Gregory was born in Karbala in Arianzum just outside of Nazianzus around 329/30 to a provincial elite Gregory and his wife Nonna. Nazianzus is in what is now central Turkey. His father was originally part of a Jewish/pagan sect called the Hypsistarians, but was converted to Christianity by his wife Nonna. That they were provincial elite’s is important, because it is in the fourth century that you see more and more second generation Christians being able to receive a classical education, and this is what Gregory’s parents provided for him.
Gregory, along with Basil of Caesarea and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, was one of the key players in the Trinitarian debates of the early church that have shaped how Christians have talked about God ever since. In fact, because of his work, Gregory would posthumously receive the epithet “the Theologian” at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 (one of three people to receive the epithet in Eastern Orthodoxy). He would also go on to be the model for Byzantine Greek and the second most quoted source after the Bible in Byzantium. He is relatively unknown in English-speaking evangelicalism, which is unfortunate since Gregory offers a model for engaging the contemporary world through education, retreat, and philanthropy.
Gregory loved his education. As the son of provincial elites, Gregory was given a world-class education for his day. After local grammar studies, Gregory studied rhetoric in Caesarea in Cappadocia. From there he studied abroad in Caesarea Palestine and Alexandria for a couple years before moving on to his greatest love: Athens. At Athens Gregory studied rhetoric for ten years under the tutelage of the pagan Himerius and the Christian Prohaeresius. It is also here that Gregory formed one of his most important—and tumultuous—friendships with Basil of Caesarea.
Unlike his friend Basil, Gregory speaks lovingly of his time in Athens. He loved everything about it: the language, the education, and the culture. His love of this education spurned him to write a harsh posthumous response to the Emperor Julian’s edict banning Christians from teaching the Greek classics. One of his longest writings, Oration 4 vigorously argues that Greek literature does not belong only to those who believe in the Greek gods just because they are written in Greek. Instead, the true Word (Logos), who is the source of our words (logoi) has given language, culture, and education for the sake of building up human communities, regardless of who invented what. All the products of culture belong to all to be used for the sake of all.
The second thing Gregory shows us is the importance of retreat. Gregory has become (in)famous for running away from responsibility. When his father ordains him as a priest in Nazianzus, Gregory runs away to visit his friend Basil in Pontus (northern Turkey by the Black Sea), and pens his Oration 2 in defense of this flight.
But, as Susanna Elm has shown in her book Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church, what Gregory is doing is actually locating himself within longstanding debates in antiquity about how those in leadership positions balance the active and contemplative life. Gregory thinks both are important. One must not rush headlong into a leadership role; indeed, only those suffering from great hubris are eager for such positions. One must retreat for a time to cultivate the virtues necessary for engaging in the active and public life upon returning from retreat.
In the midst of talk about whether Christians should retreat from the public sphere, Gregory offers a “yes” and “no.”As with his view of language, education, and culture, retreat is not merely for the benefit of oneself. Though it is easy for us to see retreat as merely “getting a break” from the chaos of everyday life, Gregory reminds us that a break from normal life is an opportunity to it as an opportunity to be transformed by God for the benefit of those in our communities.
Finally, Gregory sees philanthropy as one of the highest of Christian virtues. In part, this is not uncommon for his day; a rhetorician might praise someone for their philanthropy as a summary of all of the classical virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice). He argues vigorously in Oration 14 (On the Love of the Poor), which he wrote to elicit support of Basil’s in effort to care for the sick and poor by building hostels outside of Caesarea, for the ideal of philanthropy.
But Gregory did not merely see this as a human ideal. He also sees philanthropy as the virtue most perfectly expressed by God who, in great love for humanity, became incarnate, suffered, and died. Indeed, philanthropy, Gregory thinks, is the virtue that makes us most like God. Their efforts seem to have been a success, for what began as mere hostels had burgeoned into a “new city” (as Gregory calls it in his eulogy for Basil [Oration 43]). Later these hostels were called Basileias after Basil. Here Gregory puts to good use the years of rhetorical education. His powers of persuasion are on full display as he moves the hearts—and hands—of those who hear to see the plight of those in need and to do something about it.
Gregory of Nazianzus was a highly educated elite Roman who turned his education and Christian faith into service for the poor. While he might be known amongst seminary students for his defense of the Trinity, he should also be known as an example of how Christians can take the best of what they have in their own day directed through the contemplation of God and cultivation of virtues for the benefit of those most in need.