I previously posted some quotations from Gregory of Nazianzus’ first Theological Oration that remind us of the importance of Christian character, and that we should not substitute factionalist loyalty for a proper evaluation of such character. Consider this post an addendum to that one.
In his second Oration, a massive work on pastoral care, Gregory eloquently and arrestingly makes a similar point about partisanship, the sometimes nasty behavior it brings in its wake, and the disrepute this brings on the Christian name.
79. ….All fear has been banished from souls, shamelessness has taken its place, and knowledge and the deep things of the Spirit 1 Corinthians 2:10 are at the disposal of anyone who will; and we all become pious by simply condemning the impiety of others; and we claim the services of ungodly judges, and fling that which is holy to the dogs, and cast pearls before swine, Matthew 7:6 by publishing divine things in the hearing of profane souls, and, wretches that we are, carefully fulfil the prayers of our enemies, and are not ashamed to go a whoring with our own inventions. Moabites and Ammonites, who were not permitted even to enter the Church of the Lord, Deuteronomy 23:3 frequent our most holy rites. We have opened to all not the gates of righteousness, but, doors of railing and partizan arrogance; and the first place among us is given, not to one who in the fear of God refrains from even an idle word, but to him who can revile his neighbour most fluently, whether explicitly, or by covert allusion; who rolls beneath his tongue mischief and iniquity, or to speak more accurately, the poison of asps.
We watch out for the sins of others–not so that we may help them, but so that we may aggravate them, and we define the good man as the one is in agreement with ourselves.
80. We observe each other’s sins, not to bewail them, but to make them subjects of reproach, not to heal them, but to aggravate them, and excuse our own evil deeds by the wounds of our neighbours. Bad and good men are distinguished not according to personal character, but by their disagreement or friendship with ourselves. We praise one day what we revile the next, denunciation at the hands of others is a passport to our admiration; so magnanimous are we in our viciousness, that everything is frankly forgiven to impiety.
Gregory sees this as a return to primordial disorder. We are on a ship together in a storm and, not finding an external enemy, make one of our fellow, and we all slay one another.
81. Everything has reverted to the original state of things Genesis 1:2 before the world, with its present fair order and form, came into being. The general confusion and irregularity cry for some organising hand and power. Or, if you will, it is like a battle at night by the faint light of the moon, when none can discern the faces of friends or foes; or like a sea fight on the surge, with the driving winds, and boiling foam, and dashing waves, and crashing vessels, with the thrusts of poles, the pipes of boatswains, the groans of the fallen, while we make our voices heard above the din, and not knowing what to do, and having, alas! no opportunity for showing our valour, assail one another, and fall by one another’s hands.
None of this is to say that Gregory does not recognize a time for fighting and for contending. He does, provided that it be really on behalf of the faith and about things that really matter.
82. Nor indeed is there any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfilment of the ancient curse,As with the people so with the priest.Nor again are the great and eminent men affected otherwise than the majority; nay, they are openly at war with the priests, and their piety is an aid to their powers of persuasion. And indeed, provided that it be on behalf of the faith, and of the highest and most important questions, let them be thus disposed, and I blame them not; nay, to say the truth, I go so far as to praise and congratulate them. Yea! Would that I were one of those who contend and incur hatred for the truth’s sake: or rather, I can boast of being one of them. For better is a laudable war than a peace which severs a man from God: and therefore it is that the Spirit arms the gentle warrior, as one who is able to wage war in a good cause.
Alas and alack, however, for this is seldom the case. Much more frequently we find small things, and make them seem big. This factionalism leads to scandal and hatred for Christians among the “Gentiles.”
83. But at the present time there are some who go to war even about small matters and to no purpose, and, with great ignorance and audacity, accept, as an associate in their ill-doing, anyone whoever he may be. Then everyone makes the faith his pretext, and this venerable name is dragged into their private quarrels. Consequently, as was probable, we are hated, even among the Gentiles, and, what is harder still, we cannot say that this is without just cause. Nay, even the best of our own people are scandalized, while this result is not surprising in the case of the multitude, who are ill-disposed to accept anything that is good.
In the end, this leads only to mockery and the detriment of the cause of the Gospel. It makes a spectacle of Christians, even in the technical sense: Gregory reports that Christians are openly derided and caricatured on stage, due in no small part to the way in which they conduct themselves.
84. Sinners are planning upon our backs; and what we devise against each other, they turn against us all: and we have become a new spectacle, not to angels and men, 1 Corinthians 4:9 as says Paul, that bravest of athletes, in his contest with principalities and powers,Ephesians 6:12 but to almost all wicked men, and at every time and place, in the public squares, at carousals, at festivities, and times of sorrow. Nay, we have already— I can scarcely speak of it without tears— been represented on the stage, amid the laughter of the most licentious, and the most popular of all dialogues and scenes is the caricature of a Christian.
Gregory’s words here deserve extra weight: Gregory was no stranger to controversy himself, and he wrote these words in the midst of the Eunomian and neo-Arian struggle in the fourth century, one of the fiercest and most significant theological battles the Church has fought. If he could see clearly enough to maintain this position (however well or imperfectly he may have lived up to it himself in practice) in the midst of such intense partisanship, perhaps there is something of enduring wisdom in it for other times, places, and controversies as well.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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