St Gregory of Nyssa
Date of birth unknown; died after 385 or 386. He belongs to the group known as the "Cappadocian Fathers", a title which reveals at once his birthplace in
Some think that Gregory spent a certain time in retreat before his consecration as bishop, but we have no proof of the fact. His extant letters make no mention of such retirement from the world. Nor are we better informed of the circumstances of his election to the See of Nyssa, a little town on the banks of the Halys, along the road between Cæsarea and
On arriving in his see Gregory had to face great difficulties. His sudden elevation may have turned against him some who had hoped for the office themselves. It would appear that one of the courtiers of Emperor Valens had solicited the see either for himself or one of his friends. When Demosthenes, Governor of Pontus, convened an assembly of Eastern bishops, a certain Philocares, at one of its sessions, accused Gregory of wasting church property, and of irregularity in his election to the episcopate, whereupon Demosthenes ordered the Bishop of Nyssa to be seized and brought before him. Gregory at first allowed himself to be led away by his captors, then losing heart and discouraged by the cold and brutal treatment he met with, he took an opportunity of escape and reached a place of safety. A Synod of Nyssa (376) deposed him, and he was reduced to wander from town to town, until the death of Valens in 378. The new emperor, Gratian, published an edict of tolerance, and Gregory returned to his see, where he was received with joy. A few months after this (January, 379) his brother Basil died; whereupon an era of activity began for Gregory. In 379 he assisted at the Council of Antioch which had been summoned because of the Meletian schism. Soon after this, it is supposed, he visited
An edict of Theodosius (30 July, 381; Cod. Theod., LXVI, tit.
Most of his writings treat of the Sacred Scriptures. He was an ardent admirer of Origen, and applied constantly the latter's principles of hermeneutics. Gregory is ever in quest of allegorical interpretations and mystical meanings hidden away beneath the literal sense of texts. As a rule, however, the "great Cappadocians" tried to eliminate this tendency. His "Treatise on the Work of the Six Days" follows St. Basil's Hexæmeron. Another work, "On the Creation of Man", deals with the work of the Sixth Day, and contains some curious anatomical details; it was translated into Latin by Dionysius Exiguus. His account of Moses as legislator offers much fine-spun allegorizing, and the same is true of his "Explanation of the Titles of the Psalms". In a brief tractate on the Witch of Endor he says that the woman did not see Samuel, but only a demon, who put on the figure of the prophet. Besides a homily on the sixth Psalm, he wrote eight homilies on Ecclesiastes, in which he taught that the soul should rise above the senses, and that true peace is only to be found in contempt of worldly greatness. He is also the author of fifteen homilies on the Canticle of Canticles (the union of the soul with its Creator), five very eloquent homilies on the Lord's Prayer, and eight highly rhetorical homilies on the Beatitudes.
In theology Gregory shows himself more original and more at ease. Yet his originality is purely in manner, since he added little that is new. His diction, however, offers many felicitous and pleasing allusions, suggested probably by his mystical turn of mind. These grave studies were taken up by him late in life, hence he follows step by step the teaching of St. Basil and of St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Like them he defends the unity of the Divine nature and the trinity of Persons; where he loses their guidance, our confidence in him tends to decrease. In his teaching on the Eucharist he appears really original; his Christological doctrine, however, is based entirely on Origen and St. Athanasius. The most important of his theological writings is his large "Catechesis", or "Oratio Catechetica", an argumentative defence in forty chapters of Catholic teaching as against Jews, heathens, and heretics. The most extensive of his extant works is his refutation of Eunomius in twelve books, a defence of St. Basil against that heretic, and also of the Nicene Creed against Arianism; this work is of capital importance in the history of the Arian controversy. He also wrote two works against Apollinaris of Laodicea, in refutation of the false doctrines of that writer, viz. that the body of Christ descended from heaven, and that in Christ, the Divine Word acted as the rational soul. Among the works of Gregory are certain "Opuscula" on the Trinity addressed to Ablabius, the tribune Simplicius, and Eustathius of Sebaste. He wrote also against Arius and Sabellius, and against the Macedonians, who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit; the latter work he never finished. In the "De anima et resurrectione" we have a dialogue between Gregory and his deceased sister, Macrina; it treats of death, resurrection, and our last end. He defends human liberty against the fatalism of the astrologers in a work "On Fate", and in his treatise "On Children", dedicated to Hieros, Prefect of Cappadocia, he undertook to explain why
He wrote also on Christian life and conduct, e.g. "On the meaning of the Christian name or profession", addressed to Harmonius, and "On Perfection and what manner of man the Christian should be", dedicated to the monk Olympius. For the monks, he wrote a work on the Divine purpose in creation. His admirable book "On Virginity", written about 370, was composed to strengthen in all who read it the desire for a life of perfect virtue.
Sermons and Homilies
Gregory wrote also many sermons and homilies, some of which we have already mentioned; others of importance are his panegyric on St. Basil, and his sermons on the Divinity of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.
A few of his letters (twenty-six) have survived; two of them offer a peculiar interest owing to the severity of his strictures on contemporary pilgrimages to
For a discussion of his peculiar doctrine concerning the general restoration (Apocatastasis) to divine favour of all sinful creatures at the end of time, i.e. the temporary nature of the pains of hell, see the articles APOCATASTASIS and MIVART. The theory of interpolation of the writings of Gregory and of Origen, sustained among others by Vincenzi (below), seems, in this respect at least, both useless and gratuitous (Bardenhewer).
The writings of Gregory are best collected in P.G., XLIV-XLVI. There is no critical edition as yet, though one was begun by FORBES and OEHLER (Burntisland, 1855, 61); of another edition planned by Oehler, only one volume appeared (Halle, 1865). The best of the earlier editions is that of FRONTO DUCÆUS (
H. LECLERCQ Transcribed by Elizabeth T. Knuth
Copyright © 1910 by Robert Appleton Company
Online Edition Copyright © 1999 by Kevin Knight
Nihil Obstat, June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor
Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York
Forefeast of the Dormition of our Most Holy Lady the Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary; The Holy Prophet Michaias (Micah); Holy Hieromartyr Marcellus, Bishop of Apameia; Holy New Martyr Symeon of Trapezoundos (1653)