Eminent Christians: 13. Gregory of Nazianzus, Part II

Constantinople When Gregory of Nazianzus came to Constantinople in 379 he found the orthodox community in the city both fragmented and extremely tiny, not only because Arianism had long dominated the city, but also because other parties, inimical to orthodoxy, had established themselves within the city, e.g., the Eunomians, the Apollinarians, the Novatians, and the Pneumatomachi. Consequently, upon his arrival at Constantinople, Nazianzen commenced the re-organization of the small orthodox community and to this end, he dedicated a private home to be used as their church.

From this small church, which Nazianzen called Anastasia, the theologian, combining his rhetorical education and innate love of words with a deep desire to proclaim the truth, expounded the Nicene faith to “enraptured audiences.” Central in his exposition of orthodoxy and attack on “the new theology” of the Eunomian and the Pneumatomachi, were the Theological Orations, delivered between July and November of 380.

Prior to Theodosius’ triumphant entry into Constantinople on 24 November 380, Nazianzen’s position had not been official. But upon the Emperor’s arrival, the Arian bishop Demophilus was expelled and Nazianzen installed as bishop in the Church of the Apostles. Theodosius was determined to establish the eastern Church on the bedrock of Nicaea. To this end he convened a council in Constantinople in the spring of 381. This council re-affirmed the Nicene Creed (in a confession of faith no longer extant), and added clauses directed against various heretics, including Eunomius, the Pneumatomachi and Apollinaris. Furthermore, the Council recognized Nazianzen as the rightful bishop of Constantinople.

But Nazianzen’s episcopacy was to be very brief, cut short by the ecclesiastical squabbles and intrigue that attended this council. The first president of the council was Meletius of Antioch, a major protagonist in a schism that had divided the Nicene community of Antioch for a number of years. When he died, shortly after the opening of the council, Nazianzen was made president, and, in an attempt to placate the two Antiochene parties, he proposed that Paulinus, Meletius’ rival claimant to the see, be recognised as Meletius’ successor.

This proposal brought a storm of criticism, in which Nazianzen’s own position as bishop of Constantinople was called into question. Timothy of Alexandria declared that Nazianzen, by transferring his see from Sasima to Constantinople, had technically violated the Nicene canon that prohibited the transference of sees. Nazianzen, wearied and disgusted by the endless intrigue and dissension, decided to quit the eastern capital and retire to his family estates at Arianzus. Now, his sole desire was to spend the remainder of his life in quiet seclusion. But the days of his pastoral ministry were not yet at an end.

Responding to Apollinaris and final days

Upon his return to Cappadocia, he had to administer the still-vacant see of Nazianzus (vacant since his departure for Seleucia in 374). This brief period of pastoral administration witnessed Nazianzen’s growing concern with the spread of the teachiong of Apollinaris—who had fought for Nicence orthodoxy alongside Athanasius, but whos understanding of the Incarnation was deeply flawed. At least two of the three Theological Letters belong to this period. Nazianzen’s great longing for permanent retirement was finally realised when Theodore, archbishop of Tyana, appointed a successor to Nazianzen, his cousin Eulalius.

On his family estates in Arianzus, Nazianzen spent the last years of his life in spiritual contemplation, in writing poetry and in an extensive correspondence with his friends. He died in 390.


For some scholars the motif of “flight from and return to the world” best characterises Nazianzen’s life. Yet, this motif is but the external form of Nazianzen’s attempt to synthesize both his longing for the contemplative life and his desire to be of practical use to the Church.

The failure to attain this synthesis is all too evident in, e.g., Nazianzen’s flights from pastoral ministry in 362 and 372, and then again in his decision to leave Constantinople in 381. On the other hand, the success of the synthesis is best seen in the classic statement on the ministry (Oration 2), in the Theological Orations and the Theological Letters, in the spiritual counsel evident in the letters of his final retirement and in his doctrinal poems. These writings show that Nazianzen, concerned for the nurture of the Church of his day, drew upon a deep well of spirituality, the source of which lay in contemplative solitude.

Denis Meehan has described Nazianzen as a man “almost abnormal in his capacity for being hurt.” It was this characteristic which was largely instrumental in provoking the argument with Basil over the bishopric of Sasima, and which, later, hastened his departure from Constantinople.

The other side of this characteristic must not, however, be overlooked, i.e., his great capacity for “filial, fraternal and friendly love.” Far from being a drawback, this characteristic enabled Nazianzen to achieve a large measure of success in his endeavour to synthesize the active and contemplative modes of life. On the one hand, his hypersensitivity prevented him from becoming enmeshed in the ecclesiastical politics of his day. On the other hand, his great need for friendship would not allow him to withdraw permanently into seclusion but gave him the desire to benefit the church with his theological learning.