Gregory of Nyssa: Wikis


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Saint Gregory of Nyssa
Icon of St. Gregory of Nyssa
(14th century fresco, Chora Church, Istanbul)
Cappadocian Father
Born c 335, Caesarea in Cappadocia
Died after 394, Nyssa in Cappadocia
Venerated in Anglicanism
Eastern Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy
Roman Catholicism
Feast January 10 (Eastern Christianity)
March 9 (Roman Catholicism)
June 14, with Macrina (Lutheran Church)
July 19, with Macrina (Anglican Communion)
Attributes Vested as a bishop.

Gregory of Nyssa (Greek: Ἅγιος Γρηγόριος Νύσσης; Latin: Gregorius Nyssenus; Arabic: غريغوريوس النيصي‎) (c 335 – after 394) was a Christian bishop and saint. He was a younger brother of Basil the Great and a good friend of Gregory Nazianzus. His significance has long been recognized in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity. Some historians identify Theosebia the deaconess as his wife, others hold that she, like Macrina the Younger, was actually a sister of Gregory and Basil.[1]

Gregory along with his brother Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. They attempted to establish Christian philosophy as superior to Greek philosophy.



Despite reservations, he consented to become bishop of Nyssa in 372. Nyssa is in a region then called Cappadocia, in modern-day Turkey. His brother Basil appointed him bishop in Nyssa because he wanted an episcopal ally near to his metropolitan see of Caesarea. He was present at the Council of Antioch, and later at the Second Ecumenical Council (381) which took place in Constantinople. There he defended the Nicene Creed against the Arians.


Gregory made two major contributions to Christian theology. The first is his doctrine of the Trinity, a development of the theology of Basil and their mutual friend Gregory Nazianzus. The second is his spiritual theology, which posited God as infinite and salvation as potentially universal (see Apokatastasis). The Western interpretation that Gregory of Nyssa taught or endorsed Apokatastasis is disputed by Eastern Theologians as incorrect.[2] Eastern theologians also dispute the Western interpretation of Gregory as a philosopher and in specific one of Neoplatonism.[3]



Following Basil's lead, Gregory argues that the three Persons of the Trinity can be understood along the model of three members of a single class: thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three in the same way that Peter, Paul, and Timothy are three men. So why do we not say there are three Gods? Gregory answers that, normally, we can distinguish between different members of the same class by the fact that they have different shapes, sizes, and colors. Even if they are identical, they still occupy different points in space. But none of this is true of incorporeal beings like God. Even lesser spiritual beings can still be distinguished by their varying degrees of goodness, but this does not apply to God either. In fact, the only way to tell the three Persons apart is by their mutual relations — thus, the only difference between the Father and the Son is that the former is the Father of the latter, and the latter is the Son of the former. As Gregory puts it, it is impossible to think of one member of the Trinity without thinking of the others too: they are like a chain of three links, pulling each other along.


11th century mosaic icon of St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory is the first Christian theologian to argue for the infinity of God and one of the first to contain a marked universalist tone. Origen of Alexandria, a major influence on Gregory, had explicitly argued that God is limited, an essential notion in Platonism, since to be limited is to be clearly defined and knowable. Gregory, however, argues that if God is limited he must be limited by something greater than himself. As there is nothing greater than God, He is therefore without boundaries, and thus infinite. The idea had already been developed by Neoplatonic philosophers, especially Plotinus, another important influence on Gregory, but he is the first Christian to defend it, apart from some hints in the work of Irenaeus of Lyons.

Accordingly, Gregory argues that since God is infinite he cannot be comprehended. Origen had spoken of the spiritual journey as a progression of increasing illumination, as the mystic studies Scripture and comes to learn more about God. Nyssa taught on the other hand that God was knowable in his manifestations but that ultimately one must transcend knowledge or gnosis (since knowledge is based on reflection). Gnosis is limited and can become a barrier between man and God. If one wishes to commune with God one must enter into the Divine filial relation with God the Father through Jesus Christ, one in ousia with the Father which results in pure faith without any preconceived notions of God. Once one reaches this point one can commune with God just as Moses did in Nyssa's mystical classic, The Life of Moses.


Gregory speaks of three stages of spiritual growth: initial darkness of ignorance, then spiritual illumination, and finally a darkness of the mind in contemplation of the God who in being or essence (ousia) cannot be comprehended.

Like earlier authors, including Philo, he uses the story of Moses as an allegory for the spiritual life. Moses first meets God in the burning bush, a theophany of light and illumination, but then he meets him again in the cloud, where he realises that God cannot be seen by the eyes. Ascending Mount Sinai, he finally comes to the "divine darkness", and realises that God cannot be known by the mind either.

It is only through not-knowing and not-seeing that God can, paradoxically, be known and seen, knowledge that can only be gained through an "ascending life of holiness." This notion would be extremely influential in both Western and Eastern spirituality, via the mystical writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and later in the anonymous 14th century work, The Cloud of Unknowing. Thus he is a major figure in the history of apophatic theology and spirituality.

Epektasis (constant progress)

Anachronistic Medieval representation of St. Gregory.

Related to this is Gregory's idea of epektasis (ἐπέκτασις) or constant progress. Platonic metaphysics holds that stability is perfection and change is for the worse. In contrast, Gregory described the ideal of human perfection as constant progress in virtue and godliness. In his theology, God himself has always been perfect and has never changed, and never will. Humanity fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, but rather than return to an unchanging state, humanity's goal is to become more and more perfect, more like God, even though humanity will never understand, much less attain, God's transcendence. This idea has had a profound influence on the Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding theosis or "divinization".

Gregory thus shared Origen of Alexandria's conviction that man's material nature is a result of the fall and also Origen's belief in ultimate, universal salvation.[4] While the question of salvation or damnation is settled at the moment of death,[5][6] nobody is known to have been damned and so prayers are offered for absolutely all the dead, even for those who seem to have been great sinners. For this reason, Gregory of Nyssa is not listed as a Doctor of the Church, and his suspected Origenism accounts for why Gregory lacks an official liturgical commemoration in the Catholic Church.[4] Moreover, writers in the Catholic Church have been reluctant to refer to him as "Saint" Gregory of Nyssa as he is sometimes noted simply as "Blessed" Gregory of Nyssa.


Gregory's Trinitarian doctrine can be found in his Why there are not three Gods and in a letter to his younger brother Peter ("On the difference between ousia and hypostasis") which has been erroneously classified as Basil's 38th letter. As well, in his catechetical work, "An Address on Religious Instruction" Gregory explicates his thought on the theistic differentiation between Christianity, Hellenism and Judaism. While he works out his notion of the Incarnation and the Atonement in his "An Address on Religious Instruction," one is also introduced to the ransom theory of atonement. Furthermore, his spiritual writings include Life of Moses, Life of Macrina (his older sister), the Life of Gregory Thaumaturgos, and 15 homilies On the Song of Songs. A large number of letters, sermons, philosophical works and short essays on a number of topics also survive.

Systematic publication of his works is proceeding in a collection, Gregorii Nysseni Opera, dominated by the work of the philologist, Werner Jaeger.

Several volumes of his writings have appeared in the Sources Chrétiennes collection, the first publication of which was Jean Daniélou's translation (later edition) of his Life of Moses (1941).


  1. ^ See Jean Daniélou, "Le mariage de Grégoire de Nysse et la chronologie de sa vie," Revue d' Etudes Augustiniennes et Patristiques 2 (1956): 71–78. [1]
  2. ^ Life After Death by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos Chapter -The views of the interpreters of the position of St. Gregory of Nyssa as to the restoration of all things[2]
  3. ^ Life After Death by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos "St. Gregory criticises philosophy. He says that there is something carnal and uncircumcised in what is taught in the lessons of philosophy, and if that were removed, the pure Israelite race would remain. Then he gives several examples. Philosophy accepts that the soul is immortal but asserts that it passes from one body to another and from rational nature to irrational. Philosophy also speaks about God, but it thinks of Him as material. It speaks of God as Creator but thinks that He needs matter for creation, that is to say, He did not create the world out of nothing. He believes that God is good and powerful, but he says that He submits to the necessity of fate. Thus in philosophy there is a piety, since it is concerned with God, but at the same time it has something carnal about it."[3]
  4. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, "Saint Gregory of Nyssa"
  5. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, "Purgatory"
  6. ^ Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-280290-3), s.v., "Purgatory"

See also

External links

Bible wiki

Up to date as of January 23, 2010

From BibleWiki

Date of birth unknown; died after 385 or 386. He belongs to the group known as the "Cappadocian Fathers", a title which reveals at once his birthplace in Asia Minor and his intellectual characteristics. Gregory was born of a deeply religious family, not very rich in worldly goods, to which circumstances he probably owed the pious training of his youth. His mother Emmelia was a martyr's daughter; two of his brothers, Basil of Cæsarea and Peter of Sebaste, became bishops like himself; his eldest sister, Macrina, became a model of piety and is honoured as a saint. Another brother, Naucratius, a lawyer, inclined to a life of asceticism, but died too young to realize his desires. A letter of Gregory to his younger brother, Peter, exhibits the feelings of lively gratitude which both cherished for their elder brother Basil, whom Gregory calls "our father and our master". Probably, therefore, the difference in years between them was such as to have enabled Basil to supervise the education of his younger brothers. Basil's training was an antidote to the lessons of the pagan schools, wherein, as we know from a letter of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa spent some time, very probably in his early youth, for it is certain that while still a youth Gregory exercised the ecclesiastical office of rector. His family, it would seem, had endeavoured to turn his thoughts towards the Church, for when the young man chose a secular career and began the study of rhetoric, Basil remonstrated with him long and earnestly; when he had failed he called on Gregory's friends to influence him against that objectionable secular calling. It was all in vain; moreover, it would seem that the young man married. There exists a letter addressed to him by Gregory of Nazianzus condoling with him on the loss of one Theosebeia, who must have been his wife, and with whom he continued to live, as with a sister, even after he became bishop. This is also evident from his treatise "De virginitate".

Some think that Gregory spent a certain time in retreat before his consecration as bishop, but we have no proof of the fact. His extant letters make no mention of such retirement from the world. Nor are we better informed of the circumstances of his election to the See of Nyssa, a little town on the banks of the Halys, along the road between Cæsarea and Ancyra. According to Gregory of Nazianzus it was Basil who performed the episcopal consecration of his brother, before he himself had taken possession of the See of Sozima; which would place the beginning of Gregory of Nyssa's episcopate about 371. Was this brusque change in Gregory's career the result of a sudden vocation? St. Basil tells us that it was necessary to overcome his brother's repugnance, before he accepted the office of bishop. But this does not help us to an answer, as the episcopal charge in that day was beset with many dangers. Moreover in the fourth century, and even later, it was not uncommon to express dislike of the episcopal honour, and to fly from the prospect of election. The fugitives, however, were usually discovered and brought back, and the consecration took place when a show of resistance had saved the candidate's humility. Whether it was so in Gregory's case, or whether he really did feel his own unfitness, we do not know. In any case, St. Basil seems to have regretted at times the constraint thus put on his brother, now removed from his influence; in his letters he complains of Gregory's naive and clumsy interference with his (Basil's) business. To Basil the synod called in 372 by Gregory at Ancyra seemed the ruin of his own labours. In 375 Gregory seemed to him decidedly incapable of ruling a Church. At the same time he had but faint praise for Gregory's zeal for souls.

On arriving in his see Gregory had to face great difficulties. His sudden elevation may have turned against him some who had hoped for the office themselves. It would appear that one of the courtiers of Emperor Valens had solicited the see either for himself or one of his friends. When Demosthenes, Governor of Pontus, convened an assembly of Eastern bishops, a certain Philocares, at one of its sessions, accused Gregory of wasting church property, and of irregularity in his election to the episcopate, whereupon Demosthenes ordered the Bishop of Nyssa to be seized and brought before him. Gregory at first allowed himself to be led away by his captors, then losing heart and discouraged by the cold and brutal treatment he met with, he took an opportunity of escape and reached a place of safety. A Synod of Nyssa (376) deposed him, and he was reduced to wander from town to town, until the death of Valens in 378. The new emperor, Gratian, published an edict of tolerance, and Gregory returned to his see, where he was received with joy. A few months after this (January, 379) his brother Basil died; whereupon an era of activity began for Gregory. In 379 he assisted at the Council of Antioch which had been summoned because of the Meletian schism. Soon after this, it is supposed, he visited Palestine. There is reason for believing that he was sent officially to remedy the disorders of the Church of Arabia. But possibly his journey did not take place till after the Council of Constantinople in 381, convened by Emperor Theodosius for the welfare of religion in that city. It asserted the faith of Nicæa, and tried to put an end to Arianism and Pneumatism in the East. This council was not looked on as an important one at the time; even those present at it seldom refer to it in their writings. Gregory himself, though he assisted at the council, mentions it only casually in his funeral oration over Meletius of Antioch, who died during the course of this assembly.

An edict of Theodosius (30 July, 381; Cod. Theod., LXVI, tit. I., L. 3) having appointed certain episcopal sees as centres of Catholic communion in the East, Helladius of Cæsarea, Gregory of Nyssa and Otreius of Melitene were chosen to fill them. At Constantinople Gregory gave evidence on two occasions of his talent as an orator; he delivered the discourse at the enthronization of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, also the aforesaid oration over Meletius of Antioch. It is very probable that Gregory was present at another Council of Constantinople in 383; his "Oratio de deitate Filii et Spiritus Sancti" seems to confirm this. In 385 or 386 he preached the funeral sermon over the imperial Princess Pulcheria, and shortly afterwards over Empress Flaccilla. A little later we meet him again at Constantinople, on which occasion his counsel was sought for the repression of ecclesiastical disorders in Arabia; he then disappears from history, and probably did not long survive this journey. From the above it will be seen that his life is little known to us. It is difficult to outline clearly his personality, while his writings contain too many flights of eloquence to permit final judgment on his real character.



Most of his writings treat of the Sacred Scriptures. He was an ardent admirer of Origen, and applied constantly the latter's principles of hermeneutics. Gregory is ever in quest of allegorical interpretations and mystical meanings hidden away beneath the literal sense of texts. As a rule, however, the "great Cappadocians" tried to eliminate this tendency. His "Treatise on the Work of the Six Days" follows St. Basil's Hexæmeron. Another work, "On the Creation of Man", deals with the work of the Sixth Day, and contains some curious anatomical details; it was translated into Latin by Dionysius Exiguus. His account of Moses as legislator offers much fine-spun allegorizing, and the same is true of his "Explanation of the Titles of the Psalms". In a brief tractate on the witch of Endor he says that the woman did not see Samuel, but only a demon, who put on the figure of the prophet. Besides a homily on the sixth Psalm, he wrote eight homilies on Ecclesiastes, in which he taught that the soul should rise above the senses, and that true peace is only to be found in contempt of worldly greatness. He is also the author of fifteen homilies on the Canticle of Canticles (the union of the soul with its Creator), five very eloquent homilies on the Lord's Prayer, and eight highly rhetorical homilies on the Beatitudes.


In theology Gregory shows himself more original and more at ease. Yet his originality is purely in manner, since he added little that is new. His diction, however, offers many felicitous and pleasing allusions, suggested probably by his mystical turn of mind. These grave studies were taken up by him late in life, hence he follows step by step the teaching of St. Basil and of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Like them he defends the unity of the Divine nature and the trinity of Persons; where he loses their guidance, our confidence in him tends to decrease. In his teaching on the Eucharist he appears really original; his Christological doctrine, however, is based entirely on Origen and St. Athanasius. The most important of his theological writings is his large "Catechesis", or "Oratio Catechetica", an argumentative defence in forty chapters of Catholic teaching as against Jews, heathens, and heretics. The most extensive of his extant works is his refutation of Eunomius in twelve books, a defence of St. Basil against that heretic, and also of the Nicene Creed against Arianism; this work is of capital importance in the history of the Arian controversy. He also wrote two works against Apollinaris of Laodicea, in refutation of the false doctrines of that writer, viz. that the body of Christ descended from heaven, and that in Christ, the Divine Word acted as the rational soul. Among the works of Gregory are certain "Opuscula" on the Trinity addressed to Ablabius, the tribune Simplicius, and Eustathius of Sebaste. He wrote also against Arius and Sabellius, and against the Macedonians, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit; the latter work he never finished. In the "De anima et resurrectione" we have a dialogue between Gregory and his deceased sister, Macrina; it treats of death, resurrection, and our last end. He defends human liberty against the fatalism of the astrologers in a work "On Fate", and in his treatise "On Children", dedicated to Hieros, Prefect of Cappadocia, he undertook to explain why Providence permits the premature death of children.


He wrote also on Christian life and conduct, e.g. "On the meaning of the Christian name or profession", addressed to Harmonius, and "On Perfection and what manner of man the Christian should be", dedicated to the monk Olympius. For the monks, he wrote a work on the Divine purpose in creation. His admirable book "On Virginity", written about 370, was composed to strengthen in all who read it the desire for a life of perfect virtue.

Sermons and Homilies

Gregory wrote also many sermons and homilies, some of which we have already mentioned; others of importance are his panegyric on St. Basil, and his sermons on the Divinity of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.


A few of his letters (twenty-six) have survived; two of them offer a peculiar interest owing to the severity of his strictures on contemporary pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

For a discussion of his peculiar doctrine concerning the general restoration (Apocatastasis) to divine favour of all sinful creatures at the end of time, i.e. the temporary nature of the pains of hell, see the articles APOCATASTASIS and MIVART. The theory of interpolation of the writings of Gregory and of Origen, sustained among others by Vincenzi (below), seems, in this respect at least, both useless and gratuitous (Bardenhewer).


The writings of Gregory are best collected in P.G., XLIV-XLVI. There is no critical edition as yet, though one was begun by FORBES and OEHLER (Burntisland, 1855, 61); of another edition planned by Oehler, only one volume appeared (Halle, 1865). The best of the earlier editions is that of FRONTO DUCÆUS (Paris, 1615). Cf. VINCENZI, In Gregorii Nysseni et Origenis scripta et doctrinam nova recensio, etc. (Rome, 1864-69); BAUER, Die Trostreden des Gregorios von Nyssa in ihrem Verhältniss zur antiken Rhetorik (Marburg, 1892); BOUËDRON, Doctrines philosophiques de Saint Grégoire de Nysse (Nantes, 1861); KOCH, Das mystische Schauen beim hl. Gr. v. Nyssa in Theol. Quartalschrift (1898), LXXX, 397-420; DIEKAMP, Die Gotteslehre des hl. Gregor von Nyssa: ein Beitrag zur Dogmengesch. der patristischen Zeit (Münster, 1897); WEISS, Die Erziehungslehre der Kappadozier (Freiburg, 1903); HILT, St. Gregorii episcopi Nysseni doctrina de angelis exposita (Freiburg, 1860); KRAMPF, Der Urzustand des Menschen nach der Lehre des hl. Gregor von Nyssa, eine dogmatisch-patristische Studie (Würzburg, 1889); REICHE, Die kunstlerischen Elemente in der Welt und Lebens-Anschauung des Gregor von Nyssa (Jena, 1897); and on the large Catechesis (logos katechetikos ho megas), generally known as Oratio Catechetica, see SRAWLEY in Journal of Theol. Studies (1902), III, 421-8, also his new edition of the Oratio (Cambridge, 1903). For an English version of several works of Gregory see Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, second series (New York, 1893), II, v; and for a German version of some works, HAYD in the Kemptener Bibliothek der Kirchenväter (1874).

Portions of this entry are taken from The Catholic Encyclopedia, 1907.
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