January 2 – Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa & Gregory of Nazianzus

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa & Gregory of Nazianzus, Christian thinkers

The Cappadocian Fathers – Basil, brother Gregory Nyssen and friend, Gregory Nazianzen – dominated much of theological debate in the Eastern church in the latter part of the 4th century. Basil was the somewhat ruthless church politician and organiser of much monastic life in the East, his brother Nyssen a second-rate bishop but possessing possibly the finest theological mind of them all, and the somewhat hapless Nazianzen making perhaps the most significant contributions to Trinitarian thought in the fourth century, at least as recognised at the time. The younger sister of Basil and Gregory, Macrina, was also a recognised theologian and is sometimes thought of as the fourth Cappadocian.

Basil (c.329-379) was born into a wealthy Cappadocian family. Though not himself drawn to the solitary life, he embraced the communal one and established guidelines for this based on prayer and manual labour. Basil attended the Council of Constantinople in 360 after which he became a fervent supporter of the Creed of Nicaea (325). While not as highly regarded as his friend as a theologian, his On the Holy Spirit and Contra Eunomium are read widely even today. He was an inveterate letter writer and three hundred of these are extant, indicating the esteem in which he and his writings were held.

Gregory Nazianzen (c.329-390) was a trained orator. His family were wealthy landowners and his father, a convert, became bishop of Nazianzus. While the son preferred the quiet and contemplative life, his father (and later Basil) preferred to employ him for their own ecclesiastical purposes. Basil ordained him in 372, against his will, as bishop of Sasima, a small but strategically well placed town; he spent little time there and soon returned home to Nazianzus to assist his dying father. In 375 he withdrew to a monastery for a time. In 379 a synod at Antioch asked him to go to Constantinople to aid the Nicene cause there. In 380 he became bishop of that imperial city. After the death of the Meletius, bishop of Antioch, he was elected to preside over the famous 381 council. His influence on the language of its great Creed is acknowledged. Towards its end, however, he came under attack from those who challenged his episcopate and resigned. He returned to Nazianzus and later to the solitude of Arianzum. He wrote much and was known in antiquity as ‘The Theologian’. His Five Theological Orations, particularly the Fifth on the Holy Spirit, are masterpieces of erudition and continue to be influential into the modern era.

Gregory Nyssen (c. 335-395), bishop of Nyssa from 372 to 376, was not a manager and organiser like his elder brother, but in modern times his value as a first-rate thinker is firmly established. Like Nazianzen, he was quiet and reserved, a scholar by nature. He worked early on as a rhetorician but came into ecclesiastical preferment under the guidance and direction of his brother. He was an original thinker influenced by both Origen and Plotinus the Neoplatonist. His work shows the influence of the latter tradition much more than does that of his two more illustrious [in his time] brother and friend. His very originality is what makes him so acceptable to modern eyes. His primary works, such as the Contra Eunomium – written against Eunomius of Cyzicus – and That there are not three Gods bear close reading even today.

Rev Dr David Rankin