St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Paul on the Faith of Abraham

                St. Paul’s use of Abraham as the paradigm for Christian faith forever stamped the narrative of this patriarch upon the Church’s imagination. No Christian conception of faithfulness to God can ultimately escape meditation upon “the father of all who believe,” as Paul calls him in Romans (Rom 4:11). Indeed, St. Paul’s discussion in Romans 4 is the locus classicus for the use of Abraham to describe Christian faith. It is in this passage that we find the most extended treatment of the figure, serving Paul’s argument, as in Galatians, that we are justified by faith and not by works of the law. Abraham stands in as the paradigmatic example of this justifying grace, granted to him on the basis of his own faith.

            Paul’s deployment of Abraham into the heart of his argument is often understood to demonstrate a dichotomy between belief and effort. This is how “faith” and “works” are understood, respectively. Works, in this understanding, represent any and all human effort and striving. To seek justification by works is to seek to be made right with God on the basis of one’s own good deeds. Works, in short, are moral exertion, the attempt to do something in order to gain God’s favor. Faith, it is said, is something separate from moral obedience. It is belief in God, trust in his favor independent of our exertion and effort. In this reading of Paul, therefore, Abraham represents a man who does not attempt to work for God’s favor via moral exertion, but one who passively receives God’s favor by means of belief in him. He is justified by his faith, which is essentially inactive when understood on its own terms, and not by effort. So goes Paul’s reading of Abraham; or rather, a particular interpretation of Paul’s reading of Abraham.

            St. Gregory of Nyssa goes a different route. He writes about Abraham in the second book of his work Against Eunomius. In this book, the fourth-century bishop refutes the errors of the heretic Eunomius, who claimed that the Son was radically subordinated to the Father and divided the Trinity into three distinct essences. Eunomius insisted that the essence of the one true God could be equated with one term, namely, Unbegottenness. Since the Son was begotten, as all confessed, he must be of a distinct essence from the Father, by no means homoousios (of the same essence), as the earlier creed at Nicaea in 325 had claimed, soon to be followed by the Council of Constantinople in 381. For Eunomius, then, the task of theology was to acknowledge Unbegotten as the proper name for divinity, and thus to exclude the Son and the Spirit from the nature of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa, on the other hand, insists that the divine essence is ultimately ineffable and unknowable. Anything we know about God is derived from his revelation of himself, particularly through his activities (energeiai in Greek, i.e., energies). We must realize, he writes, that any title we give to God will never fully encapsulate his nature since God is ultimately infinite. This fundamental claim is what supports Gregory’s argument that Father, Son, and Spirit must be understood as sharing this incomprehensible divine essence equally.

            It is here that St. Gregory pulls in the figure of Abraham, “the father of faith” (84).[1] Abraham essentially serves as an example, for Gregory, of the individual Christian’s journey towards “the apprehension of God” (85). He writes that “Abraham left his own native land,” which symbolically represents “the lowly and earthly way of thinking,” as he “lifted his mind above its ordinary material limits, forsaking the soul’s affinity with the physical senses” (86). Abraham abandoned “the Chaldean philosophy—which reaches only visible things” and walked “by faith and not by sight” (89; 86, cf. 2 Cor 5:7). Gregory states that the pinnacle of Abraham’s journey occurred after “he had surpassed every verbal description” for God (89). At this point, “having cleansed his mind of such notions, he resorted to faith, pure and unadulterated by any ratiocination” (89). In short, “he believed God to be greater and higher than any epistemological indicator” (89). Thus, St. Gregory of Nyssa utilizes Abraham as the ideal example of Christian faith, and along with it, theological reasoning. Abraham teaches us to “stay within our proper limits,” acknowledging that “the divine majesty is more than can be thought of” (96). In this way, Abraham is a rebuke to Eunomius. Theological discourse is always in service to the basically apophatic experience of God.

            St. Gregory’s use of Abraham, then, is about his journey from things seen to things unseen, from reason to faith. Gregory calls this the “staircase for his upward journey” (89). He derives this from Heb 11:8, which states that Abraham left his home, “not knowing where he was going” (87, emphasis added). Abraham abandoned understanding in his search to know God. This is encapsulated by Gregory’s quotation from Paul—“walking by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7)—and his application of it to Abraham (86). For Gregory, the story of Abraham is a progression from visible things to the apprehension of the invisible God. Indeed, he claims that the purpose of the account about Abraham is to instruct us that it is impossible to attain God without faith, which “joins the enquiring mind to the incomprehensible nature” (91). Faith exceeds reason.

            Unlike the interpretation of Paul mentioned above, therefore, Gregory does not view the Abrahamic narrative as teaching a dichotomy between belief and effort. Strictly speaking, in the passage from Romans, the Pauline language is “faith” and “works.” However, in the reading of Paul we have mentioned, faith is equated with belief and works with effort. This belief, moreover, has something of an intellectual edge: it is not mere trust, such as an infant might have towards her parents, but belief grounded in factual knowledge about God. It would not be right to equate this particular understanding of faith with knowledge, for certainly heartfelt trust is inherent to this conception of proper belief, but rational comprehension is undeniably a key part. In a qualified sense, then, we can say this interpretation of Paul sees the story of Abraham as outlining a dichotomy between knowledgeable belief and moral effort. The former, it claims, justifies. The latter, of course, does not.

            For St. Gregory, however, the distinction is not between belief and effort, but between faith and knowledge. It is not that Abraham, who was in danger of attempting to earn his own salvation via works-righteousness, learned to stop his striving and receive God’s favor passively, that is, with believing assent. Rather, according to Gregory, Abraham had to leave behind knowledge, forsaking claims to fully understand the mystery of God’s being, and to learn to seek after him in faith. This knowledge, we have seen, can be boiled down to the attempt to comprehend God in a rational manner. But faith, on the other hand, is the apophatic quest for God, bypassing discursive reason and seeking to experience God rather than to encompass him with one’s own mind. Moreover, this faith is essentially exertive. In other words, it’s a lot of work. That is why Gregory portrays it as an arduous journey. As the author of Hebrews writes, “By faith Abraham obeyed” (11:8, emphasis added). Abraham had to learn to let go of earthly things, Gregory writes. He had to abandon what he knew about God in his quest to go further up and further in. Gregory appeals to the famous statement from Gen 15:6: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness” (92). Echoing Paul’s claim from Rom 4:23 that this verse was written not for Abraham’s sake but for ours, Gregory states that “it is faith, not knowledge, which credits to men as righteousness” (92).

            So, St. Gregory’s reading of the Abrahamic story is an allegory for the individual Christian’s journey away from visible things to the invisible God. This utilization of the story serves his polemical purposes against Eunomius, the arch-rationalist. Furthermore, it is drawn from various New Testament texts, including 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Hebrews (the latter considered by Gregory to be Pauline as well). Therefore, it would seem to him to be totally appropriate, if not as an exact exegesis of Rom 4, then at least as a different perspective that was completely harmonious with Paul’s aims in his writing on Abraham. But as we noted, there is a real sense in which Gregory’s account is directly opposite to the interpretation of Paul we set forth. Gregory contrasts laborious faith, which justifies, from rational comprehension. Our reading of Paul contrasts passive, rational faith, which justifies, from laborious exertion. What are we to make of this?

            It is perhaps time that we question our interpretation of St. Paul. After all, maybe the Apostle is not so far out of step with St. Gregory of Nyssa. Putting to the side the general similarities between the two, such as taking Abraham as a paradigm for every Christian’s life of faith, let us take another look at Paul’s account, seeing if it is harmonious with Gregory’s. There are two points in which there certainly is more commonality than it first appeared. Firstly, we can note that Paul provides a bit more description of what he means by “works.” He doesn’t leave us guessing about what this might mean, having to analyze the word on lexical grounds alone. Right before the beginning of chapter 4, Paul writes that “one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (3:28, emphasis added). These are specifically works of Torah. He clarifies this in his account of Abraham when he shows that Abraham was justified prior to his reception of circumcision (4:10). Therefore, Paul is discussing the rituals of the Old Covenant, such as circumcision and dietary laws. We are not justified by observing these things, Paul says, since even Abraham was justified before he was circumcised.

            Secondly, Paul’s account of Abraham’s faith is certainly not one of passivity. The way he describes it indicates that he certainly views the sort of faith Abraham had—the sort of faith that justifies—as consisting of great effort. “In hope [Abraham] believed against hope” (4:18), “he did not weaken in faith” (4:19), “no unbelief made him waver” (4:20), and he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he promised” (4:21). And, as he says, “that is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’” (4:22, emphasis added). Clearly, then, Paul is not contrasting faith with effort, for faith is very demanding. Moreover, faith transcends the bounds of reason: Abraham did not understand every step he took, but he hoped against hope and trusted in God. This is starting to sound like what the Bishop of Nyssa was getting at. But before we draw this back to Gregory, we should note as an aside that Paul’s account here needs to be reconciled, more importantly, with St. James! As James writes, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works?” (2:21, emphasis added). “You see,” he goes on, “that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works” (2:22). Faith and works, for James, are inseparable, much less dichotomized. Therefore, Paul and James must mean different things by works. This makes sense if we understand Paul to be referring to works of the law, that is, rituals from the Old Covenant. Paul does not dichotomize faith and works, but faith and works of the Torah.

            But now back to Gregory. How does this proposal for understanding Paul comport with St. Gregory of Nyssa? First, if we understand Paul to be speaking about specific ritual practices when he says “works of the law,” then he and Gregory are making similar points. Just as Gregory insists that Abraham left behind earthly and visible things in his journey towards the invisible God, so Paul understands Christians as not operating according to the physical customs of Torah, which were meant to prepare God’s people for the fullness that has arrived in Christ. Jesus brings full knowledge of God in his person, such that certain customs from the Torah are no longer necessary. Instead of looking at the shadows, we should behold the reality, God himself, and like Abraham should seek after him. Paul elsewhere contrasts faith and sight (2 Cor 5:7). Perhaps we could say that seeking justification in works of the law is akin to the attempt to rationally comprehend the mystery of God, trusting in things visible as ultimate.

            Second, with respect to St. Paul’s exposition of the difficulty involved in Abraham’s faith, there is much overlap with Gregory as well. St. Gregory viewed the whole Abrahamic narrative as one of striving toward God. Abraham had to abandon his sense perceptions and his pre-existing ideas about the divine nature and seek out the ineffable being of God by faith and not by reason. Paul is getting at much the same point when describes Abraham’s unwavering, forward-looking hope in the face of apparent impossibility, such as the fact that his own body “was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old)” (Rom 4:19). It is true that Paul is referring specifically to Abraham’s trust in the particular promises made to him by God; that was what he was striving towards. But Gregory only takes this basic idea a step further, insisting on the ultimate priority of God himself, but by no means erasing the particular Pauline point. There is, then, general harmony to their accounts.

            St. Gregory of Nyssa, therefore, presents a worthy challenge to a certain reading of Paul, and by Paul, I mean Romans, which unfortunately often functions (with Galatians) as a canon, within a canon (that is, Paul’s epistles), within the canon. St. Gregory’s polemical purposes and theological motives are not the same as Paul’s, to be sure. However, he demonstrates a fruitful continuation of the same Pauline hermeneutic. Abraham was not just a man who lived long ago, or even just a great saint and figure. Rather, he shows us all what it means to be a Christian: following after Christ as a pilgrim in this world, ascending beyond the limitations of reason and custom, Abraham believed in God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.

[1] Parenthetical citations are from Gregory of Nyssa, Contra Eunomium II, trans. Stuart George Hall (Leiden: Brill, 2007). The numbering is according to sections in the text, which are drawn from the critical edition.

One response to “St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Paul on the Faith of Abraham”

  1. I appreciate how you laid out the flow of this — from a common understanding of Paul, to introducing Nyssa, and back to re-evaluate Paul, all grounded in the biblical witness of Abraham. It helped me better understand how Paul and James are more complementary than we might think!

    Liked by 1 person

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