Review of Gregory of Nyssa: Works and Treatises

As is usually the case with the Schaff editions of the Church Fathers, the individual volumes are marked both by triumph and failure (the failure always on the part of the editors). First, a few critical comments on the arrangement of the material. Then, an examination of Gregory’s theology. Gregory’s response to the Second Book of Eunomius does not have subsections, making it difficult to follow and impossible to cross-reference. Yet, many of the leading monographs point to key arguments in this book by subsection, which the editors left out. The same applies to On the Soul and the Resurrection. Thirdly, the editors have frequent footnotes to material and sidebars that have little to do with the current discussion. Concentrating on reading small font, double-columned pages is difficult enough without distractions. Fourthly, the editors try to force Gregory to affirm later post-Reformation Anglican theology (e.g., they are visibly disturbed that Gregory did not affirm the Filioque and thus conclude his “doctrine of the Holy Spirit is undeveloped”).

The Content of Gregory’s Theology
Gregory’s theology can be seen as a division between Uncreated reality and created reality. While capable of standing alone, it is best seen as a critique of Eunomius’ heresy. The main point of contention is Eunomius maintains that the Son and the Holy Spirit are part of created reality (p. 56; all page references are to the specific pages in the Schaff edition). Eunomius would also reduce the divine essence to “Ungenerateness.” He does this because he knows the Son is not Ungenerate; therefore, the Son is not of the essence of the Father and is reduced to created reality.

Gregory is at pains to respond accordingly: we cannot know the divine essence (103; 257). If we cannot know the divine essence, then Eunomius cannot define and reduce the divine essence to “Ungenerateness.” Rather, we know God by his operations/energies (221–God is above every name; God’s names are not interchangeable with his essence, contra later Augustinians; God’s names are rather identified with his energies. Cf David Bradshaw’s response to David Bentley Hart in Orthodox Readings of Augustine; see p. 265 for a very clear distinction between essence and energies; see page 328–we can only know the divine nature by the operations).

How successful was St Gregory in refuting Eunomius? In terms of clarity he wasn’t very successful. St Basil was more clear and St Gregory Nazianzus had more rhetorical flair. St Gregory of Nyssa, though, while perhaps not entirely accomplishing his objective, did clearly delineate the distinction between essence and energies, which would have huge implications in later Filioquist and Roman Catholic debates.

To be fair, there is a section early in the first response to Eunomius where Gregory identifies God with the Good. Many prematurely conclude that Gregory taught a form of Absolute Divine Simplicity. However, knowing that Gregory is a Platonist of sorts, and keeping in mind Plato’s discussion in The Republic. To identify the divine essence with the Good is clearly a Platonic way of thinking about or structuring the matter. The missing piece here is the Platonic way, from Plato’s Republic (509b) of thinking about the Good. Plato says that the form of the good is superior to all other forms since all other forms have it as their end. Which is another way of saying that people do what they think is good (even if they happen to be wrong about what is good.) The key part here is what Plato says in 509b, which is that the Good is huper ousia or beyond being. If the Good is beyond being then there can be no identity thesis, since identity or sameness is applicable to things that be. Consequently for Nyssa and other Cappadocians we do not and cannot know the divine essence (hence no beatific vision like Catholicism or Protestantism). Simplicity for them like say Maximus or John of Damascus is an energy as well.

If simplicity is an energy, then the Identity thesis makes no sense whatsoever. This is one of the fault lines between Latin Scholasticism and Orthodoxy. We both agree that God is superessential or beyond being but disagree on what that means. They take huper ousia to be a certain notion of being, we take it to be not being in any way what so ever. Here is a way to *try* and thinking about it. Ad intra and essentially, God is not something, but he’s not nothing either. Welcome to the world of divine incomprehensibility.

Gregory the Philosopher
Gregory has several treatises on Virginity, the Death of Infants, the Making of Man, and Last Things. In terms of historical theology, Gregory’s conclusions are perhaps more important than his individual arguments. While Gregory affirms the superiority of the Virgin life, many scholars rightly see him urging the purifying of the soul from all earthly good. On The Death of Infants Gregory marks a clear break with the Augustinian west–Gregory placing infants in the category of the saved. While Gregory appears to affirm a form of purifying fire after death, it is different from Purgatory and Limbo.

Gregory and the Church
Gregory clearly affirms baptismal regeneration (62 and 519). Per the Eucharist we must eat the life-giving Christ to undo the poison of the first eating (504-515). We also see that the early church practiced unction (321).

If one is trying to read through the Cappadocian Fathers, read Gregory of Nyssa last. Granted the difficult topic, Gregory is still difficult to read. He himself admits he wanders from the topic on a regular basis. He assumes the reader is familiar with Platonic philosophy. Even so, his theology represents important road marks in the Church’s confession of the Holy Trinity.