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Suffering, Courage and Theological Conflict: Learning from the Cappadocians

Suffering, Courage and Theological Conflict: Learning from the Cappadocians

by Gerald McDermott

Every major denomination today is beset with conflict over the meaning of sexuality. Most of us have learned that the debate is finally not about sex but the identity of God, the nature of salvation, and the question of how we know God. Those of us who have entered the lists are weary of fighting. Some of us have suffered for the positions we have taken. We are loathe to continue fighting, but we also know that the battle is far from over.

It is a source of no little comfort to know that this is not the first time that the church has been rent by theological controversy. One of the first such times was the fourth century during the Trinitarian debates, when the identity of God was disputed in more fundamental fashion than today. We know that the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil's longtime friend and disciple Gregory of Nazianzus) were critical to the victory of orthodoxy. But we may not know the reluctance they felt and the suffering they endured in order to secure final victory.

There was fierce opposition to Nicene orthodoxy for more than a half-century after the great Council of 325. In 370 the Emperor Valens, an Arian, threatened Basil with plunder, exile, torture and death unless he changed his stance. Basil's reply was, "None of these things hurts me. I have no property, the whole world is my home, my body is already dead in Christ, and death would be a great blessing."[1] Things were so bad in Constantinople in 379 that mobs attacked Gregory of Nazianzus in the streets for his orthodoxy, and Arian monks broke into Gregory's chapel and profaned the altar.

Churches were corrupted by heresy and cultural compromise. Basil complained that ministers no longer dared preach what the laity had grown unaccustomed to hearing. The churches, he lamented, had cast aside the teachings of the Fathers and the apostolic traditions. Their leaders, he said, were more skilled in rhetoric than theology; they taught the wisdom of this world but not the glory of the cross. The result was disastrous for the laity: "The ears of the more simple-minded . . . have become accustomed to the heretical impiety. The nurslings of the Church are being brought up in the doctrines of ungodliness. . . . Consequently after a little time has passed, not even if all fear should be removed, would there then be hope of recalling those held by a long-standing deception back to the recognition of the truth."[2]

Because of the triumphs of heresy and its advocates' ruthless methods, the orthodox were reluctant to join battle. Gregory of Nazianzus hated conflict and was indecisive. Gregory of Nyssa was temperamentally timid, "born for study and speculation."[3] All three of the Cappadocians started their adult lives as monks who delighted in the isolation of the mystical life, removed physically and psychologically from the dangerous and depressing conflicts of the Church.

As Basil put it, "[My inner] longing urges me to flight, to solitude in the mountains, to quietude of soul and body . . . But the other, the Spirit, would lead me into the midst of life, to serve the common weal, and by furthering others to further myself, to spread light, and to present to God a people for His possession. . . . So Christ did, who, though He might have remained in His own dignity and divine glory, not only humbled Himself to the form of a servant, but also, despising the shame, endured the death of the cross, that by His suffering He might blot out sin, and by His death destroy death."[4]

For the most part, the Cappadocians had to be cajoled into service. Every one of them was ordained against his will (in the days when the overwhelming acclamation of the laity was considered the voice of God, the same thing happened to Augustine as a presbyter, and to Ambrose and Athanasius as bishops).

After his forced ordination, Basil fled to the monastic community to avoid trouble with a bishop, but then returned when persuaded by another bishop that he needed to fight Arianism. Basil then forced his bother Gregory to become bishop of the village of Nyssa because he needed his help; Gregory of Nazianzus was coerced into the presbyterate by his aged father, who was himself a presbyter and needed pastoral help. Later this same Gregory was compelled by Basil to become bishop of an obscure market town that was nevertheless important in the ecclesiastical fight against Arianism.

It was only by the Cappadocians' willingness to suffer that orthodoxy prevailed. Basil braved threats on his life. Because of Gregory of Nyssa's orthodoxy, he was deposed and driven into exile. Gregory of Nazianzus stood firm as Patriarch of the orthodox church in Constantinople in the midst of mockery and persecution. Despite his hatred of travel, he accepted Theodosius' later appointment as theological advisor that took him to Arabia and Mesopotamia. The result of their courage and eloquence was the final victory of Trinitarianism in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, when Nicaea was reaffirmed and the Holy Spirit was declared to be fully divine.

There are several lessons we can learn from these brave theologians. First, we must not shy from controversy. As Martin Luther once said, "If we are not fighting at that point on the line of battle where the enemy has concentrated his forces, we are not real soldiers in the army of Christ." And as Stephen Crane wrote in the Red Badge of Courage, it is not those who are unafraid who are brave, but those who are afraid but do the right thing anyway."

Second, we must not assume someone else will fight for us. God may have called us "for such a time as this." If we don't proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints, who will?

Third, we must not decline because we assume we are not made for conflict. Neither were the two Gregorys (Basil was more contentious by nature). Few of us enjoy conflict, but God calls all of us to leadership in the truth.

Fourth, we must not permit personal conflicts within orthodox ranks to keep us from joining the contest. Gregory of Nazianzus bitterly resented Basil's making him bishop without his consent. But he swallowed his hurt and spoke publicly for truth regardless.

Fifth, we must embrace the cross. As Paul wrote, "Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable . . . endure suffering" (2 Timothy 4.2, 5). Finally, we must find joy in Jesus' promise that He is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matt 16.18).

---The Rev. Dr. Gerald McDermott is Professor of religion & Philosophy at Roanoke Collge, Roanoke, Virginia. This article was first published in Theology Matters (November 2006), 6-7.

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