Monday, March 21, 2011

Gregory of Nyssa: Ransom


Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)

Gregory of Nyssa was a simple and quiet man who entered monastic life after the death of his wife. He would have been content to live out his life as a monk, but his brother Basil the Great insisted that he become bishop. Despite his reluctance to accept the position, Gregory became a great defender of orthodox Christianity, and played a large part in the victory of Nicene doctrine at the council of Constantinople. Gregory is most well known for his deep mystical writings. The material presented here is from his Great Catechism.

Gregory is representative of the ransom theory of the atonement. He believed that human beings were created for beauty and holiness and endowed with free will after the divine image. Satan deceived us into pursuing a beauty apart from God. Falling for Satan’s lie and choosing to serve him rather than God, the human race became enslaved to sin and death. We freely chose to come into Satan’s dominion and so the devil has rights over us. God could not violate justice by taking what rightfully belongs to Satan, so it was necessary that he buy us back out of slavery.

“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.”


Because Satan deceived humankind, God in turn deceived the devil by hiding his Son in human form. Gregory believed that God’s deception of the devil was justified not only for our sake, but also for the sake of Satan himself who would benefit from the incarnation as well.

“A certain deception was indeed practiced 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.”


Satan fell for God’s trick, and saw in Jesus a worthy Ransom for all of humanity.

“The Enemy, therefore, beholding in Him such power, saw also in Him an opportunity for an advance, in the exchange, upon the value of what he held. For this reason he chooses Him as a ransom for those who were shut up in the prison of death. But it was out of his power to look on the unclouded aspect of God; he must see in Him some portion of that fleshly nature which through sin he had so long held in bondage. Therefore it was that the Deity was invested with the flesh, in order, that is, to secure that he, by looking upon something congenial and kindred to himself, might have no fears in approaching that supreme power; and might yet by perceiving that power, showing as it did, yet only gradually, more and more splendor in the miracles, deem what was seen an object of desire rather than of fear. Thus, you see how goodness was conjoined with justice, and how wisdom was not divorced from them.”


The devil fell for the bait, but the Son of God hidden within proved to power for his might to contain or conquer. The power of evil was thus destroyed. Christ’s righteousness served as a kind of antidote to evil. The life that was in him overturned the power of death.

"For since, as has been said before, it was not in the nature of the opposing power to come in contact with the undiluted presence of God, and to undergo His unclouded manifestation, therefore, in order to secure that the ransom in our behalf might be easily accepted by him who required it, the Deity was hidden under the veil of our nature, that so, as with ravenous fish, the hook of the Deity might be gulped down along with the bait of flesh, and thus, life being introduced into the house of death, and light shining in darkness, that which is diametrically opposed to light and life might vanish; for it is not in the nature of darkness to remain when light is present, or of death to exist when life is active."


All of humanity shares in the victory Christ achieved because he is joined with us through the incarnation.

“He stretches forth a hand as it were to prostrate man, and stooping down to our dead corpse He came so far within the grasp of death as to touch a state of deadness, and then in His own body to bestow on our nature the principle of the resurrection, raising as He did by His power along with Himself the whole man. For since from no other source than from the concrete lump of our nature had come that flesh, which was the receptacle of the Godhead and in the resurrection was raised up together with that Godhead, therefore just in the same way as, in the instance of this body of ours, the operation of one of the organs of sense is felt at once by the whole system, as one with that member, so also the resurrection principle of this member, as though the whole of mankind was a single living being, passes through the entire race, being imparted from the Member to the whole by virtue of the continuity and oneness of the nature.”


Gregory sees the atonement as a great defeat of Satan. He emphasizes the devil’s role in humanities fall. Humanity is rescued from bondage to the devil. Gregory also sees the atonement as being universal in scope. All of humanity shares in the salvation that Jesus brings and even the devil is restored through Jesus’ work of redemption.


1. Some have argued that deception is an unworthy tactic of God. Do you think it is inconsistent with God’s character to deceive the devil?
2. What do you think about the idea that sin places us under the devil’s dominion?
3. Does Satan have any rights that God should be beholden too?
4. How do you feel about Gregory’s claim that all humanity and even Satan himself shares in the benefit of Jesus’ redeeming work?