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.


Response to Bruce Ware: Khaled Anatolios in Context and Lewis Ayres

What we know of the persons is their modes of origination and the characteristics attributed to them by Scripture—as long as all attributes are understood to be those of the one simple Godhead. The language of individuation itself serves here to emphasize that the nature of a divine person remains ineffable[1]. ~Lewis Ayres

Bruce Ware’s Responses

Yesterday, one of the key proponents of Eternal Functional Subordination (EFS), Dr. Bruce Ware, presented a guest post over at the blog Secundum Scripturas. In the post he seeks to respond to those of us (I’m pretty sure he didn’t have little ole’ me in view, but that’s okay, I’ll respond anyway) who have been critiquing his (and Grudem’s et al.) EFS position. He offers five points of nicaearesponse to the major points of critique as he sees them. What I want to do is to respond to two of his points, his point number one and two. I believe each of his points, for the most part, really miss the mark in offering substantial rejoinder back to those who have been critiquing his position. But particularly egregious, in my view, is his response as we find it in his points number one and two. He writes:

1.Issue: How can one uphold the inseparable operations the pro-Nicene theologians found indispensable along with the notion that the Father, Son, and Spirit each acts in distinct ways as indicated repeatedly in Scripture (e.g., Father sending, Son going, Spirit empowering)?[2]

His response to this is as follows (at length):

Response: I gladly affirm my commitment to the doctrine of the inseparable operations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Because each person of the Trinity possesses the identically same divine nature, each uses the same power and relies on the same knowledge and wisdom in conducting the various works that each does. So, there cannot be a separation or division in the work of the One God since each person participates fully in the One nature of God. But this does not preclude each person accessing, as it were, those qualities of the divine nature (e.g., power, knowledge, wisdom) distinctively yet harmoniously, according to their own hypostatic identities as Father, and as Son, and as the Holy Spirit, such that they bring to pass one unified result accomplishing the one work of God. In this way, the personal works of the Father, Son, and Spirit may be distinctive but never divided; each may focus on particular aspects of the divine work yet only together accomplish the one, harmonious, unified work of God. Each work of the Trinitarian persons, then, is inseparable, while aspects of that one work are hypostatically distinguishable. Inseparable, but not indistinguishable—this accounts for the full biblical record of the works of God which are unified works done by the one God, yet always carried out in hypostatically distinguishable ways.

Khaled Anatolios offers assistance on this issue when discussing the position on divine agency advanced by Gregory of Nyssa. Anatolios writes that Gregory ruled out the notion of the Trinitarian persons functioning as separate agents, working independent of one another. But, he continues,

the notion of an altogether undifferentiated agency in which each of the persons partakes in exactly the same manner is also implicitly but very clearly ruled out by Gregory’s consistent strategy of using three different verbs to distribute the common action distinctly to the three persons. . . . [T]he typical pattern for that distribution is that every action issues from the Father, is actualized through the Son, and is completed by the Spirit. There is thus an ineffable distinction within unity in divine co-activity such that the one divine activity is completely effected by each of the persons and yet is distinctly inflected between them. Every activity that is originated by the Father is equally yet distinctly owned by Son and Spirit [Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2011) 231].

I affirm what Anatolios suggests, that we can understand Trinitarian co-agency neither as “altogether undifferentiated” nor as divided and independent. Rather, all divine action is performed by the Father, Son, and Spirit in an undivided yet distinct manner, as inseparable while also being hypostatically distinguishable.[3]

Critique of Ware

One problem here, and this problem continues to persist in muddling this discussion, is the imprecision in distinguishing between God’s life in se, and God’s life ad extra; the former refers to the ontological inner-life of God, which is indeed, ineffable. The later refers to the economic outer-life of God revealed in redemptive history. Ware, even on this most basic point is not providing the type of crisp categorical distinctions that would help propel this discussion to greater heights. So that is problem one; an issue of not defining terms as carefully as should be done. Nobody denies that there is subordination in the economic out-working of God’s life in His Self-revelation in Christ; the issue, of course, is when that ‘out-working’ in the economy is exhaustively read back into the inner life of God.  As if that aspect of His life has lost its ineffability and ultimacy relative to our knowledge (a dose of the Reformed distinction of archetypal/ectypal knowledge of God would go a long way towards complementing the in se/ad extra distinction).

But even more significantly is Ware’s appeal to Anatolios’ reading of the Cappadocian father, Gregory of Nyssa. You will notice in the quote that Ware provides from Anatolios that Anatolios uses the language of ‘distinctly inflected’ in order to describe the differentiation that inheres, ostensibly, between the hypostases of God’s life. Later on, in another point of response that Ware offers, he elaborates further upon Anatolios’ language of ‘inflected’ as he gets into his point number two:

2.Issue: Closely related is the next question, regarding the will of God as this pertains to the one and undivided divine nature and the three distinct persons. Can there be a will of authority (from the Father) and a will of submission (from the Son) without conceiving of separate and separable divine wills?

Response: In short, my answer is yes. But the issue is anything but simple. I would suggest that we affirm what the church Fathers did, that “will” as a volitional capacity is a property of the divine nature. So, in this sense, each of the three persons possesses the identically same will, just as each of them possesses the identically same power, and knowledge, and holiness, and love, etc. Yet, while each possesses the same volitional capacity, each also is able to activate that volitional capacity in exercising the one will in distinct yet unified ways according to their distinct hypostatic identities and modes of subsistence. So, while the Father may activate the common divine will to initiate, the Son may activate the divine will to carry out, e.g., “from” the Father, “through” the Son—as has often been affirmed in Trinitarian doctrine following the pattern in Scripture itself (e.g., 1 Cor 8:6). Given this, one might even speak of one unified will of God, as the volitional capacity common to all three, along with three “inflections” of the unified divine will (borrowing Anatolios’s wording), or three hypostatically distinct expressions of that one divine will, or even three distinguishable acts of willing which together bring to light the fullness of that one unified will—all of which express the particular ways each divine person activates that common will as expressive of their particular personhood and distinctive yet undivided personal action….[4]

All of the preceding context to simply get to this point. What we see admitted here, by Ware, is that his appeal to the language of “inflection” in Anatolios has a fitting context for his own personal usage. Inflection for Ware serves as a grammatical hook in order for him to reach back into the pro-Nicene theology, through Gregory of Nyssa (according to Anatolios), in order to make his thesis about ‘distinct hypostatic identities and modes of subsistence’ “work;” while still, ostensibly, maintaining the orthodox position of the one will of God in the ousia. This is illustrated, as we just read in the longer quote above, when Ware writes (to reiterate what we just read):

…Given this, one might even speak of one unified will of God, as the volitional capacity common to all three, along with three “inflections” of the unified divine will (borrowing Anatolios’s wording), or three hypostatically distinct expressions of that one divine will, or even three distinguishable acts of willing which together bring to light the fullness of that one unified will—all of which express the particular ways each divine person activates that common will as expressive of their particular personhood and distinctive yet undivided personal action….[5]

Has Ware moved away from his social Trinitarianism whatsoever? The answer seems very clear to me: No! He is still, even if by sleight of hand, affirming that in the Godhead, consisting of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that there are “three distinguishable acts of willing;” in other words he is affirming three distinct wills, even if as he says they are bringing “to light the fullness of that one unified will.” But what about the appeal to Anatolios’ reading of Gregory of Nyssa, does Anatolios in an unequivocal way, mean the same thing as Ware; is Anatolios agreeing with Ware’s deployment of the language of inflection?

Khaled Anatolios in Context

In the section of Anatolios’ book, which Ware refers to in his post yesterday, the sense provided by Anatolios is not the same sense nor context within which Ware leads us, suggestively. Anatolios, much like Lewis Ayres (even if Anatolios is a little critical of Ayres’ reading of Gregory), is quite clear, that in the 4th century, at a methodological level, to speak of ousia-hypostasis was not a matter of discerning the detailed what of God’s inner life (in se), but instead it was appealed to as regulative of how we should think of the ineffable inner life of God relative to origination (as the Ayres quotes speaks to that we started this post out with). Anatolios writes:

The methodological point of the foregoing remarks is that our appropriation of Gregory of Nyssa’s ousia-hypostasis language is misguided to the extent that we are exclusively concerned with the objective ontological “information” content of this language (i.e. does it delineate a generic unity? what exactly is the content of the category hypostasis?) without paying equal attention to how Gregory is actually using it to regulate the act of signifying God as Father, Son, and Spirit in the comprehensive utterance and performance of Christian faith. As it happens, if we approach the matter in the first place from a strictly literary perspective, Gregory’s sentences for the most part are not objective statements of the form, “God is …” but rather directives about how to organize and structure our speaking and thinking of God. Our analysis of Epistle 38 will therefore try to follow closely that pattern in which the recommendation of ousia-hypostasis language is articulated not primarily in terms of what it means but rather in terms of how it regulates our speaking of God. Of course, the former is not excluded but only comes into view by proper appropriation of the latter.[6]

Ware’s appeal to Anatolios, then, actually does the opposite from what Anatolios contends for how we should understand Gregory of Nyssa’s usage of the language ousia-hypostasis. Ware uses the ‘inflection’ language (which is taken from a footnote 234 on the previous page to the quote we just offered) to get at the what and the ontological information of the inner life of God and what is happening in the “distinguishing acts” between the persons. Ware makes much more of the inflection language than Anatolios does, and indeed, as I read Anatolios, Ware does the exact opposite from what Anatolios suggests we should do with such language.

Lewis Ayres on Gregory of Nyssa

Lewis Ayres, as corollary with Anatolios’ ‘methodological point,’ in regard to how ousia-hypostasis language worked for Gregory, is even more precise; he closes the door even harder on Ware’s point about “three distinguishable acts of willing” within the Trinitarianism of Gregory of Nyssa (or the Cappadocians and orthodox Patristics in general). Ayres writes (at length):

Like most other pro-Nicenes Gregory uses a variety of terminologies for describing the relationship between the divine unity and persons; ousia, fusis, hypostasis, and proswpon, are all brought into service when it is deemed necessary. As we have seen, however, the deployment of these terminologies does not result in Gregory offering us a dense account of divine personhood as such. Gregory does tell us, of course, that we can distinguish the persons with causal language. Now, given the structure of modern readings of Gregory, it is only to be expected that mention of this argument will result in the question being posed ‘what degree of distinction does this causal language involve?’ I suspect that the nearest we can come to the answer that Gregory might give to this question is to repeat that given with reference to pro-Nicenes more generally in Chapter 11: ‘we do not know’. Scripture demands that we confess a logic of eternal distinction which insists that insofar as we can talk of God as an eternal and distinct reality, so too we can speak of Father and Son and Spirit as eternally distinct realities. At the same time Scripture demands that we speak of a unitary divine power and nature, and, for Gregory, it demands of us analogical talk that attempts to explore the resonances and implications of the character of God’s action as narrated in Scripture. For those modern commentators who accept the account of east and west as differentiated by a preference for social or mental analogies, failure to deploy some sort of social analogy of necessity implies a failure to distinguish the three persons appropriately. However, such an equation is not a necessary one and its deployment reveals a lack of understanding of the peculiarly modern preoccupations that make it seem plausible.[7]

I think we could safely say that Ware fits into the ‘modern commentators’ that Ayres refers to.


I realize, for a blog post, this is very long; but I wanted to attempt to provide context for a central plank of Ware’s response from yesterday. 1) We saw that Ware still affirms three distinguishable wills among the hypostases (so tri-theism). 2) We saw that Ware’s appeal to Khaled Anatolios’ work on Gregory of Nyssa was out of context, and overwrought. 3) And through Ayres, we further saw that any appeal to Gregory of Nyssa, by Ware, will not work in the way that Ware wants it to. We saw, particularly through Ayres, that the fine detail, and the appeal to “inflection” language goes deeper than Gregory would have wanted to go.

Beyond all of this, what we have seen in Ware’s response is someone who is immovable. He is stretching things, like his appeal to Anatolios, in order to make a case from the pro-Nicene history. He is attempting to give credibility to his beliefs through history that isn’t available to him. His intentions are not malicious, I don’t think, but at some point it is best to maybe give in a little. When you have the consensus of Patristic scholars against your position, and against your (Ware’s) reading of pro-Nicene theology, it is time to give it up.


Peter Leithart in a 2014 First Things post highlights an essay that Anatolios wrote after the publication of the book of his that we have been referring to throughout my post. In it it seems pretty clear that Anatolios holds that each hypostases/person in the Godhead has a distinct will of agency; yet he maintains that the three wills are unified in the one being of God through perichoresis etc. This notwithstanding, with reference to Gregory of Nyssa and the context of the book Retrieving Nicaea, what I have highlighted still stands. If you read the First Things article what stands out is that Anatolios, personally, believes that three wills per the hypostases is required by the text; he doesn’t seem as absolute in regard to Gregory (it would be strange if he was especially after he wrote what he wrote in his book). Even so, Ayres leaves any ambiguity out here, and makes clear that understanding the exact nature of the persons is dubious relative to the canons of the ecumenical councils.


[1] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 359.

[2] Bruce Ware.

[3] Bruce Ware.

[4] Bruce Ware.

[5] Bruce Ware.

[6] Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2011), 221.

[7] Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 363.