Meet the Cappadocian Fathers

by Matthew Y. Emerson

Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, known collectively as “The Cappadocian Fathers,” were instrumental in solidifying Trinitarian orthodoxy in the fourth century. Both their stories and their theological contributions are intertwined.

A Band of Bishop Brothers

Basil (ca. 330–79) and Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335/40–394) were brothers. They were reared in a Christian aristocratic family in Cappadocia, and were heavily influenced in their Christian faith and practice by their eldest sister, Macrina. While we do not have many details of their early life, it is evident from letters and autobiographical notes that Macrina, at least, was a devoted Christian, perhaps committed to celibacy and some ascetic practice, and she was thus also the spiritual guide for the rest of the family – parents and siblings alike. When Basil returned in 355 from receiving a classical education, first in Constantinople and then in Athens, to teach rhetoric in Caesarea, Macrina told him that his studies had produced too much pride in him and that he should pursue asceticism as a monk. Macrina’s arguments for the ascetic life ultimately won the day when, around 356, Basil met Eusthasius of Sebaste, an ascetic and a bishop. Basil spent the next year or so traveling with Eusthasius seeing how the different versions of monasticism operated throughout the ancient world. He returned in 357, was baptized, and entered into the monastic order.

Basil was joined at that time by his friend Gregory of Nazianzus (ca.330–390), whom he had met during his education and who also had become an ascetic.  During the years prior to his appointment as metropolitan bishop of Caesarea in 370, both Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus were engaged in helping Eusthasius combat anti-Nicene writers such as Eunomius and Aetius. Basil’s friendship with Eusthasius, his participation in the monastic life (which grew in popularity in the fourth century), and his participation in combatting anti-Nicene theology led to his episcopal installation. It did not go unopposed, however, and so Basil quickly enlisted his brother, Gregory, to become bishop of Nyssa, and he also appointed his friend Gregory of Nazianzus to become bishop of Sasima. He subsequently fought for the unity of the church, both ecclesiastically and theologically. Both of these battles were waged against anti-Nicene bishops and theologians, and Basil did not see the unity that was achieved, at least in a conciliar measure, by the Council of Constantinople in 381. He died two years prior on January 1, 379.

Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, did not take as quickly to a Christian vocation. When Basil returned home from his Athenian education, he tutored Gregory in the same style of learning he had just received. Gregory subsequently married, presumably continued to study Greek philosophy, and worked as a rhetorician until he reluctantly agreed to his appointment as bishop of Nyssa by his older brother. Nyssen experienced a significant amount of opposition to his bishopric, as did Basil. It is unclear how vigorously Nyssen held to his office or his theological duties before Basil’s death, but after his brother passed Nyssen came to life theologically speaking. He defended Nicene formulations about the Trinity, he wrote against anti-Nicenes as had his brother, and he defended his brother’s theology and integrity. The fifteen years between Basil’s death and Nyssen’s in 394 thus are the context for most of his theological work.

Gregory Nazianzen also did not take kindly to Basil’s appointment of him as a bishop, in his case of Sasima. Nazianzen, one of the few persons in church history to receive the honorific title, “the Theologian,” was born into a well-off Christian family in Cappadocia, much like Basil and Nyssen. Unlike them, though, Nazianzen’s father was a bishop, one who converted to the Nicene cause on the way to the Council of Nicaea in 325. Gregory was raised, therefore, with the expectation that, as the eldest son, he would follow in his father’s ministerial footsteps. After going to Athens in 350/51 for his education (during which time he met and befriended Basil), he continued, reluctantly, to be groomed by his father for ministry until he finally fled to join Basil in the ascetic life at Pontus. He was finally strongarmed into ordination and the ecclesial life when Basil appointed him bishop of Sasima. While he remained friends with Basil until the latter died in 379, their friendship was strained in some sense by Basil’s actions.

When Nazianzen arrived in Sasima, he was greeted with hostility, and so left the town and his office vacant of his presence. He eventually made his way to Constantinople, where he was ordained as bishop under contentious circumstances. Gregory benefited, however, from Theodosius’ position as Emperor. As Lionel Wickham puts it, “If Constantine made the empire Christian, Theodosius made it Nicene . . . .”[1] Nazianzen’s geographical and theological proximity to the Emperor made it easier to for him to write polemics against the anti-Nicenes, and in 381 he served as the president of the Council of Constantinople. This council solidified the Nicene position on the Trinity (one God in three persons; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are thus “of the same essence [homoousios]”) and also produced the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, considered the definitive summary of Trinitarian orthodoxy. Afterward, though, Gregory was ousted from his episcopate and retired to his family’s home in Nazianzus.

Trinitarian Theologians

The Cappadocians are considered, along with Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria, to be the great defenders of Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy in the patristic period. Basil and both Gregories are situated between Athanasius and Cyril chronologically and theologically. Chronologically speaking, all three were born after the First Council of Nicaea (325) and so entered into ecclesial life in the midst of the aftereffects of that council. Nicaea did not cease opposition to pro-Nicene Trinitarianism; on the contrary, in many ways opposition increased between Nicaea I and Constantinople I. Followers of Arius and Arius’s position continued to press a subordinationist view of the Son, as did other subordinationists like Eunomius and Asterius. This opposition was not only theological; it was also ecclesiastical. Differing theological factions competed for episcopal seats and other points of ecclesiastical power, and the various Emperors’ theological leanings contributed to the political and ecclesial unrest. This is, in part, why all three Cappadocians experienced serious and sustained opposition to their service as bishops.

In the midst of such ecclesial and political turmoil, the Cappadocians produced the most rhetorically articulate, biblically rooted, and philosophically informed arguments for pro-Nicene understandings of the Trinity. They did so both by drawing on and expanding Athanasius’ arguments for the full divinity of the Son and also by extending those same arguments to defend the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. While some anti-Nicenes continued to object to Nicaea, many who wanted to ecclesiastically fall in line with the Nicene decision and its implicit support by Constantine shifted their arguments against the full divinity of the Son to a denial of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. It is here that the Cappodians direct much of their attention. While Gregory of Nazianzus’ most famous work, The Five Theological Orations, deals in large part with the full divinity of the Son, he also extends those arguments to the full divinity of the Spirit. This was unusual at the time and a significant contribution to the debate. Likewise, both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa wrote works titled Against Eunomius, and in both instances they argue stringently for the full divinity of the Son. But they also importantly extend those arguments to the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. Additionally, both Basil and Gregory of Nyssa produced individual works concerned primarily with the person of the Holy Spirit (On the Holy Spirit and Ad Ablabium [also called On Not Three Gods], respectively). It is therefore due in large part to these three theological giants that we owe what we now call Trinitarian orthodoxy – that the one God is one in essence, three in person.


Editor’s Note: This article was adapted from Matt’s article in the CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible.

[1] Lionel Wickham, “Introduction,” in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius (PPS 23; trans., Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham; ed., Lionel Wickham; Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 12.