Gregory of Nyssa on the Christian Life


[1] When looking at Christian figures from the past, interpreters primarily choose three routes, what I think of as the evolutionary, conservative, and progressive. A more evolutionary approach views Christian history as a development to maturity, with the earliest years of the church akin to its childhood and adolescence, the Middle Ages as perhaps its teenage years, etc. While the church has of course moved on from its earliest centuries into vastly difference circumstances, some interpreters see ancient Christian thought as almost completely outdated, immature or even embarrassing, not only in expression but in theological content as well. Surely the extremes of this approach exemplify what Owen Barfield and C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

[2] That being said, our concern must not be merely conservative, either, hanging onto the past for its own sake. It must be progressive as well, always moving forward in faith, hope and love toward the day when God is truly “all in all” (1 Cor 15.28). Even if the cultural packaging of the Gospel changes from year to year and from culture to culture, surely the essential contents of that gift necessarily remain always “the same, yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13.8). As ancient Christians communicated the timeless Gospel of Christ in the linguistic and cultural milieu of their day, so we, too, have a responsibility not only to understand, but also to proclaim that very same Gospel in our own circumstances. Such is my interpretation of this series on past Christian figures, which I see as an opportunity to try and discern, in the sometimes foreign ways ancient Christians thought and wrote, timeless truths that will inform and strengthen our life as twenty-first century followers of Christ.

[3] This essay concerns itself with the thought of the fourth century bishop St. Gregory of Nyssa (c 335-c 394AD), widely regarded as one of the ancient Church’s greatest theologians, who spent most of his life and career in the Roman province of Cappadocia, in what is now modern day Turkey. Born to a privileged family and forcibly ordained bishop by his powerful elder brother St. Basil, Metropolitan Bishop of Caesarea, Gregory matured to become one of the chief defenders of Nicene Orthodoxy, especially against Eunomius. Gregory’s posterity is great, as can be seen in his profound influence on later figures such as Dionysius the Areopagite and St. Maximus the Confessor, not to mention the entirety of the Eastern Christian tradition ever since. His is a voice worth heeding as we seek to incorporate the great voices of our past into the Church’s life today.

On virginity: an introduction to Gregory’s thoughts on virtue

[4] When trying to capture Gregory’s theological and ethical vision, his early treatise On Virginity is a helpful introduction. As he explicitly writes in his prologue, “The object of this treatise is to create in its readers a desire for the life according to virtue” (De virg. 1.1).[1] In other words, one realizes the virtuous life by living in a truly “human” fashion, i.e., a life lived excellently, appropriately, towards the fulfillment of God’s creative purpose for humanity.

[5] Reading this text, one soon finds Gregory’s overwhelming focus is not on what it would seem to be at first glance, namely, celibacy versus marriage. In fact, sexual intercourse is hardly mentioned throughout. His concern is virtue, generally. In an illuminating passage Gregory demonstrates that he is using “virginity” as a metaphor for holiness:

Though it [“virginity”] is the property of bodiless existence and of such singular excellence, yet by the love of God it has been bestowed on those whose lot it is to receive life from flesh and blood; that, when human nature has been debased by passionate inclinations, it stretches out its offer of purity like a hand to raise it up and make it look above. (De virg. 2.2)

In other words, “virginity,” or holiness, properly belongs to God alone. And yet by God’s love in Christ its purity extends to us as well, in an offer that raises us up out of our sensual stupor and fixes our attention on divine things.

[6] This dense passage encapsulates Gregory’s understanding of the root of human sinfulness, and that of the Church Fathers generally: our slavery to sensual passion. Though creation is good, things other than God are unworthy of our God-given power of desire (De virg. 11.3). The mind’s power of desire, whereby it seeks its own good, is so effective that the mind actually comes to be characterized by the object of its desire (De virg. 8), thereby either heightening or debasing the nobility of the image of God. A mind fixed on God becomes, in a sense, divine—and the image of God is thus aptly named. On the other hand, a mind unsuitably concerned with the things of the earth becomes just that, ignoble earth, and thus falling far short of its true design and intended character.

[7] Far from engaging in abstract speculation, Gregory sees himself as rooted firmly in Scripture, and his interpretation is widely indicative of the early Church’s perspective on the biblical narrative of the fall. Indeed, he unequivocally confesses that without the illumination and training provided by Christian doctrine, mankind would be utterly in the dark regarding its natural faculties and their proper use (De virg. 11.2). Turning to Genesis, Gregory describes the first man as entirely self-contained, “enslaved to no outward necessity whatsoever,” completely independent in his private judgment to choose whatever he liked (apart from the infamous tree, of course). This freedom of the will is a vital aspect of the image of God, a necessary characteristic of God whose will rules freely over all things.

[8] He was naked of his garment of dead skins, and yet he could look freely upon God’s countenance. He did not yet judge of what was lovely by taste or by sight; he found in the Lord alone all that was sweet. He used the helpmeet given him only for this delight, as Scripture signifies when it said that “he knew her not” [Gen 4.1] till he was driven forth from the garden. (De virg. 12.4)

[9] This image of man looking freely upon the face of God, unburdened and finding satisfaction in the Lord alone, is the ideal state for Gregory. The ideal image is not of a missing body, but of a rising soul that is unhindered and undistracted by bodily desires in its search for the good. It might be tempting to think Gregory equates this “garment” with the physical body itself, but as he clearly states later (De virg. 13.1), the “garment of skins” is really the heavy wisdom of the flesh, that is, the sensual disposition of the darkened human mind.

[10] Having set the stage for man’s independence and responsibility, Gregory says the first man “drew upon himself that disaster which now overwhelms humanity” (De virg. 12.2). Gregory likens the situation to a man who has shut his eyes to the light of the sun; though the sun continues to shine, he has erected a barrier between his eye and its light. In this darkness the first man rejected the good and beautiful that lay all around him and “willfully cut out a new way for himself contrary to nature, and in the act of turning away from virtue, which was his own free act, he created the usage of evil.” Like most catholic teachers, Gregory teaches that evil lies in the free will of created things, in their turning away from the good. As we said earlier, being in the image of God depends, for Gregory, not so much on the nature of the soul per se but in its “appearance,” its “garment,” its ability to be recognized as such. Like a filthy coin, the “image of our King” is “not yet hopelessly lost, but hidden beneath the dirt” (De virg. 12.3), heavily tarnished and in need of cleansing.

[11] Life since our ejection from paradise has been characterized by anxiety, “working the land” apprehensively under the power of the fear of death (Heb 2.15). Now unable to discern the goodness of God for ourselves, spiritually blind mankind tests everything by sensual, rather than mental, pleasure. This carnal litmus test and its necessarily limited findings, combined with general anxiety, are well-caricatured in his portrait of an anxious young married couple (De virg. 3). As presented by Gregory, the least of their problems is sexuality. Rather, they are held captive by the fear of losing their loved ones. And herein lies our problem: “marriage,” or undue attachment to earthly well-being, is antithetical to the “virginity” of God, which only has concern for heavenly things (De virg. 4.1 and 20.4).

[12] In a rhetorical twist, Gregory later equates this “virginity” with a “marriage” of a different sort, the soul’s spiritual marriage to God. Intentionally playing on the tensions between earthly celibacy and marriage, Gregory effectively makes his point in that the question is one of the soul’s disposition, not one’s earthly circumstances. Married or celibate, barren or with a large family, our concern as Christians ought to be singular: finding our delight in God alone. Of course, the Virgin Mary is the definitive exemplar of this dynamic:

What happened in the stainless Mary when the fullness of the Divinity which was in Christ shone out through virginity, that happens in every soul that becomes virginal according to reason (κατὰ λόγον). No longer indeed does the Master come with bodily presence; “We know Christ no longer according to the flesh,” but, spiritually he dwells in us and brings his Father with him. (De virg. 2.2)

The virgin soul joined in such a union with God has a spiritual fecundity, begetting virtue, godly fear, and even other Christians (De virg. 13, 14 and 19). And best of all, married to God but virgin concerning the world, we then stop bearing “children” such as the fear of death. Our souls are instead united to God, bearing spiritual children death cannot touch.

This is always happening whenever anyone in a lively heart conceives all the integrity of the Spirit, and brings forth wisdom and righteousness, and sanctification and redemption. It is possible for anyone to be the mother of such a son, as our Lord says, “He that does my will is my brother, my sister, and my mother” [Mt 12.50]. What room is there for death in such parturitions? In them death is swallowed up by life. (De virg. 14.3-14.4)

As we live the “virgin” life, we usher in (give birth to?) a foretaste of the Kingdom of God here and now (De virg. 11.4).

[13] In order to move towards this fruitful virginity of the soul Gregory sets forth an ascetical scheme. Often interpreted as having an almost stoic hatred of the body, it bears mention at this point that Gregory in fact advocates careful concern for the body’s well-being. The mind, as pastor of the soul, is itself the vanguard of the struggle against inappropriate indulgence. Gregory recommends adding a new wall in the mind, this time between us and pleasure, in our attempt to tear down the old barrier mankind erected between us and the light of heavenly things (De virg. 12.2, 21.1). The new wall he names “temperance,” which refuses to let the mind dwell “on anything wherein pleasure’s bait is hid” (De virg. 21.2). To underscore our earlier point, Gregory focuses on the love of food, not the love of sex, as the subtle yet deadly beginning of the mind’s being utilized for ignoble use. In judging what and how much to eat Gregory suggests that our criteria ought to be “that which meets the need, and leave untouched what merely feasts the senses” (De virg. 21.2). This also functions very well as a definition of balanced asceticism generally.

[14] This concern for the body’s well-being, if not for its pleasure, shows the virtuous mind as a strict yet reasonable and even caring guide, or pastor, of our body. He plainly condemns those so-called ascetics whose “only inclination is to this tormenting and afflicting of the flesh.” Indeed, “[t]heir minds are so bent upon regulations which merely affect the body that they can no longer walk in their heavenly freedom and gaze above” (De virg. 22.1), apparently having forgotten the true point of asceticism. Rather, Gregory sets forth a much more holistic image of inner focus, control, balance, and order. The idea is not to squash our God-given desire, but to channel it, control it, and point it in the right direction.[2]

Hearing Gregory of Nyssa’s Voice Today

[15] Voices from the past like Gregory’s can be a stiff challenge to our quite often comfortable circumstances. Like most of the early Church Fathers, Gregory’s chief concern is that we would move from being lovers of sensual pleasure to lovers of God. Using this lens to examine the Christian life, one fairly easily recognizes a more familiar equivalent, love of self over love of neighbor. I think Gregory was trying to expose the heart of selfishness. After all, even at the most surface levels, what keeps us from serving those in need, but a love of convenience and comfort? What keeps us from giving substantial portions of our income to worthy charities, but a consumer’s desire for pleasurable things and experiences? It ought to be fairly obvious what prevents most of us from living the virtuous life we know we ought.

[16] At a far deeper level, Gregory has tried to enlighten us to our own deep, fundamental love of earthly pleasure and security. Most of us let our deepest desires run amok, and if we would be honest, we are far more a slave to our “garment of skin” than we care to admit. This internal chaos and disorder reveals our own lack of faith in the promises of God, in that we neglect the eternal good of our soul’s character for the temporary goods of bodily and social pleasure, living only for today (1 Cor 15.32). Gregory suggested we start on the outside, with something simple like our eating habits, and then let that discipline work unity, order and harmony into the rest of our lives as well, to the very core of our being, mastering first our bodily desires and then moving to the deeper yearnings of our souls and minds. Then, and only then, can we be said to be truly human, living according to our created purpose, fulfilling our destiny according to the example of Christ our Lord. When this is the case the fulfillment of the prophecy will have begun in us, as we begin to see that God truly is “all in all.”

[1] The English translation used is that of William Moore and Henry Wilson in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd Series, Vol 5. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1994), 342-371. The Greek text utilized is the critical text of Michel Aubineau in Sources Chrétiennes 119, Traité de la Virginité (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1966). Though I will be following the English translation of the NPNF, I will hold to Aubineau’s (and Migne’s) chapter divisions. I have felt free to modify their translation at times in the interest of greater accuracy, easier reading, or both.

[2] Especially notable is his agricultural analogy of irrigation canals and pipes from De virg. 6-7.