Did Gregory of Nyssa know the gospel? (Part 1) (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #3.1)

The Gospel of Shukhonts (Armenian illuminated manuscript, 13th century)
The Gospel of Shukhonts (Armenian illuminated manuscript, 13th century)

[Part 1] [Part 2]

In a further reflection on Gregory of Nyssa’s second sermon on the Lord’s Prayer, we ask: “Did Gregory know the gospel?”

This reflection is split into two parts. For the second part see here.

Gregory of Nyssa was a fourth-century Christian theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians’ who made such a significant contribution to orthodox Trinitarian belief.

You can find a brief account of the life of Gregory of Nyssa in my first article here.

In our series of reflections on Gregory of Nyssa we have been working through his recorded sermons on the Lord’s Prayer.

Sermon #2 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven”

We have already considered Gregory’s second sermon on the Lord’s Prayer here. However, we would like now to return to it and ask whether Gregory really knew the gospel?

“The unjust and impure cannot say Father to the just and pure, since this would mean calling God Father of his own wickedness…”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #2 on The Lord’s Prayer

If you want to know what Gregory believed about justification (being made right or just in the eyes of God), then his Sermon #2 on the Lord’s Prayer is a great place to go. You can find an online translation of it here.

For this first part, I would like to focus on a few passages from farther on in his sermon, in which he discusses whether one can call upon God as ‘Father’ — as in, “Our Father in heaven” — with unclean hands, laden with sins.

Consider the following statements:—

(Quotation A)
“He who is seen to be pure goodness cannot be Father of those who are wholly involved in some evil. If therefore on examining himself a man finds that he still needs to be purified because his conscience is full of vile stains and sores, he cannot insinuate himself into the family of God until he has been purged from all these evil things. The unjust and impure cannot say Father to the just and pure, since this would mean calling God Father of his own wickedness…”[1]

And:—

(Quotation B)
“Hence if a man whose conscience accuses him of evil calls God his Father, he asserts precisely that God is the cause and origin of his own wickedness. But there is no fellowship of light with darkness [2 Cor. 6:14], says the Apostle… If then someone who is dull of heart and seeks after lying [Psalm 4:3[2]], as the Scripture says, yet dares to use the words of the prayer, he should know that he does not call the Heavenly One his Father, but the infernal one, who is himself a liar and father of every lie [John 8:44], who is sin and the father of sin. Hence the Apostle calls men who are subject to the passions children of wrath [Eph. 2:3], and one who has fallen away from the true life is named the son of perdition [John 17:12]…[3]

You may think Gregory is being unduly harsh here. After all, does not the gospel teach that an outrageous sinner can come before the Lord and find arms of mercy? What about the Prodigal Son? What about the thief on the cross?

However, Gregory is making a valid and scriptural point. For every passage of the New Testament in which we see God’s boundless mercy toward notorious sinners, we have another passage such as the following:—

But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his”, and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
2 Timothy 2:19[4]

“Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practises lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.”

1 John 3:4

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practises lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
1 John 3:4-6[5]

Paul even says in one passage, that by rejecting a good conscience some have shipwrecked their faith:—

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith, among whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.
1 Timothy 1:18-20[6]

Now, you may have noticed in Quotation B (above) that Gregory’s recourse to Scripture was suspect. In Ephesians 2:3 Paul uses the term “children of wrath” to describe the condition of people before they believed in the Lord Jesus — not (as Gregory asserts) people who have already called on the Lord Jesus but are “subject to the passions.”

“Paul uses the term ‘children of wrath’ to describe the condition of people before they believed in the Lord Jesus — not (as Gregory asserts) people who have already called on the Lord Jesus but are ‘subject to the passions.’”

Likewise the term “son of perdition” is used in the New Testament not to describe anybody who falls away from the faith, but to describe a specific individual: Judas Iscariot (here). That’s not to say the term isn’t an appropriate appellation for someone who falls away from the faith; but it isn’t how Scripture uses the term.

Notwithstanding Gregory’s somewhat loose use of Scripture, the passages quoted show very clearly that those who approach God do need to approach him with holiness.

This is of course not speaking of when we first come to Jesus, first put our trust in him. Like the thief on the cross, all of us come to Jesus as “children of wrath” needing his mercy — for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are freely justified by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

But having believed, we need to be people who are growing in holiness, in Christ-likeness. The believer who has been so for some time should be different from the believer who has become so this very moment.

Nor is Gregory saying that we need to come before God in sinless perfection. He is expecting believers to approach God in holiness of life — not in perfection of life. Thus he seems to be making, quite correctly, a distinction between being “wholly involved in some evil,” and having upon us those sins and errors with which we will always be encumbered in this life.

For even when the First Letter of John says that “no one who abides in him keeps on sinning,” at the same time it holds out the possibility of confession. If we sin, we can confess our sins and receive forgiveness and be purified from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-10).

Indeed the First Letter of John also points to the importance of a clear conscience when we pray; and it may be from this that Gregory takes his cue. John[7] writes:—

By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.
1 John 3:19-22[8]

“In the passages we have quoted above, Gregory is quite orthodox in what he says about approaching God. When we pray to God, we do need to do so in holiness and in a clear conscience.”

So then, in the passages we have quoted above, Gregory is quite orthodox in what he says about approaching God. When we pray to God, we do need to do so in holiness and in a clear conscience. We do need to be people who are actively seeking to live as Jesus commands (however imperfectly we may succeed in doing so) — and happily, when we sin there is forgiveness freely available.

In part 2 of this reflection we will take Gregory to task about his view of justification in some earlier passages from the same sermon.

Meanwhile if you would like to know more about what it means to be a child of God, and not a “child of wrath,” why not read a simple guide to becoming a Christian? There are many very readable resources out there (for example) — or, why not read one of the Gospel accounts perhaps for the first time?

 

The reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s Second Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily2%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ (henceforth referred to as ‘ACW 18’): pp.38-39

[2] Douay-Rheims version, 1899. In most English Bibles such as the Authorized Version, ESV, this is Psalm 4:2 — where it will be observed the verse is translated quite differently.

[3] ACW 18, p.39

[4] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=2+Timothy+2%3A19&version=ESVUK

[5] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+John+3%3A4-6&version=ESVUK

[6] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Timothy+1%3A18-20&version=ESVUK

[7] I am of course taking it as read that the traditional identification of the writer of 1, 2, 3 John with ‘John’, the one who leaned on Jesus’ breast (John 13:23, &c.), is correct. This is disputed; but it is not the place here to go into this debate.

[8] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+John+3%3A19-22&version=ESVUK

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