For my own continued reflection (and further reading) and future reference, this is a partial transcription of Tony Golsby-Smith interviewing David Bentley Hart about On the Soul and the Resurrection by Gregory of Nyssa. It is the second of three planned conversations about Gregory (with a portion of the first transcribed here as well).
[Within On the Soul and the Resurrection, Gregory] lays out this vision of all of creation—not only fully subordinated to and reconciled to God—but one in which God himself becomes “all in all.” And it’s that “in all” that, to Gregory, is especially significant. It yields, in this treatise, this wonderful picture of the escatalogical reading, and I think the most coherent if you believe that—[with] all the texts of the New Testament—you should try to reconcile them with one another. I don’t necessarily believe that one must. I’m just saying that …if you are trying to do that, Gregory succeeds in doing it in a way that, say, Augustine didn’t. Augustin has to explain away hosts of verses whereas Gregory has to explain away nothing.
What emerges is a picture of two escatological horizons, one of which is the judgement on history. He sees this as being right there in the text. He is not imposing it on the text. Of course, then, history arrives at its consummation, and there is a real parting of the way of the righteous, the unrighteous, the somewhat righteous, the very righteous. Then the story is not over. He believes that, implicit in Paul and explicit in 1 Corinthians 15, is the vision of what the full consummation of reality is. It’s in verse 28. [NASB: “When all things are subjected to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subjected to the One who subjected all things to Him, so that God may be all in all.”]
…[Gregory] symbolically describes [this escatological vision] in terms of the temple of Jerusalem, how at first there are different [areas]: those outside the temple, those who are in the forecourt, those within the temple walls, those who could go into the sanctuary, and even then there is the holy of holies. Now, in the age, through the grace of God, all ultimately are brought into union.
…It’s the “all in all” passage [1 Corinthians 15:28]. …That was the favorite verse of Origen, and Gregory (or Macrina at least but Gregory [too]) follows Origen in that. The whole of the treatise culminates in explaining what that vision means. What does it mean to say that God is not only over all and God is not only praised by all, but that God is himself the all that is in all things.
Tony: “In my beginning is my end.” [He quotes from the opening of Part II in “Four Quartets” by T. S. Eliot after reading a passage from David Bentley Hart and then references how Gregory sees the final flourishing within the seed and understands each from the other so that “one cannot pull them apart.”
David: Although, even then, that’s from the perspective of time: the seed of flourishing and it’s consummation. In a sense, from the perspective of eternity, the end comes first and the beginning comes last. That notion from our last conversation, that the true humanity in the divine image perfected in the divine likeness and union with God is the man of the first creation account (Genesis 1). This is all human beings, throughout all time, united in spiritual harmony in their rational nature with Christ as their head, deified in God—this is the true creation. Until that reality comes to pass, creation has not yet happened in a sense, and in God’s eternity that is the reality that God from everlasting has made to be. In time, it is the end of our temporal course. In eternity, it is the very foundation of our existence.
[Our finite relation to God’s infinitude] is one of the distinctive features of Gregory’s usage (which would be picked up again by Maximus the Confessor). It’s been mischaracterized at times by people who don’t pay attention to his language. …In Gregory, this becomes a much more fertile category. With [Ekkehard] Mühlenberg, being a Lutheran, he sort of leaves out the deification aspect of it. It becomes what you’d think would actually be a kind of eternal torment: this endless asymptotic approach to God as a discrete object that he’ll never reach. Part of this is that, in Greek, the preposition “eis” can mean “in” or “into” or “toward” at times. For Gregory it’s clear that this is a growth “into” God, and that’s why that image of the vessel that expands as it’s filled has to be taken very seriously. It is not that Gregory imagines the soul running after an object that it will never reach, and that, just by remaining steadfast in virtue, that’s the eternity that awaits in the moral relation to God. It is a direct transfiguring divinization which is infinite in scope, and since we’re finite and mutable creatures, you could describe this in terms of an everlasting epektasis or stretching out that, nonetheless, is not a lack. It’s not the experience of a lack. It’s not even burdened by memory. He says that it’s not driven by the past in the way an imperfect desire would be (which would be burdened by regrets or things unachieved). Rather, it’s like a pure state of futurity in which the past is always being assumed into a greater present which is itself an openness to an infinite future of greater fulfillment. It’s unimaginable, obviously, in human terms, but he’s quite clear in what he’s talking about that it’s not an infinite frustration. He’s talking about understanding how the life of a creature in direct union with the infinite God is not in fact frustrated by the transcendence of the divine or the infinite disproportion between the infinite and the finite, but in fact that very distinction, that very disproportion, becomes the terms of an evermore intimate union.
This is a new thought. It really is. No one else before him in the philosophical or religious traditions—not even the most brilliant of Platonic philosophers—had really thought about this with quite the same originality. Plotinus anumbrates many of these things, but Gregory is the first to develop an actual metaphysics of the infinite and the finite in union.
One of the things you notice about Gregory is quite often you’re not sure where death is. Death doesn’t really interrupt anything. So quite often the spiritual life just keeps going. He’s talking the assent to God. It can start with Moses in this life standing steadfast in the good, not being moved either to one side or the other but only upward into God. And then, as the exposition proceeds, we can be talking about the soul in the kingdom of God. For him, it’s a continuum [as] we begin in this life.
He had a particular fondness for the image of the mirror, again drawn from Paul. Now we see as in a mirror dimly (or in an enigma). He takes that whole passage which also yields the image of epektasis—stretching out for that which yet lies ahead. He takes that image of the mirror as being an image of what we are as spirits. We see dimly because of the mirror of the soul which is the only place where God can be seen by finite eyes is in the soul as it’s progressively purified by the spirit so that the light of the Holy Spirit, so that the light of the human spirit is conducted into the height of mind by seeing the image of Christ ever more fully in the mirror of the soul. So we see God by seeing him mirrored in our own transformation into God. It’s exquisitely beautiful imagery in the way that he lays it out.
[Gregory] borrows the imagery from scripture in a creative way. He doesn’t assume that the metaphor ends with a simple parallelism. He takes that image of the mirror not simply as an image of obscurity but as a kind of clue to what it’s like to see God for a creature.
Tony: That image is the Feast of the Tabernacles as they move up into the temple, is the image you were referring to, that [Gregory] takes as the end of all things, when the elect, far from being chosen instead of everybody else are chosen before everybody else to invite all, as the language does here, to join in the festal procession.
David: There is evidence right there that Gregory is a better reader of Paul than Augustine is because, for all of his genius, Augustine, of course, makes the elect convertible with the number of the saved, but Paul clearly doesn’t. In Romans 11, it’s clear that the elect are those who have not stumbled, yet Paul goes on to say that those who have stumbled will not be allowed to fall. It’s clear the very notion of those who have been called in this world, for Paul, has nothing to do with the ultimate number of the redeemed. He is speaking of those who, for Paul at first, in the inexplicable way of God’s providence, even those Gentiles who by nature have no right to expect priority at all, have accepted Jesus and some Jews haven’t and how is this going to work out with God’s faithfulness to his people. Gregory never makes that mistake of confusing the number of the elect with the number of the saved because he clearly reads Paul better than Augustine does.
[Gregory] starts from the conviction that the only possible real existence of a fulfilled humanity is a full humanity created in the image and likeness of God in the totality of all human natures in union, and that this is a free act of accent to, of the creature to God, from the very first moment of its existence. From the beginning, creation is based on salvation. That is, if we weren’t always already—from the perspective of eternity—saved and united to God, creation couldn’t exist. If we had several hours, we could go into the logic of that, but I actually think it’s correct.
That means that, like Origen before him, he is taking 1 Corinthians 15 as a total picture of the gospel. Does it unite all the different witnesses of the New Testament or of Scripture in a way that is coherent and tends toward this final picture or at least is not repugnant to it? Again, Augustine failed. So much of Augustine is explaining away the explicit meaning of certain verses to make them conform to a much more parsimonious view of salvation, but Gregory doesn’t have to do that. Gregory has hell, like Origen there, and he sees in it this glorious process of purification which, unpleasant though it may be for some, ultimately is part of that same refining spiritual power of the Spirit which draws all things to God …until all together can approach the horns of the altar as one.
He says the great process of all spirits, of all noetic natures. He is quite clear, to a degree that even Origen wasn’t, that no one else was, that he means all fallen spirits (in the Oratio Catechetica). …For a father who is commemorated as a pillar of orthodoxy in later tradition, he is actually bolder than many figures who either were condemned or left out of the calendar of saints. He says in Oratio Catechetica that the devil may repine at having been fooled into inviting the conqueror into his kingdom. …Then he says that this too will redound to the benefit of the devil. This is a total universalism of the boldest sort. …Explicitly, systematically, relentlessly, he is the most unapologetic total universalist in Christian tradition. …I like to think of it as providence—that God has fixed in the calendar of the saints, a figure whose universalism couldn’t possibly be more systematic, more explicit and more biblically coherent.
[Gregory] is called the “Pillar of Orthodoxy,” but the conciliar title, now that I think about it, was actually “Father of Fathers.”
David: I kind of think of myself as a Falstaff in many ways.
Tony: I wasn’t going to mention it, David, but the thought did flit across my mind. Particularly Falstaff’s unparalleled ability for vituperative abuse of his opponents, I thought, surely, that dialectical tradition…
David: Thank you. That’s very flattering.
Tony: I thought you’d like it. [Laughing.] I was asked by [someone] yesterday when he interviewed me what I liked about you. I’m sorry to say, the first thing I said was, well, “David is funny.” I meant that Falstaffian irony that’s diverting.
David: As a matter of fact, I do take that as high praise. I find most theology incredibly boring.
Tony: Well, my comment was sincere.