“Rethinking Authority in Fourth-Century Trinitarianism: Gregory of Nyssa and Ancient Psychology

Gregory of Nyssa affirms in Epistula 5.9 that in God there is “three hypostases” and “one authority”. The meaning of exousia (“authority”) has largely been taken for granted among patristic scholars. Scarcely a comment has been offered in the works of Hanson, Widdicombe, and Ayres, for example, as to its precise meaning and significance in early Christian trinitarianism. In order to begin addressing this broader lacuna in fourth-century scholarship, I show that Gregory’s “one authority” affirmation in Epistula 5.9 is best understood both against the background of Late Antique debates over philosophical psychology, causality, and freedom, and as an adaption and development of earlier Christian uses of exousia. In the first half of the paper, I give some examples from the philosophers Alexander of Aphrodisias and Plotinus that show how exousia is found among a constellation of ideas such as compulsion, freedom, causality, and priority. They use it alongside a set of locutions like to eph’ hemin (“that which depends on us” or “that which is under our authority”) and to autexousion (“self-determination” or “under one’s own authority) to indicate that something is outside the sphere of influence of others, and in the sphere of one’s own influence. Alexander also identifies it with the uncaused rational “principle” (arche) of the mind. In the second part, I show that early Christians employed this technical use of exousia both with respect to God and humanity because God created man in his image. I give a few examples from Origen, Methodius of Olympus in his anti-Origenist interpretation of John 1:1, and Eusebius of Caesarea where he maintains the Father is the “Monarchical Authority” even of the Son. Lastly, I demonstrate that Gregory makes technical use of exousia within his analysis of human psychology and causality as a synonym of “self-determination”. I turn to Epistula 5.9 where I argue that his use conceptually resonates with Eusebius. Yet Gregory identifies exousia—as absolute causal and political priority—with the divine being rather than the Father because he assumes that diversity in exousia entails a plurality of psychological principles (arche) and, as such, a plurality of distinct intellectual beings. I conclude that we cannot properly understand and appreciate early Christian theologies of divine authority in the Trinity unless we recover the technical philosophical meaning of exousia in Late Antique debates philosophical psychology and causality. This paper opens new avenues to explore the role of authority in Pro-Nicene and Anti-Nicene theologies and theological anthropologies.

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