Settling Gregory of Nyssa's Debts to Neoplatonic Hermeneutics

Already in the early 1970s, Jean Danielou and M.-J. Rondeau suggested the great Neoplatonist philosopher Iamblichus Chalcidensis (AD 245-325) may have influenced Gregory of Nyssa’s (AD c.335-394) exegetical practice, especially on the question of a literary text’s overall σκοπός or “purpose.” Ronald E. Heine later reaffirmed this hypothesis in the critical introduction to his translation of Gregory’s In Inscriptiones Psalmorum, showing that and how the youngest Cappadocian’s interpretation of the Psalter as a whole is guided by his understanding of the unified purpose to which the individual parts each contribute, i.e. to lead the reader to “beatitude.” Even if attention to scriptural σκοπός had precedent in Origen of Alexandria (AD c.185-c.253), says Heine, the Nyssen’s preference for focusing on the specific "purposes" of individual books within the canon bears a recognizably Iamblichian impress. As scholars have long recognized, beginning with the pioneering work of Karl Praechter, it was Iamblichus who first articulated a fully developed account of Neoplatonic hermeneutics. And, as James A. Coulter and others have shown, he did so through by rigorously applying the school’s metaphysical first principles to issues of interpretive method. Wherefore texts themselves came to represent, for Iamblichus and his heirs, literary microcosms of the hierarchically ordered cosmos of which they partake. Iamblichus’s exhortation to interpret each part of a text in light of the σκοπός of the whole, therefore , is ultimately of a piece with a broader construal of the relation between the One and the many. In short, Iamblichean exegesis seems inextricably tied to a specifically Neoplatonic metaphysics of participation—this, at least, was how Iamblichus himself and later exponents of the tradition like Proclus (AD 412-485) understood their own exegetical practice. All of which begs the question I wish to pose in this paper: to what extent do Gregory of Nyssa’s borrowings from Iamblichus in matters exegetical also entail assent, willing or not, to the metaphysical commitments that fund Iamblichian interpretation? The question is particularly pressing if one accepts the view—put forward perhaps most forcefully by Ekkehard Muhlenberg but still widely shared among the Nyssen’s readers, especially his more theologically motivated admirers—that Gregory’s work represents a decisive break, unprecedented perhaps in the history of Christian thought, with the Greek metaphysical tradition to which Neoplatonism belongs. But if, I want to argue, we grant the wager of the Neoplatonists themselves and acknowledge the intrinsic relation between the hermeneutical method they employed and the philosophical content of their interpretive efforts, we’ll also have opportunity to entertain the somewhat ironic possibility that Gregory’s biblical exegesis, of all things, betrays a certain proximity to the Neoplatonic metaphysics he supposedly spurned. Which is to say, Gregory of Nyssa provides an excellent test case for considering whether hermeneutics, patristic or otherwise, is ever merely a method devoid of content or if, in fact, interpretive practice itself discloses metaphysical commitments which may or may not exceed the explicit claims of the author in question.