Some reflections on Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses,
The Burning Bush
Since a lot of the past few posts have been hovering around Exodus 3.14, I thought it might be worthwhile to read what Gregory of Nyssa had to say about the revelation of God’s ‘name’ in and through the Burning Bush.
For starters, a quick word on Gregory of Nyssa’s hermeneutics (his way of interpreting the text). Gregory argues for different levels of interpretation, namely the allegorical interpretation of Scripture. Literal truths are still contained in Scripture, but there are hidden meanings of Scripture that can be unearthed by a careful reading of the text. God wishes to reveal deeper spiritual and theological truths between the lines, as it were.
A straightforward example of this, but no less profound, is Gregory’s use of allegory and typology to interpret the significance of the Burning Bush.
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. (37)
Grace does not overcome nature but transfigures it. Mary’s humanity was not compromised by her pregnancy with the Word-made-flesh. Moreover, it appears that Gregory is arguing for the Perpetual Virginity of Mary: the thornbush was not consumed by the Divine fire, Mary’s Virginity was not consumed either.
God requires that Moses removes his sandals, like made of leather, and Gregory contends that likewise, one cannot comprehend the Divine Light unless the “dead and earthly covering of skins” are removed from the “feet of our soul.” (37) We must approach the Divine Light with a naked soul, like naked feet.
Gregory also views the first miracle of the staff turning into a sword as an typology pointing to the Incarnation. Like the staff-become-snake, the Incarnation is a “manifestation of deity to men which effects the death of a tyrant and sets free those under his power.” (39) We can see contours of a Christus Victor understanding of Jesus’ death. That is, Christ the Victor over Satan and Death, and the setting free of humanity from the bonds of sin and death.
That is just a quick overview and example of the allegorical interpretation and its significance for the spiritual and theological vision of God.
What is truth?
In my view the definition of truth is this: not to have mistaken apprehension of Being. Falsehood is a kind of impression which arises in the understanding about nonbeing: as though what does not exist does, in fact, exist. But truth is the sure apprehension of real Being. (39)
Here Gregory sets up Being and non-being as two opposing realities. Being is that which surely exists and is sustained on its own, without relying on anything else. Gregory would likely argue that God is Pure Being; only God truly exists. Everything else, which requires the support of Being, is non-being. Non-being is that which exists “only in appearance, with no self-subsisting nature.” (38) Notice that non-being can be seen (and by extension, the other senses can apprehend it as well). It appears to us. Moreover, non-being has to rely on Being in order to exist. There must be participation in Being itself.
In contrast, Being is not visible, not sensible. It is also self-existing. It needs nothing. It does not change. It is not made more Real by having non-being participating in it. If one desires to know the truth, then they must know Being.
Thus, Gregory concludes that Moses “came to know that none of those things which are apprehended by sense perception and contemplated by understanding really subsist, but that the transcendent essence and cause of the universe, on which everything depends, alone subsists.” (38)
Gregory is obviously relying on the philosophical notions of Being that would have come to him through his interaction with philosophy in the Hellenistic context. Though Gregory practises a form of negative theology, as I’m sure will become more apparent, he is still able to choose the term Being to describe God’s essence. But, Being is beyond non-being. What can be said about non-being cannot be said about Being since it is non-being which relies on Being for everything.