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Gregory of Nyssa’s Soteriological Imaginary as a Resource for Nonviolent Soteriology

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Black, Hannah Noël 


This project analyzes feminist critiques of the doctrine of the atonement and responds to them by presenting several patterns of constructive, nonviolent atonement language resourced from Gregory of Nyssa’s theology.

Chapter One introduces the topic of theological language that is fundamental to feminist critiques of the doctrine of atonement. It also contextualizes the retrieval of patristic metaphors for contemporary soteriological discourse in this thesis. The chapter analyzes the idea of atonement theories as a way of organizing soteriology. It analyzes feminist critiques of atonement theories with a focus on two primary atonement theories: the Anselmian satisfaction theory and penal substitutionary atonement. It shows that many of these critiques relate to the theme of violence. It then examines several recent constructive responses to feminist critiques of violence in atonement theories and concludes that further constructive work needs to be done.

Chapter Two introduces the main methodological moves the thesis will make. It shows that feminist critiques of atonement theories are epistemologically rooted in experience and argues that contemporary soteriology, therefore, needs to be attentive to the subjectivity shaping effects, or the internalization, of soteriological discourse. The chapter then introduces two concepts that are well-suited to an experientially sensitive analysis of soteriological concepts: (1) the imaginary and (2) affective salience.

Chapter Three introduces Gregory of Nyssa as the primary interlocutor for this project. Gregory is a fitting interlocutor due to his soteriological focus on love and beauty, his theologically sophisticated use of images to communicate abstract theological concepts, and his attention to how his theology might be internalized by its audience. The chapter examines existing scholarship on Gregory’s soteriology as well as Gregory’s holistic view of the doctrine of salvation which does not prize the crucifixion above the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension.

Chapter Four analyzes Gregory’s implementation of the soteriological metaphor of healing in the Oratio catechetica magna. This includes the image of God as physician as well as imageries such as sickness and the role of pain in the healing process. The chapter considers what humanity is being healed from in Gregory’s soteriology (vice) and the result of humanity’s healing (virtue). It argues that an imaginary shaped by the soteriological image of healing is particularly oriented around the concept of virtue and that the primary affective response the image is intended to evoke is that of gratitude.

Chapter Five analyzes the soteriological image of ascent in Gregory’s De vita Mosis, which draws on Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai. The imaginary this image invokes his ideas of perfection and virtue at its core. The affective salience of the image of ascent is that it induces feelings of humility and wonder as well as a sense of community.

Chapter Six analyzes the soteriological image of marriage in In Canticum canticorum. The extended metaphor of marriage involves images of removing and putting on clothing, experiencing God with the spiritual senses, and the beautification of the bride. The imaginary shaped by marriage imagery is organized around drawing near to and being united with God as a spouse. The affective salience of marriage imagery is that it encourages desire for God and desire for relief from suffering.

The Conclusion argues that Gregory of Nyssa’s use of imagery beyond what is usually invoked in modern atonement theories can help broaden the contemporary soteriological horizon in light of feminist critiques of such theories, providing nonviolent and thoroughly biblical soteriological language that has power to shape imaginaries in a positive way and instigate edifying affective responses.





Zahl, Simeon


Affect, Affective Salience, Cappadocians, Christian Theology, Church Fathers, Constructive Theology, Deification, Feminist Theology, Gregory of Nyssa, Imagination, Participation, Patristics, Salvation, Soteriology, Systematic Theology, Theological Language, Theology


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Liddon Fund St Matthias Trust Decani Scholarship, Clare College