I have so enjoyed working through the writings of long dead Christians whose work has stood the test of time. Recently I’ve been reading the Cappadocian Fathers, three men who lived in the second half of the 300s. Their work on the Trinity and Christian spirituality is fantastic.
Gregory of Nyssa’s The Great Catechism is no exception. What I most enjoy about reading historic works is that they go about things in an entirely different way then we do today. That is, coming from a different context, they are not answering the questions with the same assumptions that we bring to the questions today. Thus, reading these authors can serve as a corrective for how we read, revealing our own blindspost.
One point Gregory emphasizes here is that God is not the creator of evil. There are many passages on this, such as:
No growth of evil had its beginning in the Divine will. Vice would have been blameless were it inscribed with the name of God as its maker and father. But the evil is, in some way or other, engendered from within, springing up in the will at that moment when there is a retrocession of the soul from the beautiful. For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice.
This is an important point to be reminded of today, as Christians and skeptics debate what it means for God to create. If God created everything, some ask, doesn’t that make God the author of sin? Definitely not, says Gregory. God created sight, for example, not blindness just as God created virtue and not vice.
As an interesting side-note, I’ve read a lot of David Bentley Hart recently and he has been greatly influenced by Gregory. So it is interesting to see the similarities between the two. When Hart argues that something is traditional Christian theism, it is to be expected to see it in Gregory and we do.
Where evil comes from is a mystery. There is much mystery when we speak of God. It is the same mystery that leads to God taking on human flesh to save us. Gregory spends a lot of time defending this point too, for example:
This, then, is the mystery of God’s plan with regard to His death and His resurrection from the dead; namely, instead of preventing the dissolution of His body by death and the necessary results of nature, to bring both back to each other in the resurrection; so that He might become in Himself the meeting-ground both of life and death, having re-established in Himself that nature which death had divided, and being Himself the originating principle of the uniting those separated portions.
The transcendent God who is everywhere present has walked among us as a human:
That Deity should be born in our nature, ought not reasonably to present any strangeness to the minds of those who do not take too narrow a view of things. For who, when he takes a survey of the universe, is so simple as not to believe that there is Deity in everything, penetrating it, embracing it, and seated in it? For all things depend on Him Who is , nor can there be anything which has not its being in Him Who is. If, therefore, all things are in Him, and He in all things, why are they scandalized at the plan of Revelation when it teaches that God was born among men, that same God Whom we are convinced is even now not outside mankind?
Finally, we get Gregory’s explanation of the atonement. He speaks of God tricking the devil. The devil had rights to humanity, so when he saw Jesus he grabbed him, but the deity was concealed in the humanity which means the devil went too far:
the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish , the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active.
This view of the atonement was the primary understanding of the church for centuries and still has much to offer thinkers today as we reflect on what Jesus has done.
Overall, do yourself a favor and read some Gregory.