Gregory of Nyssa wrote “On Infants’ Early Deaths,” which surprised me a few years ago. I was interested in seeing how the Fathers believed foreknowledge was of providential advantage to God. I’ll make a comment on that in a bit, but first, here’s just a snippet from Orthodoxwiki on GN’s tract:
“Alone among the Greek Fathers, Gregory of Nyssa wrote a work specifically on the destiny of infants who die, De infantibus praemature abreptis libellum. The anguish of the Church appears in the questions he puts to himself: the destiny of these infants is a mystery, ‘something much greater than the human mind can grasp’. He expresses his opinion in relation to virtue and its reward; in his view, there is no reason for God to grant what is hoped for as a reward. Virtue is not worth anything if those who depart this life prematurely without having practiced virtue are immediately welcomed into blessedness. Continuing along this line, Gregory asks: ‘What will happen to the one who finishes his life at a tender age, who has done nothing, bad or good? Is he worthy of a reward?’ He answers: ‘The hoped-for blessedness belongs to human beings by nature, and it is called a reward only in a certain sense’. Enjoyment of true life (zoe and not bios) corresponds to human nature, and is possessed in the degree that virtue is practiced. Since the innocent infant does not need purification from personal sins, he shares in this life corresponding to his nature in a sort of regular progress, according to his capacity. Gregory of Nyssa distinguishes between the destiny of infants and that of adults who lived a virtuous life. ‘The premature death of newborn infants does not provide a basis for the presupposition that they will suffer torments or that they will be in the same state as those who have been purified in this life by all the virtues’. Finally, he offers this perspective for the reflection of the Church: ‘Apostolic contemplation fortifies our inquiry, for the One who has done everything well, with wisdom (Psalm 104: 24), is able to bring good out of evil’….The profound teaching of the Greek Fathers can be summarized in the opinion of Anastasius of Sinai: ‘It would not be fitting to probe God’s judgments with one’s hands’.”
Tom here… So you can see, Mike, that Gregory takes deification to be the ‘natural’ end or telos of human being. And so far as that goes, I agree. We are ‘naturally’ built or hard-wired for God, you might say. But I think Gregory makes a mistake to assume that since union with God is a ‘natural’ matter for human beings, there aren’t some equally ‘natural’ requirements for getting us to the fulfillment of our natures. This is where Boyd and others step in and say, “What a second. We’re missing something. If God can get human beings into a fulfillment of their natural destiny without their ever having lived in the world or made choices to develop, they why wouldn’t God go that route with all human beings and prevent the possibility of evil altogether?” A totally legit question. Some explanation of this world’s ‘necessary’ role in human perfection is required, but whatever that explanation is it has to be capable of being carried on into a ‘preglorification postmortem’ context to account for deceased babies and such, and that means there’s a point of fundamental continuity between pre- and post-mortem contexts that doesn’t usually get noticed or talked about.
Here are some of Gregory’s thoughts (from “On Infants’ Early Deaths”) on the matter. Very interesting.
I think his use of foreknowledge is:
(a) Philosophically unsound (foreknowledge cannot be used the way he supposes, for foreknown evil (traditionally understood) is by definition already the result of whatever has been done by God to prevent it; it cannot also be the basis for actions taken by God to act providentially), and
(b) Pastorally disastrous (Can you imagine telling Mike that his sister was ‘taken out’ before completing adulthood because God foresaw all the evil she would commit? I suppose Gregory thinks this is comforting because Mike can know that she is in heaven instead. In addition, Gregory anticipates the question, “But what about evil people whom God DOES allow to live? Why weren’t they cut off prematurely?” Gregory’s answer? The ‘evil’ of such people is necessary to some other ‘good’ that God determines the world cannot be without. What are we supposed to conclude then about infants who die in comparison to say, Hitler or Stalin, who are permitted by God to live? That Hitler’s evil was required by some good? Mike’s sister would have brought upon the world an overall evil greater than Hitler or Stalin?)
From On Infants’ Early Deaths (my underlining and italics)
It is a sign of the perfection of God’s providence, that He not only heals maladies that have come into existence, but also provides that some should be never mixed up at all in the things which He has forbidden; it is reasonable to expect that He Who knows the future equally with the past should check the advance of an infant to complete maturity, in order that the evil may not be developed which His foreknowledge has detected in his future life, and in order that a lifetime granted to one whose evil dispositions will be lifelong may not become the actual material for his vice. We shall better explain what we are thinking of by an illustration….
…Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons. This is that achievement of a perfect Providence which I spoke of; namely, not only to heal evils that have been committed, but also to forestall them before they have been committed; and this, we suspect, is the cause of the deaths of new-born infants. He who does all things upon a Plan withdraws the materials for evil in His love to the individual, and, to a character whose marks His Foreknowledge has read, grants no time to display by a pre-eminence in actual vice what it is when its propensity to evil gets free play….
…In fine, you will ask, wherefore does God in His Providence withdraw one from life before his character can be perfected in evil, and leave another to grow to be such a monster that it had been better for him if he had never been born? In answer to this we will give, to those who are inclined to receive it favorably, a reason such as follows: viz. that oftentimes the existence of those whose life has been a good one operates to the advantage of their offspring; and there are hundreds of passages testifying to this in the inspired Writings, which clearly teach us that the tender care shown by God to those who have deserved it is shared in by their successors, and that even to have been an obstruction, in the path to wickedness, to anyone who is sure to live wickedly, is a good result….
…But seeing that our Reason in this matter has to grope in the dark, clearly no one can complain if its conjecturing leads our mind to a variety of conclusions. Well, then, not only one might pronounce that God, in kindness to the Founders of some Family, withdraws a member of it who is going to live a bad life from that bad life, but, even if there is no antecedent such as this in the case of some early deaths, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that they would have plunged into a vicious life with a more desperate vehemence than any of those who have actually become notorious for their wickedness. That nothing happens without God we know from many sources; and, reversely, that God’s dispensations have no element of chance and confusion in them every one will allow, who realizes that God is Reason, and Wisdom, and Perfect Goodness, and Truth, and could not admit of that which is not good and not consistent with His Truth. Whether, then, the early deaths of infants are to be attributed to the aforesaid causes, or whether there is some further cause of them beyond these, it befits us to acknowledge that these things happen for the best….
…But someone will say, “It is not all who thus reap in this life the fruits of their wickedness, any more than all those whose lives have been virtuous profit while living by their virtuous endeavours; what then, I ask, is the advantage of their existence in the case of these who live to the end unpunished?” I will bring forward to meet this question of yours a reason which transcends all human arguments. Somewhere in his utterances the great David declares that some portion of the blessedness of the virtuous will consist in this; in contemplating side by side with their own felicity the perdition of the reprobate. He says, “The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance; he shall wash his hands in the blood of the ungodly”; not indeed as rejoicing over the torments of those sufferers, but as then most completely realizing the extent of the well-earned rewards of virtue. He signifies by those words that it will be an addition to the felicity of the virtuous and an intensification of it, to have its contrary set against it.
…The premature deaths of infants have nothing in them to suggest the thought that one who so terminates his life is subject to some grievous misfortune, any more than they are to be put on a level with the deaths of those who have purified themselves in this life by every kind of virtue; the more far-seeing Providence of God curtails the immensity of sins in the case of those whose lives are going to be so evil. That some of the wicked have lived on does not upset this reason which we have rendered; for the evil was in their case hindered in kindness to their parents; whereas, in the case of those whose parents have never imparted to them any power of calling upon God, such a form of the Divine kindness, which accompanies such a power, is not transmitted to their own children; otherwise the infant now prevented by death from growing up wicked would have exhibited a far more desperate wickedness than the most notorious sinners, seeing that it would have been unhindered. Even granting that some have climbed to the topmost pinnacle of crime, the Apostolic view supplies a comforting answer to the question; for He Who does everything with Wisdom knows how to affect by means of evil some good. Still further, if some occupy a pre-eminence in crime, and yet for all that have never been a metal, to use our former illustration, that God’s skill has used for any good, this is a case which constitutes an addition to the happiness of the good, as the Prophet’s words suggest; it may be reckoned as not a slight element in that happiness, nor, on the other hand, as one unworthy of God’s providing.