St. Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-c. 390) is a Father and Doctor of the Church. Along with St Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, he is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers and Three Holy Hierarchs. Born at Nazianzus (Nenizi, Turkey) into a wealthy family the same year that his father was made bishop of his hometown, Gregory was given a first-class education and in 350 he was sent to perfect his studies in Athens. There he befriended Basil of Caesarea. In 357, he was summoned back home and, in 361, his father ordained him to the priesthood. In preparation for his ordination, he studied with Basil at the latter’s estate in Pontus. There, they may have prepared an anthology of texts, the Philokalia, from the writings of Origen. Preferring a life of prayer and study to the demands of the priestly ministry, he fled Nazianus for a period. Basil became bishop of Caesarea in 370. To shore up his influence following an imperial redrawing of the boundaries of civil and ecclesiastical governance in Cappadocia, he ordained Gregory bishop of Sasima in 372. Threated by supporters of the neighbouring metropolitan, Gregory did not take up the post. Following his father’s death in 374, he withdrew to Seleucia to pursue a life of prayer and study. In 378, he transferred to Constantinople to support the Pro-Nicene Christians and set up the Church of the Anastasia. There he preached in defence of the orthodox view of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Theodosius made him Bishop of Constantinople and for a while he presided the Council of Constantinople (381). However, his opponents forced his resignation and retirement on a technicality. He was still bishop of Sasima and so, by holding another episcopal see, in breach of a decree of the Council of Nicaea. Gregory dedicated his final years to revising his writings. The author that the Byzantines cited most often after the Bible, he is known in the Easter Churches as St Gregory the Theologian on account of his teaching on the Trinity. During the middle ages his remains were transferred to Rome and are venerated in the Basilica of St. Peter.

In this interview, Fr. Andrew Hofer OP will discuss St. Gregory Nazianzen and five of the best books for discovering his teaching.

Fr. Andrew Hofer, O.P. is a formator at the Dominican House of Studies, a member of the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, and a formator at St. Dominic Priory in Washington DC. Since the fall of 2021, he has been the editor of the journal The Thomist, for which he previously was book review editor. He is the author of The Power of Patristic Preaching: The Word in Our Flesh and Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus, and the co-author of A Living Sacrifice: Guidance for Men Discerning Religious Life. He is also the co-editor of The Pastoral Theology of the Early Church, The Cambridge Companion to Augustine’s Sermons, The Oxford Handbook of Deification, Thomas Aquinas as Spiritual Teacher, Thomas Aquinas and the Crisis of Christology, Thomas Aquinas and the Greek Fathers, and Divinization: Becoming Icons of Christ through the Liturgy.

  1. Gregory of Nazianzus
    by Brian E. Daley SJ
  2. On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius
    by St. Gregory Nazianzus
  3. Festal Orations
    by St. Gregory Nazianzus
  4. On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus
    by St. Gregory Nazianzus
  5. Christ in the Life and Teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus
    by Andrew Hofer OP
Five Books for Catholics may receive a commission from qualifyng purchases made using the affliate links in this post.

Could you give a brief survey of the life of Saint Gregory Nazianzen?
Yes. St. Gregory of Nazianzus or St. Gregory Nanzianzen is one of the Cappadocian Fathers. Cappadocia is a region in present day Turkey. He lived in the fourth century. Two of his friends were the blood-brothers St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa. Today, people sometimes call these three the Cappadocian Fathers

His father was St. Gregory the Elder of Nazianzus and his mother was St. Nona. He had an older sister, St. Gorgonia, and a younger brother, St. Caesarius. The family was very interested in Gregory's education and so he moved around quite a bit to study, first within Cappadocia Cesarea, then Palestinian Caesaria, then Alexandria in Egypt, and finally Athens.

In Athens, his college roommate, so to speak, was St. Basil the Great. Gregory looked very fondly on their time together in Athens. The Church commemorates their friendship by celebrating St Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nazianzus with a joint feast on 2 January.  In the Office of Reading, Basil is said to have been one with Gregory in their friendship.

Julian, the future apostate emperor, was also in Athens at the time.

Following his studies in Athens, he returned to Cappadocia. He wanted to lead an ascetical life and was with Basil. However, Gregory the Elder Gregory was bishop of Nazianzus and ordained his son a priest. That started Gregory's ministry. He went away for a time, then came back and helped his father.

Gregory was very active as a priest. He used his philosophical and rhetorical skills at the service of a Pro-Nicene theology. At the time, there were all sorts of strange Trinitarian theology. Gregory wanted to ensure that people were holding the Catholic, orthodox faith.

When his father died, Basil had already become the great archbishop of Caesarea and wanted his friend, Gregory, to be a bishop. So, he ordained him bishop of Sasima. Gregory was not particularly happy about that. He tells us a lot about his unhappiness, frustrations, and anger. He wrote and talked a lot.

When he transferred to Constantinople, the Emperor Theodosius recognised him as the bishop of Constantinople. Then, Theodosius wanted what we call the second ecumenical council: the First Council of Constantinople. The first presider, Meletius of Antioch, died, and Gregory became its president. However, the bishops did not like him. They thought it was not legal for him to be the bishop of Constantinople. He had been consecrated bishop of Sasima and the Council of Nicaea had issued a decree against the transfer of clergy. Gregory, therefore, left the Council of Constantinople and returned to Cappadocia, where he continued to write.

Today, we know him on account of his three sets of writings: his orations, poetry, and letters.

He has become preeminent within Church history for several reasons. In the Eastern tradition, he is known, along with Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, as one of the Three Holy Hierarchs. Within the Western tradition, he is known as one of the first four Greek Fathers who are Doctors of the Church. The others are St. Athanasius of Alexandria, St. Basil the Great, and St. John Chrysostom. Gregory has been nicknamed the Theologian because he has such an important way of speaking about God. Moreover, his life is just tremendous. Some believe that he was a failure in his ministry because he would get upset, go away on these retreats, or simply leave. The thing is that he is extremely influential precisely on the subject of priestly ministry. Oration 2, the De fuga (On His Flight) is the first treatise on the Christian ministerial priesthood. He exercises a great and perduring influence through his writing.

"Once, I was talking with a man who was very devoted to Gregory. He said that he especially loved Gregory's humility. For certain scholars, this is ridiculous. In their view, Gregory postures himself against others. However, as this devotee of Gregory said, 'I really love Gregory's humility. He tells us about his faults.' "

What drew you to study and write on St. Gregory Nazianzen?
I was at the University of Notre Dame for my doctoral programme and was studying mainly under Fr. Brian Daley S.J., one of the world’s premier patrologists. He had done a lot of work on Gregory Nazianzus. Moreover, he had a great influence on my appreciation of Gregory. He told me that if you had to select one Greek Father comparable to Augustine in influence, it would be Gregory of Nazianzus. I had never heard that before. From what Fr. Daley taught and then from my own readings, I realised that he was right. Within Byzantine literature, Gregory Nazianzen is cited more than any other source apart from Scripture. Usually, St. John of Damascus does not cite his sources in his An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith.  Occasionally, he does and Gregory of Nazianzus is cited far more than any of the other Greek Fathers.

I am particularly interested in Christology. The churches that opposed each other over Christological doctrine during the fifth century all claimed Gregory Nazianzen as an authority. I wanted to know what he really said. Why did everybody want him as an authority and why were there different interpretations of him? For me, this was remarkably interesting. So, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Gregory Nazianzen and have continued to teach and write on him.

"Just as St. Gregory Nazianzen is the Eastern Father most comparable to Augustine in doctrinal authority, so too is he the one most comparable to Augustine in self-revelation."

As you mentioned, he could get upset very easily. Quite a few scholars look at Gregory’s extensive biographical writings and conclude that he was not the easiest person to work or get along with. He was very touchy. This might surprise us, as the Church celebrates him for his sanctity. How can we venerate him as a saint if the literature, including his own, manifests so many of his faults?
Once, I was talking with a man who was very devoted to Gregory. He said that he especially loved Gregory's humility. For certain scholars, this is ridiculous. In their view, Gregory postures himself against others. However, as this devotee of Gregory said, “I really love Gregory's humility. He tells us about his faults.”

There is something very relatable about him. You can read the five books that I have selected and see what Gregory says. Maybe you will think, “Oh! I thought that too,” or “There is something appealing about that.”

Just as St. Gregory Nazianzen is the Eastern Father most comparable to Augustine in doctrinal authority, so too is he the one most comparable to Augustine in self-revelation. St. Augustine’s Confessions is probably the most popular of all the works of the Church Fathers. There, Augustine tells us about his life prior to his baptism. He reveals his various faults, foibles, and resistances to God.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus is the one most comparable to Augustine in this way. He too is an autobiographical Father. He wants people to know something of how Christ is in his life. Some love Gregory; others just detest him.

I want people to know Gregory of Nazianzus better, particularly because Gregory of Nyssa has become much more popular over the past sixty years. I like Gregory of Nyssa too. However, it has never been traditional, neither in the East nor the West, for Gregory of Nyssa to have the same standing as Gregory of Nazianzus. For example, St. Gregory of Nyssa appears in the Roman Martyrology but not on the Roman Calendar. Nor is he a Doctor of the Church. Gregory of Nazianzus, on the other hand, is paired in the Roman Calendar with the one he claimed was his best friend, St. Basil, and is called the Theologian because he has a unique authority.

Along with St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory Nazianzen are known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Besides being close associates from the same region, do they have a distinct, common theology?
That is a great question. Do these three have a distinct common theology? People often speak of a Cappadocian theology. Indeed, there are some distinctive common traits to these three. At the same time, they should not be confused with one another. There has been a long-standing trend within the scholarship to uniting these three. Distinguishing them from one another is a more recent trend.

First, what unites them? Well, they are all considered to be not only Fathers of the Church, but also great, influential theologians. All three took the Greek heritage and put it at the service of the Christian faith. All three were extremely well educated, great scholars of literature, and supported the Council of Nicaea in various ways.

The fourth century is an extremely important period in Church history for the articulation of Christian doctrine. There were all sorts of ways of getting around the Council of Nicaea. The Cappadocians presented what we now call a Pro-Nicene approach. When Augustine writes his De Trinitate, and wants to state the Christian doctrine of the Trinity in shorthand, he goes back to a Greek formula and says that there is one nature or substance of God and three persons (hypostaseis in Greek). Each of the Cappadocians has such a similar way of talking about the Trinity that Augustine can summarise it and call it the Greek approach. We should not take this for granted. On Sundays and solemnities, we profess the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381). It does not say, “God is one in substance or nature,” nor, “There are three persons or hypostases.” Interestingly, though, each of the Cappadocians contributes in a different way to this summation of the fundamental mystery of the faith.

Now, there are also differences between them. Gregory of Nazianzus was upset with Basil the Great. He believed that Basil did not go far enough in describing the divinity of the Holy Spirit in his great and extremely influential work, On the Holy Spirit. However, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381 never says, “The Holy Spirit is consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father and the Son.” It does not even say that the Holy Spirit is God. Rather, it says that he is “the Lord and giver of life.” Gregory, on the other hand, wanted to teach people that the Holy Spirit is consubstantial (homoousion) with the Father and the Son: that he is God. Basil had said things very much like that. However, people would sometimes question whether he went that far. Gregory claim that Basil did but, due to the pressures of the time, did not state it as clearly as he himself did.

There are, then, these differences between the Cappadocians. Each of them has a particular theology. They should not be squished together, as if there were just this one Cappadocian approach.

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The eleventh-century scholar Michael Psellos echoed a common opinion of the Byzantines when he asserted that Gregory “in ideas surpasses Demosthenes, in quality of prose Plato, and so is superior to both of them, and bears first prize against all comers.” Is the literary brilliance of Gregory lost not only in translation but also with the passage of time. Our culture is no longer informed by the ancient Greek humanism that constituted the background to Gregory’s oratory. Do his writings still touch many of the same notes in modern readers as they did in their original setting?
Michael Psellos asserted that Gregory of Nazianzus was, in various ways, better than Plato and Demosthenes, two of the greatest pre-Christian Greeks. He believed that Gregory not only expressed the best of Greek culture, but did so as a faithful Christian.

In English, we cannot capture all the different nuances of Gregory's Greek. Something is always lost in translation. Take the word ‘rhetoric¡. Today, it a flat term. We may call someone or something ‘rhetorical.’ A rhetorical question is, basically, not a real one. However, questions can be expressed in all sorts of ways within rhetoric. Rhetoric was a way of being, an education, and a way of interacting in social relationships. This has been lost. So, we can miss things both because we are not reading Gregory in the original Greek, but also because we do not have the same appreciation for what the Greeks called paideia, their system of education. This just does not matter to lots of people.

Within Gregorian studies, there are two tracks. There is the track of the classicist, who can appreciate how Gregory imitated and surpassed his various literary predecessors. Then there is the track of the of theologian. Some theologians have absolutely no interest in the classics, and some classicists, have absolutely no interest in the Christian faith. There is a summation of the two within Gregory. Today, however, there is not much appreciation for those who have both these things together.

Why has there never been a complete English translation of Gregory’s works?
Yes, this is a great question. Various Fathers of the Church have written a lot, but we do not have a complete English translation of their works. A complete translation of the works of St. Augustine is coming out from New City Press. However, that is rare. John Chrysostom has left many but we do not have a translation of them all in in one series. The nineteenth-century Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series held up Augustine and Chrysostom as special and dedicated volumes to much of their writings. However, it was not a complete translation of their works. How many of Gregory's poems entered the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers? Zero, even though he left around 17,000 lines of poetry. He was not recognised as one of the great poets of early Christianity. Like other Fathers, his works have been translated in a piecemeal manner. Some of his works are here, some are there. You need to go to different kinds of books and studies for the translations. Moreover, before you can have a good translation, you need a good Greek edition, but though there have been various projects, none is available yet.


The first recommended book is Fr. Brian E. Daley SJ’s collection of some of Gregory’s orations, poems, and letters, and which opens with an introductory essay. What makes this a good place to start?

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