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Peter C. Bouteneff

Essential or Existential: The Problem of the Body in the Anthropology of St Gregory of Nyssa

From: Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes".
Edited by Hubertus R. Dröbner and Albert Viciano. BRILL, Leiden-Boston-Köln 2000.

ΙΙΙ. Τhe Βody, Μateriality, and Μorality

The treatment of such questions requires attention to several distinctions, the first being that between σώμα and σαρξ. Gregory writes (perhaps following Heb. 2:14) [12]: "We have become flesh and blood through sin" (13). Not the body itself, but "flesh and blood" is added as a consequence of sin. Ιn the DAR, as elsewhere, we read of the pitfalls of continued concern with the "flesh", or "flesh and blood" (14). When Plato spoke to the same problem, e.g., in his Phaedo, he couched it in terms of the body. If Gregory has adopted the notion, he has also adapted it, "Paulinized" it, by substituting "flesh" (15). Gregory is taking his cue from St Paul's distinction between σώμα and σαρξ: the latter is with us through sin, but the former is not.

This distinction bears both moral and physical implications, and in discussing these areas Gregory cites Paul frequently. Considering the moral realm, Nyssen adopts the exhortation to be spiritual rather than carnal. At one point he takes up Ρaυl's implied three-level distinction (1 Cor.2:14-3:3) between man as πνευματικός, ψυχικός, and σαρκικός (16). Ιn Gregory's hands these become three tiers, with ψυχικός" (17) being "a middle position with regard to virtue and vice, rising above the one, but without pure participation in the other". As a rule, however, his anthropology betrays a strong distinction between carnal and spiritual disposition. Indeed, a major lesson at the root of his entire anthropology is that the additions to our nature are of themselves neutral and can be availed in a manner that is either spiritual or carnal (18). The choice is ours, and the more spiritual we are in the presence of our added qualities, the less painful will be our inevitable transition into the spiritual, resurrected life, where those qualities are absent (19).

It must be noted that in interpreting the carnal-spiritual distinction in terms of moral choice, the implication is assuredly not that the σαρξ and all that is evil is material and the σώμα and that which is good is spiritual. Like Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, Nyssen is quite clear indeed that the body is not solely to blame for the soul's turning away from God. The soul can "close its eyes" to the good, we learn in the DAR, whether by free choice or the deceit of the enemy (20). Not only the body, but the soul too is lost and stands in need of salvation, all the more so because sin is a matter of the soul's will (21).

Gregory's understanding of the "garments of skin" (δερμάτινοι χιτώνες) underscores the very same σαρξ - σώμα distinction. For Gregory, the "garments" of the Genesis story indicate that the human bodily condition underwent change through the fall, not that man acquired a body through the fall (22). Again, and in another way, Gregory is saying that the essential human nature is bodily, that the body was added neither in prevision nor as a result of the fall (23). By contrast, for Origen the "garments of skin" indicated the body itself for him, or at any rate within "Origenism" as it came to be understood, the original and essential state of man can be conceived as bodiless (24).

The change undergone in the fall, viz. the acquisition of the "flesh", involves not the body but the precise nature of its materiality. Thus, materiality itself hinges on morality. Did Gregory then hold that the body is somehow essentially immaterial, a mere form (είδος), and that its materiality was added as a result of the fall?

It would appear not. Ιn multiple illustrations the DAR Gregory and Macrina show how the actual stuff of each person's body comes to recognize its own soul in order to be reunited with it at the resurrection (25). The materiality of the body is a constant unto the life in the resurrection, even if the stuff of the body is in perpetual flux from conception to resurrection (26). Our body evolves constantly as we develop from conception to old age, and the nature of its composition changes more radically in the resurrection - yet it is ever the same body. The DAR even offers consolation to those who are fond of the body and would be sorry to be sundered from it: "Be not in despair", we are told, for although this bodily covering is now dissolved by death, you will see it woven again from the same [elements] (εκ των αυτών), not indeed with its present coarse and heavy texture, but with the thread respun into something subtler and lighter, so that the beloved body may be with you and be restored to you again in better and even more loveable beauty (27).

The continuity of the body is stressed in Gregory's use of the metaphor of the seed's maturation into a plant. Gregory once again cites St Ρaul's description in 1 Cor 15: 42-44 of the physical body, sown perishable, in dishonour and in weakness, which is raised a spiritual body, imperishable, in glory and in power: these are one and the same body. Nyssen elaborates this imagery: the mysterious way in which a seed becomes a full-grown plant, a metamorphosis not without continuity ("neither altogether the same as the seed nor entirely different"), is a fitting analogy for the mysterious way man's body will be transformed in the resurrection. The grain, writes Gregory, "while remaining itself becomes an ear which differs completely from its former self in size, beauty, variety and form". He continues:

Ιn the same manner the human nature also, when it abandons to death all the properties which it acquired through the state of subjection to passion, ... does not abandon itself. Instead, as if ripening into an ear, it changes into incorruptibility ... and every kind of perfection (28).

Gregory notes that in the case of the human this is not merely a process "from seed to ear", but "from ear to seed to ear" for, as he does not tire of pointing out, "the resurrection is nothing other than the restoration of our nature to its original state." Ιn the resurrection the "additions" to our nature - the passions, sin and death, the coarse functions of the body - are shed; the body, albeit transformed, abides.

Aware that this transformation is beyond explanation, Gregory considers it "foolishness" to probe further into the physical details of how it comes about, and chooses to explain only through analogy. Yet the difference between the body's coarseness in the present life and the "lighter fibres" with which our body will be spun in the resurrection again rests within the moral realm. For Gregory conceives of matter itself as essentially formless, not to say immaterial. This idea, found as well in St Basil (29), appears several times in Gregory's work. Matter is naught but a combination of forms or qualities and as such is "shapeless" but for its association with "nature", meaning the natural good state of God's creation (30).The ugly shapelessness or coarseness of the body's matter is revealed only when the image-soul is ruled by carnality, a state regarded as an "overturning of nature" (η επιστροφή της φύσεως) [31].

Ιn other contexts as well, Gregory underplays the actual materiality of the body. Firstly, in discussing the Eucharist, he observes that the body is in fact nothing but the nutrition ("bread") that goes into it (32). He is taking to its logical conclusion his sense that the material body is only the outward manifestation of the form (είδος) imparted by the soul.So even corporeality is but a quality inherent in the soul, and something that is not ultimately material. Secondly, it is only by seeing the body in such terms that Gregory can possibly say (as he does in the De tridui spatio) that Christ "died" at the Last Supper, and offered his "body" to his disciples then and there (33).

Gregory of Nyssa's stance concerning the body is not simple. The body is not seen as part of the divine image per se, yet neither is it perceived as an addition to human nature, nor is it shed in the resurrected life as are the other superadded qualities. This question has perplexed most of Gregory's modern readers (34), and with good reason. Gregory appears ensnared by his own scheme of additions: in order to affirm the Christian conviction of the physical resurrected body, he cannot assign it the status of "addition" or "wart" οn our essential nature, for these are cast off in the resurrection. But neither can he readily call it essential to human nature, because its materiality is incongruous with the divine archetype. The solution for Gregory lies in two areas. First, he perceives the body as image by-association. It is inferior to the soul, but insofar as it is "adapted for royalty"(35) and is created as the ideally fitting instrument for the soul, and insofar as the soul imparts to it its form (είδος), it reflects the divine image that is the soul. It and the soul are conceived together and belong together; both are "good" provided they stand in proper relationship to one another and to "nature". Second, he distinguishes the coarse material body of this world, which reveals its form due to fallen ness, from the "lighter" (though still somehow material) body of the resurrection.

Βy these two means the body is able to remain in a middle place between image-bearing human essentiality and God-given "addition". Its materiality, which would be the chief hindrance to its image-bearing status, is defused by the concept of the formlessness of matter. This concept enables the distinction between "coarse" or "mishappen" matter and the "subtler and lighter threads" of the resurrected body. It also dissociates Gregory from a crude spirit-matter dualism.

Indeed, Gregory's dichotomy falls not between matter and spirit, not between fallen and unfallen humanity, not between body and soul. Ιn each case he has taken the distinction one ontological step back from dualism. Matter is not evil in itself it is merely shapeless, dependent upon form and upοn its association with divine goodness. Nyssen's dichotomy is οn the moral level; it rests with the way both spirit and matter are used. The human person himself, we are told, is made of spirit and matter in order to be "properly disposed to each enjoyment (απολαύων)", delighting in God by means of the former, and "the good things of earth" by the latter (36). The fall of humanity is thoroughly intertwined with the additions to its essential nature, yet these additions do not cause the fall. And as we have seen, Gregory's distinction between essential and existential man does not concern itself with the body as such.

It follows from these observations that the body is not inherently evil nor is the soul automatically good - it is again a matter of application. Therefore even in an early work such as the De oratione dominica, Gregory can say that while the incorporeal human nature turns upwards towards the heavens and the corporeal. turns downwards towards the earth, "the desire for the good and the beautiful is equally inherent in both natures, and the Lord of the world has equally endowed both with self-determined free will and complete freedom from necessity"(37). And later οn in his career Nyssen can speak of the soul itself as having two natures (φύσεις) - incorporeal and bodily/material (38). The dichotomy in every case is located not in the split between spirit and matter but in morality, in the application of free choice (39).

Indeed, the ultimate importance of Gregory of Nyssa's teaching on the human body is not the fact that he manages to fit it squarely into an anthropological system in which it would seemingly have no place. The real message of his doctrine of the body is two-fold: (a) the human person, whom God conceived and created as good and in His own image, is essentially and naturally a psychosomatic unity, and (b) aside from the line he draws between created and uncreated, the primary line of distinction for Gregory, one that dictates even the nature of materiality itself falls in the jurisdiction of human free will. Gregory of Nyssa's teaching on the human body therefore gives a clear indication of how far he has moved from the dualism that so influenced his time.


12. "Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook οf the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death ...".

13. C. Εun. ΙΙΙ/Χ 14 (GNO ΙΙ 294).

14. PG 46, 85 C-88 C.

15. Cf. Catharine Ρ. Roth, trans., St Gregory of Nyssa: Οn the Soul and the Resurrection, Crestwood/ΝΥ 1993, 75 n. 1.

16. DHO 8,6 (PG 44, 148 ΑΒ). See also Antirrh. 46 (GNO III/I 210).

17. Τhis word is translated as "natural" in the AV, and "unspiritual" in the RSV.

18. Cf. DAR (PG 46, 61 AC).

19. See DAR (PG 46, 97 Β-108 Α).

20. PG 46, 120 C-121 Α.

21. Ref. Conf. Εun. 173-4 (GNO ΙΙ 385). See Hans Urs von Balthasar, Présence et pensée, Paris 1942, repr. 1988, 51.

22. Gregory used the name "garments of skin" to refer to one or another quality οf the additions to our essential nature; cf. e.g. DAR (PG 46, 148 C). Ιn Οr. cat. 8 (GNO ΙΙΙ/IV 30) the "garments" are interpreted simply to mean "mortality". Ιn no case do they denote the body itself.

23. Οn this cf. Karl Ηοll, Amphilochius vοn Ikonium in seinem Verhaltnis zu den groβen Kappadoziern, Tubingen-Leipzig 1904, 202 f., also E.F. Sutcliffe, St. Gregory of Nyssa and Paradise: AEcR 84 (1931), 337-350 [341 f;345]. Both authors point to Gregory's departure from Origen in denying that God had originally created the human person as a bodiless "spirit" or νους, whose descent into the bodily state was a penalty for the spiritual fall.

24. Origen is not entirely consistent οn this issue. But cf. De princ. Ι/IV 1; ΙΙΙ/VI 1 for indications of his assertion of the bodiless original state of the human person. Ιn some places Origen suggests that even in the resurrection we will not have our bodies (e.g., De princ. ΙΙΙ/VI 2, Greek fragment). The idea that the resurrection would be a return to the state of "pure intellects" (καθαρούς νοάς) -the preexistent souls- did play a dominant role in the anathemata of Origenism at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.

25. For example, DHO 27 (PG 44, 225 Α-228 D); DAR (PG 46, 73 Β-80 Α). Ιn early texts as well, Gregory was quite clear that the resurrection body will be the same "thing" that we have in this life: "... in the restoration of all, this earthly flesh will be translated into the heavenly places together with the soul" (της τε γεηράς ταύτης σαρκός εν τη αποκαταστάσει των πάντων εις τον oυράνιoν χώρoν τη ψυχή συμμετoικιζoμένης) (De or. dom. IV [GNO VII/ΙΙ 49]).

26. Gregory explains this fact by showing that the soul imparts the είδος upon the body, even as the body grows and changes (DHO 27 [PG 44, 225 C-228 Α]).

27. PG 46, 108 Α.

28. DAR (PG 46, 156 Α).

29. See, e.g., Ιn Hex. 1,8 (SC 26, 120-122).

30. DHO 12, 10; 12,12; 24,1 (PG 44, 161 D-164 Α; 164 C; 212 D-213 Α); DAR (PG 46, 124 CD); cf. also Or. cat. 33 (GNO ΙΙΙ/IV 83): "The underlying substance (υποκείμενον) does not produce the man, but the power of God changes the visible material into the nature of a man". Ps. Basil's Εp. 38, which is probably by Gregory of Nyssa, also states that hypostasis is nothing but the conflux of particularizing characteristics (PG 32, 336 C). See Α.Η. Αrmstrong, The Theory of Νοn Existence of Matter in Plotinus and the Cappadocians: StPatr 5 (= TU 80), Berlin 1962, 427-429, and von Βalthasar (note 21) 20 f.

31. DHO 12, 12 (PG 44, 164 Β).

32. Or. Cat. 37 (GNO ΙΙΙ/Ν 93 f).

33. Cf the excellent exposition of this idea in Hubertus R. Drobner, Three Days and Three Nights in the Heart of the Earth: The Easter Sermons of Gregory of Nyssa. Translation and Commentary. Proceedings οf the Fourth International Colloquium οn Gregory of Nyssa, Cambridge, England: 11-15 September, 1978. Edited by Andreas Spira and Christoph Κlock (= PatMS 9), Cambridge/ΜΑ 1981, 263-278 [264].

34. See e.g. Ladner (note 7) 87 f; H.F. Cherniss, The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa, Berkeley 1930, 57 ff; Jean Danielou, Platonisme et theologies mystique, Paris1944, 53 ff.

35. DHO 4 (PG 44, 136 Β).

36. DHO 2,2 (PG 44, 133 Β). See also Or. cad. 28 (GNO ΙΙΙ/IV 72), where Gregory notes that the senses, specifically sight, sound and taste, "serve our present enjoyment (απολαύσεως)".

37. De or. dom. 4 (GNO VII/ΙΙ 49), emphasis added.

38. Ιn Cant. 11 (GNO VI 333 f).

39. This point is made strongly in the Antirrh., e.g., 29; 41 (GNO ΙΙΙ/Ι 177; 198); cf. also Verna Ηarrison, Grace and Human Freedom According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, Lampeter 1992, passim, e.g., p. 144.

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