Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Blessed Are the Image-Bearers: Gregory of Nyssa and the Beatitudes

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Blessed Are the Image-Bearers: Gregory of Nyssa and the Beatitudes

Article excerpt

Gregory of Nyssa as Conversation Partner

Stephen Fowl offers a succinct definition of the theological interpretation of scripture: "that practice whereby theological concerns and interests inform and are informed by a reading of scripture."1 This includes both premodern approaches to scripture and more recent attempts to revive the practice of reading scripture theologically with attention to the flourishing of the church. As Fowl notes, "Christians have generafly read their scripture to guide, correct, and edify their faith, worship, and practice as part of their ongoing struggle to live faithfully before the triune God."2

In 2007, in the inaugural essay of the newly launched Journal of Theological Interpretation, Richard Hays likewise defines modernday theological exegesis as a practice, "a way of approaching Scripture with eyes of faith and seeking to understand it within the community of faith."3 He goes on to give a more complex discussion of this practice, including twelve identifying marks.4 Hays's definition limits itself to contemporary practice, which brings to the surface some key differences with premodern approaches-for example, attention to historical setting and to the Old Testament. Yet the similarities with Fowl's definition are also telling; both agree that theological interpretation is oriented toward the community of faith, and toward a similar end: a more faithful life before God. Likewise both Hays and Fowl assume that we should learn from but not identically repeat the past. Rather, as Fowl writes, "premodem scriptural interpretation should be seen as a conversation partner providing insights and resources for reading scripture theologically in the present."5

I propose that Gregory of Nyssa is an insightful theological reader of scripture in general and of the beatitudes in particular, and is therefore an exemplary conversation partner who provides rich resources for reading the beatitudes theologically in the present. Reading the beatitudes in conversation with Gregory-looking over his shoulder, as it were-can inform our understanding and application of the beatitudes today. His interpretation of the beatitudes models the fruitful interplay between theological reflection-in his case, around the themes of the imago Dei, the fall, and eschatological redemption- and scriptural exegesis. Yet Gregory also provides a good example of an interpretation that cannot simply be repeated without modification, given his Neoplatonic commitments. We can retrieve and be nourished by Gregory's reflections on the beatitudes in light of the fall and the imago Dei while placing them within a theological framework that has a more positive view of the role of the body and its desires.6

The Beatitudes and the Restoration of the Image of God

In 371, Gregorys older brother Basil appointed him bishop of Nyssa. Gregorys meditations on the beatitudes were likely preached a few years later, in the mid- to late 370s.1 Scholars often credit Gregory, along with Ambrose of Milan, with an innovative approach to the beatitudes that understands them as sequential and ascending stages of virtue. This view quickly came to dominate patristic and medieval exegesis and is an approach that endures even into the present day. In and of itself, this is an interesting example of a theological interpretation of the beatitudes, and a well-studied one. Yet Gregorys approach has one more element that is even more particular to him: reading the beatitudes through the lens of the fall and the restoration of the imago Dei.

In his first meditation on the Matthean beatitudes, Gregory introduces the key themes that will guide him throughout the rest of the sermons. The beatitudes represent spiritual wealth, or beatitude (blessedness) in general, which he defines as "a possession of all things held to be good." Since God is "the one thing truly blessed" and is "the fount of all goodness," it follows that the perfect expression of the beatitudes is God. …

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