Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.04.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.04.03

Christopher A. Beeley (ed.), Re-reading Gregory of Nazianzus: Essays on History, Theology, and Culture. CUA studies in early Christianity.   Washington, DC:  Catholic University of America Press, 2012.  Pp. xiii, 319 .  ISBN 9780813219912.  $39.95.  

Reviewed by Edward Whitehouse, Bryn Mawr College (


It is fitting that this collection of sixteen cutting-edge studies of the life, work, and thought of Gregory of Nazianzus should serve as tribute to Frederick W. Norris, who, in Christopher A. Beeley’s words, “has done so much to recover for modern readers the magisterial and multifold achievement of St. Gregory the Theologian” (xiii). Many of the offerings in this volume can and, indeed, must be read in dialogue not only with Norris’ seminal commentary on the Theological Orations,1 which dismantles the false dichotomy between philosophy and rhetoric in antiquity, but also with his own work on Gregory as Trinitarian theologian and as intellectual.2

While each of the essays is worthy of both the volume’s subject and its honoree, due to the requisite brevity of this review I will focus on some of the contributions I found most thought-provoking.

In the opening essay, Brian Daley fits Gregory of Nazianzus’ Poemata arcana (“poems on ineffable mysteries”) within the context of the Catechetical Discourse of his fellow Cappadocian and Church Father Gregory of Nyssa. Both authors set about articulating a synthesized version of Christian doctrine, perhaps in response to the notorious anti-Christian maneuvers of Julian the so-called Apostate. Daley persuasively demonstrates that, in contrast to Nyssa’s use of philosophical texts such as Sallustius’ Concerning the Gods and the Universe for inspiration for the structure of his treatise, the model for the Poemata arcana was the De principiis of Origen “which provides these eight poems with the thematic frame on which Gregory weaves his own distinctive doctrinal fabric” (8–9). Of course, the most distinctive aspect of the Poemata arcana is not their doctrinal content, but rather their highly fashioned, classicizing poetic form. And Daley suggests, rightly I believe, that the poems were more than merely “a show of linguistic virtuosity,” meeting Julian’s challenge to Christian participation in the Hellenistic tradition head-on. In addition to this regularly accepted end, Gregory’s artistic choice quite likely stemmed in large part from the poet’s role within the classical tradition as “an inspired prophet as well as a verbal artisan” (12). Thus, while each Gregory was writing to serve similar pragmatic purposes, the idiosyncratic nature of Nazianzen’s Poemata arcana is indeed an artifact of his unique understanding of his personal relationship to the divine and his own function within it.

Verna Harrison argues that the rhetorical techniques of the Second Sophistic, especially the construction of antithetical structures that Gregory manipulated so adroitly, not only provided him a means of articulating his truly unique understanding of the Trinity but also came to profoundly inform that understanding. Especially welcome is the demonstration of the potential contribution which the interpretation of orations other than the five Theological Orations can have toward a fuller understanding of the more problematic passages of the Theological Orations themselves.

Ben Fulford presents a favorable assessment of Gregory as a biblical interpreter, citing several examples of Gregory’s multi-dimensional scriptural exegesis. Gregory’s rhetorical expression, especially in his festal orations, represents the successful selective and persuasive distribution of scriptural knowledge (in keeping with an Origenist conception of Scripture as the incarnate Logos) which Gregory understood to be one of his central roles as pastor-rhetor (31–32).

Brian Matz takes a different look at Gregory’s rhetorical use of biblical passages and allusions, focusing on Oration 14, “On Loving the Poor.” While the commonly understood impetus for this speech is Basil’s construction of the Basileia in response to a great famine in Cappadocia, Matz argues “the biblical idea of loving the poor for the sake of one’s own salvation is of far greater prominence in this oration than any particular concern to buttress Basil’s public works project in Caesarea” (51). In trying to make his point, Matz provides a quite useful survey of some 154 biblical citations in the oration, 126 of which can be securely traced. And he makes it abundantly clear that Gregory had a distinct “biblical-soteriological idea” in mind when he crafted the oration. What Matz seems to overlook, however, is that it is not mutually exclusive for Oration 14 to have developed from such an idea and to have had clear implications for social ethics. And Matz certainly goes too far in his evaluation of the oration: “Gregory rarely expresses a thought without recourse to a biblical word or image…Gregory uses biblical words to make the argument themselves” (58).

William Tabbernee offers an analysis of Gregory’s easily overlooked references to Montanus and Montanism (Or. 22.12b, 33.26; De vita sua 1174). Tabbernee seeks to identify the sources for Gregory’s anti-Montanist arguments, paying special attention to his course of pre-Athenian education. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the presence of verbal clues to direct borrowing, any attempt to discern the traditional foundation for his anti-Montanist stance remains largely conjectural and is further problematized by our lack of information concerning Gregory of Nyssa’s important polemic against Montanism (96). Still, Tabbernee does well to show that all three references occur in the immediate context of Gregory’s defense of the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, and that Montanus’ reputation, warranted or not, as a Pneumatomachian made him the perfect negative example for Gregory’s definition of the proper, Orthodox appreciation of the Trinity.

In a further contribution to his own insightful explication of Gregory’s attitude toward Greek philosophy, Claudio Moreschini draws a general sketch focusing especially on Cynicism. Gregory’s identification of true Christian philosophy with Cynicism seems to relate directly to his approbation of Maximus prior to his betrayal (110). Here, a discussion of just how Gregory’s perception of Cynicism changed as a result of Maximus’ betrayal would be desirable. There was clearly more to it than a simple dichotomy between “the Cynicism of his time, which was so depraved as to be represented by Maximus, [and] the Cynicism of the ancients like Diogenes, Antisthenes, and Crates” (116).

Suzanne Abrams Rebillard continues her fine pursuit, begun with her 2003 dissertation,3 of disentangling the “real” Gregory from the constructed persona(e) of his written works. She is concerned specifically with Gregory’s self-portrayal as an authoritative histor, deliberately playing upon the classic historiographic stances of Herodotus and Thucydides in several meta-narrative intrusions in his so-called autobiographical poems. In this vein, Abrams Rebillard offers up a case study of Carmen II.1.34, “On Silence During Lent,” where Gregory’s disparate roles of recorder of events, narrator, and personal subject of the narrative work in concert with the authoritative role he asserts for himself as “focalizer” of the divine for his audience, a role which runs parallel to his understanding of his own responsibility as priest to his congregation.

Andrew Hoffer lends insight to a fascinating aspect of Gregory’s autobiographical narrative, the frequent reference to his potential stoning during Easter of 380 in relation to the threatened stonings of Jesus. While there is perhaps something megalomaniacal about writing Christ’s life into one’s own, Hoffer argues that such a rhetorical ploy has two prescriptive, if self-serving, functions: persuading his readers to side with Gregory and inviting them to follow his example, to “ live out the verses of Scripture in complete baptismal conformity with the Savior” (158).

Vasiliki Limberis details the measures taken by the two Gregories, of Nazianzus and Nyssa, in dealing with the difficult Helladius, who was consecrated bishop of Caesarea following Basil’s death in 379. The so-called Helladius affairs are a window into the world of late fourth-century episcopal intrigue and their related political machinations. But, as Limberis points out, they also help delineate the disparate ways in which the two Gregories, who stood at very different stages in their own careers,4 chose to employ their ecclesiastical power. Limberis insightfully suggests that the cumulative influence of such infighting and posturing on the development of the Church was as profound as that of much more lofty doctrinal debates.

Neil McLynn provides an examination of one of Gregory’s often neglected epistolary poems. It is most reassuring that this eclectic selection of poems is finally receiving the scholarly attention it warrants. McLynn’s deft philological and prosopographical study of Carmen II.2.1, “To Hellenius, an Exhortation Concerning the Monks,” sheds light on the occasion of Gregory’s petition for tax-exempt status for his ascetic friends to the peraequator Hellenius as well as the possible reasons for presenting such a request in poetic form: “the dealings between Hellenius and the monks were elevated beyond reach of mundane carping” (187).5 But, as McLynn argues, the coalition of Christ- bearing protégés Gregory introduces to Hellenius in his poem suggests that in the early 370s before becoming bishop of Sasima, Gregory saw himself as every bit the equal of Basil.

If scholars of Gregory have learned anything in the past decade it is that when Susanna Elm is puzzled by something one should take note. Picking up on the outstanding work of Leslie Brubaker and others on the famous manuscript Parisinus Graecus 510, Elm poses a question which the manuscript suggests but other scholars have surprisingly chosen to skirt, namely, why Photius chose the orations of Gregory in particular as the subject of the exquisite gift he presented to the emperor Basil I and his family in the late 870s or early 880s. Elm quickly reveals that Photius had discovered the same truth that Elm herself illuminated for modern scholars: that Gregory had offered up the most forceful and persuasive articulation of what being both a Christian and an emperor entailed.

While this collection may not supplant the fine volume of Børtnes and Hägg6 nor the relevant articles in Hägg and Rousseau7 (many of the same authors are contributors), it is perhaps more likely than other recent scholarship to facilitate discourse between theologians, philologists, social historians, and historians of the Church. Furthermore, this volume is characterized by a striking degree of unity: whether spoken or implicit, the notion of Gregory as mediator of the divine for his congregation and readers (and for posterity) is central to nearly every article. Perhaps this should come as no surprise given that the same notion was clearly central to Gregory’s own literary corpus, a collection of logoi in service of the Logos, as well as to his own lived life.8


1.   Faith Gives Fullness to Reasoning. with a translation by Lionel Wickham and Frederick Williams. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae XIII (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1991).
2.  See especially, Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light. Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2008).
3.   Speaking for Salvation: Gregory of Nazianzus as Poet and Priest in His Autobiographical Poems (Brown University).
4.   I can’t, however, agree with Limberis’ assertion that “After 381 and in his sixties, Nazianzen wanted nothing more than peace, quiet, and retreat from the public stage” (160). This seems too positivist a reading of Gregory’s own narrative.
5.   See further, Peter Brown Power and Persuasion 1992: 31, cited by McLynn.
6.   Jostein Børtnes and Thomas Hägg, eds. Gregory of Nazianzus: Images and Reflections. (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2006).
7.   Thomas Hägg and Philip Rousseau, eds. Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity. The Transformation of the Classical Heritage, 31. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000).
8.   Typos: p.53 ‘more than [one] Gospel’; p.52 n.2 delete the second ‘better’; p.62 n.15 ‘Or. 14.27’ not ‘Or. 14.21’; p.87 ‘from of’; p.100 ‘other than [the] Good’; p.101 ‘heretics and heretics’; p.108 ‘immorality’ not ‘immortality’; p.109 ‘tradition[al] motifs’; p.111 ‘sometime[s]’; p.139 ‘Samian’ not ‘Samain’. ​

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