Who was Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330–390)?
Born of Greek parentage in Arianzus, a village of Cappadocia, not far from Nazianzus. His father, Gregory the elder, was converted by the prayers, influence and example of his wife Nonna and soon after his baptism, was consecrated Bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory’s pious mother devoted him when an infant to Christ and the Church.
The young Gregory was first home-schooled by his uncle and later went on to study rhetoric and philosophy in Caesarea, Alexandria and finally in Athens, when began a close friendship with Basil of Caesarea.
On the voyage from Alexandria to Athens, a violent storm threatened the lives of those on-board the ship. Since he had not yet been baptized, with tears and fervor he besought God to spare him, vowing to dedicate his whole self to Him, and the tempest gave way to calm.
A fellow-student in Athens was Julian, afterwards the apostate emperor. Gregory had discerned the character of Julian even then, and said to one of his friends: How great a scourge is here training for the Roman empire. He remained at Athens nearly ten years, part of which he employed in teaching rhetoric.
In 361, he returned to Nazianzus where he intended to enter upon civil life. Shortly after he was baptized and was ordained a presbyter by his father who wanted him to assist with caring for local Christians. He consecrated himself anew to the service of God, resolving that his gift of eloquence should serve no interests but those of God and the Church.
If not for his aged father, he would have gone into the desert to lead an ascetic life. Instead he remained at home and devoted himself to the study of the Scriptures, living by rule a life of strict self-denial. He later visited Basil in his retreat and remained a short time with him in the practice of asceticism. Returning home at the request of his father, probably to aid in the settlement of a difficulty into which the aged bishop had fallen by signing the Armenian formula which favored Arianism, he was soon after at Christmas, ordained suddenly and without forewarning by his father before the congregation. Gregory greatly displeased, pronounced the transaction an act of spiritual tyranny. To prepare himself thoroughly for his new functions, he again retired to his friend Basil in Pontus early in 362. The commands of his father and the calls of the Church brought him back to Nazianzus towards Easter, and on that festival he delivered his first oration.
By this time Emperor Julian had publicly declared himself in opposition to Christianity. In response to the emperor’s rejection of the Christian faith, Gregory composed his, Invectives Against Julian, asserting that Christianity will overcome imperfect rulers through love and patience. Julian began to vigorously persecute Gregory and his other critics, however, the emperor perished the following year during a campaign against the Persians.
Gregory spent the next six or seven years in pastoral labor at Nazianzus. During this time he entered a period of cooperation with Basil as they participated in a rhetorical contest against the arrival of Arian theologians. In the subsequent public debates, presided over by agents of the Emperor Valens, Gregory and Basil emerged triumphant.
After the death of Eusebius of Caesarea, Basil was elected bishop of the church of Caesarea in Cappadocia in 370. Soon afterwards the Emperor Valens, who was jealous of Basil’s influence, divided Cappadocia into two provinces. Basil continued to claim ecclesiastical jurisdiction over the whole province, but this was disputed by Anthimus, Bishop of Tyana, the chief city of New Cappadocia. To strengthen his position, Basil founded a new church at Sasima and resolved to have Gregory as its first bishop.
Sasima was a small place on the frontier of the two provinces which divided Cappadocia. Gregory, after declining for some time, finally accepted and was ordained Bishop of Sasima in 372. Gregory would later refer to his ordination as forced upon him by his strong-willed father and Basil. When pressed by Basil to take his part actively, he answered that he would not take up arms in his quarrel with Anthimus, as he did not wish to play the part either of battle-field or of prey.
Gregory thought himself unsuited to Sasima, and the place to him, and it was not long before he returned to Nazianzus to assist his father in the government of his church. He taught the people, defended the Church against the vexations of the Roman governors and by his eloquence and virtue exerted the kind of religious authority which in the early ages formed ecclesiastical power.
Losing his father and mother in 374, Gregory was now left without family ties. He devoted to the poor the large fortune which he had inherited, keeping for himself only a small piece of land at Arianzus. He continued to administer the diocese of Nazianzus refusing however to become the bishop and continually urging the appointment of a successor to his father. At the end of 375, he withdrew to a monastery where he lived in solitude for some three years.
It was there he heard of the death of Basil in 379. It affected him deeply and although his health did not permit him to attend the funeral, he wrote a letter of encouragement and consolation to Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s brother. He also composed twelve memorial poems dedicated to the memory of Basil.
Three weeks after Basil’s death, Theodosius, a steadfast supporter of Nicene orthodoxy, became Emperor of the East in Constantinople. The Church of Constantinople had been for forty years a prey to Arianism, with an Arian bishop, Demophilus, enthroned at St. Sophia’s. The exiled Nicene party gradually returned to the city and without church or pastor, applied to Gregory to organize their scattered forces, many bishops supporting the demand.
The Antioch synod and its archbishop, Meletios, asked Gregory to go to Constantinople to lead the theological campaign to win over the city to Nicene orthodoxy. After much hesitation, Gregory agreed. His cousin Theodosia offered him a villa for his residence. Gregory transformed much of it into a church, naming it Anastasia, the scene of the resurrection of the faith. Not only many faithful, but many heretics gathered in the humble chapel of the Anastasia, and it was in this chapel that he delivered his five theological orations. He also delivered at this time the orations on Cyprian, Athanasius and the Maccabees.
Gregory’s homilies were well received and he continued to teach and defend the Nicene Creed. His success however, brought opposition, and his life was several times in danger. On the vigil of Easter in 379, while baptizing his Easter neophytes, a hostile mob of Arians from St. Sophia’s, among them Arian monks, attacked the chapel.
Gregory also faced dissensions among his own flock, some of whom openly charged him with holding Tritheistic errors. Jerome became his pupil and disciple about this time.
Gregory was consoled by the approval of Peter, Patriarch of Alexandria, and Peter appears to have been desirous to see him appointed to the bishopric of the capital of the East. Gregory, however, unfortunately allowed himself to be imposed upon by a plausible adventurer called Maximus, who came to Constantinople from Alexandria in the guise (long hair, white robe, and staff) of a Cynic, and professed to be a convert to Christianity and an ardent admirer of Gregory’s sermons. Gregory entertained him hospitably, gave him his complete confidence, and pronounced a public panegyric on him in his presence. Maximus’s intrigues to obtain the bishopric for himself found support in various quarters, including Alexandria, which the patriarch Peter, for what reason precisely it is not known, had turned against Gregory and certain Egyptian bishops sent by Peter, suddenly, and at night, consecrated and enthroned Maximus as Bishop of Constantinople while Gregory was confined to bed by illness. Gregory decided to resign his office but the faction faithful to him induced him to stay and Maximus, having to flee from Constantinople, retired to Alexandria.
Affairs in Constantinople remained troublesome as Gregory’s position was unofficial and Arian priests occupied many important churches. The Emperor Theodosius who received baptism early in 380 at Thessalonica was determined to eliminate Arianism. In November, the emperor entered the city and called on Demophilus, the Arian bishop, to subscribe to the Nicene creed, but he refused to do so and was banished from Constantinople. Theodosius who was determined that Gregory should be bishop, had him accompanied to St. Sophia’s at the head of a large troop of soldiers, assuring him of his protection. Constantinople was now restored to orthodoxy and Arians and other heretics were forbidden to hold public assemblies. The emperor however, could not put an end to the intrigues which pursued Gregory.
Wanting to further unify the empire behind the orthodox position, to confirm Gregory’s election as bishop, and annul that of Maximus, Theodosius decided to convene a church council to resolve matters of faith and discipline. Gregory was of similar mind in wishing to unify Christianity. In the spring of 381, they convened the First Council of Constantinople (the Second Ecumenical Council) which was attended by one hundred and fifty Eastern bishops, thirty-six holding semi-Arian or Macedonian opinions. Neither the arguments of the orthodox bishops nor the eloquence of Gregory, who preached at Pentecost in St. Sophia’s, on the subject of the Holy Spirit, availed to persuade them to sign the orthodox creed.
The Egyptian and Macedonian bishops who had supported Maximus’s ordination arrived late for the Council. Once there, they attacked the validity of Gregory’s election as head of the church of Constantinople, arguing that he was already bishop of Sasima, and that the canons forbade the transfer of a bishop from one church to another. Gregory offered to resign, saying: Throw me into the sea like Jonah. I was responsible for the storm, but I would sacrifice myself for the salvation of the ship. Seize me and throw me. I was not happy when I ascended the throne, and gladly would I descend it.
As to the appointment of the bishopric, the confirmation of Gregory could only be a matter of form. The orthodox bishops were all in favor, and the objection urged by the Egyptian and Macedonian bishops who joined the council later, that his translation from one church to another was in opposition to a canon of the Nicene council was unfounded. The fact was well known that Gregory had never, after his forced consecration at the instance of Basil, entered into possession of the church of Sasima, and that he had later exercised his episcopal functions at Nazianzus, not as bishop of that diocese, but merely as coadjutor of his father.
After the death of the presiding bishop, Meletius of Antioch, Gregory was selected to lead the Council which found itself having to deal with the question of appointing a successor to the deceased bishop. Hoping to reconcile the West with the East, he offered to recognize Paulinus as Patriarch of Antioch. There had been an understanding between the two orthodox parties at Antioch, of which Meletius and Paulinus had been respectively bishops that the survivor of either should succeed as sole bishop. Paulinus however, was a bishop of Western origin, and the Eastern bishops assembled at Constantinople declined to recognize him. In vain did Gregory urge, for the sake of peace, the retention of Paulinus for the remainder of his life, already fare advanced. The bishops of the council refused to listen to his advice and resolved that Meletius should be succeeded by an Oriental priest. It was in the East that Christ was born, was one of the arguments they put forward. Gregory responded, Yes, and it was in the East that He was put to death, did not shake their decision. Flavian, a priest of Antioch, was elected and Gregory, who relates that the only result of his appeal was, a cry like that of a flock of jackdaws while the younger members of the council attacked him like a swarm of wasps. He resigned from the council and left his official residence.
His surprise resignation and speech to Theodosius asking to be released from his office was a shock to the Council. The emperor, moved by his words and commending his labor, granted his resignation. The Council asked him to appear once more for a farewell ritual and celebratory orations. Before leaving Constantinople he assembled the clergy and the people in the church of St. Sophia and delivered his farewell address, the grandest of all his orations.
Very soon after its delivery, he left Constantinople and Nectarius, a native of Cilicia, was chosen to succeed him. His two letters addressed to Nectarius at this time show that he was moved by feelings of goodwill towards the church of which he was resigning and towards his successor.
On his way to Nazianzus, Gregory stopped at Caesarea where he delivered Basil’s funeral oration.
In 383, Theodorius invited him to take part in a council held at Constantinople. He declined, saying: To tell the truth, I will always avoid these assemblies of bishops. I have never seen them lead to any good result, but rather increase evils instead of diminishing them. They serve only as fields for tournaments of words and the play of ambition.
On his return to Nazianzus, Gregory found the Church overrun with the teaching of Apollinaris the Younger. Gregory tried to find a learned and zealous bishop who would be able to stem the flood of heresy and when his efforts were unsuccessful, he consented to take over the administration of the church himself. He combated for a time the false teaching of the adversaries but he felt himself too broken in health to continue the active work of the episcopate and wrote to the Archbishop of Tyana appealing to him to provide for the appointment of another bishop. His request was granted and his cousin Eulalius was appointed to the church of Nazianzus. Gregory finally withdrew into the solitude of Arianzum, the scene of his birth and his childhood, where he spent the remaining years of his life in retirement.
During the six years of life which remained to him, Gregory composed the greater part of his poetical works. These include an autobiographical poem of nearly 2,000 lines, about one hundred shorter poems relating to his past career, and a large number of epistles. In the tiny plot of ground at Arianzus was a garden which he cultivated, a fountain, and the shade of a few trees which composed his enjoyments. Gregory lived as a hermit and would sometimes receive visits from friends as well as strangers who came to his retreat. About 390, he peacefully breathed his last.
Looking back on Gregory’s career, it is difficult not to feel that from the day when he was compelled to accept priestly orders, until that which saw him return from Constantinople to Nazianzus to end his life in obscurity, he seemed constantly to be placed in positions unsuited for him. It is impossible to doubt that his friend Basil had to a great extent moulded and informed his sensitive and impressionable personality and inspired him to co-operate in the task of overthrowing heresy and bringing about the peace of the Eastern Church.
Throughout his life Gregory faced stark choices. Would a monastic life be more appropriate than public ministry? Was it better to follow his own path or follow the course mapped for him by his father and Basil? Gregory’s writings illuminate these conflicts and suggest that it was this dialectic which defined his life and character.
A saint first, and a theologian afterwards, Gregory in one of his early sermons at the Anastasia insisted on the principle of reverence in treating of the mysteries of faith, a principle entirely ignored by his Arian opponents, and also on the purity of life and example which all who dealt with these high matters must show forth if their teaching was to be effectual. In the first and second of his five discourses he develops these two principles at some length, urging the necessity for all who would know God aright to lead a supernatural life, and to approach so sublime a study with a mind pure and free from sin.
The third discourse on the Son, is devoted to a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity and a demonstration of its consonance with the primitive doctrine of the Unity of God. The eternal existence of the Son and Spirit are insisted on, together with their dependence on the Father as origin or principle and the Divinity of the Son is argued from Scripture against the Arians, whose misunderstanding of various Scripture texts is exposed and confuted.
In the fourth discourse, the union of the Godhead and Manhood in Christ Incarnate is set forth and luminously proved from Scripture and reason.
The fifth and final discourse on the Holy Spirit is directed partly against the Macedonian heresy which denied altogether the Divinity of the Holy Ghost and also against those who reduced the Third Person of the Trinity to a mere impersonal energy of the Father. Gregory, in reply to the contention that the Divinity of the Spirit is not expressed in Scripture, quotes and comments on several passages which teach the doctrine by implication, adding that the full manifestation of this great truth was intended to be gradual, following on the revelation of the Divinity of the Son.