St Gregory Nyssen and the Infinity of God

It seems an odd thing to say: theotes (Godhead, divinity, deity) does not refer to the divine nature (physis) but to the divine activity (energeia). It’s odd, because that’s not how we use language for most things that we know. It’s as if we were to ask a philosopher “What is a human being?” and he were to respond, “A human being is an animal that eats organic food, spends a third of his life commuting back and forth to work, and watches television in the evening.” After hearing this response, we probably would reply, “I didn’t ask you what a human being does. I want to know what it is.” “But human beings are what they do,” the philosopher responds. And we stand there shaking our heads in perplexity. But let’s let the Nyssan explain his position in his own words:

Most people think that the word ‘Godhead’ refers to God’s nature in a special way. Just as the heaven, the sun, or any other of the world’s elements is denoted by a proper name which signifies its subject, so they say that, in reference to the transcendent and divine nature, the word ‘Godhead’ is fitly applied, like some proper name, to what it represents. We, however, following the suggestions of Holy Scripture, have learned that His nature cannot be named, and is ineffable. We say that every name, whether invented by human custom or handed down by the Scriptures, is indicative of our conceptions of the divine nature, but does not signify what that nature is in itself. … From this it is clear that the divine nature in itself is not signified by any of these terms. For we say, perhaps, that the divine is incorruptible or powerful or whatever else we are in the habit of saying. But in each of these terms we find a particular idea which by thought and expression we rightly attribute to the divine nature, but which does not express what that nature essentially is. For the subject, whatever it may be, is incorruptible, but our idea of incorruptibility is this: that that which is not resolved into decay. In saying, then, that He is incorruptible, we tell what his nature does not suffer. But what that is which does not suffer corruption we have not defined. Or again, even if we say he is the creator of life, while we indicate by the expression what it is he creates, we do not reveal by the word what creates it. By the same principle, we find in all other cases that the significance attaching to divine names lies either in their forbidding wrong conceptions of the divine nature or in their teaching right ones. But they do not contain an explanation of the nature in itself. (Ad Ablabius in Christology of the Later Fathers, pp. 260-261)

The divine names do not define and grasp the divine nature; they do not express what the nature is. We have already briefly addressed this theme in the article on the divine propria. Negative terms tell us what God in his essential reality is not; positive terms refer us to the essential properties that God has. But whether presented in either a negative or positive modality, our language for God does not capture what God is. God in his nature remains absolutely mysterious and incomprehensible. Our words point to God but do not define him. This linguistic incapacity issues from the infinitude of the divine nature:

For we believe that the divine nature is unlimited and incomprehensible, and hence we do not conceive of its being comprehended. But we declare that the nature is in every way to be thought of as infinite. What is altogether infinite is not limited in one respect and not in another, but infinity entirely transcends limitation. Therefore that which is without limit is certainly not limited by the word we use for it. In order, then, that our conception of the divine nature should remain unlimited, we say that the divine transcends every name for it. And one of these names is “Godhead.” The same thing, then, cannot on the one hand be identical with the name, and yet on the other be conceived as transcending every name. (p. 264)

It needs to be remembered that Gregory developed his understanding of the ousia of God and the nature of theological language principally in dispute with Eunomianism. Not only did Eunomius claim that we may know the essence of God, and thus can provide a definition for him (namely, God is ingenerate), but his position ultimately dissolved into the assertion of the exclusivity of essential knowledge. As Andrew Radde-Gallwitz phrases it, for Eunomius “God’s essence is all there is to know” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p. 108). In refutation Gregory avers that infinite being transcends all human conceptuality. God is incomprehensible because he is infinite, and he is infinite because he is the Creator who transcends everything he has made. Luca Francisco Mateo-Seco explains:

Divine infinity also marks the essential and unfathomable difference that exists between the uncreated Being and created being: God is incomprehensible to every created being, precisely because of his infinity. The difficulties in knowing Him are not born of the opposition between matter and spirit, but from the primordial difference that exists between the infinite and that which is finite, uncreated Being and created being. The universe reflects the perfections of the Creator, for example, his Wisdom. Being limited, however, it cannot manifest infinity in itself, i.e. it cannot manifest the divine nature. God is above all limits, every definition and every created word. (Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, p. 702).

The which knows no limits, that which has no boundaries, cannot be identified by the stipulation of boundaries; God is not a some-thing. The Gregorian theme of infinity has received a great deal of attention from patristic scholars, much of which is inaccessible to those who, like myself, are restricted to English. Some scholars have asserted that the notion of divine infinity is original to Gregory; others that he inherited the notion, perhaps from Philo or Plotinus, and made it distinctly his own. Anthony Meredith notes that in asserting that God “is the source of all and can be limited by none,” Gregory moves beyond Plato and Origen, both of whom judged “the absence of limit and form as a defect” and thus inappropriate for divinity (Gregory of Nyssa, p. 13). Infinity clarifies and grounds the assertion of divine incomprehensibility. How can we comprehend that which surpasses all creaturely categories and conceptuality? How can we define that which is boundless? “Infinite being,” elaborates Robert W. Jenson, “cannot be something other than its own infinity, for were it something, it would just thereby be marked off from other things and would have a boundary, a finis, which is what ‘infinite’ denies. Just this observation was the occasion of the Greeks’ aversion to infinity: an infinite something would have no spatial shape, no form, and so in their thinking would be nothing at all. ‘Infinite form’ is a Platonic or Aristotelian oxymoron; so also, therefore is ‘infinite deity'” (Systematic Theology, I:215).

St Gregory is emphatic that God is unknowable to creatures: “The divine nature, taken on its own, whatever it is in essence, transcends all comprehensive conceptualization” (Beat. 6). Yet as observed in previous articles in this series, it would be inaccurate to interpret Gregory in terms of a pure apophaticism, as we find, for example, in Clement of Alexandria or Pseudo-Dionysius.

(Go to: “The Impossibility of Comprehending the Incomprehensible God”)

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12 Responses to St Gregory Nyssen and the Infinity of God

  1. Matthew Livermore says:

    Reblogged this on Philosophy of Religion and TOK and commented:
    St. Gregory Nyssen on the divine nature, and perhaps relevant to the via negativa


  2. rp says:

    Doesn’t the word “infinity” also fail in the same way as all the others?


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I would probably classify it as a negative term, i.e., not finite. Does that sound right?


      • RP says:

        But you wrote: “But whether presented in either a negative or positive modality, our language for God does not capture what God is.” And also: “In refutation Gregory avers that infinite being transcends all human conceptuality.” Clearly it does not since infinite being is a human conception. If one says, “God transcends all human conceptuality” – nothing wrong with that. But apparently St. Gregory is claiming “infinite being” captures in some way God’s essence.


        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          RP, I don’t think that Gregory would agree that the negative term “infinite” captures the divine essence. Like Basil, Gregory rejects the attempt of Eunomius to define the divine essence by another negative term, viz., “unbegotten.” A negative term tells us what something is not; it does not tell us what it is.

          To say that the divine essence is infinite is simply to say that it has no limits, just as to say that the divine essence is simple is to say that it is incomposite. How then can something that is infinite and simple be defined?

          If Radde-Gallwitz is correct, Gregory wants us to believe that while we cannot have definitional knowledge of God, we can still know God in his essence through the divine goods (propria).

          I’m working on my next posting which will have a bit more to say about what Gregory might mean about comprehending and grasping the essence of something. Khaled Anatolios has some a very interesting view about this.


  3. Steve says:

    God can indeed be known (in His essence) but only in (literally) His uncreated energies. The ontological problem of the unbelieving protesting “Church” is complex but always rooted in a denial of the Incarnation.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree, Steve, if we translate energei as “activity” or “operation” and as referring to God’s actions toward and in his creation. I am restricting myself here, of course, to the views of St Gregory and St Basil.


  4. Mike says:

    “God is incomprehensible to every created being.”

    Was it impossible for the man Christ Jesus to understand his own divine nature?


  5. RP says:

    “I don’t think that Gregory would agree that the negative term “infinite” captures the divine essence.”
    I agree, he would not agree. My point is he does not subject “divine infinity” to his critique of “Godhead”, etc., leaving the impression he does agree; “divine infinity” is no more a privileged understanding than “Godhead” or any other word or phrase.

    For us infinity does not simply mean without limits but just as much that there is always more. For example, the blessed in Heaven (or the human mind of Christ) will understand God but never comprehend him: there will always be more to understand.

    But I think the reason “infinity” cannot be privileged over other terms (so that it is used to critique all other terms which give some understanding of God) is that we cannot comprehend infinity, having to settle for: not ending, not limited, more to come, etc.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I think I am beginning to understand what you are saying, RP. And I suspect Gregory would agree that “infinity” is not a privileged name for the divine essence. Perhaps my article needs to be corrected in some way.


  6. RP says:

    Your article is fine the way it is, Father. I just think we can’t read too much into what St. Gregory says with, “God is incomprehensible to every created being, precisely because of his infinity.”, because we can’t understand his infinity, either.


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