Review: Basil of Caesarea, On the Holy Spirit (mid 4th C AD)

Basil wrote during a tempestuous period of church history. The heresy first propagated by Arius towards the end of the third century, that the Son was subordinate to and of a different nature to the Father, continued to rage. The place of the Spirit within this relationship was in danger of being forgotten, or at least eroded. Thus, Basil wrote to ensure clarity in orthodox trinitarian teaching. In On the Holy Spirit, Basil seeks to illuminate the truth that the Holy Spirit is part of the Godhead. In doing so, he counters the Arian heresy that seeks a divine ranking among God Himself. Basil’s work is one of the first to examine the Holy Spirit at length, and his teaching, that we can learn about the Spirit by studying what He does in Scripture, helps to point to his biblically based conclusion: that our God is three in one. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although thirty chapters long, this is not a lengthy work (though by no means short – much longer than for example, than On the Apostolic Preaching by Irenaeus.) Nonetheless, it’s packed full of early doctrinal teaching on the Holy Spirit and our triune Godhead.

Overview

The work is addressed to Amphilochios, something of a spiritual son to Basil who seeks to hear Basil’s thoughts on this topic. Amphilochios is praised by Basil as he has a (1.1) “sincere desire to discover the truth, not like many these days who ask questions only to test others.” Basil goes on to liken growing in truth to (1.2) “learning a trade.” We learn little by little as we open ourselves up to truth. Basil seeks to do this, hoping it will be of use both to himself and those who hear his words.

The two doxologies

Basil starts his discussion considering two doxologies, one much more widespread in usage than the other. He says that sometimes we use “Glory to the Father with the Son, together with the Holy Spirit” and sometimes “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.” These subtle differences matter, and the former had led to controversy. Basil cautions (2) that heretics mistreat these prepositions, and so we must understand what it is we are saying in these utterances, lest we fall into the heretics’ trap. For they (3) “belittle God the Word and… deny the divine Spirit.”

The next few chapters are used by Basil to examine Scripture and show that these prepositions are used in the Bible not to denote a divine authority structure, but to show the triune nature of our God at work in creation and salvation. This leads Basil into discussions such as a clear argument against those who suggest that the Father is ahead of the Son somehow (6.13-15). This, he argues, is both logically and biblically unsound, and truth “teaches us to think of the Son with the Father” (6.14). He weaves in trinitarian theology to his discussion of the roles of each of the Godhead in Scripture, making it clear that both the above doxologies have a way of teaching us about our great God.

Basil then briefly makes the co-existence and co-sovereignty of the Father and Son clear as he continues discussing this language of prepositions (8.17-21), before moving away from these doxologies in chapter 9 to more fully consider the Holy Spirit.

Scripture on the Spirit

Basil’s next concern then is to examine what God’s word teaches us about His Spirit. He begins by repeating the titles Scripture gives to the Spirit, as Basil asks the question, “who can listen to the Spirit’s titles and not be lifted up in his soul?” After describing His titles and power (9.22-23), Basil considers whether we are right to count the Spirit with the Father and the Son. Basil concludes, (10.26) “what makes us Christian? ‘Our faith.’… salvation comes through Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and (11.27) “if a man calls upon God, but rejects the Spirit, his faith is empty.”

This discussion continues, albeit with several lengthy digressions which dominate the next few chapters. Among them are some fascinating comments on the place of baptism in the believer’s life, which I discuss separately in this post: In Search of Ancient Roots: Basil on Baptism.

A Refocus on The Spirit

After his fascinating comments on baptism, Basil returns to focus more acutely on the Spirit. He wants to make it clear that the Spirit ranks alongside the Father and the Son (17.41-43). And this, he argues, displays true divine unity (18.44-47). This lengthy section is full of Scripture, and Basil leans heavily on both Testaments to show that the Spirit is of the same nature and person as the other members of the Trinity. Basil incredulously asks the question, in the face of the glory of the Spirit being shown from Scripture, (22.53) “is there any limit to the honour He deserves?”

The work of the Spirit is described too. Amongst many other things, He inspired those who penned Scripture (23.54) and brings new life to believers (24.57). Thus, Basil states, the faithful are right to use both of the aforementioned doxologies (25.59), for the Spirit is truly worthy of glory as God Himself.

A Return to Prepositional Discussion

Basil’s treatment of his subject matter brings him back round to discuss biblical prepositions as he concludes his work (chapters 24-29). This continues to be a fruitful study as Basil examines the different ways in which the Spirit is described: a place where we are made holy (26.62), our means of worshipping God rightly (26.64) and so on.

Chapter 27 includes an interesting section where Basil discusses Scripture and tradition, seeing both of value. Though we might (likely) refute many of his traditions, Basil gives us an insight into practices of his contemporary church context, including signing the cross and praying facing East. Basil sees tradition (27.66) as a means to help us remember dogma, not neglecting the truths we have been taught. He elaborates: facing East in prayer points believers to Paradise, standing during prayer on Sunday reminds them of the grace through which they are saved. We might disagree with the importance of tradition, but his note that it can teach us of truth is helpful.

Basil ends this final discussion by citing Paul and then several early post-Apostolic writers including Dionysus of Alexandria and Clement of Rome. These men, argues Basil (29.72) , repeatedly illustrate an orthodox understanding of the glory of the triune God; Basil has been saying nothing new. After citing several more figures, including Origin and Gregory ‘the Wonderworker’, Basil ends this section by making a passionate case for orthodoxy, and refusing to be led astray to blaspheme the Spirit.

Conclusion

As he closes, Basil considers the state of the church. In words that could similarly apply today, he likens the Christian world to a naval battle. Heresy has crept into some churches and like two fleets clashing together in the midst of a great storm, there is confusion and hardship. The boundaries of truth are eroded on one side, friends are lost to falsehood on another. The casualty lists are lengthy. 30.77 “Entire churches are dashed and shattered on the sunken reefs of subtle heresy, while other enemies of the Spirit of salvation have seized the helm and made shipwreck of the faith.” Holding firm to Scripture leads to great opposition, speaking the truth leads friends to turn their backs. How true for us now!

Basil sees the one hope for the church in such a mess to be the truth of Scripture, and so as he closes his work, how does he encourage his reader to go on? Well, as believers equipped by the Spirit, we must proclaim the truth.

“Therefore the cloud of our enemies does not dismay us, but we place our trust in the Spirit’s help, and boldly proclaim the truth.”

Basil’s work is a really interesting read, and a brilliant early example of an understanding of the authority of Scripture. Though very much reactionary to the heretical teaching of his own time, and with some sections with which we might not fully agree, this is a helpful work that has much to offer readers even 1600 years later.

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