Most twentieth-century scholarship regarding Gregory of Nyssa's theological anthropology has focused upon Gregory's most explicitly anthropological treatise, On the Making of Man, which was written toward the end of Gregory's life as a conclusion to Basil the Great's Hexaemeron. These studies have contributed significantly to our understandings of Gregory's view of human sexuality and the Fall1 and of his incorporation of particular Greek philosophical concepts into his thought; consistently with Jaroslav Pelikan's characterization of the Cappadocian project as an engagement with Hellenism,2 twentieth-century scholars have for the most part emphasized the Neoplatonic elements of Gregory's account of anthropology.3 While there has been renewed interest in Gregory's theological commitments insofar as they extend to the doctrine of the Trinity and to his views of asceticism,4 contemporary scholars have tended not to consider the implications of Gregory's doctrine of God for his understanding of the human person.5 I suspect that this omission arises from scholars' tendencies to study On the Making of Man, a text that is not highly theological at first glance, in isolation from Gregory's earlier work.

In this essay, I contend that key themes from On the Making of Man are revealed to be Christological in nature when considered alongside comparable themes in many of Gregory's earlier treatises. Through my consideration of On the Making of Man in relation to these other texts, I show that Gregory's understanding of Christ implicitly undergirds his conception of human nature. The developments within Gregory's understanding of Christ, which we can observe by tracing Christological themes through On Virginity, The Life of Moses, On Perfection, and the Address on Religious Instruction (the Catechetical Oration), thus enriches our interpretation of themes present in On the Making of Man, including Gregory's conception of humanity as God's image and likeness, his understanding of the nature of human perfection, and his affirmation of the significance of God's self-revelation for our ability to achieve our teleological end.


On the Making of Man contains an account of human nature as originally created in God's image and likeness but as presently mixed with characteristics of irrational animals as well. Our teleological end is the restoration of the imago Dei and of our original created state. In developing these ideas, Gregory rarely refers explicitly to Christ, but these central concepts are nevertheless worth reviewing because their study reveals the close relation, within Gregory's thought, between the imago Dei and humanity's teleological end. It is the intricate connection between these concepts, in turn, that provides the foundation for a view of Gregory's theological anthropology as centrally Christological. I will argue that Gregory's understanding of Christ as the image of God, the end to which we are restored, is at work implicitly even in this text: when Gregory refers to the imago Dei he presumes a Christological view of this concept that he has previously developed more fully in treatises that focus more specifically upon human perfection.

Gregory's understanding of the imago Dei, the basis of my ultimate claim that his anthropology is Christological, is best understood in light of his (admittedly Neoplatonic) affirmation that God is the source of all goodness. Gregory supports this claim by emphasizing God's eternity in contrast to the world's temporality. God and matter, he explains, are not co-eternal.6 God alone is completely good, and transcends our ideas of goodness: ‘God is in His own nature all that which our mind can conceive of as good; - rather, transcending all good that we can conceive or comprehend.’7 Goodness is ‘superabundant’ when compared to evil; evil is bounded and limited, whereas goodness, as part of God's nature, is not.8 In turn, this God who is good by nature imparts this goodness to creation. Gregory explains that because God is the source of all goodness, God's creation of humanity makes us naturally good to some degree, both in our form and by our very existence. God's decision to create humans as naturally good follows necessarily from God's nature; it would be outside the nature of God, who is good, to create a being that is not good: ‘He creates man for no other reason than that He is good; and being such, as having this as His reason for entering upon the creation of our nature, He would not exhibit the power of His goodness in an imperfect form …’9 In imparting goodness to creatures, God has given us attributes, such as purity, which form us in God's likeness, and virtues that resemble the beauty of God's image.10 At the same time, however, because goodness most essentially belongs to the nature of God alone, the good that exists in us is in potency: for Gregory, we are good insofar as God constructs us with the potential to participate fully in himself.11 In turn, Gregory explains that it is because God has created us in God's image and with God's likeness that humanity may participate in God's goodness:12

The language of Scripture therefore expresses it concisely by a comprehensive phrase, in saying that man was made ‘in the image of God’: for this is the same as to say that He made human nature participant in all good; for if the Deity is the fullness of good, and this is His image, then the image finds its resemblance to the Archetype in being filled with all good.13

Our creation in God's image thus enables us to participate in God's goodness.

At the same time, although Gregory affirms that we are created in God's image, he also affirms that this image is not descriptive of our present postlapsarian state;14 our teleological perfection lies in being restored in this image. Because of the Fall, we are no longer participating fully in God's love; consequently, we do not maintain God's image as fully as God gave us the potential to do upon our original creation.15 Moreover, because God, through God's foreknowledge,16 anticipated the Fall,17 God gave us in our present state a ‘less rational nature’ that is actually the ‘mean’ between the divine nature and the nature of beasts: ‘While two natures – the Divine and incorporeal nature, and the irrational life of brutes – are separated from each other as extremes, human nature is the mean between them.’18 We therefore have a ‘double likeness’ both to God and to ‘the brute nature’, and we participate in the latter when we allow our passions to overtake us.19 These passions are inconsistent with the divine image and have the potential to distort completely the potential for goodness that is part of our being created in God's image: ‘whenever a man … forces his reason [which Gregory particularly equates with the imago Dei20] to become the servant of his passions, there takes place a sort of conversion of the good stamp in him into the irrational image, his whole nature being traced anew after that design.’21 Gregory does not believe that the divine image will ultimately be subsumed by the passions, because his view of the ontological primacy of goodness over evil makes the victory of evil metaphysically impossible: ‘Wickedness … is not so strong as to prevail over the power of good; nor is the folly of our nature more powerful and more abiding than the wisdom of God.’22 Thus we can hope for the resurrection, which restores us to our original natural state: ‘Now the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state …’23

Gregory's understanding of the imago Dei is significant because the connection he draws between imago Dei and anthropology functions to align his view of human nature with his account of the person of Jesus Christ. Although Gregory's references to Christ in On the Making of Man are few, this treatise nonetheless suggests that Gregory conceives Christ as the archetype of the imago Dei to which we are restored as part of our salvation. Gregory reiterates the observation that God, in creating humanity, speaks using a plural possessive pronoun (‘let us make man in our image’), which demonstrates both that the persons of the Trinity communicate with each other and that the Father and Son share an image.24 Christ is therefore God's image and likeness. As the image of God, Christ's human nature is simultaneously both the prototype for our own, and the end to which we are restored. This point is underscored by Gregory's argument that differentiated genders are not part of the imago Dei, our original natural state. Gregory's warrant for this claim that our original state lacks a differentiation in genders is that Christ is the prototype for human nature; in turn, he explains, there is no distinction of gender in Christ: ‘I presume that everyone knows that this [differentiation of genders] is a departure from the Prototype: for ‘in Christ Jesus,’ as the apostle says, ‘there is neither male nor female.’’25 Thus, although Christology is not explicitly central to Gregory's account of the perfection of the human person in On the Making of Man, Gregory's understanding of Christ implicitly underlies his conception of the nature of our teleological end. Considering this claim in light of an examination of Gregory's discussions of the imago Dei and human perfection in earlier texts makes the centrality of Christology for Gregory's anthropology even more evident. I will now explore the relation of Christology and anthropology in these treatises by examining them in chronological order.


One text that particularly demonstrates the Christological grounding of Gregory's theological anthropology is Gregory's early treatise On Virginity. On Virginity primarily describes the nature of perfection, the content of the ‘life of virtue’26 for which we should strive. Gregory encourages people to engage in the practice of virginity as a means of attaining perfection; he focuses his treatise upon virginity because he sees virginity as ‘the foundation for the life of virtue’.27 As he puts forth these ideas, Gregory articulates themes similar to those in On the Making of Man; he maintains that God, as the source of all goodness, is himself the content of virtue, and contemplation of and participation in God is the end for which we are created. On Virginity finally reaches conclusions that are more explicitly Christological than those in On the Making of Man, but the ways in which Gregory understands the work of Christ in these two treatises are also clearly complementary in that both link Christ closely to human perfection. Going beyond but not contradicting the Christological conclusions of On the Making of Man, Gregory in On Virginity portrays Christ not simply as the content of our perfection, but more overtly as the means through which we are able to achieve this perfection; it is through participation in Christ's life, death, and resurrection that we are truly able to be restored to the imago Dei and thereby to fulfill our created purpose.

The idea that God himself is virtue is foundational for understanding precisely why human perfection lies in contemplating God, and the equation of God with virtue is thus a primary theme in Gregory's discussion of the nature of our telos. The quest for virtue involves ‘making [one's] way up to God’28 through practices such as virginity, the merit of which lies in its ability to teach us to live as God lives: ‘the pursuit of virginity is a certain art and faculty of the more divine life, teaching those living in the flesh how to be like the incorporeal nature.’29 In order to escape from evil, which Gregory associates with that which is ‘changeable’,30 the soul must achieve perfection by contemplating God, which enables us to imitate him: Gregory advocates

living for the soul alone and imitating, as far as possible, the regimen of the incorporeal powers … [whose] work and zeal and success consist in the contemplation of the Father of incorruptibility and in beautifying their own form through imitation of the archetypal beauty.31

Our perfection, then, consists in contemplating God so that we, too, might live the divine life; when our soul ‘submits itself to the purity of God, it will be formed according to its participation in and reflection of the prototypal beauty’.32 Our telos is to know and imitate God, who himself is virtue.

Gregory maintains that God instills in us an ability to achieve virtue (and thus to know God) at the time he creates us. We are God's ‘image and likeness’,33 and Gregory explains that we can become like God and participate in him because God, by creating us in his likeness, has made it part of our natures to do so: ‘Being like the divine is not our function, nor is it the product of human ability, but it is the part of the generosity of God who freely, at the birth of the first man, gave our nature a likeness to Himself.’34 God's goodness is present in each of us35 and cannot be destroyed by the effects of sin: ‘the goodness of God is not separated from our nature, or far away from those who choose to seek it, but it is ever present in each individual, unknown and forgotten when one is choked by the cares and pleasures of life, but discovered again when we turn our attention back to it.’36 Achieving a life of virtue necessitates that we reject the sinful life of the flesh, which leads to death,37 but this rejection does not lead us to something unnatural or foreign to our original created being. Instead, the rejection of sin enables our restoration in the divine image in which we were originally created: in the parable of the lost drachma, God's concern for finding the lost ‘is the restoration to the original state of the divine image which is now covered by the filth of the flesh’.38

Moreover, because this divine image that is restored in the life of virtue is part of our created natures, it is part of our nature actively to seek God. The natural journey of our minds, Gregory explains, is toward the ‘really good’.39 God has instilled energy in our minds to enable us to seek him: once the flesh has been rejected, the mind ‘would move with its own natural energy and nothing would prevent it from being borne upwards and fastening itself upon the truth of reality’.40 Gregory explains that God has naturally constructed us so that we will ultimately move toward him once we have been properly directed: ‘It is never possible for what has been put into eternal motion by its Creator to stop and to use its motion for useless purposes once it has been controlled and made incapable of not going directly to the truth, being kept on all sides from what is not suitable for it.’41 We actively long for the ‘divine life’,42 and God has created us with the ‘goal’ of looking toward him. Our participation in God, who is virtue himself, and our ‘ability to see God’43 are thus the natural ends of our created natures as Gregory understands them.

God has thus created us in the divine image and likeness, and by our natures we are inclined to participate in God. The effects of sin upon our lives are such, however, that the work of Christ is essential for our salvation and for our ability to reject the flesh and practice the philosophic life that guides us toward the ‘contemplation’44 of God that is our created telos. Though Gregory speaks of the life of virginity as preparation for Christ in a manner that sometimes seems to suggest that Christ's work follows from our virginity rather than being essential to its practice, it is clear that his understanding of virginity only makes sense because Christ, through the things he has accomplished in the incarnation, is for us the ‘source of incorruptibility’.45 We must be purified in order for Christ to be spiritually born in us, and, by the same token, we may be purified precisely because Christ has corporeally entered the world through Mary:

For what happened corporeally in the case of the immaculate Mary, when the fullness of the divinity shone forth in Christ through her virginity, takes place also in every soul spiritually giving birth to Christ, although the Lord no longer effects a bodily presence. For, Scripture says: ‘We no longer know Christ according to the flesh,’ but, as the Gospel says somewhere, He dwells with us spiritually and the Father along with Him.46

The philosophic life is essential to our salvation because it is the means by which we follow Christ and participate in the crucifixion. Christ has commanded us to follow him, and we participate in the practice of philosophy as a means of obeying this command and allowing Christ to serve as pilot in our life's voyage:47‘How do you, the living, listen to the Crucified One, the Healer of sin, when He orders us to follow Him and to carry the cross as a banner against the Adversary, if you are not crucified to the world and have not taken on the death of the flesh?’48 Even more significantly, we are able to be united with God only because the incarnation has occurred; our union with God is grounded in the work of Christ, in which we may participate: ‘Uniting yourself with God comes from being crucified with Him and living with Him and sharing His glory and His kingship; offering yourself to God means transforming human nature and worth into the angelic.’49 As we move more fully toward our telos of seeing God,50 it is Christ who enables us to be made like God: through drawing near to the ‘true light of Christ’, we are ‘made light’ like Christ.51 This treatise, then, shows a clear link between Christ and the human person both in its understanding of the content of human perfection and in the necessity of Christ as the means of achieving perfection as well as salvation. In this text, Gregory shows that he perceives the philosophic life as a practice through which we can come to know and contemplate God only because the work of Christ has enabled us fully to reject sin and restore the divine image. In making this claim, Gregory underscores his argument in On the Making of Man that the resurrection of Christ, our prototype, makes possible the resurrection and restoration of all of humanity.


The strong connection between Christ and human perfection is demonstrated even further in Gregory's later work The Life of Moses. In this treatise, as in On Virginity, Gregory's discussions of Christ are grounded in his concern with describing the nature of the ‘perfect life for men’.52 The perfection that constitutes a virtuous life is friendship with God: ‘true perfection’ is ‘to be known by God and to become his friend’.53 As in the earlier treatises, Gregory maintains a strong distinction between God, who is absolute virtue, and humanity, whose ability to be virtuous is grounded in the creation of our natures as able to participate in God by virtue of being in God's image. At the same time, he builds upon and expands themes from the earlier treatises. Previously, he has shown that Christ is God's image and the prototype to which we will be restored. In The Life of Moses, he strengthens these claims by showing that Christ himself, as God, is ‘absolute virtue’ and that Christ is God's self-revelation. The importance Gregory places upon God's theophany in Christ in this treatise adds a dimension to Gregory's anthropology in On the Making of Man that specifies precisely how it is that God restores us to his image.

Christ, as God, is virtue itself, and as God's self-revelation, he is the particular material manifestation of virtue for humanity. Gregory's affirmation that Christ himself ‘is absolute virtue’54 is a particular way of articulating a general metaphysical claim central to The Life of Moses as it was to On the Making of Man, namely, that God is equivalent to the good. Gregory explains early in his treatise that not only is God ‘good in nature’,55 but he is goodness itself: ‘The Divine One is himself the Good (in the primary and proper sense of the word), whose very nature is goodness.’56 Gregory's recognition that goodness does not exist independently of God has immediate practical implications for how he speaks of human attempts to live lives that are good. When we seek virtue, we are pursuing God himself. Moreover, our virtue is not something that we achieve or possess of our own accord; rather, we only live virtuously insofar as we participate in God's goodness, because goodness, by its nature, cannot be bounded:

Since, then, it has not been demonstrated that there is any limit to virtue except evil, and since the Divine does not admit of an opposite, we hold the divine nature to be unlimited and infinite. Certainly whoever pursues true virtue participates in nothing other than God, because he is himself absolute virtue.57

Our virtue, then, consists of participation in God; God himself is the content of the virtue we pursue. Because God himself is virtue, and we, as part of the created order, are materially different from God, it follows that we can achieve moral lives only insofar as God reveals virtue to us an idea which is not developed explicitly in On the Making of Man (although Gregory's affirmation that the Father and Son share an image suggests that a perception of Christ as God's self-revelation does not contradict the earlier treatise's understanding of Christ).

Gregory demonstrates the centrality of God's self-revelation for human perfection in his account of the theophanies of God to Moses. These theophanies are significant for us because even though Gregory recognizes that we cannot strive to imitate the literal events of Moses’ life and therefore will not experience revelations of God in this precise form, Moses’ life nevertheless provides us with a ‘moral teaching’ that equips us for virtue,58 and part of this teaching is that a life of virtue is grounded in God's self-revelation. Gregory's discussion of two instances of this revelation, in turn, demonstrates that God's self-revelation for us is to be found most fully in Christ. The burning bush that Moses encounters is akin to the presence of Christ in Mary's womb. In the burning bush, God reveals himself to Moses: ‘This truth, which was then manifested by the ineffable and mysterious illumination which came to Moses, is God.’59 It is God's self-revelation to Moses that empowers Moses to free the Hebrews from the Egyptians: ‘after he was empowered by the theophany which he had seen, he was commanded to release his countrymen from Egyptian bondage.’ Thus we see that Moses’ acts of virtue are not derived from his own human abilities, but from ‘strength implanted by God’.60 Gregory explicitly recognizes that this particular theophany, which empowers Moses to do his work, is comparable to God's self-revelation in Christ. God is present in the womb of the Virgin Mary and does not consume her or destroy her virginity, just as the flame shines in the burning bush without consuming it: ‘From this we learn also the mystery of the Virgin: The light of divinity which through birth shone from her into human life did not consume the burning bush, even as the flower of her virginity was not withered by giving birth.’61 We are to look to God's self-revelation in the material world (the fullest of which is Christ himself), and this revelation guides all of us toward salvation and virtuous acts:

In the same way that Moses on that occasion attained to this knowledge, so now does everyone who, like him, divests himself of the earthly covering and looks to the light shining from the bramble bush, that is, to the Radiance which shines upon us through this thorny flesh and which is (as the Gospel says) the true light and the truth itself. A person like this becomes able to help others to salvation, to destroy the tyranny which holds power wickedly, and to deliver to freedom everyone held in evil servitude.62

Moses, then, is able to perform miraculous and saving acts because he has been ‘enlightened by the light which shone from the bush’.63 Similarly, our lives of virtue follow from God's self-revelation in Christ.

In his account of what he calls God's greatest self-revelation to Moses,64 Gregory grounds his understanding of how Christians achieve perfection even more explicitly in Christ. This moment of theophany occurs as God shelters Moses in a rock and allows him to see his back. Gregory makes a point of emphasizing that it is precisely when Moses is sheltered in the rock that he is able to see God,65 and explains that Christ is the rock. It is by standing firmly on Christ that we are able to achieve the perfection that is knowing God:

If someone, as the Psalmist says, should pull his feet up from the mud of the pit and plant them upon the rock (the rock is Christ who is absolute virtue) then the more steadfast and unmoveable (according to the advice of Paul) he becomes in the Good the faster he completes the course. It is like using the standing still as if it were a wing while the heart flies upward through its stability in the good.66

For Gregory, we must firmly establish ourselves in Christ, the rock, in order to progress fully toward virtue: ‘the firmer and more immovable one remains in the Good, the more he progresses in the course of virtue.’67 When Moses enters the rock, he is standing in Christ, apart from whom no goodness exists: ‘We say, then, that Moses’ entrance into the rock has the same significance as these descriptions. For, since Christ is understood by Paul as the rock, all hope of good things is believed to be in Christ, in whom we have learned all the treasures of good things to be. He who finds any good finds it in Christ who contains all good.’68 Because Christ, as goodness itself, is the source of all good, it is only through him that we can know virtue and see God properly.


The significance of Christ for Gregory's theological anthropology is made even more explicit in his treatise On Perfection. Although this text focuses explicitly upon Christ to a degree that the others do not, a consideration of this text in comparison to the others indicates a strong continuity in key themes across Gregory's work (and thus underscores my point that Christology is a central part of Gregory's theological anthropology in his work as a whole). On Perfection is grounded in the same metaphysical claims about the nature of God as Gregory's preceding treatises are in this text, Gregory recognizes that perfection (as most fittingly characteristic of God) is eternal and infinite, and that although our nature, unlike God's, is changeable and somewhat unstable,69 we are nevertheless able to achieve perfection by participation in Christ.70 Not only are these metaphysical claims central to each of these examined works, but a closer examination of On Perfection shows that the Christology that Gregory puts forth here does not represent a significant departure from the understandings of Christ in his earlier works. Instead, Gregory's key claims regarding Christ are rooted in ideas from his earlier writings. One of these claims can be interpreted as an expansion of Gregory's identification, in On the Making of Man, of Christ as our prototype, and another claim helps to clarify an ambiguous point in On the Making of Man and simultaneously to reiterate the idea that human perfection is equivalent to restoration of its original imago Dei.

In On Perfection, as in On the Making of Man, Gregory affirms that Christ is our ‘Prototype, ‘the image of the invisible God’’.71 However, this treatise focuses more attention upon the significance of this designation and its relation to Christ's incarnation. In highlighting the relationship between a conception of Christ as God's image and the significance of Christ's work in the incarnation, Gregory emphasizes God's self-revelation in Christ, recalling a theme from The Life of Moses. He explains that when Paul calls Christ ‘the image of the invisible God’, he is demonstrating how Christ, in the incarnation, chose to be made as God's image so that we could receive God's self-revelation72 and could at the same time recognize what we are called to be.73 Our perfection, Gregory explains, lies in assimilating ourselves to the archetypal image of God,74 and we accomplish this by imitating Christ. Because God has become incarnate, ‘it is possible to see all the features of the Prototype, the image of God.’75 When we imitate Christ, we are remade in his image: ‘Looking toward that image and adorning our own form clearly in accordance with that One, each person becomes himself an ‘image of the invisible God’…’76 Our telos, then, is to ‘become an image of the image, having achieved the beauty of the Prototype through activity as a kind of imitation’.77 We accomplish this end through knowing Christ and conforming our lives to his character, about which we learn by considering the names for Christ put forth in the writings of Paul: ‘the one road to the pure and divine life for lovers of virtue is knowing what the name of Christ means, in conformity with which we must shape our lives, attuning it to virtue through the emphasis on the other terms which we gathered together in our introduction from the holy voice of Paul.’78

Gregory further demonstrates how our recovery of the divine image is specifically an assimilation to Christ79 and a ‘witness’ to our ‘brotherhood’ with him80 in his discussions of Paul; Paul himself exemplifies the sort of transformation that Christ accomplishes in us through our imitation of him. Gregory explains that Paul ‘became an “imitator of Christ”, through his life of virtue.’81 Through imitating Christ, Paul came to know who God is, to the extent that human nature can know God's nature: ‘comprehending as much as human power can concerning the divine nature, he revealed the unapproachable and incomprehensible Logos of substantial being in human terms.’82 Paul's ability to know God is grounded in Gregory's affirmation that Christ has actually transformed Paul; Paul's imitation of Christ led to the transformation of his soul in Christ's image so that Christ could speak and work through him in concrete ways: Paul, ‘most of all, knew what Christ is, … imitating Him so brilliantly that he revealed his own Master in himself, his own soul being transformed through his accurate imitation of his prototype, so that Paul no longer seemed to be living and speaking, but Christ Himself seemed to be living in him.’83 The life of Paul thus provides us with an understanding of how we are transformed into Christ's nature through imitating Him.

Gregory's claim that imitation leads to transformation is closely related to a claim about the nature of redemption accomplished in the incarnation, which Gregory articulates more fully here than in earlier works and which helps to clarify Gregory's earlier writings. This claim is an explanation of what it means for the Word made flesh to be called ‘“the firstborn” of creation … the “firstborn from the dead” and the “firstborn among many brethren”’.84 Christ, Gregory explains, is the only-begotten and simultaneously the first to be resurrected from the dead.85 In accomplishing these things, he redeems humanity as his own divine nature brings about a transformation in his own human nature, elevating it to God through its sinlessness: ‘He in Himself assimilated His own human nature to the power of the Godhead, being a part of the common nature, but not being subject to the inclination to sin which is in that nature.’86 In turn, this act of Christ is the means through which he may lead us to unite with God through our imitation of him: Christ will ‘lead each person to union with the Godhead if they do nothing unworthy of union with the Divine’.87 Christ's activity in the incarnation has thus created the condition for the possibility of our human nature becoming holy and thus being restored to its original incorruptibility:

[T]he Mediator, assuming the first fruit of our common nature, made it holy through His soul and body, unmixed and unreceptive of all evil, preserving it in Himself. He did this in order that, having taken it up to the Father of incorruptibility through His own incorruptibility, the entire group might be drawn along with it because of its related nature, and in order that the Father might admit the disinherited to ‘adoption’ as sons, and the enemies of God to a share in His own Godhead.88

The particular achievements of Christ in enabling us to become holy by purifying our nature is thus elevated by Gregory in this treatise and developed to a greater degree than in his earlier works that we examined. At the same time, the links between Christ and perfection that Gregory articulated in earlier works suggest that the ideas of On Perfection are in keeping with earlier texts; a Christology implicit in Gregory's earlier works is gradually becoming more and more explicit.


This process of the gradual development of an increasingly explicit Christology culminates in Gregory's Address on Religious Instruction, generally thought to be a synthetic treatise and among his final works. This text contains an account of the purpose of the incarnation which is much more explicit than that in his former works and which is designed to respond specifically to objections made against it by various persons. The content of his argument reveals that the specific relationship Gregory draws here between Christology and anthropology is generally consistent with his earlier works. Gregory reiterates that our purpose is to participate in the divine goodness, God has fashioned us in the divine image so that we might appropriately achieve this purpose, and Christ himself is the imago Dei, through whom we are transformed and restored in the divine image. At the same time, however, this writing expands two points from On the Making of Man for reasons connected to Gregory's Christology. First, it offers greater clarification about the nature of our original state and of the way in which the fall affected our natures; Gregory expands this claim because he desires to show how God was not defiled by being made man. Second, it develops the soteriological implications of Gregory's earlier conception of man as a mean between divinity and the sensible world by showing that this understanding of creation parallels the incarnation and is the means by which God redeems the natural world.

As in his earlier works, Gregory reiterates the idea that humanity was originally created in the image of God, and as such, is necessarily good. The purpose for which God created us is ‘to participate in the divine goodness’, and so God has constructed us ‘in such a way as to fit [us] to share in this goodness’.89 Gregory explains that in saying our nature is in God's image, he is claiming that it is originally constituted in a manner that ‘comprehends all of the divine attributes’.90 We are given faculties that participate in those of God and that desire him, so that we might innately be drawn to him:

… man, who was created to enjoy God's goodness, had to have some element in his nature akin to what he was to share. Hence he was endowed with life, reason, wisdom, and all the good things of God, so that by each of them his desires might be directed to what was natural to him. And since immortality is one of the good attributes of the divine nature, it was essential that the constitution of our nature should not be deprived of this.91

In a manner similar to his earlier writings, then, Gregory shows how God has originally constructed us in his own image for the purpose of enabling us to participate in his goodness.

In making these claims, Gregory underscores the point that evil is not natural to our natures. As in On the Making of Man, he recognizes that God provisionally92 gave us elements of mortality that were distinct from his image, because he recognized that the fall would occur. However, these elements did not destroy the divine image: ‘Mortality, then, derived from the nature of irrational creatures, provisionally clothed the nature created for immortality. It enveloped his outward, but not his inward, nature. It affected the sentient part of man, but not the divine image.’93 Moreover, Gregory makes a point of reiterating the claim that the ‘existence of evil did not have its origin in the divine will’,94 but that because we are created in God's image, we must necessarily have a free will as God does; our free will made possible the fall, just as it makes our acts of virtue truly meaningful.95 His particular emphases upon the points that our ‘constitution had its origin in goodness’96 and that God is not the author of evil (since evil is simply privation of goodness)97 are grounded in Christological concerns; he wants to demonstrate to his opponents how it is that God, in entering our nature, did not defile himself or do something improper to God. Gregory begins with an argument that God was not born into evil; Gregory concludes that human nature is not itself evil partly because he needs to support this contention that the incarnation was not a defilement of God's goodness and beauty.98 Thus, in developing a claim about God's nature and the incarnation, Gregory demonstrates the particular significance of his argument that our natural construction is good.

A closely related point, which underscores Gregory's claim that humanity is not inherently evil and simultaneously enriches his argument in On the Making of Man that humanity is the mean between God and irrational matter, is found in Gregory's discussion of how humans are formed of both divine and earthly elements. In speaking of the mixture of these elements in humanity, Gregory explains that God uses the divine elements in humankind to redeem and purify the material elements with which they are united:

God, it [Genesis] says, made man by taking dust from the ground, and with his own breath planted life in the creature he had formed. In that way the earthly was raised to union with the divine, and a single grace equally extends through all creation, inasmuch as the lower nature is blended with that which transcends the world.99

Because earthly elements are part of human nature, the incarnation of God in a human person can serve as the means by which all the natural world, not just humanity, is brought toward union with God. In constructing humanity so that both sensible and immaterial natures are constitutive of our being, God ensures the salvation of the entire created order: ‘the divine wisdom also provides a blending and admixture of the sensible world with the intelligible nature, so that all things equally participate in the good, and no existing thing is deprived of a share in the higher nature.’100 The ideas articulated in this work thus demonstrate the significance of Gregory's claim in On the Making of Man that humans are the mean between the divine and the irrational natures. Because the immaterial world is a central part of human nature, the incarnation of God in man can redeem all of creation.


In the writings of Gregory of Nyssa, then, we see that a relationship between Christology and anthropology developed over time, beginning in his early work On Virginity and culminating in treatises that contain extended Christological discussions. While these explicitly Christological arguments are absent from his even later work On the Making of Man, the language through which these earlier texts describe Christ's human nature indicates that Gregory's Christological understanding of the human person developed over time and that, in the course of this development, Gregory worked to clarify and nuance ideas that are also clearly present in On the Making of Man. In each of these treatises, Christ is the original imago Dei; as such, Christ is essential to our salvation and to our ability to participate in God's goodness. Thus we see that a consideration of a broader selection of Gregory's work than that usually considered in discussions of his theological anthropology reveals a greater emphasis upon Christology in Gregory's account of the human person than scholars tend to acknowledge. Although both the creation stories of Genesis and particular Neoplatonist concepts clearly influence Gregory's understanding of the human person, a consideration of all of these texts demonstrates that this understanding is, simultaneously, decidedly Christological.


  1. 1 John Behr notes the centrality of this issue for discussions of Gregory's theological anthropology in ‘The Rational Animal: A Rereading of Gregory of Nyssa's De hominis opificio,’Journal of Early Christian Studies 7:2 (Summer 1999), pp. 219–247.

  2. 2 Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993). Particularly noteworthy is Pelikan's emphasis on the influence of Plato's Timaeus on Gregory's view of creation.

  3. 3 See, for example, A.H. Armstrong, ‘Platonic Elements in St. Nyssen's of Nyssa's Doctrine of Man’, Dominican Studies 1 (1948), pp. 11326, and Gerhart B. Ladner, ‘The Philosophical Anthropology of St. Gregory of Nyssa’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 12 (1958), pp. 5964. In his 1930 work The Platonism of Gregory of Nyssa (Berkeley: University of California Publications in Classical Philology, 1930), Herald Cherniss bluntly comments, ‘it seems that, but for some few orthodox dogmas which he could not circumvent, Nyssen has merely applied Christian names to Plato's doctrines and called it a Christian theology’ (p. 63).

  4. 4 For a helpful overview of recent scholarship on Gregory's theology, see Sarah Coakley, ‘Re-thinking Gregory of Nyssa: Introduction – Gender, Trinitarian Analogies, and the Pedagogy of The Song’, Modern Theology 18: 4 (October 2002), pp. 431561.

  5. 5 A notable exception is J. Warren Smith, Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa (New York: Crossroard Publishing Company, 2004).

  6. 6 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXIII, 3.

  7. 7 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 10.

  8. 8 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXI, 1–3.

  9. 9 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 10.

  10. 10 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, V, 1.

  11. 11 ‘We suppose the human germ to possess the potentiality of its nature …’ (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXIX, 3)

  12. 12 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, V, 1–2.

  13. 13 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 10.

  14. 14 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 7.

  15. 15 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, ‘God is love, and the fount of love … if this be absent, the whole stamp of the likeness is transformed’ (V, 2).

  16. 16 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 17.

  17. 17 He perceived in our created nature the bias toward evil …’ (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXII, 4)

  18. 18 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 9.

  19. 19 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVIII, 3.

  20. 20 Though we are fully in the image of God, our reason is particularly able to participate in the divine, because God actually ‘imparted’ mind and reason to us, ‘adding to the image the proper adornment of His own nature’ (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, IX, 1). The ‘mind’ that we all have is a particular manifestation of our common creation in the imago Dei (Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 17).

  21. 21 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVIII, 3.

  22. 22 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XXI, 1. It is interesting to note, however, that Gregory's recognition of the competing forces within our natures does lead him to make a more moderate claim that the pursuit of virtue is voluntary (XVI, 11) in addition to being something that is akin to our natural impulses toward goodness.

  23. 23 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVII, 2.

  24. 24 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, VI, 1–3; XVI, 1–2 and 5.

  25. 25 Gregory of Nyssa, On the Making of Man, XVI, 7.

  26. 26 Gregory of Nyssa, On Virginity, in Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1967), pp. 6–75 (here p. 6).

  27. 27 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 56.

  28. 28 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 21.

  29. 29 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 27.

  30. 30 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 27.

  31. 31 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 27.

  32. 32 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 41.

  33. 33 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 43.

  34. 34 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 44.

  35. 35 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 44.

  36. 36 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 44.

  37. 37 ‘Separating ourselves from life in the flesh which death normally follows upon, we must seek a kind of life which does not have death as its consequence. This is the life of virginity … If, then, death is not able to outwit virginity, but through it comes to an end and ceases to be, this is clear proof that virginity is stronger than death' (Gregory, On Virginity, p. 48).

  38. 38 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 45.

  39. 39 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 30.

  40. 40 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 30.

  41. 41 Gregory, On Virginity, pp. 30–31.

  42. 42 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 17.

  43. 43 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 42.

  44. 44 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 11.

  45. 45 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 11.

  46. 46 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 11.

  47. 47 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 74.

  48. 48 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 74.

  49. 49 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 74.

  50. 50 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 75.

  51. 51 Gregory, On Virginity, p. 41.

  52. 52 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 33 (I, 15).

  53. 53 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 137 (II, 320).

  54. 54 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 117 (II, 244).

  55. 55 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 116 (II, 237).

  56. 56 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 31 (I, 7).

  57. 57 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 31 (I, 7).

  58. 58 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 65 (II, 48–49).

  59. 59 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 59 (II, 19).

  60. 60 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 35 (I, 21).

  61. 61 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 59 (II, 21).

  62. 62 Gregory, Life of Moses, pp. 60–61 (II, 26).

  63. 63 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 134 (II, 310).

  64. 64 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 116 (II, 231).

  65. 65 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 119 (II, 251–252).

  66. 66 Gregory, Life of Moses, pp. 117–118 (II, 244).

  67. 67 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 117 (II, 243).

  68. 68 Gregory, Life of Moses, p. 118 (II, 248).

  69. 69 Gregory of Nyssa, On Perfection, in Ascetical Works, pp. 95–122 (here p. 122).

  70. 70 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 121.

  71. 71 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 110.

  72. 72 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 109–110.

  73. 73 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 110.

  74. 74 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 110.

  75. 75 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 111.

  76. 76 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 111.

  77. 77 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 111.

  78. 78 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 101.

  79. 79 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 104.

  80. 80 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 115.

  81. 81 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 111.

  82. 82 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 105.

  83. 83 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 96.

  84. 84 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 114.

  85. 85 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 114–115.

  86. 86 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 116.

  87. 87 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 116.

  88. 88 Gregory, On Perfection, p. 117.

  89. 89 Gregory of Nyssa, An Address on Religious Instruction, in Christology of the Later Fathers, ed. Edward R. Hardy (Philadelphia: the Westminster Press, 1954), pp. 268–325 (here p. 276).

  90. 90 Gregory, Address, p. 276.

  91. 91 Gregory, Address, p. 276.

  92. 92 Gregory, Address, p. 281.

  93. 93 Gregory, Address, p. 283.

  94. 94 Gregory, Address, p. 277.

  95. 95 ‘What, therefore, is in every respect made similar to the divine, must certainly possess free will and liberty by nature, so that participation in the good may be the reward of virtue' (Gregory, Address, p. 277).

  96. 96 Gregory, Address, p. 277.

  97. 97 Gregory, Address, p. 282.

  98. 98 He also points out that birth and death, the things about our nature most associated with materiality, were not undertaken by God in the same sense that we undergo them; Christ was born of a virgin and resurrected from the dead, and thus, in birth and death, ‘transcended our nature’ (Gregory, Address, p. 290).

  99. 99 Gregory, Address, p. 279.

  100. 100 Gregory, Address, p. 278.