Gregory of Nazianzus (329–390 AD) is one of three people to receive the epitaph “Theologian.” The others are John the Apostle and Symeon (949–1022 AD). The title certainly indicates a deep knowledge about God, but it underscores the experiential knowledge of the Divine. So Gregory is one who not only knew about God but also knew him. Gregory also presided over the famous council of Constinople (381) for a short time. Actually, it was after leaving this council (being somewhat embittered because of his experience) that he was able to sponsor the collection of his letters.
The translation by Bradley Storin is excellent, and it was a pleasure to have a book that focuses on the author (Gregory) rather than the scholarly apparatus of the editor. The introduction is short and to the point while the notes carry the same kind of simplicity. Since the content here is king, consider these three reasons why you should consider purchasing this affordable collection of letters from a fourth century bishop.
First, Gregory shares wisdom with his friends which transcend time
To Theodore, Gregory wrote calming words since a number of unruly monks and beggars vandalized a church building. To overcome the problem, Gregory advises that Theodore give an example of patience. Gregory explains, “For a rational argument does not persuade most people in the same way as practice, the silent exhortation” (Ep. 159.4).
Sometimes Gregory has sharp rebukes for his friends, as he did Basil, when he wrote: “So hotly and coltike do you prance about in your letter! And as you are just now getting a taste of glory; it’s no surprise that you may want to parade for me whatever glory you come across, so that you may thus make yourself even more august, just like painters who paint beautiful things” (Ep. 45.1).
Elsewhere, he writes to Basil, “Have you not stopped bad-mouthing me as uneducated, dense, unfriendly, and undeserving of life because I darted to take note of what I’ve suffered” (Ep. 49.1).
The collection is full of similar letters and wisdom, which show the depth and real friendship. And such friendship and relational wisdom transcends time.
Second, Gregory provides historical context surrounding fourth-century Christianity
When Glycerius a local deacon led a group of virgins into some sort seperatist lifestyle, Gregory attempted to reign him back in. Despite his relatively influential role, he could do very little. Still, Gregory evinces the heart of a pastor when calling this deacon back to repentance. He wrote, “Return to me, then, confident in the God whose leniency I imitate. For even if I censure you like a father, I’ll also pardon you like a father” (Ep. 248.1–2).
Of the same group, he writes to his friend Basil, “For I too feel the pain of severed limbs, if they were rightly severed” (Ep. 103.2). These vignettes give insight into pastoral ministry of the fourth century and how, like today, many people would disregard the advice of their pastor!
Other letters add further historical context such as Letter 43 in which Gregory writes a recommendation to the church of Caesarea to recommend Basil as their bishop (cf. Ep. 246). All in all, Gregory’s letters are a treasure trove for understanding the material context of 4th century life, at least from the perspective of a learned bishop.
Third, Gregory speaks openly about his suffering which may help others who suffer lifewise
Gregory seems to suffer a bodily malady for most of his life. In many letters, he laments his health and regrets his inability to travel. While reading Gregory’s other writings (poetry, orations, or even theological letters), one rarely gets the impression that these come from a man of sorrows, who knows regular suffering.
While I recommend the translation, three pieces of criticism follow here. First, Bradley Storin takes the approach of leaving the letters alone without much in the way of interpretation. He provides footnotes with sparse contextual and historical data. While this concision admirably leaves interpretation to the reader, in many cases a little extra context would have improved the reading experience.
Second, Storin only provides an English translation with no Greek text, and he infrequently cites the Greek text in notes. As a consequence, it can be hard to know how close Storin’s translation matches the underlying Greek text. For many, this will provide no obstacle. But scholars who know Greek may wish for greater evidence of the translation’s fidelity to Gregory’s letters.
Third, Storin has excluded the so-called theological letters of Gregory, which basically are short essays on topics of topics of theology (e.g., Eps. 101, 102, and 201). I do not understand this decision. For someone known as “The Theologian,” it stands to reason that Storin would want to translate his theological letters! Granted, the theological letters have appeared more commonly in other places than the rest of his letters. So there is some rationale here.
Anyone interested in fourth-century Christianity should not hesitate to purchase this affordable translation of Gregory’s letters. The translation is readable and smooth. And the minor criticisms do not outweigh the good.