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[Review] Anti-Apollinarian Writings by St. Gregory of Nyssa

St. Gregory of Nyssa, Anti-Apollinarian Writings. The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 131. Translated by Robin Orton. Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 2015. Pp. xxiii + 285. $39.95.

Theological controversy is messy and confusing. Politics and personalities get mixed up with genuine misunderstandings and obstinate error. This is true when the controversy is taking place between parties still living and relevant documents can easily be accessed or reviewed. When the controversy is ancient, when the sources from one side are only fragmentary, and when the logic binding two apparently disconnected positions into one objectionable view is lost, the difficulty is greatly heightened.

These reflections naturally occur on reading Gregory of Nyssa’s Anti-Apollinarian Writings. The present volume contains Gregory’s Antirrheticus, under the title “Refutation of the Views of Apolinarius,” and also Gregory’s letter to Theophilus of Alexandria (“Ad Theophilus adversum Apolinaristas”).

The first difficulty that arises is simply establishing what Apolinarius’ views actually were. His writings survive only in a fragmentary form, and are by no means perspicuous. Gregory himself, after presenting an exact quotation, comments that “because of a weakness in his powers of explanation, his thought is not absolutely transparent in its lucidity…” (120).

Gregory appears to have had before him a writing by Apolinarius called the “Demonstration of the divine enfleshment according to the likeness of a human being” (Apodeixis), but this has not survived. The translator made a great effort to identify, arrange, and explain Apolinarius’ beliefs from the quotations and summaries given by its opponents. While considerable learning went into the suggestions made on these points, they are still uncertain.

It is clear that Apolinarius held that the Logos took the place of the pneuma in the constitution of the man Jesus. It is less clear what he meant by that. It is far less clear how that was connected to an apparent belief in the pre-existence of Christ’s flesh. Perhaps the clearest element in his concern was fear that the doctrine of two complete and distinct natures wound up representing Christ simply as a God-filled man. This concern in itself was legitimate, and was ultimately resolved by the clarification that the Logos assumed an anhypostatic human nature.

Soteriology and Christology are inevitable related. This was also the case with Apolinarius, who held that in order to salvation, “[t]he flesh needed an immutable mind, one that would not fall subject to the flesh because of the weakness of its knowledge, but that would conform it to itself without any compulsion” (198). This is no less true for Gregory. “So he who died for us was, in his being, what we are; we who are of the same kind as we are invited to imitate him” (167).

It also has to be admitted that Gregory of Nyssa was not himself absolutely transparent in lucidity. Yet on the main lines of engagement he is able to present withering criticism of Apolinarius. If Christ had God as his mind, this would make him sub-human, in that his human nature would not be complete. Moreover, it would simultaneously make him super-human, in that his mind or soul was simply divine (175).

Although the book is rather loosely composed, it is quite valuable for demonstrating Gregory’s Christology. Parts of his argument are entertaining, while others are edifying and profitable. As with many of the earlier writings on Christology, the lack of consistent vocabulary for very precise concepts can lead to ambiguous or perhaps even defective statements. An element of particular interest are his clear statements about the communicatio idiomatum, in both works found in the present volume (140, 267).

Due to the difficulty of these works, this volume takes the unprecedented step of including commentary along with the body of the text. As most of the useful information found in this section is duplicated in the introduction and notes, it might well have been spared. Since the commentary is printed in italic type, however, it is easily skipped. Given the excellence of the translation, it seems a pity that there wasn’t more confidence in the original author. The decision to spell Apolinarius with one “l” and Apollinarian with two also seemed curious.

This book should be of interest to those interested in theological controversy in general, the history of exegesis, the Cappadocian theologians, the development of Christology, and the relation of Christology to soteriology


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