Introduction to Cappadocian Fathers

Together with St. Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Theologian,” c. 329-389) and St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-395), St. Basil the Great is of one of the Cappadocian Fathers, namely the famous fourth-century theologians from Cappadocia (now central Turkey), who are best known for developing and perfecting the Trinitarian theology of St. Athanasius the Great (c. 295-373). Their collective theological endeavors established the foundations of Orthodox Christian Trinitarian theology. To understand Orthodox Christian Trinitarians fully, one must grasp the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers.

Basil the Great :


Of the three, only St. Basil of Caesarea has earned the cognomen, “the Great.” Among the three fathers, St. Basil was the best all-rounder. He was a theologian and intellectual of the first order, but was also a consummate ecclesiastical statesman, organizer and liturgist. He was not only the second Athanasius in defense of Orthodox theology, but a founder of monasteries, hospices, hospitals, and so forth. St. Basil of Caesarea has earned the cognomen, “the Great,” not only for his teachings, but for his actions and life as well.

Basil was born about 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia. He came from a wealthy and pious family which gave a number of saints, including his mother Saint Emily (also styled Emilia or Emmelia), grandmother Saint Macrina the Elder, sister Saint Macrina the Younger and brothers Saints Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste.

While still a child, the family moved to Pontus; but he soon returned to Cappadocia to live with his mother’s relations, and seems to have been brought up by his grandmother Macrina. Eager to learn, he went to Constantinople and spent four or five years there and at Athens, where he had the future emperor Julian for a fellow student and became friends with Gregory the Theologian. It was at Athens that he seriously began to think of religion, and resolved to seek out the most famous hermit saints in Syria and Arabia, in order to learn from them how to attain enthusiastic piety and how to keep his body under submission by asceticism.

After this we find him at the head of a convent near Arnesi in Pontus, in which his mother Emily, now a widow, his sister Macrina and several other ladies, gave themselves to a pious life of prayer and charitable works. He was ordained presbyter of the Church at Caesarea in 365. In 370 Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. It was then that his great powers were called into action. With all his might he resisted the emperor Valens, who strove to introduce Arianism into his diocese, and impressed the emperor so strongly that, although inclined to banish the intractable bishop, he left him unmolested.

He did not live to see the end of the unhappy factional disturbances and the complete success of his continued exertions in behalf of Rome and the East. He suffered from liver illness and his excessive asceticism seems to have hastened him to an early death.


The principal theological writings of Basil are his Treatise on the Holy Spirit (Lat. De Spiritu Sancto), a lucid and edifying appeal to Scripture and early Christian tradition to prove the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, written in 363 or 364, three books against Eunomius of Cyzicus, the chief exponent of Anomoian Arianism. The first three books of the Refutation are also his work.

He was a famous preacher, and many of his homilies, including a series of Lenten lectures on The Six Days of Creation (Gr. Hexaëmeron), and an exposition of the psalter, have been preserved.

It is in the ethical manuals and moral sermons that the practical aspects of his theoretical theology are illustrated. So, for example, it is in his Sermon to the Lazicans that we find Basil explaining how it is our common nature that obliges us to treat our neighbor’s natural needs (e.g., hunger, thirst) as our own, even though he is a separate individual. His principal efforts as a reformer were directed towards the improvement of the liturgy, and the reformation of the monastic orders of the East.

Gregory the Theologian :


Our father among the saints Gregory the Theologian, also known as Gregory of Nazianzus (though that name more appropriately refers to his father), was a great father and teacher of the Church.


He was born in 329 in Arianzus, a village of the second district of Cappadocia, not far from Nazianzus. His father, who later became Bishop of Nazianzus, was named Gregory and his mother was named Nonna both are among the saints, and so are his brother Caesarius and his sister Gorgonia.

At first he studied in Caesarea of Palestine, then in Alexandria, and finally in Athens. As he was sailing from Alexandria to Athens, a violent sea storm put in peril not only his life but also his salvation, since he had not yet been baptized. With tears and fervor he besought God to spare him, vowing to dedicate his whole self to Him, and the tempest gave way to calm. At Athens St. Gregory was later joined by St. Basil the Great, whom he already knew, but now their acquaintanceship grew into a lifelong brotherly love. Another fellow student of theirs in Athens was the young Prince Julian, who later as emperor was called the Apostate because he denied Christ and did all in his power to restore paganism.

After their studies at Athens, Gregory became Basil’s fellow ascetic, living the monastic life together with him for a time in the hermitages of Pontus. His father ordained him presbyter of the Church of Nazianzus, and St. Basil consecrated him Bishop of Sasima (or Zansima), which was in the archdiocese of Caesarea.

About the year 379, St. Gregory came to the assistance of the Church of Constantinople, which had already been troubled for forty years by the Arians; by his supremely wise words and many labors he freed it from the corruption of heresy. He was elected archbishop of that city by the Second Ecumenical Council, which assembled there in 381, and condemned Macedonius, Archbishop of Constantinople, as an enemy of the Holy Spirit. When St. Gregory came to Constantinople, the Arians had taken all the churches, and he was forced to serve in a house chapel dedicated to St. Anastasia the Martyr. From there he began to preach his famous five sermons on the Trinity, called the Triadica. When he left Constantinople two years later, the Arians did not have one church left to them in the city. St. Meletius of Antioch, who was presiding over the Second Ecumenical Council, died in the course of it, and St. Gregory was chosen in his stead; there he distinguished himself in his expositions of dogmatic theology.

Having governed the Church until 382, he delivered his farewell speech-the Syntacterion, in which he demonstrated the Divinity of the Son—before 150 bishops and the Emperor Theodosius the Great. Also in this speech he requested, and received from all, permission to retire from the See of Constantinople. He returned to Nazianzus, where he lived to the end of his life. He reposed in the Lord in 391, having lived some sixty-two years.

His extant writings, both prose and poems in every type of meter, demonstrate his lofty eloquence and his wondrous breadth of learning. In the beauty of his writings, he is considered to have surpassed the Greek writers of antiquity, and because of his God-inspired theological thought, he received the surname “Theologian.” Although he is sometimes called Gregory of Nazianzus, this title belongs properly to his father; he himself is known by the Church only as Gregory the Theologian. He is especially called “Trinitarian Theologian,” since in virtually every homily he refers to the Trinity and the one essence and nature of the Godhead.

Gregory of Nyssa :


Our father among the saints Gregory of Nyssa (ca. A.D. 335 – after 384) was bishop of Nyssa and a prominent theologian of the fourth century. He was the younger brother of Basil the Great and friend of Gregory the Theologian.


Gregory and Basil both spent much effort defending the Faith against the attacks of the Arians. He was twice deposed from his see because of false accusations made by heretics. He was finally restored in 378.

The next year, 379, his brother Basil the Great died. As the two were extremely close, Gregory was very grieved at his loss. To honor his brother, Gregory wrote his funeral oration and then completed Basil’s Hexaemeron (“Six Days”), a series of nine sermons, delivered during Great Lent, which described and elaborated upon the Genesis account of the world’s creation in six days. The following year, Gregory’s sister Macrina also died, and Gregory wrote a hagiography detailing her life.

About this time Gregory attended the Council of Antioch, a local synod, in which he zealously defended Orthodoxy. The council was called to refute a heresy which denied the perpetual virginity of the Theotokos (St. Mary). The council also forbade worship of her as God or part of the Godhead. Gregory was simultaneously continuing to fight Arianism. He also attended the Second Ecumenical Council in Constantinople, which added the final section concerning the Holy Spirit to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.

For the rest of his life, Gregory continued to attend church councils, discuss doctrinal matters, and combat various heresies. He reached old age and finally reposed in the Lord near the end of the fourth century.

Gregory was greatly influenced by his elder brother Basil. When writing to his younger brother Peter, Gregory referred to Basil as being their “common father and teacher”. (On the Making of Man) Even though he didn’t have the extensive “secular” training that Basil did, he was far more influenced by his own reading of the classical Greek fathers, especially Plato, who came before him


These three Cappadocian Fathers contributed to the development of patristic theology ‘a full-scale doctrine of the Trinity, in which both the unity and the diversity could be precisely formulated within a systematic theory and with a technical terminology adequate to obviate misunderstanding or equivocation’.

To appreciate this accomplishment, we need to consider the terminological problems that they faced. The divinity of the Father was accepted already and, in the council of Nicaea asserted the divinity of the Son. But the place of the Spirit was still unclear. Saint Athanasius had also claimed that the Spirit must be God because the Spirit does what only God can do (namely, save humans). But several basic questions about the Holy Spirit still awaited a satisfactory answer.

The problem could not be resolved by appeal to scriptures; to turn again to an observation from Gregory of Nazianzus: ‘The Old Testament proclaimed the Father openly, and the Son more obscurely; the New Testament manifested the Son, and suggested the divinity of the Spirit.’

The Bible does not spell out the truth about the Spirit; instead, as Gregory continues, ‘Now the Spirit himself dwells among us, and supplies us with a clearer demonstration of himself.’

Gregory thus explains the progressive disclosure of the Trinity as the revelation of the Holy Spirit dwelling in the midst of Christians. St. Basil offers this significant description of what happens as a result of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: “Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foresight of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.”

Here, St. Basil links deification (‘being made God’) to the economic activity of the Holy Spirit, which can be contrasted to Athanasius’s connection of deification to the Incarnation. But the contrast is superficial, since Basil’s claim is in line with Athanasius’s teaching (e.g., in his letters to Serapion) that the transforming effects of the Holy Spirit are evidence that the Spirit is fully divine. These effects are demonstrated in greater understanding of God, to be sure, but it is precisely the same activity of the Holy Spirit that is manifest in care for the poor, service within the Christian community and other forms of pastoral involvement – and in all of these areas,

Basil’s contributions were renowned. But offering a systematic account of the divinity of the Spirit was difficult, because of the lack of conventional theological language. Actually, Athanasius had treated essence (ousia) and subsistence (hypostasis) as synonyms, and others carried forward this usage in a way that made it difficult to talk about the essential oneness of God. So the Cappadocians roughed out terminological distinctions, which when subsequently refined would become landmarks of patristic doctrine. For instance, the hypostasis is that which is peculiar, rather than ‘the indefinite conception of ousia’. The distinctiveness of the Son and the Holy Spirit is further described using another technical expression ‘mode of existence’ – that points to the different way in which each originates from the Father. The expression is found occasionally in Basil the Great’s writings (e.g. On the Holy Spirit), but its refinement is to be credited to Gregory of Nyssa’s. Gregory further contributed to the discussion by offering illustrations of their Relation-in-distinctiveness in his letter to Ablabius entitled ‘That there are not three gods’. There, he advances what is sometimes called, unsatisfactorily, the ‘social model’ of the Trinity by explaining how a single nature can be manifest in three (or, in the case of humans, a plurality of) persons. His main point is less social than grammatical: Gregory is defining a proper grammar for theology. Hence, he concludes the letter by writing that, since ‘the divine nature is held by every conception as unchangeable and undivided, we properly declare the Godhead to be one, and God to be one, and employ in the singular all other names which express divine attributes’.

Perhaps the most famous theological formula associated with the Cappadocian Fathers is ‘one nature, three hypostases’ (or ‘persons’): that is, the three divine persons are one in nature. That catch-phrase is exceedingly rare in their writings, but it neatly expresses the direction of their combined influence on the development of Trinitarian theology.

Essence or Nature or Ousia: In Greek, the word for “essence” (ousia) is derived from the feminine participle of the verb “to be”. But in the case of God we cannot speak about participation in being, but about Being itself, the fullness of every possibility for existence and life. Therefore the apophatic formulation “Being beyond all being” which the Fathers often use is closer to the expression of the truth of the God of the Church. Essence exists only “in persons”; persons are the mode of existence of essence.

The Person or Hypostasis (Hypostases- plural): God is a personal existence; three specific personal existences of whose personal difference the Church has direct historical experience. We all understand that what differentiates personal existence from every other form of existence is self-consciousness and otherness. We call the awareness of our own existence “self consciousness”, the certainty that I have that I exist, and that it is I who exist, a being with identity, an identity which differentiates me from every other being. And this differentiation is an absolute otherness, a unique, distinct, and unrepeatable character which defines my existence. Self-consciousness is something much more than an intellectual certainty; it has “substrata” which are explored by a whole science, depth psychology, and which are called subconscious, unconscious, ego, superego. On Mt. Horeb, Moses asks God himself to reveal his personal identity to his people by declaring his Name (Ex 3.13-14). “I am the One who is”, answers God, and Moses announces to the people that Yahweh (the “I am”) sends him and calls the Israelites to worship “He who is”. The divine Name is not a noun which would classify God among beings, nor an adjective which would attribute a characteristic feature. It is a verb; it is the echo on the lips of people of the Word by which God defines himself as existent.

Natural Energies or the mode of existence: But what exactly do we designate with the word energies? We designate those potentials of nature or essence to make known the hypostasis and its existence, to make it known and participable. This definition will be clearer if we again use an example from our immediate experience, if we speak about the energies of human nature or our essence. Every man has understanding, reason, will, desire, imagination; every man works, loves, creates. All these capacities, and still others analogous to them, are common to all people and there ore we say that they belong to the human nature or essence. They are natural capacities or energies which differentiate man from every other being.

But these natural energies, while they are common to every man, are disclosed and actualized by each man in a unique way, distinct and unrepeatable. All men have understanding, will, desire, imagination; but every particular man thinks, wills, desires, imagines in a manner absolutely different. Therefore we say that the natural energies not only differentiate man from every other being, but also are manifested in a way that differentiates every man from all his fellow men. The natural energies are the way in which the otherness of each human hypostasis, that is of every human person, is revealed and disclosed.

There is no other way for us to know the personal otherness of man, than by the manifestation of natural energies. The natural energies permit us to know the otherness of the person by sharing in the way or in the how of their manifestation.

The Cappadocian Fathers worked in the course of the fourth century to formulate a theological language and to establish the meaning of precise terms that would permit Christians on one hand to distinguish the unity of the Three in essence, or shared substance, and, on the other, to express the mystery of each of the three persons by using the philosophical term ‘hypostasis’. This term settled the Trinitarian debate more conclusively than did the term ‘person’, which had been introduced by Tertullian in the early third century, by emphasizing the unfathomable depth of personal being of each member of the Trinity.

The language of theology, in which the Church gives an account of its faith, hope and knowledge of the Trinitarian God, reflects the position of the Church and of theology at the frontier between God and the world. This language is ‘capable of God’, yet at the same time always inadequate. Language itself must undergo a baptism of fire; it must die to human wisdom and be reborn in ‘God’s folly’ (1Cor. 1:25).

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