Division of Being in St Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Contra Eunomium’

by Robert F. Fortuin

The ultimate division of all that exists is made by the line between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated,’ the one being regarded as a cause of what has come into being, the other as coming into being thereby. Now the created nature and the Divine essence being thus divided, and admitting no intermixture in respect of their distinguishing properties, we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms, nor seek in the idea of their nature for the same distinguishing marks in things that are thus separated.1


The collection of writings known to us as Contra Eunomium (hereafter CE) is Gregory of Nyssa’s response to the teachings of Eunomius bishop of Cyzicus, whose extreme Arian convictions rejected the divinity of Christ as well as that of the Holy Spirit. The justifica­tion for Eunomius’ Anomoean position, in Gregoxry’s words, is the absolute unity of the Godhead which cannot allow for multiplicity of being, essence (ουσία), nor persons. Eunomius under­stands the generation of the Son by the Father as an erroneous division of the divine nature, thereby resulting in a multiplicity of the Godhead. Generation and begetting for him is construed as a creative act of the divine will. The Cappadocian father, in turn, rejects the charge of polytheism by way of explicating that multiplicity of persons does not denote multiplicity of the divine ουσία—he insists on making a distinction between ουσία and personal subsistence, ύποστάσισ. For Gregory the divine nature is shared in common by the three persons—God is one in ουσία, but subsists in three persons. The Paternal begetting then does not constitute a creative act. Germane to the subject of this essay is that during the course of the drawn-out and at times repetitive response to the Anomoean teachings of Eunomius, Gregory of Nyssa develops a fundamental, two-fold ontological division between created and uncreated existence ‘διαίρεσις είς τό κτιστόν καί άκτιστον’. This binary ‘division of being’ is absolute, not permitting a half-way or mixture of any sort, for each is essentially a different nature of existence. The purpose of this essay is to present a brief survey of the ‘division of being’ in CE and to establish that 1.) for Gregory there exists a primary onto­logical ‘division of being’ which spans an infinite interval of dissimilarity; all other bifur­cations fall under the primary division, and 2.) the division of being is central to Gregory’s argument for the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit, and 3.) the primary bifurcation is an absolute ontological divide between uncreated and created existence, and 4.) it is precisely this ultimate division of being which constitutes for Gregory the possibility for, and guarantee of, true divine revelation within creation. Gregory’s radical ontology of being was not only an effective argument against Arianism, but serves us now also as a necessary metaphysical foundation to ground contemporary debates about the doctrine of God and the God-world relationship.

The Ultimate Division of All Existing Things

Upon an examination of Nyssa’s understanding of being, the ontology of all that exists, a reading of CE exposes a startling contradiction—the Cappadocian father refers not to one άνωτάτω διαίρεσις , but two ultimate divisions of being. In Book I, Gregory speaks of a division of being, which at first reading appears to be without question his governing trope. He unequivocally affirms that the ‘ultimate division of all being is into the Intelligible and the Sensible.’2 This division is construed to be between that which is unseen (the intelligible, νοητόν ‘noetic’ world of divinity, the immaterial and the mind) and that which can be seen and apprehended by the physical senses, the ‘esthetic’ world, αίσθητόν. Gregory explains, ‘in the division of all existing things, then, we find these distinctions. There is, as appealing to our perceptions, the Sensible world: and there is, beyond this, the world which the mind, led on by objects of sense, can view: I mean the Intelligible,’ and he then further explains his vision of an additional division nestled within the Intelligible, ‘…and in this [the Intelligible existence] we detect again a further distinction into the Created and the Uncreate: to the latter of which we have defined the Holy Trinity to belong, to the former all that can exist or can be thought of after that.’3 Here then he lays out what seems to be for him the primary division all that exists, namely the division of the Intelligible and the Sensible worlds. In addition, below the Intelligible world he ranks another, apparently secondary, division—that of the uncreated and the created. However, and here the puzzling contradiction comes into play, in Book VIII, in an apparent retraction he declares that the ‘ultimate division of all that exists is made by the line between ‘created’ and ‘uncreated,’ the one being regarded as a cause of what has come into being, the other as coming into being thereby.’ We are con­fronted here with a contradiction in Gregory’s ontology in which he declares not one, but two divisions to be ultimate! How then are we to understand Nyssa’s ruling ontology, what is the true governing trope? I believe that a consideration of the rhetorical contexts in which both divisions are situated bears out that the διαίρεσις είς τό κτιστόν καί άκτιστον, the uncreated/​created division (hereafter UCD) is Gregory’s governing trope, and a further ‘hierarchy of ontology’ can be observed in which the intelligible/sensible division (hereafter ISD), as well as any other division considered, fall below UCD in importance and meaning.

The incarnation of Christ, the understanding of which plays a pivotal role in the argument between Gregory and Eunomius, functions as a transgres­sion of ISD which cannot be accounted for on its own terms. It is in the incarnation that Gregory claims in which the uncreated nature takes on created nature, or if were to put it in the terms of ISD, the Intelli­gi­ble becomes Sensible. ISD then breaks down on the terms of the ontological argument formulated by Nyssa: pace Eunomius it is the Only-begotten God, the eternal Logos consubstantial in ουσία with the Father and the Holy Spirit, who takes on human nature. Which is to say—the ISD division has no purchase in Nyssa’s argument against Anomoe­an­ism—the long established Platonic division of νοητόν vs. αίσθητόν could not account for the incarnation and consequently a more radical division had to be construed, a division along the lines of being instead of mere noetic intelligi­bil­ity, of forms and perception. It is significant to note that ISD only appears early in CE, before Gregory has detailed the implications of the ‘enfleshed’ uncreated nature of the pre-temporal Logos in Jesus of Nazareth. Only at this early juncture of his treatise does Gregory insist that

… the ultimate division of all being is into the Intelligible and the Sensible. The Sensible world is called by the Apostle broadly ‘that which is seen.’ For as all body has colour, and the sight apprehends this, he calls this world by the rough and ready name of ‘that which is seen,’… The common term, again, for all the intellectual world, is with the Apostle ‘that which is not seen:’ by withdrawing all idea of comprehension by the senses he leads the mind on to the immaterial and intellectual.4

Alongside the handful of references to ISD, featured only in early chapters of Book I, no further mention of ISD in all of CE occurs. After establishing the incarnation along orthodox lines, Gregory then no longer refers to the ultimate division of being as ISD, but strictly identifies UCD as the ultimate ontological distinction of all that exists. The argument is formulated such that in the incarnation the unity of person does not violate the division of being: for Gregory, as it is for the pro-Nicene party, in the incarnate Christ essential integrity endures in the en-hypostatized union of the two distinct natures: the divine uncreated nature and the human nature are united without confusion or mixture. The implications for Gregory was that he could no longer fall back on the Platonic division of ISD to counter Anomoeanism—Gregory on several occasions makes it clear that both the created and uncreated nature belong to the Intelligible, indicating ISD was incapable to establish divinity of the Son.5 In the tussle with Arianism this meant that it was within the terms of ISD (for Eunomius) to claim that Christ was a creature, and thus essentially unlike the Father, while yet belonging to the Intelligible world. Gregory then had to employ a more fundamental distinction along ontological lines—the absolute, binary distinction between the uncreated and created nature. He could then maintain that the Only-begotten and the Holy Spirit shared the same self-existent, uncreated ουσία as of the Father, in contrast to all other existence which is created, derivative, acquired by participation. Gregory summarizes: ‘The whole controversy, then, between the Church and the Anomoeans turns on this: Are we to regard the Son and the Holy Spirit as belonging to the created or the uncreated existence?’6 The primary ontological ‘division of being’ for Nyssa then is that between the ‘uncreate’ self-existence and all other existence which is, in stark contrast, dependent on its existence on the uncreated Creator. The ontological gulf spans an infinite interval of dissimilarity; all other bifurcations fall under this primary division.

Division of Being: God and Creation

Having identified the ultimate division to be along the lines of uncreated/created being it is now necessary to take a closer look at how Gregory utilizes UCD, why it is the division of ontology is indispensable to his argument against Eunomius. As noted, the overriding concern in CE is to effectively demonstrate the divinity of Christ without compromising the humanity in the incarnation—to do so Gregory must formulate two metaphysical concepts simultaneously to avoid the construal of a multiplicity of gods on the one hand, and identifying creation with the Godhead on the other. He must allow for multiplicity within divinity whilst demonstrating radical dissimilarity of divinity from all other, that is to say non-divine, existence. Demonstrating Christ’s divinity, to put it in modern day language, he is to avoid polytheism, maintaining Christ’s humanity he is to avoid pantheism. Unity on the basis of being is how Gregory includes multiple subjects without division within the Godhead: ‘… we must not divide our faith amongst a plurality of beings, but must recognize no difference of being in three Subjects or Persons, whereas our opponents posit a variety and unlikeness amongst them as Beings.’7 Elsewhere he states, ‘divided as Persons, though united in their being.’8 It is then on the level of being, of ουσία, that unity is established by Gregory, pace Eunomius, and thereby he is able to avoid the charge of polytheism whilst insisting on the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are three subjects, but not three gods. God is one, as there is ‘no difference of being,’ whereas there is a difference according to προσώποις καί ύποστάσεσι. The three Subjects then have in common the one being—the question arises as to the nature of what is in common—does multiplicity not introduce pantheism, blurring the identity of existence, all existence? Not for Nyssa, for according to him the divine nature is radically dissimilar from all other being, ‘wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything at all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there.’9 He introduces the unique divine attribute (held in common by the three divine persons) which sets it apart from all non-divine existence, ‘we regard it as consummately perfect and incomprehensibly excellent yet as containing clear distinctions within itself which reside in the peculiarities of each of the Persons: as possessing invariableness by virtue of its common attribute of uncreatedness, but differentiated by the unique character of each Person.’10 The divine nature is άκτιστον, uncreated. By raising an absolute διαίρεσις between the uncreated and created nature, the division of being UCD, he prevents pantheism: identities of each existence remain unmixed, separated one from the other according to its unique and distinct nature.

The division of being construed by Gregory is so fundamental and of such importance that to alter its meaning would be set to aside the very Gospel: ‘our conception of existences is divided into two, the creation and the uncreated Nature, if … we should say that the Son of God is created, we should be absolutely compelled either to set at naught the proclamation of the Gospel, and to refuse to worship that God the Word Who was in the beginning.’ Following this error of thought, if one were to worship the Son, then one puts ‘… the created and the Uncreated on the same level of honour; seeing that if, according to our adversaries’ opinion, even the created God is worshipped, though having in His nature no prerogative above the rest of the creation, and if this view should get the upper hand, the doctrines of religion will be entirely transformed to a kind of anarchy and democratic independence.’11 The stakes then are extremely high, and he returns to it time and again in his argument; in no uncertain terms the division of being must be upheld and each nature remain distinct and separate, the creator from that which is created: ‘now to create and to be created are not equivalent, but all existent things being divided into that which makes and that which is made, each is different in nature from the other, so that neither is that uncreated which is made, nor is that created which effects the production of the things that are made.’12 The division of being is fundamental to Gregory’s argument and serves a dual purpose: the ontological identity of divinity is juxtaposed to created existence and thus allows him to make an absolute distinction between God and creation, whilst establishing the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Absolute Ontological Divide

The division of being for Gregory functions as a binary under which all other divisions are placed, which is to say that there is only one division which governs all other divisions. This could be represented as follows:

Uncreated     ≠    Created

Intelligible    ≠    Intelligible/Sensible
Infinite          ≠    Finite
Necessary     ≠    Contingent

Ranking order of the subordinate divisions is not of importance to Gregory. They are used inter­change­ably with no particular hierarchy, with the only exception that UCD is presented as the governing trope from which all other tropes derive their meaning in relation to it. I have used the not equals symbol ≠ to indicate that the binary division rep­resents acute difference (‘otherness’ if you will) to the point of signifying mutual exclusive opposition one in contrast to the other. Each side of the divi­sion is said to be unlike, dissimilar to, the other, so that the division serves as what Nyssa calls an ύπεναντίος13, or opposition, representing a logical and absolute contrary. For Gregory there can be no middle ground, each side of the division constitutes an undeniable contradiction of its opposite, for ‘the difference between contradictories is not one of greater or less intensity, but rests its opposition upon their being mutually exclusive in their signification: as, for example, we say that a man is asleep or not asleep, sitting or not sitting, that he was or was not, and all the rest after the same model, where the denial of one is the assertion of its contradictory.’14 In this framework of opposition then Gregory affirms that the uncreated is said to be self-existent (‘owning the same cause of His being’ as he puts it), without beginning or cause—the uncreated does not become, but simply ‘is’—and there was never a time when the uncreated was not. The created, however, for the reason of being created, cannot be self-existent (for if it were, it would be uncreated), has a cause for its existence, with a beginning in time (‘a time when it was not’), and is always in a state of becoming. The antithesis serves as a demarcation of setting apart the divine uncreated nature from created nature, so that it is said the two contrasting sides have, at least as far as their essential natures are concerned, nothing in common. Gregory utilizes this radical disjunction in his argument to demonstrate the divinity of the Holy Spirit. He posits that ‘… as the creation was effected by the Only-begotten, in order to secure that the Spirit should not be considered to have something in common with this creation because of His having been manifested by means of the Son, He is distinguished from it by His unchangeableness, and independence of all external goodness. The creation does not possess in its nature this unchangeableness.’15 So we see then that the idea of opposition and antithesis is key to understanding Nyssa’s division of being and its role in his argument for the divinity of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

As if anticipating criticism for posing an ontology of opposition, Gregory leans on the prophets and apostles to support his position,

And let no one think it unreasonable that the creature should be set in opposition to God, but have regard to the prophets and to the Apostles. For the prophet says in the person of the Father, ‘My Hand made all these things’, meaning by ‘Hand,’ in his dark saying, the power of the Only-begotten. Now the Apostle says that all things are of the Father, and that all things are by the Son, and the prophetic spirit in a way agrees with the Apostolic teaching…so that we are hereby taught the difference of nature between the created and the uncreated, and it is shown that, in its own nature, that which makes is one thing and that which is produced is another.16

Below it is noted that the ontology of an absolute division of opposites poses some difficulties for Gregory, but here a brief summary of the main aspects of the uncreated and create being is in order. The unique, uncreated nature of God, Gregory notes the main dimensions or attributes which belong to God exclusively and in contrast to created being: divine immutability, infinity, simplicity, perfection and aseity. Uncreated nature ‘does not possess the good by acquisition, or participate only in the goodness of some good which lies above it: in its own essence it is good, and is conceived as such: it is a source of good, it is simple, uniform, incomposite …’17 Divine immutability signifies God is unchanging as meaning that He ‘always is identical with himself,’18 for the divine nature does not degenerate, neither becomes nor is altered in any way. This also means for Gregory that there is no ‘reckoning of time’, that there is no prior, during or after—immutability then means a timelessness, or perhaps more accurately, that all is instant and simultaneous to God, there is no succession of events or passing of time. As he puts it, ‘…within that transcendent and blessed Power all things are equally present as in an instant: past and future are within its all-encircling grasp and its comprehensive view.’19 Closely related for Gregory is the absence of a beginning and end for God, and this signifies the infinity of God’s existence: God always exists, there was never a time when God was not, ‘He is always to be apprehended as in existence; He admits not a time when He was not, and when He will not be.’20 Gregory calls infinity ‘divine illimitation’ marking the absolute absence of limitation whatsoever for the uncreated nature. But infinity not only speaks to the absence of time, but also to the absence of dimension in space: there is no spatial extension to God and this points to simplicity—the divine nature is not composed of parts. This simplicity signifies the incomposition of the divine nature: God is one and simple for if God were composite this would denote a limit—a beginning and end of a particular attribute of the divine nature. But for Gregory, God’s being, his existence, will or power, does not have limits of any kind whatsoever. God is therefore ‘unlimited in goodness.’ What this means is that for God attributes are not possessed, as one who participates in, shares partially in, something or someone else. For God, unlike created existence, attributes are identical to His being: God is what He has or what He does. Thus Gregory can assert that ‘God is truth’ or ‘God is love.’

God then does not change, exists infinitely without beginning or end, and is simple without composition. Quite naturally for Gregory divine perfection is another aspect of uncreated, divine being: God was, is and will be always be perfect, without necessity of anything or anyone whatsoever. Perfection denotes then an absence of ‘increase and loss,’ for nothing could be added to make the divine nature perfect. Gregory grounds perfection then in immutability, for God neither becomes, nor comes into being: He is always perfect and without need nor dependency on anything outside himself. This for Gregory then also points to divine aseity: the divine nature is self-existent, complete without dependency on something outside itself, nor contingent in any way. For uncreated existence then there is nothing that is greater than, or prior to, itself.

Divine self-existence Gregory calls the ‘only true existence’—all other existence, created existence, in contrast, is contingent, subject to and participating in something greater and prior to itself. Gregory’s understanding of created being in CE can be summarized as follows: it is wholly contingent and derivative—it comes into being out of nothingness by the command, or Logos, of God by whose will and goodness it derives its existence and its ultimate fulfillment. Likewise it will, or at least can, return to the state of nothingness or non-existence. Created existence comes into being, there was a time when it was not, and as such it is mutable, subject to change, time, and limitation. Mutability also signifies a degenerative degeneration according to Gregory, and this means that it possesses itself partially, in degrees—it merely participates by a smaller or greater measure in the Good, in Truth, in Love, etc.; change then is a movement towards or away from its Cause. Gregory explains that created existence, because it has its origin from God, is drawn to God who is the Good and its Cause. Quite interestingly there exists a ‘natural’ attraction to God, a quest which like its Cause is in some way infinite in that it is a ceaseless movement towards the divine, never ‘overtaking its Object’ but always, infinitely moving towards it. The creature then is never able to reach its Good, although it does paradoxically attain it truly and in measure, for its goal is always infinitely beyond its reach.21 In every consideration then created being is the ‘contrary opposition’, ύπεναντίος, of the uncreated. Whereas the uncreated is perfect, simple and infinite, having no spatial or temporal extensions limits, nor ‘inactualized’ power, the created is defined by limitation of place, time, unrealized potential, fragmentation and composition. For Gregory this is then the fundamental reality of all that exists, the fabric of the cosmos (and beyond), the metaphysical conceptualization of which he returns to time and again.

Creation.jpg~original.jpegThe absolute division of being raises an important question—in what way can theology proceed, speak about God, given the infinite interval of dissimilarity? Can words and concepts, grounded as they are in created existence bound by finitude, accurately signify divinity which knows no limits? Is it possible for the finite to signify the uncreated at all? Gregory recognizes this problematic and addresses it in several passages. At one point he posits an apophatic epistemological abyss which does not allow for univocal signification of ‘those matters which transcend language’ whatsoever: ‘wide, indeed, is the interval in all else that divides the human from the divine; experience cannot point here below to anything all resembling in amount what we may guess at and imagine there.’22 Elsewhere he faults his interlocutor for speaking univocally about ‘generation’ and points to it as the source of Eunomius error, for he ‘has in view this material generation of ours, and is making the lower nature the teacher of his conceptions concerning the Only-begotten God …’ The generation as applied to uncreated nature is fundamentally dissimilar to created generation. Gregory concludes that concerning created an uncreated existence, ‘we must by no means conceive both by means of similar terms.’23 One can however theologize, following Nyssa, but to do so is not possible by univocal/equivocal means. Rather it is by way of analogy and the admission of the symbolic quality of our concepts—although words can signify the uncreated in truth, words always remains ineffably dissimilar and beyond the bounds of our complete comprehension. So it is that utilization of anthropomorphic language is appropriate for ‘… it describes by terms well worn in human use, facts that are beyond every name, while by each of the terms employed concerning God we are led analogically to some more exalted conception.’24 To sum up then, the primary bifurcation of all ‘that is’ is according to the Cappadocian father an absolute and fundamental ontological divide between uncreated and created existence. This divide is indeed infinite, yet theology is possible by way of analogy and recognition of the limitations inherent in creaturely finitude.

Division as Sublimation

There is another, quite profound, function of Gregory’s formulation of UCD beyond division and opposition. That is to say that the division of being signifies for him not merely a fundamental opposition of absolute ύπεναντίος, but it also constitutes, as if it were counter-intuitively, a relation between the opposites, an interrelation grounded in ontology. Created existence, for Gregory, is always a work of, by, and for God—as such there is a sense in which the opposites of the division are inseparably related. On the one hand we see the infinite interval of difference, while on the other we see divine causation, sustenance, and presence in creation. The tension between the difference and relation is demonstrated by means of Gregory’s formulation of so-called absolute and relative names of God. The absolute names, such as ‘immortality’, ‘infinity’, ‘simplicity’, denote divine aseity (the name containing ‘in itself a complete thought about the Deity’25); the relative names signify God in relation, such as ‘savior’, ‘healer’, ‘conqueror’, etc. He also supposes names which signify both difference and relation at the same time, such as ‘God’ and ‘good’. The significance of this lies far beyond an abstract theory of the meaning and signification of words—for Nyssa the very possibility of salvation of creation is at stake. It is the absolute difference, the ontological opposition which makes God ‘God’ and not a being among beings, which constitutes the possibility and guarantee of salvation. Only the Creator who by nature, ουσία, is life and not merely participates by degree in that life, who is able to accomplish creaturely salvation. As Gregory explains it, the preternal Logos in the incarnation took ‘… to Himself humanity in completeness, and that He mingled His life-giving power with our mortal and perishable nature, and changed, by the combination with Himself, our deadness to living grace and power. And this we declare to be the mystery of the Lord according to the flesh, that He Who is immutable came to be in that which is mutable, to the end that altering it for the better, and changing it from the worse.’26

The ontological division is always already for Gregory a sublimation of transcendence, a relation of absolute difference and ‘otherness’ to the ύπεναντίος of creation. It is UCD that secures the very possibility for immanence, the revelation of God in creation. When, and only when, contrary to Eunomius, the infinite interval of dissimilarity is maintained in the division between the uncreated and created, can the presence of the divine be a reality. Few indeed would dispute that Gregory’s radical ‘ontology of being’ as presented in Contra Eunomium was an effective argument against Arianism to establish the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. His vision of an absolute division, and relation, of ‘all that exists’, however, has a use beyond the fourth century Christological debates—contemporary debates about the doctrine of God, and theologies concerning God-world relationship would be served well by paying close attention to Gregory of Nyssa’s metaphysics.



[1] Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium (hereafter CE) VIII (NPNF V, 208). Note: all references to works of Gregory in this essay are from NPNF (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Volume V. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1880ff.)
[2] CE. p. 60
[3] CE, p. 62-63
[4] CE, p. 60
[5] That ISD is defunct can be observed during the late stages of his argument against Eunomius, in Book XI, in which Gregory quotes Eunomius and demonstrates the central disagreement is over ontology of being and has formulated his rhetoric accordingly. The passage starts with a quote from Eunomius: ‘‘We affirm that the Son is not only existent, and above all existent things, but we also call Him Lord and God, the Maker of every being, sensible and intelligible.’’ Gregory then follows, ‘What does he suppose this ‘being’ to be—created or uncreated? For if he confesses Jesus to be Lord, God, and Maker of all intelligible being, it necessarily follows, if he says it is uncreated, that he speaks falsely, ascribing to the Son the making of the uncreated Nature. But if he believes it to be created, he makes Him His own Maker.’ CE, p. 237
[6] CE, p. 56
[7] CE, p. 57
[8] CE, p. 74
[9] CE, p. 93
[10] CE, p. 61, italics added for emphasis.
[11] CE, p. 172
[12] CE, p. 116
[13] Ύπεναντίος denotes a very strong sense of opposition, and can be used to signify ‘hostile adversary’. See Walter Bauer, A Greek –English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1979), p 838.
[14] CE, p. 248, see also p. 98-101.
[15] CE, p.61, italics added for emphasis.
[16] CE, p.194, italics added for emphasis. It is of interest to note that for Eunomius (as his position is related to us by Gregory) opposition plays a pivotal role in his ontology as well. The key difference is however that for Eunomius opposition of nature is placed within the Godhead, an opposition Eunomius bases not on the particular characteristics of each Person, e.g. the Father is unlike the Son and the Holy Spirit based on personal differences, but in respect of a difference of nature by reason of ‘generate’ and ‘ungenerate’. Eunomius claims the Son is of a created nature in contrast as that of the divinity of the Father by reason of the Son’s is generated whereas the Father is ‘ungenerated’. Gregory returns to this argument re: άγγεννετος repeatedly and thus the issue of division of being, and where to place it, looms large in CE. See page 143 for an example of this argument.
[17] CE, p. 60. Elsewhere he states ‘For It does not perceive any other good outside of Itself, by participation in which It could acquire any accession, but is always immutable, neither casting away what It has, nor acquiring what It has not: for none of Its properties are such as to be cast away.’ P. 103.
[18] See CE, p. 90. ‘but that which the God now existing is He always is….He is always identical with Himself,’ and ‘we must remember God is not a compound; whatever He is is the whole of Him’.
[19] CE, p. 70
[20] The scope of this essay does not permit to go into further detail. This quote is taken from a fascinating passage on the eternity of God, see p. 98ff. Gregory uses the notion of timelessness to argue for the divinity of Christ, frequently alluding to the opening verses of the Gospel John.
[21] CE, p. 62. Gregory construes a fascinating understanding of the capacity of created nature to receive the infinity: ‘The First Good is in its nature infinite, and so it follows of necessity that the participation in the enjoyment of it will be infinite also, for more will be always being grasped, and yet something beyond that which has been grasped will always be discovered, and this search will never overtake its Object, because its fund is as inexhaustible as the growth of that which participates in it is ceaseless.’
[22] CE, p 93ff
[23] CE, p. 206-210
[24] CE, p. 2044. For an extended treatment on this issue, see CE Books VIII and IX.
[25] CE, p. 88
[26] CE, p. 179

(11 July 2016)

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Robert F. Fortuin is Adjunct Professor of Orthodox Theology at St Katherine’s College in San Diego, California. 

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15 Responses to Division of Being in St Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘Contra Eunomium’

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Rudimentary, but not an insignificant theological clarification and development that came out of the 4th century controversies. To be sure Gregory was not the first to note the ‘division of being’ (Clement, Origen some notable forerunners) but with him it is further codified as indispensable cornerstone of patristic theology. Gregory brought its significance to bear particularly as it relates to christology and, by extension, pneumatology – in this Gregory of Nyssa is a dominant figure in late 4th century thought.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Robert, do I read you rightly that Gregory categories the uncreated as intelligible?


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        Diving into the deeps of Gregorian epistemology and language theory, why don’t we!

        I would say so, yes – for Gregory the uncreated is intelligible par excellence: supremely and infinitely so as the ground and source of all that is intelligible. But your question perhaps has a twofold dimension: is the uncreated intelligible in and to itself ad intra; and secondarily, is it intelligible ad extra, to that which is not uncreated? The first I think I have answered somewhat and is certainly less difficult to answer. As to the second – this requires more nuance. Intelligible ad extra: yes – characterized by Gregory as the innate human capability to intellect God as that of a mirror reflecting an original likeness. But it remains always just that: a reflection and not the original itself. So then intelligibility comes with certain important provisos – the limitation of discursive thought bound as it is by the diastemic; the infinite remove bridging the modal disjunction between the Uncreated and the created, bridged by way of analogy which always has to reach for yet more words, more thought, always short of a final last word (which is not nearly as negative as it sounds, it is an upward transformative, epekstatic journey); and intelligibility for Gregory is also restricted as to the “what” God is, in contrast to the (more) accessible and thus intelligible divine activities (energies, operations). Of this last, I do not see a strong distinction in the Nyssen between essence/energy, at least not as some do – (nearly) reifying a distinction in God, or at any rate see a full-blown Palamite theology in Gregory of Nyssa. He does affirm that words do not signify the divine nature (but rather are “explanatory of our conception of the divine nature”) but in my reading of Gregory this is a denial of a direct and univocal knowledge of the “what” God’s nature may be – not a denial per se of intelligibility of God’s nature. It must be kept in mind that intelligibility for Gregory is always analogical in nature – analogical regardless the objects of our thought, be they operations or natures. The univocal, cataphatic silence surrounding God’s “what” does not leave us bereft of knowing God’s nature, God’s moral character; the personal revelation of God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is a revelation of the “inner workings” of God – we get to peek behind the curtain. And so Gregory has much to say about the divine nature – that it is “unlimited in goodness”, “all His attributes always,” beautiful, without degrees, one, formless, “incapable of degeneration”, adiastematic, without potential or as Gregory puts it “always identical with himself”, without measure, true, and so forth and so on.


  2. Robert Fortuin says:

    I would add that ad intra divine intelligibility is a deeply trinitarian affair – which amounted to a huge shift in the metaphysics of late antiquity. Perhaps we can say that trinitarian theology ‘freed’ divine intelligibility from its insular confines provide it by middle and neo-platonism.


  3. Bob Sacamano says:

    I find the uncreated/created distinction very helpful in guiding my understanding of who God is and how we are different from him (thereby avoiding atheist/fundamentalist anthropomorphic pitfalls), but the Incarnation throws me for a loop.

    Am I correct to say there is a school of thought wherein God transcends even the uncreated/created distinction (I want to say this was proposed by Jordan Daniel Wood in a prior contribution to this blog, If I understood him correctly)? Is Christ both uncreated and created, without contradiction, in that he is uncreated with respect to his divine nature, and created with respect to his human nature? Or is it more proper to say he is Uncreated, full stop, and merely assumes a created nature in time for salvific purposes?


    • Robert Fortuin says:

      That is a good question Bob. The Chalcedonian conciliar definition, the so-called hypostatic union, speaks to your question, in brief, “one and the same son, perfect in Godhead and perfect in humanity, truly God and truly human… acknowledged in two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference between the natures is in no way removed because of the union, but rather the peculiar property of each nature is preserved, and both combine in one person and in one hypostasis.” The divine person, second person of the Trinity, whose nature is uncreated, ‘takes on’ created human nature personally/hypostatically (hence: hypostatic union.). So to answer your question directly, the incarnate Christ is indeed both uncreated and created as far as his natures. As far as you last question, it is worthwhile to read Fr John Behr on this – he makes a good point about there not being a time ‘before’ the incarnation.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I also struggle with the uncreated/created distinction most in the context of Christology. However, in my case it is not only with regard to the question whether in Christ (as both uncreated and created) God transcends this distinction, but also with regard to the question how Christ’s Person relates to human persons, and especially in the context of a theology, like Bulgakov’s, that recognises the distinction between soul and spirit.

        In some places, Bulgakov seems to say that the human hypostatic spirit is simply uncreated; whereas in others he qualifies this by speaking of the human spirit as both uncreated and created. However, as far as I can tell, he nowhere makes the logically plausible (thought presumably heterodox) suggestion that human beings only possess a hypostatic spirit (whether by participation or else identity) in relation to Christ. In other words, he seems to think that each human being possesses (or perhaps better put, is), in some sense independently of the Incarnation, an individual uncreated/created spirit, distinct both from other human persons and the Person of Christ. Taken together with his claim that “Christ assumed the entire human nature without any limitation” and that “in assuming the human nature, Christ also assumed all of cosmic being, insofar as man is the microcosm”, this seems to leave the nature and status of the individual human spirit ambiguous in two main ways. Firstly, it seems unclear whether this individual uncreated/created is also fallen, of if this pertains only to the human nature. Secondly, on the assumption that the human spirit too is fallen (which I assume, perhaps wrongly, to be Bulgakov’s view), it seems unclear if, and how, the individual human spirit is also assumed by the Incarnate Logos. The latter ambiguity suggests two further questions. Firstly, if the human spirit is fallen, but is not assumed, how can it be saved? And if it is assumed, and thus saved, how can it remain a fully individual I? For me, this latter question is connected to the fact that Bulgakov seems to implicitly distinguish between a sort of individuation found also in non-human animals (which, according to him lack a hypostatic spirit) and the full I-hood of human beings. From this perspective, human beings seem to share both in the individuation proper to animals (each human being as a soul-body unity being an individuation of the universal human nature) and, as a hypostatic I to be more than just a particular instance of some generic I-ness.

        I apologise for leading the discussion away from St. Gregory of Nyssa, since some of these ideas and distinctions may be irreconcilable with his theology. I bring up Bulgakov simply because he is the only theologian I’ve read who seems to recognise the distinctions that make it possible to formulate these questions, which have troubled me for a long time.


        • Robert Fortuin says:


          It is of interest to note that Gregory used the distinction between the uncreated and the created to establish the divinity of Christ in his response to Eunomius. He does so repeatedly, comes back to it time and again: Christ is not a creature for his nature is uncreated and is therefore God just as is the Father. I don’t recall reading anything in Gregory about the incarnate Son transcending the uncreated/created distinction, perhaps this is so as it didn’t fit into his argument, it simply wasn’t on the radar. More likely the incarnation didn’t pose for Gregory the notion of a move beyond the divide as for Gregory the Son as a divine person assumes created nature without change or confusion. Still, the thought of the incarnation as being a bridge spanning the divide and thus makes the two “incompatibles compatible” – is not a concept alien to patristic thought. This to me seems to be the very crux of how, as you put it, “Christ’s Person relates to human persons” – because Christ hypostatically joins the uncreated with the created, the divine and human natures are now related and relatable. That it has been accomplished “in person” i.e. hypostatically, is in my understanding what makes this so profound. The infinite chasm is closed by way of the uncreated reaching towards the created. There must be some innate possibility, capability, of human nature to receive this uncreated approach – one could suppose this capability to be the imago dei.

          I am not a Bulgakovian expert, so I can’t really address your concern. Perhaps Dr Hart (DBH) is around and would be so kind to respond.


  4. In a sense, isn’t this really just an initial formulation of the needed tension between both apophasis & cataphasis as it relates the divine life in act? If we hedge too closely to one or the other, one loses the sense of divine activity itself and any analogy that would suffice in explaining anything at all, hence Gregory’s constant use of them. The limit, as it were, comes of as Being as an almost seemingly “Antinomian Monodualism” to borrow from Semyon Frank’s “The Unknowable.” What one can feasibly know will only ever point one to what can be assured is still unknowable in the end, and yet will also be fully known when it all is completed. For Gregory, intra would seem to mean you recognize it for what it is the limit as such, but extra would require it to be revealed in any meaningful sense, hence moving the dial of what intelligibility even is. This seems to help lay the ground for Maximus and his idea of Logos/Logoi, that as someone mentioned, JDW pointed out. The effort to explain away the tension is where we being to merely add an unnecessary distance. The Other, the thing out there that is all of these things, is truly also Self. One cannot truly be without the other.

    The ground of the uncreated(here also is where we start to ask whether someone like Böhme may have been onto something) is the same fount by which all ever comes to be…the nothingness of creation, the ex nihilo, isn’t pure nothing, a vacuum, but rather the nothing that is the uncreated itself. Not that I’m a huge Zizek fan but this is an interesting point he raises, especially if you follow that mystical way of seeing it. What is inaugurated, powered by the divine itself from itself becomes what is real. Origen, as Behr points out, almost sees the “real” or “created” being started on the Cross itself. I don’t think Gregory would stray too far from that explanation either. It’s always in our efforts to seek a clear and concise definition that lacks any true sense of contradiction as reality where the problems that Gregory so awesomely, and the author above notate. In effect, Heraclitus, Hegel, etc are closer to Nyssen here in their acceptance of those said contradictions as the ground of being itself…at least in the sense of the uncreated. Potential and the necessary privatives that all transcendentals seem to possess are bound up in the divine act in some capacity….but what we can say about them…that’s where the mystery seems to begin.

    I could be way off. This was a cool article that made the wheels turn, however.

    Liked by 1 person

    • JBG says:

      “The ground of the uncreated(here also is where we start to ask whether someone like Böhme may have been onto something) is the same fount by which all ever comes to be…the nothingness of creation, the ex nihilo, isn’t pure nothing, a vacuum, but rather the nothing that is the uncreated itself.”

      God And Nothingness

      Liked by 2 people

      • Not shockingly, many of the Russians in the Silver Age (minus Bulgakov and to an extent Soloviev) wouldn’t feel odd either with the premise of nothingness being an aspect that creation is pulled from. I appreciate the article. I think it was Balthasar that commented on the abyss of Being as a veil by which we sense nothing, and yet realize something is yet beyond that veil. It isn’t the Heideggerian nothing in which Being hides itself. That’s just an unwillingness to acknowledge the limit has more beyond it, hence why I brought up Böhme. Nyssen and Maximus, who I both love, helps update some of the antiquated Neo-Platonism and takes very seriously the paradox in tension of created/uncreated distinctions that are necessary to grasp what we can on this side of that veil.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Robert Fortuin says:

          We have to be “comfortably uncomfortable” with that tension – the uneasy acknowledgment of the always falling short of analogy, the dimension of “alike, but not alike”, ever remains. On the other hand, the tension, that paradox, has been resolved in Christ, in the “today is the beginning of our salvation” of the Annunciation event. This is where protology and eschatology come together: creation as it arises from the nothingness from whence it came reaches at last its destiny in the fullness of nothingness.

          Liked by 1 person

          • I don’t thank that is problematic at all, and I’d agree with that implication. In effect, a quote from the early Hegel days in Jena, comments that it Being is love reaching out to itself and returning to itself. I don’t think that is far off here. I exactly agree with you and people like DBH that protology and eschatology are completely bound up in one another…in effect, they do not exist without the end in mind. In actu, what we can say is only a partial truth of what will ultimately come to be. I’m just glad people are recognizing those tensions as necessary provisions to existence. It’s a much more refreshing perspective IMO.


      • Robert Fortuin says:

        It seems to me the nihil in patristic protology is a reference in particular to a nothingness that is a created nothingness – a denial, in other words, of the need for pre-existing created material/space/time to bring about our existence. Creation did require (or better: requires) God’s desire and will, the creative act which overflows in its over- abundant plenitude – which is to say that it is a whole lot more, infinitely more, than nothing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I guess my only concern is that a created nothingness, in effect still amounts to a created something. I get the refusal of the Platonic idea of demi-urge, but it feels as if the found of an uncreated movement, especially as we see the Logos/Logoi distinction work in Maximus and is hinted at, as you kind of imply in the Nyssen, shows that the ground itself, pulls from that uncreatedness. The divinely uncreated begets what it is to be created, so even within the divine economy, the exact “nothing” is precisely that desire/will to move. It is the creative impulse itself. So it is both a nothing, and a something, while retaining its nothingness. But I don’t think you’re wrong about that particular patristic expression either, I just don’t know that it was as fleshed out until later. (I’m a hobbyist btw….I probably haven’t been as exposed to as much on this particular patristic expression, but I’d be curious to know if it does find an initial starting point here. I can only comment from what I’ve experienced)

          Thank you for your insights. It’s refreshing to dialogue about and learn.


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