Gregory of Nyssa: The Father of Fathers
The new issue of Credo Magazine, “The Great Tradition,” focuses on the early Church Fathers. The following is an excerpt from Shawn Wilhite’s “Gregory of Nyssa: The Father of Fathers.” Dr. Shawn J. Wilhite (Ph.D., Th.M.) is founder and editor of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies and Fides et Humilitas: The Journal of the Center for Ancient Christian Studies. He is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University. He is also a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, North American Patristics Society, and Society of Biblical Literature. He co-authored Patrick of Ireland: His Life and Impact with Michael A.G. Haykin and Aaron Matherly (Christian Focus, 2014). He has published The Didache: A Commentary and a monograph on the Didache. Currently, he is research Pro-Nicene Theology and Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarianism.
Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335/40–395) is often regarded as the most speculative and mystical thinker of the Greek Fathers. Centuries after his death, the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) rendered Nyssen as the “father of fathers,” named alongside Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom. Gregory was the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea and Macrina the Younger. While Basil studied in Constantinople and in Athens, Nyssen remained at home and underwent education from both Basil and Macrina. Despite having undergone brief ascetic pursuits and what seem to be pursuits of the ecclesiastical life, Gregory underwent a spiritual crisis in the 360s, having the impulse of adolescent rebellion, and pursued a secular career instead. He was ordained to the office of “Reader” at an early age, also being a teacher of rhetoric and, quite possibly, marrying (De virg. 3).
In 372, Basil persuaded Gregory to engage in ecclesiastical life once again, though he reluctantly pursued the episcopate office and was filled with great self-doubt. Three years later (375) Nyssen was charged with misusing ecclesial funds and alleged irregularities were brought forward to a council in Ancyra largely composed of homoian bishops that concerned his election to the episcopate. The next year (376) a council in Nyssa deposed Gregory and a non-Nicene bishop assumed the episcopate. Shortly thereafter, Gregory experienced personal losses such as losing his wife (378), the death of Basil on January 1 379, and Macrina later that same year (July 379). The death of the Arian emperor Valens in 378 provided a way for Gregory to return to Nyssa and to resume his ecclesial duties.
In the 370s, Gregory began his ecclesial duties and experienced a set of rather difficult circumstances. Thus, we are left to assume that he rose to prominence in the subsequent years up until his death. He was present at the Council of Constantinople in 381 and, after this council, he was named among ten others “whose teaching is to be considered normative for the interpretation of orthodoxy.” Nyssen was listed as one considered a standard-bearer of Nicene Orthodoxy by Theodosius on 30 July 381.
During Nyssen’s final ten years of life, we observe an increasing focus on the spiritual life. He wrote the Life of Moses (c. 392) and the Homilies on the Song of Songs as his final set of works. Both of these works centralize upon the spiritual features of the Christian soul being drawn upwards to God. The last record that we have of Gregory’s life is his name appearing on the role sheets for a synod at Constantinople in 394. Shortly thereafter, he fades from the historical scene and seems to have died in late 394 or 395.
Ascetic Spirituality and the Life of Virtue
Gregory of Nyssa is often seen as carrying forward the ascetic paradigm of his older brother, Basil. At the bequest of Basil, Gregory was exhorted to write his first major treatise On Virginity. And in order, Gregory of Nyssa writes On what it means to Call Oneself a Christian, On Perfection, On the Christian Mode of Life, The Life of Macrina, and On the Soul and the Resurrection. In On what it means to Call Oneself a Christian, Gregory writes about the etymology of “Christian” and the qualities that relate to this identity. In On Perfection, he continues this thought and returns to the idea of being a Christian as imitating the divine nature. Nyssen writes a two-part volume, entitled On the Christian Mode of Life. Written to a group of monks, Nyssen describes the goal of the religious life as a life of philosophy and he discusses several problems associated with being a monk. Gregory portrays the ascetic ideal in a personal portrait of his sister in Life of Macrina. While more clearly a dogmatic dialogue, Nyssen’s On the Soul displays a conversation between Gregory and Macrina as the telic portrait of Macrina’s ascetic life.
On Virginity is the earlier of Nyssen’s ascetical literature. He addresses a group of monks already adhering to Basil’s Rules. Gregory begins this work with how the virtuous life and the virgin life cohere together: “The aim of this discourse is to create in the reader a desire for a life of virtue. But because of the many distractions associated with what the divine apostle calls ‘the married life,’ the treatise suggests, as a kind of door or entrance into a nobler state, the life of virginity.” Following this comment, he likens the distractions of life to the divine life. “It is not easy for those involved in everyday activities also to devote themselves quietly to the more divine life; nor is it easy for those diverted in every way by the business of life to settle down undistractedly and contentedly to higher pursuits.” While he gives prominent attention to the topic of virginity, Nyssen also broadens the concerns to those distracted by life. The two may be symmetrical components of life.
The purpose of this small treatise aims to create a desire for a virtuous life. The telic virtuous life, achieved through the means of a life of virginity, comprises the goal of the ascetic life. Virginity, then, is not the virtuous life but creates space to achieve a virtuous life. Furthermore, Nyssen heightens the concerns to address the needlessly busy life. The busy life prohibits contemplation on divine pursuits and the divine life. These two-fold comparisons display the primary concerns for Nyssen in On Virginity: a life of distraction, even warranted through marriage, prohibits one from contemplating the divine pursuits, the life of virtue, and participation in the divine life. The glorious unmarried life, as Nyssen continues, is the physical means to achieve this life of virtue. Furthermore, Nyssen heightens the concerns to address the needlessly busy life. The busy life prohibits contemplation on divine pursuits and the divine life. Click To Tweet
As the monks pursue solidarity, Nyssen touches on the virtues associated with virginity. He uses the two states of the Son, begotten by the Father and conceived by the Spirit in the Virgin, as the exemplar of the virgin life. It is a paradox, he explains, “to find virginity in a Father who has a Son whom He has begotten without passion, and virginity is comprehended together with the only-begotten God who is the giver of incorruptibility.” Additionally, Nyssen points out the other paradox in that the Son is brought forth in his humanity through virginity. The Son begotten and the Son incarnated both display the divine life as it relates to virginity. Because the Son is begotten, remaining impassible and incorporeal, virginity is virtuously displayed by the Trinity. As such, the power of virginity resides in heaven with the Father.
Virginity is exceptional and peculiar to the incorporeal nature, and, through the kindness of God, it has been granted to those whose life has been allotted through flesh and blood, so that it may set human nature upright once more after it has been cast down by its passionate disposition, and guide it, as if by the hand, to a contemplation of the things on high.
Therefore, virginity in the ascetic life creates space for the person to participate in the divine life and contemplate heavenly things. The virgin life, for Nyssen, more closely ties one to participate with heavenly things.
Pro-Nicene Theology and Trinitarianism
In what follows next, I detail brief Trinitarian features of Gregory of Nyssa. Pro-Nicene theology is a way to describe the varieties of Trinitarian theology between 360–380, which would include Nyssen’s literature. While each Cappadocian can be read on their own, this small section focuses on Nyssen’s tapestry of Trinitarian theology that resides within the trajectories of the Nicene heritage.
Much of early Trinitarian theology is polemical rather than purely constructive. And so, the examples below engage briefly with Eunomius and Apollinaris. Both figures, while different, struggled to describe the Nicene vision of Christology. Apollinaris of Laodicea (d.392) formulated the unity of the hypostasis as a composite structure that excluded the reason (nous) of Christ. Eunomius of Cyzicus (d. 394) eventually became the greatest advocate of the Eunomians—or, anomoianism, an extreme version of Arianism.
The Theologia of the Only Begotten
At the beginning of Contra Eunomius II, Gregory summarizes the essential Christological features of his theological paradigm and how he situates his argument against Eunomius. Nyssen’s Christology serves as a central feature. He summarizes the Only-Begotten Son as follows:
I suggest that we ought first of all to summarize briefly our whole understanding of dogmatic principles and the disagreement of our opponents with us, so that our treatment of the subject may be methodical. The chief point, then, of the Christian religion is the belief that the Only-begotten God, who is Truth, and true Light, and Power of God, and Life, truly is all that he is said to be; and especially and supremely this, that he is God and Truth, which means God in truth, being always what the thought and word imply, never not being, and never ceasing to be, one whole Being, what he essentially is, eludes all attempt at comprehension and investigation.
Nyssen’s theologia of the Son initially describes the essential properties of the Son. He uses Nicene language as a theological control and base description of the Son. He is truth, light, power of God, life, and all that he claims to be. To describe the Son as follows echoes the Nicene language about the Son. The theologia of the Son comprises all elements of what it means to be God. All the properties that are used to describe God equally apply to the Son.
After these kataphatic descriptions of the Son, Nyssen then turns to combine both an apophatic and kataphatic theologia. The Son is never not being and is a whole being. The two clauses display both the eternal begottenness of the Son and the simplicity of the Son. Additionally, the Son remains incomprehensible. To affirm these elements secure Nyssen’s Christology within a pro-Nicene framework. By describing the Son with affirming and negating language, the Son persists both partially known and as a mystery.
**Read Dr. Wilhite’s entire article in the latest issue of Credo Magazine.
 Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters Introduction, Translation and Commentary, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1.
 Acta, sixth session, vol. 5.
 Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), 27–60.
 Gregory of Nyssa, Ep. 13.4. “I was apprenticed to my brother only a short time. I was only sufficiently purified by his divine tongue to be able to discern the deficiency of those uninitiated into discourse.”
 Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep. 11.
 Basil, Ep. 225.6.
 Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 157.
 Gregory most likely married in his youth and then committed to celibacy after his wife’s death. See Gregory of Nazianzen Ep. 197 to Gregory of Nyssa, and epitaph 123, on Theosebeia. Andrew Louth, “The Cappadocians,” in The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, ed. Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, and Andrew Louth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 297–98.
 Rousseau revisits this traditional dating and suggests that Basil completed the Hexaemeron in 377 or 378 during the final year of his life. Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea, 360–63.
 Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 157.
 Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa, 39.
 Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 158.
 Sozomen, Hist. eccl. 7.9.6. Cod. Theod. 16.1.3.
 Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa, 57.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity Pref. (Translation from: Gregory of Nyssa, St. Gregory: Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan, The Fathers of the Church 58 (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1967).).
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity Pref.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 2.
 Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 2.
 See this fabulous monograph by Vaggione for more on this topic. Richard Paul Vaggione, Eunomius of Cyzicus and the Nicene Revolution, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
 Gregory of Nyssa, Con. Eun. 2.12.
 Michel René Barnes, The Power of God: Δύναμις in Gregory of Nyssa’s Trinitarian Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001).