Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 330–390), one of the most celebrated theologians of the early church, really didn’t want to be a preacher. In fact, after being ordained against his will at Epiphany 362, he couldn’t get away fast enough. Naturally, by the time he made his way back to Nazianzus a few months later, his flock expected some sort of an explanation. “I have been defeated,” he sighs at the beginning of his Oration 2 (“In Defense of His Flight”), “and own my defeat.”
At least that’s how the traditional story has it, and we lack historical details to fill out the sequence of events. We do know that, with his good friend Basil of Caesarea, Gregory had spent his early adulthood in a contented life of monastic retirement, study, and prayer. But, Gregory’s father, the Bishop of Nazianzus (in ancient Cappadocia, part of Turkey today), finally insisted that his son be ordained so that he could help out with the fractured local church. Taking up his post around Easter, 362, Gregory devoted some of his earliest sermons to explaining his initial reluctance to preach, his view of the nature of ministry, and attempting to mend the local schism. In this article I want to focus on his reluctance to preach, which he expounds and defends at length in Oration 2.
Gregory as Powerful Rhetorician
Oration 2 is regarded as the first writing of its kind in patristic literature and was the source of later reflections on pastoral ministry, such as John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood (written about a generation later, c. 390) and Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule (written about two centuries after that). In this Oration, he draws deeply on his training in the Scriptures, his reading of earlier patristic writers like Origen, and his background in Greco-Roman philosophical rhetoric. (Among the many sermons he undoubtedly preached over the next 30 years, 44 other Orations survive, plus letters and even autobiographical poems.)
Gregory starts off,
“As to the cause, either of my original revolt and cowardice, in which I got me away far off […] or of the present gentleness and change of mind […] men may think and speak in different ways[.] For nothing is so pleasant to men as talking of other people’s business, especially under the influence of affection or hatred[.]”
It seems human nature hasn’t changed much since the fourth century. Readers today might wonder, though, why Gregory sounds so defensive in a sermon. In reality, Oration 2 is more of a rhetorical performance than what we’d think of as a sermon today. Yet it’s a good introduction to Gregory, because even as he mounts his defense, he masterfully sets out his understanding of what a preacher’s job really is and why preaching is so important that a man might flee rather than take it up.
It can’t be stressed enough that Gregory was one of the best educated, most accomplished orators of his day—maybe even the best. So, in that sense, we shouldn’t read him completely at face value. That isn’t the same thing as saying that he wasn’t a heartfelt and sincere preacher, because he absolutely was. It’s just that you almost need an advanced degree in ancient Greco-Roman rhetoric to fully appreciate the complexity of how he spoke. He was simply that good.
So, it’s worth keeping his rhetorical prowess in mind when looking at, for example, his explanation for running away. Recall that men like Augustine said pretty much the same thing: to some extent, it was a rhetorical standby. But Gregory’s larger point was that being ordained was a big deal—and the burden of preaching was a major part of that.
So how did Gregory think about the work of preaching? It’s important to ask that question against the background of the fourth century—and if you know even a little bit about church history, the fourth century was a monumental and contentious time for doctrine, and Gregory himself was right at the heart of it. With the other so-called Cappadocian fathers (his old friend Basil, and Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa), Gregory was the public face of what we know today as Nicene orthodoxy, with Gregory’s focus on the divinity of the Holy Spirit being especially evident in his sermons. Unsurprisingly, then, Gregory’s preaching sought to impart that orthodoxy—not in any flat, disconnected way, but as the vital heart of making pagans into Christians and leading Christians to heaven, through Word and sacrament. Through public preaching, he certainly also sought to situate himself within the debate and controversy of the day, modeling how to handle these matters before a lay audience.
At this point in Oration 2, having established his reasons for running away, Gregory shifts slightly to focus on why preaching is such a formidable task. The weight of preaching is connected to two closely interrelated matters: both the recipients of preaching (pastoral care) and preaching’s content (biblical exegesis, especially as it pertains to the Trinity). I suggest that these matters should remind not just preachers or potential preachers, but also hearers of sermons, that the preaching of the Word is a means through which the Spirit works.
Gregory argues that ordination is so weighty because one of its central tasks is the “distribution of the word” (2.35), and the ultimate goal of this task is the exposition of Scripture in order to teach “what we are to think of the […] blessed Trinity.” This is, after all, the summit of saving doctrine, and to teach it is
“to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image […] to make Christ dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.”
This task, with its eternal weight, requires both skilled interpretation and careful application to the specific needs of the flock, especially in a context torn by theological conflict and disputation. Thus, exegesis isn’t only an intellectual exercise, but a healing work, including both exegesis proper and the fitting application of exegetical remedies. Gregory, paradoxically, portrays himself as one fit for this work in Oration 2. His explanation of how to distribute the Word is situated within a discussion of the formidable nature of the task, at once defending his own reluctance to take it up and implicitly criticizing the too-hasty adoption of the task by those ill-prepared or ill-disposed to “distribute” rightly. (In doing so, of course, he also implies that he actually is prepared for the task.)
First, he expounds further on the difficulties of pastoral care. These difficulties rest upon the fact that different members of the flock need different forms of pastoral guidance at different times, whether to spur them to goodness or to curb their sinful excesses: some “must be stirred up by being smitten with the word; others are immoderately fervent in spirit […] and to improve them the word must have a restraining and checking influence” (2.30). The same remedy doesn’t work for every hearer, just as a physician must consider the unique history and condition of a patient before prescribing medicine or diet. Some learn best by “doctrine,” others by “example”; some need more encouragement, others rebuke. And there’s no foolproof guide—only “experience and practice” can make a good physician of souls. In any case, it’s notable that Gregory doesn’t draw a bright line between teaching Christian behavior and teaching theology. He assumes they go together.
While this undertaking is delicate enough by itself, it is made yet more difficult by Gregory’s and his congregation’s context. Many have gone astray in doctrine, he observes, but this doesn’t happen to everybody in the same way; different paths to error require carefully distinguished pastoral remedies. For example, some are so fervent in their wrong opinions that submitting to correction feels like betraying the truth; but because such people err out of pious intentions, not out of stubborn vice, the skilled pastor watches for the critical moment when the listener is receptive to being “[illuminated] […] with the light of knowledge.” This is all the more difficult in light of the fact that he must pull it off before a crowd composed of all sorts and conditions of people. It can only be done, in a point Gregory will return to throughout his ministry, with “the aid of the Spirit, by Whom alone we are able to perceive, to expound, or to embrace, the truth in regard to God” (2.39).
Having explored the basic difficulty of “distributing the word” to a diverse audience, Gregory now touches on exegesis, namely a critique of those who arrogantly presume to preach before they know what they’re talking about:
“[A]lmost before we have lost our childish curls and lisp […] before we know even the names of the Sacred Books, before we have learned the character and authors of the Old and New Testaments […] How we take the chair and show our spirit! …we are at once wise teachers, of high estimation in Divine things, the first of scribes and lawyers; we ordain ourselves men of heaven and seek to be called Rabbi by men; the letter is nowhere, everything is to be understood spiritually, […] and we should be annoyed if we were not lauded to excess.”
Here, with cutting hyperbole, Gregory condemns those who would expound Scripture publicly while knowing next to nothing about what Scripture contains. Such immature men are no better than the scribes whose motivations Jesus condemned, seeking praise and titles from others. He says they even “ordain [themselves],” pointedly contrasting with his own reluctance to be ordained. Gregory implies that haste to be ordained is self-disqualifying, because it shows that someone lacks the patience to handle Scripture carefully, much less preach it sensitively.
Moreover, such men over-spiritualize the Scriptures—that is, they don’t read anything on the literal level, but see allegory everywhere, as if that’s a more sophisticated way of interpreting. As a student of Origen’s writings, Gregory isn’t knocking allegory per se; but he is suggesting that an interpretive novice has no business preaching it. One must be thoroughly acquainted with the “character and authors” of the biblical writers themselves before one can interpret them on a supposedly “higher” level. Without being deeply versed in the basics, Gregory suggests, preachers won’t be able to give their congregants what they need most—knowledge of the triune God.
Speaking of biblical authors, later in the Oration, Gregory goes on to contrast pastoral and exegetical incompetence with the career of Paul, the model preacher, then to catalogue the prophets’ denunciations of false shepherds. As I hope to discuss in a future article, this biblical deftness itself functions as a further defense of Gregory’s apprehension in the face of assuming his role. Yet, simultaneously, he uses his survey of biblical figures, perhaps especially his detailed exegesis of the book of Jonah (the prophet who fled!), to demonstrate his own facility with Scripture and thus his fitness to preach the Word—he implicitly classes himself with the biblical predecessors whose stories he exegetes. Ultimately, the “distribution of the Word” demands not only that one be conversant with the text and a skilled exegete; he must also possess the discernment to negotiate a setting in which “railing and partisan arrogance” prevail, and know how to venture into that melee as a fierce yet sanctified warrior, not “[contending] for Christ in an unchristlike manner” (2.85).
I think there are several ways that Protestants can benefit from reading Gregory’s reflections on the preacher and the preacher’s task. One way is simply that, as believers in the Spirit’s faithful work through the means of grace, we should resonate with Gregory’s high view of preaching. As I’ve tried to show in this article, Gregory portrays himself as hesitant to preach because so much is at stake: all of God’s people, with their various contexts and needs, must hear the Word, and what they need to hear most of all is Trinitarian doctrine. Implicit in Gregory’s outlook is the belief that preaching isn’t simply a teaching exercise. While it’s not less than that, it’s different from any other form of public speech in that the Holy Spirit works through it—something believers today need reminding of as much as they did in the fourth century.
In the next couple of articles, I first want to look more closely at the biblical exemplars Gregory appealed to (like Moses, Jonah, and Paul) and what it meant, in his mind, to become “purified” in order to follow them as models; and, second, to look in greater depth at how he saw the Holy Spirit working in and through orthodox Trinitarian preaching.
Sarah White is a writer and editor living in western Pennsylvania with her husband and Basset Hound.
 Oration 2.1. This oration can be found in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. The same translation can be found online at https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310202.htm