Cappadocian Ecclesiology

Basil of Caesarea, of the Cappadocian Fathers
Basil of Caesarea

I am grateful to Wipf & Stock Publishers for granting permission to place on-line the following article on the ecclesiology of the Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caesarea, Gergory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus.

Donald A. Sykes, “Understandings of the Church in the Cappadocians,” Horton Davies, ed.,  Studies of the Church in History. Essays Honoring Robert S. Paul on his Sixty-fifth Birthday. Allison Park, PA: Pickwick Publications, 1983. pp.73-83.

A reprint of this book is currently available from Wipf & Stock – click here for details.

Understandings of the Church in the Cappadocians

Donald A. Sykes

The Cappadocians form a significant group among 4th century Greek theologians, regarding themselves as legitimate successors of Athanasius. Basil of Caesarea was acknowledged as leader by the other two major writers, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, developing as he did a churchmanship which was to prove very influential. [1]

In one aspect Basil may be represented as the straightforward man of affairs, whether ecclesiastical or secular. Yet another side of him wants to withdraw, physically and mentally, from the active world. This is why one of the most energetic bishops of his century is a pioneer of monastic practice. The ways in which Basil attempted to resolve this tension cannot here be explored, [2] beyond my remarking that a passion for order is fundamental to both sides of his life. Absorbed as he was to become in the maintenance of the visible structure of the church, Basil would never have considered himself at variance with what he wrote in his celebrated Address to Young Men: [3] “We, my children, in no wise conceive this life of ours to be an object of value in any respect, nor do we consider anything good at all, or so designate it, which makes its contribution to this life of ours only.” The “other life” is what matters and the present is no more than preparation. [4] For some people, or for particular periods in individual people’s lives, the preparation is best undertaken in isolation. It is fairly clear that Basil was sometimes inclined to find in this life the ideal way, [5] and this might seem to undervalue the Christian profession of ordinary members of congregations, business men, say, and the priests whose lives are taken up with them. Are they less “real” Christians than those whose withdrawn lives might seem to bring them closer to the “real” world beyond this? (Cf. Basil’s contrast of “shadows and dreams” with “reality.” [6]) For Basil however any such absoluterestriction of pure apprehension to particular groups or individuals could not be conceived without irreparable loss to the church. It is within the church that this purity must find its context. If it is not present as an interacting, rather than an isolated element, there can be no meaning in the unity which was for Basil an overwhelming concern.

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