From abstraction to unsaying: how the Eunomian controversy changed Gregory of Nyssa’s aphairetic ethics to an apophatic ethics


Abstract

In early Christian thinking negative theology was often applied for polemi­cal purposes, as a means of asserting the Christian distinction between God and everything else. Only later did negative theology develop into a philosophical and contemplative method. But even then it often kept a polemical function. This was the case for Gregory of Nyssa who applied forms of negative theology in his spiritual and exegetical works as well as in his polemical works, especially those against Eunomius. Using a distinction between aphairetic and apophatic kinds of negative theology, it can be argued that Gregory’s theology, epistemology and philosophy of language, as developed during the Eunomian controversy, changed his negative theology in a fundamental way from an aphairetic theology, based on abstraction, to a thoroughly apophatic theology, based on negation in the sense of unsaying. It can further be argued that the results of this development influenced Gregory’s ethical theories, his moral epistemology in particular. The main texts in question, besides Gregory’s writings against Eunomius, are his early work on the inscriptions of the Psalms and his later work on the life of Moses. Both contain reflections on Moses’ spiritual development, but while the former uses mostly affirmative language, the latter involves a much higher degree of apophatic theo­logy. This change is likely to have occurred during the Eunomian controversy where such things as God’s infinity and the inability of human beings to grasp the divine essence became fundamental in such a way that apophatic, rather than aphairetic, language and thinking gained a central role in Gregory’s theology as well as ethics.


Keywords

Gregory of Nyssa; Eunomius; ethics

Eunomius, Apologia, ed. R.P. Vaggione, in: Eunomius, The Extant Works, Oxford 1987, 43-75.
Gregorius Nazianzenus, Oratio 28 (De theologia), ed. P. Gallay – M. Jourjon, SCh 250, Paris 1978, 100-174.
Gregorius Nyssenus, Contra Eunomium, ed. W. Jaeger, GNO 1-2, Leiden 1960.
Gregorius Nyssenus, De beatitudinibus, ed. J.F. Callahan, GNO 7/2, Leiden 1992.
Gregorius Nyssenus, De virginitate, ed. M. Aubineau, SCh 119, Paris 1966.
Gregorius Nyssenus, De vita Moysis, ed. J. Daniélou, SCh 1bis, Paris 1987.
Gregorius Nyssenus, In Canticum canticorum, ed. H. Langerbeck, GNO 6, Leiden 1960.
Gregorius Nyssenus, In inscriptiones Psalmorum, ed. J. Donough, GNO 5, Leiden 1962.
Balás D.L., Metousia Theou – Man’s participation in God’s Perfections according to Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Roma 1966.
Brightman R.S., Apophatic Theology and Divine Infinity in St. Gregory of Nyssa, GOTR 18 (1973) 97-114.
Daniélou J., Gospel message and Hellenistic culture, Westminster 1973.
Daniélou J., Le symbole de la caverne chez Grégoire de Nysse, in: Mullus. Festschrift Theodor Klauser, Münster 1964, 43-51.
HäggH.F., Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism, Oxford 2006.
HeineR., Perfection in the Virtuous Life: A study of the relationship between edification and polemical theology in Gregory of Nyssa’s “De Vita Moysis”, Cambridge (MA) 1975.
Langerbeck H., Zur Interpretation Gregors von Nyssa, ThL 82 (1957) 81-90.
Meredith A., Plato’s Cave (“Republic” VII 514a-517e) in Origen, Plotinus, and Gregory of Nyssa, StPatr 27 (1991) 49-61.
Mortley R., From Word to Silence, II: The Way of Negation, Christian and Greek, Bonn 1986.
Mortley R., What is Negative Theology? The Western Origins, “Prudentia” supplementary number: Via Negativa Conference – University of Sydney, (1981) 5-12.
Palmer D.W., Atheism, Apologetic, and Negative Theology in the Greek Apologists of the Second Century, VigCh 37/3 (1983) 234-259.
Rondeau M.J., Exégèse du Psautier et anabase spirituelle chez Grégoire de Nysse, in: Epektasis: Mélanges patristiques offerts au cardinal Jean Daniélou, Paris 1972, 517-531.
Sokolowski R., The God of Faith and Reason: Foundations of Christian Theology, Washington D.C. 1995.
Steenbuch J., Doing the Unthinkable: Theology and Moral Epistemology in Three Early Christian Thinkers, Copenhagen 2014.
The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, ed. L.F. Mateo-Seco – G. Maspero, Brill 2009.
Wissink J., Two Forms of Negative Theology Explained Using Thomas Aquinas, in: Flight of the Gods: Philosophical Perspectives on Negative Theology, ed. I.N. Bulhof – L. ten Kate, Fordham 2000, 100-120.
Download

Published : 2018-12-16


Steenbuch, J. (2018). From abstraction to unsaying: how the Eunomian controversy changed Gregory of Nyssa’s aphairetic ethics to an apophatic ethics. Vox Patrum, 68, 149-164. https://doi.org/10.31743/vp.3339

Johannes Aakjær Steenbuch 
University of Copenhagen  Denmark