Thursday, March 19, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: Gregory of Nyssa

We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.  – 2 Corinthians 3:18
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.” And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence….But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”  – Exodus 33:18-20
Gregory of Nyssa: Basic Facts
- Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-395) was one of the three great “Cappadocian Fathers,” along with his older brother, Basil, and their mutual friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. Though overshadowed by the other two during his own lifetime, modern theologians now see him as the most original theologian of the three. He was a defender of the doctrine of the Trinity at a crucial period in church history.
- Gregory was not active in church leadership until Basil thrust him forward to be bishop of the small town of Nyssa, but he did not prove to be good at church administration. His contribution to the Christian tradition comes by way of his theological ideas and his writing. He framed the classical idea of the infinity of God and laid the groundwork for every subsequent theology of the Christian life. His most prominent work today is his allegorical study, The Life of Moses.
Theological Themes of Gregory of Nyssa:
- The Trinity: Gregory defended the orthodox view of the Trinity as being one God in three persons. The three Persons of the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are exactly identical in all respects (power, infinitude, character, etc.) and can be distinguished only in their relations with each other.
- God is Infinite: Gregory’s work was a landmark moment when Christian philosophy started to come into its own vis-√†-vis the dominant Platonian philosophies of the classical world. While Gregory followed Neoplatonic thought in some respects, he contradicted classical philosophy in several important ways. Against the great Christian thinker Origen, he asserted that God is infinite—not only in time and space, but in attributes of character as well. Since God’s goodness is without measure, God himself must be without measure. This implies that God can never be fully known, and that humanity’s perfection is not in achieving a “stasis” of perfect knowledge of God (as in other philosophical systems), but in the continual upward pursuit of God.
- Human Nature: Gregory used the biblical language of humans as the Image of God. However, because of sin we have lost our likeness to that Image. Gregory compares humans to mirrors—we were made to reflect God, but because of our nature as “mirrors” we will reflect whatever we are looking at, good or evil. Thus humans must use their free will to turn themselves away from evil and toward good, so they can reflect the likeness of God again. This is a continuous process.
- The Spiritual Life: Gregory was the first to offer a systematic foundation for under-standing the spiritual journey as a continual, upward adventure into the knowledge of God. However, for Gregory, this is a journey “into darkness”—we must lay down the pride of our intellect and seek God with the understanding that he is too great to be ever fully known. There are three stages of this journey: a darkness of ignorance; a spiritual illumination; and then another darkness—the experience of God as he is: beyond every capacity of ours to understand.
“The one who is going to associate intimately with God must go beyond all that is visible and…believe that the Divine is there where the understanding does not reach.”
“If, then, one should withdraw from those who seduce him to evil and by the use of his reason turn to the better, putting evil behind him, it is as if he places his own soul, like a mirror, face-to-face with the hope of good things, with the result that the images and impressions of virtue, as it is shown to him by God, are imprinted on the purity of his soul.”
“The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb—the majority of people do not progress beyond the base of the mountain.”
“The true sight of God consists in this, that the one who looks up to God never ceases in that desire.”
“God did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars, nor anything else which you can see in the created universe. You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding; you alone are a similitude of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true Light; and if you look up to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him who shines within you, whose glory is reflected in your purity. Nothing in all creation can equal your grandeur.”
“[The mind], by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding, gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.”