Piety and Reason Joined: Insights from St Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium, Book I
In his first book against the Arian heretic Eunomius of Cyzicus (d. 393), St Gregory of Nyssa (333-393) demonstrates a balanced appreciation for both the limitations and the importance of rational argument in theology. Modestly denying his own philosophical powers, he observes that “there are thousands in the Church who are strong in philosophical skill” (I: 2). Such skill, however, has its efficacy for truth never simply as an individual possession, but solely as united to the body of the Church: “The very smallest member of a vigorous body would, by virtue of the unity of its life with the whole, be found stronger than one that had been cut away and was dying, however large the latter and small the former” (I:2).
St Gregory thus places great heuristic store by Church tradition. The sensus fidelium, the belief of “those who accept the Gospel in its plain simplicity” (I: 20; cf. I: 26), carries considerable weight for him. The tenets of the faith are already generally known, and “fixed in the souls of the faithful,” so that there is no need for novelties (I: 7). In contrast, Eunomius’ arguments are “new-fangled” and work “with no enthusiasm for any previous model” (I: 3); he is a “neologian” (I: 20).
St Gregory affirms the goodness of being a scholar of the Gospel (I: 9). Yet a crucial test of such scholarship is the sobriety and personal holiness of life on the part of the one teaching. Such a marriage of piety and scholarship Gregory finds in the life of his brother, St Basil, whom he defends against the attacks of Eunomius (I:10).
The authoritative tradition of theology is thus preeminently a tradition of saints. Yet within this tradition, the witness of Scripture has primary pride of place: “An inspired testimony is a sure test of the truth of any doctrine: and so it seems to me that ours may be well guaranteed by a quotation from the divine words” (I: 22). Gregory follows Basil in preferring the language of Scripture to philosophical language in theology (I: 38). Closely united to this scriptural authority is experience of the Church’s mysteries (I: 22, 34).
Human reason is bounded by time and space (I: 26). By its own powers, it cannot even comprehend the created order, not to say the divine nature itself (I: 26). God is beyond all thought and “above every name” (I: 42), knowable “by faith alone” (I: 26). For Gregory, however, the knowledge of faith does not exclude the action of pious reasoning; rather, it requires it. Only “reason under the guidance of Scripture” (I: 23) can speak properly of God. At the heart of such reverential reasoning is love, which seeks to honor God only with those terms as are fitting to Him (I: 24). It is precisely such exercise of proper theological reasoning that Gregory strives for in the present work.
St Gregory’s use of rational argument is guided by a profound sense of theological “realism.” In the debate about proper theological terms, Gregory assumes the primacy of thought over words, and being over thought. Words follow after, and point back to, thought; thought follows after, and points back to, objective realities (I: 37). Orthodoxy resides not in words, but in meaning given the words and the realities behind them. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” and “the right attitude of soul towards the truth is more precious than the propriety of phrases in the sight of God” (I: 37).
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