Gregory of Nyssa and the Prelapsarian
Books of Milton's Paradise Lost
CLAUDE N. STULTING JR.
One of the central ideas in the writings of the Fathers of the early Greek church is that of theosis, or the deification of humankind. This idea—that humankind is to find communion with God through assimilation to him, that humankind is to be glorified and become divine itself—finds its locus classicus in Athanasius's statement that God became human so that we might become God. “For he [the Word of God… was made man,” Athanasius declares, “that we might be made God.”1 Gregory of Nyssa concurs. He holds that the very purpose of the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus is to deify humankind and render it immortal through its union with and participation in the divine nature. “In the suffering of His human nature,” Gregory writes, “the Godhead fulfilled the dispensation for our benefit, that all the corruptible may put on incorruption, and all the mortal may put on immortality, our first-fruits having been transformed to the Divine nature by its union with God.”2 Following the Fall, humankind is to be restored to the original divine image in which it was made through being elevated and made partakers of the divine nature. This idea is reiterated throughout Gregory's writings.3
But theosis is not merely humankind's postlapsarian destiny,it is also humankind's prelapsarian possibility. And as it is with humankind after the Fall, so it is here, too: theosis is inherently a dynamic process whose means is a divine paideia. Gregory's ideas on this matter can, I think, illuminate our understanding of Milton's prelapsarian Adam and Eve in Paradise Lost.