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Soul of a Poet: St. Gregory Nazianzen

When historians speak of the “Cappadocian Fathers,” they mean three men of the late fourth century: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus. Unfortunately, modern historians have spoken least of the third man, Gregory of Nazianzus. In Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography, John A. McGuckin has begun to remedy the situation.

The most introspective of the three Cappadocians, Gregory resisted, first, ordination to the priesthood and, later, elevation to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Immediately after ordination, he fled from the first office; and from the second he opted for an early retirement. As a poet, he has merited translations by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Cardinal Newman (here, here and here). As a memoirist and correspondent, he ranks alone with Augustine in the patristic era. Tradition hails him as the only Father whose teaching was pure and without error. Gregory’s life was caught up in the great conflicts of the time: the persistence of Arianism, Julian’s revival of paganism, the emerging controversies over the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

McGuckin, who is professor of early church history at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has a rare gift for putting the most abstruse theological debates into accessible language — without sacrificing the necessary precision. His anti-Western and anti-Scholastic biases, which were red herrings in his study of Cyril, are present but more muted in this excellent volume. The book includes helpful maps, an excellent bibliography and a minimal index.

If you’d like to read Gregory’s poetry in a modern English translation, you’re in luck. Peter Gilbert’s fresh translation, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, is out in paperback in St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press’s Popular Patristics Series. It’s very low-priced — so low-priced and so good that you’ll probably feel guilty and want to send the translator a tip for doing such a great job.

If you want to meet the Cappadocian Fathers, all together and on their home turf, read Anthony Meredith’s study, aptly titled The Cappadocians.

You can also listen to my KVSS radio interviews on Gregory, Gregory and Basil. They are, like the best things in life, free.