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The Post-Nicene Greek Fathers

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Of the three great Cappadocians, the most vigorous and original thinker was Gregory Nyssa. Strikingly akin to Origen in the freedom and often in the fancifulness of his thinking, he yet was a recognized champion of the trinitarian doctrine, and contributed largely, perhaps more than any other one father, toward the logical completion of the Nicene Confession by the Council of Constantinople. In spite of certain Origenistic opinions, which were afterward repudiated by the Church — for example, his belief in the ultimate reclamation of the wicked — he was held in high esteem by his contemporaries in the orthodox body, and by an oecumenical council of the next century he was referred to as "a father of fathers." Born about A. D. 331, and early connected with the church, he did not, like his brother Basil, abjure the world. He was married, and followed the profession of rhetoric. At the age of fifty, however, he was induced by Basil to enter the ministry, and was by him named to the bishopric of Nyssa. His zeal and ability in the defense of the Nicene faith soon made him obnoxious to the Arian authorities who were then dominant, and in the year 375 he was driven into exile, to be restored, however, by the proclamation of Gratian, A. D. 378. Among other honors conferred upon him by the Council of Constantinople, he was commissioned to visit and inspect the churches of Arabia. In connection with this journey he visited Jerusalem, and made observations which led him to write in disapproval of pilgrimages to that city. He was present at a synod held in Constantinople, A. D. 394, but how long he lived afterward is not known. His more noteworthy writings are here described. Some of the extracts are from portions of his works which a late Patriarch of Constantinople said were interpolated; but, as they are characteristic passages, whose sentiments are interwoven with Gregory's whole teaching, they should not be sacrificed, out of consideration for his orthodoxy.

This work is in forty chapters, preceded by a preface, which shows that the argument for Christianity must be adapted to its hearers. In opposing severally pagans, Jews, and heretics, we must meet them on common ground. To an atheist we prove the existence of God by the creation. A Jew must be led to understand the Scriptures by comparing them with reason, and may then be shown the existence of the Divine Word from Scripture testimony. Chapters one to thirteen are devoted to proving the divinity of the Son and the Spirit, and the next fifteen chapters treat of the incarnation. We reason to the incarnation from the fact that man, who had fallen into sin by his own fault, could only be raised up again by his Creator; hence came the Divine Word. It was not unworthy of God thus to be born and die, nor did the divinity thereby lose its divine perfection. Such a union of the divine and human is no more incomprehensible than the union of soul and body. That Christ was divine is proved by his miracles. He became man out of good-will to men, such incarnation being the most natural remedy for our miseries, and something agreeable to the goodness and the justice of God. Chapter twenty-nine propounds the question why sin was not checked in its incipiency, and answers it by declaring that sin needed to work itself out in all the forms which it shows in history, in order that the healing might extend to the utmost limit of the disease. Next is discussed the fact that only a limited number receive the grace of faith. If it were true that we held that faith is apportioned by the divine will, then one might rightly object to this mystery; but, since the calling is made alike to all men, God must not be accused because the Word does not gain the mastery over all. In calling men to faith, God does not take away their liberty; that is why many of them still perish. Christ needed to die, that he might become wholly like us, and that by rising again he might prove our resurrection.

Passing on to the Christian ordinances, chapters thirty-three to thirty-six treat of baptism. In this rite three things conduce to the immortal life — prayer, water, faith. In the triple burial in the water is imitated our Lord's death of three days' duration. It is the divine virtue accompanying the rite which effects the transformation. Without this sacrament no one can be washed from sin, because only by it can the divine virtues be made effectual for us. Those who are not thus purged must be purged by fire. [Here, as in chapter eight, the Origenistic doctrine of restoration is made prominent.]

But man is of a double nature, is soul and body, and, while the soul may attain to salvation by faith, the body must come to it in another way. The body can be immortal only as, by communion with the immortal, it becomes a partaker of in-corruption. This it does in receiving the Lord's body. "We must consider how it can be that that one body distributed evermore to so many thousands of believers throughout the world is wholly in each one by a part, and remains entire in itself."

Spiritual regeneration has this peculiarity, that he who is thus born knows from whom he is born and unto what life; for in this kind of birth it depends upon man what he will become. But this regeneration is unprofitable if, after receiving the sacraments, one continues in sin. "Dost thou not know that man does not otherwise become a child of God but by becoming holy?"



1. "[God] willed that which should happen, and has not restrained free-will; so that he perhaps willed that man should swerve from the good, since he foreknew all and saw the future alike with the past. But, as he saw his aberration, he also reflected how he could turn him back again to the good." —Chapter 8. "For not all who through the resurrection return again into being attain to the same life, but there is a great difference between those who are purified and those who lack purification. Those who in this life have been cleansed through the bath of regeneration attain to a condition suited to them; purity corresponds to freedom from suffering, but at all events there is freedom from suffering. But those in whom passion has been arrested, and who have not shared in the cleansing from pollution, nor in the mysterious knowledge [gained in baptism], nor in the invoking of the divine power, nor in the improvement through repentance, must also attain to a condition suited to them — the melting-pot is suited to unrefined gold — that the sins clinging to them may be, so to speak, melted out, and, after many centuries, a pure nature and God may be attained. Fire and water possess a purifying power. Therefore they who have been purified from the filth of sin through the mysterious water need not the other kind of purification. But those who have not shared in that purification must necessarily be cleansed by fire." — Chapter 35.

2. "The body [of Christ] was through the indwelling of the Word of God raised to a divine dignity. Rightly, therefore, do I now believe that bread sanctified by the Word of God is transmuted into the body of the Word of God. For that body was virtually bread. It was, however, sanctified by the indwelling of the Word, which dwelt in the flesh. Therefore, as in that body the transmuted bread passed over into divine virtue, so now it is the same. There the grace of the Word made holy the body, the substance of which was from bread, and which in a certain sense was itself bread. Here likewise the bread, as says the apostle, is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer; not becoming the body of the Word through the eating and drinking, but being immediately changed into the body of the Word, as was said by the Word, 'This is my body.'" — Cap. 37.



This is a dialogue between Gregory and his sister, called forth by the recent death of their brother Basil. In it Macrina urges upon Gregory the abandonment of heathen philosophizing over the nature of the soul, and the acceptance of the Christian teaching. He endeavors to show the concurrence of reason with such teaching. "My opinion," he says, "is this: The soul is an active, living, spiritual essence, which confers upon the organized body, which perceives through its senses, power to live and to observe those things known by the senses so long as its nature is capable thereof." The soul is immortal, and in the future life will recognize the elements of its body scattered at death, and will re-assume them. This last is illustrated by supposing that many vessels of clay of various sorts, bowls, pitchers, etc., are broken into fragments; the owners of these, it is claimed, will be able to distinguish the fragments of the several vessels from one another and from fragments of the unmolded clay. The story of the rich man and Lazarus' is shown to have a figurative and spiritual meaning. The doctrine of the transmigration of souls, also, is discussed and refuted.



"The teaching [of the gospel concerning hades] is indeed wrapped up to some degree in material expressions, yet most men who inquire carefully are led by these to a spiritual understanding. When the Lord speaks of a great gulf which separates the bad from the good, and leaves the rich man in hell to long for a drop of water reached forth with the finger, and gives to him who had been miserable in this life the bosom of Abraham for a resting-place, he has already spoken of their death and burial; so that, for him who reads the Word with understanding, this points to another than the apparent meaning. What kind of eyes are they which the rich man lifted up in hell, when he had already left his bodily eyes in the grave? How could he who is without a body feel the flames? What kind of tongue is that which he wished to have cooled by a drop of water when he now had no corporeal tongue? What finger was to bring him the drop? And what means the bosom in which the poor man rested? The bodies are in the grave, but souls are neither corporeal nor have they parts; consequently the account cannot be true if we must interpret all literally. We must thus understand all figuratively, and by the gulf which separates the two places must not conceive of an earthly distance; for what difficulty were it for a spiritual and incorporeal being to fly through never so large a space, when a spiritual being can transport itself in the twinkling of an eye whithersoever it will?" —Soul and Resurrection.



This was not only the most elaborate treatise by Gregory, but was accounted one of the chief books of the age in defense of the consubstantiality of the Son and the divinity of the Holy Spirit. It is in twelve books, in the first of which Gregory defends Basil against calumnies brought against him by Eunomius in the latter's reply to Basil. The faith of Christians, it is asserted, comes to them, not from men but from Jesus Christ the Word of God, in person and through his apostles. It can not be changed or added to. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-ordinate, each with each other, the one God of our faith. The leading aspect in which the person of the Son is presented and defended is as the Only-begotten. The work maintains his consubstantiality with the Father, the fullness of his divinity, the eternity of his generation in the bosom of the Father, his distinctive character as Mediator, and the beneficence of his mediatorial work. The divinity of the Holy Spirit is also proved, as against the assertion of Eunomius that he is the first creative and supreme work of the Son. The argument adduces the common designation of Father, Son, and Spirit as "holy"; shows that the Spirit's work as Comforter is also ascribed to both Father and Son; cites the Lord's declaration (John, 15:26) that the Spirit proceeds from the Father — which is said by the Lord of no created being; points out the office of the Spirit in the birth of the children of God; shows that the Lord, whom Isaiah saw "high and lifted up," is by Paul (Acts 28:25) called the Holy Spirit; quotes the Lord's words (John 3:8) as proving him to be free, not subject, as Eunomius had said, to the Son; and shows that the Spirit has ascribed to him all the attributes of the Father and the Son, and that he performs works ascribed to God. Gregory makes use of abstract reasoning, arguments from nature, and expositions of Scripture passages which Eunomius had interpreted falsely. Among other calumnies which he charges upon Eunomius is his assertion that his opponents make Christ a mere man; whereas Gregory affirms that the Only-begotten Son of God assumed human flesh, and, becoming mediator between God and man, suffered and died as a man, but as God was impassible and incorruptible. He disposes of such passages as Acts 2:36, by showing that Christ was not "made" as to his essence. This he does by citing the declaration that Christ was made sin for us. The name Lord refers to the dignity, not to the essence, of Christ. The true name of the divine essence is unknown to men. The Son is to the Father as the brightness is to the flame, as the faculty of seeing is to the eye. There are many kinds of generation, but the generation of the Son was unique; for that reason he is called (Greek letters). Not God the Father alone, but also the Son, is good. It was through his benignity and goodness that he formed, and, by his cross and death, reformed man. Eunomius has made use of Egyptian fables against Christian doctrine. He has also, by making the work of Christ a necessity instead of his free act, robbed him of his claim upon the gratitude of men.



"If the life-giving power which is in the Father and the Son is shown also in the Holy Spirit, according to the declaration of the gospel; if he is incorruptible and unchangeable, permitting no evil; if he is good, and right, and commanding, and works all in all as he wishes; if we may see all such things to be the same in Father and Son and Holy Spirit — how is it possible through this identity to discern diversity of nature?" — Book II, 14.



The thirty chapters of this treatise handle such questions as the creation of the world, the formation of man, and the nature and origin of the soul. The soul, it is held, is a spirit, and is equally in all parts of the body; it has no pre-existence, but comes into being at the same moment with the body. That creation in God's image allows of certain differences between the human and the divine is set forth in the following extract:



"God has made human nature participant in every good. For, since God is the fullness of perfection and man is his image, the likeness of the image to the original must consist in its possession of perfection. Therefore, we have every kind of beauty, all virtue and wisdom, and everything which mikes perfect. It is one of these perfections, too, that man is free and is controlled by no physical force and chooses whatsoever he will. Virtue is thus something free and voluntary; what is forced can not be virtue. If, then, the image which in every feature approaches the original were not in some respect different from it, manifestly it would not be a likeness, but a complete identity. What difference, now, do we know between God and man created like unto God? God is uncreated, man is created. Out of this difference there proceeds another: It is conceded by all that the uncreated Being is also unchangeable, and is evermore like himself; but the creature can not remain without change....God, now, who foreknows all things, perceived by his foreknowledge how man with his free-will would decide — for he foresaw the future — and therefore he established in his image the difference between male and female." — Chapter 16...."God foresaw in his omniscience that man would not remain inclined to the good, and would therefore lose the angel-like life. [The angels, it has been shown, increase without marriage.] Since, then, the multitude of human souls, by that kind of increase by which the angels multiply, would, through sin, remain incomplete, he made our nature suitable for that kind of increase which would be appropriate to us after we had fallen into sin." — Chapter 17.


Principal Works.

DOGMATIC: The "Oratio Catechetica Magna"; "On the Formation of Man"; the "Hexasmeron," a work explaining the order of creation as related in Genesis; "On the Soul," addressed to Tatian; "On the Soul and the Resurrection"; "On Faith," against the Arians; tract "Against Fate"; "To Ablavius," against Tritheists; twelve books "Against Eunomius"; "Of Great Abraham," on the divinity of the Son and Spirit; "Of the Untimely Death of Infants"; "Treatise of Common Notions," addressed to the Greeks and explaining the terms used with reference to the Trinity; "Ten Syllogisms" against the Manichasans; two tracts against the Apollinarians. ASCETIC and PRACTICAL: "On Virginity"; the "Life of Moses," a treatise concerning the perfect life, abounding in allegorical interpretation; "On Pilgrimages to Jerusalem," dissuading from such pilgrimages, on account of the corruption attending them, and remarking that "change of place does not cause the nearer approach of God"; the so-called "Canonical Epistle," laying down rules of penance. EXEGETICAL and HOMILETICAL: "On the Inscriptions of the Psalms," "On the Sixth Psalm," "On the First Three Chapters of Ecclesiastes," "On the Canticles," "On the Lord's Prayer," and "On the Beatitudes"; various sermons, among them a noticeable one on 1 Cor. 15:28, in which the author's peculiar views as to the future are advanced. PANEGYRICS: On the martyr Stephen, the martyr Theodore, the Forty Martyrs, Gregory Thaumaturgus, the Empress Placilla, Ephraem Syrus, Basil, Melitius.


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