Dictionary of Christian Biography and Literature to the End of the Sixth Century/Gregorius Thaumaturgus, bp. of Neocaesarea

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Gregorius (3), surnamed Thaumaturgus, bp. of Neocaesarea in Pontus, c. 233–270; born c. 210 at Neocaesarea on the Lycus, the modern Niksar; the son of wealthy and noble heathen parents. Christianity had as yet made little progress in that neighbourhood,

there being only 17 Christians in the whole region (Greg. Nys. Vita Thaum.; Migne, Patr. Gk. xlvi. 954). The extraordinary success of the episcopal labours of the young missionary and the romantic details with which later hands embellished them secured for him the well-known title of Thaumaturgus. This repute cannot be set down as exclusively due to the credulousness of the age, for as Lardner (Cred. ii.42, § 5) remarked, besides Gregory of Nyssa, such writers as Basil, Jerome, and Theodoret distinguished him, as above others, "a man of apostolic signs and wonders" (cf. Dr. J. H. Newman, Essays on Miracles, p. 263). No light is thrown upon his thaumaturgic renown by his extant writings, which are conspicuous for their philosophic tone, humility, self-distrust, and practical sense. He must have been a man of singular force of character and weighty judgment. Heretics claimed the sanction of his name for their speculations, thus indirectly revealing the confidence in which he was held by all parties.

Gregory (originally Theodorus) stated that his father died and he himself passed through a remarkable spiritual crisis in his 14th year. He attributed the change of sentiment to "the Divine Logos, the Angel of the counsel of God, and the common Saviour of all." He left it, however, doubtful in what precisely the change consisted. His mother having suggested the pursuit of rhetoric, he was advised to study specially Roman law and become an alumnus of the celebrated school of jurisprudence at Berytus in Syria. His sister needed an escort to Palestine to join her husband in his high position under the Roman governor at Caesarea. The young Gregory and his brother Athenodorus took this opportunity to travel. "My guardian angel" (says he) "on our arrival at Caesarea handed us over to the care and tuition of Origen," and the brothers, abandoning their journey, remained there under the personal spell of the teacher for five years. The mental processes by which Gregory was led to Christ throw considerable light on the mind of Origen and the methods of Christian education in the 3rd cent. These details are preserved in a panegyric on Origen, which before leaving Caesarea the young student pronounced to a great assembly in the presence of his master. They differ in several particulars from the account of Gregory of Nyssa (Greg. Nys. Vita Thaum.; Migne, Patr. Gk. vol. xlvi. pp. 893–958). According to Gregory's own statements (Orat. de Orig. c. vi.), Origen enticed his pupils first to the study of philosophy, which he recommended as a duty to the Lord of all, "since man alone of all creatures is deemed by his Creator as worthy to pursue it." "A thoughtful man, if pious, must philosophize," says he, so "at length, like some spark lighting on our soul, love was kindled and burst into flame within us, a love to the Holy Logos, the most lovely object of all, Who attracts all to Himself by His unutterable beauty." "only one object seemed worthy of pursuit, philosophy and the master of philosophy, this divine (θεῖος) man." His love to Origen was like that of Jonathan for David. Gregory praises Origen for his Socratic discipline, and for the way in which his teacher probed his inmost soul with questions, pruned his native wildness and repressed his exuberance. He was taught to interrogate his consciousness, and critically to investigate reasonings and the meanings of words. Origen accustomed his pupils first to the dialectic method of inquiry, and then, in Aristotelian fashion, fed them to contemplate the "magnitude, the wondrousness, the magnificent, and absolutely wise construction of the world." He seems to have followed (strangely enough) the order of the sciences in Comte's classification of the branches of human knowledge. Thus, he began with "the immutable foundation of all, geometry, and then" (says Gregory) "by astronomy he lifted us up to the things highest above us." He reduced things to their "pristine elements," "going over the nature of the whole and of each several section," "he filled our minds with a rational, instead of an irrational, wonder at the sacred oeconomy of the universe and the irreprovable constitution of all things." These words and much more that might be quoted from the Panegyric are a strange comment on the thaumaturgic actions freely attributed to Gregory. Morals followed physics, and emphasis is laid by Gregory on the practical experience by which Origen desired his pupils to verify all theories, "stimulating us by the deeds he did more than by the doctrines he taught." He urged the study of Grecian philosophy for the direct culture of their moral nature. The end of the entire discipline was "nothing but this: By the pure mind make thyself like to God, that thou mayest draw near to Him and abide in Him." Origen advised Gregory to study all the writings of the philosophers and poets of old, except the Atheists, and gave reasons for a catholic and liberal eclecticism, and, with a modern spirit, disclaimed the force of prejudice and the misery of half-truths and of fixed ideas, and the advantage of "selecting all that was useful and true in all the various philosophers, and putting aside all that was false." Gregory says of his master: "That leader of all (ἀρχηγὸς πάντων) who speaks in undertones (ὑπηχῶν) to God's dear prophets and suggests to them all their prophecy and their mystic and divine word, has so honoured this man Origen as a friend as to appoint him to be their interpreter." Evidently to Gregory the gift of interpretation was as much a divine charisma as prophecy itself. So great were the joys thus placed within his reach that he adds with rapture, "He was truly a paradise to us, after the similitude of the Paradise of God." He regrets his departure from Caesarea, as Adam might bewail his expulsion from Eden, having to eat of the soil, to contend with thorns and thistles, and dwell in darkness, weeping and mourning. He says, "I go away of my own will, and not by constraint, and by my own act I am dispossessed, when it is in my option to remain."

The influence of Origen's teaching upon Gregory and Athenodorus is confirmed by Eusebius (H. E. vi. 30), who adds that "they made such improvement that both, though very young, were honoured with the episcopate in the churches of Pontus."

Gregory of Nyssa describes Gregory of Neocaesarea as spending much time in Alexandria,

and says that before his baptism, while resident there, he displayed a high tone of moral propriety. A residence in Alexandria may have occurred in the five years that Gregory and his brother were under the direction of Origen. These years were probably interrupted by the persecution under Maximinus Thrax (reigned July 235 to May 238), which was aimed especially at the leaders of the church. Origen may then have gone into retirement and left his pupils at liberty to travel into Egypt. If Gregory's baptism was deferred until Origen could return to Caesarea, it must have taken place at the close of their intercourse after the death of Maximin and the accession of Gordian in 238. Reckoning backwards the five years, Gregory did not reach Caesarea before 233, and probably later; and did not leave the "Paradise" until 238 at the earliest, when he pronounced his Panegyric. This document is of interest from the testimony it bears to the doctrine of the Trinity and the light it throws upon the faith of Gregory. Bp. Bull has laid great emphasis upon the passage (Orat. de Origine, cap. iv.) in which Gregory offers his praise to the Father, and then to "the Champion and Saviour of our souls, His first-born Word, the Creator and Governor of all things, . . . being the truth, the wisdom, the power of the Father Himself of all things, and besides being both in Him and absolutely united to Him (ἀτεχνῶς ἡνώμενος), the most perfect and living and animate word of the primal mind." Bp. Bull rightly calls attention to the pre-Nicene character of these phrases, which yet substantially agree with the deliverance of the Nicene Fathers (Def. Nic. Creed, vol. i. p. 331). They are of importance in estimating the authenticity and significance of other documents.

Immediately on his return to Neocaesarea Gregory received a letter from Origen (Philocalia, c. 13), revealing the teacher's extraordinary regard for his pupil, whom he describes as "my most excellent lord and venerable son." Gregory is exhorted to study all philosophies, as a preparation for Christianity and to aid the interpretation of Holy Scripture. He is thus to spoil the Egyptians of their fine gold, in order to make vessels for the sanctuary, and not idols of his own. He is then urged with some passion to study the Scriptures, and to seek from God by prayer the light he needs (see Ante-Nic. Library, Origen's works, vol. i. 388–390, for a translation of this letter). Shortly after his return Gregory became bishop of his native city, and one of the most celebrated (διαβόητος) bishops of the age (Eus. H. E. vi. 30, and vii. 14). The curious details of his ordination are referred to in Basil's Menol. Graec. (Nov. 17), where it is stated that he was ordained by Phaedimus, bp. of Amasea, when the two were at a distance from each other. Our only guide for the subsequent details of his life is Gregory of Nyssa. Some of that writer's most extraordinary statements are in measure vouched for by his brother Basil the Great, and by Rufinus in his expansion of the history of Eusebius. As the later father tells the story, the young and saintly student, on reaching home, was entreated by the entire population to remain as their magistrate and legislator. Like Moses, he took counsel of God, and retired into the wilderness, but, unlike Moses, he married no wife, and had virtue only for his spouse. Then we are told that Phaedimus, bp. of Amasea, sought to consecrate him by guile, but failed, and adopted the expedient of electing and ordaining him by prayer when he was distant a journey of three days. We are assured that this induced Gregory to yield to the summons, and to submit afterwards to the customary rites. Gregory only demanded time for meditation on the truths of the Christian faith before accepting the commission. This meditation issued in the supposed divine revelation to him in the dead of the night of one of the most explicit formularies of the creed of the church of the 3rd cent., "after he had been deeply considering the reason of the faith, and sifting disputations of all sorts." Gregory saw a vision of St. John and the mother of the Lord, and the latter commanded the former to lay before Gregory the true faith. Apart from this romance, the formulary attributed to Gregory is undoubtedly of high antiquity, and Lardner (Credibility, vol. ii. p. 29) does not argue with his wonted candour in his endeavour to fasten upon it signs of later origin.[1] It is singularly free from the peculiar phrases which acquired technical significance in the 4th cent., and yet maintains a most uncompromising antagonism to Sabellian and Unitarian heresy. Moreover, Gregory of Nyssa asserts that when he uttered his encomium, the autograph MS. of this creed was in possession of the church at Neocaesarea. He adds that the church had been continually initiated (μυσταγωγεῖται) by means of this confession of Gregory's faith. This statement Basil confirmed (Ep. 204, Bas. Opp. Paris ed. t. iii. p. 303), saying that in his tender age, when residing in Neocaesarea, he had been taught the words of Gregory by his sainted grandmother Macrina, and (de Spir. Sancto, c. 29, ib. p. 62) he declared the tenacity with which the ways and words of Gregory had been preserved by that church, even to the mode of reciting the doxology. Moreover, Basil attributed to his influence the orthodoxy of a whole succession of bishops from Gregory to the Musonius of his own day (Ep. 204). In addressing the Neocaesareans (Ep. 207, ib. p. 311), he warns them against twisting the words of Gregory. The formulary must be

distinguished from the ἔκθεσις τῆς κατὰ μέρος πίστεως, which is now found among the dubious writings of Gregory, and which even Labbe confounded with it. A very important sentence which has been variously attributed to the saint and his biographer follows the formula as given in the Life. Dr. Burton referred it to Gregory of Nyssa. Modern editors call attention to the fact that Gregory of Nazianzus (Orat. 10) refers to the closing sentences as the substance of the formula itself. It runs as follows: "There is therefore nothing created or servile in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as though previously non-existing and introduced afterwards. Never therefore was the Son wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but there is ever the same Trinity, unchangeable and unalterable" (cf. Migne, Patr. Gk. vol. x. p. 988). Great difference of opinion has prevailed as to the genuineness of this document; thus Bingham, Bull, Cave, Tillemont (iv. 327), Ceillier, Hahn (cf. Dorner's Person of Christ, A. ii. 482), Mohler (Athan. i. 105), have defended it, and Lardner, Whiston, Münscher, Gieseler, Herzog (Abriss der Kirchengesch. i. 122), contest it. Neander divided it into two parts, the one genuine revealing its Origenistic source, and the other of later growth. Dr. Caspari has, in an appendix to his great work, Alte und neue Quellen zur Geschichte des Taufsymbols und der Glaubensregel (1879), defended it with great erudition, and concludes that there is nothing in the formula incompatible with its being the production of a pupil of Origen. He shews, moreover, that it must have been produced between a.d. 260 and 265.

There can be little doubt that the missionary labour of Gregory was great and successful, and that his personal influence was extraordinary. A few of the marvellous occurrences detailed by Gregory of Nyssa are referred to by Basil and Rufinus. Basil tells us (de Spir. Sancto, l.c.) "that Gregory was a great and conspicuous lamp, illuminating the church of God, and that he possessed, from the co-operation of the Spirit, a formidable power against the demons; that he turned the course of rivers by giving them orders in the name of Christ; that he dried up a lake, which was the cause of strife to two brothers; and that his predictions of the future made him the equal of the other prophets; . . . that by friends and enemies of the truth he was regarded, in virtue of his signs and prodigies, as another Moses." But Gregory of Nyssa expands into voluminous legend the record of these deeds. With the exception of a reference to the river Lycus, the Panegyric of Gregory of Nyssa contains no verifying element, giving neither names, dates, nor places for these astounding portents. They were, as Dr. Newman observes, wrought at such times and seasons as to lead to numerous conversions. They were described as well-known facts in a hortatory address and in ecclesiastical style. But they contrast very forcibly with the philosophical bias of Gregory's mind, and they are not referred to until a century after their occurrence.

One of the most interesting facts introduced by his panegyrist refers to Gregory's selection of an obscure person, Alexander the charcoal burner, as bishop over the neighbouring city of Comana. He was preferred to men of eloquence and station by reason of his humble self-consecration to God, and justified the choice by reason of his excellent discourse, holy living, and martyr death.

The great missionary success of Gregory and the rapid growth of the Church must have preceded the persecution under Decius, which began in 250 and 251. The edict was ferocious, and, in the hands of sympathetic governors, cruelly carried out. [DECIUS.] Gregory advised those who could do so to save themselves and their faith by flight and concealment. His enemies pursued him into his retreat, but Gregory of Nyssa says that they found in place of the bishop and his deacon two trees. This "prodigy" differs so profoundly (as do others in the same writer) from the N.T. miracles, both in character and motive, that they form an instructive hint as to the ethnic and imaginative source of the whole cycle.

In 257 Gregory returned to Neocaesarea, and when, in 258, peace was restored to the church, he ordered annual feasts in commemoration of the martyrs. He is credited by his biographer with the doubtful wisdom of hoping to secure the allegiance of those who had been in the habit of worshipping idols, by arranging ceremonials in honour of the martyrs resembling that to which they had been accustomed. This time-serving is an unfavourable indication of character, and does something to explain the melancholy defection from moral uprightness and honour of many of his supposed converts. The conversion of the heathen is said to have been greatly quickened by a fearful plague which was partly, at least, due to Gregory's miraculous powers.

At his death the number of heathen who now remained in his diocese is said to have dwindled to 17, the exact number of Christians found there when Phaedimus consecrated him (Vit. Thaum. l.c. p. 954). But the Christianity of the Neocaesareans must have been in many cases of a very imperfect kind, if we may judge from one of the most authentic documents referred to his pen, and entitled Epistola Canonica S. Gregorii . . . de iis qui in barbarorum incursione idolothyta comederant, et alia quaedam peccata commiserant. Numerous authorities, Dodwell (Dissertationes in Cyprianum), Ceillier (vol. ii. p. 444) question the genuineness of the last, the eleventh, of canons, but the conviction widely prevails that the previous ten are genuine. They refer to the circumstances which followed the ravages of the Goths and Boradi in Pontus, and Asia Minor generally, during the reign of Gallienus. The prevailing disorder tempted numerous Christians in Pontus to flagrant acts of impiety and disloyalty. Some took possession of the goods of those who had been dragged into bondage. Others identified themselves with the barbarians, actually helping the heathen in their uttermost cruelty towards their brethren. These facts are gathered from the "canons" in which Gregory denounced strenuously the commission of such crimes, and assigned to them their ecclesiastical penalty. The bishop does not linger over the mere ceremonial uncleanness that might follow from enforced consumption of meat

offered to idols, and exonerates from blame or any ecclesiastical anathema women who had, against their will, lost their chastity; but he lays great emphasis on the vices and greed of those who had violated Christian morality for gain and personal advantage. Different degrees of penalty and exclusion from church privilege were assigned, and those were argued on ground of Scripture alone. The epistle containing these canons was addressed to an anonymous bp. of Pontus, who had asked his advice, c. 258, towards the end of his episcopate. It reveals the imperfect character of the wholesale conversions that had followed his remarkable ministry.

Other works have been wrongly attributed to Gregory; e.g. ἔκθεσις τῆς κατὰ μέρος πίστεως, which Vossius published in Latin in 1662, among the works of Gregory, and which Cardinal Mai (Scrip. Vet. vii. p. 170) has presented in Greek from the Codex Vaticanus. It is given by Migne (l.c. pp. 1103–1123). The best interpretation of the title is, "A creed not of all the dogmas of the church, but only of some, in opposition to the heretics who deny them" (Ante-Nicene Library, vol. xx. p. 81). It differs from the former confession in its obvious and technical repudiation of Arianism, and its distinct references to the later Nestorian, and Eutychian heresies. Other treatises and fragments given in edd. of his works, and also trans. in A.-N. L., are: Capitula duodecim de Fide, with interpretation, attributed by Gretser to Gregory (ed. Ratisbon, 1741). Ad Tatianum Disputatio de Animâ, which must have been written by a medieval philosopher when the philosophy of Aristotle was beginning to exert a new influence (Ceillier). Four Homiliae, preserved by Vossius, on "the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary," and on "Christ's Baptism," are totally unlike the genuine writing of Gregory; they are surcharged with the peculiar reverence paid to the Mother of our Lord after the controversy between Nestorius and Cyril, and they adopt the test-words of orthodoxy current in the Arian disputes. Two brief fragments remain to be added, one a comment on Matt. vi. 22–23, from a Catena, Cod. MS. and pub. by Galland, Vet. Patr. Bibl. xiv. 119, and a discourse, in Omnes Sanctos, preserved with a long Epistola praevia by Mingarelli.

Gregory was present at the first council at Antioch (264) to try Paul of Samosata. His brother Athenodorus accompanied him, and they are named among the most eminent members of the council (Eus. H. E. vii. 28).

Gregory was buried in the church he had built in Neocaesarea, and commemorated on Nov. 17 (Cal. Ethiop.) and Nov. 23 (Cal. Arm.).

Editions of his Works.—The most noted have been those of Gerard Vossius, 1640, in 4to, and in 1622, in folio. They had been published in Bibl. Patr. Cologne in 1618. The Panegyric on Origen by Sirmond, 1609, 4to. De la Rue included it in his ed. of Origensis Opera, vol. iv. The various fragments attributed to Gregory are all pub. by Migne (Patr. Gk. vol. x.). See esp. Ryssel, Gregorius Thaumaturgus (Leipz. 1880). His Address to Origen and Origen's Letter to Gregory have been trans. with intro. and notes by W. Metcalfe (S.P.C.K.). There are also translations of his works in the Ante-Nic. Lib. vol. vi.

[H.R.R.]


Footnotes[edit]

  1. The Creed is as follows in Bull's trans.: "There is one God, Father of Him Who is the living Word, subsisting Wisdom and Power and Eternal Impress (χαρακτηρος ἀϊδίου), Perfect Begetter of the Perfect, Father of the only-begotten Son. There is one Lord, Alone of the alone, God of God, Impress and Image of the Godhead, the operative Word; Wisdom comprehensive of the system of the universe, and Power productive of the whole creation; true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal, and Eternal of Eternal. And there is one Holy Ghost, Who hath His being of God, Who hath appeared (that is to mankind, δηλαδὴ τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, a clause which Greg. of Nyssa gives, but which is not found in some of the codices) through the Son, Image of the Son, Perfect of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of all them that live; Holy Fountain, Holiness, the Bestower of sanctification, in Whom is manifested God the Father Who is over all and in all, and God the Son, Who is through all. A perfect Trinity, not divided nor alien in glory and eternity and dominion."