Division in the Church, widespread doctrinal confusion and ignorance, a sometimes hostile government, a sexually permissive culture, scores of Christians marginally committed to the gospel, the suffering of the poor—these challenges that confront today’s pastors are the very ones that Basil of Caesarea faced. How did he handle them? What can we learn from him?
Living the Gospel
The first thing to say is that Basil was not sufficiently attuned to the problems of his time before his own “conversion.” He was born into a serious Christian family and never strayed far, but he had his sights on a secular career. At the urging of his sister Macrina, who herself had decided to live a life strictly according to the gospel, Basil woke up, renounced his worldly ambitions, and dedicated himself to a life of prayer, penance, and contemplation. He made the Scriptures the center of his life, and strove to live a life completely in accord with its teaching. He drew up a set of texts from the New Testament together with short explanations and tried to live them out. The result, The Morals, was what one might call a rudimentary monastic rule. Here Basil sought the guidance of the gospel on every aspect of life: how to sleep, how to pray, how to dress, how to conduct oneself with others, superiors and colleagues, how to receive the sacraments, and how to counteract sin in oneself and in the community.
Living the gospel made Basil more sensitive to problems in the Church and in society and equipped him to make a contribution to their solution. Unlike many ascetics, Basil did not withdraw from the Church and the world but engaged them. He was ordained a presbyter to help the bishop of Caesarea and eventually became a bishop himself. As both a presbyter and a bishop he lived in community with others who likewise strove to live the evangelical life. They would regularly meet to address questions that arose about how they should apply the gospel to this or that issue, whether it be doctrinal, moral, or spiritual. Thus, these monastic conferences animated so much of Basil’s work.
Clearing up Trinitarian Doctrinal Confusion
We can see his efforts to clear up doctrinal confusion in this light. Both of his major polemical works, Against Eunomius and On the Holy Spirit, emerged from an ascetic context. The monks were deeply concerned with the question of the divinity of the Son and of the Spirit—nothing was more natural for them than to seek to know accurately the God of their longing. Eunomius had cut off access to the Father when he taught that the Son was a creature, and the Spirit-Fighters, who had denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, destroyed our connection with the Son and the Father. In both cases, they made genuine communion with God impossible, for if the Son and the Spirit were outsiders to this communion, then so must we be. These works of Basil are little more than a refutation of his opponents’ interpretation of Scripture and his own attempt to articulate Scripture’s teaching. Basil—and he was not unique in this—saw these trinitarian mistakes as catastrophic. Click To Tweet
While his method is complex as it gets worked out in argument after argument, it rests on some very simple foundations. Both Eunomius and the Spirit-Fighters fixate on a few texts and fail to take a wide reading of Scripture. They ignore some key texts, and so fail to achieve an interpretation that does justice to the whole teaching of Scripture. The Eunomians, for example, hit on Acts 2:36, “God made him Lord and Christ” but fail to appreciate Jn. 14:9, “He who sees me sees the Father.” The Spirit-Fighters argued that the Holy Spirit must be inferior because he is a gift (e.g., Acts 2:38), and the gift cannot be equal to the giver, but Basil offers text after text whose force they ignore. Basil did not see his more balanced reading of the Scriptures as something fundamentally new. Rather, such a reading was demanded by the Christian tradition that he received and wished to hand on.
Fighting Against Trinitarian Catastrophes
While Basil’s thoughts on the Trinity have their origin in an ascetic context, he engaged doctrinal issues outside this context, too. He wrote letters, for example, to well-placed civil authorities and to fellow bishops, such as Apollinaris of Laodicea, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and Pope Damasus of Rome. These letters give a detailed sense of how Basil saw the doctrinal controversy that began before he was born and ended, in spite of his efforts to resolve it, after he died. Essentially, Basil saw the truth in this case as the mean between two extremes.
On the one hand, Arius and like-minded figures who subordinated the Son to the Father (and the Spirit to the Son) commit two profound mistakes. First, they make the Son less than the Father. Secondly, they held, essentially, that there are three gods who are one not in substance but in agreement.
On the other hand, there were the “Sabellians” or “Photinians,” what we moderns call “modalists.” These bishops made the opposite mistake: they certainly taught one God but they failed to teach a distinction of persons. For them, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit name different modes of being of the one God, different personas, if you will, rather than different persons.
Basil—and he was not unique in this—saw these trinitarian mistakes as catastrophic. In the first case, the true God remains a monad unknowable and unreachable even by the Son himself, and if the Son cannot know the Father, then he cannot make us to know the Father or to participate in his life. The offer of the gospel has been emptied. In the second case, too, there is no inner divine life, no communion of persons, which Jesus reveals to us and opens for our participation.
So how can we avoid these two mistakes? Basil would have rathered people such as Arius simply read the clear teaching of Scripture aright, but because they did not, it became necessary to, as it were, fill out the teaching of the Scripture to make it clearer and more precise (or at least more precisely expressed). This was Basil’s view of the Creed of Nicaea of 325. The Council Fathers attempted to correct Arius by using a word that the Scriptures did not use (“consubstantial”) in order to preserve the true teaching of Scripture. Of course, the Council did not end the controversy over the status of the Son; instead “consubstantial” itself became part of the controversy. The problem here, as Basil saw it, was that the Council of Nicaea refuted Arius’s mistake but without also refuting the mistake of the modalists. Indeed, the thought that “consubstantial” by itself was open to a modalistic interpretation. He may well have been right about this, since one of the bishops who signed the creed of Nicaea was the most infamous fourth-century modalist, Marcellus of Ancyra. It was not sufficient for doctrinal peace and clarity that Marcellus himself renounced his mistake in the 340s and established communion with Athanasius of Alexandria. What was to be done?
Basil’s Simple Solution
Basil offered a simple solution: condemn Marcellus; and confess three “persons” or “hypostases” in God. These two moves, in Basil’s estimation, would secure the orthodox interpretation of Nicaea. While it seems very attractive and became, eventually, the way forward at the Council of Constantinople in 381, Basil’s proposals met significant resistance. The use of “hypostasis” to mean “person” was counter-intuitive to some for a few reasons.
First, for bishops like Athanasius, “hypostasis” meant “substance” and designated what the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share; it did not designate them in their individuality. For a while Athanasius even considered those who confess multiple hypostases to be heretics. He reversed this position in 362 (see his Tome to the Antiochenes).
Secondly, Greek had a different work, “prosōpon,” that could also mean “person.” Basil, too, used this word, but when used it alone he thought it too weak and open to a modalist reading (see his ep. 214). Finally, in Greek up to this point, hypostasis and ousia (the word for “substance” from which “consubstantial” or homoousiosios comes) were rough synonyms. They had a slightly different but overlapping semantic range, as Athanasius’s use of the word indicates. Thus, in proposing this term, Basil was essentially altering its meaning and pressing it into the service of the Christian mystery. (As an aside, the necessity of bending human language in this way is to be expected. The incarnation of the Son of God was a radically new event, a singular event, in the history of the world. Our language best suits our realities and must change in order as accurately as possible to communicate the divine.) Basil’s dedication to Scripture was one of the qualities that made him a wonderful preacher Click To Tweet
So, the use of hypostasis for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was not so simple a proposition.
There was resistance also on Basil’s other suggestion: the condemnation of Marcellus. Basil had written letters repeatedly to Athanasius (see ep. 69, 66, 67, 80, 82), the Pope, and the bishops of the West (ep. 90, 92 197), pleading with them to condemn Marcellus as a measure to bring unity and peace to the Church. There was no response. The thrust of the opposition here was more personal and ecclesial. By the time Basil was advocating for Marcellus’s condemnation, Marcellus had already repented of this mistake. In fact, Athanasius had broken communion with him over his heresy, which precipitated his change of heart. For Athanasius to condemn Marcellus would be for him to reject a friend who had clearly renounced his mistake and done what was necessary to re-establish friendship and ecclesial communion. This simply would not be. The West, too, had established communion with Marcellus and saw no reason now to break it. Although one can easily sympathize with the reluctance to condemn a man in the present for his past mistakes, all this was very frustrating for Basil, and he died in 379 with his proposals unrealized.
After Basil’s death, however, and because of his (and others’) labors, the resistance to his proposal faded. The men who had personal and ecclesial loyalty to Marcellus died, as Marcellus did. The theological tradition that used hypostasis to mean “substance” weakened significantly when Athanasius died—the death of so great a man and bishop left a void that could not be filled. And so there was a clear path at the Council of Constantinople in 381 for the adoption of the basic lines of Basil’s teaching. The Council repeated Nicaea’s “consubstantial” for the Son, added a very Basilian clause on the Holy Spirit, and condemned, among others, Marcellus. At the end of the day the doctrinal proposal that emerged as the fruit of his monastic conference and contemplation and informed his ecclesio-political efforts as a bishop in relation with other bishops prevailed. Basil must have felt overwhelmed by the challenges facing the Church and society in his time, but in the end the solution was very simple, or at least it began so: he need only live the gospel. Click To Tweet
A Preacher Devoted to the Scriptures and God’s People
Basil’s personal devotion to living a life according to the Scriptures, to living a monastic life, informed not only his handling of doctrinal division, but also his engagement with the wider culture as well as the Christians in his own congregation. One very obvious point here is that Basil’s dedication to Scripture was one of the qualities that made him a wonderful preacher. Basil’s sermons still today often strike the heart. The theological and moral power of his sermons on creation remain noteworthy. Basil’s basic thesis is that God has made the whole physical world, including the body of man, as a set of signs that point man toward God. It is a “book” in which we can “read” about God and how to live a life worthy of him. Some of Basil’s examples may need up-dating but the lesson is unmistakable, and certainly contemporary Christians can benefit from a clear indication of the place of the physical world in the providence of God.
Among Basil’s many great sermons, those he preached during the famine of 368 stand out. He summoned all of his considerable rhetorical power to deliver an invective against the rich who had been hoarding grain while their fellow Christians starved. There is no more powerful example from the early Church of the social demands of the gospel, no more stirring appeal for mercy and love among Christians. And for Basil, this was not merely a matter of words: he himself and his community put this gospel into impressive action. They built, essentially, a hospital, a place to welcome strangers and to care for the sick and the poor.
One of the fascinating features of the life of Basil is that we get to see a concrete example of what can happen to a man and to a community when the commandments of the gospel are kept. Basil’s devotion at first did not extend much beyond family and a few friends, but his evangelical way of life held great appeal and wide influence. The seed of the gospel had grown and flowered. Basil must have felt overwhelmed by the challenges facing the Church and society in his time, but in the end the solution was very simple, or at least it began so: he need only live the gospel.