DID YOU MAKE THE SIGN OF THE CROSS today? Or say a prayer to the Holy Trinity? Eastern Christians and most Western ones as well did so. Few recognize, however, that we have St Gregory the Theologian to thank for expressing with such clarity the Church’s teaching on the Triune nature of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Scholar and Ascetic
Raised in a devout and well-to-do Christian family in Cappadocia (his father was the bishop of Nazianzos), Gregory (329-389) received a superior classical education in Cappadocia, then in Alexandria and finally in Athens, the Oxford or Harvard of his day. In Athens he befriended two fellow students who affected his life in vastly different ways. The first, whom we know as St. Basil the Great, became a friend and mentor. When the second, Julian the Apostate, became emperor he sought to restore paganism in the empire thus becoming Gregory’s enemy.
Besides studying rhetoric and Greek philosophy, Gregory and Basil also studied the existing Christian literature. They collaborated on a Philokalia or anthology of the writings of Origen and shared an interest in asceticism and monasticism. At the completion of his studies Gregory taught rhetoric for a time then joined Basil in the community which he had organized in Pontus.
Gregory’s father wanted him to assist in pastoring the Church at Nazianzos and ordained his son a presbyter. Gregory was reluctant to leave his solitude in Pontus but found his place in the Lord’s service at Nazianzos. That Church had been divided by theological differences but Gregory was able through his skillful oratory and tactful approach to reconcile the opposing groups. He would use these same abilities to confront the persistent problem of Arianism in the wider Church.
Gregory and Arianism
The First Ecumenical Council (AD 325), following the lead of St Athanasius, had clarified the Church’s faith in the unity of the Father and the Son in the face of the Arian challenge. The Arians continued to dominate the Church in certain areas even after the council, due in great measure to the support of two pro-Arian emperors, Constantius and Valens. St Gregory would be the one who turned the tide against them in the Christian East.
From the mid 360s Gregory and Basil were involved in combating Arianism in Cappadocia, including public debates with the agents of Emperor Valens. The two were successful and, in 369, Basil was chosen to become Archbishop of Caesarea, the provincial capital. In 372 Basil created a bishopric in Sasima and persuaded Gregory to become its bishop. Basil was “stacking the deck” in support of his position in the local controversies.
Gregory resented being sent to what he would later describe as an “utterly dreadful, pokey little hole; a paltry horse-stop on the main road … devoid of water, vegetation, or the company of gentlemen … this was my Church of Sasima!”
Gregory’s stay there was very short as later the same year his father became ill and Gregory returned to Nazianzos to assist him in his final days. When his father died in 374 Gregory refused to succeed him. Instead he retired to a monastery in Seleukia where he remained for three years.
Under Emperor Valens the Church in Constantinople had come firmly under Arian control. In 378 Valens died and was succeeded by Theodosios I, a strong supporter of the Nicene Council. The supporters of Nicaea were encouraged to return and they requested Gregory’s help in reestablishing the Nicene faith in their Church. Gregory reluctantly agreed and established a chapel in his cousin’s villa where he taught Nicene Orthodoxy. He endured much opposition and even physical attacks for almost two years. Finally Theodosios decided to expel the Arians once and for all and appointed Gregory as Archbishop of Constantinople.
The emperor also resolved to further clarify the Church’s teachings. In 381 he convoked the Second Ecumenical Council (I Constantinople). Gregory was a controversial figure at the council over which he briefly presided. He was frequently challenged and ultimately resigned his see. “I was not happy when I ascended the throne,” he told the council, “and gladly would I descend it.” He returned to Nazianzos but resigned that office in 383 because of poor health and retired to his family’s estate where he lived in seclusion until his death in 389.
Gregory as Theologian
Gregory’s writings, especially his five Triadic Homilies, did much to affirm the Nicene Council’s teachings on the Trinity. He was one of the first to attempt a systematic theology of the one God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Gregory was particularly instrumental in clarifying Orthodox teaching on the Holy Spirit, affirming that He was of one essence with the Father and the Son. “If he has the same rank as I have,” Gregory taught, “how can he make me God, or how can he join me with deity?” He affirmed that salvation is nothing less than a sharing in the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit who makes the light of God present in the world.
Gregory was also the first to speak of the Spirit as proceeding from the Father, a concept which the Second Council would add to the Nicene Creed.
Since “theology” in the usage of the day referred to the specific study of God, and since Gregory’s teachings on the subject were so seminal, the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon) accorded Gregory the title “The Theologian.” In Eastern Christianity only John the Theologian, first-century author of the fourth Gospel, and Symeon the New Theologian, eleventh-century teacher on the Holy Spirit’s presence within the believer, have received this recognition.
Gregory as Poet
Gregory often wrote in the forms of classical Greek poetry. Later writers in turn would recast Gregory’s teachings in their own poetry. Thus the beginning of his Paschal Homily below would become part of St John of Damascus’ Paschal Canon which we still use at Orthros on Pascha.
“Yesterday, I was crucified with Him;
Today, I am glorified with Him;
Yesterday, I died with Him;
Today I am quickened with Him;
Yesterday, I was buried with Him;
Today, I rise with Him.
“But let us offer to Him Who suffered and rose again for us — you will think perhaps that I am going to say gold, or silver, or woven work, or transparent and costly stones, the mere passing material things of earth, that remains here below, and is for the most part always possessed by slaves of the world, and of the Prince of the World.
Let us offer ourselves, the possession most precious to God, and most fitting.
Let us give back the image that is made after the Image.
Let us recognize our Dignity; let us honor our Archetype.
Let us know the power of the Mystery and for what Christ died.
Let us become like Christ, since Christ has become like us.
Let us become gods for His sake, since He for ours became Man.”