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Home > Fathers of the Church > The Great Catechism (Gregory of Nyssa)

The Great Catechism

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The Trinity.

Prologue and Chapter 1.— The belief in God rests on the art and wisdom displayed in the order of the world: the belief in the Unity of God, on the perfection that must belong to Him in respect of power, goodness, wisdom, etc. Still, the Christian who combats polytheism has need of care lest in contending against Hellenism he should fall unconsciously into Judaism. For God has a Logos: else He would be without reason. And this Logos cannot be merely an attribute of God. We are led to a more exalted conception of the Logos by the consideration that in the measure in which God is greater than we, all His predicates must also be higher than those which belong to us. Our logos is limited and transient; but the subsistence of the Divine Logos must be indestructible; and at the same time living, since the rational cannot be lifeless, like a stone. It must also have an independent life, not a participated life, else it would lose its simplicity; and, as living, it must also have the faculty of will. This will of the Logos must be equalled by his power: for a mixture of choice and impotence would, again, destroy the simplicity. His will, as being Divine, must be also good. From this ability and will to work there follows the realization of the good; hence the bringing into existence of the wisely and artfully adjusted world. But since, still further, the logical conception of the Word is in a certain sense a relative one, it follows that together with the Word He Who speaks it, i.e. the Father of the Word, must be recognized as existing. Thus the mystery of the faith avoids equally the absurdity of Jewish monotheism, and that of heathen polytheism. On the one hand, we say that the Word has life and activity; on the other, we affirm that we find in the Λόγος, whose existence is derived from the Father, all the attributes of the Father's nature.

Chapter II. — By the analogy of human breath, which is nothing but inhaled and exhaled fire, i.e. an object foreign to us, is demonstrated the community of the Divine Spirit with the essence of God, and yet the independence of Its existence.

Chapter III. — From the Jewish doctrine, then, the unity of the Divine nature has been retained: from Hellenism the distinction into hypostases.

Chapter IV.— The Jew convicted from Scripture.

Reasonableness of the Incarnation.

Chapters V. and VI.— God created the world by His reason and wisdom; for He cannot have proceeded irrationally in that work; but His reason and wisdom are, as above shown, not to be conceived as a spoken word, or as the mere possession of knowledge, but as a personal and willing potency. If the entire world was created by this second Divine hypostasis, then certainly was man also thus created; yet not in view of any necessity, but from superabounding love, that there might exist a being who should participate in the Divine perfections. If man was to be receptive of these, it was necessary that his nature should contain an element akin to God; and, in particular, that he should be immortal. Thus, then, man was created in the image of God. He could not therefore be without the gifts of freedom, independence, self-determination; and his participation in the Divine gifts was consequently made dependent on his virtue. Owing to this freedom he could decide in favour of evil, which cannot have its origin in the Divine will, but only in our inner selves, where it arises in the form of a deviation from good, and so a privation of it. Vice is opposed to virtue only as the absence of the better. Since, then, all that is created is subject to change, it was possible that, in the first instance, one of the created spirits should turn his eye away from the good, and become envious, and that from this envy should arise a leaning towards badness, which should, in natural sequence, prepare the way for all other evil. He seduced the first men into the folly of turning away from goodness, by disturbing the Divinely ordered harmony between their sensuous and intellectual natures; and guilefully tainting their wills with evil.

Chapters VII. and VIII. — God did not, on account of His foreknowledge of the evil that would result from man's creation, leave man uncreated; for it was better to bring back sinners to original grace by the way of repentance and physical suffering than not to create man at all. The raising up of the fallen was a work befitting the Giver of life, Who is the wisdom and power of God; and for this purpose He became man.

Chapter IX.— The Incarnation was not unworthy of Him; for only evil brings degradation.

Chapter X.— The objection that the finite cannot contain the infinite, and that therefore the human nature could not receive into itself the Divine, is founded on the false supposition that the Incarnation of the Word means that the infinity of God was contained in the limits of the flesh, as in a vessel.— Comparison of the flame and wick.

Chapters XI., XII., XIII. — For the rest, the manner in which the Divine nature was united to the human surpasses our power of comprehension; although we are not permitted to doubt the fact of that union in Jesus, on account of the miracles which He wrought. The supernatural character of those miracles bears witness to their Divine origin.

Chapters XIV., XV., XVI., XVII. — The scheme of the Incarnation is still further drawn out, to show that this way for man's salvation was preferable to a single fiat of God's will. Christ took human weakness upon Him; but it was physical, not moral, weakness. In other words the Divine goodness did not change to its opposite, which is only vice. In Him soul and body were united, and then separated, according to the course of nature; but after He had thus purged human life, He reunited them upon a more general scale, for all, and for ever, in the Resurrection.

Chapter XVIII.— The ceasing of demon-worship, the Christian martyrdoms, and the devastation of Jerusalem, are accepted by some as proofs of the Incarnation —

Chapters XIX., XX.— But not by the Greek and the Jew. To return, then, to its reasonableness. Whether we regard the goodness, the power, the wisdom, or the justice of God, it displays a combination of all these acknowledged attributes, which, if one be wanting, cease to be Divine. It is therefore true to the Divine perfection.

Chapters XXI., XXII., XXIII. — What, then, is the justice in it? We must remember that man was necessarily created subject to change (to better or to worse). Moral beauty was to be the direction in which his free will was to move; but then he was deceived, to his ruin, by an illusion of that beauty. After we had thus freely sold ourselves to the deceiver, He who of His goodness sought to restore us to liberty could not, because He was just too, for this end have recourse to measures of arbitrary violence. It was necessary therefore that a ransom should be paid, which should exceed in value that which was to be ransomed; and hence it was necessary that the Son of God should surrender Himself to the power of death. God's justice then impelled Him to choose a method of exchange, as His wisdom was seen in executing it.

Chapters XXIV., XXV. — But how about the power? That was more conspicuously displayed in Deity descending to lowliness, than in all the natural wonders of the universe. It was like flame being made to stream downwards. Then, after such a birth, Christ conquered death.

Chapter XXVI. — A certain deception was indeed practised upon the Evil one, by concealing the Divine nature within the human; but for the latter, as himself a deceiver, it was only a just recompense that he should be deceived himself: the great adversary must himself at last find that what has been done is just and salutary, when he also shall experience the benefit of the Incarnation. He, as well as humanity, will be purged.

Chapters XXVII., XXVIII. — A patient, to be healed, must be touched; and humanity had to be touched by Christ. It was not in heaven; so only through the Incarnation could it be healed.— It was, besides, no more inconsistent with His Divinity to assume a human than a heavenly body; all created beings are on a level beneath Deity. Even abundant honour is due to the instruments of human birth.

Chapters XXIX., XXX., XXXI. — As to the delay of the Incarnation, it was necessary that human degeneracy should have reached the lowest point, before the work of salvation could enter in. That, however, grace through faith has not come to all must be laid to the account of human freedom; if God were to break down our opposition by violent means, the praise-worthiness of human conduct would be destroyed.

Chapter XXXII. — Even the death on the Cross was sublime: for it was the culminating and necessary point in that scheme of Love in which death was to be followed by blessed resurrection for the whole lump of humanity: and the Cross itself has a mystic meaning.

The Sacraments.

Chapters XXXIII., XXXIV., XXXV., XXXVI. — The saving nature of Baptism depends on three things; Prayer, Water, and Faith. 1. It is shown how Prayer secures the Divine Presence. God is a God of truth; and He has promised to come (as Miracles prove that He has come already) if invoked in a particular way. 2. It is shown how the Deity gives life from water. In human generation, even without prayer, He gives life from a small beginning. In a higher generation He transforms matter, not into soul, but into spirit. 3. Human freedom, as evinced in faith and repentance, is also necessary to Regeneration. Being thrice dipped in the water is our earliest mortification; coming out of it is a forecast of the ease with which the pure shall rise in a blessed resurrection: the whole process is an imitation of Christ.

Chapter XXXVII. — The Eucharist unites the body, as Baptism the soul, to God. Our bodies, having received poison, need an Antidote; and only by eating and drinking can it enter. One Body, the receptacle of Deity, is this Antidote, thus received. But how can it enter whole into each one of the Faithful? This needs an illustration. Water gives its own body to a skin-bottle. So nourishment (bread and wine) by becoming flesh and blood gives bulk to the human frame: the nourishment is the body. Just as in the case of other men, our Saviour's nourishment (bread and wine) was His Body; but these, nourishment and Body, were in Him changed into the Body of God by the Word indwelling. So now repeatedly the bread and wine, sanctified by the Word (the sacred Benediction), is at the same time changed into the Body of that Word; and this Flesh is disseminated among all the Faithful.

Chapters XXXVIII., XXXIX. — It is essential for Regeneration to believe that the Son and the Spirit are not created spirits, but of like nature with God the Father; for he who would make his salvation dependent (in the baptismal Invocation) on anything created would trust to an imperfect nature, and one itself needing a saviour.

Chapter XL. — He alone has truly become a child of God who gives evidence of his regeneration by putting away from himself all vice.

About this page

Source. Translated by William Moore and Henry Austin Wilson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 5. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1893.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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