Book II of Life of Moses contains Saint Gregory of Nyssa’s exegesis of the Book of Exodus. As we have already shown, his purpose is to extol the spiritual and ascetic life of the Christian and that it shares concerns with the Great Catechism. We concluded in our previous article that the work’s “universalist” passage clearly was teaching the purgation of a limited group of people after death.
In that article, the rest of Life of Moses was not fleshed out. In this article, we are simply going to add more context behind Saint Gregory’s thought by offering comments in between citations.
The Egyptians’ free will caused all these things according to the preceding principle, and the impartial justice of God followed their free choices and brought upon them what they deserved. As we follow closely the reading of the text at hand, let us not draw the conclusion that these distresses upon those who deserved them came directly from God, but rather let us observe that each man makes his own plagues when through his own free will he inclines toward these painful experiences. (par 86)
The Apostle says the same thing when talking to such a person: Your stubborn refusal to repent is only adding to the anger God will have toward you on that day of anger when his just judgments will be made known. He will repay each one as his works deserve. even if one says that painful retribution comes directly from God upon those who abuse their free will, it would only be reasonable to note that such sufferings have their origin and cause in ourselves. (87)
As we mentioned in the previous article, Gregory posits evil has no essential existence (solving the Manichean problem of evil). So, by making the point that the Egyptians were under God’s wrath by their own free will and that they were in fact punishing themselves by their aberrant will, this explains how Hell can exist without God “making” something evil. In the same vein Gregory continues:
To the one who has lived without sin there is no darkness, no worm, no Gehenna, no fire, nor any other of these fearful names and things, as indeed the history goes on to say that the plagues of Egypt were not meant for the Hebrews. Since then in the same place evil comes to one but not to the other, the difference of free choices distinguishing each from the other, it is evident that nothing evil can come into existence apart from our free choice. (88)
Now it is agreed that the Divine is good in nature. But what is different in nature from the Good is surely something other than the Good. What is outside the Good is perceived to be evil in nature. (237)
[N]o limit would interrupt growth in the ascent to God, since no limit to the Good can be found nor is the increasing of desire for the Good brought to an end because it is satisfied. (239)
Hence, we can see that the different torments and names for Hell are simply ways of describing the same reality—a will turned eternally against God. The “plagues” are in fact people punishing themselves and in this sense only Egyptians (i.e. unrepentant sinners) suffer from these.
Intending to remove his countrymen from evil, he brought death upon all the firstborn in Egypt. By doing this he laid down for us the principle that it is necessary to destroy utterly the first birth of evil. It is impossible to flee the Egyptian life in any other way. (90)
[I]nfancy is not capable of passion. He does not know to distinguish between his right hand and his left. The infant lifts his eyes only to his mother’s nipple, and tears are the sole perceptible sign of his sadness. And if he obtains anything which his nature desires, he signifies his pleasure by smiling. If such a one now pays the penalty of his father’s wickedness, where is justice? Where is piety? Where is holiness? Where is Ezekiel, who cries: The man who has sinned is the man who must die and a son is not to suffer for the sins of his father? (91)
Therefore, as we look for the true spiritual meaning, seeking to determine whether the events took place typologically, we should be prepared to believe that the lawgiver has taught through the things said. (92)
Here, Gregory makes the point that the death of the firstborn is of spiritual import (and not historical in its importance). The significant point is that we must tenaciously battle against sinful proclivities, even at the level of suggestions and thoughts. Without this internal vigilance, we will descend into the “Egyptian life” (i.e. sin). Notice that Christians, who descend into this way of life, are not properly Egyptians. This is implicit in Gregory’s doctrine of purgation.
Gregory then proceeds to the crossing of the Red Sea, which he obviously interprets as a type of baptism. Baptism is an extremely important them throughout this work as well as the Great Catechism. It is in the same vein (again) the discussion occurs:
In this crossing the cloud served as guide. Those before us interpreted the cloud well as the grace of the Holy Spirit, who guides toward the Good those who are worthy. Whoever follows him passes through the water, since the guide makes a way through it for him. In this way he is safely led to freedom, and the one who pursues him to bring him into bondage is destroyed in the water. No one who hears this should be ignorant of the mystery of the water. He who has gone down into it with the army of the enemy emerges alone, leaving the enemy’s army drowning in the water. (121)
Implicit in the sacramental reality of baptism is the idea that it “drowns” the “enemy” (i.e. sin) when coupled with a will that cooperates with the grace of God:
Moreover, the history teaches us by this what kind of people they should be who come through the water, bringing nothing of the opposing army along as they emerge from the water. For if the enemy came up out of the water with them, they would continue in slavery even after the water, since they would have brought up with themselves the tyrant, still alive, whom they did not drown in the deep. If anyone wishes to clarify the figure, this lays it bare: Those who pass through the mystical water in baptism must put to death in the water the whole phalanx of evil—such as covetousness, unbridled desire, rapacious thinking, the passion of conceit and arrogance, wild impulse, wrath, anger, malice, envy, and all such things. Since the passions naturally pursue our nature, we must put to death in the water both the base movements of the mind and the acts which issue from them. (125)
Thus also he means here that after we have drowned the whole Egyptian person (that is every form of evil) in the saving baptism we emerge alone, dragging along nothing foreign in our subsequent life. (126)
Without the cooperation of the will with the salvific grace (i.e. permitting God’s energies to do redemptive work in the individual through the committing of good works and husbanding humility), salvation cannot be expected. This is described as bringing “the Egyptian army” with oneself after crossing the Red Sea:
Many of those who receive the mystical baptism, in ignorance of the commandments of the Law, mix the bad leaven of the old life with the new life. Even after crossing the water they bring along the Egyptian army, which still lives with them in their doings. (127)
Later in the work, Gregory makes a quick reference to how the unrepentant heart holding onto sin is akin to the retaining of the “undying work.” Presuming upon a will that cannot repent in the afterlife, this condition is eternal:
In this account Scripture after a fashion cries out to the covetous that the insatiable greed of those always hoarding surplus is turned into worms. Everything beyond what they need encompassed by this covetous desire becomes on the next day—that is in the future life—a worm to the person who hoards it. He who hears “worm” certainly perceives the undying worm which is made alive by covetousness. (143)
Much of the work continues finding spiritual applications pertaining to ascesis and good works. A section I would like to emphasize further would be Gregory’s exegesis of the snake-statue which cured the Israelites’ snake bites:
To look to the cross means to render one’s whole life dead and crucified to the world, unmoved by evil. Truly it is as the prophet says: “They nail their own flesh with the fear of God.” The nail would be the self-control that holds the flesh. (274)
Man, then, is freed from sin through him who assumed the form of sin and became like us who had turned into the form of the serpent…For although the evil of death which follows sins does not prevail against those who look to the cross, the lust of flesh against spirit has not completely ceased to exist. (276)
We can see in the preceding words a sincere pastoral care at the heart of Gregory’s exegesis. He understands that “the lust of the flesh has not completely ceased to exist” after baptism, but we must continue to “look to the cross.” Those who crucify themselves to the world live onto Christ. And with this, eternal life. On this note, I will end my treatment of Life of Moses.
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