St. Gregory of Nyssa: A Symbol and Example of Christian Unity

There is a fundamental tear in the fabric of the Christian community. The Body of Christ has suffered great injury – self-inflicted injury – and in spite of the wishes of the Head of the Body of Christ, the injury has yet to be healed.

The Christian Church is not united. Split East from West, split Catholic from Protestant, there are times when the rift seems irreparable. But there is hope; there is always hope. In recent years, even in recent weeks, there have been significant reasons to hope for unity. And if one looks back through the centuries, a number of figures present themselves as patrons of this drive for unity.

The recent meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow has given a renewed sense of hope to Christians the world over. Might there one day soon be unity – of some sort, to any greater extent than exists today – between Christian Churches of East and West?

There are a number of figures who can be examples for the drive for Christian unity. One figure who has been growing in prominence in recent decades is an important theologian from the fourth century, who theologically and geographically bridged the gap between East and West: St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Gregory was born in around 335 A.D., in or near the city of Neocaesarea in modern day Turkey. Gregory was born of noble and holy blood; his family was aristocratic and devoutly Christian, and several members of his immediate family were also to be canonized.

Gregory’s family was persecuted for their Christian faith. Gregory wrote that they had their possessions confiscated because of their faith in Christ. However, the family regained its prominence and wealth over several decades, and by the 340s were again prominent citizens.

Gregory initially pursued a career outside of the Church as a rhetorician, but ultimately he was elected bishop of Nyssa in 372. Gregory’s policies as a bishop were occasionally at odds with those of his brother, Basil, who was bishop of nearby Caesarea. At times, Gregory was somewhat unpopular in his diocese, and in 376 a synod was convened in Nyssa, at which he was deposed. He was reinstated to his bishopric in 378.

Gregory attended and took part in the First Council of Constantinople in 381, and it is there that some of his most influential work on Christian theology was done. The Nicene Creed, which evolved through the ecumenical councils of Nicea and Constantinople, was influenced by the writings of Gregory of Nyssa. These councils were concerned largely with combating heresy in regards to the person of Jesus Christ, the nature of God, and the way in which the three persons of the Trinity related. Along with his brother Basil, Gregory defined the Trinity as one essence in three persons. This affirmed the orthodox belief in the triune Godhead, in opposition to prominent heresies.

Gregory of Nyssa, his brother St. Basil of Caesarea, and their friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus, were three of the most influential theologians and writers of the fourth century. Their writings still have a profound effect on Christian theology to this day. Collectively, these three are known as the Cappadocian Fathers.

In his geographical context in Cappadocia, geographically straddling the divide between Europe and Asia, between East and West, Gregory uniquely speaks to Christians all over the world. St. Gregory of Nyssa can be a patron saint for the unity of Christians, East and West. Gregory is almost universally revered in Christian communities the world over. His sainthood is recognized the Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Churches, Lutheranism, and the Anglican Communion. Even where he is not “raised to the altars” and venerated as a saint, his influence is inescapable. The contributions that Gregory made to orthodox Christian theology puts him in the same class as such figures as St. Augustine, St. Athanasius, St. Jerome, and St. Cyril of Alexandria.

Certainly, as with almost any theologian, there are aspects of Gregory’s thought that remain contentious, and as scholars delve more deeply into his writings, some questions are answered, and many more are posed. However, one thing is clear: Gregory’s contributions to what would become the Nicene Creed, and his theological influence during a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was being elucidated and discerned, make him one of the seminal figures in the history of Christian thought. Writing and teaching during a period of basic Christian unity, Gregory was a defender of orthodoxy, and comes down to us today as an essential link between eastern and western Christianity.

While he is not a Doctor of the Church, as his brother Basil and their friend Gregory are, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s influence is nevertheless not to be underestimated. It was not until recent times, even not until the twentieth century, that the work of Gregory of Nyssa gained more serious traction in academic circles. The writings of his Cappadocian confreres received much greater focus, until such prominent theologians as Hans Urs von Balthasar, Jean Danielou, and John Zizioulas began to focus more on his work.

The meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill is the latest development in the centuries-old march back toward Christian unity. Reports from behind the scenes say that the negotiations leading to the meeting were long in the works, and the meeting itself resulted from concessions from both sides.

Pope St. John Paul II wrote that “the Church must breathe with her two lungs!” (Ut Unum Sint 54) The Church is the Body of Christ, and its two lungs are the Christian communions of West and East. Gregory of Nyssa can be seen as one of the many connections between the two lungs, tissue that unites them so that they function as one. The lungs do not work most efficiently apart from each other, but when both are in unison, working together, to strengthen the body and infuse it with life. “[W]e understand clearly that the vision of the full communion to be sought is that of unity in legitimate diversity.” (ibid.)

We pray for the intercession of St. Gregory of Nyssa, that we may be One, and that the Body of Christ may once again be whole.

image: St. Gregory of Nyssa by Ted / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Paul Senz is a native of Verboort, Oregon, and a graduate of the University of Portland, where he is currently working towards a Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry.

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