Eminent Christians: 13. Gregory of Nazianzus, Part I

Early life Gregory Nazianzen (c.329-390), was the eldest son and namesake of a member of the Cappadocian curial class. After he had completed his early education in the didaskaleia of Cappadocia, Nazianzen went on to study philosophy and rhetoric at the university of Athens. He had been there but a short time, when a former acquaintance, Basil of Caesarea (c.329-379), arrived. Although opposites in temperament, these two Cappadocians shared a common view about the ideal Christian life, and they became fast friends.

After his return to Cappadocia (c.356-357), Nazianzen joined Basil at the latter’s retreat at Annesoi in Pontus, where Nazianzen devoted himself, on and off for a couple of years, to the practice of coenobitic asceticism. Eventually, the literary fruit of the two friends’ endeavour was to be the Philocalia, a selection of choice passages from the works of the third-century exegete Origen. However, Nazianzen’s contemplative way of life was rudely interrupted when his father, now aged and desirous of aid in carrying out his pastoral duties, had his son forcibly ordained presbyter, c.361-362. Grieved by what Nazianzen later called “this act of tyranny” [De Vita Sua, 1ines 545-549 (PG 37.1067)], Nazianzen fled to the solitude of Basil’s Pontic retreat. He returned to his father’s diocese before Easter 362 to assume his presbyter duties and gave a lengthy sermon explaining the reasons for his flight and return, which became a classic study of the ministry.

Later forcibly compelled by his friend Basil of Caesarea to accept the see of Sasima. Nazianzen again fled this time to the solitude of a nearby mountain range. Refusing to accept the see, he returned to Nazianzus, where he remained as auxiliary bishop until his father’s death in 374. When his mother died shortly thereafter, Nazianzen, still an earnest seeker after the contemplative life, decided to retire to the monastery of St. Thecla at Seleucia in Sauria.

Called to defend the Trinity

However, eventually Nazianzen left retirement to go to Constantinople and into the eye of the theological storm that was raging regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, the great theological debate of the fourth century. Why?

In his De Vita Sua, he gives the following reasons:

“The grace of the Spirit sent us For many bishops and sheep were calling us To be a helper of the people and assistant of the Word…” [De Vita Sua, lines 595-598 (PG 37.1070)].

On the one hand, he was called by the orthodox community of Constantinople, and on the other, by the “bishops.” Some scholars understand the latter to be not only the bishops of the district surrounding Constantinople, but also Basil and Meletius of Antioch. Pierre Batiffol builds on this, when he writes: “It is not improbable that he (Nazianzen) was the envoy of Meletius, the bishop of Antioch, or else that of Basil in his final days.”

X. Hürth has further asserted that Nazianzen arrived in Constantinople even before Basil’s death on January 1, 379. Both Paul Gallay and Christoph Jungck have, nevertheless, decisively shown that Nazianzen went to Constantinople only after the death of Basil, although it is probable that Basil in his final days advised him to go.

But why did the orthodox believers of Constantinople and the bishops call Nazianzen to be the pastor of the Nicene community in that city? A couple of reasons are clearly discernible. First of all, there was the death of the Emperor Valens, the protector of the Arians, in the disastrous rout near Hadrianopolis in Thrace (August 9, 378), and the succession to the purple by the orthodox Spaniard, Theodosius. The orthodox communities of the east once more began to re-assert their strength, so that by the year 379 nearly every important ecclesiastical centre, except Constantinople, was in the hands of orthodox bishops.

Second, although the Arians in Constantinople, under their bishop Demophilus, possessed authentic popular support, the orthodox community had received fresh hope with the accession of Theodosius; they lacked only a leader. Basil or Meletius of Antioch, the foremost leaders of the Nicene party in the east, would have been ideal choices, but both were attached to their respective sees, and by 379 Basil was dead. But Nazianzen, a friend of both Basil and Meletius, was as good as either of these men, and furthermore, he was not formally attached to any see.

Consequently, Nazianzen was invited, and after initial refusals, he accepted. It may be asked what was the major reason behind Nazianzen’s acceptance, for the forceful insistence of the delegation from Constantinople was certainly not the sole, nor prime, reason for Nazianzen’s acquiescence. It has been suggested that the thought of doing good was a sufficient reason for him to go. At the deeper level it is possible that after Basil’s death Nazianzen saw himself as the heir of Basil’s labours in the defence of the truth about the Trinity, and that this was the decisive factor which led him to leave his cell to go to Constantinople.