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Gregory of Nyssa

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Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa
Icon of St. Gregory of Nyssa
(14th century fresco, Chora Church, Istanbul)
Cappadocian Father
Born c. 330
Neocaesarea, Cappadocia
Died c. 395
Nyssa, Cappadocia
Honored in
Eastern Orthodoxy
Oriental Orthodoxy
Roman Catholicism
Canonized Pre-congregation
Feast 10 January (Eastern Christianity)
10 January (Roman Catholicism)
14 June, with Macrina (Lutheran Church)
19 July, with Macrina (Anglican Communion)
Attributes Vested as a bishop.

Gregory of Nyssa, also known as Gregory Nyssen (Greek: Γρηγόριος Νύσσης; c. 335 – c. 395), was bishop of Nyssa from 372 to 376 and from 378 until his death. He is venerated as a saint in Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Lutheranism, and Anglicanism. Gregory, his brother Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

Gregory lacked the administrative ability of his brother Basil or the contemporary influence of Gregory of Nazianzus, but he was an erudite theologian who made significant contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity and the Nicene creed. Gregory's philosophical writings were influenced by Origen. Since the mid-twentieth century, there has been a significant increase in interest in Gregory's works from the academic community, particularly involving universal salvation, which has resulted in challenges to many traditional interpretations of his theology.


In the book of Acts, it depicts that at on the Day of Pentecost, that there were visiting Jews who were "residents of...Cappadocia"[1] in attendance. In the First Epistle of Peter, written after AD 65, the author greets Christians who are "exiles scattered throughout…Cappodicia." There is no further reference to Cappadocia in the rest of the New Testament.

Christianity arose in Cappadocia relatively late with no evidence of a Christian community before the late second century AD.[2] Alexander of Jerusalem was the first bishop of the province in the early to mid third century, a period in which Christians suffered persecution from the local Roman authorities.[2][3] The community remained very small throughout the third century: when Gregory Thaumaturgus acceded to the bishopric in c. 250, according to his namesake, the Nyssen, there were only seventeen members of the Church in Caesarea.[4]

Cappadocian bishops were among those at the Encratites and Messalians.[5]


Early life and education

Gregory was born around 335, probably in or near the city of Neocaesarea, Pontus.[6] His family was aristocratic and Christian - according to Gregory of Nazianzus, his mother was Emmelia of Caesarea, and his father, a rhetorician, has been identified either as Basil the Elder or as a Gregory.[6][7] Among his nine siblings were St. Macrina the Younger, St. Naucratius, St. Peter of Sebaste and St. Basil of Caesarea. The precise number of children in the family was historically contentious: the commentary on 30 May in the Acta Sanctorum, for example, initially states that they were nine, before describing Peter as the tenth child. It has been established that this confusion occurred due to the death of one son in infancy, leading to ambiguities in Gregory's own writings.[8] Gregory's parents had suffered persecution for their faith: he writes that they "had their goods confiscated for confessing Christ."[9] Gregory's maternal grandmother, Macrina the Elder is also revered as a saint[10] and his maternal grandfather was a martyr as Gregory put it "killed by Imperial wrath"[9] under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Maximinus II.[11] Between the 320's to the early 340's the family rebuilt its fortunes, with Gregory's father working in the city of Neocaeaseria as an advocate and rhetorician.[12]

Gregory's temperament is said to be quiet and meek, in contrast to his brother Basil who was known to be much more outspoken.[13]

Gregory was first educated at home, by his mother Emmelia and sister Macrina. Little is known of what further education he received. Apocryphal hagiographies depict him studying at Athens, but this is speculation probably based on the life of his brother Basil.[14] It seems more likely that he continued his studies in Caesarea, where he read classical literature, philosophy and perhaps medicine.[15] Gregory himself claimed that his only teachers were Basil, "Paul, John and the rest of the Apostles and prophets".[16]

While his brothers Basil and Naucratius lived as hermits from c. 355, Gregory initially pursued a non-ecclesiastical career as a rhetorician. He did however, act as a lector.[15] He is known to have married a woman named Theosebia during this period, who is sometimes identified with Theosebia the Deaconess, venerated as a saint by Orthodox Christianity. This is controversial, however, and other commentators suggest that Theosebia the Deaconess was one of Gregory's sisters.[17][18]


In 371, the Emperor Valens split Cappadocia into two new provinces, Cappadocia Prima and Cappadocia Secunda.[19] This resulted in complex changes in ecclesiastical boundaries, during which several new bishoprics were created. Gregory was elected bishop of the new see of Nyssa in 372, presumably with the support of his brother Basil, who was metropolitan of Caesarea.[20] Gregory's early policies as bishop often went against those of Basil : for instance, while his brother condemned the Sabellianist followers of Marcellus of Ancyra as heretics, Gregory may have tried to reconcile them with the church.[20]

Gregory faced opposition to his reign in Nyssa, and, in 373 Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium had to visit the city to quell discontent. In 375 Desmothenes of Pontus convened a synod at Ancyra to try Gregory on charges of embezzlement of church funds and irregular ordination of bishops. He was arrested by imperial troops in the winter of the same year, but escaped to an unknown location. The synod of Nyssa, which was convened in the spring of 376, deposed him.[21] However, Gregory regained his see in 378, perhaps due to an amnesty promulgated by the new emperor Gratian. In the same year Basil died, and despite the relative unimportance of Nyssa, Gregory took over many of his brother's former responsibilities in Pontus.[22]

The First Council of Constantinople, as depicted in a fresco in the Stavropoleos Monastery, Bucharest, Romania.

He was present at the Synod of Antioch in April 379, where he unsuccessfully attempted to reconcile the followers of Meletius of Antioch with those of Paulinus.[23] After visiting the village of Annisa to see his dying sister Macrina, he returned to Nyssa in August. In 380 he travelled to Sebaste, in the province of Armenia Prima, to support a pro-Nicene candidate for the election to the bishopric. To his surprise, he himself was elected to the seat, perhaps due to the population's association of him with his brother.[24] However, Gregory deeply disliked the relatively unhellenized society of Armenia, and he was confronted by an investigation into his orthodoxy by local opponents of the Nicene theology.[24] After a stay of several months, a substitute was found - possibly Gregory's brother Peter, who was bishop of Sebaste from 381 - and Gregory returned home to Nyssa to write books I and II of Against Eunomius.[24]

Gregory participated in the First Council of Constantinople (381), and perhaps gave there his famous sermon In suam ordinationem. He was chosen to eulogise at the funeral of Melitus, which occurred during the council. The council sent Gregory on a mission to Arabia, perhaps to ameliorate the situation in Bostra, where two men, Agapius and Badagius, claimed to be bishop. If this is the case, Gregory was unsuccessful, as the see was still contested in 394.[24][25] He then travelled to Jerusalem, where Cyril of Jerusalem faced opposition from local clergy due to the fact that he had been ordained by Acacius of Caesarea, an Arian heretic. Gregory's attempted mediation of the dispute was unsuccessful, and he himself was accused of holding unorthodox views on the nature of Christ.[25] His later reign in Nyssa was marked by conflict with his Metropolitan, Helladius. Gregory was present at a 394 synod convened at Constantinople to discuss the continued problems in Bostra. The year of his death is unknown.[26]


The traditional view of Gregory is that he was an orthodox Trinitarian theologian, who was influenced by the neoplatonism of Plotinus and believed in universal salvation following Origen.[27] However, as a highly original and sophisticated thinker, Gregory is difficult to classify, and many aspects of his theology are contentious among both conservative Orthodox theologians and Western academic scholarship.[28] This is often due to the lack of systematic structure and the presence of terminological inconsistencies in Gregory's work.[29]

Conception of the Trinity

Gregory, following Basil, defined the Trinity as "one essence [οὐσία] in three persons [ὑποστάσεις]", the formula adopted by the Council of Constantinople in 381.[30] Like the other Cappadocian Fathers, he was a homoousian, and Against Eunomius affirms the truth of the consubstantiality of the trinity over Eunomius' Platonic belief that the Father's substance is unengendered, whereas the Son's is engendered.[31] According to Gregory, the differences between the three persons of the Trinity reside in their relationships with each other, and the triune nature of God is revealed through divine action (despite the unity of God in His action).[32][33] The Son is therefore defined as begotten of the Father, the Holy Spirit as proceeding from the Father and the Son, and the Father by his role as progenitor. However, this doctrine would seem to subordinate the Son to the Father, and the Holy Spirit to the Son. Robert Jenson suggests that Gregory implies that each member of the Godhead has an individual priority: the Son has epistemological priority, the Father has ontic priority and the Spirit has metaphysical priority.[34] Other commentators disagree: Morwenna Ludlow, for instance, argues that epistemic priority resides primarily in the Spirit in Gregory's theology.[35]

Modern proponents of social Trinitarianism often claim to have been influenced by the Cappadocians' dynamic picture of the Trinity.[36] However, it would be fundamentally incorrect to identify Gregory as a social Trinitarian, as his theology emphasises the unity of God's will, and he clearly believes that the identities of the Trinity are the three persons, not the relations between them.[29][35]

Infinitude of God

11th century mosaic of Gregory of Nyssa. Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine.

Gregory was one of the first theologians to argue, in opposition to Origen, that God is infinite. His main argument for the infinity of God, which can be found in Against Eunomius, is that God's goodness is limitless, and as God's goodness is essential, God is also limitless.[37]

An important consequence of Gregory's belief in the infinity of God is his belief that God, as limitless, is essentially incomprehensible to the limited minds of created beings. In Life of Moses, Gregory writes: "...every concept that comes from some comprehensible image, by an approximate understanding and by guessing at the Divine nature, constitutes a idol of God and does not proclaim God."[38] Gregory's theology was thus apophatic: he proposed that God should be defined in terms of what we know He is not rather than what we might speculate Him to be.[39]

Accordingly, the Nyssen taught that due to God's infinitude, a created being can never reach an understanding of God, and thus for man in both life and the afterlife there is a constant progression [ἐπέκτασις] towards the unreachable knowledge of God, as the individual continually transcends all which has been reached before.[40] In the Life of Moses, Gregory speaks of three stages of this spiritual growth: initial darkness of ignorance, then spiritual illumination, and finally a darkness of the mind in mystic contemplation of the God who cannot be comprehended.[41]


In the Life of Moses, he writes that just as the darkness left the Egyptians after three days, perhaps redemption [ἀποκατάστασις] will be extended to those suffering in hell [γέεννα].[42] This salvation may not only extend to humans; following Origen, there are passages where he seems to suggest (albeit through the voice of Macrina) that even the demons will have a place in Christ's "world of goodness".[43] Gregory's interpretations of 1 Corinthians 15:28 ("And when all things shall be subdued unto him ...") and Philippians 2:10 ("That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth") support this understanding of his theology.[43]

However, in the Great Catechism, Gregory suggests that while every human will be resurrected, salvation will only be accorded to the baptised, although he also states that others driven by their passions can be saved after being purified by fire.[44] While he believes that there will be no more evil in the hereafter, it is arguable that this does not preclude a belief that God might justly damn sinners for eternity.[45] Thus, the main difference between Gregory's conception of ἀποκατάστασις and that of Origen would be that Gregory believes that mankind will be collectively returned to sinlessness, whereas Origen believes that personal salvation will be universal.[45]

Attempting to reconcile these disparate positions, Orthodox theologian Mario Baghos notes that "when taken at face value the saint seems to be contradicting himself in these passages; on the one hand he asserted the salvation of all and the complete eradication of evil, and, on the other, that the fire needed to purge evil is ‘sleepless’, i.e. everlasting. The only solution to this inconsistency is to view any allusion to universal salvation in St Gregory as an expression of God’s intention for humanity, which is in fact attested to when his holy sister states that God has “one goal […] some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time.” That we can choose either to accept or ignore this purification is confirmed by the saint’s many exhortations that we freely undertake the virtuous path." [46]


Gregory's anthropology is founded on the ontological distinction between the created and uncreated. Man is a material creation, and thus limited, but infinite in that his immortal soul has an indefinite capacity to grow closer to the divine.[47] Gregory believed that the soul is created simultaneous to the creation of the body (in opposition to Origen, who believed in preexistence), and that embryos were thus persons. To Gregory, the human being is exceptional, being created in the image of God.[48] Humanity is theomorphic both in having self-awareness and free will, the latter which gives each individual existential power, because to Gregory, in disregarding God one negates one's own existence.[49] In the Song of Songs, Gregory metaphorically describes human lives as paintings created by apprentices to a master: the apprentices (the human wills) imitate their master's work (the life of Christ) with beautiful colors (virtues), and thus man strives to be a reflection of Christ.[50] Gregory, in stark contrast to most thinkers of his age, saw great beauty in the Fall: from Adam's sin from two perfect humans would eventually arise myriad.[50]

Gregory was also one of the first Christian voices to say that slavery as an institution was inherently sinful.[51] He believed that slavery violated mankind's inherent worth, and the nature of humanity to be free. In Homilies on Ecclesiastes, he wrote: "'I got me slave-girls and slaves.' For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or, rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since he himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God's?"[52]


There are many similarities between Gregory's theology and neoplatonist philosophy, especially that of Plotinus.[53] Specifically, they share the idea that the reality of God is completely inaccessible to human beings and that man can only come to see God through a spiritual journey in which knowledge [γνῶσις] is rejected in favour of meditation.[54] Gregory does not refer to any neoplatonist philosophers in his work, and there is only one disputed passage which may directly quote Plotinus.[55] Considering this, it seems possible that Gregory was familiar with Plotinus and perhaps other figures in neoplatonism. However, some significant differences between neoplatonism and Gregory's thought exist, such as Gregory's statement that beauty and goodness are equivalent, which contrasts with Plotinus' view that they are two different qualities.[56]

Eastern Orthodox theologians are generally critical of the theory that Gregory was influenced by neoplatonism. For example, Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos argues in Life After Death that Gregory opposed all philosophical (as opposed to theological) endeavour as tainted with worldliness.[57] This view is supported by Against Euthonius, where Gregory denounces Euthonius for placing the results of his systematic Aristotelean philosophy above the traditional teachings of the Church.[31]

Feast Day

Eastern Christianity

10 January

Roman Catholicism

10 January
The Roman Martyrology commemorates the demise of St. Gregory Nyssa on 9 March.
In modern calendars which include the feast of St. Gregory such as the Benedictines, his feast day is observed on 10 January. 55e-

Lutheran Church

14 June, with Macrina, Gregory of Nazianzus and Basil the Great.

Anglican Communion

19 July, with Macrina


De virginitate

Gregory is revered as a saint. However, unlike the other Cappadocian fathers, he is not a Doctor of the Church. He is venerated chiefly in the East. His relics were held by the Vatican until 2000, when they were translated to the Greek Orthodox church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Diego, California.[58]

Gregory's work received little scholarly attention in the West until the mid-twentieth century, and he was historically treated as a minor figure in comparison to Basil the Great or Gregory of Nazianzus.[59] As late as 1942, Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that his work was virtually unknown.[60] In part due to the scholarship of Balthasar and Jean Daniélou, by the 1950s Gregory became the subject of much serious theological research, with a critical edition of his work published (Gregorii Nysseni Opera), and the founding of the International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa.[59] This attention has continued to the present day. Modern studies have mainly focused on Gregory's eschatology rather than his more dogmatic writings, and he has gained a reputation as an unconventional thinker whose thought arguably prefigures postmodernism.[61] Major figures in contemporary research include Sarah Coakley, John Zizioulas and Robert Jenson.[62][63]

Commentary on Gregory

In 787 AD, the Seventh Ecumenical Council of the Church, (also known as the Second Council of Nicea) honored Gregory of Nyssa:

"Let us then, consider who were the venerable doctors and indomitable champions of the Church...[including] Gregory Primate of Nyssa, who all have called the father of fathers."[64]

Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote in his work on the history of evolutionary thought, From the Greeks to Darwin (1894):

Among the Christian Fathers the movement towards a partly naturalistic interpretation of the order of Creation was made by Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century, and was completed by Augustine in the fourth and fifth centuries. ...[Gregory] taught that Creation was potential. God imparted to matter its fundamental properties and laws. The objects and completed forms of the Universe developed gradually out of chaotic material. [65]

Anthony Meredith writes of Gregory's mystical and apophatic writings in his book Gregory of Nyssa (The Early Church Fathers) (1999):

"Gregory has often been credited with the discovery of mystical theology, or rather with the perception that darkness is an appropriate symbol under which God can be discussed. There is much truth in this....Gregory seems to have been the first Christian writer to have made this important point..."[66]

J. Kameron Carter writes about Gregory's stance on slavery, in the book Race a Theological Account (2008):

"What interests me is the defining features of Gregory's vision of the just society: his unequivocal stance against 'the peculiar institution of slavery' and his call for the manumission of all slaves. I am interested in reading Gregory as a fourth century abolitionist intellectual....His outlook surpassed not only St. Paul's more moderate (but to be fair to Paul, in his moment, revolutionary) stance on the subject but also those of all ancient intellectuals -- Pagan, Jewish and Christian - from Aristotle to Cicero and from Augustine in the Christian West to his contemporary, the golden mouthed preacher himself, John Crysotom in the East. Indeed, the world would have to wait another fifteen centuries -- until the nineteenth century, late into the modern abolitionist movement -- before such an unequivocal stance against slavery would appear again."[67]


Further reading

Primary sources

The complete works of Gregory of Nyssa are published in the original Greek with Latin commentary as Gregorii Nysseni Opera:

Secondary sources


  1. ^ Book of Acts, 2:9
  2. ^ a b Van Dam 2003, p. 1
  3. ^ Mateo Seco & Maspero, p. 127
  4. ^ Watt & Drijvers, p. 99
  5. ^ Mateo Seco & Maspero, pp. 127-8
  6. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 103
  7. ^ Van Dam (2003), p. 77
  8. ^ Pfister (1964), pp. 108, 113
  9. ^ a b Lowther Clarke, W.K., The Life of St. Macrina, (London: SPCK, 1916)
  10. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 104
  11. ^ Gregory Nazianzen, Oration, 43.5-6
  12. ^ Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters. Translated by Anna M. Silvas, p. 3.
  13. ^ González 1984, p. 185
  14. ^ Watt & Drijvers, p. 120
  15. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 105
  16. ^ Ludlow 2000, p. 21
  17. ^ Daniélou, pp. 73–76
  18. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p.106
  19. ^ Van Dam, p. 77
  20. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 107
  21. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 108
  22. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 109
  23. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 110
  24. ^ a b c d Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 111
  25. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 112
  26. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 114
  27. ^ For example, see Knight, George T. (1908–14).  
  28. ^ Coakley et al., pp. 1–14
  29. ^ a b Davis et al., p. 14
  30. ^ Larson, p. 42
  31. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 750
  32. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 751
  33. ^ Jenson, pp. 105–6
  34. ^ Jenson, p. 167
  35. ^ a b Ludlow 2007, p. 43
  36. ^ Ludlow 2007, p. 51
  37. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 424
  38. ^ The life of Moses / Gregory of Nyssa ; translation, introd. and notes by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson ; pref. by John Meyendorff Page 81
  39. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 68
  40. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 425
  41. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 522
  42. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 57
  43. ^ a b Ludlow 2000, p. 80
  44. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 56-57
  45. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 59
  46. ^ Baghos, Mario (2012). "Reconsidering Apokatastasis in St Gregory of Nyssa's On the Soul and Resurrection and the Catechetical Oration". Phronema 27 (2): 125–162. Retrieved 17 August 2013. 
  47. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 38
  48. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 39
  49. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 41
  50. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 42
  51. ^ D. Bentley Hart (2001). The ‘Whole Humanity’: Gregory of Nyssa's Critique of Slavery in Light of His Eschatology. Scottish Journal of Theology, 54, pp 51-69. doi:10.1017/S0036930600051188.
  52. ^ Homilies on Ecclesiastes; Hall and Moriarty, trs., de Gruyter (New York, 1993) p. 74.
  53. ^ The perennial tradition of Neoplatonism, p. 188
  54. ^ The perennial tradition of Neoplatonism, p. 188–94
  55. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 531
  56. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 532
  57. ^ Life after Death, ch. 8
  58. ^ "Parish History". Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa, San Diego. Retrieved 22 January 2012. 
  59. ^ a b Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 170
  60. ^ "Only a very small number of initiates have read and are aware of Gregory of Nyssa, and they have jealously guarded their secret" - Hans Urs von Balthasar, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa (1942), as quoted in Maspero & Mateo Seco, p.170
  61. ^ Ludlow 2007, p. 232
  62. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 171
  63. ^ Maspero & Mateo Seco, p. 172
  64. ^ The Seventh General Council, the Second of Nicaea, Held A.D. 787, in which the Worship of Images was Established: With Copious Notes from the "Caroline Books", Compiled by Order of Charlemagne for Its Confutation, Council of Nicea, Translated by Mendham, John, Published by John. W.E. Painter, 1850, page 382
  65. ^ Henry Fairfield Osborn, From the Greeks to Darwin Macmillan and Co. (1905) p.69,71
  66. ^ Meredith, Anthony (1999). Gregory of Nyssa (The Early Church Fathers). p. 100.  
  67. ^ Carter, J. Kameron, Race a Theological Account, Oxford University Press, 2008, Page 231

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