The Cappadocian Fathers

The Cappadocian Fathers

Church History I

First Baptist Church Dandridge

Dr. Justin Terrell

Session Twelve

The Cappadocian Fathers


Following the unwavering faithfulness of Athanasius of Alexandria, who boldly opposed Arianism by proclaiming the full deity of Christ, a new generation of Nicene theologians arrived – men like Basil of Caesarea (330-379), Gregory of Nazianzus (330-390), and Gregory of Nyssa (335-394). These theologians became known as the “Cappadocian fathers,” because they were from the province of Cappadocia in Asia Minor. These church fathers continued the fight against the Arians in the debate over the true nature and identity of Jesus, known as the “Arian Controversy.” 

  1. Basil of Caesarea (AD 330-379) 
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Description automatically generatedBackground: Basil and Gregory of Nyssa were brothers, born into a well-known Christian family. Their paternal grandparents had spent seven years hiding in the forests during the Decian persecutions, and their mother Macrina had been the daughter of a Christian martyr, thus showing that Basil and Gregory came from a legacy of faithful followers of Christ. At a young age, Basil went to study in Caesarea, the capital city of Cappadocia. He would continue his education in Antioch, Constantinople, and finally in Athens, where he received the best education available in philosophy and pagan culture. It was in Athens that he first met Gregory, who would become bishop of Nazianzus. Both would be baptized in AD 358 and would become the closest of friends – some referring to them as the “David and Johnathan” of the patristic age (Needham, 236). After spending many years living as a monk in Egypt, Palestine, and other places, Basil returned to Caesarea. He and Gregory of Nazianzus founded a monastic community for men, believing that community was incredibly important to the Christian faith. He reasoned that living alone leaves you with no one to serve, and serving others is at the core of the following Christ (Gonzalez 183). Thus, Basil continued teaching and serving others as a monk for the many years ahead. 
  • Leadership: After Valens became Roman Emperor (an Arian), the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, called upon Basil to help him in his struggle against Arianism. Once Basil arrived, conditions were very difficult. Bad weather had destroyed the crops and the rich were hoarding food. Basil immediately began preaching against such practices, and he sold all his personal properties to feed the poor. He stated, “If all would take only what they needed and give the rest to others, there would be neither rich nor poor” (Gonzalez 184). However, when Eusebius died, great contention broke out over who would be his successor. When the aging Basil was nominated, the Arians argued that he was too unhealthy to serve. However, the Nicene’s (orthodox) responded that “they were electing a bishop, not a gladiator” (184). Finally, Basil was elected. However, this didn’t sit well with Emperor Valens, who came to visit Caesarea. He ordered his officers to subdue the new bishop through a series of promises and threats. The praetorian prefect lost his patience and threatened Basil with confiscating his goods, exile, torture, and even death. How did Basil respond?
  • Quote: “All that I have that you can confiscate are these rags and a few books. As to tortures you should know that my body is already dead in Christ. And death would be a great boon to me, leading me sooner to God.” (The prefect was astonished and said that no one had ever spoken like that to him). Basil continued, “Perhaps that is because you have never met a true bishop.” 
  • Conclusion: Basil continued to fight for the Nicene understanding that Jesus was fully divine. He also argued for the divinity of the Holy Spirit, which came through such works as “On the Holy Spirit” (AD 375). Therefore, he made major contributions to Trinitarian theology, which would eventually find victory at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 – however, he would not live long enough to see it. Basil died in AD 379, at the age of 49. 
  • Gregory of Nazianzus (AD 330-390)
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Description automatically generatedBackground: Basil’s close friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, became a presbyter of his home church in Nazianzus, where his father, also Gregory, served as bishop. The elder Gregory had once been a heretic, but his wife Nona brought him back to biblical orthodoxy. Thus, the son Gregory was raised in a strong Christian home, where his mother taught him the Scriptures. Along with Basil, he studied in Athens for fourteen years, then returned to his home country and joined Basil in the monastic life. He would later return to Nazianzus and become a presbyter in his home church, where his father was bishop. However, Gregory had a falling out with Basil after Basil made him bishop of a small town. Gregory felt that his friend had imposed on him, and the friendship became sour. After becoming frustrated by his role as bishop, he left the small church to seek quiet meditation and isolation. But while he was in this retreat, Gregory received word that his lifelong friend Basil had died. It grieved his heart that Basil was no longer alive, but the real pain with the realization that they two had never been reconciled. At this point, he took over Basil’s role in the struggle against Arianism. 
  • Leadership: Gregory was a noted introvert, who enjoyed meditation, study, and writing in solitude. However, due to the controversies at the time, he would engage the Arians through public teaching, writing, and debate. In AD 379, Gregory appeared in Constantinople, during the fiercest season of division and debate over the true nature and person of Christ. Because Arianism had the support of the state, there were no Nicene (Orthodox) churches in the entire city. So, Gregory began leading services in the home of a relative. However, when he ventured out into the streets, the angry Arian mobs pelted him, and Arian monks broke into his service and profaned the altar. But Gregory stood firm, strengthening his congregation with hymns he composed, some of which are still with us today. Finally, something changed. In AD 380, Emperor Theodosius made his triumphal entry into Constantinople. Unlike Emperor Valens, Theodosius was orthodox, and he invited Gregory to visit the cathedral of St. Sophia with him. It was an overcast day, but a single ray of sunlight broke through and hit on Gregory. The crowds perceived it to be a sign from heaven, and began chanting, “Gregory, bishop! Gregory, bishop!” The emperor agreed with the crowed and appointed Gregory as bishop of Constantinople. 
  • Contention: During this time, Constantinople became the center of incredible debate between Nicenes and Arians. As one ancient writer described, “If you ask a person to give you some small change for a large coin, his response is to philosophize what distinguishes the Father from the Son. If you ask about the price of a loaf, the shopkeeper’s response is that the Father is greater and the Son is inferior. If you ask a bath attendant whether your bath is ready, you will have to rest satisfied with the attendant’s response that the Son has been generated out of nothing.” The tension was tight! In defense of the Nicene Creed, Gregory wrote “Five Theological Orations,” which brilliantly summed up the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity and refuted Arianism.
  • Council: Then, Emperor Theodosius called for a theological council to convene in Constantinople, over which Gregory presided. This council would be responsible for settling the drawn-out debate over the person and nature of Christ. However, some felt that Gregory was disqualified to preside since he was already bishop of a smaller church, so Gregory resigned from the position and Nectarius took his place. But the Council of Constantinople reaffirmed the doctrine of the Nicene Creed, where the Son was declared fully God, the same essence (homoousios) as the Father, and the Council added the same to be true of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the Council of Constantinople definitively proclaimed the doctrine of the Trinity. 
  • Conclusion: Gregory finally returned to his homeland, where he spent his time composing hymns and pastoral duties. When Theodosius reached out about another council, asking him to preside, he flatly refused. He lived away from all civil and ecclesiastical matters until he died at the age of sixty. 
  • Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335-394)
  1. Background: Gregory of Nyssa was the younger brother of Basil of Caesarea. Unlike Basil, who was remembered as inflexible, outspoken, and slightly arrogant, Gregory preferred silence, solitude, and anonymity. While he had a solid education, he never wanted to be in the spotlight or lead any cause. He married a young woman that made him very happy, but years later, after she died, he began living the monastic life and wrote a book called “On Virginity.” He argued that he who doesn’t marry doesn’t have to suffer the pain of seeing his wife go through A picture containing text

Description automatically generatedchildbirth, or worse, the greater pain of losing her. For Gregory, the monastic life was a way to avoid all of the pains and struggles of an active life. However, later, his brother Basil forced him to become bishop of Nyssa, a small village near Caesarea. He then became one of the main leaders of the Nicene party and was received by the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. Following the famous council, Emperor Theodosius took him as one of his main advisors in theological matters, and Gregory was forced to travel throughout the Empire, even to Arabia and Mesopotamia. 
  • Leadership: Gregory of Nyssa was considered the Easter Church’s most eloquent preacher in the age of the early church fathers. He was a fierce opponent of Arianism, producing such works as, “Sermon on the Holy Spirit against the Spirit-fighting Macedonians” and “Letter to Ablabius that there are not Three Gods.” The Eastern Church regarded him as one of their most outstanding theologians and teachers on spiritual life. At the Council of Constantinople, he was chosen to deliver the opening address. However, a major flaw in his legacy was his acceptance of Origen’s teaching on universal salvation, where everyone eventually goes to heaven. While he was remembered as a holy man and great theologian, he tragically erred on this particular point. 
  • Conclusion on the Cappadocian Fathers
  1. Hypostasis and Ousia: Some have argued that the incredible influence of the Cappadocian Fathers came through their precise use of theological language. By correctly defining and using the Greek words “ousia” (substance) and “hypostasis” (underlying substance) to describe how God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit can be of the same substance or essence (i.e., ousia), but three different persons (i.e., hypostasis), they led the Origenists away from teaching that the Son was less God than the Father, but equally God with different functions. The Nicenes also removed the accusation that they were teaching Sabellianism (Modalism), as they insisted that God acts as three persons simultaneously. Thus, the Nicenes and the Origenists came together in agreement, and focused their collective efforts to stop the Arians. At the Council of Constantinople, they revised the Nicene Creed to include, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the life-giver, who proceeds from the Father, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped together and glorified together, who spoke through the prophets…” This revised language affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity.