The greatest challenge for the preacher of the greater hope is to articulate a vision of Jesus as mediator of apokatastasis. It is insufficient for him or her to occasionally declare: “Oh, by the way, all will be well.” Our congregations need a compelling vision of God, Christ, and the Christian life to replace their apprehension of punitive deity and their works-righteousness understanding of discipleship. The need for such a vision obtains even if church discipline forbids the explicit preaching of universal salvation, perhaps only permitting the universalist hope of Hans Urs von Balthasar and Kallistos Ware. We may still proclaim the love of Christ in its radical unconditionality; we may still announce the Lord’s Paschal triumph over sin and death; we may still declare the consummation of God’s redemptive plans in such a way as to generate in the hearts of our people an indomitable hope in the good and loving God.
But where do we find this vision? In That All Shall Be Saved David Hart commends to us St Gregory of Nyssa. Over the course of seven pages he provides a magnificent, beautifully written statement of Gregory’s theology and anthropology (pp. 138-144; copied below). One might even call it a metanarrative of Christ. Attempting to summarize what Hart has written would only result in travesty. I lack the skill. These eloquent pages need to be slowly contemplated and inwardly digested. Some readers may be inspired to directly engage some of Gregory’s writings; others to read Hart’s rich discussion of Gregory in The Beauty of the Infinite. Ultimately, though, we must find our own words in which to proclaim the vision of apokatastasis, for it is through the prism of personhood that the gospel comes alive for others.
In recent years a handful (and it really is just a handful) of scholars have challenged the long-standing identification of Gregory as a universalist. I occasionally get emails asking my opinion. I am, of course, not a patristic scholar, nor do I have a command of Gregory’s theology. I have asked two Gregory experts, Fr John Behr and Dr Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, about this revisionist interpretation. They are not persuaded and, for what it is worth, neither am I. It seems more likely that the revisionist interpretation is driven by a desire to bring Gregory into conformity with infernalist orthodoxy. But let the scholarly chips fall where they may.
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So it goes. Even Homer nods. And Augustine, for all his brilliance, did quite a lot of nodding in his later years. Would that Christian tradition had—this is my incessant lament, my tireless refrain, my cri de cœur—heeded Gregory of Nyssa instead. So many unpleasant confusions might have been avoided, so many young minds might have been preserved against psychological abuse, so many Christian moral imaginations might have been spared such enormous corruptions. When Gregory looked at the eschatological language of the New Testament, what he believed he saw was … not some everlasting division between the two cities of the redeemed and the reprobate, but only a provisional division between two moments within the single economy of a universal salvation. What he found was … two distinct eschatological horizons, one wholly enclosed within the other. For him, the making and redemption of the world belong to that one great process by which God brings to pass the perfect creation that has resided from everlasting in the divine will, conceived and intended by him before all ages. All of created time is, he believed, nothing but the gradual unfolding, in time and by way of change, of God’s eternal and immutable design. For him, in fact, creation is twofold; there is a prior (which is to say, eternal) creative act that abides in God, as the end toward which all things are directed and for the sake of which all things have been brought about (described in Genesis 1:1-2:3); and there is a posterior creative act, which is the temporal exposition—cosmic and historical—of this divine model (whose initial phases are described in Genesis 2:4-25). From eternity, says Gregory, God has conceived of humanity under the form of an ideal “Human Being” (anthropos), at once humanity’s archetype and perfection, a creature shaped entirely after the divine likeness, neither male nor female, possessed of divine virtues: purity, love, impassibility, happiness, wisdom, freedom, and immortality. But this does not mean, as we might expect, simply that God first created the eternal ideal of the human, and only then fashioned individual human beings in imitation of this universal archetype. Rather, for Gregory, this primordial “ideal” Human Being comprises—indeed, is identical with—the entire pleroma of all human beings in every age, from first to last.
In his great treatise On the Making of Humanity, Gregory reads Genesis 1:26-7—the first account of the creation of the race, where humanity is described as being made “in God’s image”—as referring not to the making of Adam as such, but to the conception within the eternal divine counsels of this full community of all of humanity: the whole of the race, comprehended by God’s “foresight” as “in a single body,” which only in its totality truly reflects the divine likeness and the divine beauty. As for the two individuals Adam and Eve, whose making is described in the second creation narrative, they may have been superlatively endowed with the gifts of grace at their origin, but they were themselves still merely the first members of that concrete community that only as a whole can truly reflect the glory of its creator. For now, it is only in the purity of the divine wisdom that this human totality subsists “altogether” (athroos) in its own fullness. It will emerge into historical actuality, in the concrete fullness of its beauty, only at the end of a long temporal “unfolding” or “succession” (akolouthia). Only then, when time and times are done, will a truly redeemed humanity, one that has passed beyond all ages, be recapitulated in Christ. Only then also, in the ultimate solidarity of all humankind, will a being made in the image and likeness of God have truly been created: “Thus ‘Humanity according to the image’ came into being,” writes Gregory, “the entire nature [or race], the Godlike thing. And what thus came into being was, through omnipotent wisdom, not part of the whole, but the entire plenitude of the nature altogether.” It is precisely and solely this full community of persons throughout time that God has elected as his image, truth, glory, and delight. And God will bring this good creation he desires to pass in spite of sin, both within human history and yet over against it. He will never cease to bring the story he intends in creation to pass, despite our apostasy from that story. At the same time, however—so Gregory says in his treatise On Virginity—sin has inaugurated its own history, its own akolouthia of privation and violence, spreading throughout time from its own first seeds, striving against God’s love. And so, of course, throughout the course of human history, God’s original unfolding of creation must overcome the parasitic unfolding of evil. Even so, humanity, understood as the pleroma of God’s election, never ceases to possess that deathless beauty that humanity, understood as an historical community, has largely lost. God, reflecting eternally upon that beauty, draws all things on toward the glory he intends for them, although according to a mystery—a grace that does not predetermine the operations of a human freedom that, nevertheless, cannot ultimately elude it.
For Gregory, moreover, this human totality belongs to Christ from eternity, and can never be alienated from him. According to On the Making of Humanity, that eternal Human Being who lives in God’s counsels was from the first fashioned after the beauty of the Father’s eternal Logos, the eternal Son, and was made for no other end than to become the living body of Christ, who is its only head. It is thus very much the case that, for Gregory, the whole drama of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection was undertaken so that the eternal Son might reclaim those who are his own—which is to say, everyone. By himself entering into the plenitude of humanity as a single man among other men and women, and in thereby assuming humanity’s creaturely finitude and history as his own, Christ reoriented humanity again toward its true end; and, because the human totality is a living unity, the incarnation of the Logos is of effect for the whole. In a short commentary on the language of the eschatological “subordination” of the Son to the Father in the fifteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, Gregory even speaks of Christ as having assumed not just human nature in the abstract, but the whole pleroma, which means that his glory has entered into all that is human. Nor could it be otherwise. Such is the indivisible solidarity of humanity, he argues, that the entire body must ultimately be in unity with its head, whether that be the first or the last Adam. Hence Christ’s obedience to the Father even unto death will be made complete only eschatologically, when the whole race, gathered together in him, will be yielded up as one body to the Father, in the Son’s gift of subjection, and God will be all in all. At Easter, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated an akolouthia of resurrection, so to speak, in the one body of the race, an unfolding that cannot now cease (given the unity of human nature) until the last residue of sin—the last shadow of death—has vanished. Gregory finds this confirmed also, according to one of his early treatises (a “Refutation” of the teachings of the theologian Eunomius), in John 20:17: When Christ, says Gregory, goes to his God and Father, to the God and Father of his disciples, he presents all of humanity to God in himself. In his On the Soul and Resurrection, moreover, Gregory reports the teaching of his sister Makrina that, when this is accomplished, all divisions will at last fall away, and there will no longer be any separation between those who dwell within the Temple precincts and those who have been kept outside, for every barrier of sin separating human beings from the mysteries within the veil of the sanctuary will have been torn down; and then there will be a universal feast around God in which no rational creature will be deprived of full participation, and all those who were once excluded on account of sin will enter into the company of the blessed. We see here the exquisite symmetry in Gregory’s reading of scripture’s narrative of creation and redemption, and in his understanding of eternity’s perfect embrace of history: just as the true first creation of humanity (Genesis 1:26-27) was the eternal conception in the divine counsels of the whole race united to him while the second (Genesis 2:7) was the inauguration of a history wholly dependent upon that eternal decree, so the culmination of history (1 Corinthians 15:23) will at the last be, as it were, succeeded by and taken up into this original eternity in its eschatological realization (1 Corinthians 15:24), and the will of God will be perfectly accomplished in the everlasting body of Christ.
For Gregory, then, there can be no true human unity, nor even any perfect unity between God and humanity, except in terms of the concrete solidarity of all persons in that complete community that is, alone, the true image of God. God shall be all in all, argues Gregory in a treatise on infants who die prematurely, not simply by comprising humanity in himself in the abstract, as the universal ideal that he redeems in a few select souls, but by joining each particular person, each unique inflection of the pleroma‘s beauty, to himself. Even so, Christ’s assumption and final recapitulation of the human cannot simply be imposed upon the race as a whole, but must effect the conversion of each soul within itself, so that room is truly made for God “in all”; salvation by union with Christ must unfold within human freedom, and so within our capacity to venture away. For Gregory, of course, good classical Christian metaphysician that he was, evil and sin are always accidental conditions of human nature, never intrinsic qualities; all evil is a privation of an original goodness, and so the sinfulness that separates rational creatures from God is only a disease corrupting and disabling the will, robbing it of its true rational freedom, and thus is a disorder that must ultimately be purged from human nature in its entirety, even if needs be by hell. As Gregory argues in On the Making of Humanity, evil is inherently finite—in fact, in a sense, is pure finitude, pure limit—and so builds only toward an ending; evil is a tale that can have only an immanent conclusion; and, in the light of God’s infinity, its proper end will be shown to be nothing but its own disappearance. Once it has been exhausted, when every shadow of wickedness—all chaos, duplicity, and violence—has been outstripped by the infinity of God’s splendor, beauty, radiance, and delight, God’s glory will shine in each creature like the sun in an immaculate mirror, and each soul born into the freedom of God’s image—will turn of its own nature toward divine love. There is no other place, no other liberty; at the last, to the inevitable God humanity is bound by its freedom. And each person, as God elects him or her from before the ages, is indispensable, for the humanity God eternally wills could never come to fruition in the absence of any member of that body, any facet of that beauty. Apart from the one who is lost, humanity as God wills it could never be complete, nor even exist as the creature fashioned after the divine image; the loss of even one would leave the body of the Logos incomplete, and God’s purpose in creation unaccomplished.
(Go to “Will You Weep for the Damned?“)