St. Gregory of Nyssa:
Light From the East

By Gabriel Blanchard

Shaped by the world of seventeen centuries ago, the work of St. Gregory of Nyssa shows surprising contemporary relevance.

The fourth century was an era of increasing Christianization in the Roman Empire. However, the Empire’s transition from a pagan institution centered in Rome to a Christian one centered in Constantinople was not exactly smooth. Though condemned at the First Council of Nicæa* in 325, Arianism continued to have many disciples and sympathizers, including multiple emperors, who thanks to their conversion now had quite a lot of say in how the Church was to be run. The hero of Nicæa, St. Athanasius, spent seventeen of his forty-five years as the Bishop of Alexandria in no less than five exiles from his see.

By St. Gregory of Nyssa’s time—he was about forty years younger than Athanasius—the Roman people (or most of them) were now Christians (of a sort). Even so, the devout and orthodox family of Gregory were the exception, not the rule: he was one of nine siblings, and more than half were later canonized. His elder sister, St. Macrina the Younger, is especially noteworthy: an ascetic who influenced her siblings and even their mother toward a life of renunciation, she was one of his principal teachers in his childhood, and he wrote a biography of her.

Along with his elder brother, St. Basil the Great, and his brother’s close friend, St. Gregory Nazianzen (the thirty-fifth Bishop of Constantinople), St. Gregory of Nyssa is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Some early Church Fathers flaunted paradox, mysticism, or even irrationality as marks of faith; Tertullian is the best-known example. Others, like Clement of Alexandria or his pupil Origen, gravitated to the opposite pole, spending their careers not just as intellectuals who happened to be Christians but as specifically Christian intellectuals. The Cappadocian Fathers picked up this second thread, incorporating many ideas, motifs, and arguments from the developing school of Neoplatonism.

This was particularly useful to them as defenders of Nicæa. Neoplatonists referred to the absolute as “the One,” and taught that it had an emanation that was its perfect image, “Mind,” which in turn had an emanation called “the World-soul” that gave light and consciousness to the material realm; though by no means identical,** it is easy to see how this furnished the Cappadocian Fathers with intellectual tools to explain the idea of the Trinity! Besides their tireless writing and preaching in defense of the Nicene doctrine, the Cappadocians were a major force guiding the First Council of Constantinople: fifty-six years after Nicæa, after countless controversies and reversals, the orthodox belief was reaffirmed and strengthened, with particular attention to the Holy Ghost’s divinity. (Many Christians recite the Nicene Creed weekly; it is more properly the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, as its wording was finalized at the First Council of Constantinople.)

The Cappadocian Fathers were also early opponents of Apollinarianism. This school of thought (founded by Apollinaris of Laodicea, at first a friend of both St. Athanasius and St. Basil) taught that, while Christ’s body, instincts, and emotions were all authentically human, his rational mind was replaced by the divine nature—leaving his humanity incomplete. This would soon engender Nestorianism as a response, which taught that the human and divine aspects of Christ were practically different people, and that therefore the popular devotional title Mother of God† for the Virgin Mary should be eliminated. Though this was a little after their time, the Cappadocians had all contributed to the development of Mariology and its connection with Christology; their writings became a major element in the response to Apolliarians, Nestorians, and other dissidents besides, in a conflict over the right formulation of the nature of Christ that raged for centuries.‡ Perhaps due to their devotion to the Mother of God, the Cappadocian Fathers are also conspicuous for having a higher view of women than the average Roman citizen—or even the average Church Father!

It was for this that intelligent beings came into existence: namely, that the riches of the Divine blessings should not lie idle. The All-creating Wisdom fashioned these souls as vessels for this very purpose, that there should be some capacities able to receive His blessings.

Yet even among the Cappadocians, St. Gregory of Nyssa stands out for his writing on three ideas (fittingly enough). The first was his categorical opposition to slavery, a very rare view in the ancient world. The Church Fathers unanimously regarded slavery as a result of human sin, but it was also felt by many that it was an evil we had to put up with, like war or disease. Christians joined Stoics like Seneca in urging masters to treat their slaves with kindness; freeing slaves was universally praised as a good work; some people (like St. Patrick) even devoted their lives to freeing slaves, by purchase or persuasion; but there was little or no impetus to rid society of the institution. St. Gregory of Nyssa took the next step forward. If man was made in the image of God, then slavery was inherently wrong; it was our duty to find a way to live without it, no matter how normal it might be. His challenge was not seriously met for over a thousand years; but the challenge had, at least, been issued.

Gregory was also one of the first theologians to argue in favor of God’s infinity. This went hand in hand with what is often called negative or apophatic theology, which understands and describes God by what he is not rather than by what he is, because the human mind cannot comprehend what God truly is. This has borne fruit for centuries in Christian thought. It reached its zenith a century or so later in the writings of pseudo-Dionysius, and has seen many and varied expressions since, from the image of a “holy darkness” accompanying God used by C. S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces, to Milton’s beautiful line in Paradise Lost: “Dark with excessive bright thy skirts appear.”

Finally, and most controversially, St. Gregory of Nyssa appears to have believed in apocatastasis—the doctrine of universal reconciliation between humanity and God, allowing the possibility of purgatorial punishment for sins but insisting that no one is finally lost to God’s mercy. (Interestingly, St. Gregory contradicted Origen on the question of God’s infinity, but agreed with him on this point—both stances being rather unusual for the time.) In his Life of Moses, he points out that the Ninth Plague, that of darkness, left the Egyptians after three days; so too, he says, damnation itself may in truth be a purgation, from which, once it has done its cleansing work, souls are set free. The twentieth century saw a revival of interest in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s work, after a long period of neglect; the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who published a book on the Cappadocian Father, also famously authored one with the title, Dare We Hope “That All Shall Be Saved”?

*This was the first of the great ecumenical councils. Ignorant writers have popularized a lot of nonsense about Nicæa (for some reason, many have fixated on the entirely false notion that it was about the canon of Scripture). In fact, its only concern was nature of the Logos, i.e. the supernatural being incarnate in Jesus. Was the Logos God the creator (the Athanasian view), or a supremely exalted yet created being (the Arian view)? The council voted in favor of the Athanasian view: of more than three hundred bishops, just two finally refused assent to the council’s statement.
**The differences between the Neoplatonist and Christian trinities may not seem obvious. The word emanation is a hint; it diverges both from creation, especially creation out of nothing (a concept ancient pagans found ridiculous), and from begetting (as parents beget children).
†The Greek word Θεοτόκος [Theotokos] literally means “God-bearer” or “birth-giver of God”; since these sound rather awkward in English, Mother of God is more traditional. Some writers also borrow the term Theotokos directly, perhaps as an affectation, or in the interest of doctrinal precision.
‡Strictly speaking, the conflict has not ended. There are still a few ancient Churches (mostly in Armenia, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, and Iraq) that remain out of communion with both Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, due to which councils and doctrines each body accepts as correct.


Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He has a degree in Classics from the University of Maryland, and lives in Baltimore.

If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other content here at the Journal: we have author profiles on figures like Hugh of St. Victor and Ernest Hemingway, bite-size introductions to seminal ideas like causality and tyranny, essays by outstanding students on topics from the literary and spiritual importance of hospitality to evaluating the prison system in the light of New Testament teaching, and much more. Thank you for reading the Journal, and have a lovely day.

Published on 15th May, 2023.

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