SAINT BASIL THE GREAT AND ORTHODOXY

 

-Marin Mihalache-

 

The Cappadocian Fathers, Basil the Great (330–379), Basil's younger brother Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395), and a close friend, Gregory of Nazianzus (329–389), witnessed the Orthodox faith and continued the tradition of the Church at the time when the Roman Empire was becoming gradually Christianized. By the end of the 4th century the majority of the Empire was, however, still not Christian and the type and spiritual profile of Christian was different from that of the earlier times. In such political, cultural and religious milieu, the Cappadocian Fathers by their theological teachings played a crucial role in the establishing of the Orthodox Faith in three main topics of faith and life of the Church, namely Trinitarian theology, the relation between Christianity and Hellenism and monasticism. Not only that the Cappadocian Fathers had the right and true understanding of Christian doctrine, but they expressed it in an effective pastoral manner while at the same time exposing it theologically with unsurpassed depths and insights.

 

During the time when the Cappadocian Fathers lived, wrote and taught the Roman Empire, more specifically the Eastern Roman Empire also known as Byzantium, was Hellenistic in mind and it was difficult for the new faith, Christianity to penetrate that long established and blossoming culture. With wisdom the Cappadocian Fathers resolved this challenge by adopting the Greek language, entering into that powerful and established culture and tradition and transforming Hellenism from inside, while preserving the truth of the new faith not to be changed or altered in its essence.

 

Born in 330 AD in a very pious and spiritual minded family, after his studies at Caesarea, Constantinople and Athens, instead to dedicate himself to a career as rhetorician or intellectual tutoring, the young who were to become Saint Basil, called the Great, devoted himself and his life to serve God. After he received the sacrament of baptism he traveled through Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia in search of wisdom and understating of the true and living faith. There he met and was deeply impressed and inspired by the life and the example of the most spiritually accomplished ascetics of his time from whom he learned and tried to follow in their footsteps. Convinced of the insightful spiritual experience, of the depths of living faith and of the importance of preserving and cultivating the true and living faith among the faithful of the Church, lay or monastics, Saint Basil founded a coenobitic monastery not far from Neocaesarea where in the year 358, together with Saint Gregory Nazianzus, prepared the Philokalia, a spiritual anthology of Origen’s works.

 

In the 4th century AD there was a massive movement of monasticism as a reaction of secularization of the Church, especially due to the holy or unholy marriage with the empire. By going into the desert to dedicate their lives to prayers and contemplation of the heavenly kingdom, in fact the monks left the church, making this a lay movement rather than a religious one. But for the Church there was the danger that her most devout children, the salt of the earth, left the body of believers less fervent in their faith, the church thus risking becoming more like society and culture than society and culture to become more spiritual like the church. Facing this challenge and crisis in the life of the church, Saint Basil wisely found a way to integrate monasticism in the theology of the Church. Engaged in an endeavor of monastic reformation, Saint Basil wrote the Rules where he presented monasticism as a way of living the Christian life, apart from the Church, but not separated from the Body of Christ. In fact, in his writings on ascetics, the monastic rules (the detailed and the short rules), are not rules at all, in the rigid understanding of the term, but rather ascetically and spiritual advises, even if he was called thereafter the “lawgiver” of Greek monasticism.

 

As a priest, after the year 364 AD, according to the Oration 43, 33 of Gregory Nazianzus, Saint Basil was “a good counselor, a skillful helper, an expounder of Scriptures, an interpreter of his duties…” As a bishop, after the year 370, Saint Basil practiced what he preached by founding hospitals, hospices and homes for the poor and dispossessed.

 

Although was a partisan of the Nicaea faith, or was fighting against Valens who sought to impose Arianism, or was involved in a schism in Antioch, where personal animosities had resulted from the Arian crisis, Saint Basil, unlike other bishops or patriarchs, was never exiled or created a crisis or a split in the church because Saint Basil wisely used flexible approaches, not as a compromise or abdication from the truth, rather as a way to preserve the unity of the Church. Against the state-supported Arianism, he combined with wisdom intense activism and prudence silence, but not compromise on matters of faith.

 

Convinced that only a community of faith can bring real unity of the church and finally success to Orthodoxy, he made serious efforts to reconcile the discussions between believers and find a harmony between East and West, in spite of all hierarchical opposition. The first of “the great ecumenical teachers”, as Saint Basil has called, passing through his Christian discerning mind different teachings, Christian or pagan, and transforming their meaning, Saint Basil offered to all categories of people, of different social and political position and status, of different levels of intellectual philosophical and theological understanding, an example of Christian writing and teaching on important dogmatic, ascetic, pedagogical or liturgical issues, a great number of sermons and letters on matters of faith and goodwill.

 

The theology of Saint Basil is direct related and intertwined with the main controversies in the Church of the 4th century. His practical teachings have constituted the cornerstone of the foundation of the Orthodox Church and faith. In the storm of many tendencies and controversies, Saint Basil’s writings and actions were firmly rooted in the Trinitarian doctrine and the Nicaea Creed, defending the consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit against Arius, Eunomians, Sebellians and Appolinarists. Through his Trinitarian doctrine, Saint Basil brought back in the Church the semi-Arians and fixed forever the meaning of the words “ousia” and “hypostasis”, making a correct distinction between these two terms and maintaining that one nature (essence) three persons is the only acceptable formula of faith. In this context, Saint Basil advanced the Trinitarian doctrine and his terminology led finally to the definition of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in the year 451 AD.  The exemplification and clarification of these terms by Saint Basil contributed very much to the universal adoption of the Nicaea “homoousios” and the victory of the Cappadocian Fathers’ position at the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in the year 381 AD.

 

Saint Basil fought with the same tenacity and perseverance those who denied the divinity and the place of the Holy Spirit in Holy Trinity (“pneumatomachol”). His treatise “On the Holy Spirit” is an example of Patristic “oiknomia” and together with Saint Athanasius’ Letters is considered the basic Orthodox doctrine on the Holy Spirit. Here, although he never explicitly called the Spirit God to shock not the reader, and despite his rhetoric or syllogisms, he uses his talents to help the Church to move safely away from an “immanent shipwreck”. For in the storm of the Trinitarian controversies of the 4th century on the full divinity of the Son, a new debate, now directed on the divinity of the Holy Spirit arose. In his classical way, Saint Basil demonstrated theologically that the Holy Spirit like the Son is the same nature and equal with the Father. His Trinitarian doctrine of distinction and yet communion of the three divine persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, formed the right language to express the Orthodox theology with great importance and significance for the Church Tradition in the 4th century AD, and all ages. Saint Basil like most of the Greek Fathers taught the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, through the Son. The Holy Spirit comes from the Father, but not by generation as the Son. For in the confusion of many theological controversies of his times, Saint Basil understood that only when we confess the Holy Trinity to be three persons sharing the same divine nature, and therefore accepting the Holy Spirit’s divinity as the only possible choice, it is easy to find and to understand much more clearly that is in fact Orthodoxy and what it is not. Therefore, through the use in public worship of the doxology “Glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” instead of “glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit” and with an Orthodox justification in accord with the proof of the Holy Scripture and Tradition, Saint Basil succeeded in rebutting Sabellianism as well as Arianism.

 

In the same way, Saint Basil reformed the Holy Liturgy with the understanding that the liturgical practice was a source of theology for him. The Orthodox Church and others preserve Saint Basil’s liturgy as a treasure of theology and worship. Concerning Tradition, he informs us that there was a distinction in the 4th century AD between some “secret tradition” (“dogmata”), preserved for the faithful and some openly proclaimed (“kerygmata”). From Saint Basil we also have the most important document on the Eucharist in the early history of the Christian communion.

 

Saint Basil used also his wise mind to penetrate with his Biblical doctrine of creation of the world inside of the Greek mentality, without surrendering, like Origen did, to Plato’s or the Neo-platonic philosophical ideas or some scientific theories of his time. Saint Basil understood that preaching the Biblical faith to the Greeks was difficult because it was necessary first to get the Bible to them read and then make it acceptable to them. For this reason, in his sermons and particularly in “Hexaemeron” Saint Basil is not interested in an allegorical interpretation of the Bible, and particularly of Genesis, but rather he wants to introduce into the pagan culture the Christian idea of the world and time with God behind creation, using for this purpose some adequate explanations from Aristotle and Plato easier and more acceptable for the Greek mind of that time.

 

In the same way, in his treatises “Against Eunomios” and some of his “Letters”, Saint Basil is attacking Eunomious’ “pro-Platonist” thought that God can be known in His essence by the human mind, Saint Basil taught that God’s essence is totally transcendent and that only God’s acts can be known by the human beings. Thus, Saint Basil fought a dangerous philosophical idea that God is an abstract essence, showing that in the Christian faith, God is a person particularly manifested in Jesus Christ, true God and true man recognized by Saint Peter (“Letter 210”). Then, it was at hand to Saint Basil to introduce here the concept of hypostasis and his Trinitarian doctrine of God, using and at the same time transforming the Greek philosophical language. Since he already knew that to use a language involves knowing it from inside and to explain it.

 

Breaking toboos of certain terms and finding a way for the Christian understanding, Saint Basil helped the Church unity. His defense was the basis of Christianity as an act of charity. Saint Basil was the only one among the Cappadocian Fathers called “the great”. Known as ecclesiastical statesmen and organizer, Saint Basil was also a wise theologian who defending Orthodoxy in the crucial context of the 4th century he has sent his message throughout all ages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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