Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) was more than simply bishop of Nyssa (372-376, 378-395). He was also a primary contributor to Christian orthodoxy among the church fathers. Gregory attended the Council of Constantinople I (381 A.D.) and was present during the forming of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. As a Cappadocian, Gregory of Nyssa was a man of deep Trinitarian piety and fought ardently for the dignity and deity of the Holy Spirit alongside his brother Basil and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Consequently, Gregory’s writings are always deeply spiritual and devotional in nature, and his Life of Moses (390A.D.) is no different.
How does one attain “the perfect life”? That is, in essence, the question Gregory of Nyssa seeks to answer in his Life of Moses. The work is a response to an inquiry by a “man of God” named Caesarius seeking perfection in the life of virtue. Gregory finds the paradigm for Christian perfection in the Lord’s servant Moses, whose life has become an “outline” for the people of God in the church age. Due to the limitless and infinite nature of God (a Gregorian theme), the author seemingly belies his own quest by stating that it is “undoubtedly impossible to attain perfection.” (5) However, there is an earthly perfection that is attainable in this life and the Lord commands his followers onward to this heavenly aim. (Matt. 5:48) In setting forth Moses as an example, Gregory presents a clear and precise rhetorical structure: (A) to outline Moses’ life as documented in the Scriptures, (B) to seek out the ‘spiritual understanding’ that corresponds to history, (C) and to obtain “suggestions of virtue” from it. “Through such understanding,” Gregory asserts, “we may come to know the perfect life for men.” Consequently, his Life of Moses could just as easily be called “Life of Virtue.”
Gregory’s history of Moses’ life begins suitably with his birth narrative. This is where the author initiates his grand juxtaposition between “Hebrew” and “Egyptian.” As the book progresses, the two begin to denote more than ethnicities. The childhood of Moses was in fact a mixture of both, as the young Hebrew was educated in pagan learning yet nurtured by his natural mother, a Hebrew. His life of godliness, however, began with theophany. Gregory characterizes this encounter with the burning bush in terms of the senses: sight and hearing. This is the point at which Moses was “illuminated” to God’s teaching and “empowered” to perform the command God gave him. The author recounts the emotion of the plagues and the exodus with detail from both sides. As a result, the contrast between nations only grows: “the death of the firstborn made the distinction between Egyptians and Hebrews still sharper. The Egyptians were dismayed, lamenting the loss of their dearest children, while the Hebrews continued to live in total serenity and safety.”(13) From the cloud to the splitting of the sea to the water from the rock and the heavenly manna, Gregory accentuates God’s grace in all of the basic necessities provided for the Israelites.
In The Life of Moses, the protagonist is depicted not simply as deliverer and leader, but as mediator. Moses is presented in near-Messianic terms, in preparation for the next section of Gregory’s work. Moses alone remains with God, and Moses alone approaches the darkness in order to enter into the “inner sanctuary of the divine mystical doctrine.” Even when Moses appears unmistakably human, the author is sure to distinguish his quality from that of his flock: “From this it became clear that the fear which had encompassed him at the beginning was an emotion not in keeping with his character, but was experienced out of sympathy for those who were terrified.” (20) By receiving the “ineffable teaching” of God on the mountain, Moses obeyed and displayed this teaching before an increasingly envious and idolatrous people – even amongst his own kin.
It is nearly impossible to discuss the objective of this work without locating Gregory’s primary hermeneutic: allegory. This interpretative device is ubiquitous in “Book Two” of Life of Moses. For Gregory, examination of history should precipitate one goal: to identify the “spiritual sense” of the text. The author finds this inner meaning from the beginning of Moses’ life. For example, according to Gregory, Pharaoh’s murder of the firstborn of Israel isn’t primarily a bid for power, but a hatred of virtue: “When we lay bare the hidden meaning of the history, Scripture is seen to teach that the birth which distresses the tyrant is the beginning of the virtuous life.” (33) In fact, Moses’ birth narrative as a whole is likened to a journey to virtue, navigating between two choices: the “profane” doctrines of the Egyptians and the “doctrines of the fathers.” Gregory likens virtue to a “better birth into the realm of light”, as opposed to an Egyptian education, “which is always in labor but never gives birth.” The bishop of Nyssa is unequivocal in his contemplation that “the fight of the Egyptian against the Hebrew is like the fight of idolatry against true religion.” (35) This dichotomy informs the entire work.
Through his experience on Mount Moriah, Moses is said to apprehend truth and the transcendent essence of God. In the burning bush, we see God’s condescension to the weakness of man in communicating his immutability and nature. For Gregory, the journey to virtue is not a cold transformation from the passible to the impassible, but a participation in the immutable, as evidenced in Moses’s divine experience. According to J. Warren Smith, “desire is inherent to the dynamics of the soul’s participation in God. This theory of participation is called Epektasis.” This “diligent training in the higher life” takes place in the battle between virtue and the passing material pleasures of this world. In Moses, Gregory desires “that the lives of honored men would be set forth as a pattern of virtue for those who come after them.” (42) Moses exemplified this semi-Gnostic tension between pathos and virtue as he led a contentious people through the desert, a people who often desired to return to their captors in order to fill their bellies! In their desert wandering the author finds not just the battle between virtue and pleasure but that of godly gnosis and ungodly passions. To Gregory, “the froglike life” was fraught with emotions and unfulfilled desires devoid of knowledge.
Gregory ends his “contemplation” of Moses’ life with the motif of the vision of God. Just as Moses saw God in his own unique way, Christians are to gaze upon God while on earth (before the beatific vision). Gregory defines the vision of God as never being satisfied in the desire to see him. Perfection is similar: perfection is unsatisfyingly pursuing perfection. Just as there is no limit to God Himself, there is no limit to our desire for perfection. Ascent to virtue is found in this desire, standing in the knowledge of God. Just as Israel looked to the serpent in the desert, we too find our vision fixed upon the cross of Christ that heals our iniquities. (117) Moses led his people and looked to God, and “in the same way too the goal of the sublime way of life is being called a servant of God.” (130) Gregory is confident that if Caesarius looks to the model of Moses, he too will be called a friend of God.
Gregory of Nyssa has been called a Christian Platonist and even a Pantheist; and parts of his Life of Moses could certainly give credence to these accusations. After all, his depiction of the Christian journey is delivered in Platonic terms. Truth is defined in terms of being: “In my view the definition of truth is this: not to have a mistaken apprehension of Being…truth is the sure apprehension of real Being.” (38) To Gregory, reality isn’t grasped by the apprehension of sense perception, but by elevating one’s mind to the “transcendent essence.” Furthermore, in a brief exegesis of 1 Corinthians 2:9 (“no eye has seen, and no ear has heard,”) Gregory utilizes the seeming negation of senses in the text to point to a Platonist ascent of the Christian mind, devoid of the senses (78) Gregory likewise describes God with Greek nomenclature. Names like “the Divine” are used as surrogates for Yahweh and Christ. Aristotle also makes his way into Gregory’s Life of Moses. God’s divine nature and essence are referenced as “the Good.” Meanwhile the author speaks in terms of the “chief” virtue. Gregory even borrows the language of Greek philosophy with words like “ineffable” and “immutable”, clear indications that he possessed some form of classical education in his aristocratic upbringing.
Like so many of the church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa was conversant with the 4 primary virtues of Greek philosophy: temperance, fortitude, justice, and prudence. (Augustine, for example, translated the 4 forms of virtue into the 4 forms of love) For example, he equates prudence with the knowledge of God. In giving prudence a Christian meaning, he is also able to contrast it with sensuality, his bête noire in The Life of Moses: “But in the house of the prudent man there is every precaution and foresight to keep the eye pure from sensual spectacles. The table of the prudent man is similarly found to be pure, but that of the man wallowing in the mire is froglike and fleshy.” (50) And while this angst with sensuality has a biblical foundation, at times the reader should be wary of its Platonic tendency.
Regardless, by the end of Gregory’s The Life of Moses, his view of the man is beyond doubt: “the life of Moses did ascend the highest mount of perfection.” (132) With God as the “archetype,” Moses serves as a righteous model for the church: just as he ascended the mountain and held true to the commands of God, so the Christian is now asked to do the same. Gregory’s allegorical and typological hermeneutics help to bring out this spiritual paradigm in The Life of Moses. Caesarius finds his prototype for virtue in a man who was called a “friend of God.”
Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishing, 2006)