Paraphrasing Patristics: A Review of Gregory of Nyssa’s “Sermons on the Beatitudes”

I’ve been reading works by writers of the early centuries of the Church for a few years now, but this book was unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  Who knew that Gregory of Nyssa knew about “hedge-fund managers,” “supermodels,” and “bling”?

Well, Gregory didn’t exactly use those terms for them, but they are the words used as illustrations in this edition of his teachings. InterVarsity Press has a new line of books coming out called “Classics in Spiritual Formation,” a line which modernizes the language of the Church fathers in order to make them more “relevant and approachable for audiences today.”  IVP sent me a copy of Michael Glerup’s paraphrase of Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermons on the Beatitudes, and I think they succeeded in meeting their goal.

Just remember this: you are reading a paraphrase.  Paraphrases are good, and very helpful for understanding certain works, but they are different from the author’s original words.  This edition of Gregory’s Sermons on the Beatitudes is to Gregory’s original work what Eugene Peterson’s The Message is to the Bible. For many, Peterson’s paraphrase makes Scripture come alive and speak to  their hearts in new ways. Glerup’s paraphrase does the same. As I read through these sermons (or perhaps up these sermons, since Gregory envisions the Beatitudes as a ladder we can climb), I found that Gregory’s teachings still spoke to my heart, sometimes in gentler and clearer ways than I imagine they would have if I had not read a paraphrase. The paraphrase communicates.

Yet the paraphrase also means you’re not reading pure Gregory. This effort to make Gregory accessible to your average twenty-first century churchgoer also means that you’ll find Gregory speaking terms borrowed from pop culture, including “bling.” This is just like when The Message calls people to “raise the roof” multiple times in the Psalms. I found myself scratching my head in a couple of places wondering what Gregory’s original words were, even wishing there were footnotes with the Greek for significant terms. That’s what I’m used to from other editions of patristic works, but it’s not what the paraphrase was intended to communicate.  A Biblical scholar wouldn’t read The Message if they wanted to closely examine a text. But someone who’s not a specialized scholar, someone who is simply wondering what the text has to say to them today could pick up The Message and be enriched. So, too, with this paraphrase. Someone wanting to study the fathers deeply may want more than this series.  But for a first taste of patristic literature, or as a resource for small group study and discussion, this edition will be quite helpful. 

And this is why this edition (and probably the rest of this series) can bless the Church: not everyone who would benefit from the teachings of the Church fathers can or will sit down with the denser academic volumes of their works which are available. Even when pastors with seminary training read these works, it still takes a remarkable amount of effort to translate the lessons into our context. (For an example, take my journey through the The Ladder of Divine Ascent this past Lent.) By paraphrasing the text, Glerup has done much of this extra translation work for us.  He’s also added helpful sidebars in each chapter which explain concepts which were important to the Church fathers – remembrance of death, ladder imagery, martyrdom.  These sidebars will be helpful for those less familiar with the fathers and their worldview. The paraphrase doesn’t baptize readers entirely into the world of the early Church, but it shortens the distance. The Church today desperately needs to hear the voices of our ancient ancestors, and works like this can grab the attention of a broader audience,  increasing the numbers of those who listen to the voices of these saints.

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