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Chapter III -- 47

12 Return to St Gregory of Nyssa

Let us now turn to a fundamental issue. In Chapter II, above, we stopped discussing St Gregory of Nyssa and St Macrina when they had finished developing an Orthodox psychology tied to an Orthodox anthropology. That Orthodox psychology included a tripartite division of the soul that Evagrius himself uses in the Kephalaia Gnostica. We will in fact use this tripartite division of the soul, for in Volume II we will find it to be used by Evagrius in his ascetical works and, in Volume III, to be used by St Hesychios. But we now want to complete a delineation of Orthodox anthropology in answering such questions as the following: If souls do not pre-exist, where did they and do they come from? What is the connection between soul and mind? However, there is one topic we must address before that. That is the matter of the Origenism of St Gregory of Nyssa.

For the attentive reader will have discerned the following: In On the Soul and the Resurrection, St Gregory of Nyssa presents his sister, St Macrina, as defining an Orthodox anthropology which has the following characteristics. The soul is intelligible. The soul is incomprehensible in its essence, just as God is. The mind (nous) is the image of God. The soul is tripartite, being composed of mind (nous), the irascible part (thumos) and desire (epithumia). The mind (nous) is that which is distinctively human. The irascible part (thumos) and the desiring part (epithumia) are part of man’s animal nature and are not intrinsically part of the image of God, the mind (nous). It is the use by deliberate choice that a man makes of the impulses found in the irascible part (thumos) and the desiring part (epithumia) that constitutes virtue or vice in man. But these are precisely positions of Evagrius that we have explicitly seen in the Kephalaia Gnostica. There is a partial exception with the Nyssian proposition that the mind (nous) is that which is distinctively human, since Evagrius makes all angels, men and demons to be exactly the same sort of mind (nous). However Evagrius does explicitly say that the irascible part (thumos) and the desiring part (epithumia) are what man has taken up from the animal nature.

The question therefore arises: Are these propositions of On the Soul and the Resurrection Origenist? Is the whole theory of man in On the Soul and the Resurrection Origenist? Are we fooling the reader in calling this anthropology the anthropology of the Orthodox Church?

We think the matter is otherwise. The Anathemas of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod nowhere address the points that we have just mentioned. Indeed, we think that the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod would have considered it preposterous to condemn such propositions. These propositions were part of the received anthropology of the Orthodox Church (they are already to be found in large part in Clement of Alexandria), and the heresy of Evagrius did not lie in them, but in the propositions that the Fathers did condemn. That is, the heresy of Evagrius is not that the mind (nous) is intelligible, that the mind (nous) is incomprehensible just as God is incomprehensible, that the mind (nous) of man is the image of God in man and that the irascible part (thumos) and the desiring part (epithumia) are not intrinsically part of that image of God but were added to man in some way from the nature of the animals, and that the use by deliberate choice of the tendencies found in those two parts of the soul is constitutive of virtue or vice in man.

So how did St Macrina, St Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius Pontikos all come to have the same basic understanding of the matters that we have just outlined, if it is not the case that Evagrius took them from Origen and that St Gregory of Nyssa took them from Origen, presenting them as his sister, St Macrina’s, ideas?

First of all, we have already seen that Origen, as Rufinus presents him in Peri Archon, rejects the tripartite soul. That doctrine, although Platonic in origin, cannot be labelled Origenist. It is found, however, in Clement of Alexandria.[1]

Some of the verbal formulations by Evagrius in the Kephalaia Gnostica of the propositions in question are so close to the verbal formulations of St Gregory of Nyssa in On the Soul and the Resurrection that we ourselves think that they were matters that had been discussed among the Cappadocians prior to Evagrius’ departure from Constantinople. For in Constantinople, he was the Archdeacon of St Gregory the Theologian. Evagrius himself says that St Gregory the Theologian was his teacher who taught him the rudiments of theology. In fact, in Chapter 89 of the Treatise on the Practical Life, Evagrius explicitly says ‘Since, according to our wise teacher, the rational soul is composed of three parts…’, and it is to be understood that he is referring to St Gregory the Theologian, for in Chapter 44 of the Gnostic, in a parallel passage, he refers explicitly to St Gregory. Hence, Evagrius would have left Constantinople having had a formation in theology, which would have included a discussion of the nature of the human soul. His heresy lies in what he did afterwards in building on the formation he received from the Cappadocian Fathers. For what can be discerned in the Evagrian system is an expansion of the basic anthropological ideas we have just mentioned in the directions of the pre-existence and of the Restoration—Origenist ideas surely—and the development of a very complicated and elaborate version of the pre-existence and Restoration. These are precisely the two doctrines with which the Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Synod commence their Anathemas. Moreover, that aspect of Evagrius’ ascetical psychology which complicates matters is the passions of man of man, a doctrine which seems closely connected to the doctrine, clearly found in Rufinus’ translation of Peri Archon, of the double descent of the mind (nous), first to become an unembodied soul and then to become a soul incarnated in a body, a doctrine not to our knowledge to be found in the writings of the Cappadocian Fathers.

St Gregory of Nyssa is a Father of the Church. His feast day is the Tenth of January. He was named ‘Father of Fathers’ by the Seventh Ecumenical Synod. Despite that, he is often taxed with being an Origenist, and in fact he himself espoused a doctrine of the Restoration, although, as far as we ourselves have seen in his Greater Catechism, with nowhere near the elaboration of Evagrius. But the doctrine of the Restoration has been explicitly condemned by the Fifth Ecumenical Synod. So how is St Gregory of Nyssa a Father of the Church, how are we presenting his anthropology as the anthropology of the Orthodox Church, and how did he come to espouse the Restoration as a doctrine?

St Barsanuphios, that beacon of Orthodox discernment, responds to just such a question, one, indeed, that refers explicitly to St Gregory of Nyssa and to his espousal of the doctrine of the Restoration, a question that also remarks the restricted nature of the Nyssian doctrine of the Restoration in comparison to the Evagrian doctrine, a very serious issue in St Barsanuphios’ time and place, a question that centres on the problem: how can such a saint make such an error? Both the question and St Barsanuphios’ answer are quite long. Moreover, we are unaware, unfortunately, of an English translation of St Barsanuphios that covers Questions 600 through 604. So we are left with presenting a brief summary. The question is Number 604. The answer, which St Barsanuphios says he received, after he had prayed for divine illumination on the subject, by divine revelation three days before the questioner posed his question in writing is this: No saint is immune from error; no saint has all the charisms of the Holy Spirit; and no saint has the depth of the wisdom of God. For the Apostle says that ‘We know in part and we prophesy in part.’[2] Continuing, St Barsanuphios says:

Taking pains therefore on their own initiative to become teachers or being obliged by men to come to that, they [i.e. these saints] progressed greatly, even beyond their teachers, and having received spiritual enlightenment composed new dogmas. They remained at the same time, however, in possession of the traditions of their teachers, lessons which were not sound. And after that, progressing and becoming spiritual teachers, they did not pray to God concerning their teachers, whether through the Holy Spirit those things had been spoken which had been spoken by them, but viewing them as wise men and men of spiritual knowledge [literally, gnostics], they did not discern their teachers’ words. And, so, the teachings of their teachers were mixed with their own teachings, and they spoke at one time, then, from the teaching that they had learned from them, at another time, then, from the brilliance of their own minds, and thus, then, in their names were written their words. For taking from others and progressing and improving, they spoke through the Holy Spirit, if they were illumined by it with something, and they spoke from the lessons of their teachers who were before them, not discerning the words, whether they themselves were obliged to be illumined by God through prayer and supplication whether these things were true. And the teachings were mixed together, and, since they were spoken by them, they were written in their name.[3]

In other words, with respect to a saint such as St Gregory of Nyssa, it must be understood that in the case of an error such as the retention of the Origenist teaching of the Restoration of All Things, St Gregory, otherwise progressing greatly and speaking with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, accepted the teaching of his teachers uncritically and did not discern that he ought to pray to God for enlightenment whether those teachings of his teachers were true or not. St Barsanuphios does not explain if the teacher in question could be a writer, such as Origen, who had since died, or else is to be understood to be some living teacher of a St Gregory of Nyssa or of some other saint who would have transmitted the Origenist teaching to St Gregory of Nyssa or to the other saint. It probably does not make any difference.

That still leaves the question, however: is the anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa, whether speaking in the name of St Macrina or in his own name—for the anthropology in On the Making of Man, written in St Gregory of Nyssa’s own name, is no different from the anthropology in On the Soul and the Resurrection—the teaching of the Orthodox Church?

This is a difficult question, for today in the West, in Orthodox circles, the anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa is out of fashion. The rather striking emphasis of St Gregory of Nyssa on the intelligible nature of the soul in opposition to the material body is seen either as a Greek legacy of Platonism or as a direct remnant of Origenism in the Church. However, it must be understood that St Maximos the Confessor accepted the Nyssian anthropology.[4] Moreover, as we have discussed in Chapter I, attempts to avoid the intelligible nature of the soul founder on the difficulties encountered with the concept of the immortality of a soul that is either a part of the body or the functioning of a part of the body. One cannot avoid the plain fact of the Christian Faith: when the body dies, the soul does not. There are some aspects of the Christian and Orthodox Faith that are difficult to espouse in a highly secularized world. One of them is that man is more than material.

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[1] Cf. Paidagogos III, 1, 2–3, 3, pp. 12–16.

[2] 1 Cor. 13, 9.

[3] Barsanuphios, Vol. III, p. 158.

[4] The interested reader can refer to Chapter 1, A of the doctoral dissertation of the present Bishop of Pristina, Artemios, on the soteriological doctrine of St Maximos (Artemios), to verify this.


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