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Cappadocia |
The trio who came to the rescue

Cappadocia is drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 60, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

The Cappadocians carry the Nicene Creed to its final victory, while one of them lays down the rules for a monastic life and service to the helpless

Cappadocia - The trio who came to the rescue

Cappadocia - The trio who came to the rescue
Now considered “fathers of the church,” the three Cappadocian bishops (left to right) Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus, did not always see eye-to-eye on matters of ecclesiastical administration.

For the aging Athanasius, battling for years against emperors, bishops, bureaucrats, the military and the mob to preserve the Nicene Creed, the reports emerging from the east in the mid-360s must have come as the pale promise of dawn. Three men, he was told, all fearless, all magnificent preachers, all in their mid-thirties, had taken up his cause against the religion of Arius. Ironically, they came from Cappadocia, home of the notorious George, who had imposed Arianism on Alexandria with bludgeon and sword.

Two of the three were brothers, the third their close friend. The foremost was Basil, who would become bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia. His brother Gregory, renowned for his lucid presentation of Trinitarian theology, would be bishop of nearby Nyssa. Their friend, another Gregory, this one from another Cappadocian town, Nazianzus, a persuasive preacher in the Nicene cause, would serve briefly as bishop of Constantinople. Both Gregorys would play key roles at the Council of Constantinople in 381, which decisively upheld the Nicene Creed.

The three are known to Christian history as “the Cappadocians.” Basil is remembered by Christians as “Basil the Great,” the man who laid down the structure and ethos of eastern monasticism, making prayer, holiness and the care of the sick and helpless the central work.

He and his brother would exemplify another phenomenon that would recurrently appear in Christian history, that of the Christian family, serving Christ for generation after generation. Their maternal grandfather had been executed as a Christian under Maximian. Both paternal grandparents had been forced to hide for seven years in the wilderness.

Their father, a lawyer and devout Christian, had ten children–five boys, three of whom became bishops, and five girls. Macrina, eldest of the ten, was so beautiful, wrote her brother and biographer Gregory, that “a great swarm of suitors crowded round her parents.” To end the clamor, they betrothed her at age twelve. Following the premature death of her fiancé, she announced that she considered herself married, already and always. After caring for her siblings and the extensive family estate, she joined her widowed mother in establishing a monastery.

Basil was sent to law school at Athens. Precocious, prissy and acutely aware of his superior intellect, he presented a tempting target for student hazing. But he met Gregory at the university, son of the bishop of Nazianzus, who protected him, and the two formed a famous friendship. But an unequal one, writes John McGuckin in his St. Gregory of Nazianzus (New York, 2001). Gregory “suffered the unfortunate disability of loving his friend more than his friend loved him.”

While Gregory reveled in the university life, Basil found the place frivolous. He returned from university insufferable, writes his brother, “puffed up beyond measure with the pride of oratory, and excelling–in his own estimation–all the leading men in town.” It was Macrina who brought him to his senses. He could take no credit for his intellect, she said. God had given that to him, and it should be employed in the service of God. In short, he should consider the monastic life.

Her words, Basil would later recall, awakened him as from a deep sleep. He began visiting religious communities in Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia, and on the basis of what he saw, he founded his own. His brother joined him. So, briefly, did Gregory his friend, by now disillusioned with Athens, but he found the ascetic life too difficult, and returned to Nazianzus to assist his father, the bishop.

Basil refined his approach to the monastic life in the 360s, preaching it throughout Asia Minor and codifying it in what came to be called “The Long Rules.” His monks began their day at midnight, with prayer. There was but one meal. However, the outstanding feature of Basil’s monasticism from the outset was its emphasis on good works, bestowed especially on the poor and afflicted.

Basil and friend Gregory collaborated on a major academic work intended to claim for the Nicene cause the concurrence of the great theologian Origen, who himself had once taken refuge at Cappadocian Caesarea. This established them as theologians. Both were soon fully involved in the Nicene controversy as staunch allies of Athanasius.

It was not a comfortable role. With the emperor Valens fervently, often violently, advancing the Arian cause, Basil took refuge in his monastery, sleeping on the ground in a hair shirt, possessing just a single cloak and a single tunic, eating only bread, drinking only water, his heat the sun alone, and dogged by the ill health that attended him all his life. He was “without a wife, without property, without flesh and almost without blood,” wrote his brother. But it was there in his monastery that he composed one of the great works on the Nicene controversy, Against Eunomius, re-arguing the debate from the Nicene viewpoint.

In 362, he helped elect an orthodox layman named Eusebius as bishop of Caesarea and became his adviser, tirelessly promoting clergy who supported the creed to senior church offices. He also became the dependable friend of the unfortunate. When famine struck, he fed the poor of Caesarea out of his personal wealth.

Eusebius died in 370, and a struggle developed over the succession. Caesarea was a provincial capital, its prelate a metropolitan, holding authority over some seventy bishops. Prior to Eusebius, it had been an Arian stronghold. Would the new bishop support the creed or the Arian emperor? Basil wanted the job himself, but it was unseemly to campaign for it. So he pretended illness and appealed urgently to his old friend Gregory to come to his bedside. There followed one of the frequent spats that characterized the trio, though never seriously divided them.

Gregory, by now a monk himself, left Nazianzus immediately to aid his stricken friend. On the road, however, he discovered (a) that his friend was not sick, (b) that his friend wanted to become bishop, and (c) that he wanted Gregory to run his campaign. In disgust, Gregory turned back and told his father what had happened. The father, a keen supporter of Athanasius and the creed, rebuked his son and wrote an appeal to the people of Caesarea, convincing enough to win the election for Basil.

Basil’s ministry in Caesarea would produce a bountiful legacy. He developed there a whole complex of buildings known as the Basileiad. It included a hospital, a home for the elderly, an orphanage, a school to train the unskilled, plus chapels and churches, becoming a monastic model that would be imitated across both eastern and western Europe.

To the see of Nyssa, a ramshackle little town not far from Caesarea, he appointed his brother, occasioning another altercation. His brother loved solitude and was highly reluctant to become a bishop anywhere, let alone in dreary Nyssa. Under protest, he took the post anyway. In a similar circumstance, Gregory of Nazianzus was far less acquiescent. When Basil made the miserable little village of Sasima into a diocese (to gain an extra vote for the Nicene side) and coerced Gregory into becoming its bishop, an angry exchange of letters followed, and Gregory never once visited the place.

A year after Basil’s election, the emperor Valens, more determined in his Arianism than ever, began a brutal procession through Asia Minor, and a systematic persecution of the creed’s supporters. Recalcitrant bishops were ousted from their sees, one of them Gregory of Nyssa, who went into exile.

Basil met the emperor’s mission defiantly. He refused communion to the emperor’s advance party. When Demosthenes appeared, once the emperor’s cook, now his spokesman and strong-arm enforcer, Basil told him to go back to his pots and pans. Next came the prefect Modestus, threatening confiscation, torture and death. Basil replied tartly: “How can I suffer torture since I barely have a body left?” Modestus, astonished, said he’d never before met such defiance. “Perhaps,” retorted Basil, “that’s because you’ve never before met a true bishop.”

Finally, the emperor Valens himself arrived. Brother Gregory describes the scene. With his courtiers, Valens crashed his way into Basil’s cathedral. High drama followed in full costume, the emperor in his robes of state, the bishop in those of a metropolitan. Flanked by their seconds, the two faced one another across the sacred altar, the haunting tones of the Liturgy echoing through the church.

The emperor, suddenly awestruck, fell to his knees, holding out the accustomed imperial offering to the church. Basil refused it. Abashed, the emperor departed. He returned the next day as a penitent. He knelt. Basil threw his stole across the imperial head, and pronounced absolution in the name of Jesus Christ.

The two men began quietly discussing the Nicene issue. It seemed serious. The imperial aides became alarmed. Demosthenes sought, with an ungrammatical interjection, to halt the discussion. “Behold,” quipped Basil, “we have a Demosthenes who can’t speak Greek.” The emperor roared laughing. Basil had won. His defiance was overlooked. Valens later cut Cappadocia in two, halving Basil’s territory, but unquestionably Basil had captured the emperor’s respect.

As the influence of the three grew, so did the force raised against them. Brother Gregory was accused of misappropriating church funds, Basil of extorting money from a rich widow. Both charges were so absurd that when the prefect Modestus came to take Basil into custody, all Caesarea rose to defend him, and prevented the arrest. Then Basil was attacked theologically, accused of diminishing the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. His treatise in response asserting the equality of the Three Persons became a classic.

In 378, when Valens fell in battle and was succeeded by the committed Nicene Theodosius I, radical change began. Basil died in 379, mourned by Christians, Jews and pagans alike, but his friend Gregory was invited to Constantinople by Theodosius to champion the Nicene cause in the Arian heartland. He was escorted into the city by an armed guard and took up residence in a small house. There he wrote the sermons that played a major role in turning opinion.

But not without sharp resistance. He was mocked by his foes for his rural accent and his ascetic’s rags. He was stoned in the streets, even in his own cathedral. Nevertheless, five of his orations stand as landmarks of Trinitarian doctrine, listing and countering each Arian argument in turn, and earning him the title “the Theologian.” There was another curious incident. A would-be assassin penetrated his little house at night. Encountering his intended victim, he suddenly felt conscience-stricken, fell to his knees and asked Gregory’s forgiveness. Gregory acceded, and his would-be assassin became his supporter.

Both Gregorys would preach at the Council of Constantinople in 381, where the Nicene Creed triumphed. Gregory of Nazianzus was made bishop of Constantinople. But the connivance and fury over the appointment of a bishop for Antioch so dismayed him that he resigned within a month and retired to his monastery. There he died in 389. Gregory of Nyssa preached and wrote theological treatises until his death in 395.

A fitting eulogy for all the Cappadocians could be taken from Gregory of Nazianzus’s so-called Last Farewell: “This was my field,” he wrote. “It was small and poor, unworthy not only of God, who has been and is cultivating the whole world . . . but not deserving to be called a field at all.” Even so, the harvest was “great and well-eared and fat in the eyes of him who beholdeth hidden things.”

One fact, of course, Gregory did not know. That field, meager as it was, would be harvested century after century through all the ages of Christian monasticism.

This is the end of the Cappadocia category article drawn from Chapter Two, beginning on page 60, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Cappadocia from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at