Was St Gregory Nyssen a Proto-Palamite?


The title is intentionally provocative, and I’m afraid the article will disappoint if you are hoping for a definitive answer to the question. While I have read a fair amount of the secondary literature about St Gregory Palamas’s famous distinction between the divine essence and energies, as well as Gregory’s own Triads, I am quite sure that I lack the competence to accurately articulate the theology of the saint himself. But I have read a goodly amount of the Cappadocians over the years, and I have noticed differences between them and Palamas (at least as he is popularly presented)—hence the title.

In this series on the Cappadocian brothers, we have observed that St Basil of Caesarea and St Gregory of Nyssa appear to operate not with an essence–energies distinction (at least not principally) but with a more fundamental essence–propria–activities distinction. Both saints believe that the ad extra activities of God derive from and reveal the essential properties of the divine ousia. Nor have I found anything in their writings that clearly suggests an ontological distinction in God between his inaccessible essence and his knowable energies. We can, of course, find verbal similarities between them and Palamas. The following sentence from Basil is often quoted:

The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. (Ep. 234.1)

But it is unwise to jump to the conclusion that Basil anticipated the famous 14th century formulation. Such a conclusion ignores both the polemical intent of Basil’s words and his fundamental understanding of the relationship between the divine essence and the divine propria. As Orthodox scholar Alexis Torrance acknowledges, Basil’s use of energeiai differs from later Byzantine usage:

God is known from his energies. But it must be noticed that the use of ἐνέργειαι here can by no means be coterminous with Palamite divine uncreated energies. Basil goes on to cite the example of the disciples, who recognised the Godhead of Christ from the obedience of the sea and winds: ‘therefore from the ἐνέργειαι is the knowledge, and from the knowledge is the worship […] We know God from his power. We, therefore, believe in him who is known, and we worship him who is believed in’ (§3). The ‘knowledge of God’ gained by observation of the ἐνέργειαι (the movements of the forces of nature) in this letter is belief in God, or faith. This is explicitly a preliminary stage to being a ‘true worshipper’ or believer, i.e. it is only the initial step of the Θεογνωσία process which continues with the kind of knowledge discussed in Ep 233. The reference to ἐνέργειαι is noteworthy, but it can tell us little vis-à-vis Palamite precedents apart from the fact that in this case the term was used differently by Basil than by ‘Palamism’. The term ἐνέργειαι is used by Basil in Ep 234 for awe-inspiring activities, and though not explicitly limited to them, the implication seems to be that the first stage of knowledge of God (belief in him/faith) is obtained solely through the observation of God’s activities in the created world. (“Precedents for Palamas’ Essence-Energies Theology in the Cappadocian Fathers,” Vigiliae Christianae 63 [2009]: 55; cf. J.-P. Houdret, “Palamas and the Cappadocians,” and the discussion of “Energy” in The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa)

John Demetracopoulos concurs. Commenting on the above-quoted statement by Basil, he writes:

Contrary to a widespread Palamite and pro-Palamite reading of this passage, it should be noted that Basil does not say that we know God’s ‘energies’, but that we know Him “from His activities”, that is, we can infer His existence as well as some of His properties from His actions. In other words, according to Basil, there are three levels in God: i) essence, which is absolutely inaccessible (or, better, is defined as what is inaccessible in God); ii) properties, which can be known by means of His actions; and iii) actions, which testify to His existence as well as His properties. (“Palamas Transformed,” pp. 267-268)

Like his elder brother, Gregory Nyssen asserts that we properly know God only through his ad extra activities. In his sixth homily on the Beatitudes, Gregory declares: “For God who is by nature beyond our sight is visible in his activities (energeiai), being perceived in the characteristics (idiomata) that surround him” (Beat. 6). Gregory here employs the spacial metaphor of “around” the divine essence to speak of the propria, or essential properties, of the Godhead, made visible in God’s workings in the world. In his Letter to Eustathius, Gregory even goes so far as to claim that the word theotes (Godhead, divinity, deity) signifies God’s providential oversight of creation:

But I know not how these makers-up of all sorts of arguments bring the appellation of Godhead (theotes) to be an indication of nature, as though they had not heard from the Scripture that it is a matter of appointment, in which way nature does not arise. For Moses was appointed as a god of the Egyptians, since He Who gave him the oracles, etc., spoke thus to him, “I have given you as a god to Pharaoh.” The title therefore is indicative of a certain power, whether of supervision or of operation. But the divine nature remains as it is under all the names conceived for it, inexpressible, this is our doctrine. For in learning that he is benefactor and judge, and both good and just, and other such titles, we are taught the diversity of his operations—yet through our comprehension of the operations we are not in any way better able to come to a knowledge of the nature of the operator.

Does Gregory directly name goodness and justice as energeiai? It’s ambiguous. As Andrew Radde-Gallwitz notes, “Gregory’s point is not that God’s goodness or justice are activities or energeiai (if this means something else), but that we learn that God is good through the displays of this goodness in scripture and in the created order (which is in turn ‘read’ in light of scripture)” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p. 223). In his essay “Ad Eustathium De Sancta Trinitate,” Radde-Gallwitz reminds us of the polemical context of the letter: Gregory is addressing the claim of the Pneumatomachians that the title “God” must not be ascribed to the Holy Spirit. In response Gregory argues that “we cannot know the divine nature ‘on its own’, that is through some abstract a priori analysis. Rather, every title we have is derived from human experience with God’s action in the world” (Gregory of Nyssa: The Minor Treatises, p. 105). R-G concludes his analysis:

Theological attention to Ad Eustathium has focused on Gregory’s claim that the title “God” does not indicate the divine nature. At times, this has fed into a narrative in which the Cappadocians are portrayed as authors of an ontological distinction between God’s nature and God’s activities. We are now in a position to nuance this claim considerably. If Gregory is correct in distinguishing the denotation and connotation of terms, this title, like all titles based on some activity or authority of God, does denote the divine nature. However, again like all other titles, the word “God” does not by itself adequately convey the definition of God. Gregory opposes a particular way of taking “God” as indicative of the divine nature; this title does not define God. … In light of this belief, Gregory redirects attention to the activities of God which lead us beyond themselves, to search for God’s nature. And those activities are shared perfectly by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence by reasoning conjecturally, we can discern—however dimly—the divine nature shared by the three who are one goodness, power, and divinity. (p. 108)

The bishop of Nyssa offers a similar argument about the title “God” in his Letter to Ablabius:

We perceive, then, the varied operations of the transcendent power, and fit our way of speaking of him to each of the operations known to us. Now one of these is the power of viewing and seeing, or, one might say, of beholding. By it God surveys all things and oversees them all. He discerns our thoughts, and by his power of beholding penetrates even what is invisible. From this we suppose that “Godhead” (theotes) is derived from “beholding” (thea), and that by general custom and the teaching of the Scriptures, he who is our beholder (theates) is called God (theos). Now if anyone admits that to behold and see are the same things, and that the God who oversees all things both is and is called the overseer of the universe, let him consider whether this operation belongs to one of the Persons we believe to constitute the holy Trinity, or whether the power extends to the three Persons. For if our interpretation of “Godhead” is the right one, and the things which are seen are said to be beheld (theata), and that which beholds them is called God (theos), no one of the Persons of the Trinity could properly be excluded from this form of address on the ground of the meaning of the word. (p. 260)

Gregory is aware that his readers may disagree with his etymological interpretation of theotes; but he is eager to direct attention away from analysis of the divine nature in order to assert the full divinity of the divine hypostases based on their mutual, conjoint activities in creation. The Son and Spirit are divine, proposes Gregory, because they do the same divine things that the Father does. But more generally, by insisting that theotes signifies divine activity, Gregory decisively asserts the epistemological priority of God’s self-revelatory acts and manifestations in our knowledge of God. God reveals God. Or as modern theologians like to say, the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. Thus Khaled Anatolios:

The foundational principle of Gregory of Nyssa’s account is that, contrary to a common misperception, the attribution of “divinity” does not actually name the divine nature (physis) in the same way that other “names” signify a subject (hypokeimenon). According to Gregory, it is the Scriptures that reveal to us that the divine nature is ineffable and cannot be named. All names that successfully refer to God, either by scriptural inspiration or human custom, are “explanatory of our conceptions (nooumenon) regarding the divine nature (peri ten theian physin)” but do not encompass (periechein) the nature itself. Attributes that are customarily considered as identifying tout court can be successful in attaining appropriate significations concerning the divine nature (peri tes theias physeos) but do not signify what that nature (physis) essentially (kat’ ousian) is. Our knowledge of God, therefore, is gained not from our capacity to identify and noetically “encompass” the divine nature but rather from our perception of the “activities” (energeiai) of the transcendent divine “power” (dynamis). Gregory proposes that the term theotes or “divinity” indicates the activity by which God manifests his lordship over creation. He offers some token scriptural passages as evidence that Scripture attributes the divine activity of overseeing creation to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Each is therefore equally “God,” an affirmation that we make not on the basis of a comprehensive perusal of the divine nature but on the basis of identifying the scriptural naming of the activities (energeiai) that constitute God’s own self-manifestation. (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 229)

The Creator is not an inert thing we can objectively study and analyze. We can never grasp the depths of his transcendent being (see Robert Fortuin, “Reflecting the Mystery”). God is known only as he gives himself to be known, and he truly is as he gives himself to be known—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

So the critical question is what it means for Gregory to speak of the impossibility of knowing the divine nature in light of his positive affirmations of the human capacity to know God. As with Against Eunomius, everything depends on how we interpret the category of “knowing the divine nature”; and the framework of nature (physis)–activity (energeia), which is much more prominent in this treatise, sheds significant light on this question. Along these lines, we can interpret the core of Gregory’s theological epistemology at this stage as encapsulated in the following proposition: we can only encounter the divine nature in its active outwardness, but we cannot supplant its own innermost act of self-standing, which is the source of its active self-presencing. … We can speak of “encountering the divine nature,” despite Gregory’s strictures against “knowing the divine nature,” because he himself allows for a knowing that concerns or is “around” the divine nature. The crucial qualification of this kind of knowing is not that it is hidden or indirect but that it can only be reactive to the prior activity (energeia) and outward self-presencing of God. God is not some inert object that can be passively spied on and encompassed by a creaturely knowing but an active subject who can only be encountered in relation to his own self-presencing. Given the definition of “the divine nature” as the “subject” (hypokeimenon) that underlies this active self-presencing, the claim to know the divine nature would amount to the claim that one can transcend or in some way go behind the effected self-presencing of God and reach to the very innermost cause of that effect. Clearly, such a claim involves a supplanting of God’s very self-standing, and that is why Gregory sees it as blasphemy. Positively, however, to know God through God’s self-presencing is in no way a matter of a lack of knowledge of God or a lack of directness but rather of knowing God as a God who is always lord of his own self-presencing, which is the only way to know God as God. Perhaps more profoundly than any modern theologian, Gregory of Nyssa offers the most thoroughgoing explanation of why it must be that we only encounter the Trinity through the trinitarian economy. It is a necessity of the divine nature itself and of the structure of the God-creature relationship that we have no access to the immanence of God apart from God’s economic self-presencing. To go further with Gregory, the divine economy is never left behind as we enter into a sphere of the absolute immanence of God. Ultimately, the only immanence of God to which we have access is God’s self-economized immanence. (Anatolios, p. 230)

Hence it would be a serious mistake to interpret Gregory and his fellow Cappadocians as proposing an unknown and unknowable Deity behind the back of the revealed God of Israel and Church, a God beyond the Trinity. Precisely the wrong way, explains Anatolios, to construe Gregory’s insistence that God cannot be known in his ousia but only in his energeiai is “to posit some kind of unbridgeable chasm between the divine operations and the divine essence, which the human mind can never pass over” (p. 239)—that would be the view of Eunomius. “The divine essence is unknowable in itself—which is to say, apart from its active operations—precisely because it is irreducibly and infinitely active. The operations, as it were, actively announce the essence, and the essence thus cannot be grasped apart from that active self-announcement” (p. 239).

gregory-palamas_zps043bc15e.jpg~original.jpegWe return to the question posed in the title: Was St Gregory of Nyssa a Proto-Palamite? Noting verbal similarities between the two thinkers is insufficient. Each employed the language of essence and energies to different purposes. The Nyssen was seeking to defend the Christian belief in the divinity of the Son and Spirit. St Gregory Palamas, on the other hand, was responding to Barlaam’s denial of the possibility of experiencing in this life authentic and maximal union with God (theosis). According to his philosophical presuppositions, if human beings were to participate in the divine essence, they would become divine hypostases, thus destroying the Holy Trinity; but given that believers do participate in the uncreated life of the Trinity (contra Barlaam), then we must posit a way to participate in this life that respects human creaturehood—and that is where the uncreated energies come in. Palamas inferred that the hesychastic experience of deification points to a subsistent distinction within the Godhead between the divine ousia and the divine energeia (see Norman Russell, “Theosis and Gregory Palamas“; David Bradshaw, “The Concept of the Divine Energies“; Walter Sisto, “Encountering God“). When believers are brought into the life of the Triune God, they are given to share in the divine energies but not the divine essence. Gregory Nyssen, however, knew of no such distinction within the Godhead, at least not if that distinction is construed as real as opposed to notional or formal. When he speaks of the divine energeia, he has in mind God’s freely determined operations toward and within the cosmos: the Father acting through the Son in the Spirit. Hence it would be anachronistic to project the medieval Byzantine distinction into the Bishop of Nyssa. Moreover, Gregory develops the theme of theosis differently than does Palamas, focusing on baptismal incorporation into the divine Sonship, the acquisition of virtues, and partaking of Christ’s eucharistic flesh (see J. A. McGuckin, “The Strategic Adaptation of Deification in the Cappadocians,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature, pp. 95-114; Norman Russell, The Doctrine of Deification in the Greek Patristic Tradition, pp. 225-232; Lewis Ayres, “Deification and the Dynamics of Nicene Theology”; Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, Activity and Participationpp. 159-169). But perhaps Nyssen would have been sympathetic to Gregory Palamas’s theological project nonetheless. As John Meyendorff puts it: “The distinction in God between ‘essence’ and ‘energy’—that focal point of Palamite theology—is nothing but a way of saying that the transcendent God remains transcendent, as He also communicates Himself to humanity” (Gregory Palamas: The Triads, p. 20). Surely the “Father of Fathers” would have agreed with this driving concern of the great fourteenth-century hesychast. Tollefsen proposes that the concept of participation lies at the heart of Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of deification:

We should say, then, that man is deified by participation, not in the essence of God, but in His activity. Participation means that man receives more and more of God’s activity into his being. It seems quite obvious that Gregory operates with the idea of an ontological distinction between essence and activity in God. The tri-hypostatic being of God is one thing; the activity by which the Trinity relates to created otherness has its source in the essence, but is not identical with this essence. In the immanent activity of God the divine persons communicate with each other; in the external activity God communicates with creatures. Such a distinction between essence and activity must be observable in created beings as well. There is a difference between being human and doing human things, even though the second depends upon the first.

On the other hand, the activity could never be considered an entity or a subsistent being in its own right, even if it is, i.e., exists. The divine activity should not be understood as a lower divinity, a fourth hypostasis or something of that kind. It is rather to be compared with a field of energy that is manifested from the divine being. But this is an image, because the divine activity, in the precise sense, is the divine nature or essence qua being active. The activities are ‘around’ God, and are a movement of His nature. If we say that the distinction between essence and activity (to be God and to be active as God) is a real distinction, all these qualifications must be included. However, I do not feel quite comfortable with the term ‘real distinction’, since it seems to make a sharper division between essence and energeia than admitted by the doctrines I have examined. Whenever something has being or achieves deification, it participates in the divine activity in such a way that it begins to exist in a graciously instituted mode. In creation an entity is moved into the mode of being, in deification the creature is moved into the mode of likeness and near-equality with God. From being man, a human being becomes God by the never-ending movement in accordance with a divine mode of being in the Holy Spirit. (pp. 168-169)

I find Tollefsen’s argument here somewhat confusing, probably because even after all these years of reading about this topic, I remain confused. My enduring confusion may suggest that both divine activity and theosis resist finite analysis (the other possibility is that I’m just obtuse). I’d love to bring Tollefsen into conversation with Anatolios—and both of them with David Bentley Hart. (And let’s not forget the doctrine of divine simplicity!) The two Gregories, in any case, have no doubt ironed out their differences at the banquet table of the Lamb.

(5 May 2014; rev.)

(Go to “Are Trinitarians Polytheists?”)

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“O Most Holy Theotokos, full of grace and Most Blessed among women, the Lord is indeed with you”

O Blessed Virgin, You are full of grace and among women the Most Blessed of any person; You are the adornment of the human race, the miracle of Angels, the joy of all creation, the crown of virtue, the most true image and likeness of God, the most well-disposed Queen, and we laud and praise your holiness. After all the glory we render to the Eternal Logos of God, our Creator and Savior, we directly confess and witness to your graces, O Theotokos, for You co-operated with and participated in the plan of our salvation. We beseech You, Most Holy Mother of God, accept also now our petition and send it for a favorable consideration to our Savior, and your Son, Jesus Christ, and through Him to the Unoriginate God and Father and the Holy Spirit. For you have served God in the very best of all the divine acts and in the greatest heavenly plan for the salvation of us humans. If God listens to sinners when they return in repentance to His obedience and love—O what supernatural wonder!—how will He reject your intercession on our behalf? We admit that we are sinful and unworthy of any heavenly or earthly visitation; and yet we dare to be bold because we know the depth of your own loving kindness and compassion that resembles that of God Himself. We also confess and witness to your own abiding favor and providence toward our nation, which has been demonstrated from the beginning until now.

For these reasons therefore do not overlook us, the least of your servants, but intercede on our behalf; show your guardianship over us. Our life is passing away and the guilt for our sins is great and heavy. Our repentance is lukewarm and uncertain. We turn to God Our Creator in repentance and immediately we return again to evil.

For this reason then, Most Compassionate Mother of Our Merciful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, be quick to deliver us from these present fears of ours. Grant us a repentance that is as true and steadfast as possible; make us all to be diligent in the work of our salvation; supplement with your divine love for mankind what is lacking in us because of our natural weakness and long-standing companionship with evil. Dissolve the guilt of our many great sins, by generating a profound contrition in our soul and by offering it as a start to the divine love for mankind, through which so many repentant thieves, prostitutes, and publicans have been saved. If, through your own concern and effort on our behalf, we do not see the Light of Divine mercy shine upon us who are most imprudent and reckless, then all of our affairs will be filled with horrible fears and destruction. We know and are certain that you will not abandon us altogether; we still have hope that is based upon the abundance of God’s loving kindness toward mankind and your own many visitations to us. O Most Holy Theotokos, full of grace and Most Blessed among women, the Lord is indeed with you, and may He be also with us through you, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

St Gennadios Scholarios

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“When nature is defective, the Creator, who is the author of nature, has the power to restore it”

You have heard that story in the Gospel where we are told that the Lord Jesus, as he was passing by, caught sight of a man who had been blind from birth. Since the Lord did not overlook him, neither ought we to overlook this story of a man whom the Lord considered worthy of his attention. In particular we should notice the fact that he had been blind from birth. This is an important point.

There is, indeed, a kind of blindness, usually brought on by serious illness, which obscures one’s vision, but which can be cured, given time; and there is another sort of blindness, caused by cataract, that can be remedied by a surgeon: he can remove the cause and so the blindness is dispelled. Draw your own conclusion: this man, who was actually born blind, was not cured by surgical skill, but by the power of God.

When nature is defective, the Creator, who is the author of nature, has the power to restore it. This is why Jesus also said. “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” meaning: all who are blind are able to see, so long as I am the light they are looking for. Come, then, and receive the light, so that you may be able to see.

What is he trying to tell us, he who brought human beings back to life, who restored them to health by a word of command, who said to a corpse. “Come out!” and Lazarus came out from the tomb; who said to a paralytic. “Arise and pick up your stretcher,” and the sick man rose and picked up the very bed on which he used to be carried as a helpless cripple?

Again, I ask you, what is he trying to convey to us by spitting on the ground, mixing his spittle with clay and putting it on the eyes of a blind man, saying: “Go and wash yourself in the pool of Siloam (a name that means ‘sent’)?” What is the meaning of the Lord’s action in this? Surely one of great significance, since the person whom Jesus touches receives more than just his sight. In one instant we see both the power of his divinity and the strength of his holiness. As the divine light, he touched this man and enlightened him; as priest, by an action symbolizing baptism he wrought in him his work of redemption.

The only reason for his mixing clay with the spittle and smearing it on the eyes of the blind man was to remind you that he who restored the man to health by anointing his eyes with clay is the very one who fashioned the first man out of clay, and that this clay that is our flesh can receive the light of eternal life through the sacrament of baptism.

You, too, should come to Siloam, that is, to him who was sent by the Father (as he says in the Gospel. “My teaching is not my own, it comes from him who sent me).” Let Christ wash you and you will then see.

Come and be baptized, it is time; come quickly, and you too will be able to say, “I went and washed;” you will be able to say, “I was blind, and now I can see,” and as the blind man said when his eyes began to receive the light. “The night is almost over and the day is at hand.”

St Ambrose of Milan

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The Ascension of Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ

by Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas

“And while he was blessing them,
he departed and started to ascend to heaven”
(Luke 24:51)

The Ascension as the pinnacle of the Feasts of the Lord.

How bright and wonderful is this Feast! It is the pinnacle of all the Feasts of the Lord, because with it the sacred and saving purpose of the Divine Incarnation and Inhomination of the Word of God is completed. For what purpose did the Son and Word of God become man, and underwent the passion, the death, the resurrection…and the ascension? All these events took place so that the human nature might not remain below on the earth, but be raised to heaven, become deified and glorified according to the Creator’s original design. This, then, was the purpose for which the Son of God condescended to assume within his godly person [hypostasis] our human nature, which had fallen from its original condition, in order to renew it with his Crucifixion and Resurrection and to raise it to the heavenly heights with his glorious Ascension, presenting it to God the Father as the super-brilliant trophy of his victory.

The Ascension as the triumph of the human nature.

At the Ascension of Christ, God the Father accepted the first-fruits of our humanity, and was well pleased not only by the worthiness of Him who offered it, but also by the purity of the offering. This, then, is the perfect victory against sin. This is the triumph of the human nature. The human nature could not have descended to a lower point than that at which it arrived after the fall of Adam, but neither could ascend to a higher point than that at which the New (or Last) Adam raised it with his Ascension!

The Ascension as the final benefit offered by God to man.

What mind could grasp the real dimensions of this event? The forsaken and feeble human nature, the nature which ran away from God and was exiled from paradise, the low, miserable, condemned and captured nature of human beings becomes today more glorious than that of the angels, is made to sit with Christ at the bosom of the Father, and is worshiped by every visible and invisible creation! What language could praise the greatness of this celebration, or to present worthily the enormity of the goodness of God to human beings? Today the entry into the longed-for paradise, the heavenly Jerusalem, is opened to Adam’s exiled descendants. Today, the restoration of the new Israel in the Promised Land is accomplished.

The Ascension as the final victory of Christ for man.

Today on the Mount of Olives, heaven and earth kiss each other, and angels and human beings are united. Here the chorus of the Apostles greets their sweet Teacher with joy on his departure from them, and the orders of the angels salute the King of the heavens with ineffable elation and joy. Here the captivity, which the victor of death took captive with his ascension to the heights, i.e. the souls of the righteous who have been redeemed, have their eyes on their Redeemer with feelings of exhilaration and joy. Here also, His mother, the most pure Virgin, greets and sends off her beloved Son who is ascending into Heaven, where God the Father welcomes his only-begotten Son and makes him sit on his right. Here too, at the great Mount of Olives, we are called to ascend with our minds and become eye-witnesses to the great and wondrous events which take place, having as our guide Luke the theologian, who alone among the Evangelists narrates – with brevity but also with priestly and solemn fashion – the glorious Ascension of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Why did the Ascension take place 40 days after and not immediately after the Resurrection?

The leader of life, who loosed the bonds of death by his Resurrection, met with his disciples for 40 days and confirmed his Resurrection to them by means of several proofs. He did not ascend into heaven on the day he rose again, because such an event would have raised doubts and questions. Had he done that, many of the unbelievers would be in a position to project the argument that the Resurrection was one more dream of pious aspirations which easily emerge and more easily disappear. For this reason, then, Christ remained for 40 days on the earth, and appeared to his disciples repeatedly, showing them the marks of his wounds, explaining to them the prophesies which he fulfilled in his life and sufferings as man, and even eating with them.

Why did the Risen Christ eat broiled fish and honey?

The Gospel for today’s Feast tells us that the Risen Christ asked for and ate “a piece of broiled fish and from honey of a honeycomb” (Luke 24:42). Why is this detail mentioned? According to the church tradition this detail has a very important allegorical meaning. As regards the fish, we know that although it lives in the salty sea, it is not salty, but sweet. In the same manner Christ, who lived in the ‘salty sea of sin’ of this world, “he did not commit any sin, and no guile was found in his mouth” (Is. 53:9). Also, Christ remained even more voiceless than the fish when he endured his saving passion and received unheard-of torture and unmentionable insult. As regards the honey and the beeswax, we know that the honey is sweet and the beeswax is illuminative, and for this reason they are considered to be symbols of the spiritual pleasure and illumination which the Risen Christ transmits to the faithful. Also, honey and beeswax symbolize, the former, the cure of the great bitterness of sin which is symbolized by the gall that was offered to the Lord at his passion and, the latter, the diluteness of the dense darkness of sin which was symbolized by the darkness which took place at the Lord’s crucifixion.

Why did the Ascension take place on the Mount of Olives?

Once Christ had confirmed his Resurrection from the dead to his disciples through his sweet teaching, and enlightened their minds and warmed their hearts by his presence, he led them on the fortieth day after the Resurrection to the Mount of Olives which lies east of Jerusalem. It was fitting for the Ascension to take place from this mountain, because according to an ancient tradition, it is here that the Lord will return bodily and with glory on the last Day when he will judge the world. It is here that the righteous will receive the great mercy and here also that the sinners will grieve with an inconsolable lamentation. These two opposite conditions of humanity are denoted by the name of this Mount, because its peaks are called Mount of Olives and its foot Valley of Wailing. This is also what was pre-signified by the oracle of the prophet Zachariah which explicitly states:

Then they will look on me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn… And in that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, which faces Jerusalem on the east… Thus the Lord my God will come, and all the saints with Him.

Why the Apostles and the Theotokos had to be present at that time?

The Lord led his disciples on this Mount, and the Theotokos who gave birth to him as man, so that they could see with their own eyes his glorious Ascension. His Mother after the flesh had to be present at that great glorification of her Son, so that she who had been gravely wounded in her soul for his passion above all others, might commensurably rejoice by seeing her Son ascending into heaven with glory, being worshiped as God by the Angels and being seated on the throne of the Most High above all principalities and authorities. The divine Apostles had to be there also, that might become eye-witnesses of the Lord’s Ascension, be informed that their Divine Teacher who is now ascending into heaven had initially come down from there, and that he will wait for them there as the true Son of God and Savior of the world

How did this utterly unfamiliar and unique event of the Ascension of Christ occur?

They had already arrived at the middle peak of the Mount. The city of Jerusalem stretched in front of them. The hole where the Cross had stood was still open. So was also the entrance to the Grave of the Savior, since the great stone that had been used to seal it was still lying on the ground. And then, the Savior turns his back to the ungrateful city of Jerusalem and his glance looks to the East, as David joyfully sings in one of his psalms: “Sing to the Lord who is going up to the heaven of the heaven towards the East” (Psalm 67:34). And as he takes leave of his disciples, he raises his pure hands and blesses them for the last time – those hands with which he recreated the man whom he created at the beginning, and which he stretched on the cross out of love for humanity and united those that had been severed, i.e. those which had been made foreigners. Just as the eyes of the disciples could not be satisfied enough in seeing the divine and sweet face of their Lord, suddenly he began to ascend into heaven. Their glance remained nailed, as it were, on that paradoxical and inexplicable display of the bodily Ascension of the Lord, until he was concealed by the luminous cloud.

How utterly unfamiliar and unique was the majesty of this Ascension! Elijah had also ascended into heaven, as Scripture relates; but this ascension took place by means of a fiery chariot and fiery horses, because Elijah was a mere man and needed help in order to ascend above the earth. Christ, however, was the God-man and ascended by himself, by virtue of his own omnipotence. As regards that cloud, it had to do with the Holy Spirit, just as it happened with the transfiguration of Christ. Just as Christ’s descent and becoming man were brought about through the Holy Spirit, according to the message of Archangel Gabriel (“The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” Luke 1:35), so now he “co-ascends” with the Holy Spirit because He follows him and coexists with him, being coessential (“homoousion”) with him, and being worship and glorified together with him.

Why were those two anthropomorphic and white-dressed Angels sent?

While the holy Apostles were gazing with astonishment at the heavenly sight, two men appeared to them dressed in white garments. These two men were angels, who had assumed a human form in order to avoid scaring the disciples. They were dressed in white so that their chastity might be manifest, as well as the enlightening and joyous message which they were sent to deliver. They were sent by Christ on his Ascension, in order to console them at the moment of their sorrow for his departure, but also to enlighten them that their Lord who is now invisible is seated at the right side of God the Father and that he will descend to the earth once again in order to judge all human beings, the living and the dead.

What is the message of the Angels dressed in white?

“Men of Galilee,” they told them, “why do you stand with your gaze nailed on the sky? This Jesus, whom you see today being taken up, will return to judge the world, and his return will be the same with his Ascension.” In other words, he will come from heaven wearing the same immaculate body, which he assumed from the blood of the pure Virgin, and which will bear upon it the marks from the wounds which he received at his passion. Right now it is only you disciples who see him ascending to heaven; but when he returns, all the races of the earth will see him descending from there with glory upon the clouds. His glorious condescension will become the cause of blessedness and joy for those who lived righteously. For the sinners, however, it will be the cause of sorrow and calamity.

What was the impact of the Ascension for the Apostles and the small flock of the first Church?

Having heard this message, the Apostles worshiped the Savior on his Ascension and, then, joyfully returned to Jerusalem. Their joy was great, because they had definitely learned that their divine Teacher was true God who ascended into heaven, not because he abandoned the earth, but in order to unite it with heaven. Their joy was also great because they received the blessing of their Savior on his Ascension. It was with this blessing that the numerically small Church of the disciples greatly increased its numbers in a relatively short space of time and, having received the grace of the Spirit, was established as the great Church throughout the earth.

What was the impact of the Ascension on the orders of the Angels in heaven?

While these things occurred on the earth because of the Ascension, the Angels mounted a great celebration in heaven. The Angels which served the Savior on the earth and now accompanied him on his ascension called out the orders above to open the heavenly gates for the King of Glory to enter in. As David sings, “Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in!” (Ps. 23:7). Since through his saving passion Christ the Savior became more glorious and highly exalted – as the Apostle Paul actually puts it, “Having humbled himself and having become obedient unto death, indeed a death by crucifixion, God exalted him highly and granted him the name which is above all” (Phil. 2:9) – for this reason the gates of heaven ask to become higher in order to welcome him more fittingly. Also, because the glory of the victor of hades and death, which could not be contained by the small space of the earth, but filled the heavens, the Angels ask that they too be expanded on his appearance! At the same time, the heavenly hierarchies of the Angels, seeing the human body to be transferred above them, were seized by shock and amazement; because, just as a human being is seized by amazement of fear on seeing an angel on the earth, so the bodiless Angels, seeing a body raised on a cloud, seek with amazement to learn about this paradoxical display, and to be twice assured about the identity of this King of Glory. Hearing, then, that he is the Lord, powerful in battles, who fought the devil and defeated him and who is now ascending into heaven, they wonder how this superbly luminous body is dressed in royal purple and ask, “Who is this that comes from Edom, in crimsoned garments from Bosor, who is glorious in his apparel” (Is. 63:1)? In other words, who is this earthly person, who comes wearing a flesh which is like a superbly bright, royal purple dress? Because, Edom means earthly and Bosor means flesh, and the point of reference here is the glorified body of Christ the King which appeared to be red in his Ascension into heaven due to the marks of the wounds on his immaculate side, his hands and his feet.

Why were the marks from the wounds retained on the Risen Body of Christ?

How was it that the wounds on that incorruptible body were visible? This was an intentional matter of economy, and its purpose was to manifest the God-man’s ineffable and excelling love for man. He consented not only to receive these wounds, but also to retain them after his Resurrection on his incorruptible body in a paradoxical manner and to show them on his Ascension to the world of the Angels as the symbols of his passion and as the indelible proofs of his love for us human beings. In addition, he retained the wounds of his incorruptible body, in order to persuade us that we should never forget his passion, but keep it always before us, so that our heart might overflow with gratitude and sacred feelings towards him. Northing else, says St. John Chrysostom, can beget inside us these saving results as seeing God carrying the traces of the Cross as far as the throne of his Majesty. According to St. Augustine, the God-man preserved his wounds in heaven in order to show that he will not forget us even in the condition of his glory – which, in any case, is also affirmed by the head-prophet: “Behold on my hands I inscribed your walls, so that they remain in front of me for ever” (Is. 49:16). In other words, he will never forsake us, because he has written our names on his hands and will intercede for us before God the Father. He may have also retained his wounds in order to teach us that only through sufferings and sorrows will be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. If the God-man was exalted through suffering crucifixion, and if he was glorified by an ignominious death, then, how can we enter into this glory without walking on the narrow path of virtue, and without enduring sorrows and temptations in fighting the good fight? This is quite impossible.

The Ascension as a universal joy embracing heaven and earth.

We see, then, that in today’s Feast of the Ascension of Christ, the joy is universal because it extends to both heaven and earth. The Angels rejoice in heaven, because they welcome their King. Human beings also jubilate on the earth, because their entry into the heavenly Jerusalem is now allowed. “Clap your hands, all ye nations! Shout with a loud voice of triumph unto God” (Ps. 46:2). Let us rejoice today, on the day of universal joy, seeing our Lord ascending where he was not before and opening once for all the gates of the heavens so that our human nature, which he bought with his most precious blood, may enter in with him. What a great comfort this is in our hearts, seeing Him who became for us life and light, faithful friend and powerful protector, who truly loved us and shed his Blood for us, and sat at the throne of the Godhead, and gave us the assurance that he will come again sometime in the future in order to take us there too! He himself gave us with his Ascension the confirmation of this truth and the living hope that we too will ascend there and we will never again be separated from him. Our union with him will be like that of the members of a body with its head, since we are the members of his body and he is the Head of us all. If he was resurrected bodily, we too will be resurrected bodily if we so wish. If he was glorified which being in the flesh, we too will be glorified with the flesh and will walk there, where our Lord is, provided that we behave prudently.

The implications of the Ascension of Christ for the Christians.

a) Christians ought to be united with Christ, loving him and keeping his commandments. Since the joy for the gifts of Christ granted to us is true, and the hope that we too will enter into that dwelling place of light and live the blessed life is also assured, we ought to be united with him already in this life, knowing that Christ is the source of light and life. There is no other way for us to achieve this, except to love him with all our soul, and to keep his saving commandments. When we do this we become God’s dwelling place and begin to experience the true joy of life, recognizing the benefits of his grace and realizing that our joy will be completed when we too participate in his ascension and the glory of his presence and co-reign with him for ever. And this is not all, because we will also sit on the throne of his divine Majesty, as this was explicitly revealed by the truthful mouth of our Savior, which said: “To him who overcomes, I will grant him to sit with me at my throne, just I have overcome and am seated with my Father at his throne” (Rev. 3:21). This is the glory that we will receive if we conquer the passions. We will rise and arrive where the Savior led today his nature, which is related to us, namely, his human bodily existence.

b) Christians ought to live on earth as citizens of heaven. Who, then, would deny, that even if we had a thousand souls and lives, and had to suffer a thousand deaths, we should accept these with absolute eagerness, in order to enjoy even one day of that ineffable glory? Which earthly benefit could constrain our hearts on this earth, which our Savior left, since our citizenship is in heaven and since the ineffable glory awaits us there? Our Lord ascended into heaven, and we here can follow him, remaining united with him through faith and virtue. Certainly, much labor is required of us if we are to ascend to that great height. We are encouraged, however, by the fact that our Lord who ascended there supplies us with strength so that we can succeed. The only thing that he expects of us is to have a willing disposition, and he admonishes us to turn a deaf ear to anything earthly, so that we can be more transportable in our journey above. This means that we are called to leave earthly things on the earth, and to take off our coats of skin, which we put on account of our sin. As the Prophet Elijah threw off his woolskin when the time came for him to ascend to heaven, so should we shake off every agonizing, material endeavor and be detached from a servile attachment to the earth, so that we can easily ascend to the heavenly places. How can we worthily prepare ourselves to rise to the clouds and to go out to meet with our Lord, when he comes with all his royal glory? On that great and celebrated Day, all human beings will be resurrected. Not all of them will be caught up in clouds of saints to go out to meet the Lord in the air. This will happen only to those who kept the commandments of Christ and loved him with all their heart (I Thess. 4:16-17); because only these will be prepared to enjoy such a glory, and only to them will be granted to enjoy that eternal and ineffable blessedness.

The true celebration of the Feast of the Ascension of Christ.

Today’s joyful Feast of the Ascension of our Lord invites us all who wish to celebrate it truly to do what the holy Apostles did after the Ascension. They worshiped their Teacher on his ascension and returned to Jerusalem (Luke 24:52), i.e. to the house of peace (because this is the meaning of the name Jerusalem). Likewise, we too should return to our homes and make peace with all. The Apostles were in the temple glorifying God and waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit (verse 53). We should thank our Savior because he gave us the opportunity to celebrate his Ascension and to beseech him from the depths of our heart to make us worthy to celebrate the holy Pentecost as well and be renewed with the grace of the Holy Spirit. It is with this grace that we shall be able to continue the struggle for virtue and to do the works which are worthy of our heavenly calling, and finally to enter into the great joy of the coming of our Lord.

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St Gregory of Nyssa and the Incomprehensibility of the Incomprehensible God

What does St Gregory of Nyssa mean when he so emphatically claims that human beings are incapable of comprehending the divine nature? As we have seen, it does not mean that we must remain silent before the unspeakable Deity. Christians do in fact say many positive things about God via his essential properties. These properties, or goods, are coextensive, concurrent, coincident with the divine essence. Through them we do know the divine nature—yet we cannot comprehend or define it. Why? In his book Retrieving Nicaea, Khaled Anatolios offers an interpretation of divine incomprehensibility which I find compelling.

First off, Anatolios notes that it is not just God whose nature humanity cannot comprehend. It’s all of creation! “We learn by the senses just enough about the elements of the world to be able to make use of each for our life,” writes Gregory, “but as to a definition of their being, we have not understood it, nor do we regard our ignorance as a disadvantage” (C. Eun. II. 117). I first ran into this view when I read St Gregory the Theologian’s hymn of creation in Oration 28. I remember at the time wondering why Gregory would say that we cannot comprehend creatures. Aren’t we able to sensibly apprehend things and verbally state their definitional qualities? I thought he was confusing cognitive incapacity with provisional ignorance of how the world works, an ignorance always receding as scientific knowledge advances. But now I find Gregory Nyssen saying something similar. Anatolios explains:

Gregory seems to have in mind a strict notion of what the act of ‘knowing the essence’ contains. This becomes clear from the fact that Gregory demonstrates the unknowability of the divine essence by reference to the unknowability of “the essential nature” of creaturely realities—which in turn is demonstrated by a rhapsodic description of these very realities! It is indeed startling that Gregory would seek to elucidate the incomprehen­sibility of the divine essence by comparison with mundane realities that are accessible to our sense experience and susceptible to lavish and detailed description. We should infer that for Gregory incomprehen­sibility of essence and inaccessibility are by no means equivalent categories. Creaturely realities are certainly accessible to us, and yet we can give no radical account of the fact and power of their being and of the act of self-bestowal whereby they become accessible to us. (p. 162)

Only the eternal Creator truly comprehends the essences he has made, for only he knows things from the inside-out, if you will: only he has a God’s-eye view of their inner causality. Natures manifest themselves to us in their activities and workings. These activities are indeed apprehensible; but to know the activity is not to comprehend the essence. It is not to penetrate to the mystery of its existence. Our experience of beings in their energetic self-presentation does not give us the kind of cognitive mastery that only the Creator enjoys:

Closely aligned with this notion is the understanding of essences and natures as intrinsically productive: a nature manifests itself in its active effects. Yet, for Gregory of Nyssa, encounter with the productive self-manifestation of a nature (physis/ousia) is not equivalent to knowing the nature as such. Knowing the nature, according to Gregory’s maximalist sense, would mean reaching behind its self-presentation, thereby rendering it a merely passive object of the mind’s act of comprehension. The knower would exhaustively grasp the nature’s inner intelligibility and the root power of its existence. As a rule, Gregory’s ontology precludes such an epistemology of “comprehension.” Being, both divine and creaturely, is a dynamic of active self-announcement that cannot be superseded by the knower’s grasp and announcement of it. Gregory definitively rules out that kind of knowing as a human possibility, with reference not only to God but to other creatures as well. Instead, knowing God—that is, endlessly journeying through the infinite plenitude of divine being—becomes a paradigm for knowing in general. We cannot know the essence even of creaturely realities; we cannot grasp the very origin of their causal power. The operative image here is the sun and its radiance; one cannot reach behind the productive self-manifestation of the sun in its radiance to the essence that is the radical causal source of that self-manifestation. By Gregory’s standards, then, we can register any number of true facts about a being and exhaustively analyze the connections between these facts and still be very far from “knowing the essence.” That is how Gregory is able to say that we do not even know our own essences. (p. 163; cf. Torstein Theodor Tollefsen, Activity and Participation)

Knowing the essence of something is clearly a more radical project than I ever expected. I perceive this computer sitting there before me. I know something about what it does. I know a little something about how it was made. I can make both apophatic and cataphatic statements about it. But what I will never apprehend, no matter how hard I should study it, no matter how much knowledge I should gain about it, is my computer’s inner intelligibility as a creature brought into being from out of absolute nothing. To know the essence of something is to know that something as only God can know it. No matter how deeply we plumb the mystery of existence, it remains unfathomable mystery.

Perhaps now we can better understand why comprehending the essence of the uncreated Creator is an impossible task. At least creaturely objects present themselves to our senses; but God cannot be so perceived. He is invisible to us, not just as neutrinos and angels are invisible, but invisible in his infinite and holy transcendence. Despite all our mighty efforts, we will never apprehend God as an object to be captured by our senses and intellect. Anatolios incisively suggests that for Gregory the notion of knowing the divine essence is nothing less than a “category mistake” (p. 169, n. 35). The Bishop of Nyssa states the challenge: “He therefore who claims that he comprehends the knowledge of realities should in the first place reveal to us the nature of the ant, and only then give a scientific account of the Power which transcends all thought” (C. Eun. III.4).

Hence our knowing of God is utterly dependent on his gracious self-revelation. The Creator must freely make himself known and by the Spirit draw us into his self-knowledge within the eternal life of the Father and the Son. The apperceiving of God, therefore, is never an effort of mastery but of receptive faith and worship. Anatolios describes it as doxological knowledge—a kind of compre­hension that “has become utterly worship, the knowing-in-adoration of the transcendence of the glory perceived, traveled in, but not enclosed” (p. 165). And again: “Our knowing of God can never comprehend the divine essence as if it were an inert object; our knowing succeeds in being in touch with the reality of God when it reacts to the divine self-manifestation in wonder and worship” (p. 194).

“The only name that signifies the divine nature,” declares St Gregory, “is the wonder that arises ineffably in our souls concerning it” (C. Eun. III.6.4).

(2 May 2014; rev.)

(Go to “Was St Gregory a Proto-Palamite”)

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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 Nyssen 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 is not; positive terms specify the essential properties that God has; but whether presented in either negative or positive modality, our language for God does not capture what God is. In his transcendent nature, God remains 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).

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. Some 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.

(30 April 2014; mildly edited)

(Go to: “Incomprehensible God”)

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St Gregory of Nyssa and the Power of God

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Feeling ill-equipped to answer the dilemma posed by his anti-Nicene opponents, Bishop Ablabius reaches out to the older bishop of Nyssa and invites him to craft a response. St Gregory formulates the dilemma in these words: “Either we must say there are three gods, which is blasphemy; or else we must deny divinity to the Son and the Holy Spirit, which is irreligious and absurd” (An Answer to Ablabius in Christology of the Later Fathers, p. 256). After reading the series on his Epistle to Peter, we might expect Gregory to iterate the hypostasisousia distinction: there cannot be three gods because each divine person equally possesses the divine substance. No problemo. Next dilemma, please. But Gregory finds the distinction insufficient. More needs to be said if the catholic Church hopes to demonstrate why she does not preach tritheism. And it is here that the “Father of Fathers” makes one of his most provocative contributions to trinitarian reflection: theotes (divinity, deity, Godhead) does not refer to the divine essence but to “the varied operations of the transcendent power” (p. 260).

Earlier I discussed how Basil and Gregory distinguish between God’s unknowable essence and his knowable essential attributes, the latter being intrinsic to, coextensive with, and expressive of the former. Andrew Radde-Gallwitz describes the propria as “unique identifying properties that are inseparably linked to the divine nature, but distinct in some sense” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, p. 184). Gregory typically refers to the propria as the “goods.” They include light, wisdom, life, truth, justice, goodness, incorruptibility, power.

moralsdogmapix49_zps5391b1daThe proprium of power exercises a central role in Gregory’s lengthy refutation of Eunomius. According to Michel René Barnes “divine power” (θεία δύναμις) is the Nyssan’s preferred title for God (The Power of God, p. 237).  Power may be understood as a being’s causal faculty, the “capacity to act that is distinctive to a specific existent and that manifests the nature of that existent” (p. 305). Patristic theologians found it particularly suitable for speaking of God and especially for speaking of God as Trinity:

First of all, God acted: God had, to put it in the jargon, an affective capacity. God acted in history upon individuals and nations. Perhaps most importantly, God acted as the maker of the world, of the cosmos. If one understood God as one who acts, then the term power was quite appropriate. … For Christians there is a further intensely fundamental act on God’s part: His production or generation of a Son, a Word, a Wisdom, a Power—whatever title one picks to name this product and the associated relationship of origin and continuity. In the patristic era, any trinitarian theology is necessarily a theology of God’s productivity. (p. 10)

In contrast to Eunomius, who exhaustively identified the divine essence as unbegottenness and thus insisted, as Barnes puts it, “that God’s productive capacity is not an essential attribute, property, or quality but exists only as an act of the will” (pp. 190-191), Gregory asserts that God is generative in his inner being. The notion of divine power thus becomes crucial for Gregory in a way that it cannot be for Eunomius:

For Gregory, the transcendence of God includes the capacity to produce; indeed, Gregory’s conception of this capacity as a δύναμις means not only that this capacity exists as a natural capacity in God, but because this capacity is the δύναμις of the divine nature, God’s kind of existence is the kind that (re)produces. The distinction among Persons means that the inherent productivity of the divine nature has two different expressions of appropriations. The first Person is productive (that is, is God) by generating the Second; the second Person is productive (that is, is God) by creating. Yet Gregory’s fundamental insight, and his argument against Eunomius, remains clear: the divine nature, insofar as it is the divine nature, is productive. The unity between the divine δύναμις and divine φύσις [nature] is such that Gregory is led to speak of the transcendent δύναμις more than the transcendent φύσις, with the result that the title “divine δύναμις” replaces “divine φύσις” in Gregory’s writings. (pp. 223-224)

Given the incompre­hensibility of the divine essence (ousia), or nature (physis), the divine power becomes for Gregory the primary attribute of the Creator. It is closest to the essence within the causal chain: the chain concludes with the divine works of the divine activity; the divine activity flows from the divine power; the divine power inheres in the divine essence (ἔργα–ἐνέργεια–δύναμις–οὐσία); but of the essence we cannot speak. In this sequence, therefore, δύναμις is as far back as Gregory can meaningfully expound, for the power of God manifests the unknowable essence of God. “It is important to remember,” states Barnes, “that in this causal sequence the further back in the sequence, the greater correspondence between the causality and the nature” (p. 237).

Dunamis does not exist apart from a nature; nature does not exist without its power. Or as Khaled Anatolios expresses it: “For divine ‘power’ (dynamis) means the manifestation in act of the divine nature as such” (Retrieving Nicaea, p. 178). Where we encounter the power of God, there we encounter the ineffable essence. If then the Son and Spirit exhibit the power of God, as Scripture teaches us, we rightly infer their equal divinity. Gregory disallows all degrees of divinity within uncreated Being.

Power–essence is the primary coupling in Gregory’s writings; but in two of his short treatises, Answer to Ablabius and On the Holy Trinity, he substitutes energeia for dunamis, thus giving us an operations–essence pairing.  If the divine essence were accessible to us, says Gregory, we would have no problem determining the divinity of the Son or Spirit; but since it is not, we must instead contemplate the divine operations as revealed in Holy Scripture and reason to the Godhead:

But since it [the divine nature] is exalted above the understanding of the questioners, and we have to argue from some particular evidence about those things which evade our knowledge, it is absolutely necessary for us to be guided to the investigation of the Divine nature by its operations. If, then, we see that the operations which are wrought by the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit differ one from the other, we shall conjecture from the different character of the operations that the natures which operate are also different. For it cannot be that things which differ in their very nature should agree in the form of their operation: fire does not chill, nor ice give warmth, but their operations are distinguished together with the difference between their natures. If, on the other hand, we understand that the operation of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is one, differing or varying in nothing, the oneness of their nature must needs be inferred from the identity of their operation. (On the Holy Trinity)

When from our reading of Scripture we see that the Father, Son, and Spirit engage in actions that are properly characterized as divine, we may deduce their equal communion in the one divine nature.

It is important, argues Barnes, that the energeia passages in Gregory be interpreted in light of the dunamis–physis pairing: “Gregory uses ἐνέργεια to describe the common act that the Trinity do, but both the sense of the terms themselves (activity–power) and a careful reading of Gregory’s argument lead us to understand that in the logic of his trinitarian theology, activity presupposes power” (p. 302). Energeia is always the activity of dunamis. Hence even in the few writings where Gregory emphasizes the divine operations, with minimal attention to the divine power, the dunamis–physis dialectic should be assumed as operative: the Father, Son, and Spirit are one because each possesses the one θεία δύναμις. Between the divine operations and the divine essence, there is the divine power: energeia–dunamis–physis. “Power and nature are, on the one hand, virtually synonymous,” explains Lewis Ayres, “and on the other hand, it is the power that is the cause of actions ad extra” (“On Not Three People,” p. 473, n. 35).

In the words of St Gregory: “While we confess three Persons, we say that there is one goodness, and one power, and one Godhead” (On the Holy Trinity).

(27 April 2014; mildly edited)

(Go to “The Infinity of God”)

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