Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Part 2

Laird, in a helpful comment, nyssasuggests that the “brand” of mysticism of which Gregory is a part (or which he began) was a mysticism of faith. As neo-platonic as Gregory sounds (and certainly is to some degree), Laird helpful notes that, “Gregory’s concerns for development and transformation as a result of union, in which the soul could never become identical with the One, distinguish him definitely from the non-Christian Neoplatonist” (129).

In the same vein, Laird acknowledges and laments the apophatic characterization of Gregory in the secondary material, noting that everywhere it is assumed but rarely is it tempered. In his words,

Indeed for all Gregory’s apophaticism he values at the same time positive knowledge of God. For whilst the mind does not grasp God in comprehension, God ‘puts down roots in the depths of the mind’ and waters it with teaching; beyond the grasp of comprehension through the divine nature is, something of God has the capacity to make itself cognitively useful” (132).

Therefore, while we may not grasp the divine nature, we still have knowledge of the divine; “our understanding of the divine nature bears a resemblance to what we seek” (133). This knowledge truly “corresponds” to God (it is accurate), to use a loaded and modern concept, but does not grasp God – only faith can do that. Interestingly, Gregory also allows for knowledge of God to come through God’s works. While this knowledge is accurate, broadly speaking, it is still only flawed and partial. In a helpful metaphor paraphrased by Laird, we are told,

The interaction of the root (Bridegroom), the fertile earth (the depths of the mind), and irrigation (divine lessons) causes the vine to blossom and bear fruit in which the vinedresser (God) can be seen” (135).

Laird notes that Gregory often uses the image of flowing water to speak of God, his emanation, his presence, etc. Again, the parallel with later spiritual writers is interesting, using the wound of love, the garden, flow of water, bridegroom, fountain, etc. These are all biblical images, for the most part, but it is interesting how different traditions have picked them up and utilized them as cornerstones in their work. As Laird notes, in the images of flow, of which they are many, two concerns are at play: the divine presence and epistemology. These seem to be the guiding concerns of the imagery Gregory employs, seeking to navigate carefully the finite’s grasp of the infinite – and that, through faith alone.

Laird argues for the interpretive key “logophatic” to describe Gregory’s thought. He explains, “The union is apophatic, but the effect is logophatic; for the Word fills the mouth of the bride ‘with words of eternal life.'” And likewise, the logophatic, “as a fruit of the apophatic union with the Word (logos), the Word expresses (phasis) itself through the deeds and discourse of the one whom the Word indwells” (155). For Gregory therefore, knowing God is non-discursive and non-comprehending, but is not fully negative in content; it is a coming to know the Word beyond the understanding. [As a side note, by favorite quote in this book is: “Paul is a bowl of spice” p.160.] In a helpful summary from Laird he states:

By virtue of her (apophatic) union, the bride yet speaks. Indeed she must speak, for in this union she takes on the incarnational dynamic of the Word. The Word penetrated her heart like an arrow, and her desire was enflamed. She herself becomes this arrow, and as a characteristic of this arrow is to elicit desire, so the words of exhortation of this bride-become-arrow instruct, guide, and elicit from those around her a burning desire for the Beloved” (169).

Coupled with the logophatic orientation of union in Gregory’s thought, he also invokes a pneumatology of illumination which should temper the straightforward apophaticism many claim him to be positing. The divinizing light of the Holy Spirit is never overcome, Laird suggests, by the darkness of negation. While this may seem contradictory, there are, in fact, two issues at play – one has to do with epistemological issues and the other with divinization. Gregory’s darknesss is epistemologically oriented, and not, cautions Laird, the emotional darkness of divine absence found in John of the Cross and later spiritual writers.

Gregory, as is now obvious, is a highly nuanced theologian of faith and union, darkness and light. Laird’s volume reads surprisingly well for a revised dissertation, and is clearly a major advance in the field. Special thanks again to Oxford University Press for sending out a review copy.


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