It’s tough for us to appreciate what a threat the Arian heresy was to the church in the 4th century. Basically, it had people worshiping Jesus even though they were convinced he was a fellow creature and not God–nothing short of idolatry according to the God of the Old (and New) Testament!
The Council of Nicea in 325 was supposed to slap down this mis-reading of Scripture, but for decades all it seemed to have done was stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy. For example Bishop Athanasius, the staunchest defender of orthodoxy at Nicea, was exiled by various Arian emperors no fewer than five separate times after the council was over.
Into this boiling pot of theological and spiritual confusion came three men of holy habits and clear thought: the Eastern trio now referred to as the “Cappadocian Fathers.” My friend Edwin and I engraved a cameo of each for Christian History a few years back:
Three Wise Men from the East
The Cappadocian Fathers brought the best gift of all: a powerful scriptural defense of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity against the Arian heretics.
Edwin Woodruff Tait and Chris Armstrong
Basil of Caesarea (“the Great”)
Pugnacious saint and theologian of the Spirit
Mention the “church fathers” to a Western Christian, and Basil the Great is not usually the first name to come to mind. Yet even for the Roman Catholic Church, Basil ranks with his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom as one of the great propounders and defenders of the faith.
Born around 330, Basil grew up in a world where Christianity was recognized by the Roman government but divided between those who believed in the full divinity of Christ and the Arians who did not. For much of the fourth century, the Arians would enjoy the support of the emperors. The struggle between Christianity and the empire had not ended with Constantine.
After his studies in Athens ended in 356, the young Basil returned to his native city of Caesarea in Cappadocia (southeastern Asia Minor). Though he appeared to have a brilliant secular career before him, instead Basil chose to follow the path of his sister Macrina, renouncing his share in the family property and living an ascetic life with a few companions.
Thus, Basil was one of the first to establish a monastic community in Asia Minor, and the rules he drew up are still normative for Orthodox monks today.
In 370 he became the archbishop of Caesarea, which brought him into conflict with the Arian emperor Valens. In an attempt to intimidate the stubborn bishop, Valens sent the prefect of the imperial guard, Modestus, to threaten him with punishment. Basil answered that he was ready and eager to die for Christ, and that he had so few possessions that banishment, confiscation, or imprisonment would mean nothing to him.
When Modestus complained that no one had ever talked to him like that, Basil answered that perhaps he had never met a bishop before: “When the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else.”
The emperor eventually backed down after his young son took sick and died, but the controversy with the Arians continued for the rest of Basil’s life.
In 374 Basil wrote a treatise On the Holy Spirit, which fleshed out the orthodox doctrine of the divinity of the Spirit.
It was while Basil was at Caesarea that the doxology “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” was first used, placing all three Persons of the Trinity on an equal footing. Basil also authored a liturgy still used by the Orthodox Church.
Basil’s major work of biblical interpretation was the Hexameron, his homilies on the six days of creation. He refused to allegorize away the literal meaning of the text, and is often classed with the “Antiochene” school of exegesis. Along with scientific speculation and theological argument, however, the Hexameron also interprets animal behavior as symbolic of various human characteristics, in order to offer moral instruction. Comparing an unhappy couple to a viper mating with a lamprey surely does not count as “literal exegesis.”
Basil was a difficult man to deal with, even for his friends. He made his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his own brother Gregory of Nyssa miserable by forcing them to accept positions as bishops of small rural towns, positions for which they were not suited. He was accused of harshness or pride in his defense of the truth. Yet as bishop he devoted immense energy to feeding the hungry and caring for the poor, and his courage and devotion are beyond doubt. Basil’s life showed that the heroic, counter-cultural power of the gospel had not been stifled by government recognition of Christianity, and that even in a state-sponsored church there would always be found those willing to die for Christ.
—Edwin Woodruff Tait
Gregory of Nazianzus
Divided soul who united Christ’s two natures
Posterity would know him simply as “the Theologian.” He was, says Robert Payne, a “small, shrunken man, bald-headed, with a long red beard and red eyebrows like Athanasius, wrinkled, nearly always in pain, haggard with vigils and fastings.” And he would likely not have become known to the wider world except for a year-long, un-looked-for stint as bishop of Constantinople.
Gregory was a “BK”—a bishop’s kid, who spent his life torn between the desire for solitary study and the pressing demands of a church that needed him to take a more active role. He loved God, and then wordcraft, and then people—and sometimes he could do without the people. He was in Payne’s words “quick-tempered, sullen, unhappy in the company of most people, strangely remote from the world.”
Gregory spent his youth in study. His well-off parents bankrolled his travels from Caesarea in Cappadocia to Caesarea in Palestine to Alexandria to Athens—at each place, he learned under the masters of classical philosophy and rhetoric.
In Athens, Gregory met the man who was to become his closest friend, Basil of Caesarea. The two were a good match—according to Payne, the assertive Gregory was “the only man who is known to have dared to laugh at Basil.”
More important, Basil inflamed Gregory with a yearning for the monastic life. Soon after the two met, the young rhetorician left his secular studies to join Basil’s monastery on the Iris River in Pontus. The blessed peace of the monastery was like heaven to the thoughtful young man, but it was not to last. In 362, his father, ailing, called for Gregory to join him in Nazianzus and receive ordination. This he did, assisting his father in the duties of his bishopric for the next ten years.
From this time on, Gregory repeatedly sought escape from the entanglements of church administration. But always, until a final few years of retirement on the family estate in Nazianzus, he became involved again by a sense of God’s call on his life.
In 378 or 379, that call took Gregory to the see of Constantinople, long bishop-less. His year in that city’s episcopal chair was the most difficult of Gregory’s life. He suffered in swift succession the deaths of a sister, a brother, his mother, and his spiritual brother, Basil. All the while, ministering in the midst of a small remnant of orthodox believers, Gregory faced what amounted to the theological siege of Constantinople, with the church seeming to be succumbing to the advances of Arianism. In this period he wrote to a friend:
“You ask me how my affairs are. Miserable. … My body is in a sorry state; old age is over my head. Cares and business worry me, as do false friends and the shepherdless state of the Church. Good is destroyed, evil is naked; we are at sea by night without any light, Christ is asleep. What further must I endure?”
Out of this forge came a series of brilliant speeches against Arianism—Gregory’s “Theological Orations.” In the first of these, Gregory attacked the Arians’ misuse of Scripture. Rather than focus on particular errors, he charged his opponents with nursing an ungodly “tone of mind” that delighted in “strifes about words, which tend to no profit.”
They interpreted Scripture, charged Gregory, in an irreverent, jocular mode, making them “a matter of pleasant gossip, like any other thing, after the races, or the theater, or a concert, or a dinner, or still lower employments.”
These were not just words spoken in the heat of polemic battle. In the early post-Constantinian era, when Christianity had become fashionable rather than persecuted, the Arians (among others) did indeed amuse themselves, almost as theological dilettantes.
But the Arians had a deeper intellectual problem, said Gregory. Their rationalism left no room for the paradoxical mysteries at the heart of the orthodox faith. Forgetting the limits of their own human reason and the wonder and majesty of God’s person, they reduced God to a pale image and Christ to a mere man.
At the heart of this rational failure to understand Scripture was the mismatch between the Arians’ professions of faith and the quality of their lives. They had “tied their hands and armed their tongues,” by undervaluing and failing to practice “either hospitality, or brotherly love, or conjugal affection, or virginity; … liberality to the poor, or the chanting of psalms, or nightlong vigils, or tears.” They had failed to tame their anger and pride, discipline their eyes, and set limits on their “insatiable ears” and “excessive talk,” which in the end, unchecked by a holy life, expressed only “absurd thoughts.”
In his later orations and epistles, Gregory turned to the substance of Arian theology. The Arians took Bible passages that indicated Jesus’ human frailties and sufferings as evidence that he was less than divine. Gregory turned to those same passages, but he juxtaposed them, in unashamed paradox, with the many scriptural evidences of the Lord’s divinity. When read as an authoritative whole, he said, the apostles’ writings in the New Testament portray a Jesus who is at one and the same time fully human and fully divine:
“He was baptized as man—but he remitted sins as God. … He was tempted as man, but he conquered as God. … He hungered—but he fed thousands. … He was wearied, but he is the rest of them that are weary and heavy-laden. … He asks where Lazarus was laid, for he was man; but he raises Lazarus, for he was God. … He is bruised and wounded, but he heals every disease and every infirmity. He is lifted up and nailed to the tree, but by the tree of life he restores us” (Third Theological Oration: On the Son).
Though his cause was not fully vindicated until the Council of Constantinople in 381, Gregory’s preaching and teaching in that city propelled Nicene orthodoxy, with its affirmation of Christ’s divinity, from the preserve of a few brave Constantinopolitan holdouts in a sea of heretical Arians to the accepted (though still contested) creed of the empire.
Gregory of Nyssa
Allegorical reader in pursuit of holiness
Gregory of Nyssa is the only one of the three “Cappadocian” theologians who is not also one of the “three hierarchs,” the central theologians of Orthodox tradition. Yet among modern students of the Fathers, his reputation stands far higher than that of his elder brother Basil or Basil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was unquestionably the most original of the three, but this very originality has often counted against him.
Born around 330, Gregory lived for years in the shadow of his older brother and teacher Basil. Like Basil, he practiced rhetoric and law for several years, before the influence of his sister Macrina led him to abandon a secular career and join his brother’s monastery. He did not take a leading role in the affairs of the church until Basil was made archbishop of Caesarea in 370 and made his brother bishop of Nyssa, a small town in western Cappadocia.
Gregory was not a successful bishop. He lacked administrative skills, and his interventions in ecclesiastical politics were counterproductive. His tenure as bishop of Nyssa was interrupted by trumped-up charges of financial misdeeds. Gregory was deposed from his position and not restored until the death of the emperor Valens in battle in 378 ended the Arians’ hold on political power.
This marked a shift in Gregory’s career and the beginning of his influence in church politics. After the death of Basil in 379, Gregory took on his mantle as the champion of orthodoxy. He participated in the Council of Constantinople in 381, which defined the doctrine of the Trinity and adopted the Nicene Creed as it is used today. Traditionally, Gregory is credited with the authorship of the section of the Nicene Creed added at Constantinople. Gregory lived for more than a decade after the Council, dying probably in 394.
Gregory’s theology was heavily influenced by Origen, who was often regarded as dubiously orthodox. Gregory’s theology was not a mere copy of Origen, however, especially in his doctrine of infinity.
For Origen, as for pagan Greek philosophers, infinity was a defect—perfection involved having exactly the right dimensions, neither too much nor too little. Some scholars credit Gregory with introducing into Christian thought the idea that infinity is perfect rather than a sign of imperfection. For Gregory, the infinity of God was essential to human happiness. Human beings, created in God’s image, were not infinite but were capable of endlessly striving after perfection. Because God’s perfection is infinite, this quest never ends.
This means that, again contrary to Greek philosophy, change is actually a good thing. Human beings cannot help but change, and since evil (unlike good) is static and limited, it is impossible to go on becoming evil forever. God’s infinite holiness, on the other hand, allowed for continual change without any reverse in direction. In the end, only goodness will satisfy any of us.
Gregory’s biblical interpretation was based on this theological understanding. For Gregory, all Scripture concerns the growth of human beings toward divine perfection, and his major works of exegesis focus on texts that can easily be interpreted in this way. The Song of Songs tells the story of God’s love, guiding us toward the heavenly goal. The Life of Moses dramatizes the Christian journey in the form of the Exodus, the vision of God in Mount Sinai, and the pilgrimage through the wilderness. The Beatitudes are levels of holiness through which we progress as we climb the mountain of divine perfection.
This constant concern with growth in holiness is expressed in a radical use of allegory. Unlike Basil, Gregory is quite willing to say that many of the biblical narratives are not historical (such as the slaughter of the Egyptian firstborn, which means that we should destroy evil at its very beginning). Even the most apparently trivial details (such as the structure of the doorposts anointed with the blood of the Passover Lamb) can be mined for their relevance to the Christian life.
Gregory is one of the major conduits through which Origen’s allegorical method of interpretation was transmitted to the church. As a champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy, Gregory gave credence to ideas that might be dismissed if they came from Origen.
Through the seventh-century theologian Maximus the Confessor, Gregory’s ideas remained part of the mainstream of Orthodoxy. Through anonymous homilies by “pseudo-Macarius,” permeated with Gregory’s theology, his understanding of holiness would exercise influence over John Wesley and an important stream of Western Protestantism. While the Augustinian West would always look askance at Gregory’s more optimistic view of free will and human potential, his ideas remain important for all Christians who believe holiness to be the overriding goal of the Christian life.
—Edwin Woodruff Tait