This post is part of the series Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers, in which our goal is to read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles: i.e. not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness and inspiration—but simply as any other theologians, whose work can and should be subject to critique in the same manner as anyone else’s. Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation? Above all: is it actually good theology?
At present, we’re working through Gregory of Nyssa’s late 4th century Catechetical Oration (see the intro post for texts and editions).
Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue
I’m afraid that we don’t even get more than a few pages—in fact a few lines—into Gregory’s Prologue before we hit something pretty problematic. The issue at first appears minor, but the implications are significant.
Gregory’s prologue is mostly concerned with explaining to his readers (bishops) that catechetical instructions—i.e. instruction for those who wish to become Christians—cannot be uniform. They must be tailored to the different backgrounds, beliefs and preconceptions of those the bishops are addressing: Jews, pagans, Manicheans, and a variety of different Christian “heresies”.
This is a rather unremarkable adaptation of the conventional Greco-Roman rhetorical doctrine that you must fit your speech to your audience. Here Gregory pulls it off with his characteristic elegance and eloquence.
But about twenty lines into Gregory’s development of the idea, we encounter this bit: “For it is necessary to fit the method of treatment [θεραπεία] to the type of disease [νόσος]. You will not treat/remedy [θεραπεύσεις] the polytheism of the pagan by the same means as you would the Jew’s lack of belief in the only-begotten God…[etc.]”Read More…