Gregory of Nyssa is overshadowed in many regards by his brother, Basil the Great’s ecclesiastical clout, and Gregory Nazianzen’s theological genius. But of the 3 Cappadoceans Gregory of Nyssa is arguably the most naturally brilliant thinker (1). This led to him being a premier example of early church mysticism and philosophy and even being named the Father of Father’s at the Second Council of Nicea (2). Even so, his style is noticeably less polished than the other Cappedoceans (there is evidence he didn’t receive the same intense education as Gregory Nazianzen and Basil) and there are still debates on his Neo-Platonism and possible universalism. His exposition of Scripture is filled with typology and parallelism (3). This makes for an interesting read.
All that to say, the way Gregory of Nyssa interprets the Beatitudes is fascinating and would be foreign to most modern readers. There is a constant theme (due to his mysticism) of intense spiritual struggle between good types and antitypes. His hermeneutic on this section of Scripture merits a book worthy review, and I’m neither smart nor interesting enough to accomplish that. But here is a short analysis of how Gregory of Nyssa understands Matthew 5:1-12.
(Please note: all of Gregory of Nyssa’s quotes are pulled from St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes from Vol 18 (Ancient Christian Writers) page 87-88)
Gregory of Nyssa and the Beatitudes: Types and Antitypes
Now I say that one must first consider what exactly is beatitude. Beatitude, in my opinion, is a possession of all things held to be good, from which nothing is absent that a good desire may want.
That short definition bleeds throughout his entire exposition of the Beatitudes. The Beatitudes, to him, are the blessings imparted on the believer through their mystical union with Christ as opposed to the world. It’s a series of blessings and confirmations for the already confirmed and blessed. Therefore, the key to understanding and applying them, according to him, is pitting them against their opposites, which he designates as miseries:
Perhaps the meaning of beatitude may become clearer to us if it is compared with its opposite. Now the opposite of beatitude is misery. Misery means being afflicted unwillingly with painful sufferings. The condition of either is therefore diametrically opposed to the other.
The world sees “blessed are the poor in spirit” and laughs, while the Christian sees the same phrase and finds true joy in the fact that their savior is Christ Jesus. It’s a designation of right motives and desires over and against the natural man. Because “it is natural that the man who is called blessed should thoroughly relish the things that are set before him for his enjoyment; whereas it behooves the man who is deemed unhappy to be sorely grieved by his present condition.” Christians are happy/blessed (markarios) because the joy set before them corresponds to their inner heart change and desires. Because “for Gregory, the virtues likewise have God-likeness as their true goal (4).
In good mystic fashion, Gregory ends his definition with speculative thoughts about the nature of the Beatitudes in relation to the Godhead. I’ll close out this week’s Church Father Friday with his fascinating thoughts on the Lord.
Now the one thing truly blessed in the Divinity itself. Whatever else we may suppose It to be, this pure life, ineffable and incomprehensible good, is beatitude. It is beatitude, this inexpressible beauty which is very grace, wisdom, and power; this true light that is the fount of all goodness, mighty above all else; the one thing loveable which is always the same rejoicing without end in infinite happiness. Even if one has said about It all one can, yet one has said nothing worthy of It. For the mind cannot reach that which is; even if we continue to think ever more sublime thoughts about It, yet no word can express what is meant.
1 – Quasten, J. (2005). Patrology. Notre Dame (Ind.): Christian Classics. 254-255
2 – “Let us then consider who were the venerable doctors and indomitable champions of the Church [including] Gregory Primate of Nyssa, who all have called the father of fathers.”
3 – See: Beirne, Margaret M. 2012. “Spiritual Enrichment through Exegesis: St Gregory of Nyssa and the Scriptures.” Phronema 27 (2): 83–98.
4 – Eklund, Rebekah. 2017. “Blessed Are the Image-Bearers: Gregory of Nyssa and the Beatitudes.” Anglican Theological Review 99 (4): 731.