Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (I)

St. Basil the Great wrote an extensive commentary on the six days of creation as found in Genesis 1-2 (Basil read both chapters together as one story). His commentary is called the Hexaemeron.  Though it contains comments about the creation of humans, Basil’s brother, St. Gregory of Nyssa, was concerned that Basil had not written enough about the creation of human beings and so Gregory composed an addendum known as ON THE MAKING OF MAN.   His goal was to complete the picture which he felt Basil hadn’t done and also to answer some of Basil’s critics as well as some of the questions raised by heretics about Basil’s commentary on the creation of the world.

Reading through St. Gregory’s work on the creation of humans caused me to think about how we today might describe what it is to be human.  Orthodox theology says Jesus Christ is fully human.  Modern science has defined a human in terms of our genetic structure – a science which no one in the 4th Century even remotely imagined.  So it raises questions for us today – if we say Christ is fully human, do we mean that Christ has a fully human genetic makeup – 23 chromosomes and all the biological and genetic markers of every human being?  If so, then we might find ourselves having to rethink some of the concerns of the Christian theologians of the Patristic era.  For they certainly were not thinking genetics when they wrote about what it is to be human or what it means that Jesus, God incarnate is fully and perfectly human.

The Patristic theologians were concerned with creating a synthesis between Scripture and Platonism (I am including neo-Platonism in this) as well as with ideas from the Stoics and Aristotle.  That was the “science” of their day, and they did accept these philosophers as espousing scientific truth – truths that are not  debatable.   Several Patristic writers, Gregory of Nyssa among them, held to assumptions that  sexual desire and gender were not part of God’s original creation of or plan for humans.  These were provisional things which God used as a result of human rebellion against God’s plan.  The Patristic writers worked very hard to create a synthesis in which they incorporated the prevalent ideas of the Greek philosophical “science” (which were regarded as non-negotiable truth) with the witness of Scripture.  The ideas from philosophy were so much a part of the thinking of their day that they knew they had to reconcile the Scriptures to the truth assumptions of the great philosophers if they were ever to get Christianity a hearing among the educated people of their day.  Many of the Patristic writers were well trained in the writings of the great philosophers, and even if they weren’t their society values were permeated by these teachings.   It is not some artificial synthesis the Patristic writers were attempting to force, they were simply incorporating the background assumptions of their culture with the claims of Scripture.  Truth is one, and so they believed they needed to discern how to hold science, philosophy and Scripture together.

So, for example St. Gregory writes:

“While two natures – the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes – are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them: for in the compound nature of man we may behold a part of each of the natures I have mentioned – of the Divine, the rational and intelligent element, which does not admit the distinction of male and female; of the irrational, our bodily form and structure, divided into male and female . . . For he says first that God created man in the image of God (showing by these words, as the Apostle says, that in such a being there is no male or female): then he adds the peculiar attributes of human nature, male and female created He them (Gen 1:27).”  (pp 78-79)

In St. Gregory’s reading, the first humans did not have gender – gender is added to the humans in the “second” creation of humans which occurs after the Fall of Adam and Eve.  Some of his ideas about sex and gender were common to the Greek philosophers who were influential in his world.  Gregory attempts to harmonize the ideals of this philosophy about how humans are “higher” than mere animals with what he read in Scripture.

Gregory finds support for this idea in his reading of Genesis 1:27, which in our English Bibles usually gets translated as :

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

St. Gregory, however adds punctuation to the text, making it into two clearly distinct acts.  [His adding punctuation, by the way, is legitimate in the sense that the original texts lacked any punctuation – our English translations with their punctuation are no more correct than Gregory’s].   Gregory’s reading is like this:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God He created him.

Male and female He created them.

Gregory treats these as two separate sentences, two separate acts of God.  First God creates humans.  Only later does God make them into male and female.  In the first action, humans are created in God’s image – and since God has no gender, neither do humans in their God-created natural state.  Gender becomes part of human existence only after the Fall when humans choose to be more like all the other animals.  So for St. Gregory as for many Patristic writers, gender and sexual reproduction belong solely to the world of the Fall and are not a natural part of what it is to be human.

“… but as brute life first entered into the world, and man, for the reason already mentioned, took something of their nature (I mean the mode of generation) . . . (p 88)

Sexual reproduction (Gregory’s “the mode of generation“) becomes part of the human condition only after the Fall.  If this is Orthodox anthropology, it raises interesting questions about what it is to be human and what it means to be fully human.  This has implications for Christ Himself whether he is male, or as a “perfect” human is He genderless as Adam and Eve were thought to have been.  Does Orthodox anthropology require that Christ have 23 chromosomes?  If only that which is assumed is saved, does Christ take on our entire genetic nature, or is our genetic nature not part of what Christ unites to God?

St. Gregory continues:

These attributes, then human nature took to itself from the side of the brutes; for those qualities with which brute life was armed for self-preservation, when transferred to human life, became passions; for the carnivorous animals are preserved by their anger, and those which breed largely by their love of pleasure; cowardice preserves the weak, fear that which is easily taken by more powerful animals, and greediness those of great bulk; and to miss anything that tends to pleasure is for the brutes as matter of pain.  All these and the like affections entered man’s composition by reason of the animal mode of generation.” (pp 88-89)

We can even see in the passage above that St. Gregory is really describing survival of the species – animals have traits good for self-preservation.  Gregory accepts a certain anthropomorphic interpretation of animals – their behavior is seen as reflecting virtues and vices.  Carnivores attack because they are angry, and animals engage in sex because they love pleasure.  These “animal traits” became part of human behavior when humans fell from grace and came to live by animals senses and sexual reproduction.  Pain became part of human experience once we chose to live for pleasure – this is how God punished us for rebelling against him.

Modern science more sees us as more projecting human emotions, virtues and vices on animals, rather than animals possessing such traits.  Gregory sees us as receiving emotions, virtue and the desire for pleasure from the animal nature we took on in choosing to share the animal life.  Whether we could in any way reconcile Patristic “science” with modern science is the challenge we face in the modern world.  Scientific reasoning is as all pervasive today as was Platonism in the age of the Fathers.  The ancient Christians assumed the need to reconcile these truths and created a synthesis that did just that.  We have to consider whether we can do the same and thus follow the mind of the Fathers.

St. Gregory, like many of the Eastern Patristic writers, holds to ideas that seem similar to the notions of “original sin” in the West.  Gregory sees our love of pleasure as stemming from the animal nature we now inherit.  His writing rejects the Platonic ideas that Origin more readily accepted, but still we see in them a more Christianized version of a notion that our physical nature is not really part of what God intended for us.  Humans indeed have animal traits and share an animal nature but that is really only the result of sin.  Modern science on the contrary would say humans evolved from other animal forms over a long history, and any animal characteristics in us are because of our genetic relationship to other animals.

“Thus our love of pleasure took its beginning from our being made like to the irrational creation, and was increased by the transgressions of men, becoming the parent of so many varieties of sins arising from pleasure as we cannot find among the irrational animals.  Thus the rising of anger in us is indeed akin to the impulse of brutes; but it grows by the alliance of thought: for thence come malignity, envy, deceit, conspiracy, hypocrisy; all these are the result of the evil husbandry of the mind; for if the passion were divested of the aid it receives from thought, the anger that is left behind is short-lived and not sustained, like a bubble, perishing straightway as soon as it come into being.  Thus the greediness of swine introduces covetousness, and the high spirit of the horse becomes the origin of pride; and all the particular forms that proceed from the want of reason in brute nature become vice by the evil use of the mind.”  (pp 89-90)

Gregory sees the animal nature (love of pleasure, vices, passions) as actually being made even worse by human free will and rationality.  Swine are greedy but humans turn that into an art of covetousness.  Carnivores are angry but humans add to this ill will, envy, deceit, conspiracy and hypocrisy.  It is our human minds, the very thing God bestowed on us humans to distinguish us from all other animals, which change animal behaviors into sin.  Animals act the way they do because of their nature, humans imitate their bad behavior by choice, according to Gregory.

St. Gregory’s acceptance of the “science” of his day raises many interesting questions.  He does not reject the science of his day.  He accepts it as factually true and thus Scripture also being true should easily reconcile with science.  He is neither afraid of the pagan science nor does he see any need to assume that science and the Bible are presenting opposing ideas.  Gregory works to create a synthesis of what he believes to be true, regardless of the source.   If he held to these same principles today, it would suggest that Gregory might have been willing to work to create a synthesis between modern science and the Bible.  Truth is truth for him, and it is we who have to work to reconcile truths if they appear to be in opposition to each other.

St. Gregory of Nyssa is not alone in his thinking on these issues among Patristic writers.  We can see many of the same assumptions about sexual reproduction and gender in St. Maximos the Confessor who writes more than 200 years after Gregory.   The great theological synthesis they were creating incorporated the science of their day, a science they saw no need to refute.

Next:  Reflecting on St. Gregory of Nyssa’s The Making of Man (II)


The Tranquility of Creation

St. Gregory of Nyssa in his book describing the creation of humans, ON THE MAKING OF MAN, gives us a very idyllic picture of the world in the moment before humans arrived on the scene – the calm before the storm.

“Now all things already arrived at their own end: the heaven and the earth (Genesis 2:1), as Moses says, were finished, and all things that lie between them, and the particular things were adorned with their appropriate beauty;

the heaven with the rays of the stars, the sea and air with the living creatures that swim and fly, and the earth with all varieties of plants and animals, to all which, empowered by the Divine will, it gave birth together;

the earth was full, too, of her produce, bringing forth fruits at the same time with flowers; the meadows were full of all that grows therein,

and all the mountain ridges, and summits, and every hillside, and slope, and hollow, were crowned with young grass, and with the varied produce of the trees, just risen from the ground, yet shot up at once into their perfect beauty;

and all the beasts that had come into life at God’s command were rejoicing, we may suppose, and skipping about, running to and fro in the thickets in herds according to their kind, while every sheltered and shady spot was ringing with the chants of the songbirds.

And at sea, we may suppose, the sight to be seen was of the like kind, as it had just settled to quiet and calm in the gathering together of its depths, where havens and harbors spontaneously hollowed out on the coasts made the sea reconciled with the land;

and the gentle motion of the waves vied in beauty with the meadows, rippling delicately with light and harmless breezes that skimmed the surface; and all the wealth of creation by land and sea was ready, and not was there to share it.”  (pp 20-21)

St. Gregory pictures the perfect creation, tranquilly settling in from the more violent creation which brought the chaos under control, separating the waters from the land and causing the dry earth to emerge.  That tumult and turmoil lasted only a brief moment for St. Gregory – things instantly attained their finished state – trees reaching their heights instantaneously.  In his understanding, the first trees grew but not over years but immediately attaining their height.  His view is that the world we are in today emerged both spontaneously but not yet in completed form.  Things had to grow but did so instantly.  Things didn’t have to follow what we now know as the order of nature in those opening days of creation – they were exempt from the laws of nature that we know.

Humans were created last to be the crown of creation – the earth was a Paradise created by God for His human creatures.  Humans were not made to wait for the world to emerge – it was all there, perfectly, before humans were placed in it, according to St. Gregory.  Humans had nothing else to do but maintain the  pacific serenity and blessed placidness.  They, however, were about to undue all that God had planned.

The Church’s New Year: September 1

The Orthodox Church eventually recognized the civil New Year from the old Roman calendar and both adapted and adopted this into the Church’s calendar making September 1 the “Church’s” New Year’s Day.  Spiritually it seems strange, because I would say liturgically Pascha is the Church’s New Year for on that day we proclaim the beginning of our life in Christ and the beginning of the Church as is obvious in our Scripture readings from John 1 and Acts 1.  In the Bible, the New Year also begins in the Spring right before Passover.  God clearly commands Moses, Aaron and thus all of Israel:  “This month shall be for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you” (Exodus 12:2). [Judaism though also has a “religious” New Year in the Spring as commanded in the Torah but also a civil New Year, Rosh Hashanah in the autumn].

It seems more that September 1 was simply the Church accepting the civil calendar from the Roman government under which it operated.  We actually date things throughout the year liturgically as “after Pascha” and then “after Pentecost” (which is dependent on Pascha), not after September 1.  The September 1 New Year Day has never seemed that important to me.  Some today like to point out that the Birth of the Theotokos is the first Major Feast of the September 1 New Year calendar and August 15 is the Dormition of the Theotokos, so that her birth and death are  the bookends of all Twelve Major Feasts.  But I don’t know if that is an accidental coincidence or was intentionally designed that way, nor do I know when that idea that Feasts of the Theotokos begin and end the year was first mentioned in Orthodox literature, so I don’t even know if it is simply a modern observation or an older idea.  Many pious explanations seem ancient but turn out to be more modern rationalizations for why things are the way they are.

Be that as it may, here is a quote for us to consider for the Church’s New Year.  Genesis starts “In the beginning…” and it is frequently said that God started the first New Year’s Day by building Himself a temple.

“My thoughts turned to the book of Genesis. From the opening verses of Genesis through to the books of Psalms and the Prophets, the Old Testament envisions the whole of Creation, heaven and earth, as a vast temple in which the people gather in liturgy to give praise and honor to the Maker and thank him for the beauty and goodness of his Creation. God lays the foundations (Ps. 104:5), sets up the pillars (1 Sam. 2:8), stretches out the canopy (Isa. 40:22), and frames the windows (Mal. 3:10). He is enthroned within the temple, as heavenly and earthly choirs glorify his name.”  (Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key, Kindle Loc. 73-76)

See also my blog The Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (2016) to read Adolfo Roitman’s comments from his book, ENVISIONING THE TEMPLE..


The Goodness Which God Sees

‘And God saw that it was good.’ [Genesis 1]

It is not to the eyes of God that things made by Him afford pleasure, nor is His approbation of beautiful objects such as it is with us; but, beauty is that which is brought to perfection according to the principle of art and which contributes to the usefulness of its end. He, therefore, who proposed to Himself a clear aim for His works, having recourse to His own artistic principles, approved them individually as fulfilling His aim.” (St Basil, The Fathers of the Church: Exegetic Homilies, p 53)


According to St. Basil, the goodness or beauty of anything is determined by its original purpose in God’s creation or plan.  The more perfectly something fulfills God’s original intention for it determines whether God sees it as good/beautiful.    God, not being a creature like  us, does not have physical eyes, so God does not “see” things as we do.  God “sees” things in terms of their fulfilling the aim He originally  had for the object.   This is why God sees even our spiritual struggles as good and beautiful – as even if we struggle, we are moving toward being human as God intended us to be.

St. Basil says God is an artist following the artistic principle that values creating things which serve a purpose.  Beauty is thus related to purpose, to truth.  It is not purely subjective, but can be measured.  Everything which God created is purposeful, even if we do not know the purpose.

In this thinking, we can come to understand how scientists in revealing the purpose of anything in the universe are helping us to interpret and see the true beauty of God’s creation!

And, as the purpose of each created thing is understood, as each mystery is fathomed, we also are learning about the Creator.  God is being made known through His creation.  One thing which continues to amaze is the depth and mystery of God as Creator.

The Beauty of Light

And God said, ‘Let there be light.’  The first word of God created the nature of light, did away with the darkness, put an end to the gloom, brightened up the world, and bestowed upon all things in general a beautiful and pleasant appearance.

The heavens, so long buried in darkness, appeared, and their beauty was such as even yet our eyes bear witness to. The air was illuminated, or rather, it held the whole light completely permeating it, sending out dazzling rays in every direction to its uttermost bounds.

It reached upward even to the ether itself and the heavens, and in extent it illuminated in a swift moment of time all parts of the world, north and south and east and west. For, such is the nature of ether, so rare and transparent, that the light passing through it needs no interval of time. …

And the air is more pleasant after the light, and the waters brighter, since they not only admit but also return the brightness from themselves by the reflection of the light, the sparkling rays rebounding from all parts of the water. The divine word transformed all things into a most pleasing and excellent state. …

The Creator of all things, by His word instantly put the gracious gift of light in the world. …  ‘Let there be light.’  In truth, the command was itself the act, and a condition of nature was produced than which is not possible for human reasoning’s to conceive anything more delightfully enjoyable. …

But, if beauty in the body has its being from the symmetry of its parts with each other and from the appearance of beautiful color, how, in the case of light, which is simple in nature and similar in parts, is the idea of beauty preserved? Or, is it that the symmetry of light is not evinced in its individual parts but in the joy and pleasure at the visual impression?

In this way even gold is beautiful, which holds an attraction and pleasure for the sight, not from the symmetry of its parts, but from the beauty of its color alone. And the evening star is the most beautiful of the stars, not because the parts of which it was formed are proportionate, but because from it there falls upon our eyes a certain joyous and delightful brightness.

Then, too, the judgment of God concerning the goodness of light has been made, and He looks not wholly at the pleasure in the sight but also looks forward to the future advantage.

For, there were not yet eyes able to discern the beauty in light. ‘And God separated the light from the darkness.’ That is, God made their natures incapable of mixing and in opposition, one to the other. For, He divided and separated them with a very great distinction between them. …

The condition in the world before the creation of light was not night, but darkness.”   (Saint Basil, Exegetic Homilies, pp 31-33)


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Humans as Relational and Communal Beings

This is the 22nd blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (IV).  In the next few blogs we will explore another dimension of being human: God created us to as beings who have relationships with God, with one another and with all of the rest of the created order.  Some Orthodox authors also note that if we humans are in the image and likeness of God, then we are in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity – and somehow humanity is to reflect the perfect love of the Three Persons of the Trinity.   We are designed to live communally with others; in Genesis 2:18, God says, “it is not good that man to be alone.”  This is the first time in Genesis that God sees something in creation that is not good. [And stands in stark contrast to Genesis 1 in which all creation was good in God’s eyes].   So in Genesis 2 God creates more than one human being, with all others being decedents of the first human.   So from the beginning, after the creation of ‘Adam’,  all other humans are related to the first human and all are to live in relationship with all others.   Additionally, each human is created to be the relational mediator between the Holy Trinity and the rest of the created world.  No human is an island unto himself or herself but all are organically and genetically related.  The Christian Apologist Lactantius (d. ca. 325AD) argues (living within the context of the rigid Roman culture of social stratification) that ultimately all humans, whatever their social ranking are to be considered precisely as humans.

“If we have all sprung from one man whom God made, then surely we are relatives, and for this reason it must be considered the greatest crime to hate a man or to do him harm. “ (in A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 2345-46)

The hierarchical nature of society and even the tendency for males to dominate females was generally by the Fathers seen not as God’s original intention but all a result of human sin which destroyed the natural order God created.    In Genesis 1:27, we read:  “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”   Fr. Andrew Louth, Orthodox theologian, comments:

“However, this verse from Genesis (1:27) does suggest that we are not to consider human beings as individuals, but as bound together within the unity of humanity, a unity that is embodied in the communities to which we belong. The doctrine of the image of God embraces this aspect of what it is to be human, too, for if being in the image means that we have an affinity with God, that entails, too, that we have an affinity with one another, on the basis of which we find some kind of togetherness. And if the Church is the community embracing those who, in Christ, have set out on the path to the restoration of fallen humanity, then the community of the Church should give us some sense of what a true human community should be. Nevertheless, the Church is part of the fallen world, so we should not expect to find in any unambiguous way the ideal human community in the Church.”    (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1752-58)

Genesis reveals to us what God planned for human relationships, but the relational nature of humans was based in the human potential to deny the self and to love the other.  This potential was not realized as from the beginning humans instead of practicing the self-emptying love revealed to them by God instead opted for self-love and self-preservation – in so-doing damaged their God-intended relational nature, reducing humans to competing, alienated individuals.   Roman Catholic biblical scholar Elliott Maloney says:

“In this biblical tradition, God created Adam and Eve to begin a great family of human beings who could enjoy a loving relationship with a beneficent God (Gen 1:26-28). This aspect of their being the progenitors of a great clan of humans is very important, because in ancient thinking everyone’s personal reality was deeply embedded in their identity as a member of a group.”  (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 368-71)

So in the biblical texts persons are identified by their genealogies and by the tribe or nation to which they belong.  “Who are your people?” identifies who you are as a person.  Thus, in the Prophecy of Jonah, Jonah attempting to flee from God, hides as an individual on a ship and when discovered must reveal who he is.

Then the ship’s mariners said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”   (Jonah 1:8-9)

While today, we might begin answering these questions by talking about our occupation and identify ourselves in economic terms, Jonah’s self-identifying response makes it clear first and foremost to what tribe/people he belongs and what he and those people believe about God.  Scholar Elliott Maloney says the biblical understanding of “self” is different from our modern self-identification which is clear in the writings of St. Paul.

“In Paul’s day people did not think about themselves as individuals, nor did they consider their personal characteristics and limitations as making them ‘different.’ All thinking and moral choice was geared to and dictated by one’s position in a group, be it family, religion, or clan. The accomplishments and failures of the clan head were visited on all the clan members in a way that identified them and conferred on them their reality as human beings. Paul’s explanation of the origin of sin, what we call ‘original sin,’ is based upon this presupposition.”   (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 373-77)

Why Adam’s sin has consequences for us all is not because God is visiting His punishment on all of Adam’s descendants but because as head of the clan of human beings, Adam’s behavior and actions have consequences not for himself alone, but for everyone in his clan. This is considered natural since in the bible all humans are thought of as belonging to some social group.    As a relational being, Adam has a moral obligation to act in a way that took into account the interest of everyone who would ever be in his clan.  The clan leader is responsible for the clan and the entire clan is always affected by the moral decisions and behavior of the clan leader.   His actions thus have repercussions on all who share his humanity.   Adam’s failure to protect his clan and to engage in activities of merely self-interest thus have consequences not only for Adam but for all humans.

[And it should be noted that in Orthodox Christianity at least, Adam and Eve are not commemorated mostly for their ancestral sin and its negative effects on all humans.   They are most noted in our hyms for being those first saved by Christ.  At Pascha, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, perhaps the most common icon of the Feast shows Christ descending into Hades to rescue Adam and Eve.   The salvation of Eve and Adam is celebrated in the hymns of Pascha and throughout the year.  On one level Adam and Eve are responsible for the deaths of all humans (mass murderers!), while on the other hand, they are forgiven and saved as the forefathers of the human race.   Christ undoes all the evil Adam initiates, including bringing about human mortality, and Christ’s restoration of humanity and salvation stretches back in time to the first human as well as forward in history to the last humans who will walk on earth. Even the devastating sin of Eve and Adam which results in the death of all humans is not an unforgiveable sin in our theology!   Adam and Eve are saved, forgiven and restored to a proper relationship with God!   This is the sign of God’s grace, mercy, unwavering and unconditional love.]

Elliot  Maloney continues:

“The truth is that humans are relational beings: they are naturally oriented toward obedience and loyalty to a higher power (Rom 6:16). As we have seen, the way Paul sees it is that human beings were created to be in a loving and obedient relationship with God—nothing less than that. The authenticity and fulfillment of their lives therefore required them to honor this intimacy and thank God for the invitation to share in God’s own being. But since their minds were darkened by that first denial of the sovereignty of God, the offspring of Adam and Eve continued to make wrong choices—from Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the petty injustices of the village marketplace where dishonesty became the acceptable norm.”   (Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 456-61)

The consequences of ancestral sin thus spread to all humans.  So St. Paul offers us a theological understanding of Adam and Christ:

Adam in Hades

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)

Christ restores fallen humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Now we humans need to understand how to live in this graceful situation created by Christ.  We are to live in love for one another – we are not to imitate Adam, Eve and Cain who rejected love for one another and practiced only self-love.  We are to follow the way of Christ who emptied Himself and loved the kenotic, self-denying love of God.  St. John Chrysostom, ever the moralist, writes:

“God made both you and the other person, and gave you everything in common and in equal measure with them.  How then do you spurn them and rob them of the regard given by God, not allowing it to be in common but making it all yours, rendering them bereft not only of money but of good name?  God granted every person one nature; he regaled them with the same position of eminence, the same process of creation.  That statement, ‘Let us make the human being,’ is shared by the whole human race.  How then do you deprive people of their inherited being, consigning them to utter insignificance, and appropriating to yourself what is common to all?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, pp 46-47)

We come back once more to the biblical scholar Elliott Maloney who in commenting on Romans 12  says:

“Christians must be transformed by a new way of thinking humbly about themselves (v. 3). This means always considering oneself as part of the community and acting for the sake of the others, because “we, who are many, are one body in Christ” . .  .  . Notice the use of the plural in Paul’s instructions. True discernment can occur only in the communal context, for the Spirit dwells in the Body of Christ, made up of many members. Individualism is a product of the flesh with its tendency to self-reliance and self-protection, as if the ego were the only guardian of one’s life. The Spirit provides the righteous orientation to make God and one’s fellows the center of meaningful action. As the action of the Spirit in believers conforms them more and more in the image of Christ, their own spirits are “transformed into the same image (of Christ) from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).”  (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 2018-25)

Next:   Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (II)

Image and Likeness in the Writings of St. Gregory of Nyssa

This is the 12th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is In the Image and Likeness of God.  In this blog we will consider the writings of one of the Patristic Saints, Gregory of Nyssa, regarding the image and likeness of God in each human.  It is obvious in the writings of St. Gregory that he has a very high opinion of humanity, especially in the natural state in which God originally created humans.

St. Gregory of Nyssa

“’For this is the safest way to protect the good things you enjoy: Realize how much your Creator has honored you above all other creatures.  He did not make the heavens in His image, nor the moon, the sun, the beauty of the stars or anything else which surpasses understanding.  You alone are a reflection of eternal beauty, a receptacle of happiness, an image of the true light.  And, if you look to Him, you will become what He is, imitating Him who shines within you, whose glory is reflected in your purity.  Nothing in the entire creation can equal your grandeur. All the heavens can fit into the palm of the hand of God . . . Although He is so great that He can hold all creation in His palm, you can wholly embrace Him.  He dwells in you. (St. Gregory of Nyssa)”  (Kyriaki FitzGerald, PERSONS IN COMMUNION, p 72)

One can marvel at the celestial bodies in all their magnificence and be totally awed by them, but then St. Gregory reminds us that it is humans alone who are made in God’s image and who through their life choices can become like God.  Gregory’s words have to considered in the contest of the ancient world in which some thought of the celestial bodies as gods, and many practiced astrology in one form or another assuming the celestial bodies influenced or had power over humanity and all the earth.  However great anyone wanted to imagine the heavenly bodies to be, St. Gregory in line with the Christian tradition says humans are even more magnificent.  All the universe can fit into the palm of one of God’s hands, yet God Himself dwells in each human being!

“But will God dwell indeed with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain You…”  (2 Chronicles 6:18)

“For thus says the high and lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”  (Isaiah 57:15)

While the Christians saw the celestial bodies as part of God’s creation and not gods or powers in their own right, still they were amazed that of all the greatest things in the universe whether visible (like the celestial bodies) or invisible (like the angelic bodiless powers), it is humanity whom God favors with the imprint of His divine image.  It is also with humanity that God shares all the gifts of the divine life. It is in humans that God dwells and makes each human to be a microcosm of all that exists.  This is a wonder beyond understanding.

“For man then possessed all those gifts about which we now speculate: incorruptibility, happiness, independence and self-determination, a life without toil or sorrow, absorption in divine things, a vision of the Good with a mind unclouded and pure of any interference.  This is what the account of Creation suggests in a few words, where it tells us that man was formed in God’s image, and that he lived in Paradise enjoying the things that grew there.  And the fruit of those trees was life and knowledge and the like.”  (St. Gregory of Nyssa, FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 88)

St. Gregory like a number of Patristic writers assumed that mortality was not part of the original human life.  Humans were created with the potential for immortality, but by exercising their free will to choose sin rather than to obey God, humans failed to actualize all that God was willing to share/give to them.  Humans assumed that their true freedom came in rejecting the Lordship of God, but discovered that rebellion against God enslaved them to sin and death.

“The story of creation bears witness to the fact that all that God created was very good (Gen 1:31).  And among these very good things was man.  Or rather, he was fashioned in a beauty which far exceeded all other things.  For what else could be as lovely as the image of incorruptible beauty?  And if all things were very good, and man was among them, indeed above them, then surely death had no place in man.  For man would not have been beautiful if he had had within him the miserable and gloomy form of death.  No, he was the image and likeness of eternal life, he was truly and exceedingly good, radiant with the luminous form of life.

Man also kept the garden of God, and it teemed with life in the abundance of its bountiful trees.  God’s commandment was the law of life, promising that man would not die.  And in the midst of the trees of the garden was one which was filled with life (however we may interpret the meaning of this tree), and its fruit was life.  But with it was also a tree of death, whose fruit we are told is both good and evil.“  (St. Gregory of Nyssa, FROM GLORY TO GLORY, p 257-258)

Humans created in God’s image were given the free will and potential to form themselves into the likeness of God.  God desired that humans partake of the divine life.  Humans sadly chose to follow a different path and not only failed to become like God, but even fell from their highly exalted position becoming like the other animals which God had created.   Sin in effect reduced us to something less than human, less than God intended for us to be.

“… so the one who falls into the mire of sin no longer is the image of the incorruptible God, and he is covered through sin with a corruptible and slimy form which reason advises him to reject.  … The rejection of what is alien means a return to what is proper and natural to oneself, but this is not possible to achieve, unless one be created anew.  For being like the divine is not our function, nor is it the product of human ability, but it is part of the generosity of God who freely, at the birth of the first man, gave our nature a likeness to Himself.

The human effort extends only to this: the removal of the filth which has accumulated through evil and the bringing to light again the beauty in the soul which we had covered over.  It is such a dogma that I think the Lord is teaching in the Gospel to those who are able to hear wisdom when it is mysteriously spoken: ‘the kingdom of God is within you.’   This saying shows, I believe, that the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who choose to seek it, but it is ever present in each individual, unknown and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we turn our attention back to it.”   (St. Gregory of Nyssa, ASCETICAL WORKS, p 44) 

Sin has not completely erased the divine goodness God puts in each human being.  We are not totally depraved, but in St. Gregory’s teaching we are like a diamond which has become encrusted with filth and dirt.   The goodness and beauty is still within us and we still have our free wills and so can cooperate with God to work out our salvation.

“… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure”  (Philippians 2:12; see also 2 Corinthians 5:21-6:2; Colossians 3:23-24; James 2:18-19)

We are gifted by God with free will and with the Holy Spirit so that we can respond to the salvation offered us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 “Staying with Gregory of Nyssa, we see that for him, the image of God consists principally in man’s free will, his power of ‘self government.’  Not to have any other overlord—this is indeed the property of a king.”   (Elizabeth Theokritoff, LIVING IN GOD’S CREATION,  pp 70)

We have encountered this theme numerous times in Orthodox theology – humans are created by God to be priests, prophets and kings.  The image of God in us makes this possible.  However, because we have free will, God does not do for us what we must do for ourselves.   He places before us a choice and invites us to choose eternal life.

Thus says the Lord: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice, and cleaving to him; for that means life to you and length of days…”   (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

“Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?”  (Ezekiel 33:11)

Next: In the Image of God

The Fall: Inhuman and Dehumanized, The Loss of Humanity

This is the 10th blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Being Human Before the Fall (III).

CreationAdamEveAs we have seen the Church Fathers saw in Genesis 1-2 that the Holy Trinity had created a highly exalted being when bringing humans into existence.  Humans shared in the divine life, were creatures belonging both to heaven and earth, to the visible and invisible worlds, to the spiritual and physical realities.  Humans breathed the Holy Spirit and were created in God’s image and likeness.  God intended to dwell in and with the humans He created, and to unite them to divinity, deifying a creature.  In humanity God intended to take that which is by nature “not-God” and to make it God.  In Christ, this is realized as God becomes human so that humans can become God.  But we humans did not hold on to the highly exalted position for which God created us.  For we sinned, failing to attain our potential and in grasping to become God by rebelling against God’s lordship, the humans not only did not attain divinity but lost even their humanity and their human role in creation.

“… but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.”  (Isaiah 59:2)

Humans created with the potential of living the divine life became instead mortal beings.   God had favored us making us His glory, and yet we chose to fall away from Him.

Adam Eve Temptation“To say God is light and that man is made in the image of God means that, from the time of conception, every human being possesses a divine potential, one ready to be developed and to grow until he reaches the full stature of a ‘child of God’ (Jn 1:12).  . . . The fall of man consisted in seeking after his own image rather than that of God.  This narcissistic and egocentric tendency is what turns man into a ‘diabolical’ being, meaning separated from others and no longer a person in communion, modeled after the Holy Trinity.  Conversely, a ‘stavrophoric’ person (‘who bears the cross’) becomes ‘pneumatophoric’ (bearer of the Holy Spirit).”  (Michael Quenot, THE RESURRECTION AND THE ICON,  p 220)

As the Psalmist laments:

LORD, what is man, that You take knowledge of him?

Or the son of man, that You are mindful of him?

Man is like a breath;

His days are like a passing shadow.

(Psalm 144:3-4)

God showers His glory, love and grace upon humanity, but we humans despised God’s goodness and decided to pursue our own ends.  We separated ourselves from God, and separation from God is by definition death, a loss of permanency.

“Where there is no God there is no humanity either.  The loss of the image of God entails the disappearance of man’s image, it dehumanizes the world, and multiplies the ‘possessed.’  The absence of God is replaced by the burdensome presence of obsession with oneself, self-worship. . . . In the bold words of St. Gregory of Nyssa, the one whoever is not moved by the Holy Spirit is not a human being.”    (Paul Evdokimov,  AGES OF THE SPIRITUAL LIFE, p 91)

We lost our humanity, becoming less than human, inhuman and often inhumane.  So we encounter this description of the full effect of the Fall in St. Paul:

“… Paul’s underlying theology of what human beings are in the divine intention and purpose; the tragedy of Adam is not just that he introduced sin and hence death in the world, but that humans were made to be the creator’s wise agents over creation, and if they worship and serve the creature rather than the creator this purpose goes unfulfilled.”  (NT Wright,  THE RESURRECTION OF THE SON OF GOD, p 249)

And yet, the Church Fathers didn’t believe that all was lost.  God continued to love even His fallen creatures – the rebels who rejected Him.  The mystery of His love (for God is love!) was revealed in the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  God’s mercy is always trying to save, to redeem, renew and restore humanity.

handDirt“In the thinking of the church fathers, the reality of sin does not eradicate the image that lies hidden beneath the filth that obscures it.  Hence when speaking about sin, the preferred metaphors that had to do with defacing or damaging or tarnishing the image: scraping off what was impressed on a coin, disfiguring the beauty of the image, making it ineffective, becoming diseased.  After the fall certain aspects of the image remained, for example, reason and freedom, though reason was darkened by sin and human freedom was captive to the passions.  The image is ‘always there,’ says Augustine, ‘even if it is worn away almost to nothing.’”  (Robert Wilken, THE SPIRIT OF EARLY CHRISTIAN THOUGHT, p 157)

We read the Genesis account of the Fall (Genesis 3) not to learn about ancient peoples and historical events, but rather to learn about ourselves.  We see ourselves in the narrative of Adam and Eve.  We are not just learning about them, we are more importantly learning about us, ourselves, our potential and our failures.

“Who am I?  What does it mean that I am human?  Everybody asks these searching questions, but what is the Orthodox Church’s answer?  Orthodox reflection on what it is to be human begins with Genesis 1:26, ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after out likeness.”’  . . . People today wonder what the historical value of these stories is given that science tells us another narrative about human origins.  Yet when Orthodox theologians have read Genesis 1-3 they have looked for answers to questions about humanity here and now, not about our ancient ancestors.  These biblical stories tell us who we are in relationship to God and the natural world around us.  By depicting Paradise they tell us what our life is supposed to have been like and what we can hope to become; by depicting the Fall they tell us where we went wrong and what our life has in fact become.  Adam represents every human person.”  (M. Cunningham and E. Theokritoff, CAMBRIDGE CAMPANION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, p 78)

We read Genesis 3 to learn about who we are today.  Genesis 3 is our story and tells us about who we are.  Genesis answer the questions about who we are today, about what it means today to be human, and about how we can become more fully human.  Genesis 3 when so read answers the question, “Why didn’t God make a better more perfect world – one without suffering, sickness and death?”    Genesis tells us God did make a better world, a Paradise of Delight, but it is human behavior which got us to where we are.   We are not the natural creatures God first made – and the issue runs deeper than merely our behavior and thinking.  The Fall of humanity has affected human nature and who we are.  The solution – the salvation of the human race – involves healing and perfecting humanity itself.

“Jesus seems to agree with both because the pedagogical task is more basic than what one thinks or does but has to do with who one is.  Who am I becoming?  Whose subject am I?  Who am I becoming like?”  (Charles Melchert, WISE TEACHING, p 234)

What are we?  And what potential do we have to realize God’s image and likeness?  In coming to understand what we lost in the Fall, we come to understand who we are. And we come to understand who Jesus Christ is and how we are saved by His very being.

Next:   In the Image and Likeness of God

How Vs. When the Universe Began

“In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.”

(Genesis 1:1)

“Or, perhaps, the words ‘In the beginning he created,’ were used because of the instantaneous and timeless act of creation, since the beginning is something immeasurable and indivisible.  As the beginning of the road is not yet the road… so also the beginning of time is not yet time, on the contrary, not even the least part of it.”   ( St. Basil the Great -d. 379AD, On the Hexaemeron p 11)

St. Basil (see my blog series St. Basil: creation and Science) in his comments touches upon something that today is a problem for modern cosmology: the beginning of the universe.   The evidence science has at this point strongly suggests the universe has been expanding from the instant it came into existence.   The rapid expansion of the universe at its beginning is accounted for by “inflationary theory.”    Brian Greene writing in the May 2014 issue of The SmithsonianListening to the Big Bang, says:

“The case for inflationary theory has now grown strong, capping a century of upheaval in cosmology. Now, not only do we know the universe is expanding, not only do we have a credible proposal for what ignited the expansion, we’re detecting the imprint of quantum processes that tickled space during that fiery first fraction of a second.”

It is, however, that instant of the Big Bang – “before” space or time exist – that creates also for us and for science a mystery.  That instant is beyond the reach of any scientific inquiry or mathematics as it remains outside our knowable universe.  The beginning is not yet the thing as St. Basil noted 1600 years ago.  So can we ever really know the beginning of our universe?

The Book of Genesis attributes the  creation of the world, the beginning of space and time, to the Creator God.   Genesis is not offering the modern mathematics and physics to explain what happened.  Genesis offers us a notion that there is a Being who exists outside of space and time, or contrariwise, a Being in whom space and time come to exist, and Who is the cause of existence itself.  For believers in God as Creator, the Big Bang is the greatest evidence of the mystery of God.  The very fact that inflationary theory when traced backwards leads an instant of the greatest mystery for science, is for believers evidence of God and the beginning of the revelation of the Creator.

Brian Greene writes:

“The Big Bang is often described as the modern scientific theory of creation, the mathematical answer to Genesis. But this notion obscures an essential fallacy: The Big Bang theory does not tell us how the universe began. It tells us how the universe evolved, beginning a tiny fraction of a second after it all started. As the rewound cosmic film approaches the first frame, the mathematics breaks down, closing the lens just as the creation event is about to fill the screen. And so, when it comes to explaining the bang itself—the primordial push that must have set the universe headlong on its expansionary course—the Big Bang theory is silent.”

In the 4th Century AD, Basil the Great taught:  the beginning of the universe is not yet the universe.  The beginning, he philosophized,  is  “immeasurable and indivisible.” His philosophical thinking, the science of his day, is quite compatible with the science of our day.   Sixteen hundred years later we still scientifically know nothing more about that beginning, other than to affirm that it happened.  Today we have the math and science which supports inflationary theory, but all it can do is take us to that instant of the beginning, to that mystery of space and time beginning to exist.

In his Smithsonian article, Brian Greene writes about how scientific thinking was changed and the idea of the Big Bang gained favor as the evidence came in to support the theory:

“But calculating deep into the night of December 6, 1979, (Physicist Alan) Guth took the work in a different direction. He realized that not only did the equations show that general relativity plugged an essential gap in Newtonian gravity—providing gravity’s mechanism—they also revealed that gravity could behave in unexpected ways. According to Newton (and everyday experience) gravity is an attractive force that pulls one object toward another. The equations were showing that in Einstein’s formulation, gravity could also be repulsive.

EinsteinThe gravity of familiar objects, such as the Sun, Earth and Moon, is surely attractive. But the math showed that a different source, not a clump of matter but instead energy embodied in a field uniformly filling a region, would generate a gravitational force that would push outward. And ferociously so. A region a mere billionth of a billionth of a billionth of a centimeter across, filled with the appropriate energy field—called the inflaton field—would be wrenched apart by the powerful repulsive gravity, potentially stretching to as large as the observable universe in a fraction of a second.

And that would rightly be called a big bang.”

The Big Bang
The Big Bang

Brian Greene exclaims:

“Inflation’s explanatory package is so remarkable, and its most natural predictions so spectacularly aligned with observation, that it all seems almost too beautiful to be wrong”

And it is precisely at that juncture – where beauty and truth meet – that we encounter God.

Lamp and light

A verse from Proverbs (6:23) caught my eye appropriately enough considering the verse.

“For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light, and the reproofs of discipline are the way of life…”

And in my mind I imaged what I saw.

In the verse the lamp and the light are different things.  This is obvious enough, and yet it was only in looking at a vigil lamp that the distinction became all the more clear.

The commandment is the lamp, but it is not the light. The light is the teaching and it is what we really need to enlighten us. The lamp is needed to hold the light as the commandment is needed to to bring the teaching to us, but the commandment is not the teaching.  Similarly, the Bible is like the commandment – it is the lamp but not the light.

Having the lamp will not necessarily give you the light.  A dark room full of unlit lamps is still dark.  The lamps in and of themselves cannot change the darkness.

“For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching a light…”

Scripture alone will not give us the light – we must have the teaching, the meaning of the text to know how to live: to see what is and to see the way.   My friend, Fr. Silviu tells me in Proverbs 6:23, the Hebrew uses the word Torah for teaching and mitzbah for commandment.  Perhaps we can say Scripture is  the lamp, Tradition the light for it illuminates the lamp from which it draws the oil to fuel the flame.

The lamp of course does serve as a container for storing the oil, but that is not its main purpose.  It’s purpose is none other than to be the place upon which the light, Torah, the teaching, the glory of God rests.

In Revelation  21:23, we read:

“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

Now the glory of the Lord is the light which rests upon the Lamb of God who is the lamp.

One more thought –  Luke 11:34-36 has this:

“Your eye is the lamp of your body; when your eye is sound, your whole body is full of light; but when it is not sound, your body is full of darkness.  Therefore be careful lest the light in you be darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, having no part dark, it will be wholly bright, as when a lamp with its rays gives you light.”

The optical theory prevalent in biblical times was that the eye gave out light which allows you to see things – unlike the modern idea that light is reflected off of an object into our eye which absorbs the light and translates it into images in our brain.  But the eye as lamp means it is the place where the light resides which illumines our hearts and minds, literally the whole body.

What remains obvious and interesting is a commonly understood difference between lamp and light. Light for the biblical authors has a concrete location from which it emanates. We tend to think of light as an energy diffuse throughout the world or throughout a room (with the notable exception of laser light which at least in popular thinking is more of an idea of a beam of light that emanates from a source). ‘

Electricity has changed our imaging of light.    Electricity has filled our world (and the sky and our eyes) with light, so we forget what a room with a single lit candle/lamp looks like – it is obvious what the source of the light is.  The darkness is all around but the source of light stands against the darkness, driving it back yet still the darkness  (the absence of light) is obvious.  On the other hand, when we flick a switch the light instantly fills every nook and cranny, banishing and vanquishing all darkness.  The darkness vanishes yet our eyes are not attracted to the source of light for the light seems to be everywhere.

St. John says in his Gospel:

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”   (John 1:5)

His imagery is much more like the candle standing against the darkness, for the darkness  still surrounds the light, even if pushed back to the outer edges away from the source of light.

“And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”   (Genesis 1:4) 


You can find links to all the blogs I have or will post during this year’s Christmas season at 2012 Nativity Blogs.