Gregory of Nyssa on Sin and Sex

The following has been adapted from a much longer essay in a forthcoming book by Theotokos Press. Part 1 of this essay can be found here.

Gregory of Nyssa thought of sex in eschatological terms. He was born an aristocrat. Citizens of his rank were taught that, apart from the expectation to produce male offspring who would grow up to oversee the family’s estates, sex was innocuous. As Peter Brown has noted, for a Christian of Gregory’s rank, celibacy was an act of protest against this passing order for the sake of the kingdom to come.[1] It was a martyr-like decision. St. Athansius cited Christian fearlessness in the face of death as proof that Christ was raised from the dead.[2] The same was true of the abstinent. Aristocrats had babies because they feared death, and with it, the loss of property and reputation. But Gregory believed that birth only feeds the grave. Whether adult children find the cold body of their grandmother in her bed, or terrified parents try to cool their gasping, feverish infant, both witness the order Christ came to vanquish by the power of the cross. Death is the last enemy to be overcome (see 1 Cor. 15:26), it gnaws away at the living, and it is a foe against which both martyr and virgin have declared war.

Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nyssa

Death began its feast when Adam and Eve disordered themselves and all their offspring. In On the Making of Man, Nyssen says that humans have three souls: the rational, animal, and vegetative.[3] Only the rational soul is made in the image of God, which is witnessed in its sovereign rule over the body.[4] The animal soul obeys the rational soul to move the body, while the vegetative soul ensures that what we consume nourishes the body.[5] That is the order God intended, and it is the order our edenic progenitors violated. Rather than epectasis – the infinite perfection of both soul and body through the spiritual and intellectual contemplation of the Word – Adam and Eve allowed themselves to become distracted by the flesh. The rational soul subordinated itself to the animal soul by diving headfirst into carnal delights. The Fall from God was thus a fall into flesh (in the Pauline sense, not to be confused with a fall into the body), which plunged the human race into sin and death.[6]

It is worth pausing for a moment to observe that Gregory of Nyssa’s construction of the interaction of the three souls, and their effects upon the body, is somewhat analogous to Augustine’s concept of the divided will in a couple of ways. For one, it is a way of thinking about internal conflict and struggle with sin that, furthermore, can explain why human beings do not always act according to their desires, evidenced in our inability to exercise total control over our bodies. But etiologies matter. Two different diagnoses can explain the same set of symptoms but yield different courses of treatment. Augustine says we fell because of pride, and we continue to fail because the will now lacks the strength to do the good it wants (or may want) to do. The struggle against the passions is thus a struggle of constant supplication. Pray for grace, Augustine says, and call me in the morning. For Gregory, the source of our sin is not pride but carnal distraction. He does not think in terms of a will that needs to be strengthened by divine grace, but an unruly animal soul that needs to be tamed by ascetic discipline.

Gregory does not say that sex is original sin, but he does say that sex is a consequence of the Fall. Unlike Augustine, God did not intend humans to have sex to make babies. Rather, God wanted Adam and Eve to reproduce by “that mode by which the angels were increased and multiplied…”[7] What Gregory means by this is not clear. Perhaps he is suggesting that God would have created the offspring of Adam and Eve just as God had created the angels. Or he might imagine some kind of intellectual union between male and female, such that the idea of a human being would produce a human. But whatever Gregory meant by that statement, the point is that, though sex was not the cause of the Fall (at least he does not say so), it is clearly an effect of the Fall. Our biological differences – our genitalia –  were created only because God foresaw our Fall, and out of compassion for our weakness, provided the human species with an animal way of reproducing.[8] Thus sexual difference and sexual reproduction, insofar as they owe their origins to sin and death, are, in a certain sense, unnatural.[9]

Still Life with Three Skulls by Beckmann, Max, 1884-1950  via Art in the Christian Tradition at Vanderbilt University
Still Life with Three Skulls by Max Beckmann,
via Art in the Christian Tradition at Vanderbilt University

Salvation requires reversing the order of the Fall, giving the rational soul priority over the animal soul by taming the impulses of the latter through asceticism – fasting, prayer, and especially celibacy. On Virginity thus draws out the practical and logical implications of the above. Our incessant distractions with the pleasures of the flesh continue the effects of the Fall, giving death a handhold in life and in us.[10] It is important to stress that Gregory is not being an anthropological dualist. He does not think of human perfection as escape from the body, rather the purification of the body. The difference between flesh and body – sarx and soma – is a difference of desire. The love of God is a kind of eros.[11] Comparing desire to a stream, Gregory says that our eros is intended to flow infinitely into the infinite God. We are embodied creatures, and this means that we must cut some ditches in this stream to irrigate our fields. That is, we must eat and drink and sleep. But if we dig too many ditches – if we eat, drink, and sleep too much – then we will flood our fields, and the Godward flow of our desire will never reach its final destination. Therefore, like the wise farmer, the wise Christian moderates her pleasures. She does not flood her fields, lest by distraction, she repeats the sin of Adam and Eve by allowing her rational soul to wallow in the muddy, fetid fields of carnal delights. But if one restricts the pleasures of the flesh, taking only what is necessary to nourish the body, then the stream of eros can become a powerful current – a potent force for beatifying the soul and transforming the body into an iconic prolepsis of the angelic.[12]

That said, Gregory of Nyssa is not exactly anti-sex. Nyssen does say that virginity is a prerequisite for the truly spiritual life, but it is important to see this within a larger ascetic anthropological framework. Virginity is one of the main ways he thinks about the body, desire, and the passions. Gregory is not just concerned about sex. As Hart observes, “For a treatise on virginity, Gregory’s De virginitate has remarkably little to say about sexual lust.”[13] All “sensual pleasures” are dangerous, in particular because one kind of pleasure can awaken other kinds of pleasures.[14] The passions, Gregory says, are like the links of a chain. Tug at one, and the whole chain moves.[15] But this also means that subduing one passion frees up spiritual energy to subdue the others, and chastity frees up a lot of energy. In other words, sex is one big link.[16]

Gregory does praise marriage for its “sweet rivalry in subduing one’s own will in love,”[17] but he does not think very highly of sex within marriage. Gregory believes the married are to live by a monastic standard. Thus his ideal type of husband is Isaac, who married late in life, fulfilled his conjugal duties, then returned to a life of chastity.[18] But since most of us lack the will power to have sex as little as possible, Gregory repeats Paul’s advice not to marry (see 1 Cor. 7). But Gregory actually ends up citing Paul in a way that contradicts him. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul does tell the Corinthians that he wishes they could all be chaste (mostly for eschatological reasons), but he permits marriage for those who might otherwise fall prey to temptation. “For it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” he writes (7:9). Thus virginity is best, but marriage is acceptable. However, for the spiritually weak, it is all but essential. Gregory agrees with Paul about the goodness of virginity, but he overlooks and contradicts Paul about the practical necessity of marriage. Gregory’s pastoral advice for the weak is to “flee for refuge to virginity as a safe fortress…”[19] Paul sends those who are subject to their passions to the marriage bed, but Gregory sends them to the monastery. I, for one, doubt Gregory of Nyssa meant to misrepresent the apostle. This contradiction says less about his intent than it does about the anthropological prejudices he brought to the text. For Gregory, there is not “safe” sex (so to speak). Sex within marriage may not be a sin, but that does not mean it is a good idea. People should avoid marriage if possible. If it is not possible, then (like Isaac) they should avoid sex. This is because sex leads to pleasure, pleasure leads to distraction, and distraction diverts our eros from God back into our own bodies. Married sex may be “legal” in the eyes of the church and the eyes of God, but it can be the spark that ignites the passionate fires of gehenna in the soul.

[1] See Brown, The Body and Society, 285ff.

[2]  Athanasius, On the Incarnation, trans. A Religious of C.S.M.V., Popular Patristics (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s, 2000), 29.

[3]    Three major texts relate Gregory’s theological anthropology: On the Making of Man, On Virginity, and On the Soul and Resurrection. .[3] Gregory’s writings are difficult to date, but On the Making of Man seems to form the foundation of his later thought insofar as it deals with the body, its pleasures, and the origins of death in Adam and Eve. On Virginity is an encomium for celibacy and seems to presume the former text. J. Warren Smith has proposed that On the Soul and Resurrection may correct some possible asomatic tendencies in On the Making of Man, but the former does not have much to say about human sexuality, making any conclusions drawn therefrom far too tenuous. See J. Warren Smith, Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa (New York: Herder and Herder, 2004), 75ff. I mean founding in the sense not only of chronology but that it deals with the founders of the human species in Adam and Eve.

[4]    Nyssen, On the Making of Man, IV.1, V.1-2, VIII.8, also IX. Gregory builds his case in this text slowly, laying the minutia of one argumentative move carefully upon the one that preceded it. Therefore the reader will be able to see evidence of what I site in other passages. Where possible, to help guide the reader I have limited my citations to one or two paragraphs, noting whole chapters or larger passages only when necessary.

[5]    On the Making of Man, VIII.8.

[6]    Gregory does not suggest that sex was the original sin. See On the Making of Man, XII.10-11, XVIII.6, XXII.6,

[7]    On the Making of Man, XVII.4.

[8]    On the Making of Man, XVI.7.

[9] On the Making of Man, XVI.7. See also Peter C. Bouteneff, “Essential or Existential: The Problem of the Body in the Anthropology of St. Gregory of Nyssa,” in Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes (The Eighth International Colloquium on Gregory of Nyssa) Congress Held in Paderborn 14-18 September 1998, eds. Hubertus R. Drobner and Albert Viciano (Boston: Brill, 2000).

[10]   On Virginity, 13.

[11] This accounts for how Gregory is able to think of spiritual progress as epectasis – a desire for the infinite God that grows infinitely. The one who loves God is always satisfied with God, yet experiences this satisfaction as an increase in desire. This may strike some as a contradiction because it seems impossible that we can be both satisfied and yet want more. To wit, it seems like Gregory is saying that we are satisfied and dissatisfied at the same time. But epectasis makes sense when we think of divine love in terms of eros. Spiritual satisfaction is not unlike sexual satisfaction. Good sex, sex that satisfies both partners, does not lead to a reduction of sexual activity. It increases it. True eros – whether it is for God or the beloved – satisfies but never satiates. Everett Ferguson explained this well in “God’s Infinity and Man’s Mutability: Perpetual Progress according to Gregory of Nyssa,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 18.2, 59-78. See also Ekkehard Mühlenberg, “Synergism in Gregory of Nyssa,” in Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der Älteren Kirche, ed. Eduard Lohse. (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1997), 93-122.

[12]   On Holy Virginity, 6, 8, 9, 21. See also 4.

[13]   Hart, “Reconciliation of Body and Soul,” 455.

[14]   On Holy Virginity, 21.

[15]   On Holy Virginity, 4.

[16]   On Holy Virginity, 15-17.

[17] On Holy Virginity, 3.

[18]   On Holy Virginity, 8-9.

[19] On Holy Virginity, 3.

1 thought on “Gregory of Nyssa on Sin and Sex”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *