Thursday, July 09, 2009

Gregory of Nyssa on Rome

In a first post, we examined what Gregory of Nyssa considered to be inspired (link). In a second post, we discussed Gregory's view of who was sinless: answer was Christ alone (link). In this post, we are going to examine Gregory's view of Rome, to see whether he was some kind of proto-papist, or whether he accorded Rome nothing more than pride of place or cultural/imperial preeminence. It turns out he gives it even less attention than that.

Perhaps even now it is thought something foolish, as things appear to men, when one is not able to do much from poverty, or is slighted because of meanness of extraction, not of character. But who knows whether the horn of anointing is not poured out by grace upon such an one, even though he be less than the lofty and more illustrious? Which was more to the interest of the Church at Rome, that it should at its commencement be presided over by some high-born and pompous senator, or by the fisherman Peter, who had none of this world's advantages to attract men to him ? What house had he, what slaves, what property ministering luxury, by wealth constantly flowing in? But that stranger, without a table, without a roof over his head, was richer than those who have all things, because through having nothing he had God wholly. So too the people of Mesopotamia, though they had among them wealthy satraps, preferred Thomas above them all to the presidency of their Church; the Cretans preferred Titus, the dwellers at Jerusalem James, and we Cappadocians the centurion, who at the Cross acknowledged the Godhead of the Lord, though there were many at that time of splendid lineage, whose fortunes enabled them to maintain a stud, and who prided themselves upon having the first place in the Senate. And in all the Church one may see those who are great according to God's standard preferred above worldly magnificence.

- Gregory of Nyssa, Letter 13

Notice how, in this letter, Gregory does seem to think that Peter initially presided over the church at Rome (although without the regal trappings of the modern papacy). If one stopped there, one might get the sense that Gregory had similar views to modern Roman Catholics. However, one should have paid closer attention. Gregory uses the expression "church at Rome," because he viewed it as its own church, not as the head of all the churches. Likewise, he goes on to treat other regional churches as having their own respective founders: Mesopotamia has Thomas, Crete has Titus, Jerusalem has James, and Cappadocia has the Centurion who personally witnessed the crucifixion. Each church has its own "founder" in Gregory's view, and each is treated as (to some extent) a separate entity.

For by how many appellations, say, is the created firmament called according to the varieties of language? For we call it Heaven, the Hebrew calls it Samaim, the Roman cœlum, other names are given to it by the Syrian, the Mede, the Cappadocian, the African, the Scythian, the Thracian the Egyptian: nor would it be easy to enumerate the multiplicity of names which are applied to Heaven and other objects by the different nations that employ them. Which of these, then, tell me, is the appropriate word wherein the great wisdom of God is manifested? If you prefer the Greek to the rest, the Egyptian haply will confront you with his own. And if you give the first place to the Hebrew, there is the Syrian to claim precedence for his own word, nor will the Roman yield the supremacy, nor the Mede allow himself to be outdone; while of the other nations each will claim the prize. What, then, will be the fate of his dogma when torn to pieces by the claimants for so many different languages?

- Gregory of Nyssa, Answer to Eunomius' Second Book

This admittedly is not very close to dealing with the Roman church as such. The problem is, this is about as close as one can find to anything dealing with the Roman church. The Romans here are simply treated as yet another ethnic group with their own language and nomenclature. Latin is certainly not given any preference, and Gregory doesn't see a common tongue that serves as the lingua franca of a mythical institutionally unified church.

There are a few other uses of "Roman" in Gregory's works, typically to essentially irrelevant things like "Roman soldiers" and the like. Nothing else suggesting that Gregory viewed Rome with any special regard or as being the seat of an earthly head of the church.


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