Gregory of Nyssa and Intellectual Humility

I’ve been trying to branch out and read more theological journals, so this morning for my day off I read an interesting article by Stephen Pardue called “Intellectual Humility in Gregory of Nyssa’s CH II” in the latest edition of The International Journal of Systematic Theology (13.1). In the article Pardue examines Gregory’s emphasis on our need for intellectual humility in light of the smallness of our knowledge and the immensity of God. He compares this conception of intellectual humility to that advocated by some recent interpreters of Kant, who draw on Kant’s distinction between things-in-themselves and things-as-we-perceive-them to argue for an understanding of epistemic humility that is at least superficially similar to that of Gregory. But Pardue emphasizes the differences. Amidst other differences between Kantian and Gregorian humility, such as their postures toward Scripture and their theological context, I was especially struck by Pardue’s insight that for Gregory, intellectual humility is actually the road by which we come to truly know God. For Kant, epistemic limitation is strictly negative and limiting – it is a dead end, an intellectual cul-de-sac. For Gregory, it is a bridge to deeper and truer knowledge of God. Our recognition of how little we know is the very path by which we come to know more.

Such a truth can be stated dialectically: by seeing our blindness, we begin to see. By discerning God’s supreme distance, we can discern His nearness also. For precisely because God is so distant, He is able also to be near; precisely because He is so immense, He can become small. As with so many other aspects of Christian theology, an apparent death is the key to new life.

Pardue closes his article:

Thus, in Gregory, we find a vision of intellectual humility that is impressively balanced: it functions as a restraint on finite and corrupt humans, but also works as a goad toward real knowledge of God; it is based on realism about the quality of knowledge we can gain about the world, but nevertheless encourages practitioners to embrace this limitation and find respite in the gracious knowledge we have received. This balance is mirrored in the Christ, who at once consoles human intellectual with true knowledge of divine infinity and also chastens our persistent intellectual idolatry. In the face of lthe incarnation, Gregory has demonstrated, intellectual humility is the only appropriate response – and the only avenue of progress.

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