Did Gregory of Nyssa know the gospel? (Part 2) (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #3.2)

Armenian Gospel of Moghni, miniature St. Matthew (11th century, Yerevan, Matenadaran)
Armenian Gospel of Moghni, miniature St. Matthew (11th century, Yerevan, Matenadaran)

[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 first 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”

In Part 1 of this reflection, we considered whether Gregory was over harsh when he insisted that we must approach God in prayer — calling upon him as Father — with a clear conscience, and with a life lived in holiness.

“He [the Lord Jesus Christ] leads us not to a mountain but to Heaven itself, which He has rendered accessible to men by virtue.”

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

We concluded that no, he was not over harsh: his statements accorded well with a number of passages we find in the New Testament.

Let us now consider some earlier passages in his sermon, however, and ask what they tell us about Gregory’s understanding of the gospel.

I think if you wish to understand Gregory’s conception of the gospel, and of justification (being made right or just in the eyes of God), then Sermon #2 is a great place to look.

Consider the following passages:—

(Passage A)
But when our Lawgiver the Lord Jesus Christ is bringing us to Divine grace, He does not present Mount Sinai covered with darkness and smoking with fire, nor does He strike fear into us by the meaningless sound of trumpets [as at the Exodus].[1]

(Passage B)
But, first of all, He [the Lord Jesus Christ] leads us not to a mountain [as Moses did, Ex. 19:1-3] but to Heaven itself, which He has rendered accessible to men by virtue.[2]

(Passage C)
The water He [the Lord Jesus Christ] gives us for sprinkling does not come from alien streams, but wells up in ourselves, whether we understand by it the fountains of tears streaming from our eyes, or the pure conscience of the heart that admits no impurity coming from evil; He proclaims as a law chastity not only from the lawful intercourse between husband and wife, but that springing from a nature entangled in material passions, and thus leads us to God through prayer.[3] [emphasis mine]

(Passage D)
For this is the force of His words, that we should learn by them not to pronounce certain words and syllables, but the meaning of the ascent to God which is accomplished through a sublime way of life.[4]

Gregory’s view of salvation becomes reasonably clear from these quotations. Christ “our Lawgiver” (passages A, D) takes the Law of Moses, and replaces it with a higher law (passage C). Access to heaven (passage B) is achieved by Christians’ living out a life which meets this higher law (passages B, D) — and for this Christ gives us grace to be able to live this higher law (“He leads us… He has rendered accessible,” passage B).

“For Gregory, heaven is gained when we live the kind of God-pleasing life which Christ himself did, and for which Christ gives us the power.”

Thus for Gregory, heaven is gained when we live the kind of God-pleasing life which Christ himself did, and for which Christ gives us the power.

Although we have seen this in four very small fragments of Gregory’s sermon, we get very much the same impression from his Sermon #2 as a whole.

So although formally Gregory in this sermon is discussing the meaning of the words, “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9), in reality he spends the majority of the sermon discussing how we as Christians prepare to get the point where we can say, “Our Father in heaven.”

Thus, he makes a great deal out of the semantic difference (in Greek) between a vow (euchē, εὐχή) and a prayer (proseuchē, προσευχή).

So for Gregory, before we can offer to God the proseuchē of asking for anything from God, we first need to have confidence to approach God. How do we get this confidence? — by first offering him the euchē of some service given to him: that is, a vow or a promise made to him.

(Passage E)
Since, therefore, we need confidence to approach God with the request for things that are profitable for us, the performance of a vow must necessarily come first. Thus, when we have accomplished our part, we are confident of being made worthy to receive in return the things that are God’s to give.[5]

Gregory proceeds to ‘demonstrate’ his proposition by a couple of quotations from the Psalms, hardly to the point.[6]

Why Gregory’s view of salvation is defective

The problem here is that Gregory’s system — where God responds to our merit — lacks grace. When God gives us good things, it is not because of any deserving of our own; it is because he loves us.

Consider the following New Testament passage:—

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Ephesians 2:4-10[7]

For the Apostle Paul (who wrote the above words), it is a vital principle that Christians are saved in order to do good works, not because of doing good works. “It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.”

“For the Apostle Paul, it is a vital principle that Christians are saved in order to do good works, not because of doing good works. ‘It is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.’”

The observation is sometimes made that the early Christian theologians honed their theology in precisely the areas where it was most under threat.

Thus, from quite early on, a lot of work and a lot of thought went into understanding the nature of God, and the nature of Christ, and the relationship between God and Christ. Why? — because orthodox Christianity was under attack at precisely this point, from heretical movements such as Docetism and Gnosticism. (I have written more on this here.)

Whereas, the soteriology of Christianity — how is a person saved? — was relatively untroubled by heresies for several centuries. What it was such a lifelong struggle for the Apostle Paul to establish in the mid-first century A.D. — namely, that a person is saved by faith, and not by keeping the Law of Moses nor by circumcision — was thereafter a relatively settled matter for a long time afterward. And so, Christian theology didn’t become as developed in this area until later.

In fact, it really took the errors of the British theologian Pelagius at the end of the fourth century — who taught that human beings do not require divine grace to perform good works, and denied that human beings were (since the Fall) inherently sinful — and Augustine of Hippo’s consequent rebuttals of Pelagius’ view, for the Christian Church really to get a firm theological handle on this idea of grace.

Gregory preceded the controversy over divine grace between Augustine and Pelagius — he died around A.D. 395,[8] whereas Augustine wasn’t even converted until A.D. 386.[9]

So yes, Gregory’s view of the gospel was certainly defective.

And thanks be to God for that, because however much I may try, I certainly cannot live up to the standard which Christ set in his wonderful Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5—7)! And I doubt that you can either.

Let’s be glad that for those who trust in Jesus, our salvation depends not on our own performance but on the unshakable nature of God’s love.

Was Gregory therefore a genuine Christian?

We may therefore be asking ourselves, “Was Gregory therefore a genuine believer?”

“Let us remember that Christians are not, and never have been, saved by knowledge. The corridors of heaven are not reserved exclusively for those who have a perfectly well-formed theology.”

Let us remember that Christians are not, and never have been, saved by knowledge. The corridors of heaven are not reserved exclusively for those who have a perfectly well-formed theology — with every theological ‘i’ dotted and ‘t’ crossed. No, no, no.

Whom they are reserved exclusively for, are those throughout history whose faith was in Jesus Christ as their wonderful Saviour. As the Apostle Paul says above, it is “by grace you have been saved through faith.” This is the vital principle of those whose names are written — not the absolute correctness of our theology.

So of course Gregory was a genuine Christian. When we who trust in Jesus are there in the age to come, we will be rejoicing in heaven with him. It just means that we don’t have to adopt Gregory’s mis-shapen views on certain points.

 

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: p.35

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., p.36

[4] Ibid. It behoves me to point out that Passage D follows immediately upon Passage C. I have chosen to treat them as separate passages in order to highlight the instances of legalistic language particular to each.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., p.37

[7] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2%3A4-10&version=ESVUK

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_of_Nyssa

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustine_of_Hippo#Christian_conversion_and_priesthood

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