The church remembers Gregory of Nazianzus as a brilliant theologian. In fact, Eastern Christendom honors him as “The Theologian.”1 His writings were cited in Byzantine ecclesiastical literature more than any other source except the Bible.2 Gregory was also a superlative poet. He deliberately wrote theological treatises and speeches as works of art so they would be lovely and persuasive, enshrining the idea he was advancing. One medieval literary scholar said his writing surpassed that of such iconic Greek figures as Plato and Demosthenes and that there were no Greek literary luminaries who eclipsed his ability.3
Gregory was also one of history’s greatest preachers. “The Christian Demosthenes,” as he sometimes has been called, utilized his oratorical gifts to safeguard the church in one of its most challenging moments.4
Gregory’s Life and Times
Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329-390) was born into a devout family of wealth in rural Cappadocia, today’s Turkey. His mother prayed that God would give her a son, and—similar to Hannah of the Old Testament—in return she promised to consecrate him for the ministry. His parents believed Gregory was the answer to that prayer. His identity and vocational trajectory were shaped by that birth narrative.
Gregory’s education was fashioned by the vibrant faith of his home, but also by his study in the Hellenic centers of education where he was steeped in logic, rhetoric and oratory. While Christian faith was deeply imbedded in him, he also was enamored with the principles of high-minded Greek culture (i.e., to write, speak, think and act justly, clearly, honestly and beautifully).
The fourth century was a period of enormous change for the church in the Roman Empire. In 313 A.D., Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, making it legal to practice Christianity. The church, which had been persecuted for three centuries, now was able to practice its faith in public, and Christians were able to make a case for their faith to the public. Unresolved doctrinal disputes in the church now were able to be deliberated openly. The church could gather and confer about differences of belief. The church would use the fourth century to resolve critical questions regarding the doctrines of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
A heresy of the fourth century was Arianism (named after its primary exponent, Arius 256-336 A.D.). Arianism held that Christ was created by the Father, and therefore was not God of the same substance as the Father. The Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. found Arianism a heresy and asserted that Christ was the same substance as the Father. The matter was settled by the church.
However, in the decades that unfolded, Arianism found popular appeal among the majority of Christians across the Roman Empire, especially among the churches in the new capital city, Constantinople. It looked as if Arianism might creep back in as the position of the church. Additionally, there were Christians who were asserting the Holy Spirit was not of the same substance as the Father. The doctrine of the Trinity itself was at stake.
In 379 A.D., Theodosius became emperor. He believed in Nicene doctrine and wanted to reestablish it to its rightful place in the church. Therefore, he needed a theologian of extraordinary oratorical gifts to convince the masses. He installed Gregory of Nazianzus as bishop of Constantinople to accomplish the task. Gregory sensed the moment was crucial. Great preaching was needed in the service of a great cause. The future of the church hung in the balance. Was Jesus Christ fully God?
During a period of 20 months, Gregory of Nazianzus composed the most profound, yet simple, sermons on the doctrine of God and other critical theological questions. He delivered them with clarity, convincing argument, and colorful rhetoric under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. Amazingly, through the ministry of this small, frail preacher, God changed the hearts and minds of the Christians of Constantinople and shifted the Roman Empire toward Nicene orthodoxy. Arianism as a serious threat was vanquished. The church had a foundation and a future.
Gregory believed the foundation for preaching was to have a consuming desire for God and His Word—to be so stained by love for God and the Bible that he embodied the Word in his life. This embodiment outside the pulpit caused him to be in a position to mediate God’s Word persuasively to hearers when the time came for him to be in the pulpit.5
Gregory was a Bible preacher, but not an expository preacher. He had command of the theology of the organic whole of Scripture. He knew Scripture well and was able to relate one part to another. His sermons dealt with large theological concerns because theological understanding regarding the big questions was the need of his time. He was immersed in Scripture, and that immersion assisted him in being true to the message of the Bible, rather than imposing meanings on the text. There were often scores of biblical references in his sermons. He used these texts as witnesses. Scripture came to the witness stand and testified on behalf of the sermon’s argument.
Gregory’s preaching was clear and simple. He preached in such a way as to make his main idea unobstructed by artistic device, but he was also a rhetorical connoisseur. He concerned himself with the use of metaphor and meter. He sought to be eloquent through the use of vocabulary, cadence and timing. He desired his sermons be works of art so their form, not only the content, might captivate the hearer.
Gregory’s sermons were doxological in nature. They always sought to bring glory to God’s redemptive and creative work. They were meant to inspire one to worship. They were also ethical in nature. He often concluded his sermons with a call to holy living, reminding Christians that God had provided the means for them to be morally distinct.
Some contemporary preaching has as one of its aims to appeal to today’s spiritual consumer in form and content so the preacher might be regarded as relevant. Gregory sought to do something altogether different. He sought to elevate the sermon to something beautiful so the form of the sermon itself might enshrine the truth of God and persuade persons to follow that truth.
1 Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, trans. By Frederick Williams and Lionel Wickham. On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius. Crestwood, N.J.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002, p. 9.
2 Brian E. Daley. Gregory of Nazianzus. New York: Routledge, 2006, p. 2.
3 Rosemary Radford Ruether. Gregory of Nazianzus: Rhetor and Philosopher. Lima, OH: Academic Renewal Press, 2003, p. 33.
4 Daley, 2006, p. 1.
5 Ibid, 2006, p. 56.