Cloud of Witnesses: Gregory of Nazianzus

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on January 26, 2014)

As I was thinking about this cloud of witnesses series, I wondered if some of the famous Gregorys in church history might be good ones to explore. 


This is me in St. Peter’s at the Vatican, in front of a statue of the 16th and last Pope Gregory. I thought of maybe including one of these in the series, but these Popes named Gregory weren’t exactly the cream of the crop when it came to people you’d want to model your life after.

But then I remembered my discovery from five years ago!


I found one of the earliest Christmas sermons we still have a copy of, from Gregory of Nazianzus who lived in the 4th century. His words were just exquisitely beautiful-let me give you a sample:

“Christ is born, glorify Him! Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him! Christ on earth, be exalted! Sing to the Lord all the whole earth… Christ is in the flesh: rejoice with trembling and with joy… with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.” [A Christmas Sermon, 380 AD]

So back in December I did a tiny bit of research on this Gregory…by which I mean I checked wikipedia. And I remembered what I had learned in seminary and forgotten, that Gregory’s big contribution to the history of the church was centered around his ability to clearly articulate very complex ideas about the Trinity, the Godhead.

Yes! This would be just right for the cloud of witnesses series. The Trinity, the relationship between the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and the way our relationships and even the church are to be modeled after the Trinity…these have been important ideas in my understanding of how to be a pastor.

This week, I’ve dug much deeper than wikipedia, reading old seminary notes and books, digging through early church histories over at the George Fox library. And I keep finding things that confirm this Gregory of Nazianzus as the right choice. Even the little things, like the fact that yesterday, January 25, is his “feast day” in the Eastern Orthodox church, the day they remember and celebrate Gregory’s life and work.

So let me introduce you to this man.

Gregory was born around 329 AD, a key time in the life of the early church.

The emperor Constantine had become a Christian in the decade before Gregory’s birth, and four years earlier in 325 AD the famous Council at Nicea had tried to bring clarity to what the church believed about the Trinity and about Jesus in the face of many competing ideas. Gregory’s father was also a Gregory, but it was his mother Nonna who brought the elder Gregory and the son Gregory to Christian faith. They had land and they had wealth-it is said that the older Gregory, who was in his later years a bishop, paid entirely for a church to be built in Nazianzus.


This is Nazianzus; some of the excavated cave dwellings may date back to the time of Gregory, and the mosque in the lower left was rebuilt in the 1800’s, on the reported site of the church that the older bishop Gregory had built.

broad map

Our Gregory, the younger one, had the benefit of the best education money could buy in the world of that time. He studied first in Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he met lifelong friend Basil; Gregory, Basil and Basil’s brother (who was also named Gregory) are now known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory then studied in Caesarea in Israel, then in Alexandria, which boasted one of the biggest libraries in the known world. He then studied rhetoric and philosophy in Athens, where he reconnected with Basil and studied alongside a future emperor of Rome, Julian.

His stellar education was matched by his sharp mind, and he became a very skilled speaker, orator, writer and philosopher. Heavily influenced by Plato, as were all the educated people of his time, he also had a fervent and alive faith in God. It’s said that he was caught in a terrible storm on the ship ride from Alexandria to Athens, and in fear for his life, he cried out to God to be saved, offering to give the rest of his life in service to Jesus. It’s a promise he kept.

This leads to one of the tensions in Gregory’s life.

Is it possible to bring together a deep faith in God with an education that is world class…an education which explores things from a non-Christian perspective? The dangers of this were so easy to see in the world of the fourth century. People mixed Christian thought from the bible with Plato’s teachings, with Gnosticism, with other pagan religions, creating all sorts of things which we now call heresy. Gregory and many others who cared deeply about Christ saw the damage some of these teachers and priests were doing. Is it worth the risk of exploring other philosophies and being educated, or should the church just remain simple?

Gregory came down strongly on the side of education; and he put his education and his rhetorical and argumentative skills to excellent use. As we will see, some of the issues he dealt with were so complicated and nuanced that individual words and their definitions had to be carefully laid out to avoid going too far in one direction or the other. In fact, Gregory wrote at one point, the problem was that God is truly an indescribable mystery; many of the heresies he was fighting were guilty of trying to make things too simple, trying to take out the mystery of who God is and what Christ has done.

Gregory stands in a long line of thinkers in the church who aren’t afraid to ask the hardest questions that the world can come up with, who aren’t afraid of reading and learning from even those who don’t believe in God. Personally, it’s something I really appreciate. I join my namesake Gregory in believing that all truth is God’s truth; nothing is off limits for us to study and learn as we follow Jesus Christ.

Another tension in Gregory’s life is that he felt pulled between the expectations of others and the desires of his own heart.

This was one of the big surprises I found in my further study, a way I very much identify with his personality. Think about the time he was born into: the church is becoming institutionalized and is at a critical formation period. Differing beliefs are threatening to tear the church apart. Divisions between the Western, Roman church and the Eastern, Greek church are already appearing. After Constantine’s conversion, the marriage between the politics of the Roman Empire and the hierarchy of the early church has already begun, and bishops who are articulate and intelligent are needed to administer and teach and lead.

And here’s Gregory: with the equivalent of a Harvard/Stanford/Oxford education, a deep and passionate spirituality, a father who is a bishop, and writings which show he can articulate the truths agreed upon at the pivotal Nicean Council better than anyone. It’s no surprise that Emperors and bishops and even his good friend Basil put enormous and even at times manipulative pressure on Gregory to take positions that were seen as advantageous. People expected a lot out of Gregory.

But Gregory himself, it seems, wanted to spend his life in the newly started monastic movement. He wanted to escape the pressures of life and live at a monastery and be in communion with God. More than once, after things got difficult in one of the high expectation jobs he had, Gregory would leave it all and hide out from the world for awhile in a monastery somewhere.

The pressures and expectations of others were never something Gregory handled well. In fact, if you use the filter of influence and prestige, Gregory failed right at the pinnacle of his career. He was named the bishop of Constantinople, second only to the bishop of Rome (later known as the pope). He was named as the head of the second huge ecumenical council of Constantinople in 381, which as history later proved was the defining turning point in settling once and for all key things about what we still believe today about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.

But almost immediately, when people questioned one of his first decisions, he couldn’t handle the disagreement and conflict, and he resigned both positions of influence and retired to his hometown.

Many of us wrestle with those exact issues; I know I do. The expectations of others and the dislike of conflict can sometimes make me want to give up, too.

Now, one thing is quite a bit different from me. 

There’s a story that at one point, before he was made bishop, he was a priest baptizing some people who were new to the faith from an Easter service. In the middle of the service, an angry mob of people who believed a heresy known as Arianism burst into the church and tried to kill him on the spot. Now THAT is true persecution! Don’t ever let me say I’m persecuted just because somebody disagrees with me!

That’s some of who he was and what he was like. I want to spend just a little time sharing some of the key theological contributions Gregory made for us, many which are centered around the Trinity. This idea that God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are all God, but God is one, not three gods…this is central to Orthodox Christianity, but it’s really complicated stuff. We hold it as our belief, but we really don’t talk about it very much. What do you think? Is it a topic you are interested in? Or do you think it’s better to just not talk about it very much? What are some of the benefits, and what are some of the dangers in talking about the Trinity? [ASK]

Some people criticize this “theologizing” about the Trinity as something only ivory tower academics are interested in.

What’s interesting is that the truth is much different. At the time of this Council of Constantinople in 381, almost everyone was talking about the Trinity. And many of the non-educated, non-priests were heavily influenced by Arianism, a heresy that taught that Jesus was not fully God, that there was a time when Christ or the Word did not exist. Basil’s brother, the other Gregory, wrote:

If you ask for change [in the market], someone philosophizes to you on the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you ask the price of bread, you are told, ‘The Father is Greater, and the Son inferior.’ If you ask ‘Is the bath ready?’ someone answers ‘The Son was created from nothing.’ [Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology, p. 173-4]

Everyone was wrestling with it! The problem is trying to make sense of what the bible teaches. The bible doesn’t use the word Trinity, but it clearly teaches that there is one God. It also clearly teaches that Jesus and the Father are one, and in several places puts the Holy Spirit as equivalent to God as well. John chapter 17, part of which Paul Frankenburger read for us earlier, is one of the key places where that happens. How do you make sense of all that? What can we say about the unity or oneness of God? What can we say about Jesus being God, Jesus’ divinity? What can we not say?

These were the struggles that the early church was wrestling with, and all of them had huge implications. If you were an Arian, and didn’t believe that Jesus was fully God, didn’t believe he had always existed, then salvation was a different thing than what orthodox Christianity taught.

There were two main problems in the church when Gregory lived and taught and preached.

On one side were the Arians, who so emphasized the oneness of God that they believed Jesus couldn’t have been fully God. On the other side were the Sabellians, who so emphasized that Jesus was God that they didn’t make any distinction between God the Father and God the Son, and just blended them together.

That’s really what caused Gregory and the rest of the church to develop these doctrines and creeds. They don’t so much outline and describe exactly what God is; they more clearly define what we definitely cannot say about God.

Gregory was educated and spoke and taught and wrote in Greek. He was part of the Eastern church, as opposed to the Western church dominated by Rome and which spoke Latin. In Caesarea and Alexandria, Gregory was likely exposed to the teachings of Origen, who lived in the second century. Origen had already centered the discussion of the identity of God and the trinity on two Greek words, words that in the common usage of the time were almost identical in meaning, but which Gregory now carefully defined in ways to walk this tight rope between the things the church had said you cannot say about God.

One of the key Greek words Gregory developed was homoousios. It roughly means, “same substance”; Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all homoousios, same substance. People had been arguing over this for years before Gregory. It was part of the official belief of the church, but some wanted different words. Arianism wanted one more letter in there, an “i” or “iota”: they wanted homoiousios, which roughly means, “similar substance”. Others who didn’t think Jesus or the Holy Spirit were divine wanted heteroousios, different substances.

The other key Greek word Gregory developed was hypostasis, which is very difficult to translate. It can mean being or essence. So God is one homoousios, one substance, and exists in three hypostases, or beings or essences. This is where Gregory’s deep thinking and rhetorical skill made the greatest contribution. The differences between Father, Son and Spirit were not in substance (they are all God) and not in action or modes (God didn’t act first as Creator then as Jesus on earth and now as the Spirit). The differences and distinctions are in their relationship with each other. In fact, for you theologians and philosophers and psychologists out there, Gregory was really the first to argue for “relation” as an ontological status or reality.

The Son is “begotten” of the Father, and the Spirit “proceeds” from the Father (he defines these in more detail than I have time for). All exist in this eternal relationship of love, and their differences are not actions, but their differing relationships.

Now some of you may have glazed over, but let me say why this is so beautiful to me, by pulling us back to John 17. 

In the very self of God is a beautiful, unified, never-ending relationship of love! And, as Jesus prays in John 17, we are invited and “prayed” into joining this relationship of love that truly is the heart of God!

“I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

Just as Father, Son and Spirit are unified in a relationship of love, Jesus prays that we who believe through his disciples’ message would also become one and enter that relationship.

It’s all a deep mystery, a mystery Gregory himself would acknowledge. We can’t fully explain all this. But we know there is a unity, a oneness in God. He develops the idea that the unity comes from the relationships within the Godhead. We will one day experience that loving unity in fullness!

This understanding of the Trinity has actually been lost a little bit in Roman Catholicism and in Protestantism.

It’s one of the ways that culture and language can affect faith and history. When Gregory’s words got translated into Latin, homoousios got translated as substansia, or substance; and hypostasis got translated as persona, or person. Even back then, people who spoke Latin got confused, because that translation of three persons sure made it sound like there were three gods, all with their own selves and wills and thoughts.

The Greek word doesn’t carry that meaning, and it’s one of the many ways that the same doctrines took on different life in different parts of the church. Roman Catholics and us emphasize more the unity of God and avoid the “threeness”. Eastern Orthodox Christians to this day emphasize that relationship or triune love relationship at the heart of God.

I think learning from Gregory and from the East helps us today to better understand the power of Jesus’ prayer.

Jesus prayed for us to experience the same oneness he felt in his very being, his very existence in an eternal love relationship with Father and Holy Spirit. That’s why we emphasize that God is love! That’s why “they will know you are my disciples by your love.” That’s why the church at its best makes a mark on the world by how we treat each other and the poor and neglected in the world.

Believe it or not, there’s so much more I found and so much more I could say! But I will stop, and I will leave you with Gregory’s words…not theological words, but preaching words that were shaped by this theology emphasizing the importance of the love of God, the love we are invited to emulate and participate in:

Let us become like Christ, since Christ became like us.

Let us become Divine for His sake, since for us He became [Human].

He assumed the worse that He might give us the better. He became poor that by His poverty we might become rich. He accepted the form of a servant that we might win back our freedom.

He came down that we might be lifted up. He was tempted that through Him we might conquer. He was dishonored that He might glorify us. He died that He might save us. He ascended that He might draw to Himself us, who were thrown down through the fall of sin.

Let us give all, offer all, to Him who gave Himself a Ransom and Reconciliation for us. [Oration 1, “On Easter and His Reluctance”]

One thought on “Cloud of Witnesses: Gregory of Nazianzus

  1. This is lovely, so clearly well-researched and insightful. Thank you!
    Something about the specific notes on the Arians and Sabellians of that time brings to my mind 2Cor 11:4.
    In our times, a “flavor” is pervasively becoming popular, and is widely embraced. The sentiment is likely known to you… The argument goes, “God wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), therefore hell cannot exist. God must “work on” us after we die. Another component of this “thinking” is that God cannot be all compassionate and all powerful at the same time? Hmm. Even GFU graduates I know are embracing this teaching.
    If you have done writing (along the style of this well-written post), would you kindly share a link? Or, if not, might you prayerfully consider doing so?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s