This is the 35th posting in our series regarding the historical development of theology. You can read the series by clicking here. Two weeks ago we began a series on the Cappadocian Fathers, which can be read here.
So closely connected in faith were the Cappadocian Fathers that even their legacies are not made distinct. While Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus were the best of friends, they were not as close as Basil and Gregory of Nyssa . . . after all they were brothers, both spiritually and physically. While it is unsure when Gregory of Nyssa was born (most likely around 340) we are certain that he was the younger of the two.
With only a short gap in age, the difference in upbringing of the two demonstrates a changing world. Most notably their difference in educational levels. Despite being considered the most intelligent of the group, the level of education that Gregory received was far less than that of his brother Basil (and that of Gregory of Nazianzus). Between the time of Basil’s education and Gregory’s Julian, a former classmate to Basil, had come to rule the empire. Under his rule, persecution against Christians increased, which included forbidding Christians from schooling.
Upon the death of Basil, it was Gregory of Nyssa who became spokesman for the group. With His well-known stance on the defense of the Trinity, this role seemed a natural point for him. As the Bishop of Nyssa, he was already before public scrutiny, which included a number of conflicts and persecutions.
Gregory of Nyssa definitely had mystical leanings. In fact, he attributes his conversion, baptism, and adoption of an ascetic lifestyle to dreams and visions that he had. This coupled with his melding of philosophy and Scripture makes it necessary to scrutinize Gregory’s theology with great detail. Regardless, by the time of his death, probably about 391, Gregory had continued on the legacy of Athanasius, and ultimately a solid testimony for our God.
Through his three primary writings that survive (ON the Holy Trinity, On Not Three Gods, Against Eunomius) Gregory left his legacy through two primary teachings:
1) Tritheism: The charge of tritheism has transcended decades by this point. Every theologian for a number of years has been required to defend themselves against this charge. Gregory was no different. Hid defense though incorporated something different. Using the apostles Peter, James, and John, Gregory explained that they were the same in that they all had the human nature. Despite all being of human nature, they were distinctly three different men. He indicated that they were separate not because one was more human than another, but because they act independently . . . however, in God all activity is one (it is part of the same plan for the same purpose).
2) Transcendence: Like Tritheism, transcendence was not a new concept to this era. However, Gregory built off of the concept a bit further. He asserts that because God is incomprehensible, we humans could only describe him negatively. That is to say, we can only describe him by describing what God is not. For example, instead of saying God is infinite, we would have to describe Him as not limited. Through Gregory’s persistent teaching in this area in conjunction with his ‘mystical’ leanings, the concept of transcendence became a key foundation for mystical teaching of the day.
We can be thankful for Gregory’s legacy because he left behind him a strong emphasis on the majesty of God. This is a characteristic that is often missed today . . . if it was not overlooked we would not fail to think more highly of God than we do.