Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration. Chapters 1-4.

About the Author
David Wagschal

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: Chapters 1-4

In the 16th C, at the beginning of a work on Christian doctrine that could be considered a very distant descendant of Gregory’s Catechetical Oration, Philip Melanchthon wrote this famous line:

“…to know Christ is to know the things he has done for us, and not, as they [the medieval theologians] teach, to contemplate his natures and the modes of his incarnation.”1

Melanchthon was one of Luther’s disciples, and here he is summarizing a central idea of his teacher. Its essence is that, contrary to the catholic or “imperial” synthesis, we should never start our teaching about God/Christianity from abstract philosophical reflection on God “in general”, the nature of God and God’s being (ontology)—for example, with things like reason’s ability to know God, the attributes of God, the essence of the Trinity, or the two natures of Christ. Instead, theology must begin its reflection on God from Jesus and what Jesus did—his actions. Specifically, we must begin with his saving work in suffering for our sakes and granting us salvation completely gratis:

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  1. Ηoc est Christum cognoscere beneficia eius cognoscere, non quod isti docent, eius naturas, modos incarnationis contueri. Transl. from Commonplaces, tr. C. Preus, Loci Communes (1521), St. Louis, 2014, p. 24. []