Born in 327 AD, Macrina was the eldest of 10 children. Born to a wealthy family in Cappadocia, Macrina also inherited a wealth of spiritual treasure. Named after her grandmother, Macrina would grow up on stories of her family’s tradition of faith in Christ and martyrdom for his name. Macrina’s parents, respected leaders in the church, would come to have a great impact on her eventual life of monastic piety. Macrina lived between two worlds. One world was the age of Christian persecution by the likes of emperor Diocletian and others. For many Christians in the three centuries before Macrina’s birth, persecution leading to death was an ever-present reality. At best, Christians were merely tolerated. At worst, they were brutally executed. The second world was the emerging Roman empire of Constantine, an empire in which Christianity was officially recognized and privileges towards churches and leaders grew steadily. With the fear of persecution all but extinct, the course of spiritual fervor in the church shifted. Martyred heroes of the faith were fading memories, recounted in tales and sermons. For the Christianized empire of the mid-to late fourth century, a new breed of hero began to emerge—the monastic spiritual martyr. Macrina has been counted among this class of heroes. What we know of Macrina comes from the account of her life from her brother, Gregory of Nyssa in his Vita Sanctae Macrinœ or Life of St. Macrina.
Gregory recounts her upbringing, fed on Scripture, hymn-singing and prayer. Choosing to take a vow of celibacy from an early age, Macrina would become the spiritual pillar for her entire family which included the likes of not only Gregory of Nyssa but also Basil of Caesarea, Peter of Sabaste and the lesser known Naucratius. Though Gregory’s account is somewhat idealized, readers gain insight into a monastic piety, typified by Macrina, which would become the standard of spirituality for the next millennium. Living both in solitude and in community, Macrina embodied the spiritual life of true philosophia—the Christian faith. Dedicated to work, prayer, contemplation and compassion, Macrina is extoled as a great philosopher and example to emulate. Her intellectual prowess, as described by Gregory, exceeds that of Socrates or Plato. Her ability to fully accomplish the life of virtue demonstrates the dominance of the Christian faith over the Greek philosophical tradition. Macrina ultimately accomplishes the goal of philosophy which is complete union with God, and in Pauline language, fights the good fight of faith and finishes the race to obtain the prize (cf. 2 Tim. 4:7-8). Macrina’s influence upon her immediate family infiltrates the account of her life, but her influence extended to those in her chosen monastic community and indeed to everyone who encountered her. With her death in 379, Gregory describes her last prayer, almost as if describing her life, as one in which “there is no doubt that it came to God and was heard by him” (The Life of St. Macrina, trans. Kevin Corrigan, 41).
One of the most recent offerings in contemporary discourse on the theology of Gregory of Nyssa (CE 335–394) is Hans Boersma’s Embodiment and Virtue in Gregory of Nyssa: An Anagogical Approach, published by Oxford University Press in their Early Christian Studies series. This text represents a critical entry into the ongoing Nyssen discussion on body and gender, as well as broader discussions of the interpretation of Scripture and virtue ethics in a Christian historical perspective.
Boersma approaches Nyssen on his own terms in order to represent the anagogical theology of this fourth century Christian thinker free from notions of a postmodern deconstructionist program. The totality of Gregory’s theology, according to Boersma, is analogical and the theme of virtue is “pervasive throughout Gregory’s writings” (p.4). Boersma argues against those who take embodiment language too far, admitting that recent treatments “do not do justice to his overall thought” (p.11). For Gregory, the move from literal to spiritual readings is related “virtuous ascent away from bodily passions to a proper desire for God” (p.14). Additionally, Boersma highlights the idea of participation in the divine. This virtuous life is participation in Christ, and as Boersma demonstrates, this facet of Nyssen’s theology avoids the pitfall of moralism for which recent treatments have argued.
Boersma uses the concept of the body as a lens for his discussion. Chapter one establishes the idea of the “measured body.” The here and now—including a Christian’s anagogical ascent by means of virtue—is part of temporal extension, and for Gregory, “[does] not properly characterize the human destiny” (p.22). Boersma thoughtfully connects Gregory’s understanding of the eschaton as the “eighth day” to the anagogical approach as a foundation for his understanding of growth in virtue. The resurrection of Christ inaugurates the initial participation, and a life of virtue allows one “to ascend so as to participate more fully in this new mode of life” (p.44). Thus, entry into the “eighth day” for Gregory “is predicated upon repentance and a life of virtue” (p.43). In chapter two, Boersma explores the idea of epistemological humility in the exegesis of Nyssen. While interpreting figuratively based on the taxis of the salvific economy, Gregory does not give himself license to neglect the theologia of Scripture—figurative interpretation does not mean “open-ended” (p.66). Scripture is vital to a virtuous life, requiring humility in approaching the text. No better place illustrates this fact for Gregory than the Psalter. Boersma explains, “[The] aim of the Psalter is to reshape us by means of virtue into the divine likeness, so that Christ may be formed in us” (p.74). The spiritual skopos of the text is key for Gregory and necessary for attuning our lives to virtue like a finely tuned instrument (p.74, 77).
Chapters three and four provide readers with a necessary corrective regarding the concept of virginity in Gregory’s thought. Feminist scholars such as Sarah Coakley, Elizabeth Clark and Virginia Burrhus have led the main discourse on gender in Nyssen. Boersma’s interaction is a welcomed addition. Virginity, for Gregory, provides an image of moral purity and “encompasses all human virtues” (p.120). The virginal life of Macrina “gives us an anticipatory glance into the virginal life of the resurrection” (p.87). As such, bodily existence for Gregory is not unimportant. If growth in virtue is the goal of participation in Christ, then having “tunics of hide” aids in growth by presenting opportunities to choose vice instead of virtue (p.134). The goal is not disembodiment—the goal is total embodiment in the likeness of Christ. In chapters five through seven, Boersma highlights Gregory’s ethical concerns both inside and outside of the church. Slavery is deplorable based on common humanity and the reality of the imago dei. Likewise, Nyssen sharply denounces greed in the face of poverty and homelessness. Concluding the text in chapter seven, Boersma argues against the notion of Gregory as a strict moralist. Responding to the thesis of Werner Jaeger and others, Boersma maintains that a thoroughly theological reading of Gregory rescues him from the charge of moralism. Boersma concludes by affirming the uniqueness of Nyssen as a “thoroughly otherworldly theologian” (p.246).
Boersma offers a corrective to the postmodern reading of Gregory that emphasizes embodiment to the neglect of theology. His theological reading of Gregory dissolves misreadings of Nyssen’s supposed moralism. That being said, Boersma could have clarified certain points of Nyssen’s theology. For example, if Nyssen believes in bodily extension in time and space only in our current state, how can he logically affirm a bodily resurrection? Doesn’t the resurrection assume some sort of extension throughout time and space? Additionally, a tension exists in how growth in virtue is seen as a form of escape from bodily existence. The observation that Gregory is a foremost “otherworldly theologian” helps explain this view of escapism, but Boersma could have done more to explain whether or not this amounts to a kind of dualism in Gregory. Additionally, Boersma could have done more to bring out the “here and now” implications of Nyssen’s thought.
In the preface, Boersma offers a refreshing confession—he did not discover in Gregory what he had set out to find. He was surprised at how little Gregory affirms how the “entire created order—including embodied existence—participates sacramentally in eternal realities” (p.vii). Despite this admission, Embodiment and Virtue is a welcomed addition to Nyssen scholarship. It is an especially helpful text to students of early Christian anthropology and ethics. It should also serve well as a text for courses in Cappadocian theology in general. On his own admission, Boerma’s expectations were only half met, yet his exploration of Gregory, including his anagogical theology and emphasis on virtue, will serve scholarship well for the next generation of Nyssen scholars.
Coleman is currently a Ph.D. student in Church History and Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests lie in the concept of virtue in the patristic tradition, patristic ethics, patristic exegesis, reception history of the church fathers, and Christian ethics.
The concept of virtue plays a major role in the life of early Christianity. As variously espoused by philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and others, virtue relates to living the ‘good life’ or a proper mode of right living in the polis. Certainly philosophical notions of virtue influenced early Christian writers, however, the infusion of biblical material into commonly accepted notions of virtue set early Christians apart from their pagan philosophical interlocutors. For our purposes that follow, I will only mention few features and implications.