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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 165. Gregory of Nyssa.


I. S. Gregorius Nyssenus: Opera omnia, quae reperiri potuerunt, Gr. et Lat., nunc primum e mss. codd. edita, stud. Front. Ducaei (Fronto le Duc, a learned Jesuit). Paris, 1615, 2 vols. fol. To be added to this. Appendix Gregorii ex ed. Jac. Gretseri, Par. 1618, fol.; and the Antirrhetoricus adv. Apollinar., first edited by L. Al. Zacagni, Collectanea monum. vet. eccl. Graec. et Lat. Rom. 1698, and in Gallandi, Bibliotheca, tom. vi. Later editions of the Opera by Aeg. Morél, Par. 1638, 3 vols. fol. (“moins belle que cello de 1615, mais plus ample et plus commode ... peu correcte,” according to Brunet); by Migne, Petit-Montrouge (Par.), 1858, 3 vols.; and by Franc. Oehler, Halis Saxonum, 1865 sqq. (Tom. i. continens libros dogmaticos, but only in the Greek original.) Oehler has also commenced an edition of select treatises of Gregory of Nyasa in the original with a German version. The Benedictines of St. Maur had prepared the critical apparatus for an edition of Gregory, but it was scattered during the French Revolution. Angelo Mai, in the Nov. Patrum Biblioth. tom. iv. Pars i. pp. 1–53 (Rom. 1847), has edited a few writings of Gregory unknown before, viz., a sermon Adversus Arium et Sabellium, a sermon De Spiritu Sancto adv. Macedonianos, and a fragment De processione Spiritus S. a Filio (doubtful).

II. Lives in the Acta Sanctorum, and in Butler, sub Mart. 9. Tillemont: Mém. tom. ix. p. 561 sqq. Schröckh: Part xiv. pp. 1–147. Jul. Rupp: Gregors des Bischofs von Nyssa Leben und Meinungen. Leipz. 1834 (unsatisfactory). W. Möller: Gregorii Nyss. doctrina de hominis natura, etc. Halis, 1854, and article in Herzog’s Encykl. vol. v. p. 354 sqq.


Gregory of Nyssa was a younger brother of Basil, and the third son of his parents. Of his honorable descent he made no account. Blood, wealth, and splendor, says he, we should leave to the friends of the world; the Christian’s lineage is his affinity with the divine, his fatherland is virtue, his freedom is the sonship of God. He was weakly and timid, and born not so much for practical life, as for study and speculation. He formed his mind chiefly upon the writings of Origen, and under the direction of his brother, whom he calls his father and preceptor. Further than this his early life is unknown.

After spending a short time as a rhetorician he broke away from the world, retired into solitude in Pontus, and became enamored of the ascetic life.

Quite in the spirit of the then widely-spread tendency towards the monastic life, he, though himself married, commends virginity in a special work, as a higher grade of perfection, and depicts the happiness of one who is raised above the incumbrances and snares of marriage, and thus, as he thinks, restored to the original state of man in Paradise.19491949   That he was married appears from his own concession, De virginitate, c. 3, where by Theosebia he means his wife (not, as some earlier Roman scholars, and Rupp, l. c. p. 25, suppose, his sister), and from Gregory Nazianzen’s letter of condolence, Ep. 95. He laments that his eulogy of παρθενία can no longer bring him the desired fruit. Theosebia seems to have lived till 384. Gregory Nazianzen, in his short eulogy of her, says that she rivalled her brothers-in-law (Basil and Peter) who were in the priesthood. “From all the evils of marriage,” he says, “virginity is free; it has no lost children, no lost husband to bemoan; it is always with its Bridegroom, and delights in its devout exercises, and, when death comes, it is not separated from him, but united with him forever.” The essence of spiritual virginity, however, in his opinion, by no means consists merely in the small matter of sensual abstinence, but in the purity of the whole life. Virginity is to him the true philosophy, the perfect freedom. The purpose of asceticism in general he considered to be not the affliction of the body—which is only a means—but the easiest possible motion of the spiritual functions.

His brother Basil, in 372, called him against his will from his learned ease into his own vicinity as bishop of Nyssa, an inconsiderable town of Cappadocia. He thought it better that the place should receive its honor from his brother, than that his brother should receive his honor from his place. And so it turned out. As Gregory labored zealously for the Nicene faith, he drew the hatred of the Arians, who succeeded in deposing him at a synod in 376, and driving him into exile. But two years later, when the emperor Valens died and Gratian revoked the sentences of banishment, Gregory recovered his bishopric.

Now other trials came upon him. His brothers and sisters died in rapid succession. He delivered a eulogy upon Basil, whom he greatly venerated, and he described the life and death of his beautiful and noble sister Macrina, who, after the death of her betrothed, that she might remain true to him, chose single life, and afterwards retired with her mother into seclusion, and exerted great influence over her brothers.

Into her mouth he put his theological instructions on the soul, death, resurrection, and final restoration.19501950   In his dialogue, De anima et resurrectione (Περὶ ψυχῆς καὶ ἀναστάσεως μετὰ τῆς ἰδίας ἀδελφῆς Μακρίνης διάλογο;ς), Opp. iii. 181 sqq. (ed. Morell. 1638), also separately edited by J. G. Krabinger, Lips. 1837, and more recently, together with his biography of his sister, by Franc. Oehler, with a German translation, Leipz. 1858. The last-mentioned edition is at the same time the first volume of a projected Select Library of the Fathers, presenting the original text with a new German translation. The dialogue was written after the death of his brother Basil, and occasioned by it. She died in the arms of Gregory, with this prayer: “Thou, O God, hast taken from me the fear of death. Thou hast granted me, that the end of this life should be the beginning of true life. Thou givest our bodies in their time to the sleep of death, and awakest them again from sleep with the last trumpet .... Thou hast delivered us from the curse and from sin by Thyself becoming both for us; Thou hast bruised the head of the serpent, hast broken open the gates of hell, hast overcome him who had the power of death, and hast opened to us the way to, resurrection. For the ruin of the enemy and the security of our life, Thou hast put upon those who feared Thee a sign, the sign of Thy holy cross, O eternal God, to whom I am betrothed from the womb, whom my soul has loved with all its might, to whom I have dedicated, from my youth up till now, my flesh and my soul. Oh! send to me an angel of light, to lead me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of peace, in the bosom of the holy fathers. Thou who hast broken the flaming sword, and bringest back to Paradise the man who is crucified with Thee and flees to Thy mercy. Remember me also in Thy kingdom!... Forgive me what in word, deed, or thought, I have done amiss! Blameless and without spot may my soul be received into Thy hands, as a burnt-offering before Thee!”19511951   Nyss. Περὶ τοῦ βίου τῆς μακαρίας Μακρίνης.

Gregory attended the ecumenical council of Constantinople, and undoubtedly, since he was one of the most eminent theologians of the time, exerted a powerful influence there, and according to a later, but erroneous, tradition, he composed the additions to the Nicene Creed which were there sanctioned.19521952   In Niceph. Call. H. E. xiii. 13. These additions were in use several years before 881, and are found in Epiphanius, Anchorate, n. 120 (tom. ii. p. 122). The council intrusted to him, as “one of the pillars of catholic orthodoxy,” a tour of visitation to Arabia and Jerusalem, where disturbances had broken out which threatened a schism. He found Palestine in a sad condition, and therefore dissuaded a Cappadocian abbot, who asked his advice about a pilgrimage of his monks to Jerusalem. “Change of place,” says he, “brings us no nearer God, but where thou art, God can come to thee, if only the inn of thy soul is ready .... It is better to go out of the body and to raise one’s self to the Lord, than to leave Cappadocia to journey to Palestine.” He did not succeed in making peace, and he returned to Cappadocia lamenting that there were in Jerusalem men “who showed a hatred towards their brethren, such as they ought to have only towards the devil, towards sin, and towards the avowed enemies of the Saviour.”

Of his later life we know very little. He was in Constantinople thrice afterwards, in 383, 385, and 394, and he died about the year 395.

The wealth of his intellectual life he deposited in his numerous writings, above all in his controversial doctrinal works: Against Eunomius; Against Apollinaris; On the Deity of the Son and the Holy Ghost; On the difference between ousia and hypostasis in God; and in his catechetical compend of the Christian faith.19531953   The Λόγος κατηχητικὸς ὁ μέγαςstands worthily by the side of the similar work of Origen, De principiis. Separate edition, Gr. and Lat. with notes, by J. G. Krabinger, Munich, 1888. The beautiful dialogue with his sister Macrina on the soul and the resurrection has been already mentioned. Besides these he wrote many Homilies, especially on the creation of the world, and of man,19541954   The Hexaëmeron of Gregory is a supplement to his brother Basil’s Hexaëmeron, and discusses the more obscure metaphysical questions connected with this subject. His book on the Workmanship of Man, though written first, may be regarded as a continuation of the Hexaëmeron, and beautifully sets forth the spiritual and royal dignity and destination of man, for whom the world was prepared and adorned as his palace. on the life of Moses, on the Psalms, on Ecclesiastes, on the Song of Solomon, on the Lord’s Prayer, on the Beatitudes; Eulogies on eminent martyrs and saints (St. Stephen, the Forty Martyrs, Gregory Thaumaturgus, Ephrem, Meletius, his brother Basil); various valuable ascetic tracts; and a biography of his sister Macrina, addressed to the monk Olympios.

Gregory was more a man of thought than of action. He had a fine metaphysical head, and did lasting service in the vindication of the mystery of the Trinity and the incarnation, and in the accurate distinction between essence and hypostasis. Of all the church teachers of the Nicene age he is the nearest to Origen. He not only follows his sometimes utterly extravagant allegorical method of interpretation, but even to a great extent falls in with his dogmatic views.19551955   On his relation to Origen, Comp. the appendix of Rupp, l.c. pp. 243-262. With him, as with Origen, human freedom plays a great part. Both are idealistic, and sometimes, without intending it or knowing it, fall into contradiction with the church doctrine, especially in eschatology. Gregory adopts, for example, the doctrine of the final restoration of all things. The plan of redemption is in his view absolutely universal, and embraces all spiritual beings. Good is the only positive reality; evil is the negative, the non-existent, and must finally abolish itself, because it is not of God. Unbelievers must indeed pass through a second death, in order to be purged from the filthiness of the flesh. But God does not give them up, for they are his property, spiritual natures allied to him. His love, which draws pure souls easily and without pain to itself, becomes a purifying fire to all who cleave to the earthly, till the impure element is driven off. As all comes forth from God, so must all return into him at last.



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