January has been reckoned by many as the Season of the Fathers since there arenumerous feast days dedicated to hierarchs and monastics having greatinfluence on the development of Orthodox Theology. This month we celebrate St Basil the Great, St Gregory the Theologian, St John Chrysostom, St Athanasius and St Cyril, just to name a few. Just yesterday, January 10, the Church commemorated St Gregory of Nyssa. Although not as well-known as the aforementioned Fathers,he is known by the acts of the Seventh Ecumenical Council as the “Father of Fathers.” St Gregory was the younger brother of St Basil the Great and was Bishop of Nyssa, a region in Cappadocia. He is known as one of the greatest thinkers of the 4thcentury. The Saint was born in 335 AD and died in 395 AD.
St Gregory’s approach to theology was apophatic which means to describe God in terms of what we know He is not rather than what we speculate Him to be. Apophatic theology stresses God’s absolute transcendence and unknowability in such a way that we cannot say anything about the divine essence because God is so totally beyond being. Conversely, cataphatic theology speaks about God using positive language, affirming what God is. Many Fathers have argued that the latter limits God, placing His attributes only within our own experiences and understanding. One of the prayers the priest intones in the Divine Liturgy says: For you, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit… Certainly this is an apophatic prayer.
Gregory was a prominent figure at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 held in Constantinople. This Council was largely about the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Πνευματομάχοι or “Spirit fighters” led by Macedonius did not believe in the divinity of the Holy Spirit. It was the initiative of Gregory that the second part of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed was developed. Prior to this Council, the Creed was known as the Nicene Creed which ended at: He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. However, afterGregory rightly defended the divinity of the Holy Spirit, that it is One of the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity, the part of the Creed starting with: In the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life Who proceeds from the Father, Who together with the Father and Son is worshipped and glorified, Who spoke by the Prophets… was added, to complete the Creed as we confess it today.
St Gregory along with his brother Basil the Great, were both staunch opponents of the Arian heresy which taught that Jesus Christ was not God but a created being. In fact, Gregory was deposed in absentia by a council of Arian bishops. After the Emperor Valens who was a prominent Arian died in 378, Gregory was restored to his See. He authored many theological works such as Against Eunomiusand On the Soul and the Resurrection.In the latter work, Gregory yearned to synthesize Orthodox Theology with philosophy. His thinking is in line with St Paul that our bodies will rise again but in a more glorious and incorrupt form than we have now. Many thought his theology was aligned with Origen, another early Church Father who was later denounced by the Emperor Justinian I as a heretic. To this day, many debate whether it was just for Origen to have been condemned for his teachings. Although many of Origen’s teachings were misleading, Gregory, being like a bee, extracted the “honey” from them and expanded on what Origen perhaps was trying to say or was lacking. The Saint started with the empirical unity of body and soul and its dissolution in death. He explained that the material substance itself, however, is not destroyed, only the body dies, not its elements. Moreover, in the very disintegration, the particles of the decaying body preserve in themselves certain signs or marks of their former connection with their own soul (τάσημείατουήμετέρουσυγκρίματος). By a power of recognition (γνωστικήτήδυνάμει), even in the separation of death, the soul somehow remains nevertheless near the elements of its own decomposed body (τουοικείουέφαπτομένη). Thus, Gregory agrees with Origen in a bodily resurrection but differs with him on what substance will constitute the bodies. Furthermore, the Saint rightly explains that if the risen bodies were constructed entirely from the new elements, that “would not be a resurrection, but rather the creation of a new man” (καίούκέτιάνείητότοιούτονανάστασις, αλλάκαινούανθρώπουδημιουργία).Τhe resurrected body will be reconstructed from its former elements, signed or sealed by the soul in the days of its incarnation, otherwise it would simply be another man.
St Gregory did however face contention with his thought on αποκατάστασις (restoration or restitution). It is the belief that everyone and everything will be saved in the End or the restoration to its original or primordial condition. The term has been used synonymous with Universal Salvation or Universalism. Once again, Gregory extracted the “honey” from Origen’s teachings. He made clear that the ecclesial context is the proper framework for αποκατάστασις. Critics of the Saint have missed this view that he presents. The basis of St Gregory’s argument was from 1 Corinthians 15: Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received and which you stand, by which also you are saved…He contextualized αποκατάστασιςwithin the person of Jesus Christ and His Church. God’s intention is to save humanity which is why He took on flesh, was crucified and Risen from the dead. Thus, salvation is based on our own free will, something God gives us along with the gift of life. Ultimately our salvation is contingent on whether or not we choose to follow God. Our salvation is the restoration (αποκατάστασις)of humanityback to God, the way he initially created mankind. Yes, when we die the body dissolves but will be woven again from the same elements, but now refashioned with an incorrupt beauty. Gregory uses the metaphor of a seed’s maturation into a plant to emphasize the continuity of the body. For he says: the resurrection is nothing other than the restoration of our nature to its original state. In the resurrection the passions of the flesh, sin, is shed away; the body, however, is transformed. Thus, soul and body are united once again.For Gregory wisely said: a body without a soul is but a corpse, and a soul without body is a ghost. Simply said, critics of St Gregory have not properly understood his arguments or appreciated his extraction of “honey” from Origen’s teachings. Instead, they erroneously associated him with Origen or a proponent of his teachings. It is even debated if Origen was really a heretic. Nevertheless, it was St Gregory’s wise discernment of Origen and brilliant theological teachings that deems him the Father of Fathers.
Having achieved a life inspired by God, you made its practice bright by contemplation, Gregory, revealer of God; for loving wisdom with divine ardour, you were enriched with grace from the mouth of the Spirit. Distilling the sweetness of your words like honeycomb, you ever make God’s Church joyful with divine thoughts. And so, as you dwell a high priest in heaven, intercede unceasingly for us who celebrate your memory. (2ndDoxastikon of Festal Vespers)