In the final articles of the Nicene Creed, we confess that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.”
Previously, in episode 10, we introduced Gregory of Nyssa, who was one of the bishops who participated in the council of Constantinople where the Creed from Nicaea was expanded upon and reaffirmed, which has been handed down to us today. We learned how Gregory spoke about God as ‘one’ and ‘three,’ about baptism, about human dignity as the image of God, and about life in the church.
Now, in our penultimate episode, we explore the backstory of these final lines of the creed, looking at how Gregory of Nyssa wrote about and understood resurrection at the time of the council of Constantinople. What is ‘the resurrection of the dead’? What does it mean to live with prayerful watchfulness, looking for ‘the life of the world to come’? Along the way, we learn from scholars of early Christian history, such as Stephen Bagby, discussing his book “Sin in Origen’s Commentary on Romans” published by Fortress Press in 2018, and Amy Brown Hughes of Gordon College, to discuss a book she co-authored with Lynn Cohick titled “Christian Women in the Patristic World Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries” published by Baker Academic in 2017.
Today, there are many reasons why people might be baffled by the doctrine of the resurrection. Outside the church, the notion that Christ rose from the dead bodily and ascended to the Father’s right hand can sound like sheer nonsense, an ancient superstition that is untenable today in view of secular and scientific insights about material existence. Even within the church, some scholars and modern theologians have suggested the New Testament testimony to Jesus’ bodily resurrection and associated theological themes are reducible to a kind of ancient metaphor for indescribable truths or existential experiences of being encountered by God.
Furthermore, many Christians today are unaware that Christians have always believed that not only is Jesus risen from the dead but that we also look forward to the New Creation, when we will be raised bodily just as Christ was raised. Can the wisdom of the fourth century help us today amidst such confusion? This episode explores Gregory of Nyssa’s work “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” a Socratic dialogue set just after the death of his brother Basil of Caesarea, where we with Gregory learn from his teacher – his older sister, St. Macrina the Younger.
Finally, the high point that this entire series has been building towards explores some of the implications of the Nicene theology for Christian living by exploring the life and death of Macrina. Gregory’s stylized biography of his older sister, “The Life of St. Macrina,” was written sometime between the years 380-383, so roughly at the same time that Gregory participated in the council of Constantinople, from which we receive the creed today. Does the Nicene theology touch real life in this world? Does it have anything to say to those who suffer in the body, to our inescapable mortality, or to our obligations to care for the weak and helpless? Does it offer any comfort to us in our affliction and grief, might it afflict us in our comfort?
After discussing Macrina’s theology of scripture, divine simplicity, evil as privation, and the resurrection of the dead in Gregory’s work “On the Soul and the Resurrection,” now in “the Life of Macrina” Gregory paints a portrait of what it looks like for the world to come to break in upon and disrupt our present time. Macrina is a model of a scripture-saturated imagination, of sacrificial self-giving in love for neighbor, a contemplative life of prayer in community with all kinds of people from every walk of life at a common table, and of seeing the face of God in Christ. Particularly in Macrina’s death-bed prayer, some of the most beautiful words in Christian history, we witness God’s grace made perfect in weakness, and the hope of resurrection in our frail and mortal bodies and an enactment of 2 Corinthians 4:5–18.
Next time on Passages, in the season finale, we have an extended interview with one of the world’s leading scholars of early Christian history, Khaled Anatolios, about worship and witness in the 4th century and today. Finally, our last episode will end with a postscript that is not merely a recap of this season, but a concluding exhortation and summons for listeners everywhere. Passages is available on most podcast platforms.
Joshua Heavin received his PhD at the University of Aberdeen (Trinity College Bristol), is an adjunct professor at Houston Baptist University and the King’s College NYC, and is a postulant in the Anglican Diocese of the South (ACNA).