is a mystery, it is evident that it occurs by divine power. In the same way, baptism transforms "our corruptible nature into a state of incorruption." (313) By his promise, God is present in the rite of baptism and effects the transformation by divine power.
Since we are saved less by Christs teaching than by what Christ actually did, baptism creates an affinity between "disciple and master." (314) Like military recruits in training or like travelers in a labyrinth, we imitate Christ as our captain and guide and so make our way out of the "prison house of death." (315) Earth and water are similar elements, so the device by which we imitate Christs experience of death and resurrection is immersion. [Hooray for Baptists!] Nyssa attributed the practice of being immersed three separate times to the fact that Christ was raised on the third day. Later, he also referred to being baptized in the name of each person of the trinity.
In the present, through baptism, we experience to a limited degree Gods purpose in death, i.e., dissolving our sin-stained nature and reconstituting the original innocent state. Baptism brings about "a kind of break in the continuity of evil" both by the imitation of Christs death and by our repentance. (316) The break is not complete, but we "enact in advance and by water the grace of the resurrection" in order to "assure us that it is just as easy to be baptized in water as it is to rise again from the dead." (316f) This beginning seems insignificant, but then, so, too, does the human seed.
Though Nyssa claimed it is impossible "for a man to attain to the resurrection apart from the regeneration by washing," (317) he is referring to resurrection to blessedness. Those purified by baptism will get to enjoy blessedness, defined as freedom from weakness/pathos, immediately at the resurrection. Those who skip baptisms sacramental water and amendment of repentance will find themselves in the fire that purges away evil.
Chapter 37 The Eucharist
Human beings are made up of body and soul. The soul is saved through union with Christ by faith, but the body is another matter. Having been deceived into taking "poison," the body needs a remedy, namely, "the body which proved itself superior to death." (319) Nyssa pointed to nourishment as the assimilation of food into a body to describe how bread and wine are changed into flesh and blood in the Eucharist. "The body in which God dwelt, by receiving bread as nourishment, was in a sense identical with it." (320) In the same way, "the bread which is consecrated by Gods Word is changed into the body of God the Word." (320) What happened gradually during the incarnation now happens immediately upon consecration of the elements.
Chapter 38 - 40 Faith and Repentance
Spiritual birth is the only kind in which one chooses ones parents and nature. Our choice is to be baptized into the trinity (Father, Son and Holy Spirit as equally uncreated) or into one uncreated and two creatures (as the Arians believed.) To chose the latter is to choose an unstable, that is, a mutable, nature. Thus, anyone "with any intelligence at all" would be baptized and believe according to orthodoxy. (322)
Moreover, there must be a change in ones life after baptism, that is, a demonstration that one has become clean in ones will. Otherwise, "the water is only water, and the gift of the Holy Spirit is nowhere evident in the action." (324) Those purified by water will get blessings that defy description, while those who are not will be purified by fire unquenchable and by the worm that does not die. Therefore, those who are wise should choose " a good way of life... now in this life and afterwards when they win their eternal reward." (325)
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