Gregory of Nyssa: The Trinitarian Economy of Salvation in Baptism

According to the Nicene Creed, as expanded upon by Gregory of Nyssa, the economy of salvation, as set forth by Christ in the baptismal formula (Matt. 28:19), is Trinitarian as God is Trinity and salvation is entry into the life of the Trinity. God’s abiding presence in Christ through the gift of the Spirit in baptism, shapes – informs – is the substance of, human transformation. This makes orthodox belief a direct correlate of salvation, and it also identifies the failure of belief connected with particular failures of salvation. “Therefore, since the power that gives life to those who are reborn from death to eternal life comes from the Holy Trinity upon those who are deemed worthy of the grace through faith, and likewise the grace is imperfect if any of the names of the Holy Trinity are omitted in saving baptism (cf. Acts 19.2–3)”[1] Just as salvation consists of a certain dynamism of the Trinity, so too heresy and sin consist of a dynamism of ignorance, self-love, and darkness in the absence of life coming from the Father by the Son and Spirit. For example, Gregory argues that Macedonian subordinationism will result in a deformed faith lacking in a true formation of piety. In turn, a failure of belief surrounding the Holy Spirit is the equivalent, according to Gregory, to a still born baby; “not a living human being” but “bones in the womb of a pregnant woman.”[2] If any person of the Trinity is not recognized, as in the baptismal formula, a failure of life results: “the mystery of rebirth is neither perfected without the Father by the Son and the Spirit alone, nor does the perfection of life come through the Father and the Spirit in baptism if the Son is passed over in silence, nor is the grace of the Resurrection perfected by the Father and the Son if the Spirit is omitted.[3]

In the Nicene Creed (325 A.D., revised in 381) the essentials of belief about the Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, and the Spirit as the giver of Life, are encapsulated in Christian belief about baptism, and may have been based on a baptismal creed. This is made clear by Gregory, who was involved in the revision of the original creed, and of whom it might be said, his theology is shaped by the baptismal formula given to the disciples by Jesus.[4] Gregory pictures all of the “Lord’s doctrine” of the gospel as summed up in Jesus baptismal formula: “Now the Lord’s doctrine is this: Go, he said, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Mt 28.19).”[5] This doctrine “is the foundation and root of right and sound faith (Tit 1.13, 2.2), and we do not believe there is anything else surer or more sublime than that tradition.”[6]

In combatting the early heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism, Gregory continually appeals to the understanding conveyed in baptism to sort out both the distinct role of each person of the Trinity, and their necessary contribution to the singular life of salvation thus conveyed. A baptism or a faith that is not fully Trinitarian cannot be said to be saving, as it is the Father, Son and Spirit who perfect the giving of life. The life conveyed in Baptism is Trinitarian in its origins and reception: “Thus when we heard ‘the Father’ we have heard the cause of all; when we learnt of ‘the Son’ we were taught the power shining forth from the first cause for the upholding of all things (cf. Heb 1.3); when we acknowledged ‘the Spirit’, we understood the power that perfects all things brought into being through creation by the Father through the Son.”[7] This understanding unfolds from the beginning of the letter, where Gregory once again quotes the baptismal formula.

As he succinctly spells it out, “because the life which comes to us through faith in the Holy Trinity is one, taking its source in the God of all, issuing through the Son, and effected in the Holy Spirit.”[8] The life of the Trinity is singular, and a mystery, but it is this singular mystery which, as in the image of water gushes from the Father in the life-giving bath in the Spirit through the entry into the death and resurrection of the Son. Baptism is the basis for receiving salvation and correctly apprehending the nature of the Trinity: “For this reason we place all our hope and the assurance of the salvation of our souls in the three hypostases acknowledged by these names, and we believe in the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1.3) who is the fountain of life (cf. Ps 35.10), and in the only-begotten Son of the Father ( Jn 3.14, 18) who is the Author of life, as the Apostle says (Acts 3.15), and in the Holy Spirit of God, concerning whom the Lord said, it is the Spirit who gives life ( Jn 6.40).”[9]

Gregory, deploying baptism and the baptismal formula, argues against the Macedonians who would make the Son and Spirit servile. “This bears the stamp of grossest impiety—to conceive of some weakness or powerlessness, whether in smaller or greater degree, concerning the only-begotten God (Jn 1.18) and concerning the Spirit of God. For the word of the truth hands it down that both the Son and the Spirit are perfect in power and goodness and incorruptibility and in all the sublime conceptions.”[10] As he sums up in the next paragraph:

If we piously confess the perfection of all good in each of the persons in the Holy Trinity in whom we believe, we cannot at the same time say that it is perfect and again call it imperfect by introducing scales of comparison. For to say that there is a lesser with regard to the measure of power or goodness is nothing else than to affirm that in this respect it is imperfect. Therefore if the Son is perfect and the Spirit is also perfect, reason does not conceive a perfect ‘less perfect’ or ‘more perfect’ than the perfect.[11]

Using the same formula, Gregory counters the charge of Sabellianism aimed at himself. He argues that there are three distinct and unconfused persons but One life which comes by the Three. While there is only ‘one life’ that comes to the believer through the three persons, its transmission follows the differentiated order of names that were handed to the disciples by Jesus (cf. Matt. 28:19-20).  “For it is not possible that the Father be called his own Father, for the title is not validly transferred from his own Son to the Father, or to suppose that the Spirit is not one of those named so that by addressing the Spirit the hearer is led to the thought of both Father and Son. The hypostasis individually and exclusively signified by each of the names corresponds to the titles accorded them.”[12] While the Three are One in the Life they share, they are distinct and unconfused in their hypostasis or personhood. The Father is the “cause of all” while the Son “upholds all things” and the Spirit “perfects all things.”[13]

Gregory’s conclusion: the sound faith is transmitted in baptism and the baptismal formula handed down by Christ. “It has no need of subtle interpretation to assist its truth, since it is able to be grasped and understood in itself from the primary tradition. We received it from the Lord’s own voice when he imparted the mystery of salvation in the washing of regeneration (Tit 3.5). Go, he said, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you (Mt 28.18–20).”[14] Salvation and Trinitarian orthodoxy are established together, as Jesus’ doctrine of salvation is established in baptism.

[1] Gregory, “Letter to those who discredit his orthodoxy, requested by those in Sebasteia,” (hereafter, To those in Sebastia), Anna M. Silvas, Gregory of Nyssa: The Letters: Introduction, Translation and Commentary, Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 83. Leiden: Brill, 2007, 138.

[2] Alexander L. Abecina, Christ, the Spirit and Human Transformation in Gregory of Nyssa’s In Canticum Canticorum (The University of Cambridge, PhD Dissertation, 2021), 71. The reference is to Gregory’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, 11:5.

[3] Silvas, Ibid.

[4] This is the argument of Abecina, Ibid.

[5] Silvas, Ibid.

[6] Silvas, Ibid.

[7] To Heracleianus, Silvas, 192.

[8] To those in Sebastia, Silvas, 138.

[9] Ibid, 138-139.

[10] To Heracleianus, Silvas, 195.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid. 192.

[13] Ibid.

[14]  Ibid. 191.