« Gregorius Nazianzenus, bp. of Sasima and Constantinople Gregorius Nyssenus, bp. of Nyssa Gregorius, bp. of Merida »

Gregorius Nyssenus, bp. of Nyssa

Gregorius (15) Nyssenus, bp. of Nyssa in Cappadocia (372–395), younger brother of Basil the Great, and a leading theologian of the Eastern church. He and his brother and their common friend Gregory Nazianzen were the chief champions of the orthodox Nicene faith in the struggle against Arianism and Apollinarianism, and by their discreet zeal, independency of spirit, and moderation of temper, contributed chiefly to its victory in the East. He was one of ten children of Basil, an advocate and rhetorician of eminence, and his wife Emmelia (Greg. Nys. de Vit. S. Macr., Opp. ed. Morel. t. ii. pp. 182–186). We may place Gregory's birth c. 335 or 336, probably at Caesarea. He did not share his eldest brother's advantage of a university training, but was probably brought up in the schools of his native city. That no very special pains had been devoted to his education we may gather from the words of his sister Macidora on her deathbed, in which she ascribed the high reputation he had gained to the prayers of his parents, since "he had little or no assistance towards it from home" (ib. iii. 192). A feeble constitution and natural shyness disposed him to a literary retirement. His considerable intellectual powers had been improved by diligent private study; but he shrank from a public career, and appears after his father's death to have lived upon his inheritance, without any profession. That his religious instincts did not develop early appears from his account of his reluctant attendance at the ceremonial held by his mother Emmelia in honour of the "Forty Martyrs." A terrifying dream, which seemed to reproach him with neglect, led him to become a "lector" and as such read the Bible lections in the congregation (Greg. Naz. Ep. 43, t. i. p. 804). He would seem, however, to have soon deserted this vocation for that of a professor of rhetoric. This backsliding caused great pain to his friends and gave occasion to the enemies of religion to suspect his motives and bring unfounded accusations against him. Gregory Nazianzen, whose affection for him was warm and sincere, strongly remonstrated with him, expressing the grief felt by himself and others at his falling away from his first love. The date of this temporary desertion must be placed either before 361 or after 363, about the same time as his marriage. His wife was named Theosebeia, and her character answered to her name. She died some time after Gregory had become a bishop, and, according to Tillemont, subsequently to the council of Constantinople, a.d. 381. Expressions in Gregory Nazianzen's letter would lead us to believe that both himself and his friend were then somewhat advanced in life; and from Theosebeia being styled Gregory Nyssen's "sister" we may gather that they had ceased to cohabit, probably on his becoming a bishop (Greg. Naz. Ep. 95, t. i. p. 846; Niceph. H. E. xi. 19).

Gregory soon abandoned his profession of a teacher of rhetoric. The urgent remonstrances of his friend Gregory Nazianzen would have an earnest supporter in his elder sister, the holy recluse Macrina, who doubtless used the same powerful arguments which had induced Basil to give up all prospect of worldly 418fame for the service of Christ. Probably also the profession he had undertaken proved increasingly distasteful to one of Gregory's sensitive and retiring disposition, and he may have been further discouraged by the small results of his exertions to inspire a literary taste among youths who, as he complains in letters to his brother Basil's tutor Libanius, written while practising as a rhetorician (Greg. Nys. Ep. 13, 14), were much more ready to enter the army than to follow rhetorical studies. He retired to a monastery in Pontus, almost certainly that on the river Iris presided over by his brother Basil, and in close vicinity to Annesi, where was the female convent of which his sister Macrina was the superior. In this congenial retreat he passed several years, devoting himself to the study of the Scriptures and the works of Christian commentators. Among these it is certain that Origen had a high place, the influence of that writer being evident in Gregory's own theological works. At Pontus, c. 371, he composed his work de Virginitate, in which, while extolling virginity as the highest perfection of Christian life, he laments that he had separated himself from that state (de Virg. lib. iii. t. iii. pp. 116 seq.). Towards the close of his residence in Pontus, a.d. 371, circumstances occurred displaying Gregory's want of judgment in a striking manner. An estrangement had arisen between Basil and his aged uncle, the bp. Gregory, whom the family deservedly regarded as their second father. The younger Gregory took on himself the office of mediator. Straightforward methods having failed, he adopted crooked ones, and forged letters to his brother in their uncle's name desiring reconciliation. The letters were indignantly repudiated by the justly offended bishop, and reconciliation became increasingly hopeless. Basil addressed a letter to his brother, which is a model of dignified rebuke. He first ridicules him with his simplicity, unworthy of a Christian, reproaches him for endeavouring to serve the cause of truth by deception, and charges him with unbrotherly conduct in adding affliction to one already pressed out of measure (Basil. Ep. 58 [44]).

In 372 (the year Gregory Nazianzen was consecrated to the see of Sasima) Gregory was forced by his brother Basil to accept reluctantly the see of Nyssa, an obscure town of Cappadocia Prima, about ten miles from the capital, Caesarea. Their common friend, Eusebius of Samosata, wrote to Basil to remonstrate on his burying so distinguished a man in so unworthy a see. Basil replied that his brother's merits made him worthy to govern the whole church gathered into one, but he desired that the see should be made famous by its bishop, not the bishop by his see (ib. 98 [259]). These words have proved prophetic.

Gregory's episcopate fell in troublous times. Valens, a zealous Arian, being on the throne, lost no opportunity of forwarding his own tenets and vexing the orthodox. The miserable Demosthenes [Basilius] had been recently appointed vicar of Pontus to do all in his power to crush the adherents of the Nicene faith. After petty acts of persecution, in which the semi-Arian prelates joined with high satisfaction, as a means of retaliating on Basil, a synod was summoned at Ancyra at the close of 375, to examine some alleged canonical irregularities in Gregory's consecration, and to investigate a frivolous charge brought against him by a certain Philocharis of having made away with church funds left by his predecessor. A band of soldiers was sent to arrest Gregory and conduct him to the place of hearing. A chill on his journey brought on a pleuritic seizure and aggravated a painful malady to which he was subject. His entreaties to be allowed to halt for medical treatment were disregarded, but he managed to elude the vigilance of the soldiers and to escape to some place of concealment where his maladies could be cared for. Basil collected a synod of orthodox Cappadocian bishops, in whose name he addressed a dignified but courteous letter to Demosthenes, apologizing for his brother's non-appearance at Ancyra, and stating that the charge of embezzlement could be shewn to be false by the books of the treasurers of the church; while, if any canonical defect in his ordination could be proved, the ordainers were those who should be called to account, an account which they were ready to render (ib. 225 [385]). Basil wrote also to a man of distinction named Aburgius, begging him to use his influence to save Gregory from the misery of being dragged into court and implicated in judicial business from which his peaceful disposition shrank (ib. 33 [358]). Another synod was summoned at Nyssa by Demosthenes A.D. 376, through the instrumentality of Eustathius of Sebaste. Still Gregory refused to appear. He was pronounced contumacious and deposed by the assembled bishops, of whom Anysius and Ecdicius of Parnasse were the leaders, and they consecrated a successor, whom Basil spoke of with scorn as a miserable slave who could be bought for a few oboli (ib. 237 [264], 239 [10]). Gregory's deposition was followed by his banishment by Valens (Greg. Nys. de Vit. Macr. t. ii. p. 192). These accumulated troubles utterly crushed his gentle spirit. In his letters he bewails the cruel necessity which had compelled him to desert his spiritual children, and driven him from his home and friends to dwell among malicious enemies who scrutinized every look and gesture, nay his very dress, and made them grounds of accusation. He dwells with tender recollection on the home he had lost—his fireside, his table, his pantry, his bed, his bench, his sackcloth—and contrasts it with the stifling hole in which he was forced to dwell, of which the only furniture was straitness, darkness, and cold. His only consolation is in the assurance that his brethren would remember him in their prayers (Greg. Nys. Epp. 18, 22). His letters to Gregory Nazianzen have unfortunately perished, but his deep despondency is shewn by the replies. After his expulsion from his see his namesake wrote that, though denied his wish to accompany him in his banishment, he went with him in spirit, and trusted in God that the storm would soon blow over, and he get the better of all his enemies, as a recompense for his strict orthodoxy (Greg. Naz. Ep. 142, t. i. p. 866). Driven from place to place to avoid his enemies, he had compared himself to a stick carried aimlessly 419hither and thither on the surface of a stream; his friend replies that his movements were rather like those of the sun, which brings life to all things, or of the planets, whose apparent irregularities are subject to a fixed law (ib. 34 [32], p. 798). Out of heart at the apparent triumph of Arianism, Gregory bids him be of good cheer, for the enemies of the truth were like serpents, creeping from their holes in the sunshine of imperial favour, who, however alarming their hissing, would be driven back into the earth by time and truth. All would come right if they left all to God (ib. 35 [33], p. 799). This trust in God proved well founded. On the death of Valens in 378 the youthful Gratian recalled the banished bishops, and, to the joy of the faithful, Gregory was restored to Nyssa. In one of his letters he describes with graphic power his return. The latter half of his journey was a triumphal progress, the inhabitants pouring out to meet him, and escorting him with acclamations and tears of joy (Greg. Nys. Ep. 3, Zacagni; No. 6, Migne). On Jan. 1, 379, Basil, whom he loved as a brother and revered as a spiritual father, died. Gregory certainly attended his funeral, delivering his funeral oration, to which we are indebted for many particulars of Basil's life. In common with Gregory's compositions generally, it offends by the extravagance of its language and turgid oratory (Greg. Nys. in Laud. Patr. Bas. t. iii. pp. 479 seq.). Gregory Nazianzen, who was prevented from being present by illness, wrote a consolatory letter, praising his namesake very highly, and saying that his chief comfort now was to see all Basil's virtues reflected in him, as in a mirror (Greg. Naz. Ep. 37 [35], p. 799). One sorrow followed close upon another in Gregory's life. The confusion in the churches after the long Arian supremacy entailed severe labours and anxieties upon him for the defence of the truth and the reformation of the erring (de Vit. Macr. t. ii. p. 192). In Sept. 379 he took part in the council held at Antioch for the double purpose of healing the Antiochene schism (which it failed to effect) and of taking measures for securing the church's victory over the lately dominant Arianism (Labbe, Concil. ii. 910; Baluz. Nov. Concil. Coll. p. 78). On his way back to his diocese, Gregory visited the monastery at Annesi, over which his sister Macrina presided. He found her dying, and she expired the next evening. A full account of her last hours, with a detailed biography, is given by hire in a letter to the monk Olympius (de Vit. S. Macrinae Virg. t. ii. pp. 177 seq.). In his treatise de Anima et Resurrectione (entitled, in honour of his sister, τὰ Μακρίνια) we have another account of her deathbed, in which he puts long speeches into her mouth, as part of a dialogue held with him on the proofs of the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body, the object of which was to mitigate his grief for Basil's death (t. iii. pp. 181 seq.). [Macrina the Younger.] After celebrating his sister's funeral, Gregory continued his journey to his diocese, where an unbroken series of calamities awaited him. The Galatians had been sowing their heresies. The people at Ibora on the borders of Pontus, having lost their bishop by death, elected Gregory to the vacant see. This, in some unexplained way, caused troubles calling for the intervention of the military. These difficulties being settled, he set out on a long and toilsome journey, in fulfilment of a commission from the council of Antioch "to visit and reform the church of Arabia" (t. iii. p. 653)—i.e. of Babylon. He found the state of the church there even worse than had been represented. The people had grown hardened in heresy, and were as brutish and barbarous in their lives as in their tongue. From his despairing tone we judge that the mission met with but little success. At its termination, being near the Holy Land, he visited the spots consecrated by the life and death of Christ. The emperor put a public chariot at his disposal, which served him and his retinue "both for a monastery and a church," fasting, psalmody, and the hours of prayer being regularly observed all through the journey (t. iii. p. 658). He visited Bethlehem, Golgotha, the Mount of Olives, and the Anastasis. But the result of this pilgrimage was disappointment. His faith received no confirmation, and his religious sense was scandalized by the gross immorality prevailing in the Holy City, which he describes as a sink of all iniquity. The church there was in an almost equally unsatisfactory state. Cyril, after his repeated depositions by Arian influence, had finally returned, but had failed to heal the dissensions of the Christians or bring them back to unity of faith. Gregory's efforts were equally ineffectual, and he returned to Cappadocia depressed and saddened. In two letters, one to three ladies resident at Jerusalem, Eustathia, Ambrosia, and Basilissa (t. iii. pp. 659 seq.), the other the celebrated one de Euntibus Hierosolyma, he declares his conviction not of the uselessness only but of the evil of pilgrimages. "He urges . . . the dangers of robbery and violence in the Holy Land itself, of the moral state of which he draws a fearful picture. He asserts the religious superiority of Cappadocia, which had more churches than any part of the world, and inquires in plain terms whether a man will believe the virgin birth of Christ the more by seeing Bethlehem, or His resurrection by visiting His tomb, or His ascension by standing on the Mount of Olives" (Milman, Hist. of Christianity, bk. iii. c. 11, vol. iii. p. 192, note). There is no sufficient reason for questioning the genuineness of this letter. We next hear of Gregory at the second general council, that of Constantinople, a.d. 381 (Labbe, Concil. ii. 955), accompanied by his deacon Evagrius. There he held a principal place as a recognized theological leader, τῆς ἐκκλησιας τὸ κοινὸν ἔρεισμα, as his friend Gregory Nazianzen had at an earlier period termed him. That he was the author of the clauses then added to the Nicene symbol is an unverified assertion of Nicephorus Callistus (H. E. xii. 13). It was probably on this occasion that he read to Gregory Nazianzen and to Jerome his work against Eunomius, or the more important parts of it (Hieron. de Vir. Ill. c. 128). Gregory Nazianzen having been reluctantly compelled to ascend the episcopal throne of Constantinople, Gregory Nyssen delivered an inaugural oration now lost, and, soon after, 420a funeral oration on the venerable Meletius of Antioch, which has been preserved (Socr. H. E. iv. 26; Oratio in funere Magni Meletii, t. iii. pp. 587 seq.). Before the close of the council the emperor Theodosius issued a decree from Heraclea, July 30, 381, containing the names of the bishops who were to be regarded as centres of orthodox communion in their respective districts. Among these Gregory Nyssen appears, together with his metropolitan Helladius of Caesarea and Otreius of Melitene, for the diocese of Pontus (Cod. Theod. l. iii. de Fide Catholica, t. vi. p. 9; Socr. H. E. v. 8). Gregory, however, was not made for the delicate and difficult business of restoring the unity of the faith. He was more a student than a man of action. His simplicity was easily imposed upon. Open to flattery, he became the dupe of designing men. His colleague Helladius was in every way his inferior, and if Gregory took as little pains to conceal his sense of this in his personal intercourse as in his correspondence with Flavian, we cannot be surprised at the metropolitan's dignity being severely wounded. Helladius revenged himself by gross rudeness to Gregory. Having turned out of his way to pay his respects to his metropolitan, Gregory was kept standing at the door under the midday sun, and when at last admitted to Helladius's presence, his complimentary speeches were received with chilling silence. When he mildly remonstrated, Helladius broke into cutting reproaches, and rudely drove him from his presence (Ep. ad Flavian. t. iii. pp. 645 seq.). Gregory was present at the synod at Constantinople in 383, when he delivered his discourse on the Godhead of the Second and Third Persons of the Trinity (de Abraham, t. iii. pp. 464 seq.; cf. Tillem. Mém. ecclés. ix. p. 586, S. Grég. de Nysse, art. x.), and again at Constantinople in a.d. 385, when he pronounced the funeral oration over the little princess Pulcheria, and shortly afterwards over her mother the empress Flaccilla. Both orations are extant (t. iii. pp. 514 seq., 527 seq.). During these visits to Constantinople, Gregory obtained the friendship of Olympias, the celebrated deaconess and correspondent of Chrysostom, at whose instance he undertook an exposition of the Canticles, a portion of which, containing 15 homilies, he completed and sent her (in Cant. Cantic. t. i. pp. 468 seq.). Gregory was present at the synod at Constantinople a.d. 394, under the presidency of Nectarius, to decide between the claims of Bagadius and Agapius to the see of Bostra in Arabia (Labbe, Concil. ii. 1151). At the request of Nectarius Gregory delivered the homily bearing the erroneous title, de Ordinatione, which is evidently a production of his old age (t. ii. pp. 40 seq.). His architectural taste appears in this homily. It is probable that he did not long survive this synod. The date of his death. was perhaps a.d. 395.

Gregory Nyssen was a very copious writer, and the greater part of his recorded works have been preserved. They may be divided into five classes: (1) Exegetical; (2) Dogmatical; (3) Ascetic; (4) Funeral Orations and Panegyrical Discourses; (5) Letters.

(1) Exegetical.—What exegesis of Holy Scripture he has left is of no high value, his system of interpretation being almost entirely allegorical. To this class belong his works on the Creation, written chiefly to supplement and defend the great work of his brother Basil on the Hexaemeron. These include (i) περὶ τῆς ἑξαημέρου, dedicated to his youngest brother Peter, bp. of Sebaste. It is also called Apologeticus, as it contains a defence of the actions of Moses and of some points in Basil's work. (ii) A treatise on the creation of man, written as a supplement to Basil's treatise (vol. i. p. 45; Socr. H. E. iv. 26), the fundamental idea of which is the unity of the human race—that humanity before God is to be considered as one man. It is called by Suidas τεῦχος θαυμάσιον. (iii) Also two homilies on the same subject (Gen. i. 26), frequently appended to Basil's Hexaemeron, and erroneously assigned to him by Combefis and others. There is also a discourse (t. ii. pp. 22–34) on the meaning of the image and likeness of God in which man was created. (iv) A treatise on the Life of Moses as exhibiting a pattern of a perfect Christian life; dedicated to Caesarius. (v) Two books on the Superscriptions of the Psalms, in which he endeavours to shew that the five books of the Psalter are intended to lead men upward, as by five steps, to moral perfection. (vi) Eight homilies expository of Ecclesiastes, ending with c. vii. 13, "less forced, more useful, and more natural" (Dupin). (vii) Fifteen homilies on the Canticles, ending with c. vi. 9; dedicated to Olympias. (viii) Five homilies on the Lord's Prayer, "lectu dignissimae" (Fabric.). (ix) Eight homilies on the Beatitudes. (x) A discourse on 1 Cor. xv. 28, in which he combats the Arian perversion of the passage as to the subjection of the Son. (xi) A short treatise on the witch of Endor, Ἐγγαστρίμυθος, to prove that the apparition was a demon in the shape of Samuel; addressed to a bishop named Theodosius.

(2) Dogmatical.—These are deservedly regarded as among the most important patristic contributions towards a true view of the mystery of the Trinity, hardly, if at all, inferior to the writings of Basil. (i) Chief, both in size and importance, is his great work Against Eunomius, written after Basil's death, to refute the reply of Eunomius to Basil's attack upon his teaching, and to vindicate his brother from the calumnious charges of his adversary. (ii) Almost equally important are the replies to Apollinaris, especially the Antirrheticus adversus Apollinarem. These are not only valuable as giving the most weighty answer on the orthodox side to this heresy, but their numerous extracts from Apollinarian writings are really the chief sources of our acquaintance with those doctrines. The same subjects are treated with great accuracy of thought and spiritual insight in (iii) Sermo Catecheticus Magnus, a work in 40 chapters, containing a systematized course of theological teaching for catechists, proving, for the benefit of those who did not accept the authority of Holy Scripture, the harmony of the chief doctrines of the faith with the instincts of the human heart. This work contains passages asserting the annihilation of evil, the restitution of all things, and the final restoration of evil men and evil 421spirits to the blessedness of union with God, so that He may be "all in all," embracing all things endued with sense and reason—doctrines derived by Gregory from Origen. It has been asserted from the time of Germanus of Constantinople that these passages were foisted in by heretical writers (Phot. Cod. 233, pp. 904 sqq.); but there is no foundation for this hypothesis. The concluding section of the work, which speaks of the errors of Severus, a century posterior to Gregory, is evidently an addition of some blundering copyist. It must be acknowledged that in his desire to exalt the divine nature Gregory came dangerously near the doctrines afterwards developed by Eutyches and the Monothelites, if he did not actually enunciate them. While he rightly held that the infinite Logos was not imprisoned in Christ's human soul and body, he does not assign the proper independence to this human soul and will. Hooker quotes some words of his as to the entire extinction of all distinction between the two natures of Christ, as a drop of vinegar is lost in the ocean (Eccl. Pol. t. ii. 697), which he deems so plain and direct for Eutyches that he "stands in doubt they are not his whose name they carry" (ib. bk. v. c. iii. § 2; cf. Neander, Ch. Hist. vol. iv. p. 115, Clark's trans.).

(3) The class of his Ascetical Writings is small. To it belong his early work de Virginitate; his Canonical Epistles to Letoius, bp. of Melitene, classifying sins, and the penances due to each; etc.

(4) The chief Funereal Orations are those on his brother Basil, on Meletius, on the empress Flaccilla, and on the young princess Pulcheria. We have also several panegyrical discourses and some homilies.

(5) The extant Epistles are not numerous. The chief are that to Flavian, complaining of contumelious treatment by Helladius, and the two on Pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

All previous edd. of his collected works trans. into Latin were greatly surpassed in elegance and accuracy by that of Paris, 1603, under the superintendence of Front du Duc. The first ed. of the Greek text with a Latin trans. appeared from Morel's press at Paris in 1615 in two vols. fol., also ed. by Du Duc. Other complete reprints, including his epistles and other additamenta, are by Galland (Bibl. Vet. Patr. t. vi.) and Migne (Patr. Gk. xliv.-xlvi.). A good critical ed. of his works is, however, much wanted. Such an ed. was commenced by Forbes and Oehler in 1855, but very little has appeared. In the Journ. of Theol. Stud., 1902, is an art. by J. H. Srawley on the text of the Orat. Cat., and in 1903 the same writer ed. it for the Camb. Univ. Texts. Another useful ed. of it was pub. in 1909 in Gk. and French by Meridier in Textes et Documents of Hemmer and Lejay. An Eng. trans. is in the Post-Nic. Fathers. The familiar letters published by Zacagni and Caraccioli are very helpful towards forming an estimate of Gregory's character. They shew us a man of great refinement, with a love for natural beauty and a lively appreciation of the picturesque; in scenery and of elegance in architecture. Of the latter art the detailed description given in his letter to Amphilochius (Ep. 25) of an octagonal "martyrium" surmounted by a conical spire, rising from a clerestory supported on eight columns, proves him to have possessed considerable technical knowledge. It is perhaps the clearest and most detailed description of an ecclesiastical building of the 4th cent. remaining to us. His letter to Adelphius (Ep. 20) furnishes a charming description of a country villa, and its groves and ornamental buildings. Cave, Hist. Lit. vol. i. pp. 244 sqq.; Ceillier, Auteurs ecclés. t. vii. pp. 320 sqq.; Oudin, I. diss. iv.; Schröckh, Kirchengesch. Bk. xiv. 1–147; Tillem. Mém. ecclés. t. ix.; Dupin, cent. iv.; Fabric. Bibl. Graec. t. ix. pp. 98 sqq.


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