Gregory of Nazianzus – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Chapter 27 Part 3

Gregory of Nazianzus

Theodosius as a new emperor wanted to bring an end to the religious in-fighting that was weakening the empire, particularly that between the Arians and the Orthodox.  Theodosius came from a part of the empire where Arianism hadn’t really penetrated, and so presumably was a believer in the orthodox form.   Whatever his personal convictions, the most straight forward way to achieve the unity he needed was to support the strongest group against all the others. This meant enforcing the orthodox position against the various heresies that challenged it. The biggest single step in this direction was to win Constantinople over from the Arians. To do so he appointed the obvious candidate, Gregory of Nazianzus as the patriarch of Constantinople.

 


Gregory found himself at the centre of the controversies of his time and so the story of his life illustrates quite well what was going on. He marks a bit of a turning point in the development of the Church, being someone who actually seems to have given some priority to moral issues. Despite the battle against heresy, Christianity was becoming the dominant power in the culture and was transforming from an outsider to an insider mentality. This brings with it a sense of responsibility that an obscure cult doesn’t need. The founding fathers of Christianity can never have imagined that they would ever be in a position of any influence and it shows in their writing.

Gregory had a more moral approach.  It is to Gregory that we owe the idea that Christians ought to be charitable for example. Dishing out cash was naturally a good way of attracting support, and this was something that was not new as a practice. Religious organisations, not just Christian ones, were often involved in charitable operations in the ancient world.  It is quite likely that the appeal of the church in its early days had been very much as a sort of social security network that provided an alternative to the established one, which explains its appeal to the poor.  But Gregory’s thinking was that charity was a duty of individual Christians. This emphasis on personal charity as something that is good for your soul is not something that comes out particularly strongly in the New Testament.  But would become a feature of the behaviour of individual believers as the religion developed.

So Gregory is an early example of how Christians can sometimes transcend the shortcomings of their holy book. His father was the bishop of Nazianzus, so bishoping was in the family. His father’s big problem was heretics with Arian misgivings about the nature of Christ. This was a common issue in the eastern half of the empire. As he grew up Gregory helped out using his ability to write and speak to win the heretics back to the true faith. This was an unusual approach. Disputes at the time were usually settled by expulsions and often violence.

Gregory went on to study in Athens where he met a couple of men who would later come to prominence. The first was the soon to be Apostate, Julian. His paganism was still very much in the closet and presumably Gregory was unaware of it. When Julian later became the emperor and renounced Christianity, Gregory had the courage to write against him. Criticising a live emperor is not the action of someone who values his life above his principals. Although the liberal minded Julian was unlikely to have done any actual harm to Gregory, it must still have been a relief when he was replaced by an orthodox Christian emperor.  The other was a man who like Gregory, was destined to become a saint, Basil.  The two men became firm friends. In the reshuffling that followed the return of Christianity Basil picked up a key job as the Deacon and later the Bishop of Caesarea. In this capacity he created a new post specifically for Gregory as the bishop of an insignificant crossroads.

Very clever people can sometimes be incredibly dense. Gregory lamented that his new flock was small, poor and there were clearly more important spiritual matters that needed his attention. It isn’t recorded what Basil was thinking. It may have been a deliberate insult as Gibbon suggests. I can’t help thinking it is more likely to have been Basil securing an income with light duties for his friend so he could devote his time to helping Basil with his bigger schemes. Maybe the principled and idealistic Gregory simply didn’t pick up the hints.

In any event, he didn’t play along with Basil’s plans and simply went home. He then found a project that actually chimed with his inclinations.  Constantinople had become the hotbed of Arianism. The clergy and the people were nearly all of that persuasion, and with a sympathetic emperor there was little that could be done about it by the Orthodox. It would be almost impossible to convert the whole city, one by one, back to the true faith. But to a true believer, the chance was worth taking no matter how difficult and apparently hopeless. Gregory was just such a man, and he duly turned up in Constantinople intent on achieving the impossible. Presumably he expected the help of God.

He created a makeshift chapel with a small party of supporters and set about winning over the population of the biggest city in the empire. He christened this headquarters the Anastasia which means rebirth in Greek, to indicate his intention to renew the spiritual purity of the capital.

It was a tough job. The people were against him. On one occasion an angry crowd attacked the Anastasia and people were killed. The authorities were also against him, and Gregory was pulled before a judge to be held to account for the bloodshed. He argued his way out of trouble using the skills he had already demonstrated against the heretics troubling his father. But he was clearly operating in inhospitable circumstances. He also had problems with his own supporters. One of the people who followed him, notable for sporting a stoic philosopher’s cloak, tried to hijack the Anastasia with support from some bishops in Egypt. It was a real betrayal of trust, but also a further indication that Gregory was probably not all that politically astute. Nonetheless, despite all the obstacles in his way he began to win over people and to build an Orthodox constituency in the heart of Arian territory.

 

The fairy tale ending to this story would be if the true word of God had successfully won over hearts and minds leading to the conversion of the error ridden and the rebirth of the Church unified and stronger than ever. Well that didn’t happen. The triumph of Orthodoxy actually came about as a result of Theodosius arriving with his army. Gregory was escorted to his new appointment as the bishop of Constantinople surrounded by armed guards. The main church, Hagia Sofia – the church of the holy wisdom – was ringed with troops to protect it from the resentful population. Gregory describes the uncomfortable feeling that he was now in a city occupied by a hostile army. This wasn’t the way he could have imagined achieving his goal. He could cope with undeserved persecution. Undeserved success was much tougher.

 

One of the charges made against the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is that it has a bias against Christianity. This is not altogether untrue. You’d certainly have a job reading a positive interpretation of the history of Christianity from its pages, even though the author never rejects the truth of the Gospel. But examples of where you can pick up rhetorical manipulation of facts to portray the church in a bad light are very rare. It is also pretty rare to hear direct criticism. But when he comes across the pungent critique Gregory made of his contemporary ecclesiastics he rather gleefully points it out.  He then uses the prestige of Gregory’s name to give those criticisms credibility, while failing to give Gregory much credit.

 

This must be galling.  Who says the church was full of scoundrels?  Well, one of the most respected doctors of the church who was later made a saint.  You can hardly fault a witness like that. I suppose the only answer is that the church is full of fallible humans and like any other institution it reflects the fallen nature of mankind.  And for once I sympathise.  A man like Gregory does show that not everyone was simply out for what they could get, and Gibbon could have pointed that out that for all its faults, Christianity was the better for the work of Gregory of Nazianzus.

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