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Jean Danielou: Platonism and Mystical Theology

Jean Daniélou, Platonism and Mystical Theology: The Spiritual Doctrine of St. Gregory of Nyssa (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2022), 444 pages, ISBN 9780881417173. Edited by Rev. Ignatius Green. Translated by Anthony P. Gythiel and Michael Donley.

This book is an English translation of Jean Daniélou’s seminal 1944 book Platonisme et théologie mystique: doctrine spiritualle de Saint Grégoire de Nysse (originally his 1943 dissertation with a second edition published in 1953) that in many ways sparked the renewed interest in the study of Gregory of Nyssa. Daniélou’s work is an impressive feat: he has gathered together from Gregory’s wide corpus a systematic vision of the spiritual life. To do this, Daniélou uses the traditional framework of the spiritual life: purgation, illumination, and union. While not original to Gregory, it is a helpful framework that allows Daniélou to paint a coherent and persuasive picture of Gregory’s thought.

For Gregory, we are first united to God in baptism which sets us on a course to radically change our behavior no longer living according to the flesh but according to the spirit. This is the first way of purgation. Here, the concept of apatheia (passionlessness) is important. It is not so much that we become “apathetic” or have no desires, but that we develop apatheia for our sinful desires (chapters 1–3). In the second way, illumination, we start to think differently about the world around us and begin to see how it all points to God. Creation is not an end in itself, but its purpose is to always point us back to God (chapters 4–5). Finally, in the third way, we leave the world and our thoughts behind and are united in love to God who is beyond all knowledge and understanding. As we progress in these stages, we slowly begin to apprehend the presence of the Word—Jesus—in our own souls which has been there all along since baptism though we could not fully grasp it. Interestingly, the apprehension of the Word within us simultaneously points us outward to God. The more we see God working in our own souls, the more we are pushed outward to fuller union with God, a union that will never be complete because God can never be fully comprehended (chapters 6–8).

There is much more that can be said regarding Nyssa’s view of the spiritual life, but one thing that should be noticed is how much grace pervades every aspect of it. This can often be lost both when one is unfamiliar with how someone like Gregory speaks of the spiritual life, but even more so for contemporary evangelicals who have developed their own way of speaking about God’s grace in our justification, sanctification, and glorification. But for Gregory, the grace of God in Christ descending to become incarnate comes before any human action or choice (12) and is present throughout the spiritual life, even if at times Gregory’s language is not as clear as we may wish it to be.

When we consider how someone from another time, place, and culture read and interpreted Scripture, we are forced to recognize how our own understandings of the Bible are shaped by our time, place, and culture.

As he explains Gregory’s thought, Daniélou is at pains to show how Nyssa’s language draws from the broadly pervasive Platonic heritage but is significantly reworked and ultimately determined by his reading of Scripture (175). This is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the book, especially if one is unfamiliar with the nuances of Platonic thought and vocabulary. However, Daniélou is a trustworthy guide. I’ve already mentioned apatheia, a concept that modern Americans often find difficult to accept, especially as a divine attribute for a God who, in the biblical narratives, regrets, mourns, or gets angry. For Gregory, passions are specifically tied to sinful desires (71–86, esp. pp.72–2), and in this sense it becomes obvious why one would strive for passionlessness (apatheia).

Take, for another example, purification. Purification language is common in platonist thinkers such as Plotinus, and many times Gregory will sound very much like him, if not even directly copying his phraseology. However, when we look closer, we start to notice some important differences. Plotinus, for example, has one remove the filth of vice (or created nature) in order to see the godlike nature already always present within the human being. For Gregory, one must remove the filth of vice in order to turn to God and from God receives the image of or likeness to God. This godlikeness is a gift (grace) from God, not something that is proper to human nature itself (253–4).

Daniélou’s book is a helpful corrective to the hellenization myth, the idea that the early church’s originally pure “Hebraic” thought was corrupted by pagan Greek philosophy.

This is a subtle difference, but what this means is that the mere presence of similar vocabulary does not make Gregory a platonist any more than the use of the term “worldview” makes someone a Kantian (since Kant coined the term, weltanschauung). This is why I believe Daniélou’s book is a helpful corrective to the hellenization myth, the idea that the early church’s originally pure “Hebraic” thought was corrupted by pagan Greek philosophy. It’s easy to see similarities between early Christian writers and platonic thought, it’s much harder to produce a nuanced reading of both Platonists and early Christian writers; Daniélou has done the admirable job of the latter.

In light of the explosion of Nyssan scholarship since the mid-twentieth century, the editor, Rev. Ignatius Green, has done an excellent job of adding notes scattered throughout the book that clue the reader into some of the debates and advances in Nyssan scholarship without distracting from Daniélou’s original work. Additionally, modern English translations of patristic sources are included in the footnotes as well, which is itself a testament to the influence of Daniélou’s life and work and the bibliography of Nyssa’s works at the end is a treasure trove for anyone interested in reading Gregory in his own words.

But why would anyone want to read the writings of a 4th-century bishop? What could he offer a pastor in 21st-century America? As someone who has spent a lot of time studying the early church, it can be easy for me to scoff at the question, but it is not an unreasonable thing to ask. With all the responsibilities of ministry, why should someone carve out time to either read Gregory or about his thought? I think Daniélou’s book is valuable for two reasons. The first is that he challenges the pervasive myth that still inexplicably is peddled in popular and even academic studies of the Hellenization of Christianity in the early Church. The second is that in considering how someone from another time, place, and culture read and interpreted Scripture, we are forced to recognize how our own understandings of the Bible are shaped by our time, place, and culture. Gregory, thanks to the expert guidance of Daniélou, will challenge those assumptions as we read Scripture. It is impossible to walk away from Daniélou’s book and not realize just how deeply Gregory’s thought is shaped by Scripture in a deep and profound way. For that reason, I cannot recommend enough this translation of Daniélou’s groundbreaking work and thank the editor and translators for their service to the church.

Reviewed by Ryan Clevenger


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Category: Fall 2023, In Depth

About the Author: Ryan Clevenger, Ph.D. (Wheaton College) is a podcast producer for Our Daily Bread Ministries and a chaplain with the Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy (ACNA). He and his wife Jennie have four daughters and are active in missions work in Guyana, South America.

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