Perfection of the Virtuous Life — Introduction

Over the next several days, I am doing a series on Gregory of Nyssa and his doctrine of perfection as found in two of his writings: The Life of Moses, and On Perfection.

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon)

St. Gregory of Nyssa (eastern ortodox icon) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gregory of Nyssa was a 4th century bishop, and known as one of the Cappodocian Fathers (along with his brother Basil of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nazianzus).

Broadly speaking, Gregory of Nyssa’s writings can be divided into four types: Orations (e.g., De Oratione Dominica), apologetic writings (e.g., Against Eunomius), mystical writings, and ascetical treatises. His doctrine of perfection is most clearly seen in his mystical writings and ascetical treatises. For the purpose of this blog series, we will look at one mystical writing (The Life of Moses) and one ascetical treatise (On Perfection).

This is done for several reasons. First, I could have chosen either The Life of Moses or his Commentary on the Canticle of Canticles as representative of the mystical writings, but since Canticle of Canticles also explores the life of Moses, I felt it was more beneficial to examine Gregory’s The Life of Moses.  Second, little work has been done on On Perfection, partly because a solid, complete English translation was not available until Brother Casimir’s translation in 1984, and so it has received little attention. Likewise, On Virginity could have been chosen to represent his ascetical treatises, but because it was most probably his first writing,[1] his theology of perfection is not quite as developed as it is in On Perfection.[2] Third, despite the ascetical and mystical writings having different emphases and structures, Gregory’s doctrine of perfection is similar in both The Life of Moses and On Perfection. The way in which each of these writings approach the doctrine of perfection complements each other, and answers complementary pastoral questions: “what is the perfect life?”[3] and, “how is the perfect life attained?”[4]

It is important to emphasize that these two writings are indeed pastoral in nature. Though they incorporate and interact with the philosophical thoughts of Plato and Aristotle, they are not primarily philosophical treatises, but are instead pastoral treatises. The answer to these two pastoral questions is the sum of Gregory’s doctrine of perfection. Simply put, a perfect life is one in which Christians pursue virtue and practice virtue because God is absolute Virtue. This practice of virtue is in response to what Christ has done, and Christians are transformed and reflect the virtue of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This process is a journey, an ascent to God, a race that must never cease. It should be noted that, in Gregory’s exploration of the nature of the perfect life, he does not address the specific disciplines through which perfection can be attained. He does not write about how or when to pray, read Scripture, or how various other disciplines could or should be employed in the pursuit of perfection. Instead, Gregory’s treatises focus on the “moral qualities” of someone who follows God.[5]



 

[1] Brother Casimir, “Saint Gregory of Nyssa: ΠΕΡΙ ΤΕΛΕΙΟΤΗΤΟΣ – On Perfection,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 29 (1984): 350.

 

[2] The exact chronology of Gregory’s writings is unknown, but it appears that after the Council of Constantinople in 381, Gregory had more time to write, largely because he was now “freed from administrative burdens and the heat of theological controversy.” Daniélou, Glory to Glory, 9.

 

 

[3] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978),I, 2.

 

[4] Brother Casimir, “Saint Gregory of Nyssa: ΠΕΡΙ ΤΕΛΕΙΟΤΗΤΟΣ – On Perfection,” J.173.

 

[5] Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 11.

 

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