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Gregory of Neocaesarea, Saint

B. about 213; d. 270-275

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Gregory of Neocaesarea, Saint, known as THAUMATURGUS (O Thaumatourgos, the miracle-worker), b. at Neocaesarea in Pontus (Asia Minor) about 213; d. there 270-275. Among those who built up the Christian Church, extended its influence, and strengthened its institutions, the bishops of Asia Minor occupy a high position; among them Gregory of Neocaesarea holds a very prominent place. His pastoral work is but little known, and his theological writings have reached us in a very incomplete state. In this semi-obscurity the personality of this great man seems eclipsed and dwarfed; even his immemorial title Thaumaturgus (the wonderworker) casts an air of legend about him. Nevertheless, the lives of few bishops of the third century are so well authenticated; the historical references to him permit us to reconstruct his work with considerable detail. Originally he was known as Theodore (the gift of God), not an exclusively Christian name. Moreover, his family was pagan, and he was unacquainted with the Christian religion till after the death of his father, at which time he was fourteen years old. He had a brother Athenodorus, and, on the advice of one of their tutors, the young men were anxious to study law at the law-school of Beirut, then one of the four or five famous schools in the Hellenic world. At this time, also, their brother-in-law was appointed assessor to the Roman Governor of Palestine; the youths had therefore an occasion to act as an escort to their sister as far as Caesarea in Palestine. On arrival in that town they learned that the celebrated scholar Origen, head of the catechetical school of Alexandria, resided there. Curiosity led them to hear and converse with the master, and his irresistible charm did the rest. Soon both youths forgot all about Beirut and Roman law, and gave themselves up to the great Christian teacher, who gradually won them over to Christianity. In his panegyric on Origen, Gregory describes the method employed by that master to win the confidence and esteem of those he wished to convert; how he mingled a persuasive candor with out-bursts of temper and theological argument put cleverly at once and unexpectedly. Persuasive skill rather than bare reasoning, an evident sincerity and an ardent conviction were the means Origen used to make converts. Gregory took up at first the study of philosophy; theology was afterwards added, but his mind remained always inclined to philosophical study, so much so indeed that in his youth he cherished strongly the hope of demonstrating that the Christian religion was the only true and good philosophy. For seven years he underwent the mental and moral discipline of Origen (231 to 238 or 239). There is no reason to believe that his studies were interrupted by the persecutions of Maximinus of Thrace; his alleged journey to Alexandria, at this time, may therefore be considered at least doubtful, and probably never occurred.

In 238 or 239 the two brothers returned to their native Pontus. Before leaving Palestine Gregory delivered in presence of Origen a public farewell oration in which he returned thanks to the illustrious master he was leaving. This oration is valuable from many points of view. As a rhetorical exercise it exhibits the excellent training given by Origen, and his skill in developing literary taste; it exhibits also the amount of adulation then permissible towards a living person in an assembly composed mostly of Christians, and Christian in temper. It contains, moreover, much useful information concerning the youth of Gregory and his master’s method of teaching. A letter of Origen refers to the departure of the two brothers, but it is not easy to determine whether it was written before or after the delivery of this oration. In it Origen exhorts (quite unnecessarily, it is true) his pupils to bring the intellectual treasures of the Greeks to the service of Christian philosophy, and thus imitate the Jews who employed the golden vessels of the Egyptians to adorn the Holy of Holies. It may be supposed that despite the original abandonment of Beirut and the study of Roman law, Gregory had not entirely given up the original purpose of his journey to the Orient; as a matter of fact, he returned to Pontus with the intention of practising law. His plan, however, was again laid aside, for he was soon consecrated bishop of his native Caesarea, by Phoedimus, Bishop of Amasea and Metropolitan of Pontus. This fact illustrates in an interesting way the growth of the hierarchy in the primitive Church, for we know that the Christian community at Caesarea was very small, being only seventeen souls, and it was given a bishop. We know, moreover, from ancient canonical documents, that it was possible for a community of even ten Christians to have their own bishop. When Gregory was consecrated he was forty years old, and he ruled his diocese for thirty years. Although we know nothing definite as to his methods, we cannot doubt that he must have shown much zeal in increasing the little flock with which he began his episcopal administration. From an ancient source we learn a fact that is at once a curious coincidence, and throws light on his missionary zeal; whereas he began with only seventeen Christians, at his death there remained but seventeen pagans in the whole town of Caesarea. The many miracles which won for him the title of “Thaumaturgus” were doubtless performed during these years. The Oriental mind revels so naturally in the marvellous that a serious historian cannot accept unconditionally all its product; yet if ever the title of “wonderworker” was deserved, Gregory had a right to it.

It is to be noted here that our sources of information as to the life, teaching, and actions of Gregory Thaumaturgus are all more or less open to criticism. Besides the details given us by Gregory himself, and of which we have already spoken, there are four other sources of information, all, according to Kotschau, derived from oral tradition; indeed, the differences between them force the conclusion that they cannot all be derived from one common written source. They are: Life and Panegyric of Gregory by St. Gregory of Nyssa (P.G., XLVI, col. 893 sqq.); “Historia Miraculorum”, by Rufinus; an account in Syriac of the great actions of Blessed Gregory (sixth century manuscript); St. Basil, “De Spiritu Sancto”. St. Gregory of Nyssa (q.v.), with the help of family traditions and a knowledge of the neighborhood, has left us an account of the “Thaumaturgus” that is certainly more historical than any other known to us. From Rufinus we see that in his day (c. 400) the original story was becoming confused; the Syriac account is at times obscure and contradictory. Even the life by Gregory of Nyssa exhibits a legendary element, though its facts were all supplied to the writer by his grandmother, St. Macrina the Elder. He relates that before his episcopal consecration Gregory retired from Neocaesarea into a solitude, and was favored by an apparition of the Blessed Virgin and the Apostle St. John, and that the latter dictated to him a creed or formula of Christian faith, of which the autograph existed at Neocaesarea when the biography was being written. The creed itself is quite important for the history of Christian doctrine (Caspari, “Alte and neue Quellen zur Gesch. d. Taufsymbols and der Glaubensregel”, Christiania, 1879, 1-64). Gregory of Nyssa describes at length the miracles that gained for the Bishop of Caesarea the title of “Thaumaturgus”; herein the imaginative element is very active. It is clear, however, that Gregory’s influence must have been considerable, and his miraculous power undoubted. It might have been expected that Gregory’s name would appear among those who took part in the First Council of Antioch against Paul of Samosata (Eusebius, “Hist. Eccl.”, VII, xxviii); probably he took part also in the second council held there against the same heresiarch, for the letter of that council is signed by a bishop named Theodore, which had been originally Gregory’s name (Eusebius, op. cit., VII, xxx). To attract the people to the festivals in honor of the martyrs, we learn that Gregory organized profane amusements as an attraction for the pagans who could not understand a solemnity without some pleasures of a less serious nature than the religious ceremony.

Writings of Gregory.—The “Oratio Panegyrica” in honor of Origen describes in detail that master’s pedagogical methods. Its literary value consists less in its style than in its novelty, it being the first attempt at autobiography in Christian literature. This youthful work is full of enthusiasm and genuine talent; moreover, it proves how fully Origen had won the admiration of his pupils, and how the training Gregory received influenced the remainder of a long and well-spent life. Gregory tells us in this work (xiii) that under Origen he read the works of many philosophers, without restriction as to school, except that of the atheists. From this reading of the old philosophers he learned to insist frequently on the unity of God; and his long experience of pagan or crudely Christian populations taught him how necessary this was. Traces of this insistence are to be met with in the “Tractatus ad Theopompum”, concerning the passibility and impassibility of God; this work seems to belong to Gregory, though in its general arrangement it reminds us of Methodius. A similar trait was probably characteristic of the lost “Dialogus cum Aeliano” (Pros Ailianon dialeksis) which we learn of through St. Basil, who frequently attests the orthodoxy of the Thaumaturgus (Ep. xxviii, 1, 2; cciv, 2; ccvii, 4) and even defends him against the Sabellians, who claimed him for their teaching and quoted as his formula: patera kai uion epinoia men einai duo, upostasei de en (that the Father and the Son were two in intelligence, but one in substance) from the aforesaid “Dialogus cum Aeliano”. St. Basil replied that Gregory was arguing against a pagan, and used the words agonistikos not dogmatikos, i.e. in the heat of combat, not in calm exposition; in this case he was insisting, and rightly, on the Divine unity. He added, moreover, that a like explanation must be given to the words ktioma, poiema, (created, made) when applied to the Son, reference being to Christ Incarnate. Basil added that the text of the work was corrupt.

The “Epistola Canonica”, epistole kanonike (Routh, “Reliquiae Sacra”, III, 251-83) is valuable to both historian and canonist as evidence of the organization of the Church of Cs area and the other Churches of Pontus under Gregory’s influence, at a time when the invading Goths had begun to aggravate a situation made difficult enough by the imperial persecutions. We learn from this work how absorbing the episcopal charge was for a man of conscience and a strict sense of duty. Moreover it helps us to understand how a man so well equipped mentally, and with the literary gifts of Gregory, has not left a greater number of works.

The Ekthesis tes pisteos (Exposition of the Faith) is in its kind a theological document not less precious than the foregoing. It makes clear Gregory’s orthodoxy apropos of the Trinity. Its authenticity and date seem now definitely settled, the date lying between 260-270. Caspari has shown that this confession of faith is a development of the premises laid down by Origen. Its conclusion leaves no room for doubt: “There is therefore nothing created, nothing greater or less (literally, nothing subject) in the Trinity (oute oun ktiston ti, e doulon en te triadi), nothing superadded, as though it had not existed before, but had been added afterwards. Therefore the Father has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit; and this same Trinity is immutable and unalterable forever.” Such a formula, stating clearly the distinction between the Persons in the Trinity, and emphasizing the eternity, equality, immortality, and perfection, not only of the Father, but of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, proclaims a marked advance on the theories of Origen.

A Metaphrasis eis ton Ekklesiasten tou Solomontos, or Paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, is attributed to him by some manuscripts; others ascribe it to Gregory of Nazianzus; St. Jerome (De vir. illust., c. lxv, and Corn. in Eccles., iv) ascribes it to our Gregory. The “Epistola ad Philagrium” has reached us In a Syriac version. It treats of the Consubstantiality of the Son, and has also been attributed to Gregory of Nazianzus (Ep. ccxliii; formerly Orat. xlv); Tillemont and the Benedictines, however, deny this because it offers no expression suggestive of the Arian controversy. Draseke, nevertheless, calls attention to numerous views and expressions in this treatise that recall the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus. The brief “Treatise on the Soul” addressed to one Tatian, in favor of which may be cited the testimony of Nicholas of Methone (probably from Procopius of Gaza), is now claimed for Gregory.

The Kephalaia peri pisteos dodeka or “Twelve Chapters on Faith” do not seem to be the work of Gregory. According to Caspari, the Kata meros pistis, or brief exposition of doctrine concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation, attributed to Gregory, was composed by Apollinaris of Laodicea about 380, and circulated by his followers as a work of Gregory (Bardenhewer). Finally, the Greek, Syriac, and Armenian “Catenae” contain fragments attributed more or less correctly to Gregory. The fragments of the “De Resurrectione” belong rather to Pamphilus’ “Apologia” for Origen.



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