Gregory of Nyssa was born around 335 AD and served as the bishop of Nyssa, a small town in Cappadocia, an area in what is now central Turkey, between about 372 AD and his death around 394 AD. During that time he participated in a few different councils, playing a significant role at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 AD, during which the Nicene Creed was amended.
Gregory, his older brother Basil of Caesarea, and their good friend Gregory of Nazianzus, are known as the Cappadocian Fathers, or the “Three Cappadocians,” although some rightly think the group should include Macrina, Gregory and Basil’s older sister, which would make it the “Four Cappadocians.” All four contributed to the development of Christian theology late in the 4th century, particularly addressing the doctrine of the Trinity and combating Arianism, which kept hanging around even after it was condemned at the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.
I imagine these four did not see eye-to-eye on everything, and a study of their writings seem to leave people with some differing opinions. However, it seems reasonably clear that Gregory of Nyssa found universalism compatible with Scripture, with humanity’s free will, and with the character and nature of God. Apparently, he was confident that eventually “no being will remain outside the number of the saved” and that “no being created by God will fall outside the Kingdom of God.” Maybe some would have to go through the fire, or some period of purification, but eventually everyone would respond in faith to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus.
Gregory was not alone in this perspective (Gregory of Nazianzus was at least sympathetic), but certainly this view was not shared by everyone, and even Gregory himself seemed to wrestle through things, trying to harmonize seemingly contradictory ideas and passage of Scriptures. However, Gregory’s belief in universalism or ultimate redemption (or whatever name you want to give it), was at least accepted, and wrestling through things seemed a common, and necessary, characteristic.
At least, as a point of beginning in the consideration of ultimate redemption within Christian history, in the person of Gregory of Nyssa, ultimate redemption has good historical representation at a time when the church was still trying to set the parameters on what it believed. It seems significant that, at this early stage in Christian history, not only was a belief in universal reconciliation apparently accepted, but it was embraced by an influential church leader, who was not condemned by those who didn’t agree. As church leaders tried to “distill things down to a doctrine,” cutting away those beliefs deemed unacceptable (Arianism, for example), the possibility that God might redeem everyone was, at least, left open, so that a person like Gregory of Nyssa could be part of the inner circle and also believe in ultimate redemption.
That seems like good news.
It wasn’t just Gregory, though. We’ve actually missed an earlier church father who perhaps was even more of an ultimate redemptionist.
Really good news, really.
Origen. We’ll talk about him next time.