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Introductory Note to Gregory Thaumaturgus


[A.D. 205-240-265.] Alexandria continues to be the head of Christian learning. It is delightful to trace the hand of God from generation to generation, as from father to son, interposing for the perpetuity of the faith. We have already observed the continuity of the great Alexandrian school: how it arose, and how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory, and so the Lord has provided for the spiritual generation of the Church's teachers, age after age, from the beginning. Truly, the Lord gave to Origen a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters; as if, for his comfort, Isaiah had written, forbidding him to say, "I am a dry tree."

Our Gregory has given us not a little of his personal adventures in his panegyric upon his master, and for his further history the reader need only be referred to what follows. But I am anxious to supply the dates, which are too loosely left to conjecture. As he was ordained a bishop "very young," according to Eusebius, I suppose he must have been far enough under fifty, the age prescribed by the "Apostolic Canons" (so called), though probably not younger than thirty, the earliest canonical limit for the ordination of a presbyter. If we decide upon five and thirty, as a mean reckoning, we may with some confidence set his birth at A.D. 205, dating back from his episcopate, which began A.D. 240. He was a native of Neo-Caesarea, the chief city of Pontus,-a fact that should modify what we have learned about Pontus from Tertullian. He was born of heathen parentage, and lived like other Gentile boys until his fourteenth year (circa A.D. 218), with the disadvantage of being more than ordinarily imbued by a mistaken father in the polytheism of Greece. At this period his father died; but his mother, carrying out the wishes of her husband, seems to have been not less zealous in furthering his education according to her pagan ideas. He was, evidently, the inheritor of moderate wealth; and, with his brother Athenodorus, he was placed under an accomplished teacher of grammar and rhetoric, from whom also he acquired a considerable knowledge of the Latin tongue. He was persuaded by the same master to use this accomplishment in acquiring some knowledge of the Roman laws. This is a very important point in his biography, and it brings us to an epoch in Christian history too little noted by any writer. I shall return to it very soon. We find him next going to Alexandria to study the New Platonism. He speaks of himself as already prepossessed with Christian ideas, which came to him even in his boyhood, about the time when his father died. But it was not at Alexandria that he began his acquaintance with Christian learning. Next he seems to have travelled into Greece, and to have studied at Athens. But the great interest of his autobiography begins with the providential incidents, devoutly narrated by himself, which engaged him in a journey to Berytus just as Origen reached Caesarea, A.D. 233, making it for a time his home and the seat of his school. His own good angel, as Gregory supposes, led him away from Berytus, where he purposed to prosecute his legal studies, and brought him to the feet of Origen, his Gamaliel; and "from the very first day of his receiving us," he says, "the true Sun began to rise upon me." This he accounts the beginning of his true life; and, if we are right as to our dates, he was now about twenty-seven years of age.

If he tarried even a little while in Berytus, as seems probable, his knowledge of law was, doubtless, somewhat advanced. It was the seat of that school in which Roman law began its existence in the forms long afterward digested into the Pandects of Justinian. That emperor speaks of Berytus as "the mother and nurse" of the civil law. Caius, whose Institutes were discovered in 1820 by the sagacity of Niebuhr, seems to have been a Syrian. So were Papinian and Ulpian: and, heathen as they were, they lived under the illumination reflected from Antioch; and, not less than the Antonines, they were examples of a philosophic regeneration which never could have existed until the Christian era had begun its triumphs. Of this sort of pagan philosophy Julian became afterwards the grand embodiment; and in Julian's grudging confessions of what he had learned from Christianity we have a key to the secret convictions of others, such as I have named; characters in whom, as in Plutarch and in many retrograde unbelievers of our day, we detect the operation of influences they are unwilling to acknowledge; of which, possibly, they are blindly unconscious themselves. Roman law, I maintain, therefore, indirectly owes its origin, as it is directly indebted for its completion in the Pandects, to the new powers and processes of thought which came from "the Light of the World." It was light from Galilee and Golgotha, answering Pilate's question in the inward convictions of many a heathen sage.

It is most interesting, therefore, to find in our Gregory one who had come into contact with Berytus at this period. He describes it as already dignified by this school of law, and therefore Latinized in some degree by its influence. Most suggestive is what he says of this school: "I refer to those admirable laws of our sages, by which the affairs of all the subjects of the Roman Empire are now directed, and which are neither digested nor learnt without difficulty. They are wise and strict (if not pious) in themselves, they are manifold and admirable, and, in a word, most thoroughly Grecian, although expressed and delivered to us in the Roman tongue, which is a wonderful and magnificent sort of language, and one very aptly conformable to imperial authority, but still difficult to me." Nor is this the only noteworthy tribute of our author to Roman law while yet that sublime system was in its cradle. The rhetorician who introduced him to it and to the Latin tongue was its enthusiastic eulogist; and Gregory says he learned the laws "in a thorough way, by his help.... And he said one thing to me which has proved to me the truest of all his sayings; to wit, that my education in the laws would be my greatest viaticum,-my e0fo/dion (for thus he phrased it);" i.e., for the journey of life. This man, one can hardly doubt, was a disciple of Caius (or Gaius); and there is little question that the digested system which Gregory eulogizes was "the Institutes" of that great father of the civil law, now recovered from a palimpsest, and made known to our own age, with no less benefit to jurisprudence than the discovery of the Philosophumena has conferred on theology.

Thus Gregory's Panegyric throws light on the origin of Roman law. He claims it for "our sages," meaning men of the East, whose vernacular was the Greek tongue. Caius was probably, like the Gaius of Scripture, an Oriental who had borrowed a Latin name, as did the Apostle of the Gentiles and many others. If he was a native of Berytus, as seems probable, that accounts for the rise of the school of laws at a place comparatively inconsiderable. Hadrian, in his journey to Palestine, would naturally discover and patronize such a jurist; and that accounts for the appearance of Caius at Rome in his day. Papinian and Ulpian, both Orientals, were his pupils in all probability; and these were the "sages" with whose works the youthful Gregory became acquainted, and by which his mind was prepared for the great influence he exerted in the East, where his name is a power to this day.

His credit with our times is rather impaired than heightened by the epithet Thaumaturgus, which clings to his name as a convenient specification, to distinguish him from the other Gregories whose period was so nearly his own. But why make it his opprobrium? He is not responsible for the romances that sprung up after his death; which he never heard of nor imagined. Like the great Friar Bacon, who was considered a magician, or Faust, whose invention nearly cost him his life, the reputation of Gregory made him the subject of legendary lore long after he was gone. It is not impossible that God wrought marvels by his hand, but a single instance would give rise to many fables; and this very surname is of itself a monument of the fact that miracles were now of rare occurrence, and that one possessing the gift was a wonder to his contemporaries.

To like popular love of the marvellous I attribute the stupid story of a mock consecration by Phaedimus. If a slight irregularity in Origen's ordination gave him such lifelong troubles, what would not have been the tumult such a sacrilege as this would have occasioned? Nothing is more probable than that Phaedimus related such things as having occurred in a vision; and this might have weighed with a mind like Gregory's to overcome his scruples, and to justify his acceptance of such a position at an early age.

We are already acquainted with the eloquent letter of Origen that decided him to choose the sacred calling after he left the school at Caesarea. The Panegyric, which was his valedictory, doubtless called forth that letter. Origen had seen in him the makings of a kh=rnc, and coveted such another Timothy for the Master's work. But the Panegyric itself abounds with faults, and greatly resembles similar college performances of our day. The custom of schools alone can excuse the expression of such enthusiastic praise in the presence of its subject; but Origen doubtless bore it as philosophically as others have done since, and its evident sincerity and heartfelt gratitude redeem it from the charge of fulsome adulation.

For the residue of the story I may refer my readers to the statements of the translator, as follows:-

Next: Translator's Notice.