Gregory of Nyssa was a theologian that lived in 300 A.D. He was one of the Cappadocian Fathers along with Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory and the other two fathers played a significant role in the formation of the Nicene Creed. They also wrote some significant theological works on the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the person of Christ, and the attributes of God. Gregory of Nyssa was also known for his own unique contribution to theology. He was one of the first to explore the theme of darkness as it related to God. Anthony Meredith in his book on Gregory of Nyssa says this:
“Gregory has often been credited with the discovery of mystical theology, or rather with the perception that darkness is an appropriate symbol under which God can be discussed. There is much truth in this….Gregory seems to have been the first Christian writer to have made this important point…”
Phillip Kariatlis wrote an interesting article entitled Dazzling Darkness: The Mystical or Theophanic Theology of St. Gregory of Nyssa. In the article he says this about Gregory.
‘That which set St. Gregory apart from other fathers in general and the Cappadocians in particular was the innovative approach to his understanding of the vision of God expressed in terms of darkness rather than the prevailing light imagery. Hence, instead of presenting the Christian life as a transformative journey towards increasing luminosity, St. Gregory put forward a vision of a person’s ascent towards God in terms of increasing impenetrable opacity.”
Gregory coined some very intriguing phrases as he wrestled with the paradox of God revealing himself in darkness. He liked to speak of God’s “luminous” and “dazzling” darkness. He used the language of “seeing that consists in not seeing” to describe faith’s engagement of the darkness of God.
So where does Gregory come up with this stuff? What would lead him to develop a theology that utilizes the imagery of darkness so heavily? Here are some of the key texts that support this line of thought.
“The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was” (Ex 20:21).
“These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly at the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness, with a loud voice; and he added no more. And he wrote them on two tablets of stone and gave them to me” (Deut 5:22, cf. 4:11, 5:23, Heb 12:18).
“Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness.’” (1 Kgs 8:12, 2 Chron 6:1).
“Clouds and thick darkness are all around him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne” (Ps. 97:2).
“He bowed the heavens and came down; thick darkness was under his feet. He rode on a cherub and flew; he was seen on the wings of the wind. He made darkness around him his canopy, thick clouds, a gathering of water. Out of the brightness before him coals of fire flamed forth” (2 sam 22:10-3, Ps. 18:9, 11, 28).
I don’t know about you, but I am very intrigued by texts like this. We think and hear much more about the biblical theme of God and light. These passages describe God as standing on, dwelling in, and being surrounded by darkness. Darkness, like light, functions to communicate things about God. He cloaks himself with darkness and at the same time reveals himself through it. As Samuel Terrien states, “total darkness is a symbol both of the divine presence and the divine hiddenness.”
This theme of God’s revelation in the dark presses forward into the New Testament. Phillip Kariatlis says this.
“Saint Augustine in his Confessions states that God is ‘most hidden, yet most present.’ The truth is that the God of Sinai is most fully in our midst in the cross of Christ where He is also most hidden. Karl Barth has declared that ‘one must know the darkness of Sinai and Calvary, and must have faith to know the God who is above us and his hidden nature.’ To approach ‘the thick darkness’ in the New Testament is to find God most of all in the cross of Jesus Christ. I find it more than symbolic that at the historic moment of Jesus’ death ‘darkness came over the whole land’ (Matt 27:45). If the holy means the hiddenness of God, nowhere did He more hide Himself than in the cross of Christ.”
The cross is the pinnacle of the light/darkness paradox in Scripture. Here the light of the world is cloaked in darkness. Both Paul and John consider Calvary’s darkest moment as the greatest expression of God’s brilliance and glory (2 Cor 4:4-6, John 7:39; 12:16, 23; 13:31; 17:1, 4, 5). At the cross we truly behold “dazzling darkness.”
Another author argues that this theme of darkness is foundational to Christianity. He states,
“The test of honesty is whether a man or woman has looked into the darkness in which Christianity has its roots, the darkness of God being killed by his creatures, of God himself breaking and reshaping all religious language by manifesting his activity in vulnerability, failure and contradiction.”
What are your thoughts? What other things may God be communicating through this darkness theme? How is this theme helpful for us today? How does it challenge our theology?