Perfection of the Virtuous Life — Perfection As Change

Over the next several days, illness 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, online and On Perfection. The previous posts can be found here here, here, and here.

One of Gregory’s greatest theological contributions is his reworking of the Platonic understanding of perfection. In Platonic thought, perfection is a stable constant, and once it has been attained it cannot change. Any change is inherently bad, for change is the falling away from the perfect state.[1] Gregory, on the other hand, argues that change does not always necessarily move from the perfect to the imperfect, and in fact there can be movement from the imperfect to the perfect. For Gregory, change is inherent to humanity and is not a result of evil or the fallen state of humanity.[2] Humans are always in movement, they are always changing.

Thus, perfection is progress, and it cannot be “a state of complete immobility in restored innocence.”[3] The perfected life is one in which the Christian grows in virtue and through this growth is transformed “from glory to glory.”[4] Because all humans are in the process of change, the Christian who journeys on the path of perfection cannot simply stop journeying. In one form or another, the Christian is participating in a race. If a Christian stops pursuing the race of virtue, she does not simply cease journeying, but instead begins a new race: the race of evil.[5] If God is absolute Virtue, then a refusal to pursue virtue means the refusal to pursue God himself, thus the only other option is to pursue that which is not God, and that pursuit is evil. The two cannot be pursued at the same time “for when we lay hold of evil, virtue slips from our grasp.”[6] The tension between the two races becomes a training opportunity for the Christian, much like an athlete who competes against an opponent, so the Christian who pursues the race of virtue competes against the race of evil.  This competition strengthens the Christian and gives him endurance to continue on the race of virtue.[7] There is a competition, or more specifically, a war between virtue and evil and they cannot both be the victor. Ultimately, only virtue can be victorious because virtue is “brought to life by the enemy’s death.”[8]

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

Because Gregory has redefined perfection, it also means that the limits of perfection are redefined. Through his citation of Philippians 3:13-14, Gregory opens his treatise on The Life of Moses with the observation that “in the case of virtue we have learned from the Apostle that its one limit of perfection is the fact that it has no limit.”[9] Indeed, the more that virtue is pursued, the greater the capacity of virtue. There is an infinite possibility in participating in God. The further along the ascent to God, the wider the possibilities of growing in holiness become. It is both available now, and yet never truly finitely completed. It is an infinite progress. Just as God is infinite, so to the pursuit of virtue is infinite. The process of participating in God leads to an expansion of the soul. With this expansion of the soul, there will never be a final point of satisfaction or a completion of perfection, wherein the Christian arrives at a place of no longer desiring or needing to seek after God because there is “no limit to the Good.”[10] But at the same time, this infinite progress of perfection does not mean that the Christian will grow frustrated by the lack of satisfaction. Gregory distinguishes between physical satisfaction and spiritual satisfaction. The spirit of the Christian will thirst for even more precisely because she is being filled to capacity[11] and this filling increases the capacity infinitely. Physical satisfaction, on the other hand, is fleeting, for once the body has been satisfied by food or drink, it is not long before the satisfaction disappears and must be reacquired.[12] Physical satisfaction is like the motion without progress, repeated over and over again. Spiritual satisfaction is the second type of motion, the motion of progress that is ever-increasing. There is a tension, though, because the Christian does in fact find fulfillment in the unlimited perfection because there is fulfillment in participating with God, and at the same time this participation leads to higher and deeper levels of participation.[13]

While Gregory greatly modifies Platonism to develop his theology of perfection, he also incorporates Aristotle’s philosophy of virtue, with a direct appropriation of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Gregory renames it “The Royal Way” but the principle is the same: evil is found in the lack or excess of virtue. Thus, the virtue of courage is sandwiched between the vices of cowardice and rashness.[14] The road to perfection is the “narrow way” (Matthew 7:14), the Royal Way which has been “hardened and smoothed by virtue”[15] which appears to be a reference to Aristotle’s discussion of the habits of doing good.

Gregory’s emphasis on the inherent movement and progress found in perfection should not obscure the fact that he also acknowledges that perfection also has an element of stability. The pursuit of perfection is a journey, but it also includes a standing still. The stability comes from remaining steadfast in the Good.[16] Thus, Moses, while he was ascending Mount Sinai to meet with God, was also standing on a solid rock, the mountain, which is allegorically interpreted as Christ who is the cornerstone of faith.[17]


[1] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 47.


[2] Jean Daniélou, “Le Problème Du Changement Chez Grégoire De Nysse,” Archives De Philosophie 29 (1966): 334–335.


[3] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 52.


[4] OP J.214.


[5] LoM I, 6.


[6] OP M.260.


[7] OP J.213.


[8] OP J.181.


[9] LoM I,5.


[10] LoM II, 239.


[11] LoM II, 230.


[12] LoM II, 59-61.


[13] Daniélou, From Glory to Glory: Texts From Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings, 62.


[14] LoM II, 288; compare to Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, chapter 10.



[15] LoM II, 290.


[16] LoM II, 243.


[17] LoM II, 248.


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