On Mothering Sunday: Gregory of Nyssa on calling God ‘mother’
My friend Steve Harmon published a brief quotation from Gregory of Nyssa (fourth-century Greek theologian) on FB, in which Gregory suggests that the Scriptures call God ‘mother’ and suggests that the terms ‘mother’ and ‘father’ can be used indifferently of God. This piqued my interest, and I tracked down the quotation to look at it in context.
Gregory is commenting on the Song of Songs; following Origen, he takes the book to be an allegorical account of the love of Christ for the Church. In his seventh homily, he is commenting on SoS 3:11, ‘Look, O daughters of Zion, at King Solomon, at the crown with which his mother crowned him…’ (NRSV). Gregory links the language of crowning with Ps. 21:3, ‘You [i.e., God] set a crown of pure gold on his head,’ and reads the text as the Father crowning the Son. He spots a problem, however: in SoS, the crowning is done by a mother. In response, he says this:
Now, no-one who has thought seriously about how we use words about God will struggle with the meaning of the name, the fact that ‘mother’ is used not ‘father’, because the two words have the same meaning. For the divine nature is neither male nor female … so any name we use will work as well to refer to God’s indescribable nature – neither ‘male’ nor ‘female’ is unworthy of God’s perfection. Hence the gospel tells of a father throwing a marriage feast for a son, while the prophet addresses God, saying, ‘you have put a crown of gold on his head, and then asserts that the crown was put on the Bridegroom’s head by his mother….
(This is my, fairly free, translation from Migne’s PG; I wanted this post up today – Mothering Sunday – so I haven’t been able to check it against other translations, or against Jaeger’s critical edition.)
Gregory’s point, that God is neither male nor female, is standard in the tradition; his derivation from this, that male and female terms may be used indifferently of God, is rather more surprising. He advances this doctrine, not because of any feminist theory (from the sweep of his writings it is rather obvious that Gregory was not a proto-feminist…), but because the Scripture seemed to him to demand the point. The Bible calls God mother, and so we must be prepared to also.
What strikes me – and what sent me back to the original from Steve’s FB quotation – is the lack of any qualification here. Gregory does not say, ‘God is really Father, but sometimes called mother metaphorically’ or any of those other modern evasions. He thinks ‘mother’ can serve just as well as ‘father’ as a name for God.
(If you’ve not come across Gregory of Nyssa, he was one of the Cappadocian Fathers, responsible for settling the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity in the run-up to the Council of Constantinople; there are about eight more significant theologians in the Christian tradition – maybe even twelve…)