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  • "Some Synchronic Moment":Gregory of Nyssa, Théologie Mystique, and French Ressourcement
  • Michel René Ponchin Barnes

"In the cold light I only live for youTo love and adore you.[It's all that I have.]Why do I keep falling?"

In memory of Michael Ossorgine, Dennis Vincent Higgins, and Franny Glass


The present importance of the thought of Gregory of Nyssa and the wisdom of a contemporary scholarly "turn" to his theology is so much taken for granted now that it can seem as though any thoughtful early-twentieth-century theologian looking to explore a patristic-sourced "mystical theology" obviously would have sought out Gregory. However, a pre–World War II patristics student seeking an existential theology not captive to rationalism more likely would have settled upon Gregory of Nazianzus—Gregory "the Theologian"—who wrote mystical poetry, or John Chrysostom, whose interests spanned all genres of writing. 1 The turn to Gregory of Nyssa in modern theological sensitivities is not a [End Page 367] development to be regarded as inevitable, nor should the motives for the turn be presumed to be obvious or inevitable. In its simplest form, my hypothesis for explaining this turn to Gregory of Nyssa is that through his writings on the human experience of God (i.e., on mystical ascent) Gregory personified the principal question of the day: "How do faith and philosophy co-exist?" His theology was easily contextualized within the new appreciation of Neoplatonism (as was also the case with, e.g., Peter Brown's biography of Augustine); he was regarded as "orthodox" but problematically so; and he was a stepping-stone to Origen. It is difficult not to see Gregory's marginal status as reflecting the experience of his more thoughtful mid-twentieth-century readers. Moreover, Gregory's theology was written with a strong anthropological bent, and taken as a whole (as it was in Migne) it seemed potentially to offer an anthropology as comprehensive as Augustine's; this allowed for Gregory's theology to be easily merged with a modern theological logic that started from "human nature" rather than divine. 2 I believe the plastic capability of Gregory's theological anthropology recommended his work to theologians newly bedazzled by subjectivity and new notions of "consciousness" (other than simply Bewusstein). Gregory wrote several treatises on theological anthropology (unlike, e.g., the mystical poet, Gregory of Nazianzus), and anthropology is a genuine and consistent concern for Gregory. Last (but not least!) among hypothetical motives for a modern theological "turn" to Gregory may be that his works laid out an epistemology—or, at the least, he was explicitly concerned with epistemological questions of the day. This concern places Gregory among a small group of early Church Fathers—such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Augustine—whose theology was framed with an awareness that revelation and epistemology were inevitably intertwined. Modern questions such as "is certain knowledge mediated, and if so, how?" or "what in humans properly knows God?" can be posed to Gregory directly. 3 [End Page 368] Given the theological focus on the encounter with God as experience or encounter, Gregory can share our question of "in what state of mind does a person approach knowing God?" 4 The line between an account of "mystical experience" and of "human openness to God (or not)" is blurred and each theologian works through a theological anthropology that is propaedeutic to a théologie mystique.

Among Catholic and Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century, Gregory of Nyssa was rehabilitated before Origen. The utility of Origen's theology was uncertain; 5 even more uncertain was his status as a bona fide representative of early Christian theology. Aside from the traditional concerns regarding Gregory's problematical "Origenism" there was the modern linking of Gregory to Origen by Adolf von Harnack, who found Origen's brand of "Hellenization" in the theologies of the Cappadocians—especially Gregory of Nyssa. 6 The defense and rehabilitation of Gregory accepted Harnack's fundamental criticism of Origen's theology as Hellenism—but revealed Gregory's theology to be rooted in a hermeneutic radically different from Origen's: Gregory's theology was fundamentally different from Origen's in its relationship to pagan philosophy...


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