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Gregory of Nyssa

The Father of Fathers

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335/40–395) is often regarded as the most speculative and mystical thinker of the Greek Fathers.[1] Centuries after his death, the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) rendered Nyssen as the “father of fathers,” named alongside Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom.[2] Gregory was the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea and Macrina the Younger. While Basil studied in Constantinople and in Athens,[3] Nyssen remained at home and underwent education from both Basil and Macrina.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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),[8] the death of Basil on January 1 379, and Macrina later that same year (July 379).[9] The death of the Arian emperor Valens in 378 provided a way for Gregory to return to Nyssa and to resume his ecclesial duties.[10]

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.[11] 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.”[12] Nyssen was listed as one considered a standard-bearer of Nicene Orthodoxy by Theodosius on 30 July 381.[13]

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.[14]

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.”[15] 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.”[16] 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.”[17] 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.[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

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.[21] 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.

Divine Simplicity and the Trinity 

Gregory of Nyssa uses the doctrine of divine simplicity to retort theological objections. According to Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Nyssen’s use of divine simplicity would simultaneously undercut objections to the incarnation, anti-Nicene Christians like Eunomius, those who minimized the Spirit’s divinity, and Greek polytheists.[22] In the following from his Catechesis, Gregory accentuates divine simplicity to supplant distinctions within God. The unity and qualities of God in simple composition ward off the charges of polytheism.

But if [someone] has no doubt of God’s existence and is carried away by ideas of a plurality of gods, we should use with him some such argument as follows: Does he think the divine is perfect or imperfect? If, as he probably will, he testifies to the perfection of the divine nature, we must require him to acknowledge that this perfection extends to every aspect of the deity, so that the divine may not be regarded as a mixture of opposites, of defect and perfection. Now, whether it be with respect to power, or the idea of goodness, or wisdom or in corruption, or eternity or any other relevant attribute of God, he will agree, as a reasonable inference, that we must think of the divine as perfect in every case.[23]

If one would consider the plurality of God, Gregory utilizes divine simplicity to counter such a claim. He raises a question: would this person consider the divine being perfect or imperfect? As would be expected, such a person will still uphold the perfection of the divine being. Moreover, this perfection is not partitioned to part of the divine being but rather it extends to every aspect of the divine being. Even if we were to perceive the individual qualities of God, to consist of perfection as an individual quality would correspond to the totality of perfection in God without division. Nyssen further suggests that if perfection is the proper quality of the divine being, then no distinguishing marks exist. And, we ought to abandon the idea of any distinction (Or. Catech. Praef.).

The unity of God, for Gregory of Nyssa, occupies a central role in the doctrine of simplicity. Even as Eunomius presents a strict divine unity, according to Gregory, his divine unity has introduced multiplicity in the divine realm.[24] While he wrote the Catechetical Oration in the mid-380s, Gregory argues similarly in his larger work against Eunomius.[25]

Everyone knows that strictly speaking simplicity does not allow concepts of more and less to apply to the Holy Trinity. In a case where it is not possible to conceive any mixture and combination of qualities, but the mind apprehends a power without parts and composition, how and by what logic might the difference of greater and lesser be understood? One that determines that such comparisons be made must inevitably envisage the incidence of some qualities in the subject. He either conceives the difference between them in terms of exceeding and falling short, and thus brings the concept of size into the debate, or he is arguing that it is superior or inferior in goodness, power, wisdom and whatever else is piously attributed to the divine; and thus he will not escape the imputation of composition.[26]

The doctrine of simplicity prohibits a nuance of qualities in the divine being. “More or less” cannot apply to the divine being, while still affirming divine simplicity. To gradate qualities in the Holy Trinity, one must observe the composite and partitive structures of God. So, if one quality appears more than another, then the divine being has superior features that upset the simple composition of God. And, if God is composite with inferior and superior qualities, then the divine being can be split into parts. The inferior being of God can be compared with other parts, thereby permitting polytheistic features. The doctrine of simplicity prohibits a nuance of qualities in the divine being. “More or less” cannot apply to the divine being, while still affirming divine simplicity. Click To Tweet

The Two Nature Single Subject Son is Eternally Begotten and Co-Equal to the God

In his refutations against Apollinaris, Gregory displays his theological rigor. As he offers a constructive portrait of the Son, Gregory highlights the single subject Son, as both Lord and Christ, and how the divine qualities intersect with the incarnation. “But we do not deny that in these last days the power of God, and his wisdom, his light, and his life—and all these things are Christ—became manifest through the flesh.”[27] The eternal begottenness of the Son serves as a fulcrum for the identity of the human Son. If the Son is not from the beginning, then it would be inappropriate to give him divine titles. To prove such an idea that the Son embodies the qualities of the divine nature, Gregory first underscores a lesser-to-greater totalizing argument. To be human includes all the characteristics of human nature.

When the term “man” is used, the power of reason and the capacity to understand and all other defining characteristics of human nature are signified at the same time; so that if one said that Christ the man did not exist, the negation of the term “man” would mean that all the other characteristics of human nature were also absolutely denied.[28]

In other words, if the attributing identity of “human” describes other subsequent qualities, then to negate humanity would negate all other subsequent qualities. Thereby pivoting to the divine nature of the Son, Nyssen highlights the divine qualities of the Son as the imprint and radiance of God (Heb 1:3). But, if one denies the eternal begottenness of the Son, all subsequent divine qualities would also be rejected. “In the same way, if Christ is the power, the wisdom, the imprint, and the radiance, anyone who denies that he existed from the beginning will also wholly reject all the concepts that are associated with his title.”[29] This line of reasoning, once more, displays how the divine simplicity of God prohibits any partition of the divine qualities of God.

As a result, Gregory highlights how to perceive the divine Christ. Before assessing the incarnation, Nyssen describes what the Son always is, even during his incarnation, to describe particular features that always appear.

So, with the divine Scriptures as our guide, we say that Christ always existed, and must be regarded as co-eternal with the Father. The Only-Begotten God is always God; he does not become God through participation, nor does he come to join the godhead through a progression from a more humble condition. Thus the power and the wisdom and every name that is appropriate to God are co-eternal with the Godhead; nothing that was not there from the beginning can be joined by way of addition to the glory of the divine nature.[30]

Following the Scriptures, the Son always is, always existed, and is regarded as co-equal to the Father. To affirm the eternal begottenness and co-equal relationship between the Father and the Son occupies a central feature of pro-Nicene theology.[31] The one who is Only-Begotten is always God and did not become God through participation with the Father or through being elevated to God after a more lowly state. The eternal existence of the Son also requires one to observe the eternal qualities of the Son. He is thereby described as power, wisdom, and other divine natures appropriate for God. He, thereby, is deemed co-eternal within the Godhead. All the Son is in his divinity has always been present since the very beginning. The eternal begottenness of the Son serves as a fulcrum for the identity of the human Son. If the Son is not from the beginning, then it would be inappropriate to give him divine titles. Click To Tweet

Only after detailing the eternal qualities of the Son does Nyssen describe the single subject Son and the Christ after his passion. Quoting Acts 2:36 (“God has made him Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”), Gregory attends to the two names of the Son that apply to the single subject.

We say this not because we are claiming that there are two Christs or two Lords in the one Jesus, but because the Only-begotten God, who is God by nature, the Lord of all, the King of creation, the Maker of all who exists, and he who set aright those who have fallen—because he, I say, in his great forbearance has undertaken not to deny fellowship with him even to our nature, fallen as it is through sin, and to restore it to life.[32]

It is the eternal divine Son who did not break fellowship with the Father while assuming a human nature. As he follows the logic of the Philippian hymn (Phil 2), Nyssen describes how the Son was not reintroduced into Lordship. Rather, the form of the slave (Phil 2:7) has become Lord.

He himself was highly exalted in eternity, and in this way he exalted highly that which was lowly; for he who was exalted above all things had no need of exaltation himself. The Word was both Christ and Lord, and that is what he who was combined with him and taken up into the divinity became. The Word is Lord already; he is not re-ordained into lordship, but rather the form of the slave becomes the Lord.[33]

The Son, being mixed (ἐπιμιξιαν) with the lowliness of human nature, taking humanity into himself (ἐν ἑαυτῷ λαβὼν), and becoming himself within humanity was exalted after his passion. And, yet, as Nyssen describes this process, the Son’s eternal immutability still is assumed as the Nicene base from which to work. This eternal assumptions of the Only-begotten directly address the misrepresentation of Apollinaris, who claims that the Only-begotten God was not always Christ.[34]


Gregory of Nyssa’s life and theology provide a cherished rubric for us today. We can look to his life as an example for longevity in local church influence—even identifying with his flight from ministry. His vision for spirituality is marked by long and sustained reflection on the Triune God and how Christians participate in the divine life. And, more obvious for us, we can reflect on the Trinitarian vision of Gregory as we contemplate the divine life.



[1] Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters Introduction, Translation and Commentary, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 1.

[2] Acta, sixth session, vol. 5.

[3] Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1998), 27–60.

[4] 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.”

[5] Gregory of Nazianzus, Ep. 11.

[6] Basil, Ep. 225.6.

[7] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 157.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 157.

[11] Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa, 39.

[12] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 158.

[13] Sozomen, Hist. eccl. 7.9.6. Cod. Theod. 16.1.3.

[14] Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa, 57.

[15] 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).).

[16] Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity Pref.

[17] Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 2.

[18] Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity 2.

[19] 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).

[20] Gregory of Nyssa, Con. Eun. 2.12.

[21] Michel René Barnes, The Power of God: Δύναμις in Gregory of Nyssa’s Trinitarian Theology (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001).

[22] Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, Oxford Early Christian Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 212–13.

[23] Gregory of Nyssa, Or. Catech. Praef.

[24] Radde-Gallwitz, Transformation of Divine Simplicity, 213–14.

[25] Radde-Gallwitz, Transformation of Divine Simplicity, 214.

[26] Gregory of Nyssa, Con. Eun. 1.232–33.

[27] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

[28] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

[29] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

[30] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

[31] I’m assuming the language of Lewis Ayres and how he prescribes “pro-Nicene” theologies. The variety of theologies that come the 360–380 period, which will include some of Nyssen’s contribution. While the theologies are not identical, Ayres provides three points of contact for their overlap: (1) a clear version of person and nature distinction; (2) eternal generation of the Son within the unity of God; (3) inseparable activity. Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 236, 434.

[32] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

[33] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

[34] Gregory of Nyssa, Adv. Apolinarium 28.

Shawn J. Wilhite

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.

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