Kyparissiotes: Decade 2.8
June 10, 2011
From John Kyparissiotes, Decades, PG 152, 771 B – 772 C.
Chapter Eight. That even the most eminent among theologians theologize on the basis of the creatures; and, as for the “back parts” of God, they are the creatures themselves, and their corresponding reasons.
Gregory the Theologian, in his Second Oration on Theology, says:
“I was disposed to lay hold on God, and thus I went up into the mount, and passed through the cloud.”
And a little after this:
“And when I looked a little closer, I saw, not* the first and unmingled nature, known to itself — to the Trinity, I mean; not that which abides within the first veil, and is hidden by the cherubim; but only that nature which at last even reaches to us. And that is, as far as I can learn, the majesty, or as holy David calls it, the glory which is manifested among the creatures, which it has produced and governs. For these are the back parts of God (Exod 33:23), which he leaves behind him, as tokens of himself, like the shadows and reflection of the sun in the water, which show the sun to our weak eyes, because we cannot look at the sun itself, for by its unmixed light it is too strong for our power of perception. In this way then you shall discourse of God; even if you were a Moses and a god to Pharaoh; even if you were caught up like Paul to the third heaven, and had heard unspeakable words; even if you were raised above them both, and exalted to angelic or archangelic place and dignity. For though a thing be all heavenly, or above heaven, and far higher in nature and nearer to God than we, yet it is farther distant from God, and from the complete comprehension of his nature, than it is lifted above our complex and lowly and earthward sinking composition.”
[2.8.1] Gregory of Nazianzus, or. 28.3; PG 36, 29 A-B.
* Kyparissiotes actually has εἰς here, meaning "to" or "towards," rather than οὐ, "not." Torres, the Latin translator, takes this as a scribe's error, and I adopt his reading, since it is hard to make sense of the sentence otherwise.
And the great Athanasius says, as though inquiring:
“Given that God is bodiless and without shape, what were those ‘back parts’ which Moses saw?”
Then, resolving this, he says:
“We believe that the whole God is alone uncreated, [existing] before the ages and before all creatures. Whence it is apparent that the ‘back parts’ of God are the creatures and their reasons, which [God] looked to when setting [the creatures] forth. This is [what is meant by] the text, ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
[2.8.2] Ps.-Athanasius, Quaestiones ad Antiochum ducem, PG 28, 633 A-B.
And the divine Gregory of Nyssa, in his work On the Life of Moses, says:
“But the uncreated glory, that is to say, the divine nature, is, by itself, entirely ineffable and incomprehensible and invisible. Not one thing which that thing is in itself comes in its pure nakedness to the comprehension or the vision of bodily eyes in any way whatsoever, since it is uncreated, and what is uncreated is ungraspable by bodily eyes, even if a Moses or a Paul who ascends to the third heaven or an angel should be the one who catches hold of the divine vision. For that which is really real and existent is the true Life, and this, to angelic or human knowledge, is unattainable.”
[2.8.3] Not found. See below.
From these things it becomes clear that even the most eminent of theologians do not go beyond the creation in those things in which they see God, but what they have in view is this very thing — the creation — and the reasons proper to it. But if even men such as these theologize in this manner, it follows of necessity that apophatic theology is by far more valuable and more contemplative than the kataphatic kind.
Note on citation 2.8.3
As mentioned above, I was unable to trace this quotation back to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, or to any other known work. A general Thesaurus Linguae Graecae search failed to produce any results. Here are some possible explanations for this:
- The passage actually is there in the present text of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, and I simply need to look harder. (TLG searches are notoriously temperamental.)
- Kyparissiotes’s text of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis differs significantly from the current text.
- Kyparissiotes is quoting from a third source which attributes the passage to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis, but attributes it to this work mistakenly; Kyparissiotes failed to check his quotation against the original source.
- Kyparissiotes is quoting from memory, and attributes to Gregory of Nyssa a passage that he has in fact read elsewhere.
- Kyparissiotes has made up the quotation.
I think the last possibility is unlikely. Kyparissiotes wrote his book for a Byzantine audience, to whom the works of the fathers were well known and readily available; surely he would not have wanted to compromise his argument by knowingly introducing corrupted texts.
Bear in mind the circumstances under which Kyparissiotes wrote this book: in his Introduction, he states that he wrote it while in exile, using books that he had brought with him for other reasons:
“Perhaps, with God’s help, if we should come across copies of the requisite books, we shall treat also of these matters. For now, however, since we have been driven from our home, and are the object of universal vilification, we lack the resources and leisure to treat of these things and to look into making this a better book. As for these texts which we now present to the public, it is with great labor that we have collected them, since we brought the books with us for other uses and other occasions. Because of these things, we have been deprived of many aids that would have brought this work to a more perfect state; but, in the meantime, we have not strayed from stating those things which were of the greatest necessity.”
Given that he was unable to consult a proper library, it seems quite possible that, in the case of citation 2.8.3, Kyparissiotes is either quoting from memory, or, more likely, quoting from a third source that attributes the text to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s De vita Moysis, and he lacks the means to check up on the citation.
Here follows the Greek of the passage, from the manuscript Ottobon. gr. 99, fol. 126v:
Καὶ ὁ θεῖος Γρηγόριος Νύσσης ἐν τῷ εἰς τὸν βίον Μωσέως φησιν· ἡ δὲ ἄκτιστος δόξα ἤγουν ἡ θεία φύσις παντελῶς ἐστι καθ’ ἑαυτὴν ἄρρητος καὶ ἀκατάληπτος καὶ ἀόρατος. οὐδὲν ὅπερ ἐστιν αὐτὸ τοῦτο, καθ’ ἑαυτὸ γυμνὸν καθαρῶς εἰς κατάληψιν ἢ ὅρασιν ἔρχεται σωματικῶν ὀφθαλμῶν ὁπωσδήποτε, ἄκτιστον γάρ· τὸ δὲ ἄκτιστον σωματικοῖς ὀφθαλμοῖς ἄληπτον, κἂν Μωσῆς κἂν Παῦλος ὁ εἰς τρίτον οὐρανὸν ἀνελθὼν κἂν ἄγγελος ἦ ὁ τῆς θείας θεωρίας ἁπτόμενος. τὸ γὰρ ὄντως ὄν, ἡ ἀληθής ἐστι ζωή, τοῦτο δὲ εἰς γνῶσιν ἀγγελικὴν ἢ ἀνθρωπίνην ἀνέφικτον.