This is another is my continuing series of paraphrases of the Early Church Fathers.

Today’s selection comes from St. Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the 4th century, dying sometimes around A.D. 386. He was brother to another of the church fathers- St. Basil the Great, and is one of the three Cappadocian Fathers.

Evidently at an early age Gregory’s parents desired to set him on a path to become a clergyman in the Church, but he instead chose to study rhetoric. His brother Basil implored him to reconsider and turn his life in a different direction, but Gregory refused to listen. At some point it is believed that Gregory married a woman named Theosebeia. At some point he eventually gave up his pursuit of a secular career and was ordained to the priesthood. Later he was appointed bishop of Nyssa, being consecrated to that position by Basil. Interestingly, after being ordained he continued to live with his wife, (it was sometimes customary for married persons in such a situation to live in separate places) although they lived in this arrangement celibately.

Gregory is best known for his writings on the Trinity, works which follow closely his brother Basil and friend Gregory of Nazinanzus, as well as his mystical works in which the ascent of the soul to God is described. For Gregory, God is infinite and thus unknowable. Yet, because of the image of God within us, there is some affinity between our reason and the Logos which is the source of the universe. Thus, we can have a knowledge of God to some extent through the manifestations of God, but to truly have union with God that transcends finite reason and knowledge, we must have a filial union with God. As such, the Incarnation becomes not only a conduit through which God touches humanity, but becomes the source of union between God and humanity.

Gregory imagines human nature in the abstract as a something of a lump. By uniting himself to humanity in this manner, God unites the human nature to the divine nature in a way that would be otherwise unattainable. Human nature is weak and dying, in bondage to decay. Yet in Christ the author of Life itself takes upon himself humanity’s disease, and by succumbing to it in death and then breaking out of the slavery to death through the resurrection, a new way is opened up for humanity to be related to God. Not only is the life which was lost restored, but in fact the super-abundance of life-beyond-life touches us, and lifts us up. Death is defeated for it can never have the last word, its wasting and wearing has come to an end.

In this selection Gregory considers the cause of humanity’s fall and redemption. In it, he develops an interesting tension. God is absolutely free, yet God chooses to create because the nature of love is an overflowing abundance of being. We are created in God’s image, and thus has a share in God’s reason and in God’s freedom. Yet since we are subject to change due to our finite nature, we can choose to embrace God’s love and gift or to reject it. To reject God and embrace sin is to fall for a counterfeit, since sin is a privation of Good.

In this bondage is yet another tension. God desires our freedom from sin, yet we have freely chosen sin. If God were to simply declare us to be free, it would render meaningless the gift of freedom which is a reflection of his image. It would invalidate justice. Thus, for Gregory there is a ‘necessity in freedom’ in that God’s love compels our redemption, and precipitates the Incarnation. This is a kind of recapitulation of creation, as God’s over-abounding love compels God to the re-creation of humanity.


Creation sprung forth into being from the reason and wisdom of God, and as obvious as it is that God could not have created haphazardly, yet these are not subject to the limitations of language nor the finitudes of categories such as knowledge, but point beyond to something more- to God’s willing, and not simply wanting something to happen, but necessarily bringing it about. If the universe in all its panoply is grounded in the divine Word, then that includes everything, even you and me, lumps of clay that we are.

Yet we should not presume that God needed us or had some compulsion to give being to that which was not. Rather, to be comes from a love that is overflowing and uncontainable, a love that desires things to be, especially that which could share in God’s perfections.

We are like containers to be poured into, a vase to contain an image of God. Into this space was spilled freedom and independence, unto us was given the choice to receive. To receive from God is not a foregone conclusion, but demands of us an openness, a willingness to embrace virtue.

Freedom makes room for evil, and its nativity is in this decision. Vice is foreign to God, a stranger to his will, but germinates in the deepest part of us. It is not a seed that falls into the ground and grows, but is rather the lack of growth itself, a turning away from the good. It is the gaping absence of that which is good, opting instead for nothingness.

The inescapable law of life is that we are bound to change like a slave, and from the first moment of this opening to freedom the good was cast from the sight for want of what was supposed to be better; this primordial envy in the infancy of creation wrenched the world from its foundation toward badness, and to no surprise evil sprang forth in abundance, an abortive creatio ex nihilo.

In our youth as a race we were blinded and beguiled to follow in this mutinous path, to leave goodness as an unwanted lover. We found that in the war between our desires and our minds the first salvo had been fired, and in deceit the will was stained and molded by sin which gained the upper hand.

Because of this, how can one reasonably speak of justice, when we have been redeemed? We are the bridegroom of change by virtue of our becoming, for better or for worse. The beauty of virtue gleamed before our eyes and was to draw our wills like a moth to the flame, but humanity was blinded by the original envy, a counterfeit in the irony of desire, that lurched the universe into decay.

We embraced our deceitful slave-master without compulsion. Yet the goodness of God cannot abide the sight of slavery to sin, and he sought to redeem us. But he is just, and so redemption could not be brought about by a mere fiat, a violence to the freedom that led to our bondage.

A price would be paid, of value that exceeded all that was in need of recompense. In God’s freedom and love was brought about the necessity that the very Word who endowed us with his image should give himself up to death, should fall under the whip of our overlord. His justice compelled this choice and transacted this exchange, as much as his wisdom provided the signature.

To be healed, a diagnosis is not enough. The doctor must touch the patient. In our sickness we had to be touched by Christ. God did not pronounce the cure from a far-removed throne in the clouds, but took upon himself all that we are to eradicate our disease. In this way even the cross takes upon a resplendence of its own, for on it Love plotted to rescue us from death. By touching the lump of humanity and bringing it into the blessedness of resurrection, the Cross takes on meaning that words cannot be expressed, but that were expressed by the Word.


  • Thanks Andy. 🙂

    I often feel the same way, and I think that there is so much in Eastern theology (little as I know of it, although I am desirous to learn more) that is of great value, especially for Christians in a rapidly changing West.

    I think that JPII nailed it when he said that the church must “breathe with both lungs.”

  • I just find myself relating with the whole paradigm better. It sets them up for better and more appropriate questions, I think. For example, instead of debating the meaning of total depravity in a judicial sense, we begin with the original goodness of creation flowing from the goodness of God and evil and depravity are a deprivation of that created goodness and a step backwards towards the chaos from which we were called. In the teaching cited above we don’t simply focus on the cross to the detriment of the rest of Christ’s life (and oddly enough even his resurrection), but rather it is from womb to tomb, because there was an ontological gap bridged in the Immanuel that brought healing and redemption to humanity that culminated in the cross and was victorious in the resurrection. So salvation is not simply a legal category, but rather an actual happening within us, a calling from darkness into light, from nothingness into being and our right relationship with God necessarily has an impact upon our very being. Virtue flows from this, works and faith go hand in hand because we are becoming different people, God is making all things new. I just love this whole discussion so much more than the “theology” what rattles around in protestant popular conversation and in my denomination.

    Was Gregory the one who originally sang the song Lump?

  • good thoughts Andy.

    I agree that in many respects it offers a more full-fledged conception of the totality of the Incarnation, rather than simply a judicial fixation on the cross which often characterizes protestant approaches.

    I especially like this: “Virtue flows from this, works and faith go hand in hand because we are becoming different people, God is making all things new.”

    You seem to be in danger of leaving fiduciary justification behind. 😉

    Lastly, I certainly agree that this kind of discussion and theology is more desirable than what occurs in the contemporary sphere. I wonder if the latter is in any way related to a lack of focus on the former?

    thanks again 🙂

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