Review: Re-Approaching Gregory of Nyssa

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Hans Boersma, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Edited by Gillian Clark and Andrew Louth. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 304 pp., £72.00/$135.oo cloth.

Courtesy of Oxford University Press

Hans Boersma’s interests in sacramental ontology and ancient Christian expressions of Platonic categories have taken his research further back into history than his earlier works such as Nouvelle Théologie and Sacramental Ontology: A Return to Mystery (2009) and Heavenly Participation (2011). Although motivated by the same interests, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa is an altogether different read.

He aptly notes in the Epilogue that “this study presents a rather traditional historical theological investigation into Gregory of Nyssa’s understanding of embodiment” [247]. What Boersma means by this is that he does not use Gregory to argue for his own interests (sacramental ontology), nor does he use Gregory as a teacher to correct contemporary shortcomings. It is not that Gregory is without anything to offer, but rather Boersma thinks Gregory’s “theology of participation needs to be deepened so as to include more genuinely the material world as in some way participating in the life of God” [249].

Boersma’s historical account is not, however, undirected. He pushes the destruct button on numerous modern reads of Gregory, most notably Rowan Williams, Fr. John Behr, and Mark Hart. These scholars, according to Boersma, project contemporary concerns of embodiment onto Gregory’s theology while overlooking the central role anagogy plays in his thought.

Anagogy, for Gregory, simply means participation in the life of God—theosis (deification). In all seven chapters, covering a variety of topics, Boersma demonstrates how central anagogy is to Gregory’s theology. For example, according to Gregory time and space (ch. 1), like all created order, are diastemic (have extension) and thus are not permanent. There is no extension in the Creator for in Him there is no interval or sequence. Time for humans is a stepping stone towards infinity and eventually must be overcome. Gregory both laments extension for the way in which it limits us and praises it for being the means by which we ascend into life with God (theosis). This “love-hate” relationship with creation extends throughout his writings to expose how embodied existence is temporary and must be overcome.

The overcoming of this life is where virtue comes into play. It is through virtue that one overcomes temporality and so it enacts the movement towards eternal life. Again, following the same logic, extension is the setting and means through which we live virtuously. Therefore, extension is necessary and is a limited good that is eventually transcended. This argument becomes fascinating when applied to biblical exegesis (ch. 2). Scripture is subject to time and space and so in the same manner as anagogical ascent scriptural interpretation must go beyond the literal and historical reading. To stay within the literal and historical interpretation is to stay within the limits of extension and thus it is only a surface read. In order to avoid being a slave to the letter one must take an interpretive turn–the “‘turn’ that opens up the ‘enigmas’ in the text…which allows us to move from the beauty of the bodily text to participation in the life of God himself…. The textual body of Scripture is a measured body; and Nyssen believes we do justice to its limitations only by means of anagogical transposition” [54].

Although the book is aimed at the patristic scholar, fortunately its lucid prose and well structured chapters make it accessible to the non-specialist. Gregory’s anagogical and otherworldly emphasis offers a refreshing challenge to our modern sensibilities, and certainly must be wrestled with by anyone who is interested in embodiment and broad sacramentality. Like everything else that Boersma writes, Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa is worth the read.

Review by Andrew TJ Kaethler 

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Image credit: Courtesy of Oxford University Press.

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6 Comments

  • Travis Buchanan says:

    Nyssa’s view (according to Boersma) of time, human embodiment, and the literal meaning of Scripture made me think of the wisdom of the Buddha: once you cross the river, you have no need of the raft.

  • Andrew Kaethler says:

    Perhaps you can skip the Buddha and turn to the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel: “you turn to the scriptures looking for me and yet here I am” (paraphrase). Scripture is a sign that should always point beyond itself. Yet, it is not an allegory which can be easily discarded once the hidden meaning is understood. I think Gregory would see scripture as a hermeneutical circle: scripture can lead one to Christ and then with this mystical experience one returns to scripture to be led (out) again and again into the deeper mysteries of His love. What is clear in Gregory is that scripture does not exist for itself.

    • Travis Buchanan says:

      Hey, don’t diss the Buddha. You don’t want to come back as a Canadian, do you?

      A hermeneutical circle perhaps, but one to be ultimately transcended, correct? While affirming the goodness of our time-bound existence, and the human body, and the literal meaning of Scripture, the value of these things is chiefly in that they are means to the ultimate goal of theosis–isn’t that what Boersma thinks Nyssa thinks? We use these facts of our created existence–these limitations–in order to get beyond them and achieve the fullest participation in God’s being possible for a creature, deification. That was what I meant by the Buddha quotation. Am I off base?

      • Andrew Kaethler says:

        Travis,
        Yes, “ultimately to be transcended” in the life that follows. I am quite sure that Gregory does not imagine that in heaven we will be reading the bible!

        So no, you are not off base except for the Canadian comment. I wouldn’t mind returning as a Canadian but preferably one who lives in Italy…

  • Gregory says:

    This review contains a factual error: Boersma does not critique David Bentley Hart in his study; he critiques Mark Hart.

    • Andrew Kaethler says:

      Yes, you are right. He does briefly engage with DBH (p. 148 and 156), but his criticism is directed to Mark Hart. Thanks for the correction!

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