Three Wise Men from the East: The Cappadocian Fathers and the struggle for orthodoxy
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THE Common Worship calendar commemorates St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nazianzus on 2 January. It commemorates Basil’s brother Gregory and their sister Macrina on 19 July.
Separated by the calendar, in the second half of the fourth century, the three bishops and theologians were united in their defence of the doctrine of God as Trinity. They made a crucial contribution to the work of the Second Ecumenical Council of 381, which established the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. It thus completed the work of the First Ecumenical Council of 325, which affirmed the full divinity of the Son.
At Nicaea in 325, a creed was adopted that was expanded at Constantinople in 318. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is still recited at the eucharist as the Nicene Creed.
Between the two Councils, intense controversy raged over the precise relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The decisions of 325 were rejected by the emperor Constantius and many bishops. Nicaea had proclaimed the Son to be "of one substance" with the Father ("homoousios" in Greek) in opposition to the view of Arius, a priest of Alexandria, that the Son was a creature, albeit the highest of creatures.
The three Cappadocian Fathers saw the attempt to undermine Nicaea as a threat to the reality of salvation. Only God could save us, and in Jesus Christ God had become human so that we might become divine. The Holy Spirit was no less "of one substance" or "one in being" with Father and Son; for only so could the Spirit unite us with Christ, and so with the Father.
Patrick Whitworth, Rector of All Saints’, Weston Bath, Langridge and North Stoke, has written an eminently readable account of the three wise men’s doctrinal significance. He has described for non-specialists not only their teaching, but also the circumstances, ecclesiastical and personal, in which they fought for Nicene orthodoxy.
In different degrees, all three had pastoral responsibilities, which in Basil’s case were considerable. They were committed to a life of prayer, as celibates and ascetics in the case of Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, or married in the case of Gregory of Nyssa. For them, doctrine, prayer, pastoral ministry, and care for the poor were inseparable.
Whitworth explains clearly the gifts presented to Christ’s Church by the three Cappadocian wise men, no less significant than those presented by their wise predecessors to Christ himself.
Canon Hugh Wybrew was formerly Vicar of St Mary Magdalen’s, Oxford.