The Cappadocian Fathers were three important fourth-century theologians born in Cappadocia, now modern Turkey. The three were responsible for precisely defining the doctrine of the Trinity and clarifying the errors of semi-Arianism. The Cappadocian Fathers are Basil the Great (330–379), bishop of Caesarea; Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 332–395), bishop of Nyssa; and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), who became Patriarch of Constantinople. The region of Cappadocia was the site of several missions by the apostle Paul.
The first of the Cappadocian Fathers, Basil, was a somewhat sickly child raised in a Christian family; he received an excellent education in Caesarea, Antioch, Constantinople, and Athens. He returned to Caesarea where, after some personal tragedies, he adopted an ascetic lifestyle and founded a monastery where he encouraged other monks to dedicate themselves to work, prayer, Bible-reading, and good works. Eventually, Basil joined with the bishop of Caesarea in his struggle against Arianism, a heresy that denies the deity of Christ. When the bishop died, Basil was selected as the new bishop.
Another of the Cappadocian Fathers was Gregory of Nyssa, Basil’s younger brother, who was also drawn to the monastic life, desiring to avoid controversy and live a quiet, contemplative life. Learned in philosophy, medicine, and rhetoric, Gregory’s writing leaned toward Christian mysticism. In 372, Basil appointed Gregory bishop of the small town of Nyssa, but Gregory proved a poor administrator, having no desire for church politics and little interest in financial affairs. This gave rise to a charge of misappropriation of funds and his dismissal from his post and banishment by the Emperor Valens. He was recalled by the Emperor Gratian in 378.
The third Cappadocian Father was Gregory of Nazianzus. Like Basil and his brother, Gregory was born into a devout Christian family. He met Basil during their student days and later joined him in adopting the monastic life. Like Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus preferred the quiet, contemplative life to the conflicts and controversies of church affairs. Appointed to several ecclesiastical posts, always against his will and inclination, he eventually became the preacher of a small church in Constantinople in 379, the year of Basil’s death. Gregory’s gift was oration. In Constantinople he delivered five speeches so powerful that they turned the tide of theological thought in that area from Arianism to orthodoxy.
The Cappadocian Fathers are best known for their stand against Arianism, which asserted that Jesus was created by God and that He is separate from, and not equal to, the Father. This view effectively eliminates the doctrine of the Trinity. The Semi-Arians taught that Jesus was a created being and is of “like substance” to the Father, although not divine. The Council of Nicea had ruled against Arianism in 325, and Athanasius had continued to stoutly defend the deity of Christ after that. Using philosophical and scriptural arguments, the Cappadocian Fathers continued Athanasius’ work and, through brilliant writing and eloquent oration, supported the orthodox view of the Triune Godhead, one God in three Persons. They insisted on theological terminology that showed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be three Persons with one substance. Partly through the work of the Cappadocian Fathers, Arianism was finally defeated at the Council of Constantinople in 381. All three of the Cappadocian Fathers are considered saints by both the Eastern and Western churches.