The Cappadocian Mothers

Deification Exemplified in the Writings of Basil, Gregory, and Gregory

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Carla D. Sunberg
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Pickwick Publications
    , August
     2018.
     251 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780227176900.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Thomas A. Noble’s foreword and preface sets the tone for Carla D. Sunberg’s The Cappadocian Mothers: Deification Exemplified in the Writings of Basil, Gregory, and Gregory. In these opening pages, Noble says that every student of Christian theology has heard of the Cappadocian fathers (ix). Gregory Nazianzen contributed to the Nicene Creed at the Council of Constantinople and is often called “the Theologian.” Basil was archbishop of Caesarea and a major contributor to the rise of Cappadocia as an area of theological production during his time. Gregory of Nyssa wrote several major philosophical works, such as Against Eunomius and On the Soul and the Resurrection. These men are key Eastern sources in most patristic courses. Still, Noble asks, “But who were the Cappadocian Mothers?” (ix) This question drives Sunberg’s book as she seeks to shed light on these major figures. She fills a gap in scholarship while also advancing the conversation regarding feminism and the matter of character in 4th-century Cappadocia.

After providing background information on these Cappadocian mothers—Macrina the Elder, Emmelia, Macrina the Younger, Theosebia, Noona, and Gorgonia—and her methodology, Sunberg discusses the Cappadocian fathers’ stance on theosis—the process of divinization. This concept, which was colored by Origen’s thinking, is important to Sunberg’s work, as it shows the six stages of her kenosis-theosis parabola that she applies in later chapters to her Cappadocian mothers (kenosis being the self-emptying of one’s will to God). In following Gregory of Nyssa’s take on apokatastasis—a theological stance arguing that everyone will eventually return to their original state—Sunberg argues that it applies equally to males and females, since this final state of restored souls was sexless in the Cappadocian view. Indeed, she later discusses Basil’s christocentric thought to argue that his image of God was both male and female (54). This kenosis-theosis parabola is a major concept in her book, as she uses it to demonstrate that the Cappadocian mothers, as ascetics and teachers, were also continuously seeking further participation in God, reflecting their theosis similarly to their male counterparts.

A strength of Sunberg’s book is her weaving of the historical narrative and the influence of these Cappadocian mothers on their male counterparts. For example, chapter 6 covers the theosis undertaken by Gregory of Nazianzen’s sister, Gorgonia, and his mother, Nonna, from his Oration 8. In this work, Gregory praises these two women, who were influential people in his life. He says that they should be commended for their commitment to their marriage, and he continues to say that as marriage is a sacrament, so too is it an alternate path to virginity and praiseworthy. Sunberg reminds the reader that according to Gregory Adam and Eve were married before the fall, and their union was perfect (121). According to Gregory, the restoration of a person or a married couple transcends gender, so married women, such as Gorgonia and Nonna, also underwent the theosis process and are praiseworthy.

A similar approach is taken in chapter 7 with Gregory of Nyssa’s praises of his sister, Macrina, who taught him theology in his younger years. Gregory writes in his Commentary on the Song of Songs about the imagery of the bride and bridegroom. He discusses the different levels of love, which apply to his ascetic sister as the perfect virgin bride for Christ. He also, in a similar vein to Origen’s take on genderless souls, argues that all of humanity could view themselves as brides (135). As this imagery applied to both men and women, so too did the deification process in seeking ever-greater participation in God. This is also true for Emmelia, Gregory’s mother, who fits a similar profile. 

Sunberg’s final chapter, 8, covers some greater implications for her study on the Cappadocian mothers for life and ministry, discussing topics such as gender and class equality, women in ministry, marriage and the family, spiritual education, and secular education. She poses the question of how different modern Christianity would have been if the Cappadocian deification process became the mainstream as opposed to that of Augustine, who emphasized Eve’s role in the fall and the entrance of sin into the world. How different also might patristic theology have been, Sunberg posits, if these Cappadocian fathers and mothers continued their family tree instead of living their unmarried ascetic and religious lives.

The weaknesses of Sunberg’s book are stated in her methodology section and conclusion. The majority of her sources on these Cappadocian mothers come from the writings of the Cappadocian fathers. Moreover, some of this material is hagiographical in nature (i.e., it idealizes its subject) and thus requires methodological concepts such as the hermeneutic of remembrance and social logic to flesh out details of the Cappadocian mothers’ lives. Such an approach has its limitations; however, Sunberg is transparent about her approach and does a good job of being fair to these texts.

Sunberg’s book is a great contribution to the history of Christianity and patristic theology. Her work on the Cappadocian mothers sheds much light on their influence and provides a new perspective on Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa. These men were clearly influenced by their female family members, and their theological output kept them in mind. This book is a great addition for graduate students and scholars in this field.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul A. Brazinski is part of the teaching faculty at Saint Elizabeth University in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

Date of Review: 
March 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Carla D. Sunberg is President and Professor of Historical Theology at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri.

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