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Gregory of Nyssa, Scientific Theologian

by Alex Abecina
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Gregory of Nyssa, Scientific Theologian

If I had to choose one word to associate with the theology of Gregory of Nyssa it would have to be ‘Christian’. But coming in at a close second would be the word ‘mystery’. The Nyssen’s writings seem always to be speaking of the incomprehensibility of God. Because, according to Gregory, God’s essence cannot be encompassed by the human mind it is most appropriate to revere God in apophatic language and even in the absence of speech altogether. What would Gregory, the Mystic Theologian, think about science? Would science, with its desire to define and know the inner workings of nature, be incompatible with Gregory’s theology of mystery?

It might come as a surprise to know that Gregory had a deep admiration for science. Even in the heat of debate with the heretic Eunomius of Cyzicus, Gregory spares a moment to praise the discoveries of physics, engineering, navigation, economics, agriculture and astronomy. God has graciously given us the ability to think for ourselves in a conceptual way, says Gregory, and this has led to some truly incredible human inventions and achievements. For Gregory, the Mystic Theologian, science is clearly a very good thing.

But, Gregory has an important theological point to make here. He argues that even though science is among “the most precious” of things it still cannot lead us to know the essence of any created thing. For Gregory, science lets us know a lot, but ultimately we must stand in wonder of the irreducible mystery of the world. Eunomius of Cyzicus claims that he can name the essence of God (a move which Gregory thinks results in doctrinal catastrophe!) but in reality Eunomius can’t even name the essence of any created thing.

For the Nyssen, the conceptual thinking used in science is the very same kind of conceptual thinking used in theology. But just as scientific concepts cannot lead to essential knowledge of the world, theological concepts cannot lead to essential knowledge of God. There is, then, an analogical relationship of sorts between Gregory’s understanding of science and his understanding of theology. Just as science cannot overcome the incomprehensibility of the world, so theology cannot overcome the incomprehensibility of God. When science encounters the mystery of the world it encounters, by analogy, the mystery of God.

Because God’s essence is incomprehensible, claims the Nyssen, so God’s mode of presence to the world and his agency within it is also incomprehensible. To be sure, Gregory believes that the narrative of Scripture allows us to rightly and reverently think, speak and imagine about God’s ways in and for the world. But this is because God, in Scripture, has kindly accommodated himself to the limitations of human language for humanity’s sake. As for how God relates to the world in essence not even Holy Scripture says, and so this for Gregory remains (you guessed!) an impenetrable mystery.

Now for the ‘Yeah, and…?!?’ moment. Gregory’s notion of divine incomprehensibility, it seems, has at least one important implication for the way Christians might think about science today. If theology can tell us nothing of God’s essence, nor of his essential mode of agency within the world, then, in some sense, theology has practically nothing to offer science! At first this might suggest that faith and science are ultimately incompatible with one another. In actual fact it doesn’t mean this. For a belief in the incomprehensibility of God actually helps to free up science to be science so that science may attend to the world as the world. And this, I believe, is the context in which the very best science is done and always has been done.

In Et Cetera Winter Issue 03 Mike Yankoski wrote an article on Pastoral Science which gestured toward opening up a new conversation in Et Cetera on the relationship between faith and science. This short piece is my effort to get/keep that important conversation going at Regent. Hopefully I’ve shown that Gregory of Nyssa, the Scientific Theologian, has a lot to offer to that conversation. The implications of his theology for the relationship between Christian faith and science might be provocative, but my hope is that this will lead to enlightening and fruitful discussion.

If I had to choose one word to associate with the theology of Gregory of Nyssa it would have to be ‘Christian’. But coming in at a close second would be the word ‘mystery’. The Nyssen’s writings seem always to be speaking of the incomprehensibility of God. Because, according to Gregory, God’s essence cannot be encompassed by the human mind it is most appropriate to revere God in apophatic language and even in the absence of speech altogether. What would Gregory, the Mystic Theologian, think about science? Would science, with its desire to define and know the inner workings of nature, be incompatible with Gregory’s theology of mystery?

It might come as a surprise to know that Gregory had a deep admiration for science. Even in the heat of debate with the heretic Eunomius of Cyzicus, Gregory spares a moment to praise the discoveries of physics, engineering, navigation, economics, agriculture and astronomy. God has graciously given us the ability to think for ourselves in a conceptual way, says Gregory, and this has led to some truly incredible human inventions and achievements. For Gregory, the Mystic Theologian, science is clearly a very good thing.

But, Gregory has an important theological point to make here. He argues that even though science is among “the most precious” of things it still cannot lead us to know the essence of any created thing. For Gregory, science lets us know a lot, but ultimately we must stand in wonder of the irreducible mystery of the world. Eunomius of Cyzicus claims that he can name the essence of God (a move which Gregory thinks results in doctrinal catastrophe!) but in reality Eunomius can’t even name the essence of any created thing.

For the Nyssen, the conceptual thinking used in science is the very same kind of conceptual thinking used in theology. But just as scientific concepts cannot lead to essential knowledge of the world, theological concepts cannot lead to essential knowledge of God. There is, then, an analogical relationship of sorts between Gregory’s understanding of science and his understanding of theology. Just as science cannot overcome the incomprehensibility of the world, so theology cannot overcome the incomprehensibility of God. When science encounters the mystery of the world it encounters, by analogy, the mystery of God.

Because God’s essence is incomprehensible, claims the Nyssen, so God’s mode of presence to the world and his agency within it is also incomprehensible. To be sure, Gregory believes that the narrative of Scripture allows us to rightly and reverently think, speak and imagine about God’s ways in and for the world. But this is because God, in Scripture, has kindly accommodated himself to the limitations of human language for humanity’s sake. As for how God relates to the world in essence not even Holy Scripture says, and so this for Gregory remains (you guessed!) an impenetrable mystery.

Now for the ‘Yeah, and…?!?’ moment. Gregory’s notion of divine incomprehensibility, it seems, has at least one important implication for the way Christians might think about science today. If theology can tell us nothing of God’s essence, nor of his essential mode of agency within the world, then, in some sense, theology has practically nothing to offer science! At first this might suggest that faith and science are ultimately incompatible with one another. In actual fact it doesn’t mean this. For a belief in the incomprehensibility of God actually helps to free up science to be science so that science may attend to the world as the world. And this, I believe, is the context in which the very best science is done and always has been done.

In Et Cetera Winter Issue 03 Mike Yankoski wrote an article on Pastoral Science which gestured toward opening up a new conversation in Et Cetera on the relationship between faith and science. This short piece is my effort to get/keep that important conversation going at Regent. Hopefully I’ve shown that Gregory of Nyssa, the Scientific Theologian, has a lot to offer to that conversation. The implications of his theology for the relationship between Christian faith and science might be provocative, but my hope is that this will lead to enlightening and fruitful discussion.