Patristic Redux: Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration. Introduction.

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David Wagschal

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers”]

What happens when we read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles? What happens when we approach them, not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness—but simply as any other theologian, whose work should be subject to critique and analysis in the same manner as anyone else’s?

What happens when we brush aside the patina of veneration, and claims of inspiration, and simply take their theological works at face value? What happens when we step back from any investment in the patristic tradition we might have institutionally, culturally or ethnically, and just let it speak on its own?

Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it actually hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation?

Answering these questions is the purpose of this series. Pre-modern theology has been the rage for several generations now—even within the Protestant churches—but it’s extraordinary how undeveloped the critical analysis of this subject really is. The dial seems to be stuck on “promotion”; and the dominant ethos a kind of aesthetic connoisseurship. The golden glow of the antique world evidently fades very slowly.

I want to approach these texts differently—and, I think, quite a bit more seriously—by simply asking: is this good theology? Why, or why not?  And I mean to ask these questions very existentially and honestly: Would I teach this stuff to my children? Would I want to preach it? Would I want to teach it in a Christian community? Do I think it really communicates the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ?

I think the only way of going about this task is to read some actual texts, step by step, and offer some commentary. So, let’s get at it. First up: Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration.

Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration

Why Gregory?

Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-c.395) was a bishop in what is now south-central Turkey. He is widely regarded as one of the most important theologians of the Greek—and indeed, universal—Christian tradition.

Gregory is a member of the glittering generation of late 4th century theologians who presided over Christianity’s final “arrival” in Greco-Roman society. His generation was to first to grow up entirely in the post-persecution church. When he was born, Christianity was a legal, and soon favoured religion; by the time he died, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire. During this period of Christianity’s political and social “establishment”, Gregory and his contemporaries oversaw a parallel intellectual establishment of Christianity within Greco-Roman elite culture. With theologians like Gregory we see Christianity finally penetrating the upper-most echelons of Roman society in a profound, sustained way. Gregory is a highly educated aristocrat, writing in an elegant and high-style Greek, and perfectly fluent in the sophisticated rhetorical discourse of his day. Gone is the workaday prose of an Athanasius, the eccentric ramblings of a Clement, or the dumpy philosophical stylings of an Origen (to say nothing of the mostly pedestrian, even uncouth, New Testament texts!). In Gregory we now see Christian intellectual culture ascending towards the very highest reaches of Greco-Roman literary accomplishment. We now see Christianity acquiring an elite, fully respectable discourse: an elite theology for Rome’s new elite religion. We thus see the foundations being laid of what will become the classical “imperial synthesis”—the fundamental theological synthesis of the Christian empire, and therefore, of virtually all later mainstream Christian traditions.

So Gregory is a representative of an elite, seminal and foundational generation of Christian theologians that exerted immense influence on the later tradition. By exploring theologians like Gregory, we can plumb to the very roots of the mainstream patristic synthesis: we can explore the core assumptions and intellectual moves upon which the entire later tradition is built, and we can see them in their very formation.

Gregory, however, is a particularly interesting subject because he’s also a bit of an outsider. Unlike, say, his brother Basil the Great, or his namesake Gregory of Nazianzus (whose Greek is even better), or later theologians such as Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory had an unusually speculative and mystical bent—and he is widely regarded as having made a few serious theological mistakes. This lends Gregory a certain complexity, even ambiguity, which has made him a very sympathetic and attractive figure for contemporary theologians. Gregory is therefore not just an important late antique theologian, but an important and interesting late antique theologian, from a modern perspective. He is thus a particularly alluring subject for attempts at re-appropriating and retrieving the past—which, of course, is precisely the phenomenon we’re probing in this series.

Why the Catechetical Oration?

I’ve chosen this text a bit by accident. A year ago or so, a friend of mine came upon it, and found it sufficiently interesting for us to read and debate it at length.

I quickly realized that, as a treatise intended as an introduction to the Christian faith, the Catechetical Oration is an exceptionally useful work for the purpose of this series. It’s a short, clear, and highly concentrated presentation of many key patristic doctrines, from the nature of God, to creation, to sin, redemption, judgement, and finally baptism and the Eucharist. Further, as flipping through the literature will reveal, scholars do tend to regard it as late, mature work of Gregory that is genuinely summative of his thought.1 So if we want to get a nice sampling of the classic late fourth-century “high” synthesis—well, we could do much worse!

What is a “Catechetical Oration”?

Catechetical orations are a genre of treatises or sermons written (at least notionally) to be delivered to adults preparing for baptism. Perhaps the best known are those of Cyril of Jerusalem (c. 315-387), but there are several other examples from both late antiquity and later.

Gregory’s work is little unusual in that it is not addressed to catechumens themselves, but to the bishops who were charged with instructing catechumens. It therefore presents itself as, in effect, a guidebook for answering the type of questions that bishops might encounter.

I’m not sure if we should take this self-presentation at face value—i.e. believe that this text is really meant to be used by bishops in encountering genuine questions among their (educated) flock. The questions frankly seem a little too difficult/critical: i.e. they don’t seem to presume the level of buy-in that you would expect of someone who was actually enrolled in the catechumenate. The level of theological and philosophical sophistication also seems a little over-the-top.

A better genre-fit for the type of questions and answers found in this text would probably be the traditional Christian “apology” (apologia)—i.e. a formal defence of Christianity addressed to non-believers. Indeed, the apologetic flavour of this treatise has often been noted. Certainly in the late 4th C the apologetic genre was still very much alive and necessary, particularly in intellectual circles, which remained dominated by pagan luminaries well into the 5th and even 6th centuries. So is Gregory actually writing a kind of indirect apology here?

I also note that some of the doctrinal expositions seem so elaborate that I wonder if the whole thing could be just a convenient device for Gregory to present an overview of his thought—a vehicle to spread his views among his fellow bishops?

But perhaps catechesis of well-educated elite Greco-Romans in the late 4th century really did require a high level of apologetic sophistication. After all, many “converts” of the day may well have been genuinely critical and sceptical of Christianity, since conversion to Christianity was now being coerced by the state—bishops may well have been facing hostile audiences! And given the variety of competing versions of Christianity in the late 4th C, perhaps a high level of doctrinal elaboration was not a luxury?

In any case, the precise genre of the text doesn’t make too much of a difference for our purposes. The Catechetical Oration is clearly a text where Gregory is exerting himself to present a succinct and persuasive account of his vision of Christianity. Good enough. Let’s get at it.

Finding the Text, Reading Along

If you want to read along with this blog series, you can find a freely available English translation of the Catechetical Oration in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series (e.g. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205.xi.ii.i.html). The translations in this series are notoriously bad, so it may be worth trying to find J.H. Srawley, The Catechetical Oration of Gregory of Nyssa, Cambridge, 1917. I’ll be honest: like the big Greek nerd that I am, I actually haven’t spent time with either translation, but in the coming posts I’ll keep an eye on at least the former, and note if I spot any really appalling issues.

The critical edition of the Greek text is Gregorii Nysseni Oratio catechetica: opera dogmatica minora, pars IV, ed. Ekkehard Mühlenberg, Brill 1996. Good luck finding it, unless you happen to have access to a major research library. Its text is on the TLG, however, if that means anything to you. Strawley, however, produced an edition in 1903 that is freely available, and this edition is mostly what I’ve used.

Ok: onwards!

Next Post: Gregory’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue

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  1. For references, see for example The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, eds. Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco and Giulio Maspero, trans. Seth Cherney, Brill, 2010, p. 549; and, more recently, Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Gregory of Nyssa’s Doctrinal Works: A Literary Study, Oxford 2018. []

Comments 2

  1. I have not found a lot of fellow travelers who want to talk about the Greek text of Greek Fathers. Been doing Ancient Greek for half a lifetime and recently reading works as late as John of Damascus and the commentaries on the Apocalypse by Oecumenius and Andreas of Cæsarea. Currently doing a “close reading” of the most famous work of Athenaisus. I was looking for people currently working in similary material and found your site. I am an old man and have explored all the traps you mention plus a few you didn’t mention.

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Thanks for your comment, Stirling. Look forward to hearing your observations.

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