The homilies on the Our Father: a turning point for Gregory of Nyssa’s interpretation of human free will (προαίρεσις) and the divine image in man

J. Farrugia (University of Malta)

As a preacher Gregory sought to provide sound and clear teaching through his homilies, being these the only form of catechesis available for most of his audience.  Even though his opinion on moral issues is invariable throughout his active years (c.379-c.395), he does change his views on the important matter of free will.  In his earlier Homilies on Ecclesiastes the Nyssen describes free will as God’s image in man, saying it is not subdued to anything and that it is good by nature.  About fifteen years later in his final Homilies on the Song of Songs free will is still portrayed as a power that is not submissive to other forces, but this time he clearly says it is a neutral force, no longer good by nature, but rather more inclined towards evil due to man’s fallen nature. Moreover it assigns the victory to whichever side it takes, which can be equally the side of good or of evil.

Through a detailed analysis of the presentation of free will in the homilies – considering them as a catechetical corpus intended for the edification of his listeners over a span of years – this study seeks to show how Gregory’s transition in thought on this subject occurred in the Homilies on the Lord’s Prayer. This can be proven by keeping in mind the original definition he gave to free will, namely that it is God’s image in man. As long as the Nyssen keeps to this definition free will is considered as something positive because God’s image cannot be related to something that leads to or is contaminated by evil; the moment Gregory separates these two concepts free will is no longer guaranteed to be good. This is what he does in the fifth homily on the Lord’s Prayer, stating that the divine image is found in reason; as for free will, man – in his primordial fall – preferred to be a slave through sin rather than a son through freedom.  Particular attention will be given to the historical circumstances that might have pushed the bishop of Nyssa to come to this conclusion.