October 19, 2016

The Three Cappadocians

Stephen Nichols
The Three Cappadocians


Who were the Cappadocian Fathers? Cappadocia is in Turkey, and the three Cappadocians were early Greek church fathers. Two of them were brothers, and all three of them were friends.

The first was Basil of Caesarea. He was born in 330 and he lived to 379. And then we have his brother, Gregory of Nyssa. He was born two years after his older brother, Basil, so he was born in 332 and he lived until 395. And then there is the third Cappadocian, and this is another Gregory, Gregory of Nazianzus. He was the oldest of the three; he was born in 329 and he died in 389. So, the three Cappadocians are Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus.

Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus—and sometimes they just called him Gregory the Theologian—were friends. They knew each other through their studies. They had met numerous times in Caesarea and then spent six years together studying in Athens. After his studies, Basil thought he would have a career in rhetoric and as a philosopher, but he was challenged and encouraged by a bishop to pursue ministry, so he became a presbyter. Then, when Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, died, Basil became the bishop of Caesarea. His brother Gregory later became bishop of Nyssa.

The reason we talk about these three Cappadocians is they made significant contributions to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity and also contributed to the development of the doctrine of Christology. This was a crucial time in the life of the church. In 325, there was the council at Nicea, where it was firmly established that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly man. But after Nicea, there were many bishops who drifted away from the Nicene Creed. There arose in the church significant numbers of bishops who rejected the teachings of Nicea and rejected the teaching that Jesus Christ is truly God. Soon, another council was called, this time at Constantinople in 381. By then, Basil the Great was dead, but both Gregorys were still alive, and the works of all three contributed to the thought at the Council of Constantinople. At that council, the Nicene Creed was reaffirmed and reestablished in the church. In fact, when we recite the Nicean Creed, we’re technically reciting the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, but that, of course, is a mouthful, so we just call it the Nicene Creed.

It was also the three Cappadocians who firmly entrenched the definition of the Trinity in the life of the church. This goes back to Tertullian. He was the one who gave us the definition of the Trinity, that God is one substance in three persons. And it was the three Cappadocians who helped that sentence work its way into the life of the church and to be firmly established in the life of the church. It was also Basil who helped us think about the Holy Spirit and recognized that, not only do we need to talk about the deity of Christ, we also need to talk about the deity of the Holy Spirit.

These three theologians were all quite different personalities. Basil was a man of action. Gregory of Nyssa was also a man of action. And then there was the brains of the three, Gregory of Nazianzus, and so that is why we sometimes call him Gregory the Theologian.

So, who were the Cappadocians? They were three early church fathers who significantly helped the church at a crucial moment in its existence.