Gregory of Nyssa, St.
GREGORY OF NYSSA, ST.
One of the three Cappadocian Fathers; b. Caesarea, between 335 and 340; d. Constantinople, c. 394. His grandmother, Macrina the Elder, was converted to Christianity through the teaching of gregory thaumaturgos, and his famous Christian family had suffered during the diocletian persecution. Youngest of the three Cappadocian Fathers (sometimes called the Cappadocian Theologians so as to include the eldest sibling macrina), he was known as the philosopher and mystic while his brother, Basil of Caesarea, was considered the administrator and gregory of nazianzus the theologian. His sister, macrina, who had a formative influence on the education of her brothers, was the teacher and ascetic. Two of his ten brothers were bishops, namely, Basil and Peter of Sebaste.
Destined at first for a career in the church, Gregory was ordained a lector, but apparently he abandoned this vocation to follow that of his father, a rhetorician. He married and, after the death of his wife, was persuaded by Gregory of Nazianzus to enter the monastery founded by Basil in Pontus near the Iris River. At Basil's insistence, he was consecrated bishop of Nyssa, a suffragan of Caesarea in Cappadocia, in 372. Lacking Basil's administrative talents, he was accused of negligence in financial matters and deposed by an Arian dominated synod in 376. However, after the death of the Arian emperor Valens in 378, the pro-Nicene Theodosius I ascended to power and Gregory was able to return to Nyssa. When Basil died in 379, Gregory labored to continue his
brother's work, essentially becoming his heir. He took part in the Council of Antioch in 379 and was named metropolitan of Caesarea in 380. He played a major role at the Council of Constantinople I in 381, at which he was acknowledged as a pillar of orthodoxy and continuator of the thought of Basil. At the same time he replied to the radical Arian theologian Eunomius. In his last years he was involved in a bitter controversy over Apollinarianism. He died shortly after attending a council in Constantinople in 394.
Ascetical Writings. There are problems concerning authenticity in the list of works attributed to Gregory, but they do not involve his major writings, and the authentic list is long and impressive. His letters appear to be incomplete. Written after 370, but perhaps as late at 379, De Virginitate was his first published work. In addition, there is the life of his sister, De vita Macrinae, and three short treatises, De perfectione, De instituto Christiano, and De castigatione. His ascetical writings manifest Platonic, Stoic, and Pythagorean influences. The De anima et resurrectione, a Christian parallel to Plato's Phaedo, is a dialogue with his dying sister, Macrina, that presents Gregory's Christian views of immortality and the future life.
Dogmatic Writings. A number of Gregory's writings were concerned with the refutation of heresies and the clarification of the corresponding orthodox positions. His Trinitarian writings were produced between 380 and 384. Most important among these is Contra Eunomium, a lengthy refutation of the writings of the Arian Bishop Eunomius, who asserted that the persons of the Trinity were radically dissimilar from one another. Against the Arians is a short tract, Ad Simplicium de fide sancta, addressed to a tribune, Simplicius. There are two pieces directed against the Macedonians, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, Sermo de Spiritu Sancto adversus Pneumatomachos Macedonianos and Ad Eustathium de sancta Trinitate.
Another major work, Oratio catechetica magna, is a summary of catholic teaching, presented in contrast to the teaching of the Jews and the pagans. It stands in the line of systematic works between Origen's De principiis and the De fide orthodoxa of John Damascene. After 385 Gregory wrote a vigorous refutation of the Christological heresy of Apollinaris, Antirrheticus adversus Apollinarem, which quoted frequently from Apollinaris's work. It is the most important extant writing against Apollinarianism. In Adversus Apollinaristas he rejected the Apollinarist charge that he holds there are two sons of God. A small tract, Contra fatum, defends the freedom of the will against a pagan philosopher. Ad Graecos ex communibus notionibus was written in 397. Ad Adlabium quod non sint tres dii, utilizing the distinction between person and nature, explains how one can speak of three persons without asserting the existence of three gods.
Exegetical Writings. A large portion of Gregory's writings is devoted to the exposition of scripture. Two early works (written ca. 379–389), having a scientific intent, that is, attempting to expose the teaching of scripture in harmony with right reason or true philosophy, are the Explicatio apologetica in Hexaemeron and the De opificio hominis. The first is a continuation of a task undertaken by Basil to explain Genesis in the light of the scientific and philosophical accounts of the formation of the world; the second continues with a concentration on the creation of human beings. The particular exegetical technique which Gregory inherits from Origen is akolouthia, that is, connection or sequence of thought, which he utilizes to give meaning and order to the apparently random events of biblical text.
Two short pieces are concerned with theological interpretation, the De phythonissa and a homily on 1 Cor 15.28. The other exegetical writings develop the doctrine of Christian perfection and, particularly, the way of mystical union taught by scripture. They include the De vita Moysis, In psalmorum inscriptiones, In Ecclesiasten homiliae, In Canticum Canticorum, on the Old Testament; De oratione dominica, De beatitudinibus and another homily on 1 Cor 6.18, on the New Testament. Of particular interest is De vita Moysis, which describes Moses's mystical ascent to God through the three theophanies recorded in the book of Exodus.
Above all, the intellectual basis of Gregory's theology was Greek. His thought represents the encounter between Greek classical philosophy and Christian biblical revelation. Hellenistic Judaism was the religion of Judea and Galilee during the life of Jesus. Widespread Hellenism had been the environment for the expansion of primitive Christianity, and the New Testament had been written in koine or common Greek. However, the Hellenism of the Cappadocians was profoundly different both in form and in content. Gregory's language was in no way common. His writing was more literary and more polished than the language of the New Testament. His thinking was more rational and more sophisticated and especially dependent upon pagan sources. The Cappadocians in general and Gregory in particular were on the forefront of creating a new and genuine Christian culture, namely, a Christian version of classical Greek paideia. The philosophy of antiquity is so evident in the works of Gregory that some scholars, not without cause, have considered him more a Neoplatonist than a Christian. The point of view from which to understand Gregory's teaching is precisely this context of Christian paideia. In his thinking, scripture and philosophy are in a sense parallel. Both teach a higher doctrine and both have the same goal, the practice of virtue and final union with God. Gregory writes: "If one can give a definition of Christianity, we shall define it as follows: Christianity is an imitation of divine nature…. Christianity, therefore, brings manback to his original good fortune" (De Professione, FC 58, p. 85). The Neoplatonic type and archetype are evident in his definition. The practice of virtue is the imitation of divine nature while salvation is union with God. This salvific union is more precisely a reunion with God or the restoration of human beings to their original state in the garden before the fall.
Allegorical Method. Although Gregory was aware of the Antiochene criticism of the Alexandrian allegorical method of scriptural interpretation and was much more concerned with the literal sense than were the Origenists, he maintained nevertheless that the ultimate purpose of scripture is not its historical teaching, but the elevation of the soul to God. This requires the allegorical method, which makes possible the extension of scripture to include much philosophy that is not directly contained in the historical sense. Within this context Gregory admitted the ability to know God from reason, but vigorously objected, against Eunomius, to the univocal application to God of categories and names derived from creatures. The distinction between creator and creature is fundamental for Gregory, and as a result the creator remains in a realm of mystery. He made much of the incomprehensibility of God and may have been one of the principal sources of the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius.
Trinity. Gregory maintained that the Son and Holy Spirit are equally creator and God, although the Son is generated and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and Son. In the fashion that became traditional in the Greek Fathers and Orthodox Christianity, he saw the Holy Spirit as proceeding in a line from the Father through the Son. His attempt to explain the unity of nature and diversity of persons is tinged with a Platonic realism that has difficulties as well as attractiveness. The divine persons are distinct by their relations to each other, correctly enough, but they share one nature in the way that several men share the same human nature. This could suggest tritheism, but Gregory conceived the unity of nature more as the unity of a group than as a nature individually repeated in each member. In his viewpoint "man" means the whole human race, which has been inserted into matter in time and which will not be complete until the history of the human race has run its course. He had, as a result, a very strong sense of the unity of all human beings, which suggests a Stoic as well as a Platonic influence. In the Platonic tradition, however, he spoke of two creations of man, an ideal and an historical creation. With regard to the ideal creation, he held the peculiar position that human beings did not have by nature the sexual mode of reproduction. Humans were historically created male and female only because the creator foresaw the fall of the human race.
The Incarnation. This sense of the solidarity of the human race also contributes to the theology of the incarnation. Just as the human spirit made it possible for the physical universe to praise God with its own voice when it entered into matter, so when Christ became incarnate he entered into the whole human race and made it possible for mankind to praise God through his Son. The second person, however, assumes an individual human nature in such a way that there is only one person who is both God and man. Gregory taught the communication of idioms between the two natures in Christ, and accordingly insisted, against the Apollinarists, that Mary was the mother of God (theotokos ) and not just the mother of man (anthropotokos ).
Image of God. Part of the creationist pattern as applied to man is the doctrine of man as the image of God. This becomes a central notion in Gregory's anthropology and mystical theology. Man is the image of God as Creator and thus it is as lord of the universe and as a free agent that man's likeness to God is most often found. Because of this freedom man was able to fall into sin, and the image was soiled. It can be recovered through Christ and the practice of virtue. Christian perfection consists in becoming more and more like God. The quality of likeness also makes mystical knowledge possible, for as Greek philosophy taught, like is known by like. The attributes of God can be known through the image that is in man, although the essence of God transcends any knowledge of concepts or qualities.
Human Freedom. Despite the strongly intellectual character of his conception of Christian perfection, Gregory put a high value on human freedom, perhaps in opposition to Manichaeism, and he stressed greatly man's own responsibility and choice, even in the matter of faith and the attainment of the highest perfection. Yet there was a final optimism in Gregory. He did not accept the Origenist theory of the pre-existence of individual human souls, but he did support the doctrine of apokatastasis or the ultimate reconciliation of all creatures to God. The metaphysical argument for this rested on the Platonic doctrine of the negative character of evil and on the Platonic doctrine of the dynamism of the good. Evil cannot be absolute and infinite. Neither can there be an unending endurance in evil, for all being is good, and the good must eventually work its way through finite evil. The dynamism of goodness continues even in the final possession of God, and beatitude is conceived as a state of perpetual progress.
Bibliography: Editions: Clavis Patrum Gaecorum 3135–3226; Patrologia Graeca ed. j. p. migne (Paris 1857–66) 35–38; w. jaeger et al., Gregorii Nysseni Opera (Leiden 1952–). English translations: A select library of Nicene and Post-Nicine Fathers, 2nd series (1893), vol. 5; Library of Christian Classics (1954) vol. 3; Ancient Christian Writers (1954) vol. 18; Fathers of the Church (1967) vol. 58; Classics of Western Spirituality (1978). Literature: m. altenburger and f. mann, Bibliographie zu Gregory von Nyssa: Editionen, Überstezungen, Literatur (Leiden 1988). j. daniÉlou, Platonisme et théologie mystique: Doctrine spirituelle de saint Grégoire de Nysse (Paris 1954); "La Chronologie des sermons de Grégoire de Nysse," Recherches de science religieuse 29 (1955) 346–372. w. vÖlker, Gregor von Nyssa als Mystiker (Weisbaden 1955). d. l. balas, "Metiousia Theou": Man's Participation in God's Perfections according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Studia Anselmiana philosophica theologica 55 (Rome 1966). e. mÜhlenburg, Die Unendlichkeit Gottes bei Gregor von Nyssa: Gregors Kritik am Gottesbegriff der klassischichen Mystik (Göttingen 1966). m. harl, Écriture et culture philosophique dans la pensée de Grégoire de Nysse, Actes du colloque de Chevetogne, 22–26 septembre 1969 (Leiden 1971). r. e. heine, Perfection in the Virtuous Life: A Study in the Relationship between Edification and Polemical Theology in Gregory of Nyssa's De vita Moysis, Patristic Monograph Series 2 (Cambridge 1975). h. dÖrrie et al., Gregor von Nyssa und die Philosophie, Zweites internationales Kolloquium über Gregor von Nyssa, Freckenhorst bei Münster, 18–23 September 1972 (Leiden 1976). a. spira et al., The Easter Sermons of Gregory of Nyssa: Translation and Commentary, Proceedings of the Fourth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Cambridge, England, 11–15 September, 1978, Patristic Monograph Series 9 (Cambridge 1981). a. spira, The Biographical Works of Gregory of Nyssa, Proceedings of the Fifth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Mainz, 6–10 September 1982, Patristic Monograph Series 12 (Cambridge 1984). h. r. drobner and c. klock, Studien zu Gregor von Nyssa und der christlichen Spätantike, Supplements to Vigiliae christianae 12 (Leiden 1990). m. d. hart, "Gregory of Nyssa's Ironic Praise for the Celibate Life," Heythrop Journal 33 (1992) 1–19. v. e. f. harrison, Grace and Human Freedom according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 30 (Lewiston 1992). j. pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven 1993). s. g. hall, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on Ecclesiastes: An English Version with Supporting Studies, Proceedings of the Seventh International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, St. Andrews, 5–10 September 1990 (New York 1993). h. u. von balthasar, Presence and Thought: Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa (San Francisco 1995). m. azkoul, St. Gregory of Nyssa and the Tradition of the Fathers, Texts and Studies in Religion 63 (Lewiston 1995). d. f. stramara, "Gregory of Nyssa's Terminology for Trinitarian Perichoresis," Vigiliae Christianae 52 (1998) 257–263. a. meredith, Gregory of Nyssa (New York 1999). j. zachhuber, Human Nature in Gregory of Nyssa: Philosophical Background and Theological Significance, Supplements to Vigiliae christianae 46 (Boston 1999). j. p. cavarnos, St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Human Soul: Its Nature, Origin, Relation to the Body, Faculties, and Destiny (Belmont 2000). h. r. drobner and a. viciano, Gregory of Nyssa, Homilies on the Beatitudes: An English Version with Supporting Studies, Proceedings of the Eighth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa, Paderborn, 14–18 September 1998, Supplements to Vigiliae christianae 52 (Boston 2000). m. r. barnes, The Power of God: Dunamis in Gregory of Nyssa's Trinitarian Theology (Washington, DC 2001).
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