Saturday, November 15, 2014

Broken Heroes: Brokenness and Grace in the Life of Gregory of Nazianzus

Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 328-c. 390) was a fourth century pastor, bishop, and author who, along with several others, stood strong against the tide of Arian heresy. Last week I wrote briefly about his life and ministry, and this week I want to draw our attention to some of his shortcomings and sufferings. Gregory is indeed a hero of the church, but as we will soon see, he is a broken hero.

First, as for his physical appearance and condition, Gregory was a small, bald-headed man who sported a long red beard and matching red eyebrows. Due to constant fasting and other extreme spiritual exercises, he was rarely in good health and almost always in pain. While it is no sin to be less than good looking and healthy, these aspects of his life provided challenges to fulfilling the call of God upon his life.

Second, and more importantly, Gregory preferred solitude, prayer, and contemplation to the company of others. Christopher Hall notes that he was “quick-tempered, sullen, unhappy in the company of most people, strangely remote from the world” (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 65). He loved God, writing, and people—in that order—and thus hoped to spend his life in solitude, in the presence of God, and away from the demands of leadership. So strong was his desire for solitude that, upon being appointed as pastor of the church of Nazianzus, he fled to the remote town of Pontus and attempted to hide. As I noted last week, he soon broke under the weight of conviction and the force of his calling, but his desire to be alone with God and away from people and leadership remained until his dying day.

Third, personal deficiencies and difficulties aside, Gregory also suffered through periods of tremendous grief. In one brief period of time, he lost his father, his mother, two brothers, and his mentor and close friend, Basil. In those days he wrote to a friend, “You ask how my affairs are. Miserable” (Hall, 67).
And beyond personal tragedies, Gregory also carried a tremendous burden for the church which he felt was like a ship floating in a sea of darkness and danger. He knew that Christ was at ease, asleep on the bottom of the boat, but he himself was anxious. As he once wrote to a friend, “Good is destroyed, evil is naked” (Hall, 67). Such was the seriousness of the Arian controversy.

But despite his several shortcomings and sufferings, God made Gregory to be a beacon and pillar of the truth, especially with regard to the doctrine of the trinity. While in Constantinople, he preached four sermons that continue to influence the church to this day. The sermons are preserved in a book entitled, Theological Orations, in which he argues that the Arians were errant in their theology because they were errant in their love for Jesus. Gregory insisted that orthodox theology flows from reverent submission to God and his Word, and this is perhaps his most important contribution to the debates of his age.

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