And now another episode of Bearded Gospel History, with Sir Timothy Braun! Today, July 19, marks the celebration for St. Gregory of Nyssa, an extremely important figure in the early church. Some say he drew his incredible theological and philosophical powers directly from his beard! (Actually, nobody says that but me, but it’s a reasonable theory!)
“Let the inspired Scripture, then, be our umpire, and the vote of truth will surely be given to those whose dogmas are found to agree with the Divine words.” ~ Gregory of Nyssa
The 300s AD were a crazy time in Church history. The Church went from a severely persecuted minority to a legitimate, legally recognized faith. In the midst of this transition they were also fighting theological battles, doing their best to protect the Church from heresies like Arianism.
Into this theological fray leapt the bearded brotherhood now known as the Cappodocian Fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. All three of these guys were staunch defenders of the Gospel and, judging by the images we have available to us, probably started the Cappadocian Chapter of Bearded Gospel Men.
These guys were quite the trio. Basil and Gregory (of Nyssa) were brothers and the other Gregory was a close friend of theirs. Together they strengthened the church in Asia Minor in a way that set the foundations for the church in the East for centuries.
Gregory grew up in a strong Christian household. In fact, his maternal grandfather was a martyr and this passion for the faith held firm in their family. Apparently Gregory’s older sister, Macrina, took the family land and turned it into a convent and monastery. While Gregory originally thought he might take a ‘normal’ secular occupation, it was his older sister and his elder brother, Basil, who convinced him to enter vocational ministry. While his administrative gifts couldn’t match Basil’s, it was Gregory’s knack for theology and philosophy that made him stand out.
While Christianity had been declared legitimate from a legal perspective, Gregory sought to legitimize Christianity from an intellectual perspective. He proved that Christian theology could go toe-to-toe with the best of the Greek philosophers, and emerge triumphant.
Gregory’s main focus throughout his writings is the trinity. In his day the biggest opposition to orthodoxy was Arianism, which declared that Jesus was created by God and, thus, was not equal to God. So, many of his writings can be summarized with statements like, “he who says that the Son once was not, denies His Godhead.”
He also seemed to be rather fond of ‘Apostle Paul style’ run-on sentences:
“The Only-begotten God was made for us many things. For He was the Word, and was made flesh; and He was God, and was made man; and He was without body, and was made a body; and besides, He was made sin, and a curse, and a stone, and an axe, and bread, and a lamb, and a way, and a door, and a rock, and many such things; not being by nature any of these, but being made these things for our sakes, by way of dispensation. As, therefore, being the Word, He was for our sakes made flesh, and as, being God, He was made man, so also, being the Creator, He was made for our sakes a creature; for the flesh is created.”
Awesome stuff, for sure, but it makes for some slow reading!
Fortunately, Gregory was, as Bishop of Nyssa, able to be a part of the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD where Arianism was officially condemned as heresy. It was also at this council where Gregory and Gregory (Basil had passed away in 379) had a significant influence on the finalization of the Nicene Creed.
It’s quite the list of accomplishments that Gregory can claim. Not only did he have a pretty phenomenal beard, but he also saw the demise of the heresy he had dedicated his life to combatting and he participated in forming one of the most important documents in Christian history.
So let us all raise our beards in honour of one of our own: Gregory of Nyssa!
“Again, God is love, and the fount of love: for this the great John declares, that love is of God, and God is love: the Fashioner of our nature has made this to be our feature too: for hereby, He says, shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another:—thus, if this be absent, the whole stamp of the likeness is transformed.”
Of Nyssa, Gregory (2013-03-14). Collection of Writings. Fig. Kindle Edition.
Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity (Jonathan Hill)