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Gregory of Nyssa

330-c.395. Bishop of Nyssa, Cappadocian Father,* and younger brother of Basil* of Caesarea. A shy, gentle man of studious disposition, Gregory was totally dominated by his forceful brother whom he sometimes called “the Master.” After a brief spell as reader in the church, he became a teacher of rhetoric and thereby incurred Basil's great displeasure at entering upon a secular life. In penitence he entered a monastery founded by Basil. In 371 he accepted Basil's invitation, although rather unwillingly, to become bishop of Nyssa.

Because he supported the Nicene faith Gregory was deposed by a synod of Arian bishops in 376, but regained his see in 378 when Emperor Valens died. Gradually his fame spread; about 379 he was asked to visit the Church of Syria to help solve the problem of schism in that see, and at the Council of Constantinople he took a leading part, not only delivering the inaugural address which is not extant, but also the funeral oration of Melitius of Antioch, the first president of the council. Very little is known of the later years of Gregory's life, but he appears to have traveled extensively.

In some respects Gregory was the most gifted member of a distinguished family. Although deficient in practical ability so clearly marked in the career of Basil, in originality and intellectual ability he was not only superior to his brother but an outstanding thinker of the fourth century. His theological views were more profoundly influenced by Origen than by any other teacher. His idealism, allegorical interpretation of Scripture, and doctrine of human freedom and the final hope indicate the extent of Origen's influence. But Gregory was no mere plagiarist; each subject was worked out carefully. In general his theology turned on the assumption that the world was ruined by the Fall which was a consequence of man's free will. Redemption is made possible by a remedial process both human and divine in the incarnation of Christ, the beneficient results of which are communicated through the sacraments. He was the first theologian to interweave firmly the doctrine of the sacraments into a systematic theology of the Incarnation.

His chief apologetic work was the Sermo Catecheticus, a manual of theology in which he deals at length with Christology and eschatology. The latter doctrine is based upon the views of Plato and Origen which Gregory believed to be consonant with Scripture. He took Paul's statement literally that God will eventually be “all in all,” and saw hell as a process of ultimate purification rather than a place of eternal suffering. Gregory was a staunch supporter of the Nicene faith and was among the first to distinguish between ousia and hypostasis. The former he used to express essence, and the latter the distinctive peculiarity which was equivalent to prosompon, “person.” His supposed marriage to Theosobeia based upon allusions in his treatise on Virginity cannot be proved and must remain only a conjecture until fuller evidence comes to light. Such was Gregory's fame that at the Seventh General Council of the church he was entitled “Father of Fathers.”

S.M. Shea, The Church According to St. Gregory of Nyssa's Homilies on the Canticle of Canticles (1966-67); Gregorii Nysseni Opera (1967); R. Staats, Gregor von Nyssa und die Messialianer (1968); C.W. Macleod, “Allegory and Mysticism in Origen and Gregory of Nyssa,” JTS, XXIII (October 1971).