Review: Trinity and Man: Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium

Giulio Maspero, Trinity and Man: Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium, Supplements to Vigilae Christianae 86 (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 216 pages.

In Trinity and Man: Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium, Giulio Maspero focuses on an important historical moment: the Nyssian’s answer to “why three men, but not three Gods?” Maspero cites the recent revisionist project by Sarah Coakley et al. as evidence that the all-important passageway through this question has been misread and misinterpreted. Maspero posits that more attention to Gregory’s Ad Ablabium (AdAbl) will serve to continue the movement toward a better reading that does justice to the breadth and profundity of the Nyssian’s theological contributions. Situated as a “construction” that properly follows the “deconstruction” project of Coakley et al., Trinity and Man is a theological commentary on the AdAbl that not only offers extensive analysis on the text, but also synthetically situates this analysis at the “interior” of the whole of Gregory’s theology (xxviii).

Maspero sets out to demonstrate in the structure of the AdAbl the connection and distinction between Trinitarian immanence and economy articulated in the relationship between essence, nature, hypostases and their activity (xxxii). The central point is thus “the inseparability of Christology and doctrine of the Trinity”(xxxii). This, then, leads to a discussion of how to speak of God: “Thus in its articulation the AdAbl shows the impossibility of separating questions of fundamental theology from dogmatics properly speaking”(xxxii).

Overview

Maspero’s introductions to recent scholarship and to the treatise itself set the stage for three substantial chapters that follow the structure of the AdAbl. He presents Gregory’s outline thus: the question – why three men, but not three Gods? The first response, then, is to avoid confusion with Hellenic polytheism. After this comes the schema of the work. Step one: “Human nature is one, it is improper to speak of many men”(xviii). Step two: “God is a name of the activity.” Step three: “The difference between God and men is that the divine Persons have a unique activity.” Apophatism: “The essence is ineffable.” And then the finale: “The distinction of the Persons.” Maspero’s commentary parallels this structure.

In the first chapter “Nature and Action,” Maspero presents Gregory’s doctrine of “universal nature” which moves him toward addressing in what sense “nature” and “person” are found in God. Maspero notes the originality of Cappadocian thought here, noting that they were able to preserve a human analogy of the divine nature that did not result in subordinationism: coordination on the level of person. Gregory’s concept of universal human nature was the conceptual instrument that allowed thought about nature on the level of a sum of properties that characterize humanity and also nature as the sum of human beings. Thus, one can speak of humanity as one man alone. But how, then, does this concept avoid the charge of tritheism?

Maspero marks this as a central point of the AdAbl. Gregory offers a clear way to conceive of the unity and then defines the proper limits for the analogy. The unity of human nature is only an image of the unity of the divine nature. Part of the problem is speaking appropriately of God. Although Maspero will explore apophatism in depth later, he introduces why names explain and interpret what is thought of God, but do not comprehend κατ᾽ οὐσίαν absolutely. The meat of this chapter is an extensive analysis of what it means for the names of God to be derived from activity, from the divine “energies.” According to Maspero, the AdAbl is an important response to the question of the possibility to know God. He demonstrates this through philological analysis of the distinction between the energies and the divine nature. In his analysis Maspero adeptly demonstrates that the Nyssian is far from an esoteric thinker. Instead, Gregory’s thought lends itself to openness in thinking about God in history: “The ad extra manifestation of God renders eternity present in history, without introducing any change into God himself”(34). The key for Gregory is that the discourse on ἐνέργεια is tied to ontological and personal participation. It is here (translated as “activity”) where the expression of the connection between the immanent and economic is clarified. At this point Maspero identifies the “apex” of the treatise: “the Nyssian presents the inseparability of the economy and immanence explicating the connection between the ‘energies’ and Persons. Trinitarian perichoresis becomes the keystone of dogmatic construction”(55). The concept of “unity of action” is the final focus of the substantial first chapter (the first half of the book): one action in which personal characteristics can be distinguished—ἐκ-δία-ἐν. The “unique mediation of the Son” in this formula brings up the inevitable question of the relationship between human nature and divine nature. It is here that Maspero’s thesis that Christology is inseparable from the doctrine of the Trinity comes to the forefront. Gregory’s anthropology is based on his Christology and ultimately grounded in Trinitarian doctrine.

In chapter two Maspero explores Nyssian apophatism in greater depth. He identifies Gregory’s contribution to be the breadth of one’s ability to express the “negative” end, or the limits of human knowledge, and the “positive” compulsion to speak often and creatively about that which we will be coming to know forever. Gregory’s apophatism does not merely designate a hard boundary, but it leads to access of the divine. Maspero sees this methodology in the AdAbl: “in his [Gregory’s] very act of negating the possibility to express the divine nature with language, affirms the possibility to investigate the mode of being of the Persons and attests to the value of human knowledge and science”(110). In other words, apophatism must flow from a fully Trinitarian perspective, otherwise one either says too much and falls into error or says to little and remains distant from the divine.

In the final chapter, Maspero highlights the importance of Gregory’s pneumatology and his emphasis on God in history, which he posits is often overlooked. The Nyssian argument for no mixture of the hypostases is based on his conception of “cause.” Instead of two causes or a passivity of procession of the Son and the Spirit from a first cause, there is unity that is manifested to the world: “the bond of unity is glory”(182). Maspero notes with acclaim that the summit of Gregory’s pneumatology is this recognition of the personal characteristic of the Holy Spirit – that the Spirit is this bond. Maspero writes: “Thus it was seen, that the base of the whole Nyssian construction is the continuity between economy and immanence: the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Son cannot be solely limited to the economic sphere”(184).

Response

Maspero’s commentary is well executed and useful on a number of levels. The lengthy quotations (with the Greek) from the AdAbl and numerous other Nyssian texts served to present a coherent analysis that situated the AdAbl synthetically in Gregory’s thought. The work is also well balanced in that Maspero does not remain locked in philological analysis, but seamlessly moves toward theological contributions and historical ramifications (e.g. the iconoclastic and filioque controversies). Trinity and Man is an illuminating work that rightly serves to demonstrate the unity of Nyssian thought. It is a vital addition to any collection of works on Gregory.

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