Many champions of Catholic Faith endeavoured to effect a reconciliation with precise studies. The greatest were the three Cappadocians : St Basil, St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa.
In Nicaea, the explanations adopted by the council insisted on an anti-subordinationist standpoint against Arius : they insisted on the unity of substance in the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
Now, to reconcile the semi-Arians, they insist on the trinity of Persons, against Sabellianism. These are the two ways, both catholic, to expose the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
The difficulty, and a cause of misunderstanding, was the indefinite meaning in Greek of the word ousia (nature) which some confounded with upostasis (person). In this case, the catholic homoousios would take a sabellianist meaning : one person in God ! St Basil and his school proposed the conciliatory formula of treis upostasis (three persons) and mia ousia (one nature), insisting on that ousia meant nature and upostasis person.
The three Cappadocians were characterised by saying that St Basil was the arm which acted, St Gregory the mouth which spoke and St Gregory of Nyssa the head which did the thinking.
Bishop of Caesarea, Doctor of the Church, he is the first of the great Cappadocian group (St. Gregory of Nyssa, his brother ; St. Gregory of Nazianzus, his friend). “In this trinity are concentrated all the rays of that brilliant epoch of Christianity”.
A) Before the episcopate.
Saint Basil was born at Caesarea, in Cappadocia of rich and deeply Christian parents. His father was an orator and an advocate ; his mother was renowned for her virtue. His maternal grandfather had been a martyr, and Macrina, his grand-mother on his father's side, had been a disciple of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus in Pontus. His eldest sister, Macrina, also lived the life of a saint on her lands at Annesi which she had turned into a monastery. Two other brothers were, like Basil himself, destined to become bishops, Gregory at Nyssa and Peter at Sebaste.
He received his first lessons from his father at NeoCaesarea. He then went to finish his literary education, first at Caesarea, then at Constantinople, and finally at Athens, in which town he remained for four or five years. It was here that he formed a close friendship with his compatriot, Gregory Nazianzen, whom he had already met at Caesarea and who had gone before him to Athens. On his return to Cappadocia in 356 he spent some time successfully in teaching rhetoric, but in a number of conversations with his sister Macrina he learnt the vanity of human things, and was ‘converted’ (a new resolution to tend to perfection) and baptised (357 ).
It was at this same period that Macrina had founded the monastic life at Annesi. Basil, moved by grace, thought of imitating her, but first he desired to know more of this way of life. Besides the disciples of Eustathius of Sebaste in Cappadocia, he visited the great solitaries of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. On his return he gave all his possessions to the poor and went to live in solitude on the banks of the Iris, opposite Annesi, near Neo-Caesarea. He was soon joined by other fervent Christians who also aspired to perfection. He grouped them according to the monastic rule of Saint Pachomius, although the monasteries he founded were less numerous. He gave to them a wise rule of life and provided for their moral and ascetical direction by the Longer Rules which date from this period, and later by the Shorter Rules which were probably composed while he was a priest at Caesarea. These two Rules soon acquired a widespread popularity and earned their author the title of the “Lawgiver of oriental monachism”.
His teaching and example were so powerful that in a short time Pontus was changed. Gregory of Nazianzus came often to the Pontic desert, and he and Basil published a selection from Origen’s works (Philokalia). Eusebius, elected to Caesarea, asked Basil to help him, persuaded him to become a priest and return to Caesarea to face the difficulties created by Arianism. Eusebius was not a skilled theologian himself, and Basil was to him “a good counsellor, a skilful helper, an expounder of the Scripture, an interpreter of his duties, ...the prop of his faith” (Greg. Naz.). During this period he wrote the Hexaemeron - The Six Days Work.
B) The episcopate.
Eusebius died in 370, and Basil succeeded him as metropolitan of Caesarea. He found many abuses to be corrected, including simony and laxity in ordination, and encountered a good deal of opposition to his reforms. Before his death he had brought the clergy of Caesarea to such a standard that other bishops used to ask them to help them in their dioceses.
He undertook great social-relief works, established industries and schools of Art and founded orphanages, the chief one being the building of the Ptocho-tropheion, institute for the care of the poor.
He had numerous clashes with the Arian emperor Valens, whom he withstood as he had withstood Julian the Apostate (a friend of his Athens days). He suffered a great deal of ill health, and the ill-will of many bishops, including his uncle Gregory, caused him considerable annoyance.
In 371 Cappadocia was divided and two capitals created - Caesarea and Tyana - and grievous discord was caused between Basil and Anthimus. Basil, to counteract his influence, appointed Gregory of Nazianzus bishop of the wretched frontier town of Sasima, for which Gregory never quite forgave him. He tried frequently to heal the Meletian schism at Antioch. He concerned himself above all with the overthrow of Arianism. The mantle of Athanasius fell on him, and though during the troubled years of his brief episcopate his true worth was not fully appreciated, he was soon after his death hailed as `Great' recognised as a champion of orthodoxy second only to St. Athanasius in his controversial and expository powers. For this, and for his role as the final architect of monachism as it still obtains in the East, he is chiefly renowned.
The common house, common table, common prayers which are permanent possessions in the West were welded by him into a system. “He reduced the ascetical extravagance of eremitical enthusiasm to the abiding capacity of human nature. Through him monasticism became an institution, something that could live and grow without the capricious appeal of a great personality or the spontaneous ascetical fervour of a particular age and country”. (Campbell).
He died on 1st January, 379, after nine years of hard work and bitter disappointments, quarrels and broken health and the whole population, Christian, Jew and pagan, mourned him.
(A) Dogmatico-Polemical. These are devoted to the overthrow of Arianism.
· Against Eunomius (364) three books. Eunomius, he says, is guilty of deceit in calling his own work Apologeticus, whereas it is really an attack. These books deal with the Trinitarian doctrine
- Bk. 1 deals with the essence and attributes of God
- the consubstantiality of the Son
- the objections of Eunomius against the divinity of the Holy Ghost.
· De Spiritu Sancto, The Holy Spirit (375) treats of the consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father and defends the doxology “Glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” (maintaining it was as orthodox as “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit”). His De Spiritu Sancto prepared the way for the decrees which Constantinople (381) gave on the creed.
(B) Exegetical Writings.
· The Hexaemeron, -nine homilies given by Basil as a priest before 370 (Gen. 1,1-26) - all Christian antiquity esteemed them very highly.
· On the Psalms (370), sixteen homilies (number uncertain). Basil kept to the literal sense.
· On Isaiah 1-16 - imperfect in form and contents.
(C) Ascetical Works.
· A group of Ascetica, containing three treatises:
- on the sublimity of the life of the monk as a soldier of Christ;
- the excellence of the monastic life
- the duties of a monk,
· Moralia, a group of eighty rules or instructions. Also De Judicio Dei, and De Fide, Duo Sermones Ascetici.
· Two monastic rules - Regulae Fusius tractatae, (the longer Rule) and brevius, (the shorter Rule). The first contains 55 longer rules, the second 313 shorter rules, both in question and answer form, setting forth the rules of the monastic life and their application to daily life. They were received universally in the East, and survive to the present day.
(D) Homilies, Letters, Liturgy.
· Twenty-four homilies are accepted as genuine and they show Basil as one of the greatest pastors and orators of ecclesiastical antiquity. The most brilliant is probably his homily against usurers. The one best known, however, is the homily on the use of the pagan Classics (Migne, P.G. 31, 563-590) “To youths as to how they shall best profit by the writings of the pagan authors”. In this he uses the illustration of the bee collecting honey from flowers while avoiding poison. The treatise became very celebrated. It certainly helped to preserve the Classics.
· Letters : These were always very highly esteemed. They show, perhaps best of all his writings, his refinement of mind, his great and sympathetic character and the perfection of his style. There are 365 and they are important for the history of Basil’s period and for points of doctrine.
· The so-called Liturgy of St. Basil survives in the Greek text and a Coptic translation. St. Basil reduced the prayers and ceremonies in Caesarea to a fixed form and order.
St. Basil the Great was great as an exponent of doctrine, a homilist, great in practical life - (Gregory of Nazianzus was the speaker and writer ; Gregory of Nyssa the thinker). The Trinity is the chief subject of his dogmatic writings. He maintains God’s unity against the Arians, and the Trinity of Persons against the Sabellians.
Bishop of Constantinople, Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory neither was born in Nazianzus nor was bishop of this town : his father was the bishop of Nazianzus.
Gregory was born near Arianzus. His father, and especially Nonna, his mother, were careful that lie received a sound Christian education, although as was the custom at that time he was not baptised. He was educated like Basil, at home, in Caesarea (Cappadocia) and Caesarea (Palestine), Alexandria, and Athens where he renewed an acquaintance made with Basil in Caesarea. He left Athens c. 360. After about twelve years he went home and occasionally spent some time with Basil in Pontus, the monastic life being his ideal even while he was a student.
He returned to Cappadocia about 359, was baptised and went to join his friend in solitude on the banks of the Iris. There he combined study with his ascetical exercises, and interested himself more especially in the works of Origen ; the Philocalia, written about 360, is a proof of their mutual admiration for the master.
Soon, however, Gregory’s father sent for his son to aid him in the administration of the diocese and found in him a devoted helper until his death in 374. Things did not always run smoothly, however. When the Bishop wished to ordain his son priest in 362, the latter consented with great reluctance, so much so in fact that shortly afterwards he took refuge with Basil in Pontus. He came back only when it was necessary for him to help his father to repress a schism in his church. The old bishop, little versed in theological subtilties (he was converted as an old man and had almost immediately been made bishop), had been weak enough or imprudent enough to sign the Homoean formula of Rimini-Constantinople. In consequence there was a strong party to oppose him. Gregory persuaded his father to make a purely Catholic profession of faith, thus satisfying everyone and restoring peace in the diocese (about 364).
In 371, Basil, desirous of creating a bishopric at Sasimes, as an offset to the usurpations of Anthimus, Archbishop of Tyana, appealed to Gregory, who although unwilling allowed himself to be consecrated. Soon, however, he was again swayed by his passion for solitude and fled secretly to a house of retreat to weep over his lost freedom. He forgave his friend later, but always regretted having been forced into the episcopate. lie also complained that he was again torn away from his solitary life by his father’s white hairs. It would not seem, however, that he ever took up his post at Sasimes.
Events and the entreaties of his friends called him to an active life while he yearned for solitude. There is no doubt that he was not apt for active life, nor capable of sustaining the stress of combat. His powerful eloquence was the chief source of his success. He is one of the great Fathers, and one of the greatest orators of Christian.
Not as great a ruler as Basil, he surpasses him in his command of rhetoric. Not as profound a thinker as Gregory of Nyssa, he was, more than he, the representative of the common faith of the Greek Church towards the end of the fourth century. Rufinus says of him that his teaching in dogma was looked on with respect as a rule of Christian faith. De Broglie writes : “In a few hours and a few pages Gregory summed up and closed the controversy of a whole century”.
His Apology for his flight, really a treatise on the priesthood, was a source for such works as St. Chrysostom's De Sacerdotio and Pope Gregory's Regula Pastoralis.
· 45 Orations
Five Theological Orations (27-31) are the most perfect of his orations - they have won for him the title of “Theologian” (i.e. defender of the Godhead). They were delivered in 380 in Constantinople against the Eunomians and Macedonians. He treated of the existence, nature, attributes of God ; unity of nature in the three Divine Persons ; divinity of the Son ; replies to objections ; refutation of objections against the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Other striking orations were Apologeticus pro fuga ; Adversus imperatorem Julianum ; Oratio funebris in Patrem, Or. 21 in laudem magni Athanasii, Or. 43 in laudem Basilii.
· 243 Letters.
Written between 383 and 389. They excel in style, Ep. 101 on Christological doctrine was praised highly at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).
· 200 Poems.
Written in 383-389. They were propaganda against heresies, and aimed also at supplying for the loss of pagan writings that were unsuitable for Christians. De Vita Sua is an outstanding one, describing the vicissitudes of his life and defending his actions.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, Doctor of the Church, was brother of St. Basil. He became a teacher of rhetoric, married, but finally, after the death of his wife, entreated by friends (Greg. Naz.) he became a priest. He retired to solitude, and much against his will was consecrated bishop of an obscure place, Nyssa, under Basil’s jurisdiction, in 371.
He was not fitted for administrative affairs but remarkable for his eloquence and the depth of his theological and philosophical learning.
In 375, due to Arian opposition, he was deposed and led a wandering life for a time, and, on the death of Valens in 378, returned in triumph to his see in 379. He attended at the Synod of Antioch (379) and Constantinople (381) where he was one of the principal theologians. He preached the funeral oration for Meletius of Antioch (381) and also in 385 and 386 for Flaccilla and Pulcheria, the wife and daughter of Emperor Theodosius. After the Synod of Constantinople (394) where he was acclaimed as a column of orthodoxy, he is not heard of again and probably died soon after.
His life was comparatively uneventful, and it is in his writings the chief interest lies, and though he wrote on questions of orthodoxy the main interest is in his mysticism, and in the philosophical and speculative side of his work. He was a fervent disciple of Origen, some of whose errors he adopted (e.g. apokatastasis, the re-establishment of all things in God at the end of time, the doctrine that all will be saved). He was one of the most versatile writers of his day, and was especially brilliant at exegesis.
Admirer of Origen, he followed his principles of allegorical interpretation
- De hominis opificio and Explicatio apologetica in Hexaemeron. Both were written at the request of Peter (his brother), bishop of Sebaste, to complete Basil’s homilies
- De vita Moysis - on spiritual progress
- De Pythonissa, on 1 Kings 28, 12 ff
- In Psalmos inscriptiones
- In Ecclesiasten
- In Canticum Canticorum, God the bridegroom, the soul the bride
- De beatitudinibus
- De oratione dominica
- Adversus Eunomium, - 12 books. Basil had attacked Eunomius - he replied after Basil’s death in five books, and Gregory replied to him
- The great Catechism - the most important work, and argumentative defence of the principal Christian doctrines against heathens. Jews and heretics. Avery precious work, it aims at instructing teachers how best to seize the opponent's argument and point of view and proceed from his admission. It treats of the fundamental doctrines - Trinitarian, Christological, Soteriological, sacramental.
- Adversus Apollinarem (c. 385) and Antirrheticus.
- Trinitarian doctrine is dealt with in Ad Eustathium de S. Trinitate; Ad Alabium, `That there are not Three Gods ; Adv. Graecos ex communibus notionibus; Ad Simpliciurie de fide.
- De Anima et Resurrectione, a dialogue of Gregory with his sister Macrina after Basil’s death. Gregory on his way home from a synod at Antioch visited her (379). She was in Pontus, the superior of a pious sisterhood devoted to God's service. Gregory found her in immediate danger of death and their conversation turned on their reunion in heaven. She voices Gregory’s views on the soul, death, resurrection, and the final restoration of all things. It is called Ta Makrinia, and is modelled on the Phaedo which it excels in profound thought and eloquence.
- Contra fatum, defending free will.
- Ad Hierium, prefect of Cappadocia - on why God permits untimely deaths amongst children.
- De Virginitate praises the state as one of perfection and virginity as the foundation of the virtues
- Similar ideas are found in smaller works. To Harmonius. To Olympius, etc. etc. (c) Vita S. Macrinae (-}-379).
· Discourses partly moral, partly dogmatic, partly laudatory of saints and martyrs. They have the usual rhetorical display, ornament etc.
· Letters. 29.
Two led to great controversies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, numbers 3 (to Eustathia and Ambrosia) and 2 (on those who go as pilgrims to Jerusalem). The first tells of unhappy ecclesiastical conditions in Palestine, the second of abuses in pilgrimages.
St. Gregory’s importance consists in his power of philosophical defence and demonstration of the Catholic faith. He was learned, a philosopher and a theologian and a mystic. The `Star of Nyssa' closed the Trinitarian controversy. He was an unwearying defender of the divine nature, though not completely happy in his attempt to reconcile the Unity with the Trinity. He lays all stress on one point that the distinction of the three divine Persons consists in their immanent relations.
The great work of the Cappadocian Fathers was to distinguish the meanings of ousia, (essence), and hyspostasis (could mean person or substance), till then confused. St. Athanasius found men quarrelling about words while really holding the same doctrine, and agreed to let each keep his terms provided the meaning was correct. There was danger in this. The Latins held one hypostasis or substantia, three prosopa or forms (we retain substantia where Greek would say essence, ousia). The Greeks substituted ousia for substance and abhorred prosopon (mask) as being Sabellian. Basil's final expression was one ousia (essence), three hypostaseis (persons). He and Gregory of Nyssa were determined that the difference between essence and personality would be understood and wrote freely on it. With Gregory of Nyssa the controversy ends. Gregory of Nyssa disposed of Arianism in detail in his books against Eunomius. The Second Council (381) ended the matter officially.
St. Gregory of Nyssa left an important legacy to philosophy and mysticism. Our human knowledge of God - the possibility of knowing God in man's likeness to him, of knowing Him through the order and harmony of His creation interested him very greatly. “But there is a direct mystical way for the soul which can rise above the world of sense, an intuitive knowledge, rare, extraordinary...” This latter theory of knowledge Gregory borrowed from Plotinus and Philo. “It is to be found in all Christian thinkers after him who lean towards mysticism. There were Christian mystics before St. Gregory, but he was the first who attempted a system, using the soul's reflection of the divine image as the basis of his effort”.