Gregory of Nyssa is oneof the most important and influential theologians of the early church. In thefourth century, together with his brother Basil the Great, Gregory was known asone of the founding Fathers of early Christianity. During the Second EcumenicalCouncil of Nicaea, Gregory was proclaimed the “Father of Fathers.
” Without adoubt, Gregory’s contribution to the Trinitarian theology is very significantand probably his most well-known accomplishment. However,this is not Gregory’s only contribution to our theological understanding ofscripture. As this writer read through one of Gregory’s famous works “The Great Catechism,” an image of histheology came to mind. This image is of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” onthe ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God on one end and man on the other, neverquite able to touch, but forever reaching towards one another. As Gregoryhimself says, “Who hath known the mind of the Lord?”, quoting Paul (Romans11:34). He then follows, “ask further, who has understood his own mind?”1 Both the mind of God andman are incomprehensible, thus according to Gregory, must be connected.
Gregoryasserts that since the other traits of humanity are unlike the Divine, only themind is a true reflection of God’s image. Throughout this paper we will look athow Gregory’s theology defines our “upward reach” for God. Gregory see’s ourrelationship with God much like Michelangelo’s painting. We are always reachingfor God but never fully connecting.
As Gregory states our ultimate goal ofreaching God, “the instincts for all that was excellent.”2 Reachingfor GodGregory’stheological view of our minds being the likeness of the Divine is what connectsnot only us but all creatures to God. However, our will is what keeps thatconnection from becoming eternally secure.
“The mind, as being in the image ofthe most beautiful itself, also remains in beauty and goodness so long as itpartakes as far as is possible in its likeness to the archetype; but if it wereall to depart from this it is deprived of that beauty in which it was.”3 This is not to say thatGregory did not believe that no other aspect of man “shared” the true beauty ofthe likeness of God. He goes on to say, “Similarly, the other elements ofhumanity- passion, appetite, emotion- will share in the “true beauty” of mindonly. So long as one keeps in touch.”4 In summary, when wechoose, our mind is governed by God and in turn our normal lives are alsogoverned by God.
Thus, one’s entire life can become the “true beauty” thatGregory described. Furthermore,Gregory viewed this freedom of choice, to choose and to change, as notsomething that must be bound to salvation. Instead, Gregory viewed negative potentialfor change as a positive power for change. He viewed the distance between an unchangeableGod and the changeable creature not as an impassible mountain that keep us fromGod. Gregory viewed it as a stairway that leads us upwards towards Him.Consequently, Gregory viewed salvation as something that did not come byremoving man’s tendency to change, but by preserving it.
Thus, allowing man toprogress up the “perpetual stairway” bringing man closer and closer to theCreator. Yet, Gregory realized that although we had this ability to climb thestairway, we also had the ability to descend it.However,for Gregory, the challenge was not in the freedom which allowed us to descendthe stairway, but rather the gravity that makes us liable for such a choice. Ashe lamented, “the ruling element of our soul is more inclined to be draggeddownwards by the weight of the irrational nature than is the heavy and earthly elementsto be exalted by the loftiness of the intellect.”5 Thus, sin comes morereadily than a response of virtues- anger over happiness, terror over courage-unless we seek to claim upwards on the staircase and allow God to touch ourminds and our souls.
Disagreeing with many of the doctrines of theologiansbefore him, Gregory believed that man, at least the mind of man that reflectedthe image of God, was inherently good. A created being will be defined bychange, but “if it acts according to its nature the change is ever to thebetter.”6Theproblem, as Gregory sees it, comes from the appetites of the flesh. Therefore,true progress, the “change for the better” that Gregory spoke of; comesnaturally to the divine image of man. This would occur once the mind had becomeliberated from the body. Thus, enabling to more readily make its “upward reach”for God.
This liberation is only possible through death. Like a clay pot brokenby impurities, death allows man to be emptied, “emptied… of the material whichhas been mixed with it,” and remade “by the Resurrection without any admixtureof contrary matter.” 7 With the use of Genesis3:21, Gregory states that although the fallen Adam and Eve changed our future,they had in fact invested in man.
Gregory goes on to say, “invested in man…with that capacity of dying which had been the special attribute of the brutecreation.”8 Death then as Gregory seesit, is a gift, in that it allows us to overcome our bodies and return to ourlikeness in the Creator.Gregoryasserts that once free from the body, the mind can truly progress upwards andendlessly towards God. To quote Gregory, “Thus is it progress, not mereexistence, which is eternal, the mind’s advance having no check, because nogoal of the course to be traversed can be reached.
“9 Seen in this light andunchanging man would have been a curse- a halt in our progression- a neverending struggle that could not be completed no matter the intervention. InGregory’s thought, each traveler would forever say with Paul (in a verse thatGregory frequently repeated):Brethren, I couldnot myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting thosethings which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before,I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in ChristJesus (Philippians 3:13-14).ForGregory then, existence, both during life and after in death, took the shape ofJacob’s ladder (Genesis 28:12.
) However, unlike the angels in Jacob’s dream,there is little to no danger of descent. The small potential for evil isoutweighed by the growth of good. In fact, the continued ascent only makes theclimber more likely to continue climbing.
By climbing upward, the mindcontinually remains stable in the good. The mind is always closing the gapbetween the climber and God. Always being created a new, while continuing to beever changing for the better, moving towards its final change to perfection. Inits present state of goodness, even if devout and near perfect, it is only thebeginning of the most transcendent stage. As Gregory puts it, “A bride, calledto arise by such a Bridegroom, can always rise further, and one who runs to theLord will always have wide open space before him.”10 ConclusionItis arguable that this notion of “perpetual progress,” is one of Gregory’s mostimportant contributions to Christian though.
This theology speaks to the majestyof God and the goodness of man, the divine drawing out of humanity’s, “upwardreach.” It is perhaps Gregory’s most vivid way of expressing the Christianconviction towards God’s freedom to humanity. Christian faith is always, notonly in this life, a perpetual fight for the longing and love of our creator. Faithkeeps the climber moving upwards towards the Lord, for a love that will neverend. Thistheological view is powerful and enduring. Gregory paints a picture of hope ina world that expects man to live by the standards of this world.
However, Godcalls man to live for more. To live for Him, we must love one another the waythat He loves us. Gregory understood that this world will drag us down nomatter what we do. However, we must climb the ladder, forever “reaching upwards,”growing closer and closer to God. The passions of the flesh will not be able tohold us down. Our passions for the Lord, as we climb closer to him, willoutweigh all that holds us down in this world. According to Gregory, we shouldbe thankful for Adam and Eve because without their sacrifice we wouldn’t beable to finish our climb and stand before our creator.
This brings us back toour original image on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God reaching forward,much like Adam with his finger extended, never quite able to touch, but alwaysand forever reaching out to our maker. 1Gregory of Nyssa, “on the Markings of Man,” XI:22Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” Chapter 5.3 Gregoryof Nyssa, “On the Making of Man,” XII:9.
4Ibid,. XII:105Ibid., XVIII:6.6Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” Chapter 8.7Ibid8Ibid9Ibid., Chapter 21.10Gregor of Nyssa, “Commentary on the Song of Songs.”