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Chapter III -- 48

Let us now turn to substantive issues in anthropology.

The first question with which we wish to deal is this: If souls did not and do not pre-exist where did they and do they come from?

St Gregory of Nyssa deals with this problem in his work, On the Making of Man. As we have already mentioned, St Gregory wrote this work to complete the Hexaemeron of his brother, St Basil the Great, who had died before its completion, interrupting it at the making of man.

In Chapter 16 of On the Making of Man, St Gregory of Nyssa addresses the account of the creation of man in Genesis:

And God said, Let us make man according to our image and likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the seas and the birds of Heaven and the animals and the whole earth and all the creeping creatures that creep upon the earth. And God made the man; in the image of God he made him; male and female he made them.[1]

After considering the passage in Gen. 1, 26, ‘Let us make man according to our image and likeness,’ St Gregory considers the passage in Gen. 1, 27: ‘And God made the man; in the image of God he made him; male and female he made them.’ He asserts that the latter passage is to be construed as two separate sentences, as follows: ‘And God made the man; in the image of God he made him. Male and female he made them.’ This, St Gregory says, reflects the double character of the creation of man.

The first sentence reflects the creation of the whole human nature in the image of God. As St Gregory writes in On the Making of Man:

What then is it that we have thought concerning these things? The narrative, in saying ‘God made man’ shows the whole human nature by the indefiniteness of the meaning. For Adam has not yet been named together with the creature, as the narrative goes on to say in the following, but the appellation in the man which has been created is not that of a certain man but that of the universal human nature. Therefore we are led by the universal naming of the nature to understand something of this sort, that by the divine foreknowledge and power all the human race is contained in the first making. For it is necessary to think that nothing is indefinite for God in those things which have been done by him, but that there is a limit and measure of each of the beings, measured about by the wisdom of the Creator.

Therefore, just as any man is circumscribed by the quantity which is in the body, and the measure for him of his hypostasis is the quantity which is constituted together by the surface of the body, thus I think that all the fullness of the human race was included by God, by the power of foreknowledge, as if in the one body and that this is what the narrative teaches which says: ‘And God made the man; according to the image of God he made him.’ For the image is not in a part of the nature, neither the grace in a certain one of those things which are viewed in the nature, but the power of such a kind as this passes through the whole of the race. A sign of this, then, is that the mind (nous) is established in all men in like manner: all have the power to think and to deliberate beforehand, and all the other things by means of which the Divine Nature is represented in that which has come to be according to it. Similarly, the man manifested with the first making of the world and the man which will come to be after the completion of all equally bear upon them the divine image.

For this reason, the whole was called one man, for by the power of God neither was anything omitted, not will it be, but also that which is expected is held round about equally with that which is present in the operation containing the whole. Therefore the whole nature which pervades from the first men up to the last men, is a single image of that which is. The difference of gender concerning male and female was made in advance at the last in his creature, for the following, I think, reason…[2]

These things having been clarified for us, it is necessary that we return to the previous argument—how, after the making of the image, God contrives the difference according to male and female in the creature. For I say that the discussion previously directed by us is useful for us in this matter. For he who leads all things into existence, and he who had formed by his own will man according to the divine image, did not wait to see the number of souls completed in its own fullness in the gradual additions of those coming after. Since, however, comprehending all at once, by means of the operation of foreknowledge, the whole human nature in its fullness and honouring it with the lot which is exalted and equal to the angels, he foresaw with the power of foresight that the will would not travel straightly towards the good, and that for this reason it would fall from the life equal to the angels—therefore, so that the multitude of human souls would not be cut short, having fallen from that way according to which the angels increased to a multitude, he makes in the nature a contrivance for increase appropriate to those who have fallen into sin, implanting in the human race the bestial and irrational way of succession the one from the other.[3]

What we can see from the above is that ‘by the divine foreknowledge and power’, all men were created in the first making. This is not to be taken as an actual creation by God of all men’s souls in a single act. It is to be taken as an expression of the divine purpose in making man, man whom by the power of foreknowledge God had before his Mind in the fullness of every man who ever would be. St Gregory has avoided the pre-existence of souls by speaking of the foreknowledge of God: quite properly, he insists that all of God’s works through all the ages have a definite character in the eternal Mind of God; there is nothing vague or indefinite in the Divine Mind.

St Gregory also insists on the unity of the human nature: all men from the first to the last bear, and will bear, the image of God, and when God made man in his image, he had in his Mind by foreknowledge every specific man who ever would be.

St Gregory then goes on to speak of the second aspect of the creation of man, that which corresponds to the passage ‘Male and female he made them’. Above, we have provided St Gregory’s explanation why God made man with a difference of gender.

The question arises, however: is St Gregory of Nyssa teaching two creations of man? We think not. We think that the proper interpretation of what St Gregory is saying is precisely how St Maximos the Confessor interprets the matter.[4] We disagree with the interpretation that St Gregory of Nyssa teaches a double creation. The first creation of all the human race in the first man is not to be construed as an actual creation, given the repeated emphasis of St Gregory on the foreknowledge of God. However, when God created Adam, God already had definite foreknowledge of every man who ever would exist. He had knowledge of the exalted state of man equal to that of the angels that he himself had given to man, but also foreknowledge of the sin of man, so that while it was not the will of God that man should procreate by the distinction of male and female, that distinction was implanted in man—‘last’, St Gregory says, but before the Fall—so that the human race would not remain uncompleted because of the sin into which it would fall.

St Gregory later goes on, in Chapter 28, to argue against the pre-existence of souls prior to conception and against the creation or implantation of the soul after conception. He takes the firm position in Chapter 29 that each man’s soul comes to exist at his conception—that soul of which God had definite foreknowledge in the creation of man:

…But man being one, he who was constituted by means of soul and body, it is necessary to consider that the principle of his constitution [at conception] is one and common, so that he should not become antecedent and newer than himself, the bodily element coming first in him, the other [i.e. the soul] being delayed. But it is necessary to say that by the power of the foresight of God (according to the argument which was given just previously), all the fullness of humanity pre-existed, bearing witness together with this the prophecy which says: ‘God knows all things before their coming to be.’ In the creation of each man, however, it is necessary not to add the one to the other, neither the soul before the body [by the actual pre-existence of the soul prior to conception] nor the reverse [by the existence of the body prior to the existence of the soul], so that the man, existing, might not rebel against himself being divided by the difference in time.[5]

The pre-existence of the fullness of humanity is not to be understood as the objective creation in a single divine act of every man’s soul but as divine foreknowledge of every specific man who would ever be. However, St Gregory says, having foreknowledge also of the Fall, God created Adam and Eve male and female. Now he is saying, in the conception of each man, it is necessary, given that man is a unity composed of soul and body, to believe that the soul and body of each man come into actual existence at the same moment, that being the moment of the actual conception of the man in question by the act of bodily procreation.

St Gregory then continues, in a very important passage, to say that just as the stalk of wheat arises from the seed in a certain natural order of development, without our saying that any of the stages of the development of the stalk of wheat pre-exists or happens previously in the nature of the seed—for we say that the natural power lying in the seed is manifested with a certain natural order without there being another nature that is infused into the seed—in the same way, we understand that the human seed has at its conception sown together with it the power of its nature and that it unfolds and is manifested by a natural sequence as it progresses towards its perfection, not taking anything up from outside itself as the starting-point of its perfection, but leading itself towards perfection by means of a sequence. It is therefore, says St Gregory, not true to say either that the soul is before the body or that the body is engendered without the soul.

What St Gregory means is that the human seed unfolds with a certain natural order of unfolding and manifestation of its powers, without, for all that, anyone being able to say that one part of the human is before the other, or that something enters from without into the developing human at some later time—St Gregory is referring to a soul, not to nutrition. Clearly, St Gregory understands the principle of unfolding to be the soul. Moreover, he later goes on to say, very soundly from a scientific point of view, that the developing human manifests the different powers of the soul, which exists from conception, in a sequence, first the vegetative powers of the soul, then the powers of sense-perception, then the powers of reason—without for all that it being possible to discern the powers of the soul before they come into operation by means of the body itself at the appropriate stage of development.

Now this is very important from the point of view of Christian anthropology in relation to modern biology. For it is clear that those functions of the soul that St Gregory understands to be responsible for the development of the human—the unfolding of the human in the womb and the development of the limbs, the development of the possibility of sense-perception and so on—are understood with great insistence by modern biology to be functions of the DNA. The reader may recall our reference in Chapter I to the contemporary theologian who was struck by the modernity of St Gregory, since St Gregory had posited in On the Making of Man that the soul was in no one part of the body and since this was proved to be true by the presence of DNA in every cell of the body. As we remarked then, it is this control over the process of development assigned by St Gregory to the soul, which control modern biology assigns to the information content of the DNA at the moment of conception, that must have struck the theologian as defining the soul. Moreover, as we have seen, modern biology insists on the completely material nature of the process of development under the control of the DNA.

As we have pointed out, however, the soul is not construed by St Gregory of Nyssa to be material, nor is there anything in the development of the human in the womb, which is not implicit, according to St Gregory, in what is already contained naturally in the human seed. Yes, the DNA is there. Yes, the maternal-effect genetic control factors are present in the cytoplasm of the newly fertilized egg. But so is the soul. And, as we have said, the soul does not govern the DNA, it enables the fertilized egg of which it is a part, if we can put it that way, to proceed on the course of development. One thing is the material substrate which includes the DNA with the particular material information that it provides; another is the human soul which, just as God governs the universe, governs all in the embryo without being a chemical in the chemical reactions—rather, potentiating and making possible the unfolding of the embryo from the fertilized egg.

As St Gregory himself says:

For just as it is not possible to see in that which is placed towards the conception of the body the articulation of the members, thus neither is it possible to comprehend in the same the properties of the soul before they come into operation. And just as one would not doubt that that which is implanted is shaped into the varieties of joints and entrails, there being no other power in addition entering in, but the power which lies in it naturally towards this operation being transformed, thus also it is equally true to suppose analogously concerning the soul, that even if it is not recognized by means of some operations of that which appears, it is nonetheless in it. For also the form of the man who is going to be constituted is there in potential, but it is hidden on account of the fact that it is not possible for it to manifest itself prior to the necessary chain of events. Thus the soul also is in that and not apparent; it will appear, however, by means of its own proper operations according to nature as it advances together with the bodily growth.[6]

We ourselves are rather struck by the biological sophistication of St Gregory. We have seen in a textbook of developmental biology comments rather hostile towards Christianity as being historically obscurantist in matters of biology.[7] Here we have a Father of the Church writing in the Fourth Century who has an excellent grasp of the principle of developmental biology. For the idea that it is by a chain of events, each building on the preceding, that an organism develops is fundamental to the approach of developmental biology.

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[1] Gen. 1, 26–7.

[2] Making G p. 50, l. 20–51, 7; = Migne 44, cols. 185A–D.

[3] Making G p. 53, ll. 1–19; = Migne 44, cols. 190C–D.

[4] Artemios p. 53, fn. 4.

[5] Making G p. 79, l. 31–80, 9; = Migne 44, cols. 233D–36A.

[6] Making G p. 80, l. 33–81, 6; = Migne 44, cols. 236B–D.

[7] Gilbert.


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