Gregory was born in AD 329 in Arianzus (near present day Sivrihisar, Turkey), Cappadocia, in the Roman province of Asia Minor. Alongside his friend Basil the Great, and Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus is revered as one of the three Cappadocian Fathers – saints whose shared perspectives on theology and piety helped shape the early Christian church.
His extant writings, both prose and poetry, demonstrate Gregory’s eloquence and breadth of learning. Gregory was designated Theologus (“Theologian”) by the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 in recognition of his profound influence on Christian thought, particularly regarding Trinitarian doctrine.
LIFE AND CAREER
Gregory grew up in a wealthy Christian family - his father, also named Gregory, was bishop of Nazianzus – and he received a classical as well as a religious education. He studied in Caesarea of Palestine, then Alexandria and finally in Athens (AD 351-356.) As Gregory was sailing from Alexandria to Athens, a violent storm threatened to capsize his ship. In fear of drowning, Gregory vowed to dedicate his whole self to serving God if his life was spared. When the storm then subsided, Gregory resolved to keep his vow of lifelong service.
In Athens, Gregory formed a lifelong friendship with Basil the Great. Following his studies, Gregory intended to leave worldly life behind in favor of monastic devotion to Christ. His father, however, pressed Gregory for assistance in ministering to the congregation Nazianzus. Gregory reluctantly returned to Nazianzus in AD 361, where he was ordained as presbyter by his father. He found the Christian community in Nazianzus divided by theological differences and his father accused of heresy by local monks. Over time, Gregory overcame these difficulties by uniting the parish through personal diplomacy, theologically-profound sermons and powerful oratory.
During the next ten years, Gregory served his congregation at Nazianzus while supporting his friend Basil in his struggles against the Arian sect (who denied the divinity of Christ) and their patron, the Emperor Valens. In an effort to diminish Basil’s influence, Valens divided the province of Cappadocia, where Basil was bishop, in half. To retain his hold on power, in AD 372 Basil appointed an unwilling Gregory as the bishop of Sasima in the newly created province. Gregory never embraced his new post and abandoned it altogether a few months later when his dying father required aid once again in Nazianzus. When Basil insisted that Gregory return to Sasima, Gregory flatly refused, leading to an unfortunate rift between the two friends that lasted until Basil’s death in AD 379.
After the deaths of his parents in AD 374, Gregory refused to succeed his father as bishop of Nazianzus. Instead, he donated most of his inheritance to the poor and devoted himself to meditation, scholarship and service to his congregation. In AD 375, he withdrew to a monastery at Seleukia (near present-day Manavgat) for three years.
The death of Emperor Valens in AD 378 ended Imperial support for Arianism. After Basil’s death the following year, Gregory became the leading spokesman of the orthodox Nicene party in Asia Minor. He was invited to go to Constantinople to win the divided city over to theological orthodoxy. For thirty years, the city had been controlled by Arians or pagans and the orthodox believers did not have a single church. Gregory’s cousin Theodosia offered him a villa for his residence and Gregory transformed it into a church, naming in “Anastasia” (Greek: resurrection.) From this small chapel, Gregory “resurrected” orthodox faith in the city, delivering a series of powerful sermons explaining the nature of the Trinity and in defense of the divinity of Christ. Growing crowds flocked to hear him preach. Fearing his popularity, an Arian mob attacked the church on Easter in AD 379, wounding Gregory and killing another bishop. Horrified, Gregory decided to resign but his supporters persuaded him to persevere. The conflict was formally settled in Gregory’s favor when Emperor Theodosius expelled the Arian bishop Demophilus in AD 380 and appointed Gregory bishop of Constantinople in his place.
Emperor Theodosius wished to end church division and convened a church council in Constantinople with church leaders from throughout the empire in order to resolve matters of faith and discipline. The Emperor appointed Gregory to preside over the council, however, some bishops refused to recognize Gregory’s appointment as head of the church in Constantinople for political reasons. Weary of division, Gregory stunned the council by resigning his office before 150 bishops and the emperor, saying:
Let me be as the Prophet Jonah! I was responsible for the storm, but I would sacrifice myself for the safety of the ship. Seize me and throw me…I was not happy to ascend the throne, and gladly would I descend it.
The emperor, moved by Gregory’s humility, commended his labor and granted his resignation. Nevertheless, the council fully supported Gregory’s policies, condemning Arian heresy and endorsing the Trinitarian understanding of God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three equal persons) taught by Gregory and expressed in the Nicene Creed which is still regarded as authoritative in Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Protestant churches.
Following his resignation, Gregory returned to Nazianzus, where he lived until the end of his life in AD 391.
Following his death, Gregory was buried in Nazianzus. Due to his revered status as a Father of the early church, his remains were transferred to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople in AD 950. A portion of his mortal remnants were stolen and delivered to Rome when Constantinople was sacked by Crusaders in AD 1204.