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 nature of the incarnation. Instead, theology must begin its reflection on God from Jesus and what Jesus did—specifically his saving work in suffering for our sakes and granting us salvation completely gratis.

“The gospel is not philosophy neither law, but forgiveness of sins and proclamation of the reconciliation and eternal life for the sake of Christ. About these things, the human reason has no idea.”2

Ultimately, the only and final locus of theology—of our idea of God—is the cross:

“In Christ crucified is true theology and the knowledge of God to be found.”3

For Luther and Melanchthon, to understand God, you must start with the Jesus of the Gospel, on the cross, and then work from there to your idea of God. You don’t start from some generic idea of “God in the sky”, the eternal One, the absolute Good, and so on, and then work “down” to figure out who Jesus is and how he relates to this “God in the sky”—as most traditional theology does. You instead let your image of God be completely and authoritatively defined by the Jesus of the Gospel. Any abstract notion of God must be corrected and modified to shape that Jesus.

Here’s an example of how Luther put it, in a rather poetic way:

“Paul is in the habit of connecting Jesus Christ and God the Father so frequently: he wants to teach us the Christian religion, which does not begin at the very top, as all other religions do, but at the very bottom. … [If] you would think or treat of your salvation, you must stop speculating about the majesty of God; you must forget all thoughts of good works, tradition, philosophy, and even the divine Law. You must run directly to the stable and the lap of the mother and embrace this infant Son of the Virgin. Look at Him being born, nursed, and growing up, walking among men, teaching, dying, returning from the dead, and being exalted above all the heavens, in possession of power over all. In this way you can cause the sun to dispel the clouds and can avoid all fear…” 4

In the history of Christian doctrine, this idea of starting formal reflection on the nature of God with Jesus (however obvious it may sound today) is of incredible significance. It’s hard to overstate the tectonic change this represents. It may well mark the boundary line between pre-modern and modern Christianity.

Today, this idea has become increasingly absorbed and appropriated across the denominations, albeit often indirectly and implicitly. (It has spread, I think, largely through the influence of Barth (?)—although it’s not characteristic of the Reformed tradition as a whole). But it is very hard to find in the earlier tradition.

Gregory the Philosopher?

Gregory is an excellent example of the older, traditional approach. He opens his oration (starting in the second half of the prologue) by suggesting that bishops begin with their audiences’ basic notions of what “God” is in general, i.e. a perfect unity. They should then proceed to demonstrate—via a kind of analogical analysis of human and divine natures—that this perfect and unified God can still have a separate “Word” (Logos) (ch. 1) and also a “Spirit” (Pneuma) (ch. 2). Next (ch. 3), they should show that this plurality-and-unity makes Christianity a kind of perfect mean between Judaism and paganism: “For the number of Trinity is like a treatment (θεραπεία) for those who are astray as to the One, as is the idea (λόγος) of unity for those who are scattered among a plurality” (NB the intellectual illness vocabulary again). For Jewish audiences, Scriptural exegesis can then be added as a further proof (ch. 4), demonstrating the arguments of chs. 1-2.

In sum, Gregory clearly envisions Christian teaching on God as beginning with an abstract philosophical ontology of God’s nature, starting with divine unity and then proceeding to God’s Trinity. Sound familiar? This will become a classical opening structure in expositions of systematic theology.

We shouldn’t imagine that Gregory is employing this structure as simply a rhetorical or apologetic strategy, i.e. a framework meant merely to ease philosophically-minded pagans/Jews into Christianity, and not reflective of Gregory’s “real” theology. As we will see, the ideas of God that he introduces here will be integral to the work as a whole, and will drive his later conclusions and observations: if these introductory ideas about God are somehow not meant to be taken seriously, then the entire work must be regarded as an elaborate fraud, to be later corrected or dispensed with by his audience—which is absurd. No: like other intellectuals of his age, Gregory takes these type of metaphysical speculations very seriously. Gregory is teaching his audience, in good faith, the method and approach to understanding God that he believes is true and necessary.

In fact, if Gregory sees anything to be inadequate about his presentation, it is that our reason limits us from achieving even greater speculative-ontological knowledge of God—i.e. greater insight into the abstract divinity. The first sentence of chapter three is very revealing in this regard (NB the translation at ch. 3 is a mess):

“Therefore, he who explores carefully the profundities of the mystery [τὰ βάθη τοῦ μυστηρίου] is able to receive a certain measure of apprehension of the teaching of God-knowledge [θεογνωσίαν] in their soul [or possibly: through an analogical analysis of the soul], but is not able by reason to explain that inexpressible depth of the mystery [τὴν βαθύτητα τοῦ μυστηρίου]: how the same thing is both countable and eludes counting, is seen as divisible and apprehended in unity, is distinguished in person but is not divided as to substance.”5

Here he makes it plain that the “depths” of the “mystery” of Christianity, the true “knowledge of God”, is found precisely in subjects of abstract contemplation—things like the problem of countability or divisibility. For Gregory, like almost everyone of his age, the real heights of Christian teaching are found in further, higher ontological/philosophical speculation about the divine being—not in a concrete message about the actions of Jesus, as for Luther and Melanchthon, for whom the “depths” and “mystery” of Christianity would unquestionably be the cross and grace.

Fine. So what do we make of this?

This highly philosophical approach to Christianity presents two fundamental problems.

First

The ultimate problem, facets of which we’ll explore over the whole span of this series, is that this approach can easily transform the core message of Christianity into a doctrine about a philosophical God (cf. the “Trinity” and “Two Natures of Christ” as shibboleths of the old synthesis). In effect, the whole point of Christianity suddenly becomes the assertion and defence of an abstract “God in the sky” and his attributes—his Goodness, Perfection, Omniscience, Justice, etc.—instead of, for example, the proclamation of God’s radical forgiveness and salvation. The Gospel becomes the assertion of the rightness of a specific ontological construct about divinity, and not primarily a message about the relief of the good news of the saving actions of Jesus (whatever the precise ontological framework). Faith turns from trust into knowledge. (For further reflection on the distinction between faith as trust vs. knowledge, see here (“Kicking the Gnostic Habit”), and also here.)

Ultimately, inasmuch as Gregory does end up turning the Gospel into a proclamation of a “philosophical God” (and I’m not sure he entirely does—we’ll see), this will vindicate one of the oldest and severest accusations made against the entire patristic synthesis: that it’s all just Hellenistic philosophy in Christian guise (i.e. Harnack was right).

Second

There is a more immediate issue. This emerges when we start to look carefully at the content of Gregory’s philosophical arguments. To state the problem brutally: a lot of Gregory’s arguments are, for a modern reader, a bit bunk. I mean, bunk.

I’ll spare you a line-by-line analysis, but to take a few examples:

  • He assumes that the existence of God is easily demonstrable from the “skillful and wise economy of the universe” (prologue), and also that the cosmos is self-evidently “good”, and that everything in it is perceived as “wise and skillful” (ch.1). What?! What about the chaos, purposelessness, and daily horror observed in the natural world? Surely the opposite observations are at least as credible – probably much more so. (And I am told by my philosopher-friends that even on a mere logical level this type of “cosmological argument” doesn’t hold up.)
  • He assumes that perfection is a static, unitary concept. But why can’t perfection include change, variation, diversity? (Especially in a religion that proclaims at its core a humiliated and despised God?)
  • He thinks that a serious argument for the existence of the Word (Logos) is that a) we can’t conceive of God without Reason (Logos), and b) since God’s Logos must be, unlike our Logos, perfect, it must be a separately subsistent reality, with a perfect will, power, etc. But why should we conceive God as having a Logos as all—why is this necessary? Why should any parallel be made with our anthropological self-perception? How is this valid? Why can’t God be something totally other? And if we do perceive God this way, as having a Logos, why does this Logos have to be completely simple, transcendent—in ancient terms, “perfect”— in Gregory’s mind (and not composite, varied, immanent)? And why do these qualities require separate subsistence? And if we allow that God’s Logos and Spirit have to be separate entities because this is somehow how God’s “perfect” attributes subsist—well, why not God’s Goodness, Wisdom, Justice, etc. too? Let’s have a whole pantheon of God’s hypostasized attributes! Why just two (Logos and Pneuma)? (Elsewhere, patristic authors do give reasons for this—but they up as equally problematic, relying on various forms of number mysticism, or simple proof-texting.)
  • Gregory assumes that, because he can cast Christianity as some kind of theological mean between Judaism and paganism, Christianity must somehow have greater truth value. But why? The mean could be completely wrong if one of the extremes is right! What is inherently correct about a mean? And is “mean” thinking a particularly obvious fit for the radicality of the Christian Gospel?

You could push much further. For example, there are immense problems with Gregory’s underlying assumption that there is an actual—and fairly accessible—connection between reality and our perception of it; or, to put it differently, that he thinks realist ontology is a thing (it’s not; it’s been pretty much dead since the late 18th C). Today, this is sort of “flat earth” philosophy, if we’re honest.

What do we do with all of this? It’s a much bigger problem than is commonly admitted.

It’s interesting to watch how theologians react to this problem. Theologians whose identities or traditions are invested in the patristic tradition tend to deal with this by a kind of sleight of hand. They’ll present the results of patristic theology as a touchstone of orthodoxy as a whole—i.e. take the fathers as theological authorities in their conclusions—but when pressed on any specific philosophical building-blocks of that synthesis, they suddenly do a “cognitive switch” to a historical mode of analysis, dismissing any probing questions as anachronistic, and not sensitive to the “historical context”! Patristics becomes “theology” in its conclusions, but “history” in our analysis of those conclusions. This, unfortunately, makes the fathers unfalsifiable. It effectively places their own theological argumentation beyond reach of critique, carefully hidden behind the precepts of historical method.

A more sophisticated way of dealing with this is to try to read the fathers, in their pre-modern distance and exoticism, as somehow ancient post-moderns (e.g. ancient philosophers of language). There are numerous versions of this: the patristic fathers become ancient existentialists, or post-structuralists, or Wittgensteinians, etc. But this rapidly becomes a bit silly. I mean: do we really need to demonstrate that 4th century folks weren’t doing the same thing as 20th century philosophers? In these instances the fathers just become ciphers for modern theological debates transacted, for whatever reasons, behind the masks of ancient authorities. But why are we even bothering with these ancient authorities, then? Are there any good reasons? (I can think of some bad ones!)

In both cases the fundamental conundrum is simply being sidestepped: can you really take patristic theology seriously if you don’t subscribe to its philosophical underpinnings? And if we consider that their philosophical arguments were central to their own understanding of the integrity of their theology, what do we do now that their philosophy has become obsolete? (What would they do?) Is their theology obsolete too? And if we want to hang on to their theology, are their conclusions really worth the intellectual contortions that “saving the appearances” of their philosophy requires? Well… let’s see!

Next post: Gregory and the Problem of Evil

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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. []
  2. Melanchthon, “Disputatio de discrimine et Philosophiae” (1536) in C.G. Bretschneider (ed.), Corpus Reformatorum/Collected works, 1884, vol. 12, p. 690; trans. and cited Van Wyk, Ignatius, “Philipp Melanchthon: A short introduction”. HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies, v. 73, n. 1. Available at: <https://hts.org.za/index.php/hts/article/view/4672/10006> []
  3. In Christo crucifix est vera theologia et cognition Dei, Luther, Heidelberg Disputation, Proof 20, 1518, trans. mine []
  4. Lectures on Galatians, Luther’s Works vol. 26, St. Louis, 1963, pp. 29-30, altered. []
  5. Ὥστε τὸν ἀκριβῶς τὰ βάθη τοῦ μυστηρίου διασκοπούμενον ἐν μὲν τῇ ψυχῇ κατὰ τὸ ἀπόρρητον μετρίαν τινὰ κατανόησιν τῆς κατὰ τὴν θεογνωσίαν διδασκαλίας λαμβάνειν, μὴ μέντοι δύνασθαι λόγῳ διασαφεῖν τὴν ἀνέκφραστον ταύτην τοῦ μυστηρίου βαθύτητα· πῶς τὸ αὐτὸ καὶ ἀριθμητόν ἐστι καὶ διαφεύγει τὴν ἐξαρίθμησιν, καὶ διῃρημένως ὁρᾶται καὶ ἐν μονάδι καταλαμβάνεται, καὶ διακέκριται τῇ ὑποστάσει καὶ οὐ διώρισται τῷ ὑποκειμένῳ. Translation mine. Text and punctuation as per Strawley, Catechetical Oration, 1917. []

Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration: Prologue.

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: 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.]”

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

About the Author
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?

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Three

About the Author
David Wagschal
Saint Jerome in his Study Artist: Antonello da Messina. Wikimedia.

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

In my last few posts (part one, part two) I have been outlining five interpretative pitfalls that can derail even the best-intentioned attempts at reading patristic theology. Without an awareness of these five “traps”, it is extremely difficult to attain to the level of critical analysis that the “pre-modern turn” in modern theology so desperately needs.

These traps are:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

In this post we’ll conclude the series with the last two: the Academic Sympathy Trap and the Desperation Trap.

4) The Academic Sympathy Trap

You may not be aware of this trap if you haven’t spent much time in the academy. Even within the academy we don’t discuss this phenomenon as much as we should.

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Two

About the Author
David Wagschal
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale

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

This post is a continuation of the previous, where I suggested that, if we want to take theological engagement with the patristic tradition beyond the level of mere Romantic antiquarianism and popular promotion, we need to cultivate a much more rigorous approach to reading these texts than has generally been evident.

In my experience, I’ve discovered that we need to become aware of five classic interpretative pitfalls:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

(Yes, I’ve added the fourth since last time!)

Last post I discussed the most important of the traps, #1 The “Great Tradition” Trap. Now: Trap #2 and Trap #3.

2) The Antiquity Trap

Humans have a fascination with old stuff. When we visit historical sites, we often want to see the oldest buildings or the oldest sections of an archeological excavation—and if possible we often want to touch them, to feel them. Likewise when we visit a cemetery, we are often interested in identifying the oldest tombstones. When we tour a city, we always want to tour the “old town”. In our homes, we often treasure our oldest book, or our oldest photographs. In our families, we are fascinated by seeing how far back we can trace our lineages.

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically)

About the Author
David Wagschal

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

If we want to take theological engagement with the patristic tradition beyond the level of mere Romantic antiquarianism and popular promotion, we need to cultivate a much more rigorous approach to reading these texts than has generally been the case.

In my experience, this means that we need to become aware of four classic interpretative pitfalls:

  • The “Great Tradition” Trap
  • The Antiquity Trap
  • The Difference Trap
  • The Desperation Trap

1) The “Great Tradition” Trap

The patristic tradition tends to present itself as immensely broad, deep and universal in scope: it is the central Christian tradition, definitive in implications, and of unparalleled richness. It is the fundamental and core repository of theology by which all later developments should be measured. It is “catholic” in the sense of encompassing the “whole”—and orthodox in the sense of having developed, through struggle and controversy, the definitive version of Christianity. It is timeless, profound, and vast.

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Patristics Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers

About the Author
David Wagschal

A major theme in modern theology has been the rediscovery and re-appropriation of late antique and medieval traditions.

This “pre-modern turn” has been multifaceted and cross-denominational. Its immediate roots can be found in a series of Romantic-inspired movements of the 19th C (the Tubingen school, neo-Lutheranism, the Slavophiles, neo-Thomism, the Oxford movement, etc.) which sought to correct a variety of perceived modern errors through the revival and repristinization of pre-modern theologies. Early in the 20th C a sublimated form of it can be felt pulsing through thinkers such as Karl Barth, an early post-liberal, who emphasized the creative retrieval and preservation of earlier orthodoxies against the depredations of the liberals; or, in the Catholic world, in late neo-Thomists such as Étienne Gilson or Karl Rahner, who sought to counter the aridities of neo-scholasticism with a dynamic, new, and historically informed Thomism. Perhaps its most important incarnation was the great Catholic ressourcement and nouvelle théologie movements of the early mid-century, whose proponents (Congar, De Lubac, Daniélou, von Balthasar, et al.) initiated a program of Biblical and liturgical reforms predicated precisely upon a renewed engagement with pre-modern theological sources. These reforms enjoyed an influence far beyond the borders of Catholicism, not least through the production of the primary text series Sources chrétiennes. In the East, Orthodox theology underwent its own 20th C pre-modern revival in the works of thinkers such as Georges Florovsky, Dumitru Stăniloae, John Zizioulas, and the theologians of the “Paris school”. Like the late neo-Thomists, these Orthodox theologians sought to counter the “manual theology” of early-modern Orthodox neo-scholasticism with a new, historically-engaged exploration of the church fathers. Their success has been so marked that today, at least within the Orthodox diaspora, “patristics” has become almost synonymous with “theology”.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Four: Theology Concluded]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition

Why is the Permeative Tradition Failing?

Right, so, why will Reformation 2.0 roll back the permeative tradition?

A survey of 20th century theology would suggest that most theologians are inclined to do exactly the opposite. The last century has, if anything, witnessed a widespread revival and retrieval of the permeative tradition, even within Lutheranism, the traditional home of the disjunctive tradition.1 Within some circles, particularly the Protestant post-liberal movement and among the theologians of “Radical Orthodoxy”, the permeative tradition has re-emerged with such zeal that its expression occasionally borders on caricature. If anything, contemporary theology’s leading instincts are almost the precise inverse of the four points of Reformation I’m suggesting in this series.

But we should be very skeptical of this revival. I believe we’re witnessing a phenomenon common to the end of many social and cultural movements: just before the final demise of a cultural structure, a last, usually exaggerated, attempt to re-enact and retrieve its traditional forms emerges. Julian the Apostate’s highly artificial 4th C revival of paganism comes to mind as a good example. When it was finally clear – in the late 4th C – that paganism was in true collapse, that is when we saw an exquisite and elaborate neo-pagan traditionalism articulated. I believe this is exactly what is happening with much of theology of the past century. It seems to be a general phenomenon that, when the carpet is being finally pulled from under our feet, humans instinctively leap backwards (at first). But this movement always signals the end: a last attempt to hold the old structure together before it finally succumbs – and something new emerges.

But why is the permeative tradition poised to “succumb”?

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  1. The so-called Finnish school is only the most obvious example. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics points in the same direction in a subtler, but profounder way. []

The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Three – Theology]

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture

Part Three: Into the Heart of the Storm

The next major change I envision pertains to our core Christian theology: we will roll back the “permeative” theological tradition – i.e. the theology of deification, sanctification, or incarnation.

This is a huge change, and needs considerable explanation. But this will be at the revolutionary heart of Reformation 2.0, so bear with me.

What is the Permeative Tradition?

The permeative theological tradition is so pervasive that even professional theologians often do not realize that it is “a” position, or that there might be an alternative.

Permeative theologies think of God’s actions in the world as quasi-physical energies or forces that spread and “permeate” throughout the cosmos and human nature. Salvation is understood as a gradual process in which one is progressively infused with these divine energies/grace. In this view, the whole point of God’s actions is to slowly assimilate the world to God through the gradual working of God’s energies to transform the world into the divine. Generally the cosmos is conceived as a hierarchical spectrum of being, in which creation is meant to progress ever further towards the higher, more spiritual realms where the world finds it truest reality/being. The ethical life of humanity is also understood as on a spectrum, where sin has a quantitative character which can be gradually – and quite truly – purged and cured. The idea of a graded, gradual ascent is critical: one is always struggling to move up through higher levels of knowledge and ethical realization to realize one’s (true) divine life.

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