Conversing with the Fathers: The Cappadocians

Joel C. Elowsky

This short essay will explore the writings of the Cappadocian fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa. They wrote during a time when the church was divided on many levels, much as it is today. There were theological questions concerning the nature of the Son and the Spirit in the Trinity. Many of the questions being debated today concerning language about God, spirituality, liturgical innovation, and social issues were issues in their day as well. In what follows, we will examine briefly some of the principle works of these fathers of the faith in order to gain a better understanding of the riches they have to offer the 21st-century church.

Basil of Caesarea (330-79), otherwise known as Basil the Great, was an ascetic, a consummate church politician, a theologian, and, above all, a pastor concerned with the worship life of the church. As an ascetic he composed a number of works dealing with spiritual discipline. He challenges the 21st-century’s mindset as much as the 4th century’s as to what true spirituality is, by calling for a renunciation of the world and a striving for spiritual perfection. In his Ascetical works, found in Fathers of the Church Series (FC), vol. 9, there are a number of shorter ascetical works on ascetical discipline that are very much worth reading. There are also the more extended Morals and The Long Rules that offer some tough love for those seeking to truly become more spiritual. The challenge he issues in his preface to the Long Rules could have (should have?) come from your pulpit this past Sunday: “Let us not remain in our present state of negligence and passivity and, by ever postponing to tomorrow and the future the beginning of the work, fritter away the time at hand by our continued laziness. . . . How long shall we defer our obedience to Christ?” [FC, 9:223-24]. Basil’s goal in these writings was to reform the life of the church which had become lax with the easing of persecution. Such reform began then and begins now with life according to the gospel and the basic commandment of loving the invisible God by loving our very visible neighbor.

In his role as theologian, Basil in many ways carried on the torch of orthodoxy lit by Athanasius, one of the key orthodox theologians at the Council of Nicea in 325. Much of Basil’s work defending the result of the Council of Nicea’s Creed that confessed the Son as being “of one substance” with the Father can be found in his two books Against Eunomius [NPNF 2 8] along with many of his letters. A key letter, Epistle 38 (which has also been ascribed to his brother Gregory of Nyssa) works through the nitty-gritty detail of the difference between two key words in the theological debates of the fourth century: ousia and hypostasis. Two other key letters, Epistles 125 and 159, speak of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil realized that you could not confess the Son as God if you did not also confess the divinity of the Spirit. The Nicene Creed had left the divinity of the Spirit rather vague in its terse original confession: “We believe in the Holy Spirit.” So Basil composed two works that would greatly influence the Council of Constantinople’s (381) decision to expand the third article of the Creed. He wrote a third book Against Eunomius and a short treatise On the Holy Spirit (both of which are found in NPNF 2 8, although St. Vladimir’s Press has an updated translation of the latter by D. Anderson [1980]). Basil’s basic argument is that all the churches (including their opponent’s) include invocations and blessings in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all churches also baptize in this name. To denigrate the divinity of any person in the Trinity would thus seriously call into question the benefits of the blessings and baptisms the church was providing. While he does not come out and say the Spirit is God in this work as Gregory of Nazianzus does, this is more likely due to political reasons than any doubt about the Spirit’s divinity. He asserts that the Spirit, too, is to be worshiped and glorified along with the Father and the Son. The Liturgy of St. Basil—still used in Orthodox churches today and can be found there or online—ensured that this theology would not remain theoretical but would be integrated into the life of the church.

Gregory of Nazianzus (321-90) was a close friend of Basil. They went to school together in Athens and shared many of the same theological interests. After their time in Athens, Gregory joined Basil for a monastic retreat at Basil’s home estate which his sister, Macrina, had turned into a hermitage. There, Basil and Gregory compiled the Philocalia, composed of excerpts from Origen, one of the greatest interpreters of Scripture in the 3rd century. This is an ideal text for those looking for an introduction to Origen or for some help in interpreting some of the more difficult passages of Scripture, one of the organizing principles of the work. A new English edition has just recently been published, entitled Philocalia (Kessinger, 2005).

Gregory of Nazianzus’ chief literary works, however, are his poetry and orations. Gregory was perhaps the most autobiographical of the Cappadocians, and for those interested in his life there is no better source than his poems about his life. These are found in a collection entitled Gregory of Nazianzus: Autobiographical Poems, edited by C. White (Cambridge University Press, 1996). His theological poetry is more affordable and accessible in On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, translated by P. Gilbert (St. Vladimir’s Press, 2001). Gregory’s 45 Orations, which he later compiled and polished, also provide numerous insights into his own life and those of his friends. For instance, his Oration 42, entitled “The Last Farewell,” gives a glimpse into the reluctant bishop’s life at the apex of his ecclesiastical career. The oration, delivered during the second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople in 381, served as his resignation speech, and occasional notes of frustration at the political machinations going on at the council slip through. No less emotional is the next Oration 43 in which he bids farewell to his friend Basil in his Panegyric (Funeral Oration) on St. Basil. These Orations can be found in NPNF 2:7 or also in updated translations in the Fathers of the Church, vols. 22 and 107. They provide much insight into the life of a pastor and bishop in the fourth century that still resonate today.

Of Gregory’s 45 Orations, Orations 27-31 receive their own separate numbering as his Theological Orations 1-5. They are perhaps the most well known and studied of his writings and are also included in NPNF 2:7. They can, however, also be found in an updated, modern, inexpensive edition translated by L. Wickham On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters of Cledonius (St. Vladimir’s Press, 2002). Gregory gave these orations, or speeches, soon after he had arrived in Constantinople around 380. They are one of the most succinct articulations of (1) how pastors should do theology (Orations 27, 28); (2) of theology itself with regard to what the church has come to believe about the Trinity in the person of the Son (Orations 29, 30); and (3) the person of the Spirit (Oration 31). They have been called perhaps the finest lecture series in the history of Christianity—a literary and theological tour de force. The two letters of Cledonius included in Wickham’s translation demonstrate a convincing refutation of the heresy of Apollinarius on the issue of the relation between Christ’s human nature to his divine nature, prescient of the christological debates that would consume the church in the 5th century. The Council of Chalcedon (451) used Gregory’s writings to help resolve the christological controversy and they posthumously awarded him the title “Theologian” for his theological insight.

Gregory of Nazianzus was also friends with Basil’s younger brother, Gregory (331-95), who became bishop of Nyssa in 371. Gregory of Nyssa shows us that women, too, had theological voices. He received his education largely from his sister Macrina, whose influence is seen in a number of his works. She unsuccessfully tried to enlist Gregory in the same ascetic lifestyle his older brother Basil had embraced. Gregory (who was married) did nonetheless compose a number of ascetical works that can be found in vol. 58 of the Fathers of the Church. Macrina’s influence is most visible in On the Soul and Resurrection, where she is the counterpart to the great teacher, Socrates, lying on her deathbed in dialogue with her pupil, Gregory, answering questions and objections about the immortality of the soul and the bodily resurrection (Gregory of Nyssa: On the Soul and Resurrection, trans. C.P. Roth [St. Vladimir’s Press, 1993]). He uses philosophy in these discussions to look for answers, but only as the handmaiden to a rationally considered theology grounded in Scripture.

Tied to Gregory’s asceticism is his mysticism, which also sets him apart from the other Cappadocians. In his Life of Moses he provides a retelling of the story of Moses’ life from the perspective of the life of the soul as it strives for perfection and union with God. He speaks of an achievement of communion with the divine that happens by entering a dark, but at the same time luminous cloud of unknowing. This mystical treatise, found in the Classics of Western Spiritual Series under that title, is filled with paradoxical statements that highlight the ultimate unknowability of God. The most effective way for finite creatures to speak about God is by saying what he is not—otherwise known as apophatic theology. Excerpts from his Life of Moses, as well as his exegetical works—focused on the Wisdom books of Songs and Ecclesiastes—can be found in J. Danielou’s From Glory to Glory: Texts from Gregory of Nyssa’s Mystical Writings (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1979).

Finally, Gregory’s contribution to the dogmatic discussions of the fourth century cannot be underestimated (found in NPNF 2 5). In Against Eunomius and his Answer to Eunomius’ Second Book, he furthers the arguments of Basil on Christ and the Holy Spirit and brings them to their logical conclusions. While those two works are rather long, there are four shorter works that can be read practically in one sitting: On the Holy Spirit, On the Holy Trinity, On “Not Three Gods”, and On the Faith. These much shorter works provide a concise synopsis of the trinitarian issues of the day while also bringing out the implications of the divinity of the Spirit in a much more forceful way than his older brother.

In many ways, and, on this issue in particular, the three Cappadocians were like the Three Musketeers of theology. They stood up for one another and stood together as one in the opposition they faced from the Arians and others. They also realized that when it came to the question of the Trinity it was “all for one and one for all.” If the divinity of any one of the three persons in the Trinity was called into question, then the divinity of the entire godhead was called into question. And without the Trinity, the basic blessings of the church and her sacraments were null and void. This was not an academic discussion for them; it was a life and death struggle for the faith and life of the church. The church today could learn much from these three Cappadocians who stood together as theologians of the church and for the church.

Posted Mar 01, 2006