The scholarly “consensus,” aside from some exceptions, is that the Great Catechism of Saint Gregory of Nyssa is a thoroughly universalist work. From the onset, I want to make clear that there are grounds to agree with the consensus of scholars on this point. Even in Church history, accusations of forgery reveal that a proper interpretation of works such as the Great Catechism can lend itself to the universalist view.
Due to the popularity of the universalist reading of the Great Catechism, for the sake of completeness I am unashamedly going to pose a contrarian view. Due to the fact that proper readings of other “universalist” works of Saint Gregory such as In Illud and On the Soul and Resurrection reveal they are almost certainly not universalist, I am going to argue is that what Gregory is describing in the Great Catechism is salvation for Christians and the purgation for those Christians who were insufficiently repentant and/or unbaptized.
As we shall see, the catechism itself literally teaches eternal damnation. To this, universalists such as Dr. David Bentley Hart have given poor responses, arguing that the “eternal damnation” passages were winks and nods to the ignorant masses but not serious theological assertions.
In order to maintain the idea that Gregory was not a bumbling fool or liar, but rather an internally-consistent thinker, we need some sort of way to interpret the universalist-sounding passages (or the eternal damnation ones) in a consistent, non-literal sense. The solution I have posed elsewhere is that Gregory uses categorical language to emphasize the infinite nature of salvation in Christ—but that this poetic flourish is literally only applicable to those who are in union with Christ through faith and baptism.
To help us frame the issue at hand, permit me to quote Gregory’s Nativity Homily where he succinctly teaches what I assert is being taught in the whole of the Great Catechism:
The rest of the beast’s body, dispersed in human life, as long as mankind is motivated by evil, always roughens life with the scales of sin. The serpent’s power is now dead, since its head has been rendered useless, but as time passes and things endowed with motion come a standstill at the awaited consummation of this life, then the tail, the enemy’s last remaining part, that is, death, is annulled. In this way **evil will ****completely**** disappear**, when all are recalled to life through the resurrection: the righteous will immediately be transported to celestial bliss, while those held in the grip of sins will be consigned to the fire of Gehenna. (p. 7)
As we can see “evil will completely disappear” when “death is annulled,” undoing the work of Satan, and “all“ are granted “life through the resurrection.” Even then, there are still “those held in the grip of sins” that “will be consigned to fire of Gehenna.” Clearly, this is not the way universalists imagine evil completely disappearing. Yet, Gregory has no issue with reflecting upon the issue in this sense.
It is a disservice to everyone that too few “scholars” interpret Gregory’s own words according to his own teachings on the same topic. In fact, universalists (and others who simply do not understand Gregory) prefer to believe he is frequently contradicting himself and his thought borders on incomprehensible, rather than admit his universalist language is a kind of poetic hyperbole whose point is to emphasize the immense (and infinite!) salvific nature of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.
So, presuming upon Gregory being consistent across the board, let’s begin.
The Great Catechism begins by asserting the premise that any “impulse towards evil is foreign to the Divine nature” and that God will bring “whatever is good” to “effectual accomplishment.” (chap 1) This is contrary to mutable created beings (who are mutable by virtue that they once did not exist and then they did.) “Self-will” contrary to willing in cooperation with the divine will contracts “a fellowship with evil.” (chap 8) Evil is not a substance or a real thing, but rather a deviation from God’s goodness as darkness is the absence of light. By this moral falling away, the entire human creature (a body-soul combination) was “resolved again into the dust of the ground.” (chap 8) “For it was not possible that a being who derived his origin from an alteration should be altogether free from this liability.” (chap 21)
What’s with this obsession with the origin of evil and how it is propagated? Saint Gregory explicitly states he is countering the Manichees. They were a Gnostic group which believed evil had a substance created by the Devil which somehow invaded mankind during a mythic battle before time. To answer the Manichean objection to Christianity (as being deficient in its treatment of the existence of evil, an “dilemma” which was a bigger deal in the fourth century than today, as Manichaeism just sounds wacky to modern ears), Gregory needs to prove that evil is not a substance. Rather, evil exists for a time through the perversion of the will of many but it does not prevail, and goodness and justice will pervade all of existence.
With this in mind, let’s continue with how Gregory tackles the Manichees.
Both the body and the soul die as a result and this is propagated by procreation. (chap 16) The soul is never fully healed in this life, because the body-soul is irrevocably fallen as it is in Adam—but Jesus’ being the first resurrected body guarantees that all bodies are resurrected. Death has truly been vanquished.
One must ask—what are the implications for the “damned” and the demons? What of the damned’s bodies? What of the demons’ will? Are these “restored” to goodness in some sense? Let’s follow Gregory’s argument.
It would seem so:
For as the principle of death took its rise in one person and passed on in succession through the whole of human kind, in like manner the principle of the Resurrection-life extends from one person to the whole of humanity. (chap 17)
However, we need to be careful in presuming “resurrection-life” means “salvation” or “enjoyment of God for eternity.” No traditional believer in eternal damnation rejects that all bodies, “good” and “evil,” resurrect. What Gregory is merely positing is that Christ’s conquering of bodily death bestows upon all human life the same victory—undoing the work of the Devil, which introduced bodily death. This is a non-controversial point for Orthodox.
Universalists may seize on passages such as one in the next chapter which states, “the grace of God…brings salvation to all men.” However, in the same chapter we find that “all men” is simply a reference to men throughout the world. Gregory returns to the same idea later on in chap 30, remarking that “the call makes no distinction as to worth, age, or different national characteristics…with what reasonableness can they still charge it upon God that the Word has not influenced all mankind?”
However, it would be to reductionist to say that any passage that pertains to universalism can simply be explained away in the preceding sense. Gregory’s thinking is far too deep for this. In fact, even if we are to take a universalist interpretation, we really need to grapple with profoundly exactly how man (and demon) is “restored” to God’s goodness and what this even means.
Let’s take a thorough look at chapter 26. It invokes the ransom view of the atonement, arguing that God’s deceived Satan into bringing about the death of Christ—and this deception was just—as it undid the deception of Adam in the garden. “[T]he deceiver was in his turn deceived, [which] exhibits the justice of the dealing.” There’s an obvious parallelism. Adam was deceived by Satan and thereby went from eternal life to death and dissolution—bringing that upon all of mankind. Jesus deceived Satan and thereby man went from death to eternal life. As we referred to previously, even those damned for eternity in the lake of fire have the “benefit” of eternally having resurrected bodies. How this constitutes a “benefit” to the suffering we will discuss in a bit.
The chapter is concerned with this atonement being just. Herein, Gregory defines “justice” as “to give to everyone according to his due.” By being just with Satan, Jesus showed His “love of man.” Gregory then invokes the preceding parallelism to teach what is considered universalism:
[F]or whereas he, the enemy, effected his deception for the ruin of our nature, He Who is at once the just, and good, and wise one, used His device, in which there was deception, for the salvation of him who had perished, and thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one, but on him, too, who had wrought our ruin. For from this approximation of death to life, of darkness to light, of corruption to incorruption, there is effected an obliteration of what is worse, and a passing away of it into nothing, while benefit is conferred on him who is freed from those evils. (chap 26)
If we are careful to notice, the passage does not say that salvation was (or will be) conferred to Satan. Salvation was conferred to Adam specifically. Adam being saved “thus not only conferred benefit on the lost one, but on him [Satan].” How does Adam being saved confer “benefit” to Adam? This is obvious!
But, how does this confer “benefit” to Satan? This is not as obvious as the universalists believe. Their interpretation is that Satan’s benefit is also salvation. However, Gregory does not say this and we have reason to doubt the universalist reading for two reasons.
First, the “benefit” and “obliteration” may be poetic flourish in reference to the undoing of Satan’s actions, not a literal benefit bestowed upon him such as repentance and the obliteration of a will turned against God. This seems to be the most likely explanation, as evil is described as “passing away into nothing,” meaning it was undone, while the “benefit is conferred on him freed from those evils,” or in other words Adam and those who follow him in repentance.
Another possible interpretation is that Satan will be overwhelmed by God light—in fact, he will be “obliterated” by it so that was evil will pass “away…into nothing” and he would be “freed from those evils.” Hence, this infinite meting of justice does away with evil definitively. Nothing here says it will feel good or end at some point.
In fact, if Saint Gregory is consistent with his own brother Saint Basil on this point, the experience will literally be the experience of damnation:
The fire prepared for the torment of the devil and his angels, is divided by the voice of the Lord, so that after this there might be two powers in it: one that burns, and another that illumines: the tormenting and punishing power of that fire is reserved for those worthy of torment,; while the illumining and enlightening power is intended for the shining of those who rejoice. Therefore the voice of the Lord Who divides and separate the flame of ire is for this: that the dark part might be a fire of torment and the unburning part a light of enjoyment (St. Basil, Homily on Psalm 28).
As we continue reading the same chapter, it continues to describe what this “justice” or “restoration” is. It is an obvious reiteration of Saint Basil’s teaching:
In the same way when death, and corruption, and darkness, and every other offshoot of evil had grown into the nature of the author of evil, the approach of the Divine power, acting like fire Malachi 3:2-3, and making that unnatural accretion to disappear, thus by purgation of the evil becomes a blessing to that nature, though the separation is agonizing…In like manner, when, after long periods of time, the evil of our nature, which now is mixed up with it and has grown with its growth, has been expelled, and when there has been a restoration of those who are now lying in Sin to their primal state, a harmony of thanksgiving will arise from all creation, as well from those who in the process of the purgation have suffered chastisement, as from those who needed not any purgation at all.
Man’s purgation from sin is “like” Satan’s, but for repentant men Orthodox teaching is that this purgation eventually ends for some through the Church’s prayers. Those who are sinful (which I postulate are Christians) are restored to a pre-fallen state according to the preceding. The pre-fallen state is something that will be in common to those who “in the process of the purgation have suffered chastisement” and “those who needed not any purgation.”
Universalists will assert that Satan’s purgation is identical to man and will net the same result, salvation:
He [, by His incarnation and resurrection,] accomplished all the results before mentioned, freeing both man from evil, and healing even the introducer of evil himself. For the chastisement, however painful, of moral disease is a healing of its weakness.
And so, we return to both of our possible explanations from before. Is the “healing” of “the introducer of evil himself” simply a euphemism for the undoing of his actions, but not a permanent cure to his “moral disease?” Is such a cure really only specific to men that repent?
Or, is a literal healing after some finite “agonizing” period of time applicable to even Satan, who will be returned to his primal state? This interpretation surely goes beyond what is explicitly stated. As I stated previously, what the “benefit” or “healing” is not entirely clear. It may not fit the presuppositions we have for these words’ meanings given the context of what is occurring. As we continue reading the Great Catechism, the universalist interpretation becomes untenable.
As Gregory goes on to teach about the sacramental life, he appears to teach that faith in Christ is the only way to salvation. Gregory observes that, “Faith does not reach all mankind” and tacitly allows that “all men do not obtain the grace.” (chap 30)
Is this for eternity or some fixed period of time? Whatever it is, it depends upon the will of the individual. Gregory observes:
For He Who holds the sovereignty of the universe, out of the excess of this regard for man, permitted something to be under our own control, of which each of us alone is master. Now this is the will, a thing that cannot be enslaved, and of self-determining power, since it is seated in the liberty of thought and mind. (chap 30)
A will rightly disposed towards God is necessary for salvation. Rejecting the predestinarianist rhetorical question “if He had been so pleased, might have forcibly drawn those, who were not inclined to yield, to accept the Gospel message,” Gregory responds:
For they assert that God, if He had been so pleased, might have forcibly drawn those, who were not inclined to yield, to accept the Gospel message. But where then would have been their free will? Where their virtuous merit?…if virtue does not exist, life loses its value, reason moves in accordance with fatalism, the praise of moral guardians is gone, sin may be indulged in without risk…The conclusion, then is that it is not the goodness of God that is chargeable with the fact that the Faith is not engendered in all men, but rather the disposition of those by whom the preaching of the Word is received. (chap 31)
If faith was not absolutely essential for salvation, why wouldn’t Gregory respond that God eventually does forcibly draw those not inclined to yield through purgation? And if even Nero and Satan are eventually purged of a will turned against God, why would Gregory assert that God forcibly draws no one? Why does he object to the violation of “free will” and the lack of “victorious merit” needed for salvation?
Therefore, the idea that purgation corrects the will and turns it towards God cannot be what Gregory believes. Gregory teaches that sin has real risk—eternal separation from God. Merit is necessary to enjoy the goodness of God. So, what of those without merit? Is there simply some arbitrary punishment of delayed salvation? At what point do they accrue the merit that Gregory deems is necessary?
The preceding points to the fact that universalists do not understand Gregory’s overall theology and are overly-literalizing the universal aspect of passages such as the preceding which spoke of Satan’s healing. We need to understand that a right disposition of the will is necessary for salvation and purgation does not correct the will. Instead, it undoes Satan’s bad decisions, indirectly “healing” him, by restoring to God those who have not sufficiently repented in this life due to his wickedness.
When Gregory speaks of baptism, it is exceedingly clear he believes the sacrament is necessary for salvation. Baptism removes “any touch of evil” when combined with a cooperative will towards God as exhibited by “pentinence of the transgressor and his imitation of the death,” a euphemism for mortification which brings “freedom from passion.” (chap 35) As we can see from the preceding, the grace of God in baptism is coupled with a cooperative will which merits salvation. What of those who have not obtained the grace of baptism and manifested its reality through their good works?
But as for those whose weaknesses have become inveterate , and to whom no purgation of their defilement has been applied, no mystic water, no invocation of the Divine power, no amendment by repentance, it is absolutely necessary that they should come to be in something proper to their case — just as the furnace is the proper thing for gold alloyed with dross — in order that, the vice which has been mixed up in them being melted away after long succeeding ages, their nature may be restored pure again to God…they who by the mystic water have washed away the defilement of their sin have no further need of the other form of purification, while they who have not been admitted to that form of purgation must needs be purified by fire. (chap 35)
Universalists misread this passage, because they forgot the title of the book: The Great Catechism. A catechism is for the unbaptized. Hence, the above is a warning for nominal Christians who have put off their baptisms (generally due to unrepentant sins connected to vocation and a lack of desire to pursue ascesis). Anyone even minimally conversant in fourth century Christian history knows that this was a huge problem within the Church. In fact, we do not know of a single Church Father born before the fourth century that was baptized as an infant or child—even though we have many fathers with Christian parents. This is how acute the problem Gregory was responding to was.
Hence, while these lax Christians may eventually be saved after eons of Purgation due to a will that is rightly disposed towards God just a little, Gregory is trying to motivate these people to repent and get baptized. Gregory states his warning plainly:
For common sense as well as the teaching of Scripture shows that it is impossible for one who has not thoroughly cleansed himself from all the stains arising from evil to be admitted among the heavenly company. (chap 36)
My interpretations here may be “novel,” because I introduce doubt into the universalist reading by pointing out they have presumptions that are not born out in what is written. However, the universalist when reading the preceding passage is forced to shoehorn their ideas quite forcefully contrary to what is actually there.
They must presume that for the damned to not “be admitted among the heavenly company” is not an absolute statement. Further, they must assert that what Gregory meant was that the damned would not be “among the heavenly company” at the same time as everyone else or that the purgation is the thorough cleansing—even though Gregory literally calls this “impossible.”
As we continue in the chapter, we will see that the universalist reading gets more and more unlikely:
Now, the work properly belonging to the Divine energy is the salvation of those who need it; and this salvation proves effectual by means of the cleansing in the water; and he that has been so cleansed will participate in Purity; and true Purity is Deity. (chap 36)
The preceding is not only an obvious example of the energy-essence distinction being understood in the fourth century, it also contextualizes the earlier statement as pertaining to baptism. “Salvation proves effectual by means of the cleansing in the water.” For the unbaptized catechumens, the judgement is effected by the same divine energy of God that “is the salvation of those…by means of the cleansing.” This will be experienced as a long and painful purgation. Granted, this is an inference—but an inference that works without throwing Gregory’s words into contradiction, which makes it preferable to the universalist reading.
As Gregory continues the work, we can see his universalist statements are often qualified so as to mitigate against their universal applicability to each individual. In Chapter 37, he writes concerning the salvific quality of the sacrament of the Eucharist:
The question was, how can that one Body of Christ vivify the whole of mankind, all, that is, in whomsoever there is Faith, and yet, though divided among all, be itself not diminished?…He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption.
Why not just say all of mankind is vivified? Why point out that this is true only among “every believer” in whom “there is Faith?” Where is the merit of the unbeliever? Where is their union with Christ? How are they vivified by a direct participation in Divine energy by consuming God’s flesh and blood? Why warn that those who are baptized with incorrect faith are not saved? We see the preceding reiterated in Chapter 39:
For whoever has bound himself to any created thing forgets that, as from the Deity, he has no longer hope of salvation…If, then, man, who is himself a created being, thinks that the Spirit and the Only-begotten God are likewise created, the hope which he entertains of a change to a better state will be a vain one; for he only returns to himself.
Gregory’s concern about baptism reveals for us that the universalist-sounding passages are being misapprehended. It is clear that they are warnings to the nominal Christians of Byzantine Rome who were not repenting and being baptized as a real Christian ought.
Not coincidentally, it is on the topic of the necessity of sacraments and having a will which cooperates with God’s that the catechism ends:
For that change in our life which takes place through regeneration will not be change, if we continue in the state in which we were… But if, when the bath has been applied to the body, the soul has not cleansed itself from the stains of its passions and affections, but the life after initiation keeps on a level with the uninitiate life, then, though it may be a bold thing to say, yet I will say it and will not shrink; in these cases the water is but water, for the gift of the Holy Ghost in no ways appears in him who is thus baptismally born.
Within the same paragraph, Gregory then warns of eternal damnation, literally ending the catechism on this note:
Indeed, the sinner’s life of torment presents no equivalent to anything that pains the sense here. Even if some one of the punishments in that other world be named in terms that are well known here, the distinction is still not small. When you hear the word fire, you have been taught to think of a fire other than the fire we see, owing to something being added to that fire which in this there is not; for that fire is never quenched, whereas experience has discovered many ways of quenching this; and there is a great difference between a fire which can be extinguished, and one that does not admit of extinction. That fire, therefore, is something other than this. If, again, a person hears the word worm, let not his thoughts, from the similarity of the term, be carried to the creature here that crawls upon the ground; for the addition that it dies not suggests the thought of another reptile than that known here. Since, then, these things are set before us as to be expected in the life that follows this, being the natural outgrowth according to the righteous judgment of God, in the life of each, of his particular disposition, it must be the part of the wise not to regard the present, but that which follows after, and to lay down the foundations for that unspeakable blessedness during this short and fleeting life, and by a good choice to wean themselves from all experience of evil, now in their lifetime here, hereafter in their eternal recompense.
The ending is deeply unsatisfying to the universalist. Why end with a warning about “eternal recompense” and “the righteous judgement of God” when in fact God is going to bestow salvation on all?
However, if one takes the reading which I have shown contextually makes sense with the book’s own internal details, Gregory’s other works, Basil’s speculations, and fourth century history, it makes all the sense in the world.
Read in this light, Gregory’s catechism is both greatly important and successful in addressing the task at hand. It was incumbent upon Gregory to prove that God is good and that He does not permit the external existence of evil. He did this by asserting that evil is purged out of all of creation. Evil, having no substance, is merely the inclination of the will away from God. And so, evil has no eternal existence–disproving Manicheism. In so doing, he addresses both the Manichean objection as well as the pastoral needs of his largely unbaptized flock.
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