Saint Gregory the Dialogist on Baptism and Christology

A letter of our father among the saints Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome (+604). He writes to advise fellow bishops in Georgia regarding strictness and economia in the reception of heretics, a topic whose application has varied a great deal in different times and places – with especial pain after the fall of Gregory’s own patriarchate of Old Rome from the Church.

Gregory to Bishop Quiricus, and the other catholic bishops in Hiberia*.

Since to love nothing is far off, let those who are divided in place be joined by letter. The bearer of this letter, coming to the Church of the blessed Peter, prince of the apostles, asserted that he had received letters for us from Your Fraternity, and had lost them, with other things also, in the city of Jerusalem. In them, as he says, you desired to enquire with regard to priests and people who have been bewildered in the error of Nestorian heresy, when they return to the catholic Church which is the mother of all the elect: whether they should be baptized, or joined to the heart of the same mother Church by confession alone of the one true faith.

And indeed we have learned from the ancient institution of the Fathers that whoever among heretics is baptized in the name of the Trinity, when they return to the holy Church, may be recalled to the bosom of mother Church either by anointing with chrism, or by imposition of hands, or by profession of the faith only. Hence the west reconciles Arians to the holy, catholic Church by imposition of hands, but the east by the anointing with holy chrism. But Monophysites and others are received by a true confession alone, because holy baptism, which they have received among heretics, then acquires in them the power of cleansing, when either the former receive the Holy Spirit by imposition of hands, or the latter are united to the heart of the holy and universal Church by reason of their confession of the true faith.

Those heretics, however, who are not baptized in the name of the Trinity, such as the Bonosiaci and the Cataphrygæ – because the former do not believe in Christ the Lord, and the latter with a perverse understanding believe a certain bad man, Montanus, to be the Holy Spirit, like whom are many others – these, when they come to the holy Church, are baptized, because what they received while in their error, not being in the name of the holy Trinity, was not baptism. Nor can this be called a repetition of baptism, for that act, as has been said, had not been given in the name of the Trinity. But the Nestorians, since they are baptized in the name of the holy Trinity – though darkened by the error of their heresy in that, after the manner of Jewish unbelief, they believe not the Incarnation of the Only-Begotten – when they come to the holy, catholic Church, are to be taught by firm holding and profession of the true faith to believe in one and the same Son of God and Man, our Lord God, Jesus Christ, who both existed as God before the ages, and was made man in the end of the ages, because the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).

But we say that the Word was made flesh not by losing what he was, but by taking what he was not. For in the mystery of his Incarnation the Only-Begotten of the Father increased what was ours, but diminished not what was his. Therefore the Word and the flesh is one Person, as he says himself, “No man has ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of Man who is in heaven” (John 3:14). He who is the Son of God in heaven was the Son of Man who spoke on earth. Hence John says, “We know that the Son of God has come, and has given us an understanding” (1 John 5:20). And as to what understanding he has given us, he straightway added, “That we may know the true God.” Whom in this place does he mean as the true God but the Father Almighty? But, as to what he conceives also of the Almighty Son, he added, “And that we may be in his true Son Jesus Christ.” Behold, he says that the Father is the true God, and that Jesus Christ is his true Son. And what he conceives this true Son to be, he shows more plainly: “This is the true God, and eternal life.” If, then, according to the error of Nestorius, the Word were one and the man Jesus Christ were another, then he who is true man would not be the true God and eternal life.

But the Only-Begotten Son, the Word before the ages, was made man. He is, then, the true God and eternal life. Certainly, when the holy Virgin was about to conceive him, and heard the angel speaking to her, she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). And, when she had conceived him, and went to Elizabeth her kinswoman, at once she heard, “Whence am I worthy that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Behold, the same Virgin is called both the handmaid and the mother of the Lord. For she is the handmaid of the Lord, because the Word before the ages, the Only-Begotten, is equal to the Father; but the Mother of the Lord, because in her womb from the Holy Spirit and of her flesh he was made man. Nor is she the handmaid of one and the mother of another, because, when the Only-Begotten of God, existing before the ages, was made man in her womb, by an inscrutable miracle she became both the handmaid of man by reason of the divinity and the mother of the Word by reason of the flesh. It was not that the flesh was first conceived in the womb of the Virgin, and the divinity afterwards came into the flesh; but that as soon as the Word came into the womb, immediately the Word, retaining the excellence of his own nature, was made flesh. And the Only-begotten Son of God, through the womb of the Virgin, was born a perfect man, that is, in truth of flesh and of rational soul. Whence also he is called Anointed (Christos) above his fellows, as the Psalmist says, “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows” (Psalm 44:8). For he is anointed with oil, that is to say with the gift of the Holy Spirit. But he was anointed above His fellows, because all we men first exist as sinners, and afterwards are sanctified through the anointing of the Holy Spirit. But he who, existing as God before the ages, was conceived as man through the Holy Spirit in the Virgin's womb at the end of the ages, was there anointed by the same Spirit, even where he was conceived. Nor was he first conceived and afterwards anointed; but to be conceived by the Holy Spirit of the flesh of the Virgin was itself to be anointed by the Holy Spirit.

This truth, then, concerning his nativity, let all who are brought back from the perverse error of Nestorius confess before the holy congregation of Your Fraternity, anathematizing the same Nestorius with all his followers, and all other heresies. The venerable Councils also which the universal Church receives, let them promise to receive and venerate; and let Your Holiness without any hesitation receive them in your assembly, allowing them to retain their own orders, in order that, while you both carefully sift the secrets of their hearts, and teach them through true knowledge the right things they ought to hold, and in gentleness make no difficulty or contradiction with them with respect to their own orders, you may snatch them from the mouth of the ancient foe; and that the reward of eternal glory with Almighty God may increase to you the more as you gather together many who may glory with you in the Lord without end.

Now may the Holy Trinity keep you in its protection while you pray for us, and grant you in its love still more manifold gifts.


* Hiberia – Or Iberia, corrected from Hibernia by the Benedictine editors, with the support of some few manuscripts. That the letter was addressed to the bishops of Hibernia (i.e. Ireland) is highly improbable. Not only is it unlikely that the Eastern heresy of Nestorianism would have infected Ireland, but the fact also, mentioned in the beginning of the letter, that the messenger from the bishops addressed had passed through Jerusalem on his way to Rome evidently points to some Eastern locality. For similar reasons it cannot well be supposed that Iberia here denotes Spain. It may have been the territory named Iberia in the neighborhood of Armenia, between Colchis on the West, and Albania on the East, now called Georgia.

From the Epistles of Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome, Book 11, Epistle 67, translated by James Barmby in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 13. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1898.) Edited for style by Silouan Thompson.

Fr Silouan Thompson

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