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Alden A. Mosshammer

Time For All and a Moment for Each:
The Sixth Homily of Gregory of Nyssa on Ecclesiastes

1. Introduction

'For all things the time and a moment for every activity under the heaven.' In commenting on the introductory sentence of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, Gregory of Nyssa begins for the first time to explore some of the ideas that we associate with the distinctive philosophy of being and becoming in his most mature works. His earliest works are marked by an almost unrelieved contrast between the intellectual and the material natures. The distance between the two is spatial, and perfection would consist in a vertical rising away from sensory experience towards a purely intellectual apprehension of the intelligible nature. Having been joined to a mortal body, the human soul is trapped in an alien environment. There is a physical barrier separating the material from the intellectual, through which nothing bodily can pass. The Homilies on the Beatitudes (PG 44, 1209A) offer an excellent sample of this vertical structure. If we could take wings from the Lord's saying, Gregory says, and stand on the back of heaven's shell, there we would find the super celestial land whose inheritance awaits those who have lived in accordance with virtue. To the extent that there is an historical or a horizontal dimension in Gregory's thought, his attitude is largely negative. Historical time is a regressive degradation of an original state of perfection, and man must move backwards in time so as to remedy the deficiency. In the essay On Virginity (GNO Vlll/1, 299,13; 302, 19) Gregory remarks that the first sin was the small beginning of an endless stream of evil that floods human life; the path towards virtue is a palindrome, he says - one must reverse the sequence of events.

In his later works Gregory speaks more positively of the union of body and soul as the essential link between the intellectual and material natures.(1) Sin is a deformation of this link; and time offers the possibility of change for the better through an historical process of building the body of Christ until God is again 'all in all'.(2) The debate with Eunomius marks the critical turning point in Gregory's intellectual development. Ekkehard Mühlenberg has shown how Gregory enunciated a new understanding of the divine infinity in the first book against Eunomius.(3) Mariette Canévet has argued that Gregory developed a new method of Biblical exegesis in the first book against Eunomius, which differentiates the commentaries of his later period from those of his earlier works.(4) Gregory's understanding of time offers yet another example of new directions clearly evident for the first time in the first book against Eunomius.(5) Yet, as important as it was for Gregory's intellectual development, it was not only the debate with Eunomius that led Gregory to develop his new philosophy about the structure of existence in time. Even in his earlier works, Gregory is reaching for some strategy to accommodate his negative and essentially Platonic view about the physical world as men experience it to his more positive and Christian view that as a creation of God the visible universe and man's place within it must somehow be understood as good. Examples of this tension abound in Gregory's earlier works. In his essay On the Profession of the Christian Name, for example, while Gregory speaks of the impossibility of assimilating the earthly nature to the heavenly, he also maintains that a heavenly sojourn is possible for anyone who wants it, even here on the earth, by means not of a change of place but of will (ου διά τοπικής μεταβάσεως, αλλά διά προαιρέσεως μόνης GNO VIII/ 1, 140.4).

The significance of the Homilies on Ecclesiastes lies in its testimony to a transitional stage in Gregory's thought. In this work we can see Gregory responding to the tensions in his own thought with new strategies that he will shortly develop into powerful weapons for the debate with Eunomius. The homilies cannot be dated with precision from any external evidence, but their composition certainly belongs to the period between 378 and 381. The reference in the sixth homily to the prevailing απιστία (382,16) points, as Jaeger suggested, to a date before the Council of Constantinople in 381.6 The composition of the work may be roughly contemporary with that of the first book against Eunomius, written in the latter part of 380.(7) There are many verbal similarities, the first book against Eunomius presenting more highly developed versions of ideas expressed in the homilies on Ecclesiastes. In the sixth homily, for example, Gregory defines time as the common measure of all things that come into being. In the first book against Eunomius (GNO Ι 135,1; cf. 79,2), Gregory argues that there can be no notion of measure in the divine nature. For the divine is not in time, but time is from the divine. The more fully developed argument may be a consequence of the polemical context, but it is difficult to believe that Gregory would have already written the first book against Eunomius when he came to comment on the Ecclesiastes' verses about time. The Apologia in Hexaemeron, written after the spring of 378 at the earliest, provides a terminus post quem, since, as I shall show, that work reflects a different understanding of the structure of reality.(8) If, as I will also suggest, the dialogue on the soul also reflects the earlier understanding, then we are brought to a date after the death of Macrina in the summer of 378 at the earliest.(9) By this time the first two books of Eunomius's Apologia Apologiae had certainly been published(10). Gregory was therefore probably working on these homilies shortly before he wrote his first book against Eunomius, perhaps while waiting to get his hands on that copy of Eunomius's book which was recalled by its owner after only seventeen days (Ep. 29, GNO VIII, 87.13). It was while writing this commentary, with perhaps the task facing him in responding to Eunomius very much on his mind, that Gregory first conceived of the relationship between time and measure that he was to use so effectively in that debate.


1. - Sο Or. Cat. PG 45, 25C-D. Gregory anticipates the idea in De Hom. Opif. (PG 44, 145C; 161D), but the fully developed view appears only in the later works. Eugenio Corsini has discussed this aspect of Gregory's thought in a series of studies. See 'Plerôme humaine et plerôme cosmique chez Grégoire de Nysse': Écriture et culture philosophique dans la pensée de Grégoire de Nysse, ed. M.Harl, Leiden 1971, 111-126; 'L'harmonie du monde et l'homme microcosme dans le De Hominis Opificio': Epektasis: Mélanges patristiques offerts au Cardinal J. Daniélοu, ed. J. Fontaine/Ch. Kannengiesser, Paris 1972, 455-462; 'La polemica contra Eunomio e la formazione della dottrina sulla creazione in Gregorio di Nissa': Arche e Telos. L'antropologia di Orίgene e di Gregorio di Nissa, ed. Ugo Bianchi, ΜiΙanο, 1981, 197-213. Corsini believes that the first book against Eunomius predates the De Hominis Opificio, thus reversing the usual chronology; but this view has not prevailed.

2. - E.g.In Cant. GNO VI, 384, 21-386,17.

3. - Ekkehard Mühlenberg, Die Unendlichkeit Gottes bei Gregor von Nyssa (FKDG 16), Gottingen 1966.

4. - Mariette Canévet, Grégoire de Nysse et l'herméneutique Biblique, Études Augustiniennes, Paris 1983.

5. - See ΡauΙ Zemp, Die Grundlagen heilsgeschichtliche Denkens bei Gregor von Nyssa, ΜΤS.S 38), Munchen 1970. Zemp discusses the change in perspective between earlier and later works, but doesn't emphasize the first book against Eunomius as a critical turning point in the same way that Mühlenberg and Canévet do. Cf. also David Balas, 'Eternity and Time in Gregory of Nyssa's Contra Encomium', Gregor von Nyssa und die Philosophie, ed. Η. Dorrie, Μ. Altenburger, Α. Schramm, Leiden 1976, 128-153.

6. - See Paul Alexander's comment ad locum.

7. - On this point and the chronology of Gregory's works in general see Gerhard Μay, 'Die Chronologie des Lebens und der Werke des Gregor von Nyssa', Écriture et Culture Philosophique dans la Pensée de Grégoire de Nysse, ed. Marguerite Harl, Leiden 1971, 51-67, where references to earlier work may be found.

8. - The Apologia (PG 44, 124Α) refers to De Hominis Opificio as having already been written. The latter Gregory says (PG 44, 125B) he wrote as an Easter offering for his brother Peter to supplement the work of Basil. The discussion of Basil seems to presuppose his death, and the inscription to the work makes this supposition explicit. Basil died, according to the usual reconstruction, in January 379. See now Pierre Maraval, 'La date de la mort de Basile de Cesaree', REAug 34 (1988) 25-38, who argues for a date as early as September of 377.

9. - On the date of the death of Macrina see Pierre Maraval (see above, note 8), and the introduction to his Vie de Sainte Macrine (SC 178), Paris 1971. Maraval would now date the death of Macrina to July 19, 378, rather than to July 19, 390, as he had argued in his edition. Maraval's arguments, which are persuasive, require a thorough re-examination of the chronology of Gregory's career between 378 and 381.

10. - On the chronology of Eunomius's works, see Richard Paul Vaggione, Eunomius: The Extant Works (OECT), Oxford 1987.

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