There are numerous books on the Beatitudes, but how often do you get to read one by a Church Father?
Gregory of Nyssa: Sermons on the Beatitudes
A Paraphrase by Michael Glerup
Publisher: IVP Books (www.ivpress.com)
Numerous books have been written on the Beatitudes, but how many are authored by a Church Father? Gregory of Nyssa: Sermons on the Beatitudes, paraphrased by Michael Glerup, is a collection of sermons published 1700 years ago.
What relevance could these messages have today? That these sermons were preached in a world much different than our own makes them unique. Gregory stands outside of our time providing a different perspective than our contemporaries, who are not immune from the influence of our environment. We pick-up prejudices and are blind to neglected truths. Though the same might apply to Gregory through the realities that shaped him, it’s a reason why a collective witness from saints past and present is worth gaining. Those who have gone before help us to see what we have missed and supplement our faith through their insights.
One beauty of gifting in the body of Christ is that individual uniqueness illuminates different facets of the same truth. We have four gospels that provide different portraits of the life and ministry of Christ. We have multiple commentaries and books on the beatitudes that together give us a more composite picture.
How does Gregory add to our understanding? “Gregory has a strong sense of God’s transcendence and the infinity of God. As a result, he consistently highlights the importance of trust, love, adoration and obedience to God. He also cautions believers not to think that their words describe God fully or with complete accuracy. Because of God’s infinity our words or mental images will always fall short of the actuality of God. This does not indicate that we know nothing or almost nothing about God. Rather, it suggests that our talk about God should be tempered by humility” (18-19).
Gregory’s reasoning appeals to me. He frequently moves from the natural to the spiritual, from the lesser to the greater. This kind of deductive teaching fits well with his view that the beatitudes our progressive. Each one is like taking a step up a ladder.
In our day there can be a rush to application, which though practical, can be unsatisfying if exposition is neglected. We need to be doers of the Word, but we also need to discover the richness that is in Christ and the Scriptures. Gregory is practical, but he also provides expansive views that are not as common in our time. We need those moments of inspiration to carry us when the work is long and hard.
Gregory’s take on the fifth beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy,” is a window into his heart. “Compassion is loving identification with those in misery. Just as hardheartedness and malice originate in hate, so compassion flows from love, for without love compassion cannot exist. In fact, if one wanted to dig in to the distinctiveness of compassion, one would find two qualities: a growing attitude of love combined with an understanding of the emotional ache of another. It is not unusual for our friends and our enemies to be willing to share in our prosperity, but the willingness to share in our misfortune is unique to those who are governed by loving kindness. I think most people would agree that practicing a life of love is the best way to live. Compassion is the deepening of love. As such, compassionate persons are truly blessed since they have reached the high point of goodness” (74).
Further in the same chapter, as Gregory reflects on humankind’s state after the Fall, he offers a unique application: “Is it advisable, having a realistic view of our situation, to be only concerned with the misfortunes of others? Shouldn’t we also feel compassion for our own heart, as we consider our current situation, and what we have lost? … We don’t have compassion on ourselves because we are oblivious to our real situation. We are like the mentally ill, whose disorder renders them unconscious to their disease. If we did wake up to both our past and present situation—as Solomon says, the wise know themselves—we would continually have compassion on our souls, and this disposition of spirit would attract the compassion of God. That is why it says, ‘Blessed are the compassionate, for they will receive compassion’” (80). This is a surprising take but one worth considering, especially for those who are overly hard on themselves.
What makes the book a little startling are the pop culture references supplied by the paraphrase. Though purists may have preferred a literal translation, Glerup’s work makes Gregory more accessible, especially to those who like The Message, which is the standard Bible translation for this work. Some of the revised vocabulary shares that style, which makes it easier for those not well-versed in theology to grasp the concepts.
In keeping with the other volumes in the Classics in Spiritual Formation series, Glerup occasionally adds shaded boxes that clarify content.
For those hungry to glean in the fields of a Boaz, Gregory has left behind many rich insights. Having gone to his reward, he speaks to a new generation through this paraphrase. As valuable as it is to commune with the living, we can also profit from the great cloud of witnesses that cheer us toward the rest they now enjoy.