January - Stephen, Basil and Gregory

St Stephen

26th December (well, it's nearly January!)

Stephen is rare in being a saint who gets a whole chapter of the bible to himself. In recording the early growth of the new church in Jerusalem, Acts (chapters 6&7) describes how Stephen was one of seven deacons chosen by the community of disciples as one ‘known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom’. These deacons were appointed to ensure that the widows of Grecian Jews were fully included in the daily distribution of food, for it seems that at the time they had been somewhat overlooked in favour of the Hebraic Jews. Devolving this responsibility enabled the apostles to be free to give ‘attention to prayer and the ministry of the word’.

The biblical descriptions of Stephen, which are about all we have to go on, suggest a charismatic person with a high profile and a reputation for grace and wisdom as well as for great signs and wonders. His gifts as an orator were such as to deeply disturb the Jewish authorities in several provinces, so that witnesses were persuaded to denounce him for blasphemy. Luke, as the author of Acts, describes his trial and subsequent stoning to death, but more remarkably gives a lengthy account of Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin. This was an incredibly powerful summary of Jewish history, showing how often the people had been led to persecute the prophets and ignore the word of God, and ending with an accusation that they, who were the guardians of the law, had killed the Righteous One whose coming had been predicted.

There are many parallels between the story of Stephen and the life of Jesus:

  • being filled with the Holy Spirit
  • working miracles
  • preaching with passion and authority
  • even asking forgiveness for his persecutors at the moment of execution.

We can see him as an exemplary Christian, witnessing to Jesus in every way possible in his life. Our first martyr shows us that we too can choose to reflect Christ in every aspect of our lives.

Basil the Great and Gregory of Nazianzus

Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea - died 379
Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Constantinople - died 389

2nd January

Basil and Gregory were friends and fellow students of Origen, both having a philosophical approach to theology and an ascetic nature, but they were different in temperament. Together with Basil’s younger brother (Gregory of Nyssa) they became known as the Cappadocian Fathers - named after the region of eastern Turkey from which they came. Basil was forceful and energetic (vain and contentious according to some sources) with considerable administrative ability and an intense dedication to the task in hand. Gregory, on the other hand, was by inclination a quiet, modest man, with a preference for a simple life and time spent in prayer. However, he was gifted in oratory and theological debate and was drawn into intellectual struggles within the church by his more headstrong friend. As a pair they eventually had a powerful influence on the formation of doctrine. It seems they developed a sort of "hard cop-nice cop" routine (somehow "hard saint-nice saint" doesn’t have the same flavour!). Basil became bishop of Caesarea the Cappadocian capital, and Gregory "the Theologian", bishop of Constantinople.

It was a time when Arianism was very influential in the Eastern Empire, a widespread movement which held that Jesus was neither divine nor eternal, effectively undermining the Nicene doctrine of the trinity as a godhead of three equal persons. In these protracted, highly contentious and abstract debates, Basil and Gregory were arguing the minority position in their part of Christendom - that Jesus was fully God but also fully man, which had been adopted by the Western Church. To other arguments that Christ was not fully human, Gregory replied equally forcibly "What he could not assume he could not redeem".

During this time Basil became frustrated and dismayed, particularly after suffering accusations of heresy, and he wrote "for my sins I seem to be unsuccessful in everything". Somehow the pair found the energy and inner resources to continue in the debate so that their eloquence and arguments eventually convinced the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in 381 that their view was the truly orthodox one, and persuaded the Council to ratify the text of the Nicene Creed - the text still in use today. Unfortunately Basil did not live to see the result of his work, having died in 379, although Gregory lived for another ten years.

Basil and Gregory are both examples of tenacity, intellectual rigour, and keeping going in the face of discouragement - but perhaps of equal significance for us, they were different personalities and had very different styles, each making a similar contribution but in his own way.

Let us remember them and celebrate their gifts to us when we next say the Creed.

Jim McLean

St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 31st December 1997