BMCR 2008.03.14

Gregory of Nazianzus. Series: The Early Church Fathers

, Gregory of Nazianzus. The early church fathers. London and New York: Routledge, 2006. 1 online resource (viii, 273 pages).. ISBN 1423794737. $35.95 (pb).

This volume on Gregory of Nazianzus by Brian E. Daley, S.J., contains a well-balanced combination of scholarly reflections on Gregory’s life and works along with original translations that give the reader a direct appreciation of Gregory’s writings within the context of the man of faith behind them. Some readers may be familiar with Daley’s previous works such as The Hope of the Early Church: A Handbook of Patristic Eschatology (Cambridge University Press, 1991; Hendrickson, 2003) and On the Dormition of Mary: Early Patristic Homilies (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), or his studies on ancient Christology, Trinitarian theology and eschatology. Daley is a life-long patristic scholar whose knowledge of this field results in an insightful and clear study of an important early Christian figure. Readers who want an introduction to Gregory will find this book very useful and those looking for more detail will appreciate the many references provided. The sections complement each other very well and progress smoothly from one to the other. They are also organized in such a way as to be able to be read individually. This book appears in Routledge’s “The Early Church Fathers” series and follows its format, providing both an introduction and translations of the original texts. It is divided into five parts: 1) Introduction, 2) Orations, 3) Poems, 4) Letters, and 5) Gregory’s Will.

The “Introduction” contains the following sections: “Gregory the Man,” “Gregory the Humanist,” “Gregory the Philosopher,” “Gregory the Theologian,” “Gregory the Priest,” and a final section entitled “These Translations.” Though aspects of Gregory’s life are presented in separate sections, Daley is successful in showing how Gregory’s vision actually incorporated them together. The introduction is lengthy enough to offer the reader a sufficient overview of Gregory’s life and writings and also contains helpful notes and an up-to-date bibliography. Daley focuses on the significance of Gregory within the context of the late fourth century, a time when it was first “legally and socially permissible to be a public Christian intellectual.” (p.1) Gregory seized the opportunity to fill an important intellectual void by producing a large number and great variety of writings. Daley notes: “The body of works that he left us spans the entire range of Greek literary forms but deals almost exclusively with Christian themes: 44 highly elaborate ‘orations’ including sermons for liturgical solemnities, panegyrics on great figures of the Christian past, funeral orations for friends and family members, polemics against his enemies, treatises on doctrine, and personal apologiae for his own life and ministry; 249 letters, on a variety of subjects, some familiar in tone, some dealing with business matters, some ornate and courtly, but all written with the terseness and elegance that classical antiquity expected in the letters of a trained writer; and some 17,000 lines of poetry, including solemn hymns in Homeric language and style, extended narratives of the ‘epic’ of his own life, didactic expositions on classical and Christian virtue, personal prayers, epitaphs for friends, and wry personal comments on illness, aging, and human foibles.” (p.1) This volume attempts to give the reader an appreciation of the important place that these works played in the life of the Church and subsequently in defining the role of the Christian intellectual.

The section “Gregory the Man” gives the reader a biographical overview of Gregory’s life which spanned the period from just after the Council of Nicaea (325) and extended past the first Council of Constantinople (381). After briefly noting the faith of his mother and the episcopal appointment of his father as initial influences, focus is then turned to his academic formation. From Caesaraea (Cappadocia), to the other Caesaraea (Palestine), then to Alexandria, and finally to Athens, Gregory received the best and most well rounded education of his time. This early period of his life, which culminated in developing a strong friendship with Basil of Caesaraea in Athens, proved to have set the course for the events that would unfold throughout his life.

“Gregory the Humanist” discusses how Gregory’s writings reflected his attempt to make the best use of his Hellenic training for the advancement of the Christian faith and his success in accomplishing this goal. He used orations, poems, and letters to portray, through eloquent means, the beauty of Christian doctrine and life. The section on “Gregory the Philosopher” highlights Gregory’s effort to present philosophy as consisting of a balance between contemplation and practice. Philosophy is able to turn the finite mind toward God and lead towards union with God who is the goal of all right reasoning. Gregory paints “a portrait of the true philosopher as a person of extraordinary stamina, genuine nobility, and unfailing generosity.” (p.39) In addition he affirmed the emphasis of the classical philosophers who recognised the importance of a life of virtue lived within the context of a community. Daley’s treatment of this aspect of Gregory’s life is a good lead into the section “Gregory the Theologian.” The title “Theologian” was ascribed to him by his first biographer, Gregory the Presbyter, who wrote: “although many men known for wisdom had spoken of God through the centuries, he alone, after John the Evangelist, was named ‘the Theologian’, and this title became, in a way, his own distinctive characteristic.” (p.41) It became widely attributed to him primarily for his contribution to the formulation of the Church’s Trinitarian theology. This point is treated briefly, as is understandable, in a volume of this nature. However, the use of the term “Theology” from the time of Plato to its appropriation by Origen and its subsequent Christian use is explained. For Gregory “Theology” began with a commitment to the Christian life, conversion and participation in the sacraments of the Church. His caution and boldness along with his all-encompassing vision which consisted of both word and action offered the Church a worthy model of a “Theologian.”

The section “Gregory the Priest” discusses his reflections on ministry and service as a priest and bishop. Gregory not only wrote on this topic but actually put into practice the kind of ministry he proposed. This is a particularly well written section as it shows Gregory’s lifelong desire to not only change others but to accept to be changed himself. Though he preferred to retreat for prayer he was repeatedly delayed due to the urgent needs that were placed before him and his conviction that his ecclesial vocation was being lived through his active ministry. Contemplation and practice were nonetheless tightly interwoven throughout his life as he reflected upon, developed, and taught doctrines that became part of the lasting heritage of Christianity.

The final section “These Translations” addresses the difficulty of translating Gregory’s writings and notes that many of his works have yet to be translated. Daley succeeds in his aim to present the depths of Gregory’s thought in clear English that also captures the essence of his writings. The translations give us access to Gregory’s intellectual as well as highly personal qualities and any future efforts to make more of his works available in English would be welcome.

The sections that follow consist of original translations of eight orations, ten poems/prayers, eleven letters, and Gregory’s will. Each is preceded by a brief yet helpful introduction that specifically addresses issues related to the translated texts. Daley had prepared the reader for the sections on Gregory’s writings by addressing Gregory’s own caution about theological language (cf. p.45). Gregory recognised the difficulty of language and ironically subsequent generations of readers and translators have struggled with certain sections of his writings. Though some of his works are challenging, the translations offered in this volume show that the majority of his works can be read and understood with ease.

The first section is on Gregory’s “Orations.” These cover a variety of topics, but all contain doctrinal themes that are supported by Biblical allusions. The oration for his sister Gorgonia, which is a hybrid of classical form and Christian content, praises her as one who has transformed the classical pagan virtues into a new Christian heroism. At the beginning of his oration, Gregory defends himself by saying: “I shall rather be telling things that give her credit, because they are true — and telling the truth not just because it is right to tell it, but because it is already well known.” (p.64). The rest of this oration and the others in this section display Gregory’s compelling communicative style. As with the other orations, the reader will find that what he says and the imagery that he uses to express those thoughts will be of equal interest.

These sections which offer translations of Gregory’s works would not have been complete without a selection of his “poems.” However, one would have to have a special appreciation of this particular style of poetry to enjoy them. Of these “rambling autobiographical narratives in Homeric style, theological meditations, prayers and hymns, celebrations of friends, didactic and moral discourses, and deeply personal cries of loneliness and despair” (p.162), I found the first description to be most apt.

The fourth section provides translations of some of Gregory’s “letters.” Here Gregory not only greets his addressee but also admonishes and provides exhortations on living a faithful Christian life. At times writing in praise, while at other times being rather harsh and direct, Gregory shows himself to be both a friend and pastor of souls.

The final section is a translation of a unique document — Gregory’s “will.” Daley notes: “Gregory is, as far as I know, the only Church Father, Eastern or Western, whose written will has come down to us.” (p.184) A peculiarity of this will is the title Gregory ascribes to himself as the “bishop of the Catholic Church in Constantinople.” (p.186) Daley clarifies that though he served as bishop of Constantinople, this title was not officially conferred on him. However, as he had previously noted (cf. pp.11-13) Gregory had resented his original appointment as bishop of Nazianzus. Despite these feelings it is reassuring to know that Gregory’s love for the people of Nazianzus endured even till after his death as he willed all his possessions to the service of the poor in that city.

This is an appropriate way to end a volume on the “Theologian” whose theology was to proclaim what he lived and to live what he proclaimed. Daley’s presentation captures this dynamic in the introduction and in the translated sections. Gregory is shown to have had passion yet charity, authority yet humble service, great education yet astounding simplicity. Daley is successful in showing that the genius of Gregory’s work was the faith that inspired it.