Gregory of Nyssa


This six-part series of blog posts is based on a talk I gave earlier in the year to a group of Christians who wanted to know more about Orthodox spirituality. It is quite basic and possibly in need of further reworking, but I post it here in the hope that it may be of help to some. (Continued from here).

Central to the biblical understanding of the human being is the affirmation that we are created in the Image and Likeness of God (Gen 1:26) and this affirmation became fundamental to the Christian understanding of what it means to be a human being. Creation establishes a relationship between God and humankind. Moreover, Jesus Christ, the true Image of God was the model according to which we were created, even before His Incarnation. We are images of Christ and therefore images of the Father, although not in the absolute way that He is. This is what gives human beings their true worth.

Central to our being created in the Image of God is the freedom and royal dignity that we have as human beings, and this freedom is a reflection of God’s own freedom. However, instead of using this freedom to stay close to God and to continue to grow in relationship with Him, human beings used their freedom to drift away from God. The early Fathers developed this understanding in various ways, but they were aware that the Image of God in us has been affected by the entry of sin into the world. This Image is not destroyed, but has become tarnished and corrupted. Some of them spoke about having kept the Image and lost the Likeness, but, whatever the vocabulary, there was a recognition that we are no longer able to reflect the divine likeness as we were created to do.

The Christian answer to this state of alienation from God came in the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is the Image according to which we were created, and by assuming our human nature, He restored what had become corrupted, and by His death and Resurrection destroyed the power of death. Through this He opened up the way for us to recover the Image and Likeness of God according to which we have been created. It is, fundamentally, about the restoration of our original beauty, a beauty that resides deep within us but which has been covered up and distorted by sin. Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes:

Evil, however, overlaying the Godlike pattern, has made the good useless to you, hidden under a curtain of shame. If, by conscientious living, you wash away once more the filth that has accumulated on your heart, the Godlike beauty will again shine forth for you.

The reference that Saint Gregory makes here to the heart is central to the understanding of the Fathers of the Church. What is called for is not simply a moral response, nor is the heart about something emotional. Rather, in the biblical and patristic tradition, the heart is the centre of the human person and the seat of all consciousness and desires. What is required is the transformation of “the inner person of the heart” (1 Peter 3:4) or, as Saint Paul puts it, “the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2) – and we should note that the word “nous” that is translated mind is far closer to the biblical “heart” than it is to the modern idea of the cerebral mind. Saint Gregory of Nyssa describes this transformation as follows:

When iron is stripped of rust by a whetstone, what once was dull itself shines as it faces the sun and gives forth beams and shafts of light. So also, when the inner human being, which is what the Lord calls “the heart,” has wiped off the rusty filth that has spread by evil decay over its form, it will again recover its likeness to its model and be good. What is like the good is surely good.

This salvation is a life-long task. It can be said to be both Christological and Pneumatological in that it relies on the work of both Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom St Irenaeus describes as the two hands of God, and who work together in a reciprocal relationship. We are fashioned and refashioned after the Image of Christ who shares and renews our human nature. But it is also accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit in us, for the whole purpose of our life is to become a Spirit-bearer, to live and breathe in the Spirit of God whose task it is to refashion us into the Image of the Son, enabling us to return to the Father and to become partakers of the Divine Nature. (2 Pet 1:4)

It was not things non-existent that needed salvation, for which a bare creative word might have sufficed, but man – man already in existence and already in process of corruption and ruin. It was natural and right, therefore, for the Word to use a human instrument and by that means unfold Himself to all.

You must know, moreover, that the corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with life might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it none the less. Naturally, therefore, the Saviour assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore he put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And, indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death?

Saint Athanasius the Great, The Incarnation of the Word of God, 44.

Since, then, there was needed a lifting up from death for the whole of our nature, He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate humanity, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole human being. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this Member, as though the whole of humankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature. What, then, is there beyond the bounds of probability in what this Revelation teaches us; viz. that He Who stands upright stoops to one who has fallen, in order to lift him up from his prostrate condition?

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Great Catechism, 32.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘It had been better for me, had I not accepted Mary’s Son, for He has come to me and destroyed my power; He has shattered the gates of brass, and as God He has raised up the souls that once I held.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My power has been destroyed. I accepted a mortal man as one of the dead; yet I cannot keep Him prisoner and with Him I shall lose all those over whom I ruled. I held in my power the dead from all the ages; but see, He is raising them all.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Today hell groans and cries aloud: ‘My dominion has been swallowed up; the Shepherd has been crucified and He has raised Adam. I am deprived of those whom I once ruled; in my strength I devoured them, but now I have cast them forth. He who was crucified has emptied the tombs; the power of death has no more strength.’ Glory to Thy Cross, O Lord, and to Thy Resurrection.

Holy Saturday Vespers, The Lenten Triodion , 655-656.

Since posting on my reaction to evangelicals and the substitutionary atonement theory, I have been reflecting on how very fundamental the Incarnation of Christ is to an Orthodox understanding of salvation. As a friend said to me recently, while western Christians may well believe in the Incarnation, the liturgical texts of the Church tend to rub our noses in it the whole time! I think that it was Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) who wrote somewhere (I can’t remember where) that whereas the West, and certainly evangelicals, tend to see salvation as Christ doing something for us, the East tends to see it as Him doing something in us. In conquering death, the Cross of Christ renews our human nature, restoring the Image of God within us. Or, as the texts for Small Compline on Palm Sunday put it, “He who suffers for us heals our passions by His Passion; for willingly He undergoes in our human nature His life-giving sufferings, that we may be saved.”

May you give bread; that is to say, let us have nourishment from our just efforts. If your profit does not belong to others, if your income is not the result of another’s tears, if no one is hungry because you are full, if no one groans because of your abundance, such then is the bread of God, the fruit of justice, the ear of the corn of peace, undefiled by being mixed with the seed of tares. But if you cultivate what belongs to others and fill your eyes with injustice, confirming your unjust gains with written documents, then you may indeed say to God: ‘Give bread’, but another will hear this cry of yours, not God. One who pursues righteousness receives bread from God, whereas the man who cultivates injustice is fed by the inventor of injustice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, On the Lord’s Prayer, 4, quoted in The Wisdom of the Greek Fathers compiled by Father Andrew Louth (Lion Publishing, 1997), 35.

myrrdr1 

… just as by having shared in the washing of regeneration He became “the first-born among many brethren,” and again by having made Himself the first-fruits of the resurrection, He obtains the name of the “first-born from the dead,” so having in all things the pre-eminence, after that “all old things,” as the apostle says, “have passed away,” He becomes the first-born of the new creation of men in Christ by the two-fold regeneration, alike that by Holy Baptism and that which is the consequence of the resurrection from the dead, becoming for us in both alike the Prince of Life, the first-fruits, the first-born. This first-born, then, hath also brethren, concerning whom He speaks to Mary, saying, “Go and tell My brethren, I go to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God .” In these words He sums up the whole aim of His dispensation as Man. For men revolted from God, and “served them which by nature were no gods,” and though being the children of God became attached to an evil father falsely so called. For this cause the mediator between God and man having assumed the first-fruits of all human nature, sends to His brethren the announcement of Himself not in His divine character, but in that which He shares with us, saying, “I am departing in order to make by My own self that true Father, from whom you were separated, to be your Father, and by My own self to make that true God from whom you had revolted to be your God, for by that first-fruits which I have assumed, I am in Myself presenting all humanity to its God and Father.”

Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 2.8.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa is not one of those authors who provide easy soundbites – and it would perhaps help to have a more recent translation, although reading him in Dutch is even more tortuous! – but I can’t think of anyone who I would rather read on the Resurrection!

A very blessed Easter to all those who celebrate it today!

And a blessed Holy Week to those beginning it.

He would not have shown himself to his servant if the sight were such as to bring the desire of the beholder to an end, since the true sight of God consists in this, that the one who looks up to God never ceases in that desire. For he says: You cannot see my face, for man cannot see me and live.

Scripture does not indicate that this causes the death of those who look, for how would the face of life ever be the cause of death to those who approach it? On the contrary, the Divine is by its nature life-giving. Yet the characteristic of divine nature is to transcend all characteristics. Therefore, he who thinks God is something to be known does not have life, because he has turned from true Being to what he considers by sense perception to have being.

Gregory of Nyssa. The Life of Moses. Translation, Introduction and notes by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. (NY: Paulist, 1978). 115.

Today is the feast of Saint Gregory of Nyssa. I would like to have written something more substantial on him, but am afraid that it will have to wait – perhaps until next year, seeing that I am now getting enamoured with his brother as well!

. . . by the Divine providence death has been introduced as a dispensation into the nature of man, so that, sin having flowed away at the dissolution of the union of soul and body, man, through the resurrection, might be refashioned, sound, passionless, stainless, and removed from any touch of evil. In the case however of the Author of our Salvation this dispensation of death reached its fulfilment, having entirely accomplished its special purpose. For in His death, not only were things that once were one put asunder, but also things that had been disunited were again brought together; so that in this dissolution of things that had naturally grown together, I mean, the soul and body, our nature might be purified, and this return to union of these severed elements might secure freedom from the contamination of any foreign admixture.

Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, 37

 A blessed Pascha to any Orthodox readers!

But the descent into the water, and the triune immersion of the person in it, involves another mystery. For since the method of our salvation was made effectual not so much by His precepts in the way of teaching as by the deeds of Him Who has realized an actual fellowship with man, and has effected life as a living fact, so that by means of the flesh which He has assumed, and at the same time deified, everything kindred and related may be saved along with it, it was necessary that some means should be devised by which there might be, in the baptismal process, a kind of affinity and likeness between him who follows and Him Who leads the way. … What, then, have we beheld in the case of the Captain of our salvation? A three days’ state of death and then life again. Now some sort of resemblance in us to such things has to be planned. What, then, is the plan by which in us too a resemblance to that which took place in Him is completed? Everything that is affected by death has its proper and natural place, and that is the earth in which it is laid and hidden. Now earth and water have much mutual affinity. Alone of the elements they have weight and gravitate downwards; they mutually abide in each other; they are mutually confined. Seeing, then, the death of the Author of our life subjected Him to burial in earth and was in accord with our common nature, the imitation which we enact of that death is expressed in the neighbouring element. And as He, that Man from above, having taken deadness on Himself, after His being deposited in the earth, returned back to life the third day, so every one who is knitted to Him by virtue of his bodily form, looking forward to the same successful issue, I mean this arriving at life by having, instead of earth, water poured on him, and so submitting to that element, has represented for him in the three movements the three-days-delayed grace of the resurrection.

Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, 35

For Gregory of Nyssa the entire spiritual life is a mystery of death and resurrection. In this respect it is the realisation of the mystery of baptism, which, according to Saint Paul’s doctrine, enables us to die with Christ in order to be resurrected with Him. … Dying to sin and resurrected with Christ, the soul realises concretely the mystery of dying to its sinful tendencies and the bringing to life of the divine energies given to it in baptism.

Jean Daniélou, Platonisme et Théologie Mystique. Doctrine Spirituelle de Saint Grégoire de Nysse (Aubier, 1944) 17

I seem to keep coming back to Gregory of Nyssa, even if I also feel frustrated that I never get down to reading him as systematically as I want to! He somehow seems to go so directly to the heart of the matter. And I suppose that I’m also connecting with his thought on baptism, on death and resurrection, not only because it is Easter time (my apologies to any Orthodox readers, but I suppose that this is not entirely unrelated to Holy Week either) but also because I’m becoming fairly conscious of my own profession in a few weeks’ time. The imagery of monastic profession is fundamentally rooted in the life of baptism, in dying and rising in Christ, not simply as a static once-off event, but as a process of continual and ongoing transformation.

Since, then, there was needed a lifting up from death for the whole of our nature, He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate humanity, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole human being. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this Member, as though the whole of humankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature. What, then, is there beyond the bounds of probability in what this Revelation teaches us; viz. that He Who stands upright stoops to one who has fallen, in order to lift him up from his prostrate condition?

Gregory of Nyssa,
The Great Catechism, 32