Gregory of Nazianzus

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GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS (c. 329c. 391) was one of the Cappadocian fathers, known to Christian tradition as "the Theologian" by virtue of his rhetorical erudition and the consummate skill with which he combated the perceived heresies of those who in any way detracted from or denied the validity of the established orthodoxy of his day. One of those "heretics" was his own father, Gregory the Elder, who in his youth had been a member of an obscure but apparently popular sect known as the Hypsistarii. But inasmuch as his father was later converted to orthodoxy and subsequently consecrated bishop, his son could say of him that he was one whose "character anticipates their faith" (Oration 18) and that he was "well grafted out of the wild olive tree into the good one" (Or. 7). It was by his mother, Nonna, however, that Gregory was to be most enduringly influenced, for it was she who, by her tears and by her prayers, persuaded him to embrace the ascetic life. Gregory said of her, "Who had a greater love of virginity, though patient herself of the marriage bond?" (Or. 18). Gregory was one of three children; Gorgonia, his older sister ("One red tint was dear to her, the blush of modesty," Or. 8), and a younger brother, Caesarius ("Neither by his fame [as a physician] nor by the luxury which surrounded him was his nobility of soul corrupted," Or. 7), both predeceased Gregory. The funeral orations Gregory preached for his sister and brother remain classics of their genre, panegyrics of the most elaborate sort.

Gregory's education was undertaken at Cappadocian Caesarea, at Palestinian Caesarea, at Alexandria, and finally at Athens. Upon completion of these extensive studies, Gregory had hoped to retire to a life of contemplative solitude ("with no contact with human affairs except when necessary," Or. 2), but this desire was thwarted when his father, now a bishop, ordained him priest and set him on the stormy road of pastoral and ecclesiastical responsibilities. The "tyranny" he experienced at his father's hand was repeated when his close friend Basil of Caesarea consecrated him suffragan bishop of the "exceptionally abominable and narrow little village" (Or. 10) of Sasima. Upon his father's death, however, Gregory returned to Nazianzus to pursue what he hoped would be a quiet and undisturbed episcopate.

This was not to be so. During the "heretical" emperor Valens's reign, the Arian party had gained strength, so Gregory was (again reluctantly) persuaded to go to Constantinople, the capital city, and preach on behalf of the outnumbered "orthodox." Arius and his followers had called into question the eternal divinity of Christ (a dogma that the Council of Nicaea, in 325, had promulgated in direct opposition to Arius), while others had denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. Such views offended Gregory deeply, so he set out in a series of five long discourses, commonly known as his Theological Orations (Or. 2731), to articulate, with both depth of learning and clarity of thought, what he believed to be the true doctrine of the Trinity. The core of his teaching consisted in his assertion that the salvation of humankind is possible only if the agents of that salvation (i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) share fully in the divinity of the one godhead. Defending the so-called Nicene faith against its Arian detractors, however, took its toll on Gregory, as did his other episcopal duties, including his unwilling participation in ecclesiastical politics. It is no surprise, then, that during the Council of Constantinople in 381 (where many of his views were adopted) he retired to the contemplative life that he had so fervently desired from the beginning.

But Gregory's retirement years, as his extant letters clearly indicate, were far from idle. Chief among his concerns during this period of his life was yet another "heresy," this time authored by Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea. In an attempt to solve the question of how the Son of God (or Word) could become incarnate in the human Jesus, Apollinaris suggested that the Word (Gr., logos ) took the place of Jesus' mind (or rational faculty), thus ensuring the unity of the incarnate person and also implying that everything Jesus did or said could be attributed to divine authorship. Gregory, in three closely argued dogmatic letters (101, 102, 202), called this a "mindless" Christology, insistingagain, out of a concern for the need for salvation and for humanity's ultimate goal of union with Godthat "only that which is assumed [i.e., by the Logos] can be saved." It must be the whole person, the mind included, that was assumed by the Word at the time of the incarnation, if the whole person is to be saved. If the whole person is not assumed, then salvation itself is imperiled. Gregory's powerful and incisive arguments won the day, and Apollinaris's bold attempts to explain the incomprehensible were condemned.

If Gregory were to be remembered, within the relatively narrow confines of the history of doctrine, only as "the Theologian," and if he were understood solely as the defender of true faith against heretical encroachments, it would be doing him an injustice. As important as his Christological and Trinitarian concepts were to the debates of his day, his more enduring (and often overlooked) significance may lie elsewhere. Caught, as he was, between the desire for solitary retirement ("For me the greatest business is to be free of business," Epistle 49) and his vehement dislike of ecclesiastical and political machinations ("For my part my inclination is to avoid all assemblies of bishops, because I have never seen a council come to a good end or turn out to be a solution for evils," Ep. 130), he nevertheless manifested in his own person a delicate balance between a genuine concern for his fellow Christians' spiritual well-being and an intuitive grasp of those divine mysteries that transcend logical or rational boundaries. This balance is seen less in his exclusively doctrinal discourses than in his poetry, for it is in the latter that one glimpses a sensitivity at once aesthetic and mystical.

While Gregory's orations address theological issues with precision and directness, his poemsmany of them no less theologicalare less rigid, more given to deep self-understanding and to a broad, inclusive generosity of spirit. Gregory may be one of the earliest Christian theologians to realize, instinctively, that poetry is a more appropriate medium for theological articulation than is prose, however well ordered, systematic, and architectonic that prose might be. He would have delighted, one dares suppose, in the claim of the nineteenth-century Scottish poet John Campbell Shairp that "whenever we come face to face with truth then poetry begins." It is as if Gregory's dogmatic discourses were true to his (albeit grudging) acceptance of the ecclesial responsibilities laid on him, whereas his poems gave voice to his capacity for a deep inner awareness of his relationship to God, a relationship of which both his constancy in ascetic discipline and his unending search after truth were genuine symbols. The balance, then, between theological precision in the interests of orthodoxy and his poetic sensitivities was, for Gregory, perhaps more of a tension than a balance. Yet he had a vision of the future state in which the balance would be restored and the tension resolved. And this he could express both poetically and theologically:

No longer from afar will I behold the truth,
As if in a mirror reflected on the water's surface.
Rather, the truth itself will I see with eyes unveiled,
The truth whose first and primary mark the Trinity is,
God as One adored, a single light in tri-equal beams.


The most extensive collection of Gregory's writings in English translation is to be found in Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint Gregory Nazianzus, edited and translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow, in volume 7 (2d series) of "A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers" (New York, 1894), which comprises but a small portion of the extant corpus published (in Greek) in Patrologia Graeca, vols. 3538 (Paris, 18571862), edited by J.-P. Migne. The secondary literature on Gregory is vast, but any of the following titles may be consulted for their extensive bibliographies. Paul Gallay's La vie de Grégoire de Nazianze (Lyons, 1943) is a lively and appreciative work, complementing but not superseding the earlier Saint Grégoire de Nazianze: Sa vie, ses œuvres, son époque (1884; reprint, New York, 1973) of Alphonse Benoit. Jean Plagnieux's Saint Grégoire de Nazianze Théologien (Paris, 1952) is a splendid survey of Gregory's overall theological significance, while Heinz Althaus's Die Heilslehre des heiligen Gregor von Nazianz (Münster, 1972) and Donald F. Winslow's The Dynamics of Salvation: A Study in Gregory of Nazianzus (Cambridge, Mass., 1979) address specific doctrinal issues in greater detail. Finally, an important work is Anna-Stina Ellverson's The Dual Nature of Man: A Study in the Theological Anthropology of Gregory of Nazianzus (Uppsala, 1981).

Donald F. Winslow (1987)

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Gregory of Nazianzus

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