Review: Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa

Continuing in the line of Boersma’s larger “Platonic-Synthesis” project, he explores Gregory of Nyssa’s use of the body in his theology of sanctification. Gregory of Nyssa’s prism of sanctification is the concept of “anagogy,” which anticipates later Medieval hermeneuticsHans-Boersma-Gregory-of-Nyssa

Anagogy refers to the eschatological sense of meaning.  Boersma: “ For Gregory, “anagogical” exegesis refers not just to the end of history; rather, it speaks about the spiritual level of meaning in general” (Boersma 2).

Gregory’s theology is anagogical: “That is to say, for Gregory the purpose of life itself is anagogical in character. We are meant to go “upward” and “forward,” both at the same time, so as to participate ever more thoroughly in the life of God. Anagogy, then, is not just an exegetical practice or hermeneutical approach for St. Gregory. Rather, anagogy is our own increasing participation in divine virtue and thus our own ascent into the life of God” (3).

Boersma’s goal is to demonstrate how Gregory “goes beyond” the body in such a way that neither postmodernists nor those “overly-eager creation theologians” can claim Nyssen for one of their own.  Gregory believes in the goodness of the body, but only as the body serves as a training ground for the eschatological life.

Key to Gregory’s ontology is the Creator-creature distinction.  So far that is standard Christian metaphysics, but Gregory makes several unexpected moves.  For him, all of created reality, time included, is marked by diastesis–interval and division. This is crucial for his anti-Eunomian polemic:  There is no diastesis between Father, Son, and Spirit.

Everything in creation, then, is marked by diastesis. Will the saints’ life in heaven be marked as well? Boersma argues that Gregory would say no.  Key point: “does Gregory unequivocally affirm the measurements of created time and space—the extension of created life—or does he insist that in some ways they are obstacles to be overcome” (19)?

Scholars generally think that since diastema distinguishes Creator from creature, and since there will be progress in the eschaton, that diastema continues to the Eschaton.  Boersma demurs.  Rather, he argues that Gregory makes use of time and space (diastema) in the pilgrim’s ascent, but time and space is not the goal. We will have bodily existence in the eschaton, to be sure, but our bodies, being no longer marked by interval and distance, will be anagogically transpositioned.

How can Gregory say this? He can make this move because he defines matter as “the confluence of intellectual properties.” The general idea is this: If you abstract qualities from a person, the more you abstract, the less there is.  Matter is fluid.  Perhaps this is how the glorified can walk through doors.

The other chapters deal with exegesis (Textual Bodies), gender, death, virginity, and virtue.  A few comments: Nyssen believes gender is unstable.  By this he isn’t endorsing CNN or postmodernism’s anti-essentialism.  He is trying to make sense of the angelic life of believers in heaven in light of Galatians 3:28.

The chapter on social oppression reveals Gregory’s attacks on slavery and usury.


Boersma demonstrates himself to be one of the leading Protestant scholars on the church fathers.  Not only is the book high class scholarship, but the passages on Gregory’s use of the psalms are edifying and beautiful.


5 thoughts on “Review: Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa

  1. “Nyssen believes gender is unstable.” I take that to mean what St. Paul is saying when he says there is no male or female. Does that mean that the eschatological man is neither female or male?


  2. Pingback: A Patristic Linkstorm | The Tents of Shem

  3. Pingback: Boersma notes, 2: A Literal Reading | The Tents of Shem

  4. Pingback: Review: Scripture as Real Presence | The Correctness of our Sentiments

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