Know Your Theologians #1 Gregory of Nazianzus

  • Bare Facts
    Born c.329AD in Nazianzus, Cappadocia (now part of Northern Turkey). Studied Rhetoric and Philosophy in Athens, then lived in quasi-monastic seclusion. Ordained a Bishop against his will, he ended up Bishop of Constantinople. Resigned from the chair halfway through the Council of Constantinople in 381AD. Died in obscurity c 389. Canonised along with his friends Basil of Caesarea and Gregory of Nyssa – a trio of theologians known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

    Why is he important?
    After the Council of Nicea declared the Son to be consubstantial/homoousios with the Father in 325AD the Church was split between those who believed the Son was the first of the created order (known as Arians after their leader Arius) and those who held to the Nicene Creed. In about 380AD, Gregory was appointed leader of a small church of loyal Nicenes in Constantinople where he formulated a classic defence of the Nicene faith in his Five Theological Orations.

    When Theodosius I became Emperor he appointed Gregory as Bishop of Constantinople and called the Council of 381, which reaffirmed the Nicene Creed and the full divinity of the Son as true orthodoxy. Gregory’s coherent arguments for the divinity of the Holy Spirit meant the Nicene Creed was augmented by the ‘Spirit clause’. The problem was that while it was clear that the Son was begotten, the Spirit could not have also been begotten. Gregory’s phrase – that the Spirit ‘proceeded’ – became the classic formulation for pneumatology (theology of the Spirit). Gregory also refuted the Apollinarian heresy that Christ did not possess a human spirit.

    This all seems very complicated…
    Yes, it is. But this was the fourth century and philosophy ruled. Apparently, in Constantinople, they even discussed whether the Son was created or eternally begotten in the barber shops while cutting hair.

    Was he really ordained a bishop against his will?
    Yes. His best friend Basil was Bishop of Caesarea and he needed some loyal bishops in his arch-diocese. So he created a new bishopric based on Sasima – a small town described as a cross-roads where the roads ran nowhere.

    So, why isn’t he called Gregory of Sasima?
    Because he never even visited the town. Gregory was helping his father, also called Gregory, who happened to be bishop of Nazianzus, and he was pretty annoyed with Basil for pressuring him into it. He refused to go.

    That seems a bit lax!
    It was. And later when he was at Constantinople his theological opponents used the fact that he had swapped from being Bishop of Sasima to being Bishop of Constantinople to get rid of him. According to the canons of Nicea, bishops were not allowed to move around.

    So it came back to bite him?
    After Constantinople he wrote several bitter comments on church politics. Gregory really wanted to be left alone writing his poetry and meditating on the Scriptures.

    If he was so important, why haven’t I heard of him?
    The Cappadocian Fathers are pillars of the Orthodox Church and were only really rediscovered in the West comparatively recently. There are few translations of his works available in English.

    Notable quote: “That which has not been assumed has not been healed.” (From a Letter to Cledonius, referring to the fact that Christ must have possessed full humanity in order to save humans completely – this was to counter Apollinarius).

    Final Fact: Some 17 000 stanzas of Gregory’s autobiographical and doctrinal poetry survive.

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