Gregory was born in AD 335 in Caesarea Mazaca, the capital of Cappadocia, a province of Asia Minor (present-day Kayseri, Turkey) in the Roman Empire. As a scholarly theologian, Gregory was a stalwart defender of orthodoxy in the 4th Century controversies over the doctrine of the Trinity and is renowned as one of the most profound Christian thinkers of the fourth century.
Life and Career
Gregory was a younger brother of Basil of Caesarea (330-379). Along with Basil and friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329-391), Gregory of Nyssa was the third of the trio of Christian thinkers known as the Cappadocian Fathers, who strongly influenced Christian theology in the Christian East. As the eldest son, Basil was the only one of Gregory’s siblings to receive a formal education. Basil then taught his younger brother who went on to surpass him.
In AD 372, Gregory was consecrated by his brother Basil as bishop of Nyssa (now a ruin north of Harmandali, Aksaray, Turkey), a small city in the newly reorganized province of Cappadocia. Gregory stood with Basil against the Arian heresy (which denied the divinity of Jesus.) This led to persecution from the Arians. Gregory was falsely accused of misusing church property and banished in 376 as part of Emperor Valens campaign to force church leadership to accept Arian doctrine. However, after Valen’s death in 378, Gregory was restored to his congregation who welcomed him back enthusiastically.
The following year, 379, Gregory’s brother Basil died. This was a heavy loss for Gregory as the two had been very close. To honor his brother, Gregory wrote his funeral oration and then completed Basil’s study of the six-day creation account in Genesis, Hexaemeron (“Six Days”). After Basil’s death, Gregory took his brother’s place as the leader in the battle against the Arian heresy and was present at the final defeat of Arianism in the Council of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) in 381.
Works and Legacy
Although active in diplomacy and church councils, Gregory was primarily a scholar, whose chief contribution lay in his writings. His publication of Against Eunomius, a four-book refutation of the Arian teacher Eunomius, helped formulate the modern doctrine of the Trinitarian view of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) as a clear answer to Arian questioning. He also famous for defining the divinity of the Holy Spirit and writing the final section of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed used in the Orthodox church today.
Gregory is best known for synthesizing Greek philosophy with Christian tradition in his ascetic and mystical writing, which strongly influenced the devotional traditions of the Eastern Orthodox church and (indirectly) the Western church. In his writings, Gregory notably taught that the spiritual life is marked by continuing progress rather than static perfection.
Gregory wrote many reflections and commentaries on Scripture, most notably his Life of Moses and homilies on the Lord’s Prayer, the Song of Songs, and the Beatitudes. His most important contribution was in the area of spirituality. While his brother Basil gave eastern monasticism its structure and organization, Gregory provided its heart and mystical vision. For this reason, he came to be known as “Father of Mysticism.”
Gregory’s faith was also practical and pastoral as evidenced by his preserved letters and sermons. He spoke against predatory lending practices of the time, the postponement of baptism, and other ethical issues. He was also a well-loved speaker and was periodically invited to preach at gatherings for bishops and even to deliver the funeral orations for the Emperor Theodosius’ wife and daughter in Constantinople.
Gregory of Nyssa died around the year 395 AD and is revered as one of the greatest of the Eastern Church Fathers.