Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Part 1

For the following couple of posts, I will be looking at the issue of faith in Gregory of Nyssa by reviewing a book by Martin Laird entitled: Gregory nyssaof Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge and Divine Presence (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Laird discusses Nyssa’s view of the mind, that its energies are often dispersed fruitlessly (through worldly passions), and need to be drawn together and focused through self-denial. A worldly person has a “thick” mind, that squanders its potential on human passions. In Laird’s words, “In order for the heart to be whole the mind must in some way be recollected, withdrawn from the affairs of the world. Here it finds its wholeness and ability to ascend” (39).  He continues on to explain:

If unclouded, untroubled, or unimpeded by the senses and passions, the same mind, and not a different compartment or level, will move upward towards the spiritual, intelligible world. Given appropriate ascetic training, there is in the mind an upward orientation, a dynamic capacity to ascend” (43).

The thickness of the mind, in a move reminiscent of Edwards, is unable to know beauty. Again, “the sense faculties are not suitably trained for the discernment of what is beautiful and what is not” (45). Importantly, the mind is able to know beauty, but it needs training to do so (contra Edwards). A helpful use of typology is found in Gregory’s understanding of Elijah and the chariot of fire. The mind, claims Gregory, “is taken into a fiery chariot and borne on high towards the heavenly beauty” (46). This fire is the Holy Spirit, who, following the typology, is the true guide to the knowledge of true beauty. But what does this mean for contemplation of God. In Laird’s words,

Gregory says that the contemplation of God involves neither sight nor hearing (the realm of the senses); nor is the contemplation of God comprehended by our customary concepts. To contemplate God is somehow to move beyond both the realm of the senses and the contemplation of intelligibles” (47-48).

Beyond discursive reason lays the desert of the apophatic. The seeing of God in true contemplation is an entering into darkness (God’s incomprehensibility), and seeing which is only by non-seeing. “This darkness which the mind has entered is the ‘luminous dark’ in which the sublime John, who discovered that no intelligence can reach the divine essence, was immersed” (51). In the depths of this darkness, it is not the mind that can achieve this union, but faith (53). The mind has nothing of its nature to grasp, and therefore the grasp of faith is all that can find handhold in the presence of God. Laird explains that while the mind does not actively accomplish something in God’s sanctuary, it does receive insight, albeit “indistinct insights” (55).

Faith therefore, is not merely a hopefully believing, but “…an unknowing higher than knowing that has abandoned all concepts and images, in the face of incomprehensible mystery…” (68). As Laird explains, faith plays a uniting and mediating role for Gregory. Faith unites the mind to God, but also mediates between the mind and God. Interestingly, for Edwards (and many others), this is where pneumatology would break in and do the work for them rather than something like faith. Edwards does, however, define faith as a “closing with Christ,” which is interesting in light of the uniting aspect of Gregory’s thought. So, for Gregory, the mind becomes blinded by God, and the only true ascent can be by faith, where faith unites with God and mediates that union. The mind still receives, but it is a receiving through faith and in darkness.

Along with the imagery used to talk about faith as uniting and mediating, Gregory inauggurated a trend that found its way down through the ages of spiritual literature – talking about God’s love as wounding. Faith then, is the tip of this arrow: “Not only does the arrow tip of faith mediate union with and the indwelling presence of the bridegroom, it also causes the bride’s desire for the Beloved to expand” (96). As the arrow of love, and therefore divinity itself, the arrow must penetrate deep into the heart of the believer, and the means by which this happens is through a sharpened tip of faith. So that while the heart does become charity (and therefore partake of the divine nature), there is still an important creature/Creator distinction developed through the use of infinite and the finite. Finite creature can only grasp ahold of divinity through unknowing, through the grasp of faith. Faith, through grasping, cannot hold or contain the fullness of the divine being, but must ascend through darkness and negation to God.

In the various discussions concerning theosis and justification, I wonder if it this kind of account is at all helpful? We have certainly, at least in evangelical circles, moved away from any account of negation and apophaticism, leaving what at times seems like a very arrogant approach to our knowledge of God. Do you find any of this useful for contemporary thought? If not, is there something here we can utilize, or is evangelical, at its very core, allergic to any sort of apophatic analysis?


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