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  • Apophaticism in Disguise:The Function of Apophatic Theology in Gregory of Nyssa's Soteriology
  • Chelsea Jordan King (bio)

The theological interplay between cataphatic and apophatic theology is a delicate balancing act of saying too much and admitting too little. Ultimately, a strong apophaticism serves as a corrective to the human tendency to limit the limitless, to define the indefinable, and to comprehend the incomprehensible. It can be argued that underlying all positive doctrinal statements about God lies a brilliant light Whose brightness can only appear as darkness. Thus, doctrines serve as boundaries that prevent us from imagining that the divine essence could be captured by the human intellect. Doctrines may offer positive statements about the divine, but they can also be open to a variety of competing interpretations. The doctrine of salvation conveys that God has redeemed humanity from sin through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This doctrinal statement is simple enough, but throughout the centuries, Christians have wrestled with its proper interpretation. Indeed, various metaphors have been employed within the Christian tradition that have articulated and expanded upon the mystery of salvation, giving rise to so-called "atonement theories." Vladimir Lossky offers a pertinent reminder that "the desire to use any of these images as adequate expression of the mystery of our salvation involves the risk of substituting purely human and inappropriate conceptions for the 'mystery of God hidden before all ages.'"1

In Christian circles, Gregory of Nyssa is known for deploying some wildly inappropriate images in his account of salvation. His portrayal of Christ's flesh dangling as bait on a fishhook before the devil has left many theologians wondering how anyone could take his account seriously. This metaphor of a fishhook is oftentimes dismissed as archaic and crude, for it seems to depict salvation in a highly anthropomorphic fashion, thus placing Nyssa in danger of Lossky's warning against substituting human conceptions for the mystery of salvation. In what follows, I challenge these critiques and ultimately argue that veiled beneath these inappropriate and crude images lies a robust apophaticism. Similar to the flesh of Christ, these images veil the mystery of salvation, which for Nyssa, cannot be understood fully by the human intellect.

To argue for this conclusion, I first present Nyssa's account of the soteriological significance of the crucifixion as delineated in his Address on Religious [End Page 196] Instruction.2 Next, I address and attend to select critiques of Nyssa's presentation of Christ's death, especially Nyssa's controversial and crude fishhook metaphor. While some have taken issue with these images, I argue that Nyssa's aim is to use inappropriate images to provoke the reader to go beyond them to an ultimately apophatic reality. Nyssa's apophaticism is seen most clearly in his other work, the Life of Moses,3 and thus it will be necessary to briefly examine that text. To argue that the Address operates within a similar apophatic framework, I analyze Nyssa's use of myth in the Address. I finally present a textual analysis that argues for a performative function of the Address that immerses the reader into a redemptive apophaticism.


In a dramatic retelling of Christ's death, Nyssa portrays the devil as a greedy fish, ready to swallow Christ wholly.4 Christ's flesh serves as the bait, dangling on the fishhook before the devil, who is captivated by the prospect of attaining rights over one of the most powerful human beings he has ever seen. Now, the devil already held human beings in bondage through an act of deception. The first humans freely allowed their wills to be tempted by the devil's deception, which meant that he held certain rights over them. God, not wishing to act against justice, decided to act in a similar fashion and became human in order to make the devil an offer: Christ, one of the most powerful human beings that has ever existed, in exchange for all of humanity. The devil could not resist such an offer, for he was motivated by power. He was "aware of none who was connected with such circumstances as he saw in His [Christ's...