Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses by Gregory of Nyssa
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is my first foray into Alexandrian theologians, and I read this book on the recommendation of an Eastern Orthodox friend.
Gregory of Nyssa was an Alexandrian, emphasizing the allegorical approach to Biblical interpretation. This approach was a popular approach in his day, and probably a necessary one. After all, the Alexandrians were trying to reach the learned Greeks and philosophers of their day with the gospel of Jesus Christ. If Paul can rejoice in Christ’s being preached even when it was only being done to multiply his hardships, then we can rejoice in Christ’s being preached even when we prefer a different hermeneutic.
Gregory’s allegorization of Scripture reminds me much of the preaching I heard as independent, fundamental Baptist. He accepts the literal interpretation of the story of Moses’s life as historical, just as they would have. He then, however, allegorizes Moses’s life to find principles we can apply to our own lives, so that we can live a life like that of Moses. In other words, he spiritualizes it so that their is a devotional principle that we can find and live ourselves.
What follows are three examples from the book that really stood out for me. The numbers within the quotes (e.g. 188) are the paragraph numbers found in the book.
1. “188. If the interior, which is called the Holy of Holies, is not accessible to the multitude, let us not think that this is at variance with the sequence of what has been perceived. For the truth of reality is truly a holy thing, a holy of holies, and is incomprehensible and inaccessible to the multitude. Since it is set in the secret and ineffable areas of the tabernacle of mystery, the apprehension of the realities above comprehension should not be meddled with; one should rather believe that what is sought does exist, not that it lies visible to all, but that it remains the secret and ineffable areas of the intelligence.”
If Gregory is simply separating the people of God from the enemies of God, and the multitude represent the enemies, therefore making knowledge of him incomprehensible, then I believe he has a point. However, in the greater context, he seems to be implying that because the people of God could not access the Holy of Holies (which houses God Himself) then God is not accessible to His own people. He seems to ignore the fact that the Holy of Holies has been accessible to the people of God through the work of Christ. All mysteries have been revealed, says Paul, and we do have access to God. Gregory’s allegorization fails, because it fails to take into account all of Scripture.
2. “31. The change from a rod into a snake should not trouble the lovers of Christ–as if we were adapting the doctrine of the incarnation to an unsuitable animal. For the Truth himself through the voice of the Gospel does not refuse a comparison like this in saying: ‘And the Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.’
“32. The teaching is clear. For if the father of sin is called a serpent by Holy Scripture and what is born of the serpent is certainly a serpent, it follows that sin is synonymous with the one who begot it. But the apostolic word testifies that the Lord was ‘made into sin for our sake’ by being invested with our sinful nature.
“33. This figure therefore is rightly applied to the Lord. For if sin is a serpent and the Lord became sin, the logical conclusion should be evident to all: By becoming sin he became also a serpent, which is nothing other than sin. For our sake he became a serpent that he might devour and consume the Egyptian serpents produced by the sorcerers.”
Gregory really hit the nail on the head with this one. I especially appreciate his insight here because he shows the redemptive purposes of the serpent being lifted up. He doesn’t restrict it to its personal purposes for me, but shows the whole purpose of Christ in coming to save the world. And, he answers a question I have often wondered about, Why was a serpent–which is representative of satan–what was lifted up, when what was lifted up was to be representative of Christ?
3. “301. The history, it seems to me, offers some advice profitable to men. It teaches us that of the many passions which afflict men’s thinking there is none so strong as the disease of pleasure. That those Israelites, who were manifestly stronger than the Egyptian cavalry and had prevailed over the Amalekites and had shown themselves awesome to the next nation and then had prevailed over the troops of the Midianites, were enslaved by this sickness at the very moment they saw the foreign women only shows, as I have said, that pleasure is an enemy of ours that is hard to fight and difficult to overcome.
“302. …Pleasure showed that she makes men beasts…”
Here is a personal application (that actually has redemptive import, were we to take the time to flesh it out) that is of eminent importance. Man is created with an impulse, a drive, to dominate. We were created in the image of God to exercise dominion over the created order. Men, as Gregory points out, are good at exercising warfare like dominion over their enemies. Men, however, are beasts when it comes to dominating pleasure. We become like beasts when we make our lust (and therefore woman) the object of our dominion. They are our helpers, not our feats. It is a necessary reminder he offers us here, “that pleasure is an enemy of ours that is hard to fight and difficult to overcome.”
All in all, Gregory’s allegorization is at times helpful and so the baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. But it does take much knowledge of the Scripture to sift out the fantastic and imaginative from the faithful and true.
View all my reviews