Gregory of Nazianzus and Why Knowing the Nature of the Holy Spirit Really Matters

On the vigil of Easter in 379, a group composed mostly of monks and women rushed into a church, attacked the congregants, wounded the preacher, and killed another bishop. They were not terrorists. They were followers of the doctrines of Arius, a previous priest who had opposed the notion of a fully divine Christ.

            A violent attack because of theology? It would not have seemed strange back then, when theology was seen as an urgent, practical matter. This attack happened as the preacher, Gregory of Nazianzus, was about to baptize new converts. To the followers of Arius, baptizing people in the name of three divine Persons who are equally God was a blasphemy, close to polytheism.

            The other party, instead, took seriously Christ’s command to make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) and tried hard to reach a better understanding of this mysterious triune relationship.

            Today, many of us repeat the same formula as a simple convention. As we confess our faith in a Triune God, we seldom remember the struggle it took to clarify and fine-tune the language that allows us to talk about it. Much of this clarification was the fruit of a 4th-century trio of friends known as Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea.

            Of these, Gregory of Nazianzus played a vital role in exploring the nature of the Spirit and in reaching a greater understanding of Christ’s nature and relationship with both the Father and the Spirit. In fact, his writings were so instrumental in bringing greater trinitarian clarity that he was graced with the epithet “the Theologian.”

            He was also a prolific poet who considered his poetic vocation as a work done for God’s glory. He saw his poetry as helpful both to himself and to others who might be having similar experiences. Besides, he said, good Christian poetry can show that Christians can be skillful poets and artists.

Gregory’s Youth – Devoted to God

            Much of Gregory’s poetry was autobiographical. In fact, he tells more about himself than any other Christian author before Augustine of Hippo. Like Augustine, he describes with touching honesty and powerful imagery his love for God, his passionate feelings for family and friends, his frequent disappointments, and his long-standing struggle between his necessary duties and his compelling desire to live an ascetic life.

            He was born around the year 33 on the country estate of Arianzus, near Nazianzus, in the Roman province of Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey). His father, also named Gregory, had recently been ordained as local bishop. Gregory senior and his wife Nonna had already another child, a girl named Gorgonia. A second son, Caesarius, was born soon after.

            Nonna had a great influence on her family. Gregory accredited to her his father’s conversion from a small heretical sect. She probably contributed to the education of her children. Gregory was very attached to her, and dedicated to her 36 of his epitaphs. Once he described a tender memory of Nonna running to him with open arms, shouting his name – an image that was obviously impressed in his mind.

            By the time Gregory was 13, the family had sufficient means to send him and Caesarius to study in Caesarea, Alexandria, and Athens. Caesarius went on to Constantinople, where he became first doctor, then financial manager in the imperial court.

            On his way to Athens, Gregory was caught by a terrible storm, which almost caused a shipwreck. “Hunger, storm, and winds were competing to end our life,” he wrote about thirty years later. His greatest concern was that he had not been baptized. By that time, delaying the sacrament had become common practice. Terrified by the prospect of dying in a state of sin, he vowed to consecrate his life – if spared – to God.

            His cry to God, however, betrays the Scriptural knowledge which had been instilled in him since childhood. “Despairing of everything here below I looked to you, my life, my breath, my light, my strength, my salvation, you who terrify and strike, smile and heal, ever entwining the good with its opposite. I reminded you of all your former miracles in which we recognize your powerful hand.”[1]

            God spared him, and Gregory arrived in Athens, where he stayed – still unbaptized – for more than ten years, while he studied under well-known teachers. There, he was reunited with a friend he had met in Caesarea, Basil. “We were all in all to one other,”[2] he wrote, continuing with a passionate description of their friendship. The two young men shared a strong love for learning and a desire to devote their lives to God by following what people of their times considered the most dedicated practice: a monastic life.

Gregory’s Pastoral Choices

            After Athens, Basil followed his plans by retiring with like-minded friends in the mountains near Neocesarea of Pontus. Gregory returned home where was finally baptized and began to help his father in his duties, all the while taking frequent trips to visit Basil.

            During this time, Gregory, like Augustine, was consecrated priest against his will and with the acclamation of the people. Unlike Augustine, he literally ran away – back to Pontus. He returned a few months later, and apologized to his congregation, who forgave him slowly. Later, he produced a letter to explain his desertion: he was caught by surprise, he said. He also would have much preferred to live in solitude and contemplation of God. The main reason, however, was that he didn’t feel “qualified to rule a flock or herd, or to have authority over the souls of men.”[3]

            Besides the spiritual responsibilities, which Gregory perceived in all their actual weight, he had to take on a greater load of practical tasks to assist his aging father, including the unpleasant duty of dealing with his brother’s creditors after Caesarius’s death of the plague in 368.

            In 372, Basil was elected bishop of the large province of Caesarea, an appointment which displeased the Roman emperor Valens. At a time when emperors were intrinsically involved in the running of the church, theological matters often became political issues. The biblical teaching of a fully human and fully divine Christ, which had been approved at the 325 Council of Nicea and was heartily taught by Basil and his friends, was not as popular as Arius’s simpler explanation of Jesus as lesser God or half-god. Valens, as most emperors, wanted a united religion, and simple and popular were appealing attributes.  

            To undermine Basil, Valens cut in half the territories under the bishop’s jurisdiction. In response, Basil doubled the number of bishops in his area, assigning Nyssa to his brother Gregory, and Sasima to Gregory of Nazianzus. Gregory was shocked. With no scarcity of details, he described Sasima as “a place without water, without vegetation, completely uncivilized, an utterly dreadful and cramped little settlement. It is all dust and noise and chariots, cries and groans, officials, instruments of torture and shackles, a population consisting only of visitors and vagrants.”[4] He didn’t understand its strategic importance to Basil.

            Refusing to fulfill his ordination, he stayed home, where he continued his previous duties until his father’s death in 374. His mother died soon after that, and Gregory retired once again to a contemplative life.

The Holy Spirit and the Anastasia Church

            In 378, Valens died and Theodosius I, a promoter of the decisions of the Council of Nicaea, took his place. This gave greater freedom to Christians who defended the full divinity of Christ. In Constantinople, a group of these invited Gregory to reorganize their church and lead them in converting the city to the Nicene theology.

            Gregory agreed, not without some hesitation. Accepting a cousin’s offer to use her villa, he held services there, naming the small fledging church Anastasia (from the Greek anastasis, “standing again”). In his sermons and lectures, he defended once again the divinity of Christ and introduced the Spirit as equal Person of the Trinity, explaining that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all involved and engaged in every aspect of our salvation.

            “No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light,”[5] he eloquently said.

            To those who found these teachings unscriptural, he recommended a closer biblical examination. “Look at these facts: Christ is born; the Spirit is His Forerunner. He is baptized; the Spirit bears witness. He is tempted; the Spirit leads Him up. He works miracles; the Spirit accompanies them. He ascends; the Spirit takes His place. What great things are there in the idea of God which are not in His power?”[6]

Last Troubles and Peaceful Retirement

            Gregory’s troubles in Constantinople were not limited to the Easter eve attack. His long-standing trust in friends was once again crushed, this time by the philosopher Maximus who tried to push Gregory aside in order to rise to the position of bishop of Constantinople. Eventually, Maximus was expelled and Theodosius gave the title to Gregory.

In 381, Gregory presided the Council of Constantinople, but a lack of administrative skills forced him to abdicate. After a moving resignation speech, he returned home where he spent time in writing and contemplation until his death (probably in 390). The Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates his death on January 25.

[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, Caroline White (ed.), Gregory of Nazianzus: Autobiographical Poems (Cambridge Medieval Classics), Cambridge University Press, 2005, 23.

[2] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 43, 19.

[3] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 2, 9,

[4] Gregory, White (ed.), Gregory of Nazianzus, 43

[5] Philip Schaff, Henry Wace, eds., A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, New York, The Christian Literature Company, 1894, 375.

[6] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 31, 29,


Simonetta Carr