Cappadocian Doctors of the Church

Ss. Basil, Gregory, and Gregory of Nyssa: Their titles, works, and some reflections -- Part 8

Let us familiarize ourselves with the titles accorded these Cappadocian bishops we have studied: Basil, Gregory, and Gregory of Nyssa. St. Gregory of Nyssa is considered the philosopher and mystic; he wrote less than the other two but perhaps more deeply. An ecumenical council in 787 pronounced him “Father of the Fathers” of the Church. Basil is regarded as the administrator. Basil bears the name of “Doctor of the Holy Spirit.” Gregory of Nazianzus (for his sermons on the Trinity) bears the appellations “the Divine” or “the Theologian.” Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom are the Three Hierarchs of the Eastern Church. These three, with St. Athanasius, are the four Greek Doctors of the Church.

We have today a tremendous volume of writings by these three Cappadocian Doctors of the Church.

Most of the works that survive from St. Gregory of Nazianzus (the Younger) were written during the last nine years of his life. They include:

  • 44 “orations,” including five preached in Constantinople on the Nicene Creed and the Trinity, funeral orations for his brother St. Caesarius, his sister St. Gorgonia, their father St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder, and, as we have seen, Basil; and his Final Farewell
  • over 200 letters, many published as requested by his sister Gorgonia’s grandson, Nicobulus
  • poetry, including his autobiography, Carmen de vita sua (“The Song of My Life”)

The works that survive from St. Basil the Great of Caesarea include:

  • early works such as: the anthology of Origen’s works, the Philocalia; the Moralia, verses of the New Testament, with two prefaces; and a work on the pagan classics
  • Contra Eunomium (“Against Eunomium,” an Arian who had written a book) and De Spiritu Sancto (“On the Holy Spirit”)
  • some 366 letters
  • a number of homilies
  • the rules for monastic life, the Asceticon.

Basil promoted the singing of psalms that later became part of the Divine Office.

St. Gregory of Nyssa’s writings include:

  • a book like Basil’s responding to Eunomium’s book
  • a number of other books against the Arian views on the Holy Spirit
  • a book against the heresy of Apollinaris concerning Christ
  • the biography of his sister, St. Macrina
  • a fictional dialogue with his dying sister Macrina on the Resurrection
  • a large number of works on Scripture
  • a work on virginity (recall that Gregory of Nyssa was a widower)
  • sermons and letters

To conclude this primer on these saints, I offer a few reflections:

Consider the problem of devout parents who send their children to school in various cities. Basil and Gregory were sent off to school. Gregory writes of the dangers to their faith presented by spectacles and banquets at school in Athens.

After Gregory’s schooling was complete, his parents, St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder and St. Nonna, who lived very long lives, requested that Gregory live with them and care for them. He even agreed to his father’s plea to become a priest and an auxiliary bishop. Ponder the conflict he felt between the obligation he felt for them and his desire to live his life differently.

Now let’s turn to Gregory of Nazianzus the Younger and how he changed during his life. Newman says this about him:

[H]e was fifty years old when he was called to Constantinople; a consolatory thought for those who see their span of life crumbling away under their feet, and they apparently doing nothing. [My comment: This observation is filled with irony since Newman himself felt the same way later in his life — despite his accomplishments.] Gregory was nothing till he was almost an old man; had he died at Basil’s age, he would have done nothing…Basil had done his work and was taken away before Gregory had begun his.

[I]n what a little time [do] men move through the work which is, as it were, the end for which they are born, and which is to give a character to their names with posterity…Gregory lived sixty years; his ecclesiastical life was barely three. (Newman, Historical Sketches, pp. 79-80)

[Gregory] had passed through many trials, and done a great work, when he, a recluse hitherto, had all at once been preacher, confessor, metropolitan [patriarch], president of a General Council, and now was come back again to Asia [Asia Minor, that is, Turkey] as plain Gregory — to be what he had been before, to meditate and to do penance, and to read, and to write poems, and to be silent as in former years, except that he was now lonely, — his friend dead, his father dead, his mother dead, brother Caesarius, sister Gorgonia dead, and himself dead to this world, though still to live in the flesh some eight dreary years… (Newman, p. 77)

Reflecting on this, can we say that God is never finished with anyone at any age? Can we say that, no matter what age we are, we can begin again, in the words of the closing of the Mass, “to love and serve the Lord”?

Ponder the dispute between Basil and Gregory. Can even saints find themselves apart on some things and find it difficult, even impossible, to bridge the gap?

Were you aware that people had suffered and died at the hands of other Christians for their belief in the Nicene Creed?

Have you noticed the number of saints in the families of Basil and Gregory? Do you have relatives that were, or are, holy men and women? Will you be one of them? If you put together your own family tree, do you know the religion of the living and deceased members of your family? Do you know who in your family became the first Christian or the first Catholic?

Of course there were many people whose lives were touched by these saints and their relatives even if their names were not mentioned here, like the classmates in the various cities, the women of the monastery, the people who cried when Basil died, those who listened to their sermons or received their counseling.


[Ed. note: A link to Part 7:]


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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