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The fourth century’s most holy family

St Gregory at first resisted the call to religion

Gregory of Nyssa (c 335-c 395) was a brother of St Basil (c 330-379), and a friend of St Gregory of Nazianzus (329-89); together, the three of them were known as the Cappadocian Fathers, after the region, at the heart of modern Turkey, where they were born.

For 1,500 years Gregory of Nyssa attracted rather less attention than the other two. Since the Second World War, however, his writings, which on the one hand stress the difficulty of apprehending God by reason, and on the other offer the possibility of universal salvation, have evoked considerable interest among theologians.

Gregory was born into an extraordinarily religious family in Caesarea, the main town of Cappadocia. Of his nine siblings, four would be recognised as saints.

Yet, much to the disapproval of his elder brother Basil, Gregory at first resisted the call of religion. Rather, he set himself up as a teacher of rhetoric, and married. By 372, however, apparently without disembarrassing himself of his wife, he had become bishop of Nyssa, a remote eastern outpost in the see of Caesarea, where his brother was now in charge.

Basil, though, was soon making scathing remarks about Gregory’s administrative abilities. Clearly something went wrong, for Gregory was thrown out of Nyssa in 376, amid accusations of embezzlement.

No doubt the wrangle was essentially political, for in 378 he was restored to his bishopric. He attended the Council at Constantinople in 381, and was sent out to tackle problems in Syria and Jerusalem.

Gregory, though, was a theologian rather than a man of action. At the root of his philosophy was the premiss that the Almighty, being by definition infinite, would always remain beyond the ken of human reason.

It might be possible to venture some opinions as to what God was not; it was wholly unprofitable to attempt to define what He might be. The quest for the divine was better pursued by meditation than by argument.

Yet Gregory did develop some firm ideas in theology. In particular, when considering the Trinity, he rejected any idea that the Father was anterior to the Son and the Holy Ghost. Rather, he thought in terms of one essence in three coeval persons.

He insisted, too, that the soul was created at the same time as the body, which meant that embryos should be considered as persons. In aesthetics, he held that beauty and goodness were equivalent.

Even the Fall of Man was turned to optimistic account, as the beginning of a process which would eventually return man to sinlessness. Evil, being ultimately self-destructive, could have no eternal existence. So the devils in hell might finally play a part in the triumph of virtue.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Gregory of Nyssa was never made a Doctor of the Church.