On the Soul and Resurrection (Gregory of Nyssa)

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RamistThomist

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St Gregory of Nyssa. On the Soul and Resurrection. ed. Catherine Roth. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993.

This is a welcome translation and update compared with the Schaff edition. It is more accessible and comes with a fine introduction. It is staged as a Platonic dialogue between Gregory of Nyssa and his sister Macrina on the occasion of the death of their brother Basil the Great. It is important to know that Gregory places his sister Macrina as the teacher. She instructs one of the greatest Trinitarian thinkers of all time.

The problem: The soul is either material or immaterial. If material, it is dissolved with the body. If immaterial, it cannot be contained in the elements of the universe (Roth 15). And if everything has elements, and the soul does not, then the soul cannot be anywhere.

To what degree was Gregory a Platonist? Let’s ignore the question and highlight just one part: While Plato said the body was a prison, Gregory changes body for “flesh” (sarx), giving it a more biblical feel.

The proper view of the soul promotes virtue (Cross Reference to Schaff edition, Nyssa 431).

The God-World Relation

God encompasses all things (432). Indeed, there is a “universal harmony” allowing for “measured intervals.” In fact, “man is a little world in himself and contains all the elements which go to complete the universe” (433).

What is the Soul?

“The soul is an essence created, and living, and intellectual, transmitting from itself to an organized and sentient body the power of living” (433).

Nyssa and his interlocutor bring up analogies between soul, mind, and God (436ff). He does not identify the three but says “one thing is like another.” Prototype and Image. Despite his reputation, Nyssa rejects the Platonic metaphor of the chariot, choosing rather the “divine axiom that there is no excellence in the soul which is not a property as well of the Divine nature. For he who declares the soul to be God’s likeness asserts that anything foreign to HIm is outside the limits of the soul (439).

The Condition of the Soul After Death

Hades is the transition to the Unseen world. Macrina is quick to point out that when we say a soul is “in” Hades we do not mean so spatially. In discussing how the soul will be reunited with the body (e.g., the elements), Gregory suggests that the soul is “stationed like a guard over its own” (Roth 68). That might explain the phenomenon of ghosts, but it doesn’t do justice to the souls being in Abraham’s bosom. Gregory (or Macrina) is aware of that challenge and points out that whatever else is true in the parable, it can’t be about corporeal bodies (since the body is in the tomb). The gulf, then, is not a physical chasm, but a “barrier which prevents incompatible things from coming together” (70). It couldn’t be a physical chasm for the obvious fact that a bodiless spirit could easily fly across it!

The Purification of the Soul

Gregory notes that souls that are too attached to fleshly desires retain the form of the flesh after their passing. This might explain the idea of why ghosts resemble their former lives (76).

Macrina divides the souls faculties accordingly: the godlike power is that of contemplation (77). Indeed, “the accurate likeness of the Divine consists in our soul’s imitation of the superior Nature” (78).

Why is Purification Painful?

It’s painful to remove physical attachments from the soul. But the nature of virtue should spur us onward. Gregory notes that “all freedom is one in nature” and “Virtue has no master. Therefore, everything free will be in virtue, for that which is free also has no master” (86).

Transmigration of Souls

Gregory has to cut reincarnation off at the pass, since it seems his Platonic dialogue is moving in that direction. Macrina points out that by going to lower matter in order to be raised up, reincarnation has to have matter purifying the soul.

The Origin of the Soul

Gregory holds to creationism as opposed to traducianism (98).
 
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