Glerup, Michael (ed). Gregory of Nyssa, Sermons on the Beatitudes (Downers Grove, IVP, 2012). (Amazon.com)
IVP was gracious enough to send me a book from their Classics in Spiritual Formation series. I received Michael Glerup’s paraphrase of Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermons on the Beatitudes. This work (and apparently others in this series that are forthcoming) uses “conversational language” that is a paraphrase of the Greek from which it is translated (Latin for some other works). IVP’s blurb on the back of the book says that, “The Classics in Spiritual Formation series is designed for those who want to read the church fathers for the first time as well as for those who want a fresh new paraphrase of a beloved work.”
The Introduction gives a brief overview of Gregory and his times (pp. 11-20). This is a simple section that tells the reader a bit about Gregory and his relationship to Basil (his brother) and Gregory of Nazianzus (friend) who together were some of the most influential “defenders of trinitarian Christianity (p. 12).” The background sections tells the reader about Gregory’s influential family (compared to the Kennedys by Glerup), his education, his “love of learning” (p. 13), his role as a lector, his appointment as Bishop of Nyssa, some of his writings, and so forth.
Glerup gives a “context” for Gregory’s sermons, including some of his theological motivations and his understanding of the Psalter as a whole. Gregory connected the “blessedness” of Psalm 1 with the Beatitudes. “Gregory had a strong sense of God’s transcendence and the infinity of God (p. 18).” He emphasized that our words can never fully explain God, but they do give us access to him. Glerup writes,
“God is incomprehensible in God’s nature but remains accessible to humans through the inner workings of the soul. God may be known through a way of life that develops the interior attitude and characteristics of Christ (p. 19).”
Gregory was a man who felt that human effort mattered to God, but he was not a legalist because, “…justification by faith opposes earning God’s favor, not our efforts to become like Christ.” For Gregory is was not about faith and works. Faith was followed by works. Rather, it was about “…love for the Father and love of the world.” Our deeds showed our love of the Father (p. 19).
Gregory argued that our “progress in the spiritual life and knowledge of God” was something that continued forever. As my friend Jerome Wernow has remarked, we are not “becoming what we will always be” but rather “becoming what we will always be becoming.” This was Gregory’s view of theosis/sanctification as well (p. 20).
Glerup notes that Gregory was unwilling to separate things like action-contemplation, compassion-prayer, “just living”-Scripture study. These virtues worked hand-in-hand. In our climate of faith-work, justice-grace, Gospel proclamation-social action we can use someone like Gregory who dismisses our false dichotomies.
The eight chapters of the book are Gregory’s eight sermons on each of Jesus’ beatitudes from the Gospel of Mark. This book is designed to lead the reader into contemplation and spiritual nourishment. Readers should not move hastily through each chapter. It may be better to do a sermon a day for a week or so.
When I speak of this book being a “paraphrase” I am not kidding. It takes far more poetic license than The Message. Actually, Scripture references are from The Message (unless noted otherwise), so that should help you gain an idea of how this book works. It is Glerup’s goal to convey “ideas” and “concepts,” not word-for-word. Other English translations accomplish this.
For example, I found an English translation on Google Books that provided this translation from one section of the first sermon:
“But as he who fashioned man made him in the image of God; in a derived sense that which is called by this name shall also be held blessed, inasmuch as he participates in the true beatitude. For as in the matter of physical beauty the original comeliness is in the actually living face, whereas the second place is held by the reflection shown in a picture; so also human nature, which is the image of the transcendent beautitude, is itself marked by the beauty of goodness, when it reflects in itself the blessed features. But since the filth of sin has disfigured the beauty of the image, He came to wash us with His own water, the living water which springs up into eternal life. And so, when we have put off the shame of sin, we shall be restored once more to the blessed form (p. 88).”
This is how Glerup renders that same section:
“Yet God made us ‘in the image of God.’ So indirectly we, who are created in the likeness of true blessedness, experience blessedness. Let me give you an example of what I’m trying to say. Take, for instance, the physical beauty of a supermodel captured on the cover of a women’s magazine. The real beauty is the supermodel herself. Yet, secondarily, we can attribute that same beauty to the photographic image. Likeswise, human beings are images of the transcendent blessedness, and similarly as copies we may be said to possess the same beauty when we display the features of blessedness. Unfortunately sin has stained and defaced the image of God in humanity such that we. as humans, no longer image God as we should. Yet, when Christ came with his own cleaning solution, the living water ‘welling up to eternal life’ (Jn 4.14 NIV), the appalling discoloration of sin was washed away and the image of God restored (pp. 24-25).”
Sometimes the “paraphrase” becomes ridiculously modern, such as a reference to “the movie The Incredible Hulk” (p. 42) or Spock from Star Trek (p. 41) or Gollum from Lord of the Rings (p. 105).
Throughout the book there are little side-bars on topics like “Servant Leadership,” “Medicine for Salvation,” and “Mirror.” These dive into patristic/devotional thinking on matters related to what Gregory says in his sermons.
This book would do well for a small-group leader. The back of the book has questions for each chapter. As The Message accomplishes its goal so I think this series will accomplish its goals. For some the flexibility of the paraphrase may be too distracting. If you are reading this book for scholarly interest put it down. That is as useful as reading The Message for biblical scholarship. But if you struggle with reading patristics like someone may struggle with the language of Scripture, and you want something that can function devotionally, this series is a very good idea. Honestly, it depends on the reader. Personally, at times I was frustrated with things like the mention of a modern movie. I thought that was a tad too flexible. But I did enjoy reading this book, wrestling with Gregory’s throughts via Michael Glerup. I think if you approach it knowing what it intends to communicate you will enjoy this book and probably others like it in the series.