Monday, December 02, 2019

Book Note: Gregory of Nyssa's The Life of Moses: Part 1 of 4

Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (HarperCollins, 1978, 2006).

I finished reading Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses last week.

Here are a few notes:

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-c. 394) was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers, along with his older brother Basil of Caesarea and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus. He was bishop of Nyssa from 372-376, until deposed under the charge of maladministration, but was later reinstated to resume his office from 378 to his death.

Gregory was a Neoplatonist, a Trinitarian theologian, and an allegorical interpreter of Scripture (in the tradition of Origen).

The Life of Moses is a devotional work based on the Biblical account of Moses. It consists of two parts:

Book one is a brief historical sketch of the life of Moses.

Book two is a mystical contemplation of the life of Moses. Gregory takes the life of Moses as a model of how one attains to the virtuous life.

Gregory’s approach is evident from the opening reflection in book two on Moses’s birth and childhood. He seeks the “real intention” of the narrative, which is the “austerity and intensity of virtue” as represented in “the male birth” (32). We “give birth to ourselves” by “molding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice” (32). Thus, the “rational faculties” are the “parents of virtue” (33). The ark in which Moses was placed represents education in virtue. The king’s daughter who discovers Moses represents “profane philosophy”, while the “natural mother” offers “the nourishment of the Church’s milk.” The conflict between the Egyptians and Hebrews is that between idolatry and “true religion” (35). Thus, “The victory of true religion is the death and destruction of idolatry” (36).

It is not always easy to anticipate the allegories Gregory will draw.

According to Gregory, the burning bush represents the Virgin Mary whose “virginity was not withered by giving birth” (37).

The transformation of Moses’s hand and his rod changing into a snake represent the incarnation (39).

For Gregory the “literal account” must give way to an “elevated understanding” (45).

Moses’s public ministry teaches that one who has “not equipped himself” by “spiritual training” should not “presume to speak among the people” (46).

Making bricks without straw reflects the insatiable “appetitive part of the soul” (47).

Man’s free will is stressed by Gregory, often contrary to Paul’s anthropology. Of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, he writes: “It lies within each person’s power to make this choice” (51).

He later adds, “we men have in ourselves, in our own nature and by our own choice, the causes of light or of darkness, since we place ourselves in whichever sphere we wish to be” (53).

Gregory offers a form of a “free will” defense of the existence of evil when he writes, “it is evident that nothing evil can come into existence apart from our free choice” (56).

To be continued….

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