Gregory of Nazianzus Biography


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

Article abstract: Greek theologian and poet. A consummate rhetorician, Gregory produced many orations, poems, and letters that provide much information on the religious and social life of Christianity in the second half of the fourth century. As a theologian, Gregory was influential in the formulation of orthodox doctrine regarding the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Early Life

Gregory (GREH-gor-ee of nay-zee-AN-zuhs) was born on the family estate of Arianzus, near Nazianzus, the son of Bishop Gregory, the Elder of Nazianzus. His mother, Nonna, a pious woman who had converted her husband to Christianity in 325, was a very formative influence on her son. Young Gregory was educated in the school of rhetoric in Caesarea in Cappadocia, then briefly in the Christian schools of Caesarea in Palestine and of Alexandria, where he became familiar with Christianized Platonism. On his sea journey from Alexandria, his ship encountered a great storm; realizing that he was not yet baptized, Gregory made a solemn vow to spend the rest of his life in the service of the Church if he survived. Finally, he went to the great secular university of Athens, where he spent nine years, becoming an outstanding student of the rhetoricians Prohaeresius and Himerius. There he became an inseparable friend of Basil of Caesarea (later Basil the Great), whom he commemorated at length in his famous autobiographical poem Carmen de vita sua (c. 382; On His Life, 1814).

Life’s Work

In 362, Gregory’s father ordained him a priest, against the young scholar’s own will but by popular demand. Gregory subsequently fled to the desert, where he wrote a famous treatise on the priesthood, Oratio apologetica de fuga sua (Apology for His Flight, 1899), but he soon rejoined his father. He preached his first sermon on Easter Sunday, 362. In this sermon, he likened his father to the patriarch Abraham and himself to Abraham’s son Isaac being led forth to sacrifice. Thereafter, he helped to administer his father’s diocese. His school friend, Basil, now bishop of Caesarea, soon appointed him bishop of Sasima, “a bewitched and miserable little place,” according to Gregory, who refused to take possession of the see. After his father’s death in 374, Gregory administered the see of Nazianzus for a time.

In 375, he retired to a monastery in Seleucia, Isauria, but four years later he was invited to reorganize the dwindling Nicene community in Constantinople, a city rife with Arianism. In 380, Emperor Theodosius the Great formally inducted him into the Church of the Apostles in Constantinople, which he served until the middle of 381. His Forty-second Oration is a speech announcing his resignation from the see of Constantinople, which he characterized as a place “not for priests, but for orators, not for stewards of souls, but for treasurers of money, not for pure offerers of the sacrifice, but for powerful patrons.” Though still in his early fifties, he retired, a prematurely old, sick, and very disillusioned man, to Cappadocia,...

(The entire section is 1259 words.)