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The Cappadocian Fathers and the Understanding of the Trinity

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The Cappadocian Fathers were two brothers, Basil (c.330-379) (the Great) who was bishop of Caesarea, and Gregory of Nyssa (c.335-394), along with a friend, Gregory of Nazianus (c.329-389). Together, they made a strong stand for the Nicaean position of the divinity of Christ, against the Arianism which was prevalent in the Eastern Church.

Basil forsook his wealthy background to become a monk, but rejected the solitary life of a hermit, asking, “If you live alone, whose feet will you wash?”. Because of this, he organised communities of monks, where Bible study and confession played a major part of monastic life. These communities became strongholds in the Eastern Church. In 370, Basil was appointed a bishop of Caesarea, an influential position also covering the areas of Pontus and Cappadocia. From this position, he was able to exert great influence for the Nicaean view in an Arian stonghold, even against the Arian emperor Valens. He was also able to use his influence and personal contacts to act as a mediator between the East and the West. As a writer, he made great advances in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity, especially with his emphasis on the equality of the Father, Son and Spirit. His distinction between the one substance (ousia) and the three persons (hypostatis) in the Trinity was adopted at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

Basil’s younger brother, Gregory of Nyssa, was more of a philosopher, who excelled as a theologian over his older brother. He was an admirer of Oregen, some of whose more extreme views and speculations he adopted, without however, being branded a heretic. He was also a prolific writer, who also wrote much about the nature of the Trinity. He stated that the correct way to describe the Trinity was ‘God in three persons’, because their unity is seen in the fact that in whatever is done, all three operate together.

The third Cappadocian father was Gregory of Nazianus, who had been a close friend of Basil while they studied together in Athens. His father had been bishop of Nazianzus, but had signed the Arian creed of Selucia, which stimulated Gregory to make a detailed study of the issue. After many years of obscurity, including being appointed as bishop of the remote village of Sasima by Basil, he eventually and briefly became bishop of Constantinople in 381. He used his eloquence as a preacher as his greatest weapon to confute the Arians. His most famous writing is his ‘Five Orations’, which included his doctrine of the Holy Spirit. This showed the distinctiveness of the Spirit, as well as stressing the unity of the Spirit with the Father and the Son, so describing the living richness of the Godhead. Gregory is remembered as the greatest theologian and orator in the Eastern Church of his time. He was given the title ‘The Divine’, or ‘The Theologian’, which had only previously been given to John the Apostle.

Together, the Cappadocian Fathers are held in great esteem, especially by the Eastern churches, because of their work in defining the relationships within the Trinity, which have since been adopted as orthodox belief.