(Posted by Martin Vaňáč on St, 21 March 2007)
Gregory of Nyssa (c.330 - c.395) is best known for his contributions, along with his brother, Basil, and their friend, Gregory Nazianzen, to the Trinitarian formulations of the Council of Constantinople. However, my main concern in what follows is another aspect of Gregory´s theology. I wish to consider Gregory´s understanding of the apophatic elements which are to be found in our journey to and in communion with God.
To do this, I will need to examine five areas. First, in what sense is it possible to call Gregory of Nyssa´s theology apophatic? Second, and in order to answer that first question, I will consider the two key controversies: with Origen and with Eunomius. Out of this polemic I will look at how Gregory´s concept of God´s infinity on the one hand and the infinite progress of humanity on the way to God on the other developed. This will lead to an analysis of what Gregory thinks can be known about God and how. Finally, I will look at the use of speech and silence as means of communication, an investigation that is of particular relevance in present discussion about the rediscovery of the apophatic method in philosophy and in theology. In the Conclusion I make this link more explicit and also consider two problems: first, why it is not enough to speak of God's transcendence - so, what else can apophaticism bring that would be relevant for our life of faith; second, wheather we can employ an apophatic method without affirming a progressive hierarchical ascent, and thus exclusivism in who can and who cannot reach higher stages of communion with God.
1. The Place of Gregory in the Apophatic Tradition
The word „apophatic", in Greek ἀπόφατικη, comes fromἀπόφασις, which has two basic meanings, namely „revelation" and „negation". It comes from the negative particle ἀπό and φασις which means either "phase" or „discovering, showing itself" (if it comes from the word φαίνω, to show or reveal), or "ratification" or "spelling out" (if it comes from the word φημί, to say). Vladimir Lossky defines apophaticism as follows:
Apophaticism consists in negating that which God is not; one eliminates firstly all creation, even the cosmic glory of the starry heavens and the intelligible light of the angels in the sky. Then one excludes the most lofty attributes, goodness, love, wisdom. One finally excludes being itself. God is none of all this; in His own nature He is the unknowable. He „is not." But here is the Christian paradox; He is the God to whom I say „Thou," Who calls me , Who reveals Himself as personal, as living.Using as an example the liturgy of John Chrysostom, he shows that in the patristic tradition the apophatic way is the journey towards a personal God: ‘In the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, before the Lord's Supper, one prays: „And grant us, O Lord, to dare to invoke Thee with confidence and without fear, by calling Thee Father."' And Lossky comments that the Greek text says precisely ‘God on high Whom one cannot name, the apophatic God'.
The apophatic way, however, is not an independent discourse. It has to go alongside the kataphatic way, in which the hidden God, dwelling beyond all that he reveals, is also the God who reveals himself as wisdom, as love, as goodness. Apophaticism, according to Lossky, emphasises that it is not God´s substance which is available to us but God´s communion which is made possible through revelation. Lossky´s understanding of apophaticism stems from the Greek Fathers, mainly from Gregory of Nyssa, who is often quoted. In later works, however, Lossky relates apophaticism more to Dionysios the Aeropagite, the sixth century mystic. My interest, nevertheless, remains with the fourth century situation in which Gregory of Nyssa follows in the tradition of the Alexandrian school, in particular Origen and Clement and emphasises the infinity and incomprehensibility of God. Yet the apophatic way is not given priority, as some sort of higher knowledge, but rather is seen as a complementary discourse to the kataphatic one. As Lenka Karfíková argues:
Gregory does not wish to develop a system of apophatic theology only in the sense of private or negative statements, as can be found with the Arians. Gregory explicitly rejects Eunomios's „technology" of negative statements as meaningless and says that positive statements have generally a priority over negative ones.Gregory stands within the tradition of Christian philosophers and theologians who made use of Middle Platonist and Plotinian themes mediated through Philo of Alexandria and his exegesis of the Old Testament texts. And, although we do not find in Gregory explicit references to these sources, his application of their insights is somewhat more radical than we find e.g. with Justin Martyr or Clement of Alexandria. Justin Martyr (c.110-165) stresses God's transcendence against anthropomorphism, but also claims that divine transcendence cannot be divorced from divine immanence. He asserts that the language we use about God does not pin down who God is in God's essence, but rather is derived from God's activities, thus we know God as the Father, as the Creator, as the Lord, etc. We find in Justin two key concepts of negative theology in nuce, namely, the namelesness and the ineffability of God. Clement of Alexandria (c.155-c.220) relates God's transcendence to the incarnation. He brings about a more systematic presentation than Justin. D. Carabine puts it this way: ‘We can know what God is not (not what he is), the use of the concept of abstraction and his mention of the dark cloud of Sinai, wherein God is invisible and ineffable.' Clement's method of abstraction (aphairesis), outlined in the Stromata consists of three stages of the path to wisdom: illumination (achieved through instruction); purification (attained through confession); and contemplation (achieved through analysis). The transcendent divine nature, then, makes itself known to us through grace and through the Logos. This conclusion, then, opens the door for the more explicit trinitarian theology of the Cappadocians, within which the relationships between the transcendent unknown nature of God and the immanent knowable presence of God are revisited.
Gregory of Nyssa's contribution to the apophatic tradition develops the previous approaches against the complex theological background of the fourth century. Thus, it is not surprising that one of Gregory´s chief aims is to oppose the Arian tradition, which claimed that the negative is superior to the positive when it comes to discourse about God. However, Gregory adopts a more radical approach, which enables him to hold a non-hierarchical understanding of the Trinity. Yet, he does not wish to develop a better way of talking about God, as if that would render the Arian position invalid. Rather, he recognises the limitations of both positive and negative language about God, since neither the one nor the other can ever hope to comprehend fully the ultimately incomprehensible God.
For him, then, the apophatic approach is a safeguard against any temptation to think that God can be defined by any system, be it positive or negative. Instead, he sees the necessity of having a plurality of discourses. No single one, nor indeed the sum of all of them, will be able to define or grasp the reality of God. Nevertheless, by having this plurality of discourse, the partial validity of each discourse can be recognised and valued. Ultimately, the very plurality will guard against the danger of thinking that God has been comprehended. It is in this particular sense that I want to argue that Gregory is very much in the apophatic tradition and uses apophatic discourse in some of his major works. Thus, he makes a contribution to our (not)knowing of God and I will argue that this is a necessary step in bringing about conversion, a necessary complement of any way to knowledge and to communication.
2. Two key controversies
Gregory´s position developed in the context of two controversies. The first was with the radical neo-Arian, Eunomius (d.394/5), and the second was with Origen (c.185 - c.254), who was as already mentioned also a source of great inspiration for Gregory.
Eunomius was a disciple of Aetius, whose extreme Arianism argued for the complete unlikeness of the Father and Son. He followed Aetius as leader of the Anomoeans, arguing that God was the ungenerated Being, the one single supreme Substance. The „Son of God" was created by the Father and not of his essence and neither was the Spirit, who was created in turn by the Son. But what interests me most here, since it elicited some of Gregory´s clearest statements on the subject, is Eunomius´ emphasis on orthodoxy. He claimed that if right doctrine was kept, then in principle God could be perfectly known by human reason and thus God would no longer be mystery.
Gregory´s reply, Contra Eunomium (c.382) is heavily tied up with his defence of the Constantinopolitan position on the divinity of the Son and the Spirit. But in it, Gregory also argues strongly that to call God "unbegotten", or „ungenerated" Being, is not the definitive way of naming God. Gregory writes:
Thus whenever a man speaks of „heaven" he directs the notion of the hearer to the created object indicated by this name, and he who mentions "man" or some animal, at once by the mention of the name impresses upon the hearer the form of the creature, and in the same way all other things, by means of the names imposed upon them, are depicted in the heart of him who by hearing receives the appellation imposed upon the thing. The uncreated Nature alone, which we acknowledge in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, surpasses all significance of names.Gregory claims that to know the definitive name means to know the essence of God, which is, according to him, indeed, something beyond our reach; ‘the Divine Essence is ineffable and incomprehensible: for it is plain that the title of Father does not present to us the Essence, but only indicates the relation to the Son.' Over against this designation, he says that the most important attribute of God is his infinity, as it does not betray the fact, that our knowing God always includes leaving behind what we think we have grasped and moving beyond that, something, which Bernard Lonergan would perhaps call an intellectual conversion.
Gregory's position can be summed up in three points. First, he argues that no single human word (or combination of them) can hope to grasp the essence of God. This first argument is broadened in the second argument, where he points out that in fact it is doubtful if any human word can fully express the essence of a thing (thus paving the way, as we shall see later, for the concept of symbolic language). Finally, he denies that unbegottenness, uncreatedness, ungeneratedness, is the most adequate way to name God. And these three critical points open a way to Gregory's alternative, in which he insists upon the absolute transcendence and unknowability of the Trinity. According to Gregory, we cannot know God in his essence (ousia), but what we can do is to acknowledge God's effects (energeiai).
Gregory´s relationship to the tradition of the Alexandrian school and in particular Origen is a great deal more complex. Much of Gregory´s theology was influenced by these sources. He took from them the allegorical interpretation of scripture, their teaching on human freedom (with its denial of any form of determinism), and the concept of eschatological hope when all will be well in God.
However, in one area Gregory found himself in disagreement with Origen. This was over Origen´s idea of a cyclical cosmos, where the soul becomes sated with contemplation of God and falls back into created matter once again, to begin the process of returning to God. It is effectively a version of reincarnation and Gregory rejects it.
This doctrine of Origen led Gregory to develop his own response which was based on the concept of epektasis. With this Gregory refers to the constant striving and straining of humankind on the never-ending journey towards God. New life in God is not the end of the journey, but a new phase in which the striving of the heart for God continues unabated. This is related to Gregory's notion of us being created in the image of God. As Carabine puts it, ‘since God's chief characteristic is unknowability, the human mind must be also unknowable to itself.' Then, as God's essence (ousia) cannot be known even by the restored soul, what the soul is left with is a never-ending striving for perfecting the image of God in itself, by a rigorous practice of abstraction from the self (aphairesis). The soul, according to Gregory, cannot know its own essence, but it can know itself as the image of the divine uncreated beauty. The process of the restoration of this image is made possible by the incarnation.
3. God´s infinity and human progress
Now we can return briefly to Gregory´s polemic with Eunomius. In it he distinguishes three types of infinity. The first he calls an absence of limit. For the second he uses the term "adiasthematic", which refers to God´s infinity, and the third type is he calls "diasthematic" which refers to the infinity of the human journey. By "adiasthematic" he means that God´s infinity is not mediated through time and space, whilst "diasthematic" means that the infinity of created beings must always be mediated in this way. Moreover, Gregory also wants to argue against Eunomius´ critique of the Cappadocian model of the Trinity. Eunomius claimed that this presented the Trinity as a composition, the Divinity being composed of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Gregory responds by saying that God cannot be understood as a composition in human terms. Rather, God must be understood precisely in terms of an infinity (the immediacy, that is, the unmediatedness of God), within whom are non-hierarchical inner relationships and inner communication. Furthermore, this inner life of God, although it remains unbounded by time and space, is not something which is therefore totally alien to creation. For we can experience its energeiai, its effects on us, such as mercy, goodness, love.
This ability to experience the effects of God´s infinity leads Gregory to posit another step. If God´s infinity can be known through its effects, then in that sense we are enabled to participate infinitely in God´s infinity. To this participation in God´s infinity, though, we must necessarily bring our createdness, with all its implications of bodily existence rooted in particular times and spaces. Thus, the infinite human journey is one which involves both this mediatedness and the challenge posed to it by the participation in the infinity of God. It is through this encounter between the mediated and the unmediated that spiritual progress is made.
The theme of spiritual progress is central to Gregory of Nyssa. M. Simonetti describes it thus: "the progressive ascent of man from the moment when he turns away from sin, until the attainment of final beatitude". Here I intend to examine three of Gregory´s works which are central to this theme, namely the early Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms, and two later works, On the Song of Songs and The Life of Moses. They present different approaches primarily because they respond to different problems. The Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms, which was written around the year 379, is a contribution to a controversy with those exegetes, who claimed that these inscriptions were the work of the editors. Gregory follows Hippolytus and Origen in insisting that the titles of the Psalms belong fully to the Scriptures, and thus are also inspired by the Holy Spirit. This is not a theme of central interest for my study, but the treatise develops another theme, namely of the progress in spiritual life, alongside with Gregory´s notions of the apophatic way.
The Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms situates the theme of spiritual progress within questions about the aim of the Psalter and how this aim should be fulfilled. He begins by saying that the whole Psalter, including the inscriptions, has the capacity to lead us to virtue. Thus, the aim of virtue is, according to him, a blessed life: "For everything that one takes pains in doing is always referable to some goal. Just as the art of the physician looks to health, and the aim of farming is to provide for life, so also the acquisition of virtue looks to the one who lives by it becoming blessed." Human blessedness, then, is defined as likeness to God. The role of history, which will find a much bigger place in Gregory´s later works, is minimised here. We find perhaps a stronger Platonic influence:
But someone might also further inquire why the world of the order of the Psalter is at variance with the sequence of history. ...We say, then, ...that our teacher [the Holy Spirit] has no concern for these matters. ...All other things seem incidental, then, to this guide and teacher of our souls except the zeal to save those wandering in the vanity of life and to attract them to true life.The sequence of the Psalms is soteriological, according to Gregory. It is to help us to progress towards the good in each of the events depicted in the psalms. Progress in spiritual life involves what Gregory summarises in his exegesis of t he first three verses of Psalm1:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,Gregory proposes the following interpretation:
nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.
He is like a tree planted by the streams of water,
that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
Now, on the one hand, it pronounces separation from evil to be blessed, since this is the beginning of turning to what is better. But after this, it calls the mediation on things that are sublime and more divine blessed, since this actually produces the capacity for what is better. Finally it pronounces blessed the likeness to God which is achieved by those who are being perfected through these stages, and on account of which the blessings previously received are mentioned. This latter is intimated by the evergreen tree, to which the life which has been perfected through virtue is linked.Gregory, then, sees three stages of spiritual life:
(1) separation from evil;
(2) meditation on the sublime and more divine blessed things; and finally
(3) participation in the blessedness, in the likeness to God.
In comparison with Clement's three stages of the way to wisdom, these more strongly resemble the three Platonic principles: (1) katharsis; (2) anamnesis; and (3) methexis. However, in Gregory the separation from evil is not identified with a purification from the material world, but the meditation on the more sublime and more divine things allow for these being identified with the Ideas. Later, as we will see in the Life of Moses this meditation is firmly rooted in history. And finally, participation in the blessedness, in the divine likeness, regaining what was lost by the fall, which in Gregory's earlier writings allows for a similar non-historical interpretation is later revised. It seems that only when the historical appreciation falls into place, does Gregory introduce the themes of the darkness and infinity of God, as well as our striving towards God. These will all be present in the Life of Moses, where the ascent of the soul to God is rooted in the history of salvation. But the figure of Moses appears already in this treatise, and with this figure, the other themes developed later are introduced:
He sweetened the bitter and undrinkable water with the wood, and changed the rock into a spring for the thirsty. He exchanged earthly food for the heavenly. He had keen vision in the divine darkness, and beheld the One who is invisible in it. He vestment of the priesthood in a worthy manner. He received the tablets made by God, and engraved them again after they were shattered. He bore upon his face a toaken of the divine power which had been revealed to him, and by the brilliance from his face, as though by flashes of sunlight, he averted the eyes of those who met him unvorthily.
4. What can we know about God and how
As was already said, according to Gregory, we cannot know God's essence (ousia), but can know God's effects (energeiai). Now let us examine how he develops this theme in his later work, The Life of Moses, where he includes a positive notion of darkness, and where his notion of the spiritual progress involves the history of salvation more explicitly. The Life of Moses was written round the year 385, when Gregory is more directly involved with the defence of Cappadocian orthodoxy. He writes a work of narrative, rather than speculative theology, in which one of his key concerns is precisely what we can and what we cannot know about God. Gregory writes as a Greek from the Alexandrian school, wishing to mediate to his contemporaries the Jewish scriptures. So it is that he seeks on the one hand to inculturate the story of Moses, using concepts which are accessible and comprehensible to his readers. Yet, part of his purpose is also to demonstrate the total otherness of the God of Moses, especially in respect of alternative philosophical formulations, such as those found in Platonism, for example.
Gregory is at pains to emphasise that the God of Moses is knowable only through relationship. John Meyendorff, in his Preface to the Life of Moses, puts it like this:
But the God who is perceived by Moses is still the God of Israel, the totally Other, the living and personal God, not a philosophical idea, the One of Plotinus. The best proof of it is the constantly recurring affirmation of God´s infinity, and, therefore, of the impossibility of exhausting Him or comprehending Him, as the human mind comprehends a concept. Communion with God is a constant ascent „from glory to glory". Each step of this ascent includes the joy of further expectation, the knowledge that He always remains greater than anything we can know of Him, and also that He gives Himself to man without setting any limits, because of his own inexhaustibility. Thus, in meeting God, there is never frustration, or satiety, but only the discovery of true Love.The work consists of four parts: an introduction, historia (a paraphrase of the Biblical story), theoria (an application of the story by means of contemplative reading to discern its spiritual import) and finally, the conclusion. Historia is not only the title of part of the work, but central to Gregory´s purpose, since he frequently emphasises that contemplation is impossible without being rooted. There can be no theoria, if the historia is not respected and recognised as central to the undertaking. Thus, history becomes for Gregory a symbol of the human journey, the progress of the soul towards God.
He chooses the life of Moses, precisely because such a life can help the traveller on his or her journey: ‘Lives of honoured men would be set forth as patterns of virtue for those who come after them'. As already alluded to, it is in the context of this historically situated journey and through contemplation of the particular lives of the honoured women and men who have preceded us that we are brought face to face with the limits, but also the possibilities, of our understanding.
But such thoughts as are beyond our understanding - like the questions, What is the essence of God?, What was there before the creation?, What is there outside the visible world?, Why do things which happen happen?, and other such things as are sought out by inquiring minds - these things we concede to know only by the Holy Spirit, who reaches the depths of God, as the Apostle says.Gregory has not abandoned the concepts resembling those of katharsis, anamnesis or methexis which had served him so well previously. However, these are now transformed and have ceased to be a-historical. Gregory emphasises rather the history of salvation, the arena for our journey, and the context in which human life is played out. Thus it is that everything else must take its meaning within this historical rootedness. Katharsis, anamnesis and methexis move from being Platonic concepts which are, at heart, in opposition to human existence and in Gregory come to take their meaning and their force from what they can offer to an understanding of human spiritual progress on the unending journey towards God.
In delineating the nature of this journey, Gregory follows the classical stages of the mystical ascent of the soul to God, light, cloud, and darkness. Again, Gregory roots these in the word of the Scriptures. He analyses how God speaks to Moses and comes up with three modes of revelation, first, in light, when Moses understands what is going on, then in a cloud, when his understanding is becoming questioned, and finally in darkness. Heine summarizes:
When Gregory explains what he means, the appearance in light represents a correction and clarification of our concepts of God. The appearance in a cloud stands for the passing of the soul from appearances perceptible to the senses to an apprehension of the hiddenness of God, and the appearance in darkness points to the mystery into which the soul is led, as even what is perceivable by the intellect is left behind, and the soul stands where Moses stood, in the darkness which surrounds God.Darkness is not a univocal concept in Gregory. Rather, he postulates two types of darkness, the darkness of ignorance and the darkness of restoration. The former is perhaps the more common way in which darkness is used as a metaphor: ‘the darkness of ignorance remains with the one who is obstinately disposed and does not permit his soul to behold the ray of truth.' But there is another sort of darkness, which is a precursor to light, the ability ‘to perceive the final restoration which is expected to take place later in the kingdom of heaven of those who have suffered condemnation in Gehenna'.
If Gregory perhaps follows Origen here with an allusion to apokatastasis, he nevertheless still rejects fully, as we have seen, Origen´s other idea of a cyclical cosmos. This is part of the soul´s journey, a journey rooted in time and space, towards God, and this journey will never end. So, darkness is not the final answer, the last word about God (for of course Gregory argues all the time there can be no last word about God). Instead, it is a stage, a part of epectasis, this striving of the soul for God, which has a beginning but no end.
5. Speech and silence as means of communication
It is perhaps not surprising that in reflecting on the life of Moses Gregory finds it necessary to consider the nature of human and divine communication. He sees communication as related to the inner life of God. Even if in principle knowledge of that inner life is beyond us, we are included into it. Gregory wants to maintain the fundamental difference between human and divine communication, but he differs here from later Western thinkers like Aquinas. Gregory does not explain the difference by means of analogy; he simply states the incompatibility, which can be bridged from God's side, as God enters into relationship with us, as God reveals his plans, his actions and himself to us.
Human communication is, for Gregory, an integral part of human existence. We need tools (media) to express our experience of the world in which we live, of our own existence and of God. The prime medium is our bodily existence - it is through this reality that we are enabled to experience and to communicate our experience.
By emphasising the centrality of bodily existence as the prime communicative medium of humanity, he is making a specific point. First of all, it harks back to his fundamental distinction between humanity and God - God is neither spacial nor temporal, but humanity is. Our existence is always spreading through space and time. We are bound by and found in a spatio-temporal reality. Human communication happens somewhere and sometime. For this reason, the first form of a creaturely communication is sensual - we know the world and relate to it through our senses. This first form of communication Gregory ascribes to all "irrational animals": "[f]or it is characteristic of the nature of irrational animals that they are governed by the senses alone divorced from understanding. Their sight and hearing often lead them to what stimulates their appetites. Also, all other things through which sense perception becomes active assume an important place in irrational animals.' But for human beings, this is but one stage on the road to knowledge. For clearly precisely what separates the rational animal (i.e., the human being) from the irrational is the ability to understand what is perceived sensually.
This higher knowledge is about moving on from the world of sense perceptions to another plane, one on which our thoughts can operate free from the limitations of the directly perceptible. In order to marshal our thoughts, though, language is necessary. Language provides signs which make the public utterance and communication of our thoughts possible. This is the step which is only possible for human beings (and not even for all of them).
As far as communication in God is concerned, Gregory is quite clear that we cannot reach God as we can reach creation. There is in this sense no "common language" between God and us, and we have to resist the temptation to make God into something smaller, which can be captured by spatio-temporal categories. But at the same time Gregory refuses to counter an almost complete agnosticism about God, or some sort of almost Deist God, destined to remain utterly alien to creation. For we can in fact come to know something about who God is through the way in which God reveals himself to us, the way in which we are enabled to know God in our lives, in our bodily existence. Key to this is the idea of contemplation:
For leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends, but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it [the human mind] keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence´s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing which is not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness.Thus, the encounter with God, the coming to see God through the contemplation of God as he reveals himself to us, is not a gift of a final ability to know God. It is a gift which does not remove the paradox, a knowledge of the unknowability, a seeing of the unseeable, a grasping of the still ungraspable. With this paradox, Gregory is operating at the boundaries of his language and conceptual framework, and yet at the same time he remains faithful to his core belief in the infinite transcendence of God and the infinite possibilities inherent in the never-ending human journey towards God. Perhaps the best way to summarise Gregory´s thoughts is to quote the words of the Preacher ‘there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak' (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Qoheleth is, according to Gregory, the great meditator in the Old Testament on the presence of the absent God, or the absence of the present God, and it is this reality that Gregory is trying to wrestle with. The time to keep silence is only there because it helps to make sense of the time we speak and the time to speak is only there because it makes sense of the time when we keep silence.
Gregory of Nyssa represents a turning point in the apophatic tradition. This includes more than a claim to God's radical transcendence. Gregory's emphasises the unknowability of God's essence (ousia) and yet the approchability of God in his effects (energeiai). This helps to build up a consistent Trinitarian theology, and also develop another theme of key importance to Gregory, namely that of spiritual progress on our journey to God. This, in Gregory, is achieved by a practice of the Clementian abstraction from the self (aphairesis), but he goes further and emphasizes, that this is a never-ending journey, as this process is never completed, even when the soul enjoys heavenly recreation. The soul can never know the essence of God, as too it can never know the essence of the self. Gregory claims that this is not a disadvantage. Spiritual progress is not about putting the human soul and its knowing to the centre of this process, but about the uncovering the image of God's uncreated beauty in the soul. Similarly , we do not strive to master God's essence, but to participate in God's goodness, as has revealed itself in the history of salvation, and as will be eschatologically transformed. My argument has been that we can trace in Gregory a thematic resemblance to Plato's principles of katharsis, anamnesis, and methexis, although explicit references are missing. These principles make it possible to apply apophasis not only to our ways of knowing, but to the whole realm of religious, moral and intellectual life. Here Gregory can be of a great inspiration to the holistic theologies of conversion, as well as to theologies and philosophies recovering the unity between the mystical and the practical.
Gregory's Trinitarian theology in the defence of non-subordinacialism excludes the notion of hierarchy. Instead, he argues for an understanding of the Trinity based on the inner relationships of the equals. I think that here we can argue further and say that if we are created in the image of God, our striving for the recovery of that image involves also this radical equality with others, abstraction from the self at the horizontal level, which expresses itself as growing solidarity with others. The concept of heavenly and earthly hierarchies later developed by Dionysius does not have an earlier analogy in Gregory, whose apophaticism does not offer either a privileged knowledge (in comparison to Eunomius) or a privileged access to knowledge (in comparison to Dionysius). Rather, Gregory's approach offers a welcome corrective of definite conceptions concerning knowledge, but also spirituality, ecclesiality, morality and politics, even if it has to be noted that especially with regards to politics, Gregory was not always able to provide us with practical examples of application of this corrective. Yet what he has given us are useful theoretical tools, an inspiring exegesis, Trinitarian teaching and recommendarions for the spiritual progress.
These themes are dealt with in the other article presented in this collection, ‘Apophatic Elements in Derrida's Deconstruction, and also in a lecture'Apophatic Aspects of Theological Conversation' at the 3rd International LEST Congress hold in November 6-9 2001 in Leuven, which will be published by Leuven University Press.
The word revelation comes from ἀπόφαίνειν, while the word negation from ἀπόφημι.
Lossky, V., Orthodox Theology: An Introduction. St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, Crestwood, NY, 1978: 32.
See Lossky: 32.
‘Thus side by side with the negative way, the positive way, "cataphatic," opens out. God Who is the hidden God, beyond all that reveals Him, is also He that reveals Himself. He is wisdom, love, goodness. But His nature remains unknowable in its depths, and that is exactly why He reveals Himself. The permanent memory of apophaticism must rectify the cataphatic way. It must purify our concepts by contact with the inaccessible, and prevent them from being enclosed within their limited meanings.' Lossky: 32-33.
See Lossky, V., The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. Cambridge, Clark & Co, 1991.
Karfíková, L. Řehoř z Nyssy [Gregory of Nyssa]. Oikúmené,Praha, 1999: 186.
See Carabine, D., The Unknown God: Negative Theology in the Platonic Tradition: Plato to Eriugena. Peeters Press & W.B. Eerdmans, Louvain, 1995: 223-233; Goodenough, E.R., The Theology of Justin Martyr: An Investigation into the Conceptions of Early Christian Literature and its Helenistic and Judaic Influences. Philo Press, Amsterdam, 1968; Palamer, D.W., ‘Atheism, Apologetic, and Negative Theology in Greek Apologists of the Second Century', Vigiliae Christianae 37 (1983), 234-259; Price, R., ‘Helenisation and Logos Doctrine in Justin Martyr', Vigiliae Christianae 42 (1988), 18-23.
Carabine claims that Gregory's knowledge of Middle Platonism and of Plotin was mediated through the Alexandrian school of exegesis, Origen in particular, through Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianus, and his brother Basil the Great (236). Compare to claims of direct knowledge of the sources in older literature: Daniélou, J., ‘Grégoire de Nysse et le néo-Platonisme de l'école d'Athènes', Revue des études grecques 80 (1967), 395-401; Courcelle, P.,‘Grégoire de Nysse lecteur de Porphyre', Revue des études grecques 80 (1967), 402-406.
See Carabine: 226-228.
See Stromata V.10-11; in Carabine: 231. Compare to my references below to Plato's three principles as these are mirrored in Gregory.
See Carabine: 232. Compare to Irenaeus's concept of the Trinity, where the Son and the Spirit are symbolised as two hands of God, and to the developed Cappadocian teaching on the Trinity.
This includes the heresies of both Arius and Eunomius. Arius's claim that there is an essential difference between the ungenerate nature of the Father and generate nature of the Son (refused in 321 - and opposed by the Council of Nicea in 325) is radicalised by Eunomius's assertion that the'ungenerate' is not only the fundamental characteristic of God, but also God's essence (ousia).
See Karfíková: 196; Compare to Begzos, M., ‘Apophatische Theologie und Ekklesiologie', in Verborgener Gott - verborgene Kirche? Die kenotische Theologie und ihre ekklesiologischen Implikationen. Ed. J. Brosseder, Verlag W. Kohlammer, Stuttgert, Berlin, 2001:26-33.
Bernard Lonergan defines conversion in the following way: 'Conversion is a matter of moving from one set of roots to another. ...It occurs only inasmuch as a man discovers what is inauthentic in himself and turns away from it, inasmuch as he discovers what the fulness of human authenticity can be and embraces it with his whole being.' (Method in Theology. Darton, Longman and Todd, London. 1972:271) Conversion, then, has three aspects to it; he speaks of religious, moral and intellectual conversion, but not of different conversions. Conversion is a holistic process which happens at the roots of our humanity, where one can be edified by the encounter with the living God. See Lonergan: 270.
Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium libri I et II. Ed. W. Jager, GNO II, Leiden, 1960, 3-311: II.3.
Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium: II.3.
Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium: I. 673.
Or rather an intellectual aspect of conversion. See note 18.
See KarfíkováTimes New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'">: 279.
The Eunomian controversy manouvered Gregory to the position in which he claimed that what applied to one person of the Trinity applies to all, which opened up difficulties e.g. for the theology of the Cross. Gregory subordinated his Christology to his Trinitarian theology, and also lost some of the economic characteristics of the Trinity. See Carabine: 248; Lossky, V., ‘Apophasis and Trinitarian Theology', in In the Image and Likeness of God. London, Oxford, 1975: 13-29.
This distinction between ousia and energeiai was further developed by Gregory Palamas (c.1296-1359) and accepted as an Orthodox teaching at the Council of Constantinopole in 1351.
We find in GregoryTimes New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'"> a similar position to Origen's teaching on apokatastasis, namely that all will be well in God in the end, which included the conversion and inclusion of everything and everyone, including all people, but also all the dark forces, even Satan. Gregory's position runs on similar lines, but, perhaps, as it remained less explicit, it avoided condemnation, which Origen's teaching on Times New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'">apokatastasisTimes New Rom'; mso-ansi-language: EN-GB; mso-bidi-font-family: 'Times New Regular>Times New Rom'"> did not.
In this Gregory keeps with the anathema of Constantinople, which we know from the Edict of Justinian in 542. See Karfíková: 25.
This concept Gregory takes from Phil 3:13: "ἐπεκτεινόμενος" - striving toward that which is coming to it.
Carabine: 244; he refers to Gregory's treatise De hominis opificio XI.3-4.
See Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium: II; Carabine: 247.
See Karfíková: 293.
We have to be careful with the interpretation of Gregory's claims that God is adiasthematic as well as with his arguments for non-hierarchical relations within the Trinity, as opposed to subordinationism. Neither of these concepts constitutes any type of knowledge of the divine essence in Gregory.
See Karfíková: 195.
Simonetti, M., Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church. Edinburgh, 1994: 65.
Daniélou argues that it was written before the year 379, possibly during Gregory´s exile, R.E. Heine places it after that date, arguing that it bears traces of the following events, the death of his brother Basil, the controversy with Eunomius, the death of his sister Marcina, and the intensification of the Origenist controversy. See Heine, R.E., ‘Introduction' to Gregory of Nyssa´s Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995: 10-11.
Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms I.5.
Heine argues that we find in Gregory either explicitly or implicitly fragments of Iamblichus´s rules of Platonic philosophy. See ‘Introduction': 36. Cf. note 10.
Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms II.131-132.
Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms I.8.
Compare to Clement's notions of illumination, purification, and contemplation, as three stages of abstraction (aphairesis) in Stromata V.10-11.
In the Sophist we find also the so called Cathartic Method ascribed to Socrates. It is concerned with ‘the purifier of the soul from conceits that stands in the way of knowledge' (Sophist 231.e). The word καθαρμός (from the passive substantive κάθαρμα - offscouring, outcast) refers to the removed impurity rather than to what is purified. Purification is related both to body and to soul. The body has to be purified from disease and ugliness. For this end, medicine and gymnastics are seen as means of help. The soul, then, has to be purified from wickedness and ignorance, here virtuous life and instruction are seen as means of help, help towards getting rid of evil. (Sophist 229.d)
The notion of anamnesis is already introduced in Meno. Plato states there that knowledge is always latently present in the soul. It is not acquired by our senses, but by recollection in this life of realities which the soul saw before its incarnation. See Meno 81. And as Plato is led step by step to arguing for the separate existence of the forms, like justice or beauty, he also develops his notion of anamnesis and includes a more explicit teaching on the non-dependency of the spiritual on the material, which he applies to the example of human soul. See Phaedrus 92.a.
In Parmenides the notion of participation is shown through a conflict: if there is no limit given to the forms, do not they remain unknowable for us, who are limited? How are we related to them? Plato's reply is that through participation in them. But the Forms are present to us here and now only through their copies, and as one form can have an endless number of copies, it raises the question of how close or how far these are from the original. In Parmenides the ideal world is far beyond human knowledge. (Parmenides 129.a-ff)
The theme of darkness is represented in the Scriptures primarily in the pejorative sense. It symbolises sin, hell, evil, death, damnation, and is contrasted with the symbolising of light, such as knowledge, faith, goodness, happiness, salvation, eternity. In the New Testament symbolics the darkness is broken by the light of Christ, and those who follow in his light. In this sense the darkness is seen as negative also in the early Christian theologies, including these of Justin and Clement. A positive notion of darkness refers to a minority of the Scriptural texts, which relate the darkness to the hiddenness of God, which yet is full of presence; see e.g. Ex 20:2; Dt 5:22; 2 Sam 22:12; 1 Kings 8:12; 2 Par 6:1; Ps 18:12; 97:2.
Treatise on the Inscription of the Psalms I.54.
Gregory took part in the councils of Constantinople in 381, 382 and 394, and contributed to the acceptance of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. See his oration from 383 ‘De deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti'.
See notes 10 and 11.
Meyndorff, J., ‘Preface' to Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses. Paulist Press, New York, Ramsey, Toronto, 1978: xiii-xiv.
Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses: 65.
TheLife of Moses: 79-80.
See The Life of Moses: 93; compare to Karfíková: 95.
See Daniélou, Platonisme et thེologie mystique. Paris, 1944; Heine, ‘Introduction': 53.
Heine, ‘Introduction': 53.
The Life of Moses: 73.
See G.J. Hughes's analysis of Aquinas's analogical language in ‘Aquinas and the Limits of Agnosticism', in The Philosophical Assesments of Theology. Eds. G.J. Hughes, Search Press, Kent & Georgetown University Press, Washington, 1987, 37-63
The Life of Moses: 93.
Compare to Karfíková: 181.
The Life of Moses: 95.
See In Ecclesiasten homiliae. Ed. P. Alexander, GNO X/2, Leiden, 1996, 277-442: 411.
Compare notes 11 and 37.
Compare to the three aspects of conversion in Lonergan, note 18.
This area is explored in detail in my book Accounts of Hope: Problem of Method in Postmodern Apologia. Peter Lang, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, 2001.
This argumentation has, however, its shadow side, namely the supression of the Christological emphasis and of some of the economical qualities of the Trinity. See note 24.
See Dionysius's Celestial Hierarchy and the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy; Pseudo-Dionysius. The Complete Works. Eds. C. Luibheid & P. Rorem, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series, London 1987.
For the troubles Gregory got into through his attempts to intervene in ecclesio-political matters, see Karfíková: 36-37.