Gregory of Nyssa, long recognized as one of the most intellectually original of the church fathers, is perhaps most remarkable for his distinct theological anthropology (study of humankind). This work, based on Smith’s 1999 Yale dissertation, explores how the passions function in Gregory’s teachings on God, human creation, and salvation.
The majority of the early church asserted that God, being an utterly transcendent and simple spirit, is without passions. That is, he is not subject to the sorts of reactive states (anger, desire) that creatures in the realm of change and becoming undergo. Despite the subtitle, very little space is given to establishing and extrapolating divine impassibility in the text. It functions mainly as an underpinning assumption.
As created in the image of God, humanity shares a certain likeness but not identity to its divine exemplar. Two considerations color Gregory’s vision of the image. The first is that unlike Aristotle’s way of defining things, which emphasizes both difference (species) and commonality (genus), Gregory explains the image of God in man wholly in terms of man’s uniqueness from the rest of creation. This leads him to emphasize man’s higher rational functions and downplay (but not entirely discount) his embodied nature. Already the passions occupy an ambiguous role. Second, Gregory constructs his vision of the original humanity by looking ahead to the final humanity after the return of Christ and the consummation of history. He reads in Paul that there is neither male nor female in Christ and concludes that essential humanity is in fact genderless, but that gender was added in view of the coming fall to provide a means of procreation. Also, since the Christian’s goal is divinization, and God is without passions, the status of passions in human existence appears yet more tenuous.
Passions, however, are not so easily uncoupled from humanity. Scripture portrays certain passions, such as desire and anger, as potentially virtuous. Also, the passions are a part of navigating bodily existence, and Gregory accepts as certain a future bodily resurrection. The goal, then, must be to sublimate the soul’s impulses under the intellect’s control and eliminate errant belief claims that would rouse the passions improperly.
The passions may help solve another problem. Origen had developed a theory of the fall, in which the pre-existent souls who contemplated the divine essence became satiated with God and grew cold, turning away from him and falling into bodily existence. Gregory rejects this account of the fall but nevertheless tackles the question of how the soul could not become satiated with God once vision of him has been attained. Gregory’s answer involves both the nature of man and the nature of God. God is infinite, but not only that, he is infinitely novel, fresh, exciting. How can man avoid being overwhelmed by this infinitude? Man’s soul has an infinite capacity for growth. The very beauty of God revealed to it moves it by an erotic impulse to move ever deeper into the mystery of God’s energies.
The way toward God is through perpetual cycles of moral purification, kataphatic illumination, and mystagogy. Gregory employs the allegory of Moses’ ascent of Sinai to explicate the soul’s ascent. The allegory, which I will not reproduce here, is fascinating, absolutely worth reading either in Smith’s account or the original. The point is that only after an ascetic life through which the passions have been completely mastered is one able to enter into the highest contemplation of God. We can participate, in a limited way, in the incredible transformation that the end of history and the restoration of all things will usher in. Gregory’s doctrine of epektasis, the “stretching forth” of the soul after God, portrays the soul as a ship sailing toward an eternal horizon, exploring innumerable islands, each more magnificent than the last. In this state, our yearning for God will no longer be, like hunger and thirst, desire springing from lack; it will be a contented and receptive fullness based on past enjoyment and continued anticipation. The passions, it seems, are never completely eliminated, but are transfigured into something that appropriately reflects the divine apatheia.
The preceding has merely been some highlights gleaned from Passion and Paradise, rather than a full summary of the argument. One of the outstanding strengths of the book is its accessibility. It is quite surprising that it is so readable. Gregory of Nyssa is not a simple figure. The issues of the image of God, the constitution of the soul, the purgation of the passions, and eschatological hope are thorny topics. The Greek philosophers and Christian theologians lying behind Gregory’s thought are themselves quite complex. Yet, without sacrificing precision or scope, Smith has managed to fashion an investigation that should engross both specialist and relative neophyte. A clear thread of argument runs through the book. Questions of source and relation to other figures illuminate rather than distract. Extensive endnotes keep the main text clean while allowing the interested reader significant additional insight. Smith’s controversial synthesis of Gregory’s divergent eschatological strains is enticing and logical, but not dogmatic.
This is one of the best historical studies—one of the best books—I’ve read in a while. It is a rare treat to find a book that delivers much more than is promised in the title and on the back cover. Of obvious interest to any student of the church fathers, I believe this work would also prove stimulating for contemporary theologians who wrestle to relate creation and redemption within a theological anthropology.