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The Cappadocian Fathers

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Few defenders of Orthodoxy are as well known as the Cappadocian Fathers because they all came from the area known as Cappadocia, part of modern-day Turkey. Today, Christians around the world honor these three men.

basil the great

Basil and his brother Gregory (of Nyssa) were born into a prosperous Christian family with a rich spiritual heritage. They grew up listening to stories of their paternal grandparents hiding from persecution in the woods for seven years as well as the martyrdom of their maternal grandfather. Their own father was a well known as a lawyer and orator.

Basil received the best education and studied in Athens, where he met Gregory of Nazianzus. When Basil returned home, he was quite impressed with his own newfound wisdom. His sister, Macrina, confronted him about his vanity, but he brushed her off. However, when their other brother Naucratius died unexpectedly, the devastated Basil looked to his sister. Macrina introduced him to the monastic life, setting him on a new path.

Macrina herself was a strong Christian leader. She founded a monastery for women, becoming known as “the Teacher.” After studying this way of life, Basil in turn founded a similar community for men. Gregory of Nazianzus joined him, and both men sought to devote their lives to quiet contemplation.

But the crisis of fighting the Arian resurgence pulled them from their solitude. Against his will, Basil was appointed presbyter (a leader of a local congregation) and eventually bishop. For the rest of his life, he wrote theological treatises advancing the Nicene cause. While he died just a few months before the Council of Constantinople, Basil’s work profoundly influenced the outcome.

Gregory of Nyssa

Basil was known for his fiery and argumentative personality. His younger brother Gregory came across as more reserved, though no less passionate in his defence of the Nicene cause.

Gregory followed his brother to the monastery, seeing the simplicity of a monk’s life as a way to avoid the pains of this world. These quiet days didn’t last. Like his brother, Gregory was also pulled into the turbulent issues of the day when Basil appointed him bishop of Nyssa. After a few years, he went into hiding as Emperor Valens sought to advance Arianism. Valens died in 378, allowing Gregory to return to Nyssa.

When his brother Basil died, Gregory stepped into a more central leadership role to fight for the Nicene cause. He attended the Council of Constantinople, vigorously defending orthodoxy. After their triumph, Emperor Theodosius appointed Gregory one of his key theological advisors, forcing him to travel the empire. Gregory was eventually able to return to the monastery he longed for, where he lived out the rest of his days.

Gregory of Nazianzus

The son of the bishop of Nazianzus, this Gregory also grew up in an aristocratic Christian home. While his father held to Arian views, Gregory’s mother ensured her son grew up with orthodox beliefs. As with Basil and his brother, Gregory was appointed a presbyter against his will. He too sought the monastic life.

Reflecting on his time in the pastoral role, he famously stated, “It is difficult to practice obedience; but it is even more difficult to practice leadership.” Eventually, Basil also called on Gregory to serve as a bishop, which the latter resented. The two men didn’t reconcile before Basil’s death. When Basil died, Gregory felt compelled to help lead the fight against Arianism. For a time, he led the council himself until some questioned the legitimacy of his role, at which point he resigned. Like his friends Basil and Gregory, his writings were unquestionably influential in the outcome of the Council of Constantinople.

reluctant leaders

Neither of the two brothers or their friend sought powerful positions. Each of them longed for the quiet and simple life of a monk. But God brought them to leadership roles where they had an enormous impact on the church. Centuries later, every branch of Christianity honors these men and their contribution when the church was in crisis.

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Anno Domini

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Has God ever called you to serve His church in a way that took you outside your comfort zone?

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