St. Gregory of Nyssa on Divine Transcendence and Presence

“All the heavens can fit in the palm of God’s hand; the earth and the sea are measured in the hollow of His hand. And though He is so great that He can grasp all creation in his palm, you can wholly embrace Him; He dwells within you…saying: I will dwell in them, and walk among them.” [1]

A deep morning fog surrounded me as I read these words from St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Commentary on the Song of Solomon. How fitting it was that this deep fog surrounded me as I read these words, for the fog of nature provides a beautiful image that reflects God’s transcendence, which St. Gregory is expositing.

A thick layer of fog surrounds and encompasses everything within it’s borders. Those walking in the fog actually participate in that fog as they breathe in the air. God too is like this, for God encompasses everything with his presence, and man has the ability to participate and breathe in that very presence.

Often in the Scriptures God’s presence is described as a cloud. God leads the children of Israel as with a cloudy pillar by day,[2] and the Psalmist,[3] along with Job,[4] describe God’s presence as a thick cloud. A cloud represents an image of transcendence. It is visible, yet man cannot grasp it. It can be breathed in to one’s lungs, yet it cannot be held in one’s hands. God too is like this. God is visible, yet we cannot completely comprehend him. God is both attainable and unattainable, graspable and ungraspable, knowable yet incomprehensible.

It is interesting to note that in the Old Testament the cloud of God’s presence dwelt only on the physical tabernacle of the people of Israel. God’s presence and transcendence was only visible to those who worshipped at the tabernacle. But, something divine occurred in the incarnation. God’s presence filled a man, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures say that Christ was “a more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.”[5] Christ contained the fullness of God’s presence, for He was God. Gregory states, “It is God, then, the Only Begotten, Who encompasses in Himself the entire universe, Who has built His own tabernacle among us.”[6]

The God-man, Christ, acting as the mediator to mankind did not keep the presence of God to Himself. Christ took on human nature as to give us the ability to partake in God’s life. The risen Christ poured out His Spirit to man, to those who believe in his work. [7]

In the Old Testament, the presence of God only dwelt in the tabernacle, and in the New Testament that is still true. Only now the children of God, the church, is that tabernacle.[8] Christ who is the Mediator of man, gave man his Spirit so man can participate in the act of mediation. God uses man to mediate his love to the world. The church is the visible presence of God on earth. It is as a fog covering the face of the earth, allowing the world to breathe in the presence of God. In the church, the world is to be refreshed, for in the individual members of the Church, God is present.

The question that Christians and the Church must ask when contemplating this thought is, “Am I refreshing? Do I correctly display the presence of God to the world around? Do I allow the world to participate in the love of God as I love others?

It is easy to be dismayed when one asks these questions. But, dismay is not the answer to these questions. St. Gregory’s theological thought on God’s transcendence and presence is itself the answer to this question. For, it is in the moment when redeemed man realizes that the transcendent God lives in his person that he is urged to be virtuous.

Therefore, dwell on this thought: The infinite, Trinitarian God rests in those who seek Him. God who is spirit and boundless has given man His very Spirit in our being. He who contains everything is contained in humanity. And, this is only possible through the man, Jesus Christ. Be like Christ. Be refreshing. Be virtuous. Be just. Be temperate. Be courageous. Be charitable. Be these things not to be a good human, rather, be these things because the God who is the very perfection of virtue exists in your person. Christ who is Justice, Temperance, Courage, and Love lives in you through his Spirit to the glory of the Father.

[1] St. Gregory of Nyssa. From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings. Ed. Jean Daniélou. Trans. Herbert Musurillo. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1979. Pp. 162.

[2] Exodus 13. New Revised Standard Version.

[3] Psalm 97:2

[4] Job 22:13-4

[5] Hebrews 9:11.

[6] Gregory, pp. 132.

[7] Titus 3:5-7.

[8] 2 Corinthians 4-5.

Author: Peter T. Elliott

B.A. of Biblical Studies Interdisciplinary in Historical Theology from Moody Bible Institute - Spokane. Graduate & Member of the Ancient Christian Studies Honors Program under Dr. Jonathan Armstrong. My interests are Patristics and Literature in the two Oxford Movements, specifically St. Augustine, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and C.S. Lewis. Married to my beautiful wife, Stephanie Augusta, and we live in the lovely state of Washington with our twin boys August John and Abel James. Stephanie is an amazing mom and part-time nurse, and I recently left my job in the medical software industry to work full-time at my local church. I am the Communications Director at Resurrection Church in Tacoma, WA where Steph and I also serve as small group leaders and help out with the church's teens. My hobbies include reading good fiction by the likes of Flannery O'Connor or Fyodor Dostoyevsky and brewing beer with my friends at our co-op, Deeper Magic Brewing!

5 thoughts on “St. Gregory of Nyssa on Divine Transcendence and Presence”

  1. Technically, Peter, Heb 9:11 places Christ as the High Priest within the greater and more perfect Tabernacle, not “as” the tabernacle itself, per se. On the other hand, your collective reading of 1 Cor 5:16 shocked me (after careful analysis and denial that the word οἵτινές was actually right there in the text). I hadn’t noticed that before.

    1. Hey Phil, thanks for the clarifications. Maybe I should be more precise in my wording, but I was trying to say that Christ’s body (humanity) was the tabernacle that carried the presence of God (the Eternal son). I think Hebrews 9 invokes that language too, Jesus is our high priest but with “a more perfect tabernacle” (mainly God in man, not a tent). I think that this is also enforced by John 1. The verb used for “dwelt” among us, σκηνόω, is actually better translated “tabernacled/pitched his tabernacle” among us. Hopefully that helps clear things up!

      1. Well, this is where the “close reading” trend in literary criticism kicks in. The Fathers may well toss out Christ Tabernacling Among Us as Christ being the first “exemplary” tabernacle of God within Man, but a close reading of the texts shows that Christ “is” the God who tabernacles in man and among men and not that his humanity is a tabernacle or Temple of God. In other words, the Church Fathers often use thoughts that “occur to them” as they read to suggest genuine literary allusions of one thought to another. But they miss the fact that the figurative language, when carefully comprehended, often paints the opposite picture of their “interpretation” or “application” of the text. This is especially true in Barthian “see Christ in every text” type fellowships. Yet I continue to yield to your point of “the church” being the Temple in Corinthians. So the score is 1 to 1. I was wrong about that verse for 45 years until I reread it last week after reading your comment.

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