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Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa

This was a stonker of an essay, which was both a joy and a pain to write. Both of these theologians wrote masses of material. Augustine is in some sense known as the Father of the Western Church, and much of what we believe in the West goes back to him. Interestingly, I recently heard some Orthodox Theologians expresses the opinion that Augustine was a heretic … when considering some of his views. Gregory was new to me, and I was so impacted by him that I am considering doing something on him for my dissertation.

The subject matter of this essay is not for the timid evangelical who doesn’t want to have their reading of scripture challenged. When the eastern and western churches ‘branched off’ they each took some unique theology with them. In my opinion the east has A LOT to teach us.

I couldn’t get enough of the Gregory of Nyssa. What a depth. What an insight. Perhaps the same is true of Augustine, but given the subject matter I’d take the East any time.

Read on… if you dare (well kind of)

Analyse and evaluate critically Eastern & Western views of human nature, sin and salvation evident in Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa as they write on the nature of the fall & God’s response.

gregory of Nyssa and Augustine of hyppo

Introduction

In this essay I take four areas and compare the theology of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. I bring out areas where the two theologians are in agreement, as well as topics about which they appear to be poles apart. I offer some reflection on how these differences are perceived.

Augustine on the Fall

In paradise Augustine describes Adam’s will as being truly free in that it is not the ‘slave of vices and sins.’[1] Adam possessed total freedom of the will, and is described as being able not to sin, rather than not able to sin.[2] Adam possessed a nature in which, if presented with a sinful choice, he was able, every time to choose to do the right thing. Augustine describes how the Adam and Eve’s bodies was subject to their souls, and that their souls were subject to God.[3] This presents a beautiful picture of settled, inner peace, free from mental turmoil in all its forms.

Despite all this the fall did happen. Augustine describes how the command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil should have been, of itself, an easy thing for Adam and Eve to obey ‘in the midst of great abundance of other kinds’ of food. He states that lust would not have contributed to the temptation, since it was a post-fall condition, and concludes that Adam and Eve’s iniquity was all the greater owing to the ease with which the command should have been kept.[4]

Augustine says that God set the requirement for ‘obedience, the mother and guardian of all virtue’, because it was beneficial for Adam and Eve, and would bless them, but despite this eventually Adam responded by putting his own will above God’s, an act that would lead to destruction.[5] Augustine explains that the evil act must have been proceeded by an evil will, in effect saying there that Adam and Eve must have been in a state of sin before they committed the sin for which they are famous. Given what he has already written about the will being subject to God, something must have risen up in Adam’s soul to shatter that state. Augustine states that this was pride, the ‘craving for exaltation’ in which the soul forsakes God whom it should embrace.[6] Adam despised God’s authority, and in response ‘God in his justice abandoned him to himself’ to live in ‘hard and miserable bondage.’ [7]

The fault was entirely Adam’s, since God had given him every advantage. Adam’s only weakness was his mutable nature which, as Kelly says, ‘though inclined towards goodness, had the possibility, being free, of choosing wrongfully.’[8] In other words, it was an issue of the will and Adam had willed the wrong choice.

In his Enchiridion Augustine piles up the sins that he sees in the fall. Along with pride, these include blasphemy, murder, fornication, theft and avarice, In fact, Augustine adds ‘and whatever other sin can be discovered.’[9]

Gregory on the Fall

Gregory has an ontologically high view of mankind’s initial purpose. He says ‘You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding, the image of incorruptible beauty, the impression of true divinity.’[10] Since Adam was created on the sixth day he was not only to have control over his body, but also over the rest of ‘irrational creation.’[11] As God has universal mastery, so in like manner Adam was to have mastery over himself, and was ‘in no sense to be the slave of any external necessity.’[12] Although a free agent, Adam was ‘circumvented with cunning, when he drew upon himself that disaster which now overwhelms humanity.’[13] Gregory is clear that it was Adam not God who was responsible for evil as he was ‘the fabricator, to a certain extent, and the craftsman of evil.’ [14]

Gregory considers a ‘two stage’ creation in which an ‘ideal, archetypal man – perfect and without sexual differentiation’ was first created. Within this perfect man, all possible men and women were to be found. However, this man was mutable, liable to change, and was therefore inevitably going to sin and because of this God created the sexual distinction. ‘Thus the creation of our nature is in a sense twofold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction.’[15]

According to Gregory this sexual differentiation is not part of the divine image of God, and whilst not being in itself evil, provides a mechanism for the ‘dominance of the passions, the principle fault of humanity.’[16]

Comment

Gregory and Augustine have a very high view of Adam in paradise, both stressing the importance of a will that was free to act, and in control over the body. They both see Adam as the author of his own fate, with Augustine emphasising the ease of obedience and the rise of pride within Adam, and Gregory noting that Adam fabricated evil  to ‘a certain extent’ as he was outwitted by cunning. Both writers stress the inevitability of Adam’s sin, given his mutability but you get the sense that Augustine is harder on Adam than Gregory. The former uses language such as ‘God abandoned’ Adam, and the ‘soul forsakes God.’ Gregory in contrast, seems to hint that Adam was tricked, in an almost childlike naivety despite being held responsible.

Augustine on Fallen Human Nature

Augustine believed that all created things were good because they were themselves created by a creator who is himself supremely and unchangeably good. Whilst Adam and Eve were created good, they were not immutable, and hence their goodness had the potential to both increase and decrease.

If a person becomes ‘completely evil’ Augustine thought they would cease to exist for ‘however small… the being may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself.’[17] Kelly states that Augustine did not believe in total depravity, and Augustine himself writes of the blessings that God still confers upon us despite our fallen nature ‘for in condemning it He did not withdraw all that He had given it, else it had been annihilated.’[18] Augustine would see that with the fallen nature of each person something of the image of God, something good, would remain.

Despite this, at times Augustine’s writings portray a very pessimistic outlook on the fallen life of human kind. Boniface quotes Augustine as saying ‘what is it to be born other than to enter on a life of toil?’ He states that Augustine believed that mutability is the ‘curse of human existence’ and that this curse brings with it restlessness. Despite our varied attempts, earthly life cannot satisfy humans, and so we are subjected to ‘much change’ with which ‘comes profound weariness.’[19]  This wearisome change leads us towards death for the whole ‘course of this life (if life we must call it)’ says Augustine.[20]

He asserts that humans have a moral impotence which leads to the impossibility of them performing a ‘good or meritorious action’ outside the influence of the Holy Spirit.[21] The original ability not to sin had become an inevitability, and in its ‘natal state, humans seek only sinful actions.’[22] Again, this is an outworking of the fallen will which can no longer choose the right and good thing.

Gregory on Fallen Human Nature

Gregory can say ‘Evil was mixed with our nature from the beginning … through those who by their disobedience introduced the disease.’[23] When our first parents sinned evil was mixed into our nature, upsetting the balance between ‘the energies of the soul and the passions of the body.’[24] Now ‘the mind even follows the bodily impulses, and becomes, as it were, their servant.’[25] This is of course the opposite way around from how it was intended to be. Now the passions can become vices which lead the person into ‘illusion and the desire for earthly things.’[26]

Gregory would say that our very mutability indicates that we can advance more closely to God, and that taken to the extreme there is a possibility of human perfection.[27] Gregory likens the conflict between the Egyptians and Moses to a spiritual struggle that a man might have against the enemies of virtue, and encourages us to ‘stand’ and to ‘kill virtue’s adversary.’ [28] Despite this seemingly positive note Gregory elsewhere states that we are weak in doing good because we have been ‘once for all hamstrung through weakness.’[29]

Gregory states that whilst the light of God shines on all men, ‘some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness’[30] and later ‘each man makes his own plagues when through his own free will he inclines toward these painful experiences.’[31]

Comment

Both agree that the fall bought catastrophic changes to human nature. No longer could the will be relied upon to do the right thing, being swayed in our weakness. Augustine speaks of ‘moral impotence’ in the face of doing right, and Gregory of our wills becoming subservient to our bodies and that we are ‘weak in doing good.’ There is an important difference of emphasis here – Augustine saying that left on our own we are unable to do good, whilst Gregory states that we are merely ‘weak’ in doing good, but not totally unable. Whilst mutability contributed to the fall for both writers, they see it somewhat differently post Eden. For Augustine change means restlessness and pushes us towards death, whereas for Gregory mutability brings the possibility of positive growth in godliness.

Augustine and the Nature of Sin

Previous writers before Augustine had highlighted our solidarity with Adam, but as Kelly writes ‘none had depicted so vividly our complicity with him in his evil willing.’ In a manner of speaking all of the human race were ‘in Adam’ when he sinned, and according to Augustine, ‘in the misdirected choice of the one man all sinned in him.’ He believed that we participated in Adam’s sin, and were therefore co-responsible for it. The result of Adam’s sin was that the entire race, became sinful itself, and propagated sinners. This is the doctrine of original sin.[32]

Augustine does draw the distinction between the guilt of the original sin, and its evil effects on our nature. Adam not only passed down guilt to us, but also a broken will with its propensity to sin. It is this second type of sin that a new-born baby has not yet committed, even though it carries the guilt of Adam’s original sin.

Augustine reminds the reader of Adam’s disobedience and then links it to our punishment saying ‘what but disobedience is the punishment for disobedience.’[33] Here he is not only referencing the fact that our wills are now disobedient to what we know is the right thing, but also that the same has happened in our physical lives too. The nature of sin is not just that we don’t do the thing that we will to do, but that mind and flesh do not obey the will either – thus we do not want to grow old, but we do and we seek security but do not find it.

Gregory on the Nature of Sin

Once sin had entered the human race it spread into ‘this infinitude of evil’ which so marred the Godly image in that man ‘preserved no longer the glory of its familiar essence’ and became disfigured by sin.[34] Gregory likens this to a man who slips and falls in the mud, becoming unrecognisable to his relatives.[35] The likeness of the divine image is lost and in its place he has ‘clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal.’[36] This ‘disorder’ is passed on from generation to generation which ultimately leads to physical death.[37]

Gregory is clear that infants who die do not inherit the passed on guilt from Adam[38] and further more speaks of them as having a period of time ‘before an evil life has overlaid the divine image.’[39]

Comment

Both agree that Adam’s actions filter down through the generations and effect all of mankind. Augustine took ‘original sin’ to heart, and declared that everyone is born with guilt and deserving of condemnation from their birth. Gregory would reject original sin, seeing sin instead rather like a sickness or weakness that is passed down the line which means that we will mar the image of God in us. At birth however, our corrupt wills have not had the opportunity to distort the image. Gregory’s image of a man covered in mud seems pitiful, as he seeks to cloth himself in clay, and is reminiscent of Augustine’s idea of our body being disobedient to our wills.

Augustine on Divine Grace and Human Response

Writing of fallen man’s predicament, Augustine states ‘the goodness of the creator’ who came ‘to impart form and life to their seed… and bestow upon them the nourishment they need.’[40] Despite the fact that to him it would have been just for God to leave us in a state of eternal punishment,[41] the divine grace and mercy come together to rescue us.[42]

A mediator was needed, and thus came Jesus Christ who alone had the power ‘to be so born as to not need a second birth.’[43] In one of his sermons Augustine writes that the ‘deformity of Christ forms you.’ It is through Christ being deformed upon the cross that we receive back the form we lost.[44]

Augustine thought baptism an essential response to this grace shown us which acted as the remedy for original sin.[45] This is the way that God had provided even for infants, who despite having not willed in any form, were still under the sway of Adam’s original sin and guilt. Salvation is therefore dependent on our response and is exclusive in nature.[46]

Faith earns the believer the gift of the Holy Spirit ‘the charity by which one loves God for his own sake and delights in his commands.’[47] Augustine was aware that we should certainly be beaten in our daily walk to do what is right. He states that God helps us ‘not only to see our duty’ but when we do see it ‘to make the love of righteousness stronger that the love of earthy things.’[48]

Gregory on divine grace and the human response

According to Burns, Gregory believed that salvation was universal because the entire human race was required to make up the divine image of God. If all people received the divine image, then if any are missing he thought that the whole image could not be ‘re-presented.’[49]  In one of his commentaries Gregory underlines this by saying ‘God will be all in all, and all persons will be untied together in fellowship of the Good, Christ Jesus our Lord.’[50]

Gregory, in his Great Catechism speaks of Christ identifying with fallen humans saying that he had ‘in mind to share our human condition’ which here refers to the boundaries of birth and death that all of us pass through.[51]

Gregory saw the two processes of purification and growth within salvation. Purification of the body was only fully achieved at the resurrection and worked by the grace of God through Christ.[52] In baptism a person ‘symbolically anticipates death and resurrection in Christ, and commits himself to free his soul from vice and passion.’[53] This implies that a person can indeed cleanse his soul from the effects of sin, and enable the ‘soul’s beauty [to] again appear.’[54]

Gregory describes how the soul must ‘overcome its dominating passions’ and arrive at a state whereby the ‘divine image is restored thus enabling a process of ‘growth in union with God’ to begin.[55] It is not our efforts that achieve the ‘likeness to God’ but we ‘merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin’ so the beauty of the soul shines out.[56]

Comment

Both writers agree on the necessity of Jesus Christ, with Augustine describing him as a mediator, and Gregory stressing his identification with humankind. Augustine speaks of God rescuing us and our deformed image, whereas Gregory speaks of surrounding filth and the uncovering of the image. For Augustine baptism deals with the forgiveness of the original sin-debt bestowed to us, whereas for Gregory baptism anticipates death and resurrection and commits a person to cleanse his soul. There is a significant difference in the area of growth, with Gregory talking of cleansing the soul and wiping away the filth to reveal the hidden image. Augustine would probably prefer to see this as the work of the Holy Spirit in our day to day lives. Gregory’s writings on purification are multi-faceted, and seem somewhat mystical. Augustine’s are more penal and logical. The issue of infant salvation punches holes in Augustine’s exclusive salvation, and is effectively countered by Gregory’s universalism although it seems too good to be true.

Conclusion

As a member of the western church it is clear to see where Augustine’s exclusive, guilt-based penal teaching has influenced what we believe. Gregory’s teaching on the other hand feels fresh, exciting and dangerous! Both emphasise the importance of Adam’s freedom of the will, and that his mutability would lead to sin. From this point, there are marked differences with Augustine emphasising the need for assuaged guilt compared to Gregory’s need for purification and growth. Gregory’s universalism is threatening, and almost too good to believe to people who have grown up with Augustine’s God who needs placating. There are echoes of a ‘serve your right’ mentality within Augustine’s writings, whereas Gregory, without down playing the grievousness of sin, leaves you with a sense of pity for a naïve, and foolish child.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Augustine. City of God. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm> (10 11 2014).

Augustine. Enchiridion. – please note I used a book in my local theological library that came up with the search ‘ History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600’ I forgot to write down the details and have been unable to find a copy of Enchiridion on line which has the same references so I have just referenced it as best I can.

 

Augustine. On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1501.htm> (10 11 2014).

Augustine. Retractions. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1513.htm> (09 11 2014).

Burns, J Patout. “The Economy of Salvation: Two Patristic Tradition.” Theological Studies 37, no. 4(1976): 598.

Kelly, J.N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. London: A & C Black, 1977.

Norris, Richard A. Gregory of Nyssa:Homilies on the Song of Songs. Edited by John T. Fitzgerald. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.

Gregory of Nyssa. Life of Moses. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Gregory of Nyssa. On The Making of Man. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2914.htm> (10 11 2014).

Gregory of Nyssa. On Virginity. n.d. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2907.htm> (09 11 2014).

Ramsey, Boniface. Beginning to Read the Fathers. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1993.

XVI, Pope Benedict. The Fathers. Venice: Our Sunday Visitor, 2008. (not cited)

 

 


[1] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:11 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm > (10 November 2014).

[2] Augustine, ’Retractions’, 33 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1513.htm> (10 November 2014).

[3] Augustine, ‘On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism’, 36 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1501.htm> (10 November 2014).

[4] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:12.

[5] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:12.

[6] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:13.

[7] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:15.

[8] J.N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A & C Black, 1977), 362

[9] Augustine, Enchiridion, 45, History of the Christian Church, Volume III, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity AD 311-600. See bibliography.

[10] Richard A. Norris, Gregory of Nyssa:Homilies on the Song of Songs (ed. John T. Fitzgerald; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), Homily 2

[11] Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1993), 59/60

[12] Boniface, Beginning, 69.

[13] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’ , 12 n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2907.htm> (10 November 2014)

[14] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[15] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On The Making of Man’, 16 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2914.htm> (10 November 2014)

[16] J Patout Burns, “The Economy of Salvation: Two Patristic Traditions,” Theological Studies 37 (1976), 602.

[17] Augustine, Enchiridion, 12

[18] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 22:24.

[19] Boniface, Beginning, 63.

[20] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 13:10.

[21] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 609.

[22] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 612.

[23] Kelly, Doctrines, 351.

[24] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 602.

[25] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On The Making of Man’, 14.

[26] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 602

[27] Boniface, Beginning, 64.

[28] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 2:15

[29] Kelly, Doctrines, 350.

[30] Gregory, Life of Moses, 81.

[31] Gregory, Life of Moses, 86.

[32] Kelly, Doctrines, 363

[33] Augustine, ‘City ofGod’, 14:15.

[34] Gregory of Nyssa,’On Virginity’, 12.

[35] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[36] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[37] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 603.

[38] Gregory, Life of Moses, 91

[39] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 604.

[40] Augustine, Enchiridion, 27.

[41] Augustine, Enchiridion, 27.

[42] Augustine, Enchiridion, 46.

[43] Augustine, Enchiridion, 48.

[44] Boniface, Beginning, 86.

[45] Augustine, Enchiridion, 64.

[46] Augustine, Enchiridion, 92,113.

[47] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 610.

[48] Augustine, Enchiridion, 81.

[49] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 602.

[50] Gregory of Nyssa: Song of Songs, homily 15.

[51] Boniface, Beginning, 80.

[52] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 603

[53]Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 604.

Analyse and evaluate critically Eastern & Western views of human nature, sin and salvation evident in Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa as they write on the nature of the fall & God’s response.

Introduction

In this essay I take four areas and compare the theology of Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. I bring out areas where the two theologians are in agreement, as well as topics about which they appear to be poles apart. I offer some reflection on how these differences are perceived.

Augustine on the Fall

In paradise Augustine describes Adam’s will as being truly free in that it is not the ‘slave of vices and sins.’[1] Adam possessed total freedom of the will, and is described as being able not to sin, rather than not able to sin.[2] Adam possessed a nature in which, if presented with a sinful choice, he was able, every time to choose to do the right thing. Augustine describes how the Adam and Eve’s bodies was subject to their souls, and that their souls were subject to God.[3] This presents a beautiful picture of settled, inner peace, free from mental turmoil in all its forms.

Despite all this the fall did happen. Augustine describes how the command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil should have been, of itself, an easy thing for Adam and Eve to obey ‘in the midst of great abundance of other kinds’ of food. He states that lust would not have contributed to the temptation, since it was a post-fall condition, and concludes that Adam and Eve’s iniquity was all the greater owing to the ease with which the command should have been kept.[4]

Augustine says that God set the requirement for ‘obedience, the mother and guardian of all virtue’, because it was beneficial for Adam and Eve, and would bless them, but despite this eventually Adam responded by putting his own will above God’s, an act that would lead to destruction.[5] Augustine explains that the evil act must have been proceeded by an evil will, in effect saying there that Adam and Eve must have been in a state of sin before they committed the sin for which they are famous. Given what he has already written about the will being subject to God, something must have risen up in Adam’s soul to shatter that state. Augustine states that this was pride, the ‘craving for exaltation’ in which the soul forsakes God whom it should embrace.[6] Adam despised God’s authority, and in response ‘God in his justice abandoned him to himself’ to live in ‘hard and miserable bondage.’ [7]

The fault was entirely Adam’s, since God had given him every advantage. Adam’s only weakness was his mutable nature which, as Kelly says, ‘though inclined towards goodness, had the possibility, being free, of choosing wrongfully.’[8] In other words, it was an issue of the will and Adam had willed the wrong choice.

In his Enchiridion Augustine piles up the sins that he sees in the fall. Along with pride, these include blasphemy, murder, fornication, theft and avarice, In fact, Augustine adds ‘and whatever other sin can be discovered.’[9]

Gregory on the Fall

Gregory has an ontologically high view of mankind’s initial purpose. He says ‘You alone are made in the likeness of that nature which surpasses all understanding, the image of incorruptible beauty, the impression of true divinity.’[10] Since Adam was created on the sixth day he was not only to have control over his body, but also over the rest of ‘irrational creation.’[11] As God has universal mastery, so in like manner Adam was to have mastery over himself, and was ‘in no sense to be the slave of any external necessity.’[12] Although a free agent, Adam was ‘circumvented with cunning, when he drew upon himself that disaster which now overwhelms humanity.’[13] Gregory is clear that it was Adam not God who was responsible for evil as he was ‘the fabricator, to a certain extent, and the craftsman of evil.’ [14]

Gregory considers a ‘two stage’ creation in which an ‘ideal, archetypal man – perfect and without sexual differentiation’ was first created. Within this perfect man, all possible men and women were to be found. However, this man was mutable, liable to change, and was therefore inevitably going to sin and because of this God created the sexual distinction. ‘Thus the creation of our nature is in a sense twofold: one made like to God, one divided according to this distinction.’[15]

According to Gregory this sexual differentiation is not part of the divine image of God, and whilst not being in itself evil, provides a mechanism for the ‘dominance of the passions, the principle fault of humanity.’[16]

Comment

Gregory and Augustine have a very high view of Adam in paradise, both stressing the importance of a will that was free to act, and in control over the body. They both see Adam as the author of his own fate, with Augustine emphasising the ease of obedience and the rise of pride within Adam, and Gregory noting that Adam fabricated evil  to ‘a certain extent’ as he was outwitted by cunning. Both writers stress the inevitability of Adam’s sin, given his mutability but you get the sense that Augustine is harder on Adam than Gregory. The former uses language such as ‘God abandoned’ Adam, and the ‘soul forsakes God.’ Gregory in contrast, seems to hint that Adam was tricked, in an almost childlike naivety despite being held responsible.

Augustine on Fallen Human Nature

Augustine believed that all created things were good because they were themselves created by a creator who is himself supremely and unchangeably good. Whilst Adam and Eve were created good, they were not immutable, and hence their goodness had the potential to both increase and decrease.

If a person becomes ‘completely evil’ Augustine thought they would cease to exist for ‘however small… the being may be, the good which makes it a being cannot be destroyed without destroying the being itself.’[17] Kelly states that Augustine did not believe in total depravity, and Augustine himself writes of the blessings that God still confers upon us despite our fallen nature ‘for in condemning it He did not withdraw all that He had given it, else it had been annihilated.’[18] Augustine would see that with the fallen nature of each person something of the image of God, something good, would remain.

Despite this, at times Augustine’s writings portray a very pessimistic outlook on the fallen life of human kind. Boniface quotes Augustine as saying ‘what is it to be born other than to enter on a life of toil?’ He states that Augustine believed that mutability is the ‘curse of human existence’ and that this curse brings with it restlessness. Despite our varied attempts, earthly life cannot satisfy humans, and so we are subjected to ‘much change’ with which ‘comes profound weariness.’[19]  This wearisome change leads us towards death for the whole ‘course of this life (if life we must call it)’ says Augustine.[20]

He asserts that humans have a moral impotence which leads to the impossibility of them performing a ‘good or meritorious action’ outside the influence of the Holy Spirit.[21] The original ability not to sin had become an inevitability, and in its ‘natal state, humans seek only sinful actions.’[22] Again, this is an outworking of the fallen will which can no longer choose the right and good thing.

Gregory on Fallen Human Nature

Gregory can say ‘Evil was mixed with our nature from the beginning … through those who by their disobedience introduced the disease.’[23] When our first parents sinned evil was mixed into our nature, upsetting the balance between ‘the energies of the soul and the passions of the body.’[24] Now ‘the mind even follows the bodily impulses, and becomes, as it were, their servant.’[25] This is of course the opposite way around from how it was intended to be. Now the passions can become vices which lead the person into ‘illusion and the desire for earthly things.’[26]

Gregory would say that our very mutability indicates that we can advance more closely to God, and that taken to the extreme there is a possibility of human perfection.[27] Gregory likens the conflict between the Egyptians and Moses to a spiritual struggle that a man might have against the enemies of virtue, and encourages us to ‘stand’ and to ‘kill virtue’s adversary.’ [28] Despite this seemingly positive note Gregory elsewhere states that we are weak in doing good because we have been ‘once for all hamstrung through weakness.’[29]

Gregory states that whilst the light of God shines on all men, ‘some continue on in darkness, driven by their evil pursuits to the darkness of wickedness’[30] and later ‘each man makes his own plagues when through his own free will he inclines toward these painful experiences.’[31]

Comment

Both agree that the fall bought catastrophic changes to human nature. No longer could the will be relied upon to do the right thing, being swayed in our weakness. Augustine speaks of ‘moral impotence’ in the face of doing right, and Gregory of our wills becoming subservient to our bodies and that we are ‘weak in doing good.’ There is an important difference of emphasis here – Augustine saying that left on our own we are unable to do good, whilst Gregory states that we are merely ‘weak’ in doing good, but not totally unable. Whilst mutability contributed to the fall for both writers, they see it somewhat differently post Eden. For Augustine change means restlessness and pushes us towards death, whereas for Gregory mutability brings the possibility of positive growth in godliness.

Augustine and the Nature of Sin

Previous writers before Augustine had highlighted our solidarity with Adam, but as Kelly writes ‘none had depicted so vividly our complicity with him in his evil willing.’ In a manner of speaking all of the human race were ‘in Adam’ when he sinned, and according to Augustine, ‘in the misdirected choice of the one man all sinned in him.’ He believed that we participated in Adam’s sin, and were therefore co-responsible for it. The result of Adam’s sin was that the entire race, became sinful itself, and propagated sinners. This is the doctrine of original sin.[32]

Augustine does draw the distinction between the guilt of the original sin, and its evil effects on our nature. Adam not only passed down guilt to us, but also a broken will with its propensity to sin. It is this second type of sin that a new-born baby has not yet committed, even though it carries the guilt of Adam’s original sin.

Augustine reminds the reader of Adam’s disobedience and then links it to our punishment saying ‘what but disobedience is the punishment for disobedience.’[33] Here he is not only referencing the fact that our wills are now disobedient to what we know is the right thing, but also that the same has happened in our physical lives too. The nature of sin is not just that we don’t do the thing that we will to do, but that mind and flesh do not obey the will either – thus we do not want to grow old, but we do and we seek security but do not find it.

Gregory on the Nature of Sin

Once sin had entered the human race it spread into ‘this infinitude of evil’ which so marred the Godly image in that man ‘preserved no longer the glory of its familiar essence’ and became disfigured by sin.[34] Gregory likens this to a man who slips and falls in the mud, becoming unrecognisable to his relatives.[35] The likeness of the divine image is lost and in its place he has ‘clothed himself in an image that is of clay and mortal.’[36] This ‘disorder’ is passed on from generation to generation which ultimately leads to physical death.[37]

Gregory is clear that infants who die do not inherit the passed on guilt from Adam[38] and further more speaks of them as having a period of time ‘before an evil life has overlaid the divine image.’[39]

Comment

Both agree that Adam’s actions filter down through the generations and effect all of mankind. Augustine took ‘original sin’ to heart, and declared that everyone is born with guilt and deserving of condemnation from their birth. Gregory would reject original sin, seeing sin instead rather like a sickness or weakness that is passed down the line which means that we will mar the image of God in us. At birth however, our corrupt wills have not had the opportunity to distort the image. Gregory’s image of a man covered in mud seems pitiful, as he seeks to cloth himself in clay, and is reminiscent of Augustine’s idea of our body being disobedient to our wills.

Augustine on Divine Grace and Human Response

Writing of fallen man’s predicament, Augustine states ‘the goodness of the creator’ who came ‘to impart form and life to their seed… and bestow upon them the nourishment they need.’[40] Despite the fact that to him it would have been just for God to leave us in a state of eternal punishment,[41] the divine grace and mercy come together to rescue us.[42]

A mediator was needed, and thus came Jesus Christ who alone had the power ‘to be so born as to not need a second birth.’[43] In one of his sermons Augustine writes that the ‘deformity of Christ forms you.’ It is through Christ being deformed upon the cross that we receive back the form we lost.[44]

Augustine thought baptism an essential response to this grace shown us which acted as the remedy for original sin.[45] This is the way that God had provided even for infants, who despite having not willed in any form, were still under the sway of Adam’s original sin and guilt. Salvation is therefore dependent on our response and is exclusive in nature.[46]

Faith earns the believer the gift of the Holy Spirit ‘the charity by which one loves God for his own sake and delights in his commands.’[47] Augustine was aware that we should certainly be beaten in our daily walk to do what is right. He states that God helps us ‘not only to see our duty’ but when we do see it ‘to make the love of righteousness stronger that the love of earthy things.’[48]

Gregory on divine grace and the human response

According to Burns, Gregory believed that salvation was universal because the entire human race was required to make up the divine image of God. If all people received the divine image, then if any are missing he thought that the whole image could not be ‘re-presented.’[49]  In one of his commentaries Gregory underlines this by saying ‘God will be all in all, and all persons will be untied together in fellowship of the Good, Christ Jesus our Lord.’[50]

Gregory, in his Great Catechism speaks of Christ identifying with fallen humans saying that he had ‘in mind to share our human condition’ which here refers to the boundaries of birth and death that all of us pass through.[51]

Gregory saw the two processes of purification and growth within salvation. Purification of the body was only fully achieved at the resurrection and worked by the grace of God through Christ.[52] In baptism a person ‘symbolically anticipates death and resurrection in Christ, and commits himself to free his soul from vice and passion.’[53] This implies that a person can indeed cleanse his soul from the effects of sin, and enable the ‘soul’s beauty [to] again appear.’[54]

Gregory describes how the soul must ‘overcome its dominating passions’ and arrive at a state whereby the ‘divine image is restored thus enabling a process of ‘growth in union with God’ to begin.[55] It is not our efforts that achieve the ‘likeness to God’ but we ‘merely clear away the accumulated filth of sin’ so the beauty of the soul shines out.[56]

Comment

Both writers agree on the necessity of Jesus Christ, with Augustine describing him as a mediator, and Gregory stressing his identification with humankind. Augustine speaks of God rescuing us and our deformed image, whereas Gregory speaks of surrounding filth and the uncovering of the image. For Augustine baptism deals with the forgiveness of the original sin-debt bestowed to us, whereas for Gregory baptism anticipates death and resurrection and commits a person to cleanse his soul. There is a significant difference in the area of growth, with Gregory talking of cleansing the soul and wiping away the filth to reveal the hidden image. Augustine would probably prefer to see this as the work of the Holy Spirit in our day to day lives. Gregory’s writings on purification are multi-faceted, and seem somewhat mystical. Augustine’s are more penal and logical. The issue of infant salvation punches holes in Augustine’s exclusive salvation, and is effectively countered by Gregory’s universalism although it seems too good to be true.

Conclusion

As a member of the western church it is clear to see where Augustine’s exclusive, guilt-based penal teaching has influenced what we believe. Gregory’s teaching on the other hand feels fresh, exciting and dangerous! Both emphasise the importance of Adam’s freedom of the will, and that his mutability would lead to sin. From this point, there are marked differences with Augustine emphasising the need for assuaged guilt compared to Gregory’s need for purification and growth. Gregory’s universalism is threatening, and almost too good to believe to people who have grown up with Augustine’s God who needs placating. There are echoes of a ‘serve your right’ mentality within Augustine’s writings, whereas Gregory, without down playing the grievousness of sin, leaves you with a sense of pity for a naïve, and foolish child.

 

 

 

Bibliography

Augustine. City of God. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm> (10 11 2014).

Augustine. Enchiridion. – please note I used a book in my local theological library that came up with the search ‘ History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600’ I forgot to write down the details and have been unable to find a copy of Enchiridion on line which has the same references so I have just referenced it as best I can.

 

Augustine. On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1501.htm> (10 11 2014).

Augustine. Retractions. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1513.htm> (09 11 2014).

Burns, J Patout. “The Economy of Salvation: Two Patristic Tradition.” Theological Studies 37, no. 4(1976): 598.

Kelly, J.N. D. Early Christian Doctrines. London: A & C Black, 1977.

Norris, Richard A. Gregory of Nyssa:Homilies on the Song of Songs. Edited by John T. Fitzgerald. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.

Gregory of Nyssa. Life of Moses. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

Gregory of Nyssa. On The Making of Man. n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2914.htm> (10 11 2014).

Gregory of Nyssa. On Virginity. n.d. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2907.htm> (09 11 2014).

Ramsey, Boniface. Beginning to Read the Fathers. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1993.

XVI, Pope Benedict. The Fathers. Venice: Our Sunday Visitor, 2008. (not cited)

 

 


[1] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:11 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm > (10 November 2014).

[2] Augustine, ’Retractions’, 33 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1513.htm> (10 November 2014).

[3] Augustine, ‘On the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins and on Infant Baptism’, 36 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1501.htm> (10 November 2014).

[4] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:12.

[5] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:12.

[6] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:13.

[7] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 14:15.

[8] J.N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A & C Black, 1977), 362

[9] Augustine, Enchiridion, 45, History of the Christian Church, Volume III, Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity AD 311-600. See bibliography.

[10] Richard A. Norris, Gregory of Nyssa:Homilies on the Song of Songs (ed. John T. Fitzgerald; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012), Homily 2

[11] Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers (London: SCM Press Ltd, 1993), 59/60

[12] Boniface, Beginning, 69.

[13] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’ , 12 n.p. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2907.htm> (10 November 2014)

[14] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[15] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On The Making of Man’, 16 n.p. < http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2914.htm> (10 November 2014)

[16] J Patout Burns, “The Economy of Salvation: Two Patristic Traditions,” Theological Studies 37 (1976), 602.

[17] Augustine, Enchiridion, 12

[18] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 22:24.

[19] Boniface, Beginning, 63.

[20] Augustine, ‘City of God’, 13:10.

[21] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 609.

[22] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 612.

[23] Kelly, Doctrines, 351.

[24] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 602.

[25] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On The Making of Man’, 14.

[26] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 602

[27] Boniface, Beginning, 64.

[28] Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 2:15

[29] Kelly, Doctrines, 350.

[30] Gregory, Life of Moses, 81.

[31] Gregory, Life of Moses, 86.

[32] Kelly, Doctrines, 363

[33] Augustine, ‘City ofGod’, 14:15.

[34] Gregory of Nyssa,’On Virginity’, 12.

[35] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[36] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[37] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 603.

[38] Gregory, Life of Moses, 91

[39] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 604.

[40] Augustine, Enchiridion, 27.

[41] Augustine, Enchiridion, 27.

[42] Augustine, Enchiridion, 46.

[43] Augustine, Enchiridion, 48.

[44] Boniface, Beginning, 86.

[45] Augustine, Enchiridion, 64.

[46] Augustine, Enchiridion, 92,113.

[47] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 610.

[48] Augustine, Enchiridion, 81.

[49] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 602.

[50] Gregory of Nyssa: Song of Songs, homily 15.

[51] Boniface, Beginning, 80.

[52] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 603

[53] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 604.

[54] Gregory of Nyssa,’On Virginity’, 12.

[55] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 604

[56] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

[54] Gregory of Nyssa,’On Virginity’, 12.

[55] Burns, “Two Patristic Traditions”, 604

[56] Gregory of Nyssa, ‘On Virginity’, 12.

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