Gregory of Nyssa’s Doctrine of Evil as an Explanation for the Chaos of this World [dis]Order

Gregory of Nyssa’s doctrine of evil, at least as distilled by Paul Hinlicky’s treatment, offers a substantial this-worldly account of evil; beyond that, if offers a way to think of evil in positive rather than simply in privative terms. I think this positive understanding of evil needs to be appreciated much more. It is a reality I was first alerted to by a mentor of mine in his development of this evil as a “positive” reality as he retrieved that in Augustine’s post-Pelagius understanding of evil, and sin more pointedly as concupiscence (‘self-love’). Here in Nyssa’s understanding, Hinlicky helps us to see another aspect of positive evil understood as envy. Envy being driven by the demonic and devilish desire to find existence and being in realities that in fact are deemed as ‘nothingness’ (or privative evil) in God’s Kingdom and economy. Hinlicky writes of Nyssa:

According to Nyssa, it was upon hearing the divine plan of a glorious destiny for the lowly earthling that the ontologically superior angel, Lucifer, resolved to undo God’s work, choosing for himself and the world a destiny refused in God’s primal decision. If this divine destination of the earthling is the “real world,” the inbreaking of chaos in its history under the forms of the powers of sin and death is motivated by the malice of envy, whose parody of the principle of sufficient reason is to exist for the sake of destroying. Such is the uncanny actuality of the demonic. This account has the merit, I think, of locating evil as a positive power, not a mere privation, within the creation, as personified in the figure of the devil; it makes evil intelligible, not absurd, in the sense that it can be named as the envy for existence stemming from the possibilities God primordially refused. Moral evil is to choose for oneself a destiny other than God’s, and in its actualization therefore it spins episodes of sheer, incalculable chaos into the web of life in its series of development. In turn, one who have to think of a certain temporal freedom of the Spirit who blows where He wills — determined by God’s primordial decision to create, redeem, and fulfill the world in Christ and yet free to innovate in response to these essentially unpredictable, intrinsically incalculable incursions of malicious envy.[1]

This represents a powerful way to think about evil, and then how that is personally experienced and lived out in sinful expressions. It coalesces with the world I live in on a daily basis; and I’m sure that is not limited to my experience. Importantly this understanding of evil maps well onto texts like Genesis 3, Matt. 4 etc. Living in and from this ‘evil’ trajectory the world seeks to live in an alternate reality which indeed results in chaos and disorder of the likes that we see being presently lived out in front of us—even from within us—on a daily basis.

The spiritual battle, when we bring this conception to that level, is a struggle to fight against the forces of darkness, ‘the prince of the power of the air’, that constantly and ceaselessly, in seductive malice attempts to lure us into these sorts of base desires that the devil and his putrid minions have given themselves over to tout court. I personally feel the tear of this luring in my life on a daily basis; I’d rather live in and from a world of nothingness and destruction rather than from the life that God has elected for me in Jesus Christ simul justus et peccator. Although, in truth, I can honestly say that this represents the battle; the reality is that I’d rather flee the body of death I currently inhabit, and live once and for all in and from the righteousness of God in Jesus Christ iustiti Christi.

We live in a world where nothingness abounds, because envy abounds; an envy driven by self-love and collapse into the self-possessed self homo in se incurvatus. We desire to be like God in our basest selves; as such we live in a non-world that is funded by nothing but disorder and monstrous chaos. The church, in many respects, continues to reflect an existence that is bounded to this evil world of envy, rather than the pure world that is characterized by a God who became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. If the church cannot recognize, if it cannot discern between the holy and the profane (Lev 10), if it continues to allow the strange fire of a nothingness-world to be its reality, then the church itself (not her esse) stands to be judged more than the world (I Pet 4).

[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 110-11.


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