The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (Review)

Gregory of Nyssa was one of the Cappadocian Fathers, three Christian thinkers whose work was tremendous in the solidification of orthodoxy int he late 300s.  But they did not just write heady theological tomes, they also wrote profound works on spiritual life.  One of the best is the Life of Moses by Gregory.

If you want a great example of allegorical interpretation then you have to read this book.  Nearly every event in Moses’ life is shown to point to something deeper and more profound.  For early Christians like Gregory there was a literal sense of scripture, what it said.  But this was just the beginning, the real meat of scripture came in the spiritual sense through allegorical interpretation.  When we learned about this in seminary many seemed to scoff, as if allegorical interpretation meant anything goes.  The fear, or stereotype, was that the only limit here was the author’s imagination.

Truly, some interpretations can be a bit wacky.  But what holds this together is the focus on Jesus Christ.  Down to this day many Christians speak of Jesus on every page of scripture.  Writers like Gregory take the step to show how Jesus is on every page of scripture.  So if you want a glimpse of how this interpretation works, check out Gregory.

The other value of this book is Gregory’s idea of eternal progress.  For Gregory, only God is perfect and infinite  What this means, for us, is that our growth towards perfection – towards being like God, the process of sanctification – lasts forever.  We never arrive.  We are constantly growing for all eternity,  As Gregory puts it:

“The Divine One is himself the Good…whose very nature is goodness….Since, then, it has not been demonstrated that there is any limit to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an opposite, we hold the divine nature to be unlimited and infinite. Certainly whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue. Since, then, those who know what is good by nature desire participation in it, and since this good has no limit, the participant’s desire itself necessarily has no stopping place but stretches out with the limitless. It is therefore undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection, since as I have said, perfection is not marked off by limits: The one limit of virtue is the absence of a limit”

One of my students stumbled on to this idea years ago, comparing our growth in Christ as to as asymptote in mathematics.  This idea is strongly put forth in one of my all-time favorite books, David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite.  It is moving and challenging.  I find it to be a true account of things, and incredibly encouraging.  It is encouraging because every little baby step we take today puts us further along the path towards God, a path, an adventure, we will be on forever.

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One thought on “The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa (Review)

  1. That is an interesting comment on allegorical interpretation. Even though it seems arbitrary to us, it is worth pondering that it was a standard of biblical exposition for a thousand years.

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