Il Illud is a short treatise by Saint Gregory of Nyssa which concerns itself with the exegesis of 1 Cor 15:28. This treatise is popularly cited as the evidence that Gregory of Nyssa was a universalist and proponent of apokatastasis.
In this article, we will briefly summarize the argumentation in Il Illud and prove that the heretical reading is incorrect. The treatise is simply talking about the salvation of Christians—not universalism.
Gregory’s theory of divinization. While many Orthodox or interested Christians may shy away from this treatise for fear of its alleged universalism, this would be a real shame. Gregory gives a really easy-to-understand explanation of how Christians are saved by the grace of God and what the grace of God is.
In short, God is infinitely good and can only create good. His goodness neither goes up or down—it is constant. It is the Christian whose goodness goes up and down. By conforming oneself to God, one is vivified by God’s goodness. It is in this vain the treatise begins.
How can this be confused with universalism? Gregory writes somewhere around the middle:
What therefore does Paul teach us? It consists in saying that evil will come to nought and will be completely destroyed. The divine, pure goodness will contain in itself every nature endowed with reason; nothing made by God is excluded from his kingdom once everything mixed with some elements of base material has been consumed by refinement in fire. Such things had their origin in God; what was made in the beginning did not receive evil…It is through this [divinized] Man that all mankind is joined to the divinity. Since every evil was obliterated in Christ – for he did not make sin – the prophet says, “No deceit was found in his mouth” [Is 53.9]. Evil was destroyed along with sin, as well as the death which resulted; for death is simply the result of sin.
The preceding is taken to mean that because Christ died, “every evil” was obliterated for “all mankind.” However, as Gregory explains himself, we can see that the “all” he is speaking of pertains to Christians specifically. Without skipping anything Gregory wrote, he continues:
Christ assumed from death both the beginning of evil’s destruction and the dissolution of death; then, as it were, a certain order was consequently added. Decrease of the good always results by straying from its principle, while the good is found closer to us insofar as it lies in each one’s dignity and power; thus, a result follows from the action preceding it. Therefore, after the man in Christ, who became the first fruits of our human nature, received in himself the divinity, He became the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep and the first born from the dead once the pangs of death have been loosened. So then, after this person has completely separated himself from sin and has utterly denied in himself the power of death and destroyed its lordship and authority and might…if anyone like Paul may be found who became a mighty imitator of Christ in his rejection of evil…such a person will fall in behind the first fruits at Christ’s coming.
The ellipses (“…”) are original to the translation. The person who is divinized is explicitly “in Christ” and has “separated himself from sin” and in so doing “denied in himself the power of death” like Saint Paul. “Such a person” is saved at Christ’s second coming.
Without skipping anything Gregory wrote in what was previously quoted, he contrasts the preceding group of people (Christians) with the wicked:
And, on the other hand – I say this as an example – there is Timothy, who as much as he could, was also imitating his teacher; but there are other persons not quite like him who, one after another, suffer little by little a loss of goodness and are found to follow behind certain people who are always ready to anticipate and lead until the followers, by continual imitations, resemble (reach) their leaders in whom there is little good because evil abounds. In the same way, there is a conformity that comes from those who are less flawed and, as a consequence, turn from those who excel in evil by following their own inclinations and who are driven back from better things until at the last gasp of evil, growth in goodness achieves the destruction of evil. Similarly, by a growing resemblance to less evil persons, those who excelled in doing evil enter the way of persons being led into what is better until through progress in the good they put an end to their evil ways by the destruction of wickedness.
We can literally see that those who follow an evil example lose more and more goodness (because evil has no actual being, something Gregory points out at the treatise’s beginning) while the formerly evil can rectify this by following a good example and growing in sanctity. What we see here is nothing else than Gregory describing Theosis. Without skipping a beat he writes:
The goal of our hope is that nothing contrary to the good is left, but the divine life permeates everything. It completely destroys death, having earlier removed sin which, as it is said, held dominion over all mankind. Therefore, every wicked authority and domination has been destroyed in us. No longer do any of our passions rule our [human] nature, since it is necessary that none of them dominate – all are subjected to the one who rules over all. Subjection to God is complete alienation from evil. When we are removed from evil in imitation of the first fruits [Christ], our entire nature is mixed with this selfsame fruits. One body has been formed with the good as predominant; our body’s entire nature is united to the divine, pure nature.
When we grow dispassionate by mortifying the flesh and pursuing ascesis “we are removed from evil in imitation of the First–fruits.” Gregory connects the idea from the previous passage, that we become the exemplar we follow, and shows that those who follow after Christ’s example are “united to the divine, pure nature.” Ironically, this is the opposite of the wicked who “little by little” increase in wickedness by following a wicked example. This is hardly a prooftext for universalism! In fact, we have indications that the “we” who are saved are Christians and in Gregory’s “universalist” poetic flourish, he announces that this is proof that “all are subject to the One who rules over all.” This demonstrates that the universalist reading is fundamentally misunderstanding Gregory’s point by literallizing the “all,” but not literalizing the fact that Gregory separates classes of people who are saved and not.
Gregory’s interest in the salvation of Christians. On this note, Gregory immediately continues:
Such is the understanding of these teachings which we have accepted from the great Saint Paul. It is time now to quote the apostle himself on these matters. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
Again, it is clear Gregory is speaking of Christians, not the universal salvation of Mithras worshippers, Hindus, Buddhists, and whatever else. A paragraph later, Gregory seems to say something that sounds universalist if we are not being cognizant that the subject of who is being saved is that of Christians and not all human beings:
In the last of his words [above], Paul plainly speaks of the nonexistence (anuparktos) of evil by stating that God is in all things and present to each one of them. It is clear that God will truly be in all things when no evil will be found. It is not proper for God to be present in evil; thus, he will not be in everything as long as some evil remains.
“Aha!,” says the universalist. “Gregory is teaching apokatastasis.” However, Gregory immediately states afterwards:
If it compels us to truly believe that God is in everything, then evil cannot be seen as existing along with faith; for God cannot be present in evil.
Evil is not found among the faithful, because God does not unite to Himself wickedness as His goodness neither increases or decreases (as we stated previously). His good is only such to one whose will cooperates with God’s—it is the will which allows for the increase and decrease of God’s goodness as applicable to the individual. In the same paragraph as both preceding passages, Gregory immediately continues:
Paul shows, by the words quoted above, that God becomes all things for us. He appears as the necessities of our present life, or as examples for partaking in the divinity [i.e. the sacraments or quasi-sacramental realities]. Thus, for God to be our food, it is proper to understand him as being eaten; the same applies to drink, clothing, shelter, air, location, wealth, enjoyment, beauty, health, strength, prudence, glory, blessedness and anything else judged good which our human nature needs. Words such as these signify what is proper to God.
We therefore learn by the examples mentioned above that the person in God has everything which God himself has. To have God means nothing else than to be united with him. Unity then means to be one body with him as Paul states, for all who are joined to the one body of Christ by participation are one body with him. When the good pervades everything, then the entirety of Christ’s body will be subjected to God’s vivifying power [i.e. God’s energy]. Thus, the subjection of this body will be said to be the subjection of [the] Church.
We can see, God’s goodness pervades the sacraments and the good things of life so that He is “all things for us,” meaning the Christians. It is only “all” of those “who are joined to the one body of Christ by participation” that are divinized by God’s energy. Hindus are not being invoked here. Explicitly, the “Church” is the subject being discussed. It is those who participate in the life of Christ, God Himself.
In the next paragraph, Gregory makes this even more explicit:
Christ eternally builds himself up by those who join themselves to him in faith. A person ceases to build himself up when the growth and completion of his body attains its proper measure. No longer does he lack anything added to his body by building, since he is wholly constructed upon the foundation of prophets and apostles. When faith is added, the apostle says, “Let us attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” [Eph 2.13].
One is united to God by having faith in Him and becoming sanctified through “participation” in the Christian life. Those who have faith and live such a life are in the Church and therefore united to God Himself. In the next paragraph, the members of the Church (in accordance with 1 Cor 12:15-26) act as different organs in harmony. Their building of one another up leads to Christ uniting these disparate members to Himself, divinizing them:
If the head, in turn, builds up the body, it joins, connects and brings together everything else for which it was born according to the measure of its function, such as the hand, foot, eye, ear or any other part completing the body in proportion to each person’s faith. By so carrying out these functions, the body builds itself up as Paul says above. It is clear that when this is accomplished, Christ receives in himself all who are joined to him through the fellowship of his body. Christ makes everyone as limbs of his own body – even if there are many such limbs, the body is one. Therefore, by uniting us to himself, Christ is our unity.
Hence, from the whole preceding discussion, there is not a whiff that universalism is being seriously discussed or even implied.
Two paragraphs later, we have another passage which the universalists will cling to, because (when taken out of context) it can be consistent with their false doctrine:
Christ’s body, as it is often said, consists of human nature in its entirety to which he has been united. Because of this, Christ is named Lord by Paul, as mediator between God and man [1 Tim 2.5]. He who is in the Father and has lived with men accomplishes intercession. Christ unites all mankind to himself, and to the Father through himself.
“All mankind!,” they say. “This is apokatastasis.” However, one can only sigh with exasperation when hearing such an exegesis. God united all of human nature to Himself—this is explicitly what the statement says. He is atoned for all mankind. But universalists, showing their latent Calvinism, take this to mean that a universal atonement is applied universally—which is false. In the next paragraph, Gregory teaches that the saving unity between God and men belongs to Christ’s disciples:
The words contained in the Gospel then add, “The glory which you have given to me I have given to them” [vs. 22]. I think that Christ’s own glory is meant to be the Holy Spirit which he has given to his disciples by breathing upon them, for what is scattered cannot otherwise be united unless joined together by the Holy Spirit’s unity. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” [Rom 8.9]…Hence, the text says, “The glory which you have given me, I have given to them” in order that “the unity given through the Holy Spirit to me might be given to you through me.”
He continues in the same vein in the next paragraph, quoting that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:21):
For it cannot be otherwise – “that all may be one as we are one”- unless the disciples, being separated from everything dividing them from each other, are united together “as we are one,” that “they might be one, as we are one.” How can it be that “I am in them?” For “I alone cannot be in them unless you also are in them, since both I and you are one. Thus, they might be perfectly one, having been perfected in us, for we are one.”
In the next paragraph he is even clearer that those who are in Christ’s body have “faith in Him:”
Such grace is more clearly shown by the following words: “I have loved them as you have loved me” [Jn 17.23]. If the Father loves the Son, all of us have become Christ’s body through faith in Him. Thus, the Father who loves his own Son loves the Son’s body just as the Son himself. We are the Son’s body. Therefore, the sense of Paul’s words becomes clear – the Son’s subjection to his Father signifies that he knows our entire human nature and has become its salvation.
He continues in the same paragraph on the topic of Theosis, using Saint Paul as an example:
Paul says of himself that “with Christ I am crucified. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” [Gal 2.20]…Paul claims that the good works of the Gospel are not his; rather, he attributes them to the grace of Christ dwelling within him. If Christ living in Paul works and speaks those things as a result of this indwelling, Paul has relinquished everything which formerly dominated him when he was a blasphemer, persecutor and behaved arrogantly. Paul looked to the true good alone, and by it made himself submissive and obedient.
As we can see, it is Paul’s repentance and turning towards God that is proof of the “grace of Christ dwelling within him.” This is not something true for just Paul, but all of us through repentance after hearing the Gospel. On this note, Gregory immediately continues:
Once Paul has been subjected to God, he is brought to the One who lives, speaks and effects good things. The supreme good is subjection to God. This fact which occurred in one person [Paul] will be harmoniously applied to every human being “when,” as the Lord says, “the Gospel will be preached throughout the world” [Mk 16.15]. All who have rejected the old man with its deeds and desires have received the Lord who, of course, effects the good done by them. The highest of all good things is salvation effected in us through estrangement from evil. However, we are separated from evil for no other reason than for being united to God through subjection. Subjection to God then refers to Christ dwelling in us.
In the preceding, we see the universalist exegesis of this treatise destroyed. The salvation of Paul is “harmoniously applied to every human being” when every human being hears “the Gospel” after it has been “preached throughout the world.” We can see that Gregory’s references to “every human being” being saved is a contingent promise. It requires that people repent, place their faith in Christ, and live obedient lives by the grace of Christ in the Church. Estranging ourselves from evil in this way brings about our salvation.
Gregory then spends several paragraphs speaking of “subjection,” its virtue, and its varying meanings. He does not make any mention of anything that pertains to universalism. However, in the end of this discussion he makes an important point which is necessary to understand in order to avoid misreading his conclusion. In his continued parsing of “subjection” he writes as follows:
Paul mentions this in his Epistle to the Romans: “For if we have been enemies, we have been reconciled to God” [Rom 5.10]. Here Paul calls subjection reconciliation, one term indicating salvation by another word. For as salvation is brought near to us by subjection, Paul says in another place, “Being reconciled, we shall be saved in this life” [Rom 5.10]. Therefore, Paul says that such enemies are to be subjected to God and the Father; death no longer is to have authority. This is shown by Paul saying, “Death will be destroyed,” a clear statement that the power of evil will be utterly removed: persons are called enemies of God by disobedience, while those who have become the Lord’s friends are persuaded by Paul saying, “We are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: ‘Be reconciled to God [2 Cor 6.20] .
The preceding is very clear. Christians, who were once “enemies” and at “enmity with God” (cf Rom 8:7) have been reconciled so that death no longer has authority over them. This is a very basic and obvious point. Gregory immediately continues on the same subject:
According to the promise made in the Gospel, we are no longer slaves of the Lord; but once reconciled, we are numbered among his friends. However, “it is necessary for him to reign, until he places his enemies under his feet.” We reverently take this, I believe, as Christ valiantly holding sway in his power.
“We” who were “enemies” are no longer “slaves,” but now “friends.” Gregory immediately continues:
Then the strong man’s ability in battle will cease when all opposition to the good will be destroyed. Once the entire kingdom is gathered to himself, Christ hands it over to God and the Father who unites everything to himself. For the kingdom will be handed over to the Father, that is, all persons will yield to God [Christ], through whom we have access to the Father.
Within the context, it is clear that “all persons” is a reference to the “we” (i.e. Christians) from earlier in this paragraph and the one preceding it. Further proof of this is that Gregory, in what immediately follows, refers to Christians as “enemies” again:
When all enemies have become God’s footstool, they will receive a trace of divinity in themselves. Once death has been destroyed – for if there are no persons who will die, not even death would exist – then we will be subjected to him; but this is not understood by some sort of servile humility.
The passage is now exceedingly clear. “The enemies” are the same of those who were formerly “slaves” in alleged “servile humility.” These are none other than the “friends” of God, the Christians themselves. Obviously, with all the discussion of Theosis throughout this whole treatise pertaining only to Christians, the reference to those who “will receive a trace of divinity in themselves” can refer to none other than those same Christians.
On the preceding note, with Gregory humbly referring to the limitations of his understanding of the passage, is how the treatise ends.
Conclusion. What can we conclude from the preceding?
For one, Gregory’s treatise is hardly “bold” in its approach to universalism because it never even talks about universalism. It is obviously concerned with Theosis and what it means to be in subjection to God. In discussing this, the conclusion is obviously drawn that it is the Christian who is in subjection to God and this pertains to his reconciliation. It is by repenting and believing in Christ that one is saved. This is the traditional, Orthodox teaching.
Second, it is also obvious that those obsessed with universalism spend more time reading the introduction (which is longer than the treatise) and focusing on a few lines of the work, than actually reading the work itself. This is why I painfully noted that I was quoting things in the adjacent paragraph or immediately before and after a statement given. I wanted to show that I was twisting nothing out of context. I am confident that, when read as a whole (and in context), the universalist exegesis does not appear simply foolish—it appears completely inept.
Third, more work needs to be done in reading the fathers than simply trusting the “experts” and “consensus.” The “Big Lie” is that these experts are never wrong. But, what we have just seen is that the experts have ham-handed an extremely simple treatise. Due to these “experts” having deficient soteriologies derived from Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, they do not understand Gregory’s candid presumption that those reading would understand that we are saved by a participation in God’s energy and this salvation is a sanctifying process in which we are vivified by this energy (i.e. Theosis). Hence, they see these statements about “trace of divinity” and become utterly lost.
It is not coincidence that Orthodox universalist tend to also be ecumenists and western in their epistemological orientation. If they had Orthodox epistemic leanings, they would more easily be able to interpret Gregory’s writing.
Lastly, just because Gregory does not teach universalism in this work, that does not mean he does not teach it elsewhere. This requires a long slog through all his works, one I will partake in by the grace of God, the prayers of Gregory, and I hope your own.
As a simple moral lesson we can glean from the preceding is that we must not simply take another’s word for anything. We must immerse ourselves in the Christian life to come to know God. This requires fastings, good works, prayer, reading the Scriptures, and reading the saints themselves. No amount of “consulting the scholarship” comes remotely close to replacing even a small fraction of any of the preceding individually.