Gregory is not Gregory’s only contribution to our theological

Gregory of Nyssa is one
of the most important and influential theologians of the early church. In the
fourth century, together with his brother Basil the Great, Gregory was known as
one of the founding Fathers of early Christianity. During the Second Ecumenical
Council of Nicaea, Gregory was proclaimed the “Father of Fathers.” Without a
doubt, Gregory’s contribution to the Trinitarian theology is very significant
and probably his most well-known accomplishment.

However,
this is not Gregory’s only contribution to our theological understanding of
scripture. As this writer read through one of Gregory’s famous works “The Great Catechism,” an image of his
theology came to mind. This image is of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on
the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. God on one end and man on the other, never
quite able to touch, but forever reaching towards one another. As Gregory
himself says, “Who hath known the mind of the Lord?”, quoting Paul (Romans
11:34). He then follows, “ask further, who has understood his own mind?”1 Both the mind of God and
man are incomprehensible, thus according to Gregory, must be connected. Gregory
asserts that since the other traits of humanity are unlike the Divine, only the
mind is a true reflection of God’s image. Throughout this paper we will look at
how Gregory’s theology defines our “upward reach” for God. Gregory see’s our
relationship with God much like Michelangelo’s painting. We are always reaching
for God but never fully connecting. As Gregory states our ultimate goal of
reaching God, “the instincts for all that was excellent.”2

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Reaching
for God

Gregory’s
theological view of our minds being the likeness of the Divine is what connects
not only us but all creatures to God. However, our will is what keeps that
connection from becoming eternally secure. “The mind, as being in the image of
the most beautiful itself, also remains in beauty and goodness so long as it
partakes as far as is possible in its likeness to the archetype; but if it were
all to depart from this it is deprived of that beauty in which it was.”3 This is not to say that
Gregory did not believe that no other aspect of man “shared” the true beauty of
the likeness of God. He goes on to say, “Similarly, the other elements of
humanity- passion, appetite, emotion- will share in the “true beauty” of mind
only. So long as one keeps in touch.”4 In summary, when we
choose, our mind is governed by God and in turn our normal lives are also
governed by God. Thus, one’s entire life can become the “true beauty” that
Gregory described.

Furthermore,
Gregory viewed this freedom of choice, to choose and to change, as not
something that must be bound to salvation. Instead, Gregory viewed negative potential
for change as a positive power for change. He viewed the distance between an unchangeable
God and the changeable creature not as an impassible mountain that keep us from
God. Gregory viewed it as a stairway that leads us upwards towards Him.
Consequently, Gregory viewed salvation as something that did not come by
removing man’s tendency to change, but by preserving it. Thus, allowing man to
progress up the “perpetual stairway” bringing man closer and closer to the
Creator. Yet, Gregory realized that although we had this ability to climb the
stairway, we also had the ability to descend it.

However,
for Gregory, the challenge was not in the freedom which allowed us to descend
the stairway, but rather the gravity that makes us liable for such a choice. As
he lamented, “the ruling element of our soul is more inclined to be dragged
downwards by the weight of the irrational nature than is the heavy and earthly elements
to be exalted by the loftiness of the intellect.”5 Thus, sin comes more
readily 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 our
minds and our souls. Disagreeing with many of the doctrines of theologians
before him, Gregory believed that man, at least the mind of man that reflected
the image of God, was inherently good. A created being will be defined by
change, but “if it acts according to its nature the change is ever to the
better.”6

The
problem, as Gregory sees it, comes from the appetites of the flesh. Therefore,
true progress, the “change for the better” that Gregory spoke of; comes
naturally to the divine image of man. This would occur once the mind had become
liberated 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 broken
by impurities, death allows man to be emptied, “emptied… of the material which
has been mixed with it,” and remade “by the Resurrection without any admixture
of contrary matter.” 7 With the use of Genesis
3:21, 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 brute
creation.”8 Death then as Gregory sees
it, is a gift, in that it allows us to overcome our bodies and return to our
likeness in the Creator.

Gregory
asserts that once free from the body, the mind can truly progress upwards and
endlessly towards God. To quote Gregory, “Thus is it progress, not mere
existence, which is eternal, the mind’s advance having no check, because no
goal of the course to be traversed can be reached.”9 Seen in this light and
unchanging man would have been a curse- a halt in our progression- a never
ending struggle that could not be completed no matter the intervention. In
Gregory’s thought, each traveler would forever say with Paul (in a verse that
Gregory frequently repeated):

Brethren, I could
not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those
things 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 Christ
Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).

For
Gregory then, existence, both during life and after in death, took the shape of
Jacob’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 is
outweighed by the growth of good. In fact, the continued ascent only makes the
climber more likely to continue climbing. By climbing upward, the mind
continually remains stable in the good. The mind is always closing the gap
between the climber and God. Always being created a new, while continuing to be
ever changing for the better, moving towards its final change to perfection. In
its present state of goodness, even if devout and near perfect, it is only the
beginning of the most transcendent stage. As Gregory puts it, “A bride, called
to arise by such a Bridegroom, can always rise further, and one who runs to the
Lord will always have wide open space before him.”10

Conclusion

It
is arguable that this notion of “perpetual progress,” is one of Gregory’s most
important contributions to Christian though. This theology speaks to the majesty
of God and the goodness of man, the divine drawing out of humanity’s, “upward
reach.” It is perhaps Gregory’s most vivid way of expressing the Christian
conviction towards God’s freedom to humanity. Christian faith is always, not
only in this life, a perpetual fight for the longing and love of our creator. Faith
keeps the climber moving upwards towards the Lord, for a love that will never
end.

This
theological view is powerful and enduring. Gregory paints a picture of hope in
a world that expects man to live by the standards of this world. However, God
calls man to live for more. To live for Him, we must love one another the way
that He loves us. Gregory understood that this world will drag us down no
matter 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 to
hold us down. Our passions for the Lord, as we climb closer to him, will
outweigh all that holds us down in this world. According to Gregory, we should
be thankful for Adam and Eve because without their sacrifice we wouldn’t be
able to finish our climb and stand before our creator. This brings us back to
our 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 always
and forever reaching out to our maker.

1
Gregory of Nyssa, “on the Markings of Man,” XI:2

2
Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” Chapter 5.

3 Gregory
of Nyssa, “On the Making of Man,” XII:9.

4
Ibid,. XII:10

5
Ibid., XVIII:6.

6
Gregory of Nyssa, “The Great Catechism,” Chapter 8.

7
Ibid

8
Ibid

9
Ibid., Chapter 21.

10
Gregor of Nyssa, “Commentary on the Song of Songs.”