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St. Gregory of Nazianzus

c. 330-389


Orations of St. Gregory of Nazianzus
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Orations 27-31: The Five Theological Orations

Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, with Saints Athanasius, Basil, and John Chrysostom, is a Father of the Church and one of the four Eastern Doctors of the Church. He is known especially for his contributions to the theological definition of the Trinity and the nature of Christ. He, Basil, and Gregory of Nyssa are called the Cappadocian Fathers. Brought up in the Cappadocian town of Nazianzus (present-day Bekar, Turkey), where his father was bishop, Gregory as a young man was reluctant to take a position of responsibility in the church, retiring instead to a monastic community started by Basil in Pontus. He explained this action in his Defense of the Flight to Pontus, which became the basis for works on the priesthood by Saint John Chrysostom and Pope Gregory I. Gregory was consecrated a bishop in 371 but did not become actively involved in ecclesiastical affairs until he assumed leadership (379) of the orthodox community in Constantinople, at a time when the city was divided by controversy between rival Christian groups. He played a leading role at the first Council of Constantinople (381), which continued the definition of Christian teaching begun at the councils of Nicaea, but opposition at the council to Gregory's claim to the bishopric of Constantinople made him decide to return to Nazianzus. In 384 he again retired to monastic life, and died a few years later.

Gregory was not a systematic writer. His works consist primarily of poetry, orations, and letters, along with an anthology of the writings of Origen, called the Philokalia (Greek, "Love of the Beautiful"). His poetical compositions are comprised of autobiographical verses, epigrams, epitaphs and epistles. St. Jerome and Suidas say that Gregory wrote more than 30,000 verses; if this is not an exaggeration, fully two-thirds of them have been lost. Very different estimates have been formed of the value of his poetry, the greater part of which was written in advanced years, and perhaps rather as a relaxation from the cares and troubles of life than as a serious pursuit. Delicate, graphic, and flowing as are many of his verses, and giving ample evidence of the cultured and gifted intellect which produced them, they cannot be held to parallel the great creations of the classic Greek poets.

His letters belong to the finest literary productions of his age. All that are extant are finished compositions; and that he excelled in this kind of composition is shown from one of them (Ep. ccix, to Nicobulus) in which he enlarges with admirable good sense on the rules by which all letter-writers should be guided. It was at the request of Nicobulus, who believed, and rightly, that these letters contained much of permanent interest and value, that Gregory prepared and edited the collection containing the greater number of them which has come down to us. Many of them are perfect models of epistolary style -- short, clear, couched in admirably chosen language, and in turn witty and profound, playful, affectionate and acute.

Gregory is recognized as one of the very foremost orators who have ever adorned the Christian Church. Only comparatively few of the numerous orations delivered by Gregory have been preserved to us, consisting of discourses spoken by him on widely different occasions, but all marked by the same lofty qualities. Faults they have, of course: lengthy digressions, excessive ornament, strained antithesis, laboured metaphors, and occasional over-violence of invective. But their merits are far greater than their defects, and no one can read them without being struck by the noble phraseology, perfect command of the purest Greek, high imaginative powers, lucidity and incisiveness of thought, fiery zeal and transparent sincerity of intention, by which they are distinguished. Hardly any of Gregory's extant sermons are direct expositions of Scripture, and they have for this reason been adversely criticized.

In the Orthodox Church Gregory is known as the Theologian because of his influential orations ("The Five Theological Orations") dealing with the Trinity and Christology. In the first and second of the five theological orations he develops these two principles at some length, urging in language of wonderful beauty and force the necessity for all who would know God aright to lead a supernatural life, and to approach so sublime a study with a mind pure and free from sin. The third oration (on the Son) is devoted to a defence of the doctrine of the Trinity, and a demonstration of its consonance with the primitive doctrine of the Unity of God. The eternal existence of the Son and Spirit are insisted on, together with their dependence on the Father as origin or principle; and the Divinity of the Son is argued from Scripture against the Arians, whose misunderstanding of various Scripture texts is exposed and confuted. In the fourth oration, on the same subject, the union of the Godhead and Manhood in Christ Incarnate is set forth and luminously proved from Scripture and reason. The fifth and final oration (on the Holy Spirit) is directed partly against the Macedonians, who denied altogether the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, and also against those who reduced the Third Person of the Trinity to a mere impersonal energy of the Father. Gregory, in reply to the contention that the Divinity of the Spirit is not expressed in Scripture, quotes and comments on several passages which teach the doctrine by implication, adding that the full manifestation of this great truth was intended to be gradual, following on the revelation of the Divinity of the Son.

In his development of terminology, St. Gregory helped to clarify the language of Nicaea and lay the foundation for the debates of the 5th-century ecumenical councils. His feast day is January 2 in the Roman Catholic church and January 25 in the Orthodox church.

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The Catholic Encyclopedia: an International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline and History of the Catholic Church, Herbermann and Pace, eds., New York: Appleton, 1907-1912.