Humanity Always Changing: An Essential Component in Gregory of Nyssa’s Theological Anthropology

By any estimation, Gregory of Nyssa was a remarkable and influential theologian. He enhanced the articulation of that negative theology which had found favor among earlier Greek Church fathers and elaborated approaches to apophatic mysticism which have shaped Eastern Christian piety to the present day. The way he set forth the Christian faith in sermons, treatises, and the rest of his literary corpus resonated in his own day and subsequently—so much so that, four centuries after his death, the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicaea II, 787) styled him “the father of fathers.”
But until the twentieth century, the works of Gregory of Nyssa were little read and less studied in western Christian scholarship. Over the past eight decades, though, that has changed: what he had to say about pre-fall humanity, of the distinction between man and woman, of sexuality, and of human needs offers intriguing and challenging perspectives on the humanity created in the image of God. But the controversial viewpoints he articulated on these issues and the others more commonly embraced in subsequent Christian teaching all find their foundation in his adamant insistence that humanity is always and must always be changing.
This paper explores what the basis for this insistence is in Gregory’s teaching—the “uncreated/created” distinction elaborated before Gregory’s time as Church fathers argued against various forms of Arianism which would have subsumed the Son of God somehow into the latter category. The paper will show that Gregory expounded the significance of that distinction as demanding that, while the Uncreated (God) does not change, the creature (here, human beings) must always change. For Gregory, as this paper will show, such change is essential to humanity as created, obtains through (and is incredibly complicated by) the fall, finds its purpose in the salvific transformation of human beings in the image of Christ, and will continue throughout eternity.
Exploring this will entail considering the work of significant scholars who have studied the works of Gregory of Nyssa over the past eight decades, beginning with the 1944 study by Jean Danielou (the noteworthy patristic scholar’s first book) recently translated into English, Platonism and Mystical Theology: The Spiritual Doctrine of St Gregory of Nyssa (2022). This paper will go on to reflect on the mature insights of Werner Jaeger in his last monograph, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (1961). Then the paper will turn to the just-released critical edition and English translation of Gregory’s major work on theological anthropology: John Behr, Gregory of Nyssa: On the Human Image of God (2023).
The paper will also consider a cluster of other writings in which Gregory touched on this necessary change in human beings: On the Soul and the Resurrection; On Death and Eternal Life; On Virginity; The Catechetical Oration; and The Life of Moses. As warranted and necessary, other secondary sources dealing with the topic will be examined for additional insights.

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