Gregory of Nyssa – 335

Gregory of Nyssa

A medieval representation of Saint Gregory of Nyssa
Born ca. 335, Caesarea in Cappadocia
Died after 394, Nyssa in Cappadocia
Venerated in Eastern and Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, Lutheranism
Feast March 9 (Roman Catholicism); January 10 (Eastern Christianity and Lutheranism); March 9, June 14, or July 19 (Anglicanism)
Saints Portal

Gregory of Nyssa ±±?³ ?§(³ ?·?³ ? ??·) (ca. 335 – after 394) was a Christian bishop and saint. He was a younger brother of Basil the Great, and a good friend of Gregory Nazianzus. His significance has long been recognized in the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Roman Catholic branches of Christianity. Some historians identify Theosebia the deaconess as his wife, others hold that she, like Macrina the Younger, was also a sister of Gregory and Basil.

* 1 Biography
* 2 Theology
o 2.1 Trinity
o 2.2 Infinity
o 2.3 Stages
o 2.4 Epektasis
* 3 Writings
* 4 See Also
* 5 External links


Despite reservations, he consented to become bishop of Nyssa in 372. Nyssa is in modern day Turkey, in a region then called Cappadocia. His brother Basil appointed him bishop in Nyssa because he wanted an episcopal ally near to his metropolitan see of Caesarea. He was present at the Council of Antioch, and later at the Second Ecumenical Council which took place in Constantinople. There he was a defender of the Nicene Creed against the Arians.



Gregory is remembered above all for two major contributions to theology. The first is his doctrine of the Trinity, a development of the theology of Basil and their mutual friend Gregory Nazianzus. Following Basil’s lead, Gregory argues that the three Persons of the Trinity can be understood along the model of three members of a single class: thus, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three in the same way that Peter, Paul, and Timothy are three men. So why do we not say there are three Gods? Gregory answers that, normally, we can distinguish between different members of the same class by the fact that they have different shapes, sizes, and colours. Even if they are identical, they still occupy different points in space. But none of this is true of incorporeal beings like God. Even lesser spiritual beings can still be distinguished by their varying degrees of goodness, but this does not apply to God either. In fact, the only way to tell the three Persons apart is by their mutual relations – thus, the only difference between the Father and the Son is that the former is the Father of the latter, and the latter is the Son of the former. As Gregory puts it, it is impossible to think of one member of the Trinity without thinking of the others too: they are like a chain of three links, pulling each other along.

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Gregory’s second main contribution is his spiritual theology. He is the first Christian theologian to argue for the infinity of God and to contain a marked universalist tone. Origen, a major influence on Gregory, had explicitly argued that God is limited, an essential notion in Platonism, since to be limited is to be clearly defined and knowable. Gregory, however, argues that if God is limited he must be limited by something greater than himself. As there is nothing greater than God, He is therefore without boundaries, and thus infinite. The idea had already been developed by neoplatonic philosophers, especially Plotinus, another important influence on Gregory, but he is the first Christian to defend it, apart from some hints in the work of Irenaeus.

Accordingly, Gregory argues that since God is infinite he cannot be comprehended. Origen had spoken of the spiritual journey as a progression of increasing illumination, as the mystic studies Scripture and comes to learn more about God. Nyssa taught on the other hand that God was knowable in his manifestations but that ultimately one must transcend knowledge or gnosis (since knowledge is based on reflection). Gnosis is limited and can become a barrier between man and God. If one wishes to commune with God one must have pure faith without any preconcieved notions of God. Once one reaches this point one can commune with God just as Moses did in Nyssa’s Life of Moses.


Gregory speaks of three stages: initial darkness of ignorance, then spiritual illumination, and finally a darkness of the mind in contemplation of the God who cannot be comprehended.

Like earlier authors, including Philo, he uses the story of Moses as an allegory for the spiritual life. Moses first meets God in the burning bush, a theophany of light and illumination, but then he meets him again in the cloud, where he realises that God cannot be seen by the eyes. Ascending Mount Sinai, he finally comes to the “divine darkness”, and realises that God cannot be known by the mind either.

It is only through not-knowing and not-seeing that God can, paradoxically, be known and seen. This notion would be extremely influential in both Western and Eastern spirituality, via the mystical writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and later in the anonymous 14th century work, The Cloud of Unknowing. Thus he is a major figure in the history of apophatic theology and spirituality.


Related to this is Gregory’s idea of epektasis or constant progress. The platonic philosophy was that stability is perfection and change is for the worse. In contrast, Gregory described the ideal of human perfection as constant progress in virtue and godliness. In his theology, God himself has always been perfect and has never changed, and never will. Humanity fell from grace in the Garden of Eden, but rather than return to an unchanging state, humanity’s goal is to become more and more perfect, more like God, even though humanity will never understand, much less attain, God’s transcendence. This idea has had a profound influence on the Eastern Orthodox teaching regarding theosis or “divinization”.

Gregory also taught that while it cannot be known whether or not all humans will be saved, as Origen speculated, faithful Christians may hope and pray for the salvation of all, even after death. He thus presents a hopeful alternative to those theologies, such as that of Augustine which state that at least some, of necessity, will be eternally condemned to hell.


Gregory’s Trinitarian doctrine can be found in his Why there are not three Gods and in a letter to Basil which has been erroneously classified as Basil’s 38th letter. His spiritual writings include Life of Moses, Life of Macrina (his older sister), the Life of Gregory Thaumaturgos, and 15 homilies On the Song of Songs. A large number of letters, sermons, philosophical works and short essays on a number of topics also survive.

Systematic publication of his works is proceeding in a collection, Gregorii Nysseni Opera, dominated by the work of the philologist, Werner Jaeger.

Several volumes of his writings have appeared in the Sources Chr?©tiennes collection, the first publication of which was Dani?©lou’s translation (later edition) of his Life of Moses (1941).

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