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The ‘Whole Humanity’: Gregory of Nyssa's Critique of Slavery in Light of His Eschatology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

D. Bentley Hart
The Divinity School Duke University DurhamNC 27708USA Email:


Nowhere in the literary remains of antiquity is there another document quite comparable to Gregory of Nyssa's fourth homily on the book of Ecclesiastes: certainly no other ancient text still known to us—Christian, Jewish, or Pagan—contains so fierce, unequivocal, and indignant a condemnation of the institution of slavery. Not that it constitutes a particularly lengthy treatise: it is only a part of the sermon itself, a brief exegedeal excursus on Ecclesiastes 2:7 (‘I got me male and female slaves, and had my home-born slaves as well’), but it is a passage of remarkable rhetorical intensity. In it Gregory treats slavery not as a luxury that should be indulged in only temperately (as might an Epicurean), nor as a necessary domestic economy too often abused by arrogant or brutal slave-owners (as might a Stoic like Seneca or a Christian like John Chrysostom), but as intrinsically sinful, opposed to God's actions in creation, salvation, and the church, and essentially incompatible with the Gospel. Of course, in an age when an economy sustained otherwise than by chattel slavery was all but unimaginable, the question of abolition was simply never raised, and so the apparent uniqueness of Gregory's sermon is, in one sense, entirely unsurprising. Gregory lived at a time, after all, when the response of Christian theologians to slavery ranged from—at best—resigned acceptance to—at worst—vigorous advocacy. But, then, this makes all the more perplexing the question of how one is to account for Gregory's eccentricity. Various influences on his thinking could of course be cited— most notably, perhaps, that of his revered teacher and sister Macrina, who had prevailed upon Gregory's mother to live a common life with her servants—but this could at best help to explain only Gregory's general distaste for the institution; it would still not account for the sheer uncompromising vehemence of his denunciations.

Research Article
Copyright © Scottish Journal of Theology Ltd 2001

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1 Gregory of Nyssa, In Ecclesiaslen homiliae (hereinafter IEH), in Gregorii Nysseni Opera (hereinafter GNO), eds Jaeger, Werner et al. (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1958–), vol. V: 334352.Google Scholar

2 Unless one includes in this consideration other texts by Gregory himself, where remarks regarding slavery (of a more diffuse and occasional nature) are also found. See especially Contra Eunomium (hereinafter CE) I, GNO I: 178; De oratione dominica (hereinafter DOD) V, GNO VII. ii: 70–1; and De beatitudinis (hereinafter DB) III, GNO VII. ii: 105–6, 126–7. For a fuller treatment of the broader scope of Gregory's remarks on slavery and freedom, see Stramara, Daniel F. jr, ‘Gregory of Nyssa: an Ardent Abolitionist?’, St Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 41, 1 (1997), 3760.Google Scholar

3 Examples of the latter can be found in the work of Theodoret (De providentia divina VII) or in that of Gregory's elder brother Basil (De Spiritu Sancto XX).

4 See In sanctam ecclesiam (hereinafter ISE), GNO IX: 250–1.

5 IEH 334.

6 IEH 335.

7 IEH 336.

8 IEH 336.

9 IEH 337.

10 IEH 338.

11 IEH 335.

12 See the Politics 1254a–b, 1260a, 1280a.

13 Nicomachean Ethics 1160b; Eudemian Ethics 1241b.

14 Consider, for example, the words of Gianni Vattimo: ‘When Nietzsche speaks of metaphysics as an attempt to master the real by force, he does not describe a marginal characteristic of metaphysics but indicates its essence as it is delineated right from the first pages of Aristotle's Metaphysics, where knowledge is denned in relation to the possession of first principles.’ (‘Towards an Ontology of Decline’, in Recoding Metaphysics: the New Italian Philosophy, ed. Borradori, Giovanni, Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1988, 64).Google Scholar

15 See Tsirpanlis, C. N., ‘The Concept of Universal Salvation in Saint Gregory of Nyssa’, Studia Patristica XVII, vol. 3, 1132.Google Scholar

16 De Hominis Opificio (hereinafter DHO) XVI: PG44: 185C.

17 DHO XVII: 189C.

18 DHO XXII: 204D.

19 See Philo of Alexandria, De Mundi Opificio, in Opera Quae Supersunl, eds Cohn, Leopoldus and Wendland, Paulus, 7 vols (Berrlini: Reimeri, 18961930Google Scholar) [Reprint in 8 facs., Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1962–4] I: 38.

20 See Ladner, G. B., ‘The Philosophical Anthropology of Saint Gregory of Nyssa’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12 (1958) 82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

21 DHO XVII: 189D.

22 De Mortuis (hereinafter DM) PG 46: 517D.

23 De Anima et Resumctione (hereinafter DAR) PG46: 105A.

24 De Virginitate (hereinafter DAR) GNO VIII. I: 299.

25 See Philippou, A. J., ‘The Doctrine of Evil in St. Gregory of Nyssa’, Studia Patristica IX (1966) 252.Google Scholar

26 See CE III, II, GNO II: 74; De lnfantibus Qui Praemature Abripiuntur (hereinafter abbreviated as DIQPA) PG 46: 177D–180D.

27 Laplace, J., ‘Introduction’, in Gregory of Nyssa, La Creation de L'homme, Sources Chretiennes 6 (Paris, 1943) 28.Google Scholar

28 In Illud Tunc Ipse Filius (hereinafter IITIF), PG44: 1313B.

29 See Daniélou, Jean, ‘L'apocatastase chez Saint Grégoire de Nysse’, RSP 30 (1940) 345.Google Scholar

30 Refutatio Confessionis Eunomii (hereinafter RCE) GNO II: 346–7.

31 IITIF 1316A-B.

32 RCE 387.

33 IITIF 1313D–1316A.

34 von Balthasar, Hans Urs, Presence and Thought: An Essay on the Religious Philosophy of Gregory of Nyssa (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995)Google Scholar; see also Armstrong, A. H., ‘Platonic Elements in St Gregory of Nyssa's Doctrine of Man’, Dominican Studies I (1948) 115.Google Scholar

35 Oratio catechetica (hereinafter OC) XXXII, ed. Srawley, James Herbert, Cambridge: CUP, 1956, 114122.Google Scholar

36 CE I: 78–9.

37 DIQPA 181B.

38 It is only to the less clever that the fire of hell is presented as a terrible punishment; to the wise, it is recognizable as a saving therapy (OC VII: 46–9). Which is not to say that, for either class of souls, the chastisements of that fire will not exceed everything one can imagine (OC XV: 163–4). The logic of hell is explained at greatest length in DAR: 97B–105A, by Makrina, on her death-bed, to Gregory. At 101B–4A, incidentally, Gregory provides—implicitly—his interpretation of the ‘kolasin aiōniori’ of Matt. 25:46: apparently it means a punishment so terrible that it persists for ’an entire age’.

39 DHO XXI, 201B–4A.

40 See Jean Daniélou, ‘Comble du mal et eschatologie chez Grégoire de Nysse’, Festgabe Joseph Lortz II (Baden-Baden, 1958) and Canévet, M., ‘Nature du mal et êconomie du salut chez Grégoire de Nysse’, RSR 56 (1968)Google Scholar. Gregory even suggests that the Logos awaited a day when every manifestation of evil (which, apparently, is capable of only a finite number of forms) had made its appearance upon the earth before entering into human history, so that the divine cure might touch every extremity of our illness (OC XXIX: 107–9). And Makrina, in DAR (104A–5A), explains to Gregory that when evil is finally abolished, by being purged from every individual will, then every soul, having regained its proper freedom, will turn freely to God and be joined to him, the fountainhead of all virtue, and God will be ‘all in all’ both in the sense of ‘instead of all’ (God becoming the sole ‘element’ in which our life will subsist) and ‘in all’ (God entering into each of us and so abolishing evil in the depths of our nature). See IITIF 1313A–6A, In Christi resurreclionem PG 46: 661C-D, and In Canticum Canticorum (hereinafter ICC) VIII, GNO VI: 247–9; XI: 335–6; XIV: 421. The image that most perfectly expresses Gregory's sense of the intrinsic nothingness of evil's ‘consummation’, and its necessary limitation, is found in DHO XXI (201B–4A), where Gregory likens evil to night, which (according to the geocentric cosmology of late antiquity) is nothing but a cone of shadow cast weakly by the earth, out into a universe of light. This is another reason, incidentally, for Gregory's denial of hell's eternity: there can be no endless godlessness posed over against the endlessness of God; he is the sole infinite, and the infinitely good (see In inscriptiones Psalmorum II, GNO V: 100–1).

41 One might note here that Gregory in a sense offers a Christian answer to Hegel's understanding of universal history different from a more ‘Barthian’ approach: he allows all history its place as the theatre of God's ordination neither by making the violence of history a necessary negative probation nor by subordinating the merely particular to the synthetic; and he clearly marks the difference of God's true story from the stories of sinful humanity without making it seem as if the true story told in Christ is simply an intrusion upon worldly time, a radical rupture.

42 DHO XXII: 207C–8B.

43 ICC XV: 466.

44 The doctrine of perpetual progress, of the soul's epektasis into God, so thoroughly pervades Gregory's developed thought that there is little purpose in citing particular passages from his work; the theme is, however, developed most fully (and most beautifully) in the two great ‘spiritual’ treatises De vita Moysis and In Canticum Canticorum.

45 ICC VI, 174. This abandonment of anamnesis, in favor of a pure ‘towardness’, rapt up into an infinite divine future, marks one of Gregory's most striking departures from the atmosphere of Platonism. Worldly memory's tragic anxiety and philosophical recollection's otherworldly pretensions alike are displaced by the force of his eschatological vision. One might also recall Gregory's reproaches of Arians and Pneumatomachoi for thinking of God only as the unshaken origin, the absolute and beginningless past, and not as the endless future—for thinking, i.e. in terms of memory rather than of hope (CE I: 666–72).

46 DOD V, GNO VII. ii: 70.

47 And so virtue is the highest and most invincible freedom. DAR 101D.

48 See Dumitru Staniloae, ‘L'image de dieu et al déification de l'homme’, CV19 (1976)109–19.

49 DB V, GNO VII. ii: 126–7.

50 In sanctum Pascha, GNO IX: 248–50.

51 CE III, viii, GNO II: 259.