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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access August 30, 2021

Cultivation as Immanent Critique: Horticultural Metaphors in Gregory of Nyssa’s Reception of Origen and Basil

  • Taylor Ross EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Theology


The present article asks after Gregory of Nyssa’s debts to Basil the Great, and this by re-examining two texts the former wrote shortly after the latter’s death: De hominis opificio and Apologia in Hexaemeron. It does so on the premise, mostly promissory for now, that Gregory’s efforts to sort through Basil’s legacy in his late brother’s wake was part and parcel of the Nyssen’s career-long project to reprise Origen of Alexandria under a “pro-Nicene” banner. Defending his elder sibling’s apparently incomplete Homiliae in Hexameron while also disputing their basic premise, that is, gave Gregory an opportunity to negotiate the dialectic of dependence and distinction that ultimately determined his reception of earlier authorities, including the great Alexandrian they both revered. With that much longer story in sight, this article focuses on Gregory’s deployment of horticultural metaphors, especially in the Apologia in Hexaemeron, to describe his stance toward both Basil and Origen. Closer scrutiny of these images alongside his more technical means of differentiating between himself and Basil suggests that Gregory considered his own work to be both a natural development of his predecessors and, precisely thereby, the immanent perfection of their thought.

1 Origen's bole

If the phenomenon of reception were restricted to explicit references, study of St. Gregory of Nyssa’s relationship to Origen of Alexandria would be a short romp.[1] Besides the biographical sketch of Gregory Thaumaturgus in his panegyric to the Alexandrian’s “wondrous” disciple, Gregory of Nyssa mentions Origen by name just once in his vast corpus, at the start of In Canticum canticorum.[2] The invocation follows upon an “apologia” for allegorical exegesis[3] that takes up most of the work’s preface: “If, however, we are eager, even after Origen has addressed himself diligently to the study of this book, to commit our own work of writing,” Gregory entreaties, “let no one who has before his eyes the divine saying of the apostle to the effect that ‘each one will receive his own reward in proportion to his labor’ lay a charge against us.”[4] A brief remark, but it conveys a rather complex relationship.[5] As a matter of course, Gregory puts his deference to Origen front and center. He even feigns worry that his own work will be thought superfluous since Origen had already studied the Song so “diligently” (φιλοπόνως). Nevertheless, his regard for the latter’s legacy clearly hasn’t made Gregory any less “eager” (σπουδάσαντος) to put forward his own commentary. He asks only that his readers remember the Apostle’s warning: that his work need not measure up to his master’s because each writer will receive recompense “in proportion to his own labor” (κατὰ τὸν ἴδιον κόπον), not the other’s. There may be rhetorical reasons to signal such a strong connection to Origen’s allegorical approach to the Song of Songs – the reference confers the authority of tradition on Gregory’s text, for starters, even as it scores a polemical point against his Antiochene opponents – but Gregory wants to make it clear enough that his commentarial efforts don’t intend to replace those of his teacher.

Rhetorical tropes notwithstanding, however, it’s Gregory’s own invocation of Origen’s name that invites such comparisons in the first place. Why raise the issue at all if you mean only to ward off the very suspicion your comments risk conjuring? Gregory, that is, worries aloud at his readers “laying a charge” (ἐγκαλέω) against him for daring to tread a path Origen has already blazed – but was this really a risk his homilies incurred? Assuming his readers held the great Alexandrian in similar esteem – and Gregory must have assumed they did, otherwise he wouldn’t have preempted their scorn to begin with – why would Gregory suppose they’ll mistake his work for an affront to Origen’s legacy? Doesn’t the very act of projecting such a reaction onto his readers already presume a competitive relationship between his texts and those of his master?

Anticipating the reader’s response is a precarious venture, for it may end up revealing just as much about your own anxieties as those of the audience you’ve tried to assuage. We might justifiably infer that Gregory has been reticent to mention Origen by name throughout his writing career, despite his more or less obvious debts to the latter’s system at nearly every turn.[6] Whatever the exact reasons – likely some combination of wariness at the Alexandrian’s dubious relationship to an “orthodoxy” of which he was partisan and humility in the face of the great exegete’s spiritual authority – it seems more likely than not that Gregory perceived his ties to Origen as more of a liability than an asset to air in public. When, therefore, Gregory invokes Origen’s name explicitly in one of his final texts, it’s all but bound to speak volumes, for its presence here evokes its absence everywhere else. What seemed like an offhand remark, buried in the final lines of a preface to one of his longest and latest works, carries the weight of Gregory’s career-long silence about his relationship to a theologian by turns celebrated and spurned throughout the 4th century. Such, anyway, were the stakes upon which Gregory raised Origen’s name in his preface. Little wonder, then, that the mention says more than Gregory likely meant it to mean, for the comment attempts to compress, in impossibly short compass, a whole lifetime of living in Origen’s immense shadow – and wondering whether his own shade would possibly fill it, were the light not obscured by so great a spirit. When Gregory finally does speak his mentor’s name, the comment appears to betray anxiety about the latter’s undeniable influence just as much as admiration.

2 Basil's branch

Gregory’s posture toward Origen is clearly a delicate position – poised, as it is, somewhere between deference and detachment, not to mention mimetic desire – but the Alexandrian was not the only figure of authority to whom the youngest Cappadocian bore a somewhat ambiguous relationship.[7] It is well known that Gregory conceived his two cosmological treatises – De hominis opificio and Apologia in Hexaemeron – as humble additions to Basil of Caesarea’s celebrated Homiliae in Hexaemeron.[8] He says as much in the opening sections of both works. But in these texts, too, the rhetoric of deference constantly runs the risk of turning into its opposite. Addressing his opening remarks to Peter of Sebaste, another brother, Gregory extols their elder sibling. Basil, he writes, “by his own speculation (τῆς ἰδίας θεωρίας) made the sublime ordering of the universe generally intelligible, making the world as established by God in the true Wisdom known to those who by means of his understanding are led to such contemplation (τῇ θεωρίᾳ).” Their brother was capable of discerning the creator’s wisdom, Gregory explains, because he “alone” (μόνος) had a “soul fashioned in the image of him who created him” (ἐν εἰκόνι τοῦ κτίσαντος τὴν ψυχὴν).[9] In this respect, Basil’s “speculation” bears the double sense already implicit in the English word’s Latin root: his θεωρία turns on the soul as speculum. Gregory’s praise here could hardly be higher, especially given the theological significance he will attach to the soul’s mirror-like status in this text and others.[10] But this paean only serves to accentuate the audacity of Gregory’s own musings. For, despite these various assurances that his brother was uniquely qualified to interpret the text of Genesis, the Nyssen’s eagerness to wager his own opinions wins out once more: “we, who fall short even of worthily admiring him,” says Gregory, “yet intend to add to the great writer’s speculations that which is lacking in them” (ὁμοῦ τὸ λεῖπον τοῖς τεθεωρημένοις τῷ μεγάλῷ προσθεῖναι διενοήθημεν).[11] Immediately, of course, a proviso follows: he offers these additions to Basil’s homilies “not so as to interpolate his work by insertion” (οὐχ ὡς νοθεύοντες δἰ ὑποβολῆς τὸν ἐκείνου πόνον), but so that “the glory of the teacher may not seem to be failing among his disciples.”[12] He has no interest, that is, in borrowing the authority of Basil’s tongue, or shoehorning his own thoughts in between his brother’s words, but wants instead to shepherd the late bishop’s hexameral project to completion by supplementing it with a new text altogether. Gregory means to protect his brother’s legacy from future readers who might think less of Basil for leaving his collection of homilies incomplete but wishes to leave the bishop’s literary remains largely intact – or so he says, at any rate.

But the idea that someone – whether real detractors or merely Gregory himself – could possibly think the Homiliae in Hexaemeron an incomplete project in the first place already suggests something about Basil’s legacy as a biblical exegete, and why his brother should have been so eager to shore it up.[13] Though recent scholarship has done a great deal to complicate older characterizations of Basil as a “proto-Antiochene”[14] and the like, not to mention problematize the categories of “Antiochene”[15] and “Alexandrian”[16] altogether, it’s nonetheless true that the bishop of Caesarea practiced an exegetical habit more palpably “literal” than the sort of biblical interpretation pioneered by the great scholars at Alexandria.[17] No work of Basil’s better demonstrates this strict observance of the literal sense than his monumental set of homilies on the six days of creation, likely one of his last and surely finest literary achievements.[18] The basic design of the series is a verse-by-verse exposition of the opening chapter of Genesis, with a view to interpreting the “book of creation” through “the book of Scripture.” His wager being that the Holy Spirit has so arranged the latter that it functions as a “guidebook” for the former.[19] By the end of the ninth and final homily – almost 150 pages of translated text – Basil has plodded through just twenty-six verses. Not only do the sermons stay close to Scripture’s sequence, but the exegesis rarely exceeds its plain sense. Take, for instance, Basil’s gloss on Gen 1:1: “He [i.e., Moses] placed first ‘the beginning,’ that no one might believe that it was without a beginning. Then he added the word, ‘created,’ that it might be shown that what was made required a very small part of the power of the Creator.”[20] Much of the discourse proceeds with just such “grammatical” precision, even as it extols the beauty of creation with rhetorical pomp.

So eager is Basil “to follow the ‘letter’ (γράμμα) of creation alongside Scripture, to do justice to the datum, the concrete reality (πράγμα) of what the eye sees,”[21] in fact, that (in this text, at least) he openly disavows “allegorical” exegesis altogether. Witness the pointed remarks with which he opens his final homily on the Hexaemeron: “Those who do not admit the common meaning of the Scriptures (οἱ μὴ καταδεχόμενοι τὰς κοινὰς τῶν γεγραμμένων ἐννοίας) say that water is not water, but some other nature, and they explain a plant and a fish according to their opinion.” Thusly, the allegorists behave like “dream interpreters, who interpret for their own ends the appearances seen in their dreams.” By contrast, he continues, “[w]hen I hear ‘grass,’ I think of grass, and in the same manner I understand everything as it is said, a plant, a fish, a wild animal, and an ox.” Finally, Basil marshals a biblical prooftext for his commitment to the plain sense: “Indeed,” he proclaims, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” (Rom 1:16).[22] It may well be that the intended purpose of these comments was less an outright condemnation of spiritual interpretation than a pastoral concern for the theologically impressionable simpliciores in the pews, as Richard Lim[23] has argued. Besides, says Paul Blowers, the Cappadocian’s “project is not that of a modern apologist trying to convince skeptics” of a positivistic reading of the text but rather a Christian bishop striving to identify “the theologically literal sense” of Scripture wherein the “integral relation of sacred history and cosmology within a single divine oikonomia” might become manifest.[24] Still, it seems unavoidable that Basil’s mature position gives priority to the literal sense. Whatever else one might say of the scriptures, he urges, their “common meaning” must take precedence – not because allegory in and of itself is out of bounds, but because properly observing the progression of Scripture is the hermeneutical key to understanding the order of nature itself. Sacrifice the first, Basil thinks, and you risk losing sight of creation’s rationale altogether.

Needless to say, Basil’s sibling demurred from his dismissal of allegory. It’s surely striking, as we’ve already seen, that Basil brought his literary career to a close with a set of homilies openly critical of allegorical interpretation, while Gregory all but dedicated his final series of sermons to a spirited defense of allegory.[25] Even so, the brothers are much closer on the issue of scriptural interpretation than they may at first appear. For one thing, Gregory of Nyssa’s defense of allegory is a bit more categorical than Basil’s departure from it: Stephen M. Hildebrand[26] has shown that Basil’s exegesis of the Psalms, for instance, demonstrates a conspicuous commitment to spiritual reading, and Darren Sarisky has recently recommended Basil as a premier example of “theological interpretation” in the premodern tradition.[27] Indeed, non-literal interpretation as such proves not to be the primary point of contention between Basil and Gregory’s respective approaches to biblical cosmology at all. For, by and large, both of the Nyssen’s cosmological treatises follow a fairly “literal” itinerary themselves. Far from ignoring the plain sense, in fact, Gregory prizes the order of Scripture’s opening chapters just as much as Basil. Since Jean Daniélou’s landmark study on the topic, scholars have recognized the concept of “sequence” (ἀκολουθία) as something of a “leitmotif” in his thought.[28] Its principal meaning, both within Gregory’s corpus and elsewhere, is that of a logical entailment between two or more ideas.[29] But the Nyssen dilates the scope of ἀκολουθία to encompass the whole of being: “the word designates, at one and the same time, the material coherence (ἀκολουθία ὑλική) of the biblical text, the necessary connection between the various realities of salvation history, and the analogical correspondence that obtains between these two planes.” Hence the impression that “we are in the presence of the key word for a theology completely preoccupied with heeding the connections between every domain of reality.”[30] However resolutely the Nyssen may have defended allegorical exegesis from its anti-Origenist critics, therefore, his convictions on that score could never compromise his clear-eyed attention to “sequence” in all its sundry forms – and this is because Gregory had elevated ἀκολουθία into a basic metaphysical principle of his thought, thereby surpassing Basil by sublating his “literal” sensibility into a still broader theological vision.

3 Gregory's bloom

How so? For immediate purposes – measuring the distance between Gregory and Basil’s interpretation of Genesis, that is – the scriptural dimension of ἀκολουθία proves most pressing. As it happens, Daniélou’s very first example of enchaînement in Gregory’s corpus comes from the latter’s encomium to Basil in the Apologia in Hexaemeron. Written at the request of the same brother to whom Gregory addressed his earlier treatise on the creation of humankind, the Apologia represents a sort of sequel to De hominis opificio.[31] But whereas the latter was largely an effort to supplement Basil’s homilies by filling in their lacunae, the former takes up the task of solving difficulties in the sermons themselves, posed to Gregory by Peter of Sebaste at some point in the wake of their brother’s death. Once again, the undertaking puts Gregory in something of a difficult position: on the one hand, he must show deference to the authority of Basil’s interpretations; on the other hand, he must elucidate their meaning without insinuating that his brother’s own commentary was somehow opaque. To thread that needle, he devises an elaborate metaphor in the proem, to point up not only where he stands in relation to Basil but also where his brother stood with respect to the author of Genesis himself.[32] Just as “the ear of corn” (ὁ ἄσταχυς) depends upon “the seed” (τον κόκκον) for its very existence, even as it “alters the size of the seed, along with its beauty and colorfulness and shape,” so too the “thoughts developed by Basil the Great through his industrious contemplations” bear a similar “relationship” (λόγον) to “the voice of the great Moses.”[33] For that which “the latter said in just a few and well-chosen words, our teacher amplified through higher philosophy,” such that “it was not just an ear of corn he created, but a tree (δένδρον), like the mustard seed (τὸν τοῦ σινάπεως κόκκον) likened to the kingdom (τῇ βασιλείᾳ) of heaven.” But “instead of branches,” Basil’s tree “unfolds in doctrines and stretches aloft towards the goal of piety (τῷ σκοπῷ τῆς εὐσεβείας).”[34] The horticultural metaphor allows Gregory to accentuate Basil’s achievement – without disparaging Scripture’s own authority, of course – by portraying his brother’s discourse as a cultivation of the very same seed Moses planted. There is a natural progression, as it were, from the hexameron to the homilies in their honor. Meanwhile, the Nyssen wonders aloud whether his own efforts will measure up: “How is it possible for us to plant the paltry clippings of our own thoughts opposite so great a tree of words?”[35] Having posed the question, though, Gregory once again clarifies that he does not intend to supplant his brother’s homilies, but merely to supplement them. He had already specified as much in De hominis opificio, of course, but this time he can exploit the horticultural context to make the same point. “Just as gardeners work wonders, wisely devising (σοφιζόμενοι) a multitude of fruit (καρπῶν) from a single plant,” he says, “so, having attached my mind to the wisdom of our teacher, like a small offshoot (τινα βραχὺν μόσχον) to the sap of a great tree, I will try to become engrafted (ἐμφυόμενος) to that one, so far as it’s possible, and become irrigated (ἐπαρδόμενος) by the abundance of juice offered there at the base.”[36] With one turn of the apodosis, Gregory “engrafts” himself into his own metaphor, thereby depicting the Apologia as a branch of both Moses and Basil’s towering trunks of text.

On its own, of course, the image of a tree and its distant limbs already serves as an elegant figure for the dialectic of dependence and distinction so characteristic of literary reception – not to mention that “grafting” was a metaphor the Apostle Paul had already used (Rom 11:16–21) to such great effect – but Gregory’s more technical means of distinguishing his treatise from Basil’s accentuates what’s really at stake in the horticultural metaphor. Witness, for instance, the following proviso at the end of the proem: “Before beginning, let it be known that we do not intend to contradict (ἀντιδογματίζειν) the holy Basil’s philosophical explorations of the cosmogony – even if, setting out from a certain sequence, the account should lead us to a different interpretation (μεδ᾽ ἄν πρὸς ἑτέραν ἐξήγησιν ἔκ τινος ἀκολουθίας ὁ λόγος ἔλθῃ).”[37] For though “his teaching was authoritative and second in rank to sacred Scripture itself,” the Nyssen continues, “let me be permitted, so far as I am able, to explicate the sense of the words according to my own aim (τὸν ἴδιον σκοπὸν),” namely, “to strike upon a coherent (ἀκόλουθον) contemplation of the creation of things which were made, while maintaining the proper sense of the text.”[38] Gregory has already stipulated at this point that the “goal” of Basil’s sermons was that of “piety” (εὐσεβεία), as I mentioned above. Later in the text he draws the distinction between their respective σκοποί even more explicitly: “the goal (σκοπὸς) of the teacher [i.e., Basil] was not to lay down his own opinions as absolute for his audience, but to make the truth accessible to his students through his teaching – and we have also studied the teachings he handed down to us in our own efforts to understand the sequence (τὸ ἀκόλουθον).”[39] Commenting on these passages, Daniélou summarizes their discrepancy thus: “While Basil had been content to explain the meaning of different episodes of creation, Gregory wishes to show their coherence [enchaînement], the necessary connection that unites them.”[40] Likewise, Juan Antonio Gil-Tamayo agrees that “while Gregory remains faithful to the teachings of Basil in this work, he does not cease to distinguish himself from his teacher through his continuous concern for systematics and methodological rigor.”[41] For them, in other words, that which distinguishes Gregory’s approach to Scripture is a stricter attention to its ἀκολουθία: not just the way the text unfolds but the rationale for why it does so, and what a coherent account of that intrinsic order might say about the economy of creation as a whole.[42] No matter what he says at various points across his corpus about the significance of allegorical exegesis, therefore, it’s abundantly clear that Gregory was concerned with the plain sense of Scripture at least as much as Basil had ever been.[43] Indeed, it might be more accurate to say that Gregory did not believe his brother’s method of interpretation was “literal” enough. Basil may have pursued the “common meaning” of the text, but Gregory insists that he seeks to understand its logical entailments – and does so with every confidence that “the ἀκολουθία of the biblical account of creation is identical with the ἀκολουθία of nature itself.”[44] He could scarcely think higher of the literal sense, in other words, since he feels convinced that it alone discloses the underlying order of creation as a whole. By contrast, the Nyssen implies, Basil merely skimmed the surface – not only of the book of Scripture but also, and thereby, the book of nature.[45]

When one considers Gregory’s well-documented conviction that each book of Scripture possesses a single σκοπός, moreover, the distance between his and Basil’s approach only widens.[46] During his discussion of the second “difficulty” posed by his other brother, Gregory specifies the σκοπός of Genesis itself like so: “the prophet has written the book of Genesis as an introduction to the knowledge of God (είσαγωγικὸν πρὸς θεογνωσίαν), and the goal of Moses was to lead those enslaved to sense through the sensible itself to that which transcends the clutches of sense.”[47] Despite his apparent differentiation of their respective σκόποι earlier in the treatise, it seems more likely that Gregory thinks both he and Basil share the basic aim of Moses himself, even if they execute it differently.[48] Charlotte Köckert describes the dynamic best: “Gregory’s remarks upon the σκοπός of the interpretation shows that, from his perspective, Moses, Basil, and he himself pursue the same goal: with their contemplation of creation, they want to arrive at knowledge of God.” Even so, she continues, “Moses, Basil, and Gregory nevertheless achieve this goal in different ways: Moses in the form of a story, Basil through a clear description of the wonders of creation, and Gregory by coherently outlining the inner logic of creation.”[49] If something like Köckert’s view is correct – and I think it must be – then Gregory’s aforementioned distinction between his and Basil’s respective σκόποι ought to be understood within the context of a more fundamental agreement.[50] Allowing something less than a univocal deployment of the term on Gregory’s part, that is, they share a basic σκοπός. After all, there is but a difference in degree, not kind, between Basil’s reputed “goal” of leading his mostly lay audience[51] to pious recognition of their creator through contemplation of the six days of creation and Gregory’s “goal” of descrying the sequence of that cosmogony so as to grasp its inherent rationale. Both resume, in their own ways, Moses’s “efforts to demonstrate to us the underlying order of sensible things (τὴν ἐν τοῖς αἰσθητοῖς διακόσμησιν) through the phenomena themselves instead of expounding upon the intelligible things directly,” as the Nyssen puts it.[52] Which is to say, both Gregory and Basil set their sights on “knowledge of God” (θεογνωσίαν).[53] By the same token, though, it’s difficult to deny that Gregory’s description of Moses betrays a judgment about which one of the brothers followed that biblical σκοπός more faithfully. The suggestion that Moses meant to lay bare creation’s “underlying order” already tips Gregory’s hand, but the following passage makes his position unambiguous: “once more,” he writes, amidst a discussion of Gen 1:4, “Moses relays that which happens necessarily according to the sequence of nature in a certain order and harmony (τὸ ἀναγκαίως κατὰ τὴν ἀκολουθίαν τῆς φύσεως ἐν τάξει τινὶ καὶ ἁρμονίᾳ γεγόμενον), by dint of the divine activity.”[54] Just like that, Gregory reinscribes his own stated “aim” into the mind of Moses himself, thereby insinuating that his exegesis of the hexaemeral narrative bears out the biblical σκοπός more scrupulously than his brother’s homilies. If the ἀκολουθία of a given text is a “function” of its σκοπός, as Marie-Josèphe Rondeau put it, then the plain implication of Gregory’s portrayal of Moses is that his own attention to Scripture’s “sequence” succeeds in seeing the author’s original intention to its end precisely where Basil’s stopped short.[55]

All of which, in my judgment, affords a slightly different perspective on the horticultural metaphor with which Gregory begins the treatise. Given the foregoing discussion of Gregory’s sometimes fraught negotiation between his and Basil’s exegesis of Genesis, that is, the connotations of that image become somewhat less clear. Recall its basic conceit: the biblical narrative of Moses represents a “seed” (τον κόκκον), out of which Basil’s homiletic “tree of words” (δένδρον τῶν λὀγων) grew, onto which great trunk of text Gregory then “grafts” (ἐμφυόμενος) his own treatise. At first glance, the metaphor appears to be a gesture of sheer deference, one whereby Gregory merely assumes the role of pious appendage to his brother’s more substantial body of work. But his undeniably ambiguous comments regarding their respective realizations of the biblical σκοπός puts a somewhat different spin on Gregory’s situation atop the tree of Basil’s sermons. Witness, once more, how he makes the comparison: “Just as gardeners work wonders, wisely devising (σοφιζόμενοι) a multitude of fruit (καρπῶν) from a single plant,” he writes, “so I, having attached my mind to the wisdom of our teacher, like a small offshoot (τινα βραχὺν μόσχον) to the sap of a great tree, will try to become engrafted (ἐμφυόμενος) to that one, so far as it’s possible, and become nourished (ἐπαρδόμενος) by the abundance of thoughts offered there at its base.”[56] It’s difficult not to be struck by the mention of “fruit” on a second pass through this pericope. Though he doesn’t broach the budding status of the plant prior to his intervention, Gregory’s metaphor clearly implies that it’s the scion (i.e., his treatise) which finally fosters the tree’s fruit. Precisely so, the reader is left to wonder why such a horticultural procedure was required in the first place. The cuttings certainly need the trunk’s already established root system for its continued flourishing, much like the tree itself depends upon the seed, “apart from which it would not be,” as Gregory put it.[57] And to that extent, his treatise bears roughly the same relationship to Basil’s homilies as the latter bore to the book of Genesis. But a graft can benefit the host just as much as the new shoot.[58] Indeed, it may be the case that an experienced gardener introduces a novel limb to the body of an older plant in order to bring it (back) to life. Which is to say, the practice of grafting may well be the horticulturist’s means of fulfilling a plant’s true purpose – namely, to bear (more) fruit.[59] If we grant that Basil’s “tree of words” and Gregory’s fruit-bearing “branch” both share the same σκοπός, as I think we must, it seems all but obvious which one has followed the ἀκολουθία of that “seed” Moses first planted to its final end. Yet again, the dialectic of dependence and distinction rears its not so deferential head. All the same, it’s not at all clear what sort of gesture could be more deferential to one’s mentors than taking charge of their literary remains after they’re gone, hence tending their “tree of words” until they yield fruit like they were always intended. If that task ultimately requires pruning their beloved projects, too, the cultivation need not be taken as a sign of disrespect.

4 Conclusion

At the start of the present essay, I claimed that Gregory’s brief reference to Origen in his famous preface to the In Canticum canticorum suggests a far more complex relationship between the two authors (or at least the Nyssen’s impressions thereof) than the otherwise benign statement seems to suggest. Beyond an immediate concern to confer the authority of tradition on his apologia for allegory, that is, Gregory’s comment also divulges a certain anxiety about whether his and Origen’s homilies are competing for the same conceptual space, as if his own work is somehow at risk of displacing that of the master instead of submitting to its authority. Something similar to that same dynamic shows up in Gregory’s far more elaborate efforts to discharge his intellectual debts to Basil, I’ve argued. The dialectic of dependence and distinction prompts Gregory to negotiate its passage by way of a somewhat ambiguous horticultural metaphor, whereby his own treatise on the hexaemeral narrative becomes likened to a “branch” grafted onto the “tree” of Basil’s homilies about the same. Both are products of that “seed” originally planted by Moses, to be sure; and the Apologia in Hexaemeron depends on the Homiliae in Hexaemeron no less than the latter builds upon the book of Genesis itself, no doubt; but Gregory’s more discursive means of differentiating between his and Basil’s texts betray an unmistakable assumption that his own treatise has actually seen the biblical σκοπός to its logical conclusion, and this by tracing Scripture’s ἀκολουθία more carefully than his sibling’s homilies. Exactly so, what seemed at first like a clever image of literary dependence becomes a conspicuous sketch of the younger brother’s effort to assert his distinction from the elder sibling: Gregory’s treatise becomes the fruit-bearing branch of Basil’s “tree of words,” thereby fulfilling the biblical seed’s intrinsic purpose.

Allow me to suggest, in closing, that the horticultural mold in which Gregory cast his relationship to Basil ought to warrant a closer look at the ways in which he figured his reception of other figures. If we return to the invocation of Origen with which we began, in fact, this essay’s detour through Gregory’s treatment of Basil already begins to pay dividends. Consider, again, the passage in question. “If, however, we are eager, even after Origen has addressed himself diligently to the study of this book, to commit our own work of writing,” writes Gregory, “let no one who has before his eyes the divine saying of the apostle to the effect that ‘each one will receive his own reward in proportion to his labor’ lay a charge against us.”[60] The section of 1 Cor 3:8 quoted here conveys the complexity of Gregory’s connection to Origen on its own, of course, but it’s surely significant that the first half of the verse also contains a horticultural image as well: “The one who plants and the one who waters are one (ὁ φυτεύων δὲ καὶ ὁ ποτίζων ἕν εἰσιν), and each will receive his own reward in proportion to his own labor.” The superiority of Origen’s sowing may seem obvious until one remembers that his seeds remain unsprouted just so long as Gregory isn’t there to water them.[61] Once more, that is, the horticultural metaphor proves somewhat more ambiguous than it initially seemed, and the latter’s achievements once again threaten to overshadow those of his predecessors just where they appear most dependent upon their influence. Further study of Gregory’s “cultivation” of Origen, especially, would be required for a fuller picture, but whether one considers the image of a newly grafted branch or a gardener watering young seeds, his rhetoric raises unavoidable questions about where exactly he thought the “proportion” between fellow workers ought to fall. Then again, the Apostle himself offers some reason to think that such divisions of labor fail to obtain on the far side of things. The workers share a “common purpose,” as some English translations supply, because they are both “coworkers (συνεργοί) of God” (1 Cor 3:9).[62] For Gregory, too, there is but one goal: “[T]hose who grouse and grumble about the ineluctable sequence of necessary events (τῷ εἱρμῷ τῆς ἀναγκαίας τῶν πραγμάτων ἀκολουθίας) are ignorant of the single purpose (σκοπός) towards which everything in the economy tend – that, in a certain order and sequence (τάξει τινὶ καὶ ἀκολουθίᾳ), according to the cunning wisdom of the one who leads them, all these things should be reconciled to the divine nature.”[63] But, of course, that was a lesson he learned from Origen himself.

  1. Funding information: The publication has been financed by Carlsberg Foundation, grant number CF19-0832.

  2. Conflict of interest: Author states no conflict of interest.


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Received: 2021-05-14
Revised: 2021-08-11
Accepted: 2021-08-12
Published Online: 2021-08-30

© 2021 Taylor Ross, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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