Fr. John Behr gave a lecture recently about his forthcoming translation and critical Greek edition of On the Human Image of God by Gregory of Nyssa. It has a 8,000 word introduction and is due out in December or January. The title is what Behr gives as the correct title of the work that has typically been known as On the Making of Man. Behr’s lecture was called “Reason Persuading Necessity: Gregory of Nyssa on the Human Being” and given at the Sheptytsky Institute on July 15, 2022. Find it here in full on YouTube.
I anticipate reflecting a good bit in response to this lecture (and the forthcoming book), but my first thoughts here have nothing to do with this book by Gregory of Nyssa. After the lecture, the last of many great questions was about what Gregory of Nyssa would say about the fall of humanity. Behr says that Gregory has nothing at all to say about it in this work. However, a second questioner asks for more of a response, and Behr shares some of his own thoughts.
At the heart of what Behr says is that Paul, the most highly trained of Jewish readers of the Old Testament, had no concept at all of a human fall until after he had encountered Jesus Christ. It is only Christ who reveals to us our fallenness. This is remarkable in several ways, but I’ll stay with two:
- First, it shows that any theology grounded on a human fall having been taught in Genesis is going to be built on sand (i.e. consider the implications for doctrines of original sin and hereditary guilt).
- Second, so much about how Christians in the church relate to their human brothers and sisters outside of the church needs to change radically.
I grew up hearing many Christian apologists claim that the one thing everyone could agree about is that we are all fallen and desperately in need of help. It turns out, however, that the fallenness of others is not something that we have any business worrying about. Christ reveals to us our own fallenness, and that is our concern (along with the suffering of the entire cosmos as a result of the fallenness of the sons of God, i.e. the saints who should be the light of the world). Imagine a world where Christians did not worry about the “sins” of those outside of the church but only tried to love and serve everyone around them regardless of their particular hurts or struggles. It sounds a little like the book of Acts or the urban hospitals founded by the likes of Basil the Great.
Well, I’ve said enough. To be honest, I don’t think that I’m qualified to really expound on all that Fr. John Behr says here in this brief response. I will note that Gregory of Nyssa certainly has some doctrine of the fall as we see in several of his other works. Very simply, for example, he refers to Satan several times in On the Soul and the Resurrection with descriptions such as “he who first deceived man” or “the introducer of evil himself.” Therefore, I am sure that Behr is not saying that Gregory had no concept of a fall but simply that this fall is not integral to the exposition of Genesis or the understanding of humanity in the image of God. What Behr does seem to be saying clearly is that the fall is something that really only applies to Christians as we shine the light of Christ into our own hearts and lives.
At any rate, decide for yourself. Here is a full transcript of what Behr had to say:
Questioner 1: What would [Gregory] say about what we think of as “the fall”?
Answer: He doesn’t mention it. He simply doesn’t mention it. There’s not much I can say—he really, really doesn’t mention it. I can go on for hours about that, but, simply, he doesn’t mention it.
Questioner 2: But Father, does he talk about what [two or three inaudible words] us?
Well, okay, when we’re talking about the fall, what actually are we talking about? Seriously, what are we talking about? Yes, Genesis 3 obviously. How are we talking about it, and when was it? Literally—first question—when was it? Yes, Genesis 3, but when was that? Which leads into the question of how then we talk about it. But when was it? Was it 10,000 BC, 100,000 BC? You know, if you go with biblical chronology and there’s 7,000 years to the world, then was it 6,999 BC? Was it a Tuesday? Was it Thursday? Was it Wednesday afternoon? You know, when you start asking questions like that, you realize how, kind of, absurd that kind of question is which then opens up the point: how are we reading Genesis as talking about a fall?
So Paul knew Genesis perfectly well, and he knew it in Hebrew as well as whatever he knew of the Greek, but he certainly knew in Hebrew, and he was trained in all the rabbinic, pharisaical interpretive skills of his day. Did he think he was fallen before he encountered Christ? Did he? I mean, it’s a serious question. Did he? No, he said: “I was blameless with regard to the law. I kept the law blamelessly.” He wasn’t waiting for a savior to come and save him from sin and death. He was perfectly satisfied with himself, you know, kept the law blamelessly and so satisfied was he that he was persecuting Christians because they’ve obviously got it wrong. He encounters Christ, and now he reads the scriptures differently, and now he can say: “Oh, this is what Isaiah is talking about.” And he can say: “Oh, now I get what this narrative about Adam is all about. With Adam’s sin, death came into the world. Christ’s righteousness came into the world.” That’s a statement he makes after the encounter with Christ not before.
So the condition for making that statement is, in fact, the encounter with Christ. So it is in the light of Christ we can speak about the fall which is kind of what Gregory is doing here in the sense of he gives us this beautiful description of the human being as that to which we have never yet attained but that towards which we are growing and then gives an analysis of that. It’s so important to recognize the hermeneutical ground upon which a statement is made because, exactly my point, we forget how we learned how to speak, so we’re happy to talk about the fall without even thinking about how we’ve come to speak about it. Okay, so it’s in the light of Christ, he can say: “With Adam’s sin, death came into the world. Christ’s righteous life came into the world.” Now he can say: “Death is the last enemy.” Was death considered to be the last enemy before Christ and his passion?
When the patriarchs die in the scriptures with their feet up, it’s a blessed death, no doubt about it. There’s no unnaturalness to death in the Old Testament. A wicked death, a violent death, certainly, but not a death at ripe old age with your feet up and your children around you and posterity and whatever else. That changes in the light of Christ. It now becomes: Adam’s sin; death came into the world; death is the last enemy. And we always stop at that, you know, death is the last enemy. Christ has conquered death. You know we’re so used to saying Christ has conquered death. How many of you have heard that? How many people here are not going to die? It’s not so simple is it? Yes, Christ has conquered death, but he’s conquered death not by eradicating it but by turning it inside out and making it the means of life. So death is the last enemy but it’s also the means of victory. Yes, again we’ve got to remember how we learned how to speak and then we can see the coherence of that kind of discourse. If we don’t, we end up talking about things like the fall, and I’m not sure we really know what we’re talking about. Okay, enough of the sermon.1:24:00 to 1:28:53
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Note that Fr. John Behr replied to this post elsewhere with: “Look at chapter 3 in ‘Mystery of Christ.’”