“The Greatest Paradox of All”: The “Place of God” in the Mystical Theologies of Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius of Pontus

Ann Conway-Jones 1
  • 1 Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
Ann Conway-Jones
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  • Honorary Research Fellow, Department of Theology and Religion, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK
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The “place of God” is an oxymoron, implying a spatial confinement of the transcendent deity. Gregory of Nyssa calls it “the greatest paradox of all.” It is a biblical image, applied above all to the tabernacle/temple, which inspired a long afterlife of fruitful reflection in both Jewish and Christian traditions. This paper focusses on the interpretations of the “place of God” in the writings of the fourth century theologians Gregory of Nyssa and Evagrius of Pontus. They take different biblical verses as their starting points, both from the Exodus narrative of Moses’ experiences on Mount Sinai – a narrative which was to prove crucial for the development of the Christian mystical tradition. Gregory takes his cue from LXX Exodus 33:21 – “Look, a place is near me. You shall stand on the rock” – and develops an argument for divine infinity. He correlates this with the relentless nature of the Exodus narrative and Moses’ insatiable desire. Evagrius is inspired by LXX Exodus 24:10 – “and they saw the place, there where the God of Israel stood” – and takes the sapphire blue colour of heaven to represent pure prayer. He talks of the human mind (nous) as a temple of the Holy Trinity. A close examination of their interpretations illustrates what Steven Katz calls “the fertile interconnection between theology, exegesis, and mystical experience.” They have not simply started with preconceived schemes into which they have slotted scriptural proof texts, but genuinely wrestled with biblical texts. In the new theological context of the fourth century, they have produced fresh exegeses. Evagrius chooses between different Greek translations; Gregory notices a discrepancy in the scriptural record. They do not explain away or smooth over the contradictions and difficulties of the biblical text, but work with them creatively, capitalising on the paradoxes, to generate imagery worthy of the unfathomable God. Unlike Gregory’s highlighting of the darkness in Exodus 20:21, which led, via Pseudo-Dionysius, to the medieval “cloud of unknowing,” these interpretations of the “place of God” have not passed into the bloodstream of the Western mystical tradition. But they amply illustrate the crucial role of biblical exegesis in the development of Christian mystical theology.

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The Journal of the Bible and Its Reception ( JBR) promotes the study of the reception history of the Bible in terms of both methodology and content. Published twice annually, JBR aims to shed light on the broader horizon of the impact of the Bible in a wide variety of academic fields and cultural settings. Articles focus on the field of Reception History, delivering new research results as well as up-to-date academic discourse.