Milpitas Christian Church

The Great Cappadocians

Three Greek Fathers and their sister

The Gist

  • Who are they?

    • Macrina (327-379), older sister

      • a monastic and spiritual influence
      • Saint
    • Basil “the Great” of Caesarea (329-379), her brother

      • a bishop and theologian
      • Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church
    • Gregory of Nyssa (335-394), their brother

      • a bishop and mystic
      • Saint
    • Gregory of Nazianzus (330-389), their friend

      • a bishop and poet
      • Saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church
  • They secured belief in the Trinity and acceptance of the Nicene Creed in the Greek-speaking eastern empire, combating Arianism

  • They founded Greek monasticism

  • They have an outsized influence on the development of Greek Orthodoxy

A Spiritual Family

  • The family of Macrina, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa had been Christians for many generations and were well-respected in Caesarea, the main city of Cappadocia (map)

  • Macrina chose a life of celibacy and spiritual contemplation after her fiancée died

  • Her brother Basil had the best education in the great cities of the East: Caesarea (in Cappadocia), Antioch, Constantinople, and Athens. He studied law and rhetoric

    • In Athens he met and befriended Gregory of Nazianzus
  • When Basil returned home to Caesarea and got a good position teaching rhetoric, he acted pridefully because of his high education and family prestige. His sister Macrina rebuked him for his behavior and said that he’d been admiring too many pagan writers and not enough Christian ones. At the time, he brushed her off

  • Another brother of theirs, Naucatius, died suddenly; this brother had been living a very humble, spiritual life, and had been very close to Basil. This emotional shock caused Basil to reevaluate his life. Their father had also died around this time.

    • Basil resigned his teaching job and other honors he had accrued, and asked Macrina to teach him how to live a spiritual life
  • Macrina was now the spiritual leader and main provider of the family. She encouraged the whole family to move to a nearby town called Annesi to live in spiritual contemplation and the denial of worldly things.

    • She had been inspired by what she read of the desert ascetics in Egypt

    • The women of the family followed Macrina to Annesi, where they founded a monastic community for women

    • They freed their slaves, who were allowed to stay with them as equals

    • They fed the poor and took care of abandoned or starving children

    • Basil, on Macrina’s advice, went to Egypt to study from the monks there

  • Macrina became so famed and respected from her life in Annesi that locals called her “the Teacher”

Basil “the Great” of Caesarea (329-379)

  • Basil returned from his studies with the monks and settled near Annesi

  • Gregory of Nazianzus finished his studies in Athens and joined Basil

  • Together Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus founded a monastic community similar to the one Macrina had founded for women

  • Basil emphasized a life of service to the community, which he modeled by doing the least desirable tasks himself

  • During this time he wrote the rules that became the foundation of all later Greek monasticism

  • After 6 years Basil was made a priest against his will, but he had such strong conflicts with the bishop of Caesarea that he went back to his monastic community in order to promote peace

  • When Emperor Valens (r. 364-378) began his reign as a militant Arian, Basil returned to Caesarea to help the bishop resist the Arian party which tried to take over the church

  • Basil saw that the city was suffering because of a bad harvest and the rich people hoarding the little food available all for themselves. Basil preached about giving, and he sold all his own possessions to feed the poor

    If one who takes the clothing off another is called a thief, why give any other name to one who can clothe the naked and refuses to do so? The bread that you withhold belongs to the poor; the cape that you hide in your chest belongs to the naked; the shoes rotting in your house belong to those who must go unshod.

  • Basil organized a sort of miniature city, called Basiliad, on the outskirts of Caesarea where the poor and sick were cared for and given employment. Basil collected resources from the city’s rich, telling them that to give to the poor willingly was to build up treasures in heaven

  • Soon Basil was elected bishop of Caesarea

  • Emperor Valens, an Arian, tried to bully Basil out of the church.

    • But when the captain sent to bully him threatened to confiscate all of Basil’s belongings and see him exiled, tortured, and executed, Basil replied that all his possessions are the rags he wears and a few books, that wherever he is exiled he will still be God’s guest, that he considers his body already dead in Christ, and that death would just bring him to a happy reunion with God. The captain was astounded.

    • Emperor Valens arrived in Caesarea and made a very rich offering to the altar as a way of showing favor to the city. He expected the citizens themselves to come forward and accept the offering. But they didn’t–they waited until Bishop Basil finally came forward to accept the offering. In the eyes of the people, this said that Basil was the one in control and would not be bullied by the emperor

  • Basil devoted the rest of his life to his duties as a bishop and to writing for various causes

    • He organized and spread monasticism in the East

    • He wrote frequently in support of the Nicene cause against Arianism

  • He died in 379, before seeing the fruit that his theological work bore at the Council of Constantinople in 381

Major Works

  • Longer Rules and Shorter Rules

    • Describe and organize the monastic life of his movement which began at Annesi and spread throughout Cappadocia

    • Favors the monastic life of community, in which brotherly love can be practiced, over the life of a hermit

  • Address to Young Men

    • A sermon where he defends the study and usage of pagan writings to grow a Christian’s knowledge
  • Hexaëmeron (Six Days)

    • Nine sermons for Lent focusing on how the varied beauty of the world reflects God’s splendor. Named after the six days of creation
  • Against Eunomius and On the Holy Spirit

    • Defend the full deity of the Son of God and the Holy Spirit, respectively
  • Canonical Epistles

    • Directions for ethics and church discipline which have become canon law in the Eastern Orthodox Church
  • Many letters

Gregory of Nyssa (335-394)

  • Totally different from his brother Basil, Gregory of Nyssa wanted a quiet, humble life

  • While his brother and Gregory of Nazianzus were starting their monastic community, Gregory married. But when she died, he joined the monastic life as a way of escaping the sorrows of a more active, secular life

    • He wrote a treatise called On Virginity, which explored his pain at seeing his wife suffer through childbirth and his later pain at losing her
  • Became respected as a mystic, and an example of humility and thoughtfulness. He studied and wrote a lot.

  • But eventually his brother Basil, now bishop, called him to help fight the Arians. Gregory was made bishop of the small town of Nyssa

  • Gregory hated the strife of publicly fighting Arianism so much that he went into hiding

  • However, by 381 and the Council of Constantinople – after Basil had died – Gregory of Nyssa attended the council and calmly explained the Nicene doctrines so convincingly that he had a great effect in defeating Arianism

  • The emperor of the Council, Theodosius, was an orthodox Nicene Christian, and he was so impressed with Gregory that he made him his advisor and took him all over the empire

  • Gregory put up with this as long as it was necessary, but eventually he was able to return to the monastic life, where he ended his days quietly and anonymously. We do not even know for sure the date or circumstances of his death.

Major Works

  • The Creation of Man

    • A sermon he wrote to complete Basil’s Six Days
  • Great Catechesis

    • Classic outline of orthodox theology

    • Explained the role of the sacraments in God’s redemptive plan, especially regarding the restoration of the image of God in mankind after the Fall

  • On “Not Three Gods”

    • Uses the philosophy of Plato to help explain the Trinity

    • Follows in the tradition of Origen somewhat, especially regarding a hope for universal salvation / universalism

  • Life of Macrina

    • Uses the life of his sister Macrina to give instructions on holy living and the monastic life
  • Life of Moses

    • Uses the story of the Exodus as a pattern to describe the soul’s progress from sin to a vision of God

    • Emphasizes that the spiritual life is not static, but is one of constant progress

Gregory “the Theologian” of Nazianzus (330-389)

  • After some 10 years at the monastic community with Basil, Gregory returned to his hometown of Nazianzus where he had been ordained as a priest. The church there wanted him as a priest even though he was reluctant

    • He gave a famous sermon on the duties of a pastor where he confessed that he preferred the monastic life of contemplation and feared that he would be unworthy of the task of pastorship, calling leadership even harder to learn than obedience

  • In 372, Bishop Basil made Gregory a bishop of a small town against his will, and this strained their friendship. Gregory in fact decided not to assume the bishopric and returned to Nazianzus

  • In the next 2 years, several of Gregory’s beloved family members died, many of whom were also influential Christians. In grief, he left the pastorship of Nazianzus to become a monk

  • When Basil died in 379, Gregory was moved to come out of retirement and take up the standard of Nicene Christianity against Arianism

  • He went to the imperial capital of Constantinople, which was completely Arian. There wasn’t a single orthodox Nicene church in the city. But Gregory started one

    • This church was persecuted by the Arians, but Gregory composed many hymns to encourage his congregation. These hymns are still sung in the Greek Orthodox Church.
  • 380 – Theodosius, a Nicene Christian, becomes emperor. He expels Arians from all high positions and asks Gregory to take over the main church congregation of Constantinople

    • Gregory tried to decline it, but the crowd saw a ray of sunlight break through a cloudy day to light upon him and took it as a sign of God’s favor, and they started chanting that they wanted him for bishop.

    • Gregory finally accepted the role, and became the patriarch of Constantinople (what they called the bishop of a major city in the East)

  • 381 – Council of Constantinople is called by Theodosius to settle the doctrine of the Trinity. Gregory of Nazianzus, as bishop of the city, presides, though he remarks that he still doesn’t like such a loud and public life

    • Some of his opponents complained that he was still technically bishop of Nazianzus as well as Constantinople, and that it was wrong for him to hold two bishoprics. Gregory promptly resigned and returned home

    • His successor in Constantinople did a good job

    • He continued to refuse all calls to return to public life, but continued to write and correspond with friends on various topics, including theology, and thus continued to exert influence over other bishops and priests

  • 389 - died at home

Major Works

  • Philocalia

    • An anthology of various theological and devotional writings of Origen to preserve his legacy

    • A collaboration with Basil

  • Five Theological Orations

    • Dramatically defend the Trinity
  • Many letters, sermons, and poems

Cappadocian Legacy

  • Had a massive influence on the Council of Constantinople (381), which not only affirmed the Nicene Creed against Arianism, but revised the Creed to affirm the equal deity of the Holy Spirit. This is where the full doctrine of the Trinity is first expressed

    • The formula was now “one essence in three persons

    • This essentially ended Arianism as a major influence in the Roman Empire, although the heresy found ways to hang on in distant areas

  • Greek monasticism grew into a long and distinguished heritage in the East

  • The hymns of Gregory of Nazianzus are still sung today


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