This week, let’s look a bit closer at the mystery of God with the help of Gregory of Nyssa, the brother of Basil the Great and one of the great church fathers. As we do, we must remember that for ancient Christians such as Gregory, understanding and explaining doctrinal truth never stands alone but exists precisely for the purpose of preparing the believer for a personal meeting with the incomprehensible, overwhelming God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. Theology is not simply a set of truths to believe; it is a path to walk, or a living vision to pursue — and a vision always pursued in the awareness that God is unfathomably transcendent. Gregory, like many of his contemporaries, appealed frequently to the biblical account of Moses at Mount Sinai as a picture of humanity’s approach to God. Moses ascends the holy mountain to meet with God, and Scripture explicitly describes this ascent as an entrance into the thick darkness” of God’s presence (Ex. 20:21). So also, says Gregory, must every seeking soul approach the transcendent God: 

Leaving behind everything that is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it [the soul] keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by the incomprehensibility as a kind of darkness. 

Gregory elsewhere compares the believer’s knowledge of God to a hiker’s experience of vertigo when peering over the edge of a sheer cliff with no handhold in sight. When we approach the transcendent God, we find that every concept, every word, every thing” we might try to hold onto is utterly inadequate. Does this mean we are left with only silent, despairing agnosticism? Certainly not. For Gregory, The more reason shows the greatness of this thing which we are seeking, the higher we must lift our thoughts and excite them with the greatness of that object.” Gregory knows that our words and thoughts cannot capture God, but then our goal is not to capture, but to worship. And we bow in deepest worship at just that point where we see most clearly that we cannot see clearly. 

This pungent combination of zealous, lively, searching theology and cautious, worshipful reticence about the object of theology is not a feature of Gregory of Nyssa alone. Similar expressions can be found everywhere in the thought of ancient Christian writers. Gregory of Nazianzus, for instance, who was also very active in the defense of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, nevertheless composed a famous prayer that begins with the telling words: O all-transcendent God (what other name describes you?), what words can sing your praises? No word at all denotes you. What mind can probe your secret? No mind at all can grasp you. Alone beyond the power of speech, all we can speak of springs from you; alone beyond the power of thought, all we can think of stems from you.” 

This decisive wedding of positive, definitive truths about God with a profound awareness of God’s incomprehensible mystery leads to two related but paradoxically opposite theological methods. They are commonly referred to as the via affirmativa, the way of affirmation,” and the via negativa, the way of negation or denial.” Both are fruitful ways to delight in the wonder and beauty of God, and we’ll take a closer look at them next week with the help of John of Damascus. 

Catch up on all of Chris’s Mystery of God series at Conversations with Chris.

This series has been adapted from Steven D. Boyer and Chris Hall’s The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable. Hungry for more? Please visit Baker Academic for more information.