Early Church Fathers
That none of the Treatises of S. Gregory of Nyssa have hitherto been translated into English, or even (with one exception long ago) into French, may be partly due to the imperfections, both in number and quality, of the mss., and by consequence of the Editions, of the great majority of them. The state of the mss., again, may be owing to the suspicion diligently fostered by the zealous friends of the reputation of this Father, in ages when mss. could and should have been multiplied and preserved, that there were large importations into his writings from the hands of the Origenists-a statement which a very short study of Gregory, whose thought is always taking the direction of Origen, would disprove.
This suspicion, while it resulted in throwing doubts upon the genuineness of the entire text, has so far deprived the current literature of the Church of a great treasure. For there are two qualities in this Gregory's writings not to be found in the same degree in any other Greek teacher, namely, a far-reaching use of philosophical speculation (quite apart from allegory) in bringing out the full meaning of Church doctrines, and Bible truths; and excellence of style. With regard to this last, he himself bitterly deplored the days which he had wasted over the study of style; but we at all events need not share that regret, if only for this reason, that his writings thereby show that patristic Greek could rise to the level of the best of its time. It is not necessarily the thing which it is, too easily, even in other instances, assumed to be. Granted the prolonged decadence of the language, yet perfects are not aorists, nor aorists perfects, the middle is a middle, there are classical constructions of the participle, the particles of transition and prepositions in composition have their full force in Athanasius; much more in Basil; much more in Gregory. It obscures facts to say that there was good Greek only in the age of Thucydides. There was good and bad Greek of its kind, in every epoch, as long as Greek was living. So far for mere syntax. As for adequacy of language, the far wider range of his subject-matter puts Gregory of Nyssa to a severer test; but he does not fail under it. What could be more dignified than his letter to Flavian, or more choice than his description of the spring, or more richly illustrated than his praises of Contemplation, or more pathetic than his pleading for the poor? It would have been strange indeed if the Greek language had not possessed a Jerome of its own, to make it speak the new monastic devotion.
But the labours of J. A. Krabinger, F. Oehler, and G. H. Forbes upon the text, though all abruptly ended, have helped to repair the neglect of the past. They in this century, as the scholars of Paris, Ghent, and Basle, though each working with fewer or more imperfect mss., in the sixteenth and seventeenth, have been better friends to Gregory than those who wrote books in the sixth to defend his orthodoxy, but to depreciate his writings. In this century, too, Cardinal Mai has rescued still more from oblivion in the Vatican-a slight compensation for all the materials collected for a Benedictine edition of Gregory, but dispersed in the French Revolution.
The longest Treatise here translated is that Against Eunomius in 13 Books. The reproduction of so much ineffectual fencing in logic over a question which no longer can trouble the Church might be taken exception to. But should men like Gregory and Basil, pleading for the spirit and for faith and, for mystery against the conclusions of a hard logician, be an indifferent spectacle to us? The interest, too, in the contest deepens when we know that their opponent not only proclaimed himself, but was accepted, as a martyr to the Anomoean cause; and that he had large congregations to the very end. The moral force of Arianism was stronger than ever as its end drew near in the East, because the Homoeans were broken up and there was no more complicity with the court and politics. It was represented by a man who had suffered and had made no compromises; and so the life-long work, previous to his, of Valens the bishop at last bore fruit in conversions; and the Anomoean teaching came to a head in the easily understood formula that the 'Agennhsiawas the essence of the Father-an idea which in the Dated Creed Valens had repudiated.
What, then, was to be done? Eunomius seemed by his parade of logic to have dug a gulf for ever between the Ungenerate and the Generate, in other words between the Father and the Son. The merit and interest of this Treatise of Gregory consists in showing this logician as making endless mistakes in his logic; and then, that anything short of the "eternal generation" involved unspeakable absurdities or profanities; and lastly, that Eunomius was fighting by means of distinctions which were the mere result of mental analysis. Already, we see, there was floating in the air the Conceptualism and Realism of the Middle Ages, invoked for this last Arian controversy. When Eunomius retorted that this faculty of analysis cannot give the name of God, and calls his opponents atheists for not recognizing the more than human source of the term 'Agennhtoj, the last word of Nicene orthodoxy has to be uttered; and it is, that God is really incomprehensible, and that here we can never know His name.
This should have led to a statement of the claims of the Sacraments as placing us in heart and spirit, but not in mind, in communion with this incomprehensible God. But this would have been useless with such opponents as the Eunomians. Accuracy of doctrine and clearness of statement was to them salvation; mysteries were worse than nothing. Only in the intervals of the logical battle, and for the sake of the faithful, does Gregory recur to those moral and spiritual attributes which a true Christianity has revealed in the Deity, and upon which the doctrine of the Sacraments is built.
Such controversies are repeated now; i.e. where truths, which it requires a certain state of the affections to understand, should be urged, but cannot be, on the one side; and truths which are logical, or literary, or scientific only, are ranged on the other side; as an instance, though in another field, the arguments for and against the results of the "higher criticism" of the Old Testament exhibit this irreconcilable attitude.
Yet in one respect a great gain must have at once resulted to the Catholic cause from this long work. The counter opposition of Created and Uncreate, with which Gregory met the opposition of Generate and Ungenerate, and which, unlike the latter, is a dichotomy founded on an essential difference, must have helped many minds, distracted with the jargon of Arianism, to see more clearly the preciousness of the Baptismal Formula, as the casket which contains the Faith. Indeed, the life-work of Gregory was to defend this Formula.
The Treatise On Virginity is probably the work of his youth; but none the less Christian for that. Here is done what students of Plato had doubtless long been asking for, i.e. that his "love of the Beautiful" should be spiritualized. Beginning with a bitter accusation of marriage, Gregory leaves the reader doubtful in the end whether celibacy is necessary or not for the contemplative life; so absorbed he becomes in the task of showing the blessedness of those who look to the source of all visible beauty. But the result of this seeing is not, as in Plato, a mere enlightenment as to the real value of these visible things. There are so many more beautiful things in God than Plato saw; the Christian revelation has infinitely enriched the field of contemplation; and the lover of the beautiful now must be a higher character, and have a more chastened heart, not only be a more favoured child of light, than others. His enthusiasm shall be as strong as ever; but the model is higher now; and even an Aristotelian balance of moral extremes is necessary to guide him to the goal of a successful Imitation.
It was right, too, that the Church should possess her Phaedo, or Death-bed Dialogue; and it is Gregory who has supplied this in his On the Soul and the Resurrection. But the copy becomes an original. The dialogue is between a sister and a brother; the one a saintly Apologist, the other, for argument's sake, a gainsayer, who urges all the pleas of Greek materialism. Not only the immortality of the soul is discussed, but an exact definition of it is sought, and that in the light of a truer psychology than Plato's. His "chariot" is given up; sensation, as the basis of all thought, is freely recognized; and yet the passions are firmly separated from the actual essence of the soul; further, the "coats of skins" of fallen humanity, as symbolizing the wrong use of the passions, take the place of the "sea-weed" on the statue of Glaucus. The grasp of the Christian philosopher of the traits of a perfect humanity, so conspicuous in his Making of Man, give him an advantage here over the pagan. As for the Resurrection of the flesh, it was a novel stroke to bring the beliefs of Empedocles, Pythagoras, Plato, and the later Platonists, into one focus as it were, and to show that the teaching of those philosophers as to the destinies of the soul recognized the possibility, or even the necessity, of the reassumption of some body. Grotesque objections to the Christian Resurrection, such as are urged nowadays, are brought forward and answered in this Treatise.
The appeal to the Saviour, as to the Inspiration of the Old Testament, has raised again a discussion as to the Two Natures; and will probably continue to do so. But before the subject of the "communication of attributes" can be entered upon, we must remember that Christ's mere humanity (as has been lately pointed out1 ) is, to begin with, sinless. He was perfect man. What the attributes of a perfect, as contrasted with a fallen, humanity are, it is not given except by inference to know; but no Father has discussed this subject of Adam's nature more fully than Gregory, in his treatise On the Making of Man.
The reasons for classing the Great Catechism as an Apologetic are given in the Prolegomena: here from first to last Gregory shows himself a genuine pupil of Origen. The plan of Revelation is made to rest on man's free-will; every objection to it is answered by the fact of this free-will. This plan is unfolded so as to cover the whole of human history; the beginning, the middle, and the end are linked, in the exposition, indissolubly together. The Incarnation is the turning-point of history; and yet, beyond this, its effects are for all Creation. Who made this theology? Origen doubtless; and his philosophy of Scripture, based on a few leading texts, became, one point excepted, the property of the Church: she at last possessed a Théodicée that borrowed nothing from Greek ideas. So far, then, every one who used it was an Origenist: and yet Gregory alone has suffered from this charge. In using this Théodicée he has in some points surpassed his master, i.e. in showing in details the skilfulness (sofia) which effected the real "touching" of humanity; and how the "touched" soul and the "touched" body shall follow in the path of the Redeemer's Resurrection.
To the many points of modern interest in this Gregory should be added his eschatology, which occupies a large share of his thoughts. On Infants' Early Deaths is a witness of this. In fact, when not occupied in defending, on one side or another, the Baptismal Formula, he is absorbed in eschatology. He dwells continually on the agonizing and refining processes of Purgatory. But to claim him as one who favours the doctrine of "Eternal Hope" in a universal sense is hardly possible, when we consider the passage in On the Soul and the Resurrection where he speaks of a Last Judgment as coming after the Resurrection and Purgatory.
So much has been said in a Preface, in order to show that this Volume is a step at least towards reinstating a most interesting writer, doubtless one of the most highly educated of his time, and, let it be observed as well, a canonized saint (for, more fortunate than his works, he was never branded as a heretic), in his true position.
In a first English translation of Treatises and Letters most of which (notably the books against Eunomius) have never been illustrated by a single translator's note, and by but a handful of scholia, a few passages remain, which from the obscurity of their allusion, local or historical, are unexplained. In others the finest shades of meaning in one Greek word, insisted on in some argument, but which the best English equivalent fails to represent, cause the appearance of obscurity. But, throughout, the utmost clearness possible without unduly straining the literal meaning has been aimed at; and in passages too numerous to name, most grateful acknowledgment is here made of the invaluable suggestions of the Rev. J. H. Lupton.
It is hoped that the Index of Subjects will be of use, in lieu of an analysis, where an analysis has not been provided. The Index of Texts, all of which have been strictly verified, while it will be found to prove Gregory's thorough knowledge of Scripture (nothwithstanding his somewhat classical training), does not attempt to distinguish between citation and reminiscence; care, however, has been taken that the reminiscence should be undoubted.
The Index of Greek words (as also the quotations in foot-notes of striking sentences) has been provided for those interested in the study of later Greek.-W. M., July, 1892.