Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop and Theologian
9 May 389
There is a traditional list of eight great Doctors (Teachers, Theologians) of the ancient Church. It lists four Western (Latin) Doctors -- Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, Jerome of Strido, and Gregory the Great (Pope Gregory I) -- and four Eastern (Greek) Doctors -- Athanasius of Alexandria, John Chrysostom of Antioch and Constantinople, Basil the Great, and Gregory of Nazianzus (also called Gregory Nazianzen). Incidentally, this list is constantly referred to, but I have no idea when or where or by whom it was drawn up. Does it get any respect from Eastern Christians? Information, please.

Gregory of Nazianzus, his friend Basil the Great, and Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa, are jointly known as the Cappadocian Fathers (Cappadocia is a region in what is now Central Turkey).

Gregory lived in a turbulent time. In 312, Constantine, having won a battle that made him Emperor of the West, issued a decree that made it no longer a crime to be a Christian. In 325 he summoned a council of Bishops at Nicea, across the straits from Byzantium (Constantinople, Istanbul), to settle the dispute between those (led by Athanasius) who taught that the Logos (the "Word" of John 1:1, who "was made flesh and dwelt among us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth) was completely God, in the same sense in which the Father is God, and those (led by Arius) who taught that the Logos is a being created by God the Father. The bishops assembled at Nicea declared that the view of Athanasius was that which they had received from their predecessors as the true Faith handed down from the Apostles. (The Athanasian view is held today by Roman Catholics, East Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterian and Reformed, Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists, and most other Protestant groups. The Arian view is held by the Watchtower Society, also called J------'s Witnesses, and by a few other groups, including some conservative Unitarians.)

The Arians did not accept defeat quietly. They created a sufficient disturbance so that Constantine, at first inclined to support the decision of the Council, decided that peace could best be obtained by adopting a Creed which simply evaded the issue. After his death in 336, he was succeeded by various of his relatives, some of whom sided with the Athanasians and some with the Arians, and one of whom (Julian the Apostate, Emperor 361-363) attempted to restore paganism as the religion of the Empire. The situation was complicated by the fact that missionaries to the Goths were first sent out in large numbers during the reign of an Arian Emperor, with the result that the Goths were converted to Arian Christianity. Since the professional Army was composed chiefly of Goth mercenaries, and the Army held the balance of power, this was a real problem.

Gregory of Nazianzus was born about 330. He went to school in Athens with his friend Basil, and with the aforesaid Julian. He and Basil compiled an anthology, called the Philokalia, of the works of the great (but somewhat erratic) Alexandrian theologian, philosopher, and scholar of the previous century, Origen. Later, he went home to assist his father, a bishop, in his struggles against Arianism. Meanwhile, his friend Basil had become Archbishop of (Cappadocian) Caesarea. Faced with a rival Arian bishop at Tyana, he undertook to consolidate his position by maneuvering Gregory into the position of Bishop of Sasima, an unhealthy settlement on the border between the two jurisdictions. Gregory called Sasima "a detestable little place without water or grass or any mark of civilization." He felt "like a bone flung to dogs." He refused to reside at Sasima. Basil accused him of shirking his duty. He accused Basil of making him a pawn in ecclesiastical politics. Their friendship suffered a severe breach, which took some time to heal. Gregory suffered a breakdown and retired to recuperate.

In 379, after the death of the Arian Emperor Valens, Gregory was asked to go to Constantinople to preach there. For thirty years, the city had been controlled by Arians or pagans, and the orthodox did not even have a church there. Gregory went. He converted his own house there into a church and held services in it. There he preached the Five Theological Orations for which he is best known, a series of five sermons on the Trinity and in defense of the deity of Christ. People flocked to hear him preach, and the city was largely won over to the Athanasian (Trinitarian, catholic, orthodox) position by his powers of persuasion. The following year, he was consecrated bishop of Constantinople. He presided at the Council of Constantinple in 381, which confirmed the Athanasian position of the earlier Council of Nicea in 325. Having accomplished what he believed to be his mission at Constantinople, and heartily sick of ecclesiastical politics, Gregory resigned and retired to his home town of Nazianzus, where he died in 389.

His Five Theological Orations are available in several series of works of the Ancient Fathers. The best-known recent biography of him is Gregory of Nazianzus, Rhetor and Philosopher (Oxford U Press, 1969), by Rosemary Radford Reuther. I was in her Sunday School class back when she was writing it, until I was kicked out for asking too many awkward questions. She writes well, nonetheless.

PRAYER (traditional language)

Almighty God, who hast revealed to thy Church thine eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like thy bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of thee, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who livest and reignest for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language)

Almighty God, who have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who live and reign for ever and ever.
Psalm 19:7-11(12-14) or 37:3-6,32-33
Wisdom 7:7-14
John 8:25-32 (Trin)

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.