Gregory of Nazianzus
Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 330–390), also called Gregory the Theologian, was one of the three Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory was a friend to the two brothers Basil the Great (AD 329–379), bishop in Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–390). Gregory of Nazianzus was born into a Christian home. His mother, Nonna, was instrumental in her husbands conversion to Christianity, and just before the birth of their first son Gregory’s father, Gregory the Elder, was ordained as the bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory the Theologian was the oldest of three children (his brother was named Caesarius, and his sister Gorgonia), and Gregory’s birth came as a long awaited blessing to a mother who had for sometime been unable to bear a child. Gregory would later liken his birth story to that of Samuel and Hannah, in that Gregory’s miraculous birth was followed by a mother who was to give her son to the ministry of the Lord.
Gregory was well educated, and after studying medicine in Alexandria he boarded a boat to Athens to take up the study of philosophy and rhetoric. During the travels, the boat came into a terrible storm, and several times on the journey Gregory feared for his life. Shortly after this, in 348, Gregory was baptized, and this sent him on a path toward Christian ministry. He spent nearly a decade in Athens, in the company of his friend Basil, as the two plotted out a plan to go back to Cappadocia and build a monastic retreat where they could spend their days in study. Well, in 359 he found himself back home, though not building the retreat. Instead, his father had thrust upon him more and more ministerial responsibilities in Nazianzus, and in 361 he was ordained to the episcopate of Nazianzus.Not long after this, Gregory was overwhelmed by his ministerial duties, and by 362 he had gone with Basil to build their longed for retreat. This episode of ministry work followed by a period of retreat would prove to be paradigmatic in the life of the Theologian. Gregory was anything but a simple character. Lionel Wickham admitted, “As bishop of Constantinople Gregory was a failure,” but also described, “He [Gregory] was, you might say, a hothouse flower, brilliant and blooming in warm admiration and a modicum of protective privacy, withering under the cold blast of stress.”In seasons he would throw himself into his ministerial work, only to again vacate particular responsibilities in his desirous seeking of the life of contemplative study.
Nevertheless, when the time came and his father’s health prevented him from administering his responsibilities to the church in Nazianzus, Gregory the Theologian stepped in and gave himself to the church as pastor. In his service to the church, his lasting legacy continues today. It is not an over exaggeration to say that the church today affirms the consubstantial nature of the Trinity because of the faithful and careful work of Gregory. In his unique time after the Council of Nicea 325, Gregory articulated and defended Nicene theology, and particularly defended the word homoousios(that the Father and Son are of the same substance) in the midst of many who were ready to throw it out. In 379, pro-Arian emperor Valens died, and the new emperor Theodosius was pro-Nicene. This was the groundwork for the invitation and arrival of Gregory as bishop in Constantinople. It was during this time (379–381) that Gregory produced one of his most significant and lasting works, hisFive Theological Orations. In these sermons, Gregory made a biblical defense of the one God existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. He maintained the full divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ, as being the same substance of the Father. He also defended the full divinity and personhood of the Holy Spirit. These orations were, in a sense, also preparation for his participation in the second ecumenical council at Constantinople (381). Outside of his own reflections on the council, there is not much recorded about his contribution. However, that he engaged in fights of orthodoxy during and after the council gives evidence to the significant part he played in defending and promoting pro-Nicene theology.
Gregory of Nazianzus was a complicated figure. He was willing to step into difficult circumstances as a pastor when he was needed, and yet at times he was aloof and prone to wander in search of a quiet place for study. He was not always pastoral in his interactions, and yet he was always committed to the truth of Scripture concerning the Trinitarian God revealed therein. He defended the faith in his own time, and left a legacy faithfulness to the true and living God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. by Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 13.
Where to Begin
On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations by Gregory of Nazianzus
Historical Theology.org Post on one of the sermons of Gregory by Tyler Smiley