Posted on: August 11th, 2022 Gregory of Nyssa on Human Sexual Difference

For Gregory of Nyssa, writing in his On the Making of Man, sexual difference is not simply a beneficent feature of the good creation God made, but rather is a result of the fall of the human race into sin. (More precisely it is the result of God’s foreknowledge of man’s fall.)

In §16 Greg is saying that, in Gen 1:27, we see something like a two-step process or dynamic or development. First, God created man in his image, with no sexual differentiation. Then, in a later step (or in some kind of derivative manner) God, “perceiving beforehand by his power of foreknowledge what, in a state of independence and freedom, is the tendency of the motion of man’s will,” introduced the distinction between male and female. [206] Yet, Gregory re-emphasizes, this distinction has no reference to the Divine Archetype.” [207] Rather it “is an approximation to the less rational nature.” (Here Greg is thinking of the irrational nature of “brutes.”” [205])

In §17 Gregory is arguing against some “adversaries” of his. Yet, for our purposes here, what he agrees on with his adversaries is far more important than what he disagrees with them on (namely, that, given the absence of procreation and marriage before the fall, had man not sinned, “human souls would not have existed in plurality” [209] and “the human race would have remained in the pair of the first-formed.” [209]

What does he agree with them on? Far more importantly, Gregory holds the common assumption with them that the original intention of God for his human creature(s) in paradise did not include sexual procreation or marriage. (Further, he implies that, along with the absence of these two features, sexual difference itself is absent.)

Now, what does this stance of Gregory’s imply for the sex(uality) and gender wars of our contemporary culture, including church culture, or the situation within the churches?

First, I must register one additional point. One of Gregory’s themes is that the cosmic eschaton (the final destiny of the human race and indeed all creation, named variously as “the beatific vision”; “deification”; “the new heavens and the new earth”) is correlated to the origin. We glimpse this insistence of Gregory’s not only in the title of §23 (“That he who confesses the beginning of the world’s existence must necessarily agree also as to its end”), but also in the inherent logic of his argument in §17, his rebuttal against his “adversaries.” Appealing to Jesus’ response to the Sadducees in Lk 20:35–6, that “in the resurrection, they neither marry nor are given in marriage,” Gregory writes that:

Now the resurrection promises us nothing else than the restoration of the fallen to their ancient state; for the greace we look for is a certain return to the first life, bringing back again Paradise to him who was cast out from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of the angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, bringing back to Paradise him who was cast from it. If then the life of those restored is closely related to that of angels, it is clear that the life before the transgression was a kind of angelic life, and hence also our return to the ancient condition of our life is compared to the angels.

Saint gregory of nyssa, On the making of man tr. taken from vol 8 of The Nicene and post-nicene fathers (Brookline, MA: Paterikon, 2017), 209.

I hasten to add, in a preview of how I plan to develop this theme, that in his recent Tradition and Apocalypse, David Bentley Hart stresses that, what it means to be faithful to (the) Christian tradition is not simply to attend to the past (the Scriptures, the apostles, the church fathers, and the teachings and events therein), but also to the “future,” or rather to the final telos envisioned in those same events and writings. Not just the origin, but the eschaton.

Isn’t it interesting that, in the above text, Gregory of Nyssa is discussing both? In both, human beings are conceived of as sexless in some very real sense. What implications might this have for our contemporary struggles with sex & gender? To that question I hope to turn my attention very soon.

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