St. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Love of the Poor (Oration 14)

  • John A. McGuckin
Part of the Pathways for Ecumenical and Interreligious Dialogue book series (PEID)


St. Gregory of Nazianzus, known in the Christian East as “The Theologian,” was a phenomenally wealthy man. His family, from several generations before his birth, had belonged to the financial and political elite of Cappadocia. Gregory’s own career followed that tradition by demonstrating a lifelong involvement at the highest levels of society and church. At several instances in the course of his life, as Bernard Coulie has demonstrated,1 he turned his reflections to the moral problem posed by the possession of wealth to someone who professed to live by the Gospel that enjoined dispossession as the Royal Way for the disciple.2 Not merely was he a wealthy Christian who had to take the message of dispossession to heart: he was also a self-professed ascetic. Admittedly, he had found St. Basil the Great’s definition of “asceticism” too stringent, and in some senses too limiting, to want to follow himself. His ironic remarks, in his letters to Basil, about the monastic establishment at Annesos being too obsessed by physical labor and regimentation are well known.3 Gregory’s rejection of the Basilian ideas (partly inspired by Macrina’s monastic example, which she had learned from Eustathius of Antioch)4 were a cover for the ongoing maturation of his own idea of the best form of the “retired life.” He preferred the term sophrosyne to askesis: the quest for wisdom and sobriety taking precedence over the disciplining of the body. Not to Gregory’s taste were those wild feats of endurance that would characterize several of the Egyptian and Syrian holy men.


Human Person Fourth Century Late Antiquity Divine Nature Christian Philosopher 
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  1. 1.
    B. Coulie, Les richesses dans l’oeuvre de S. Grégoire de Nazianze: Étude littéraire et historique (Louvain La Neuve: Publications de l’Institut Orientaliste de Louvain 32, 1985), 171–77.Google Scholar
  2. 5.
    For a further elaboration of these fundamental Christian adaptations of the old Hellenistic philosophy of asceticism and the terms of the life of the Sophist, see J. A. McGuckin, “The Shaping of the Soul’s Perceptions in the Byzantine Ascetic Elias Ekdikos,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2011): 343–63; andGoogle Scholar
  3. McGuckin, “The Strategic Adaptation of Deification in the Cappadocians,” in Partakers of the Divine Nature: The History and Development of Deification in the Christian Tradition, ed. M. Christensen and J. Wittung (Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2006), 95–114.Google Scholar
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    See McGuckin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus; J. A. McGuckin, “Gregory of Nazianzus,” in The Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity, ed. L. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), vol. 1, 482–97;Google Scholar
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    For more about the Basiliad, cf. D. Constantelos, Byzantine Philanthropy and Social Welfare (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1968), 68–69, 154–58, 260–61. Ancient Roman Caesarea is a few miles away.Google Scholar
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    Some of Gregory’s large extended family were already resident in the capital and occupied senatorial rank; cf. J. Bernardi, “Nouvelles perspectives sur la famille de Grégoire de Nazianze,” Vigiliae Christianae 38 (1984): 352–59. Epistle 21 of his corpus shows Gregory himself advancing the political placement of those close to him, and so, long before he arrived in the capital in 380 as bishop-spokesman for the Nicene cause, he probably had an extensive network of political support.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cf. Constantelos, Byzantine Philanthropy and Social Welfare; G. Dagron, Naissance d’une capitale: Constantinople et ses institutions de 330 à 451 (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1974).Google Scholar
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    Cf. J. Noret, “Grégoire de Nazianze, l’auteur le plus cité après la Bible dans la littérature ecclésiastique byzantine,” in J. Mossay, Symposium Nazianzenum 2: Louvain-la-Neuve, 25–28 août, 1981 (Paderborn: Ferdinard Schöningh, 1983), 259–66. The same appears to have been true even in the medieval West. Cf.Google Scholar
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    “The idea that the poor, the sick and the old, ought to be helped because they were there, and even God’s creatures, is not ‘classical.’” See J. H. W. Liebeschuetz, Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979), 187.Google Scholar
  17. 38.
    The suffering character of this bipolar human ontology is a favorite theme of Gregory’s. The human being aspires to ontological stability but can never find it in this earthly condition. Cf. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina 1.2.33, vv. 85–88 (PG 37, 934); 2.1.8, vv. 3–5 (PG 37, 1025). For more on the theme, cf. P. Gilbert, On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001);Google Scholar
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    Cf. Coulie. Les richesses dans l’oeuvre de S. Grégoire de Nazianze, 153ff. For Gregory’s generic predilection for antitheses, cf. M. Guignet. S. Grégoire de Nazianze et la rhétorique: Thèse présentée a la Faculté des letters de Universite de Paris (1911), 95–96.Google Scholar
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    Further see J. A. McGuckin, “Deification,” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, ed. A. Hastings et al. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); McGuckin, “Deification in Greek Patristic Thought: The Strategic Adaptation of a Tradition,” in Christensen and Wittung, Partakers of the Divine Nature, 95–114.Google Scholar

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© John A. McGuckin 2016

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  • John A. McGuckin

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