We know more about Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379) than any other Christian of the Ancient Church apart from Augustine of Hippo. Central to our knowledge of his life is a marvellous collection of some 350 letters. Basil was born around 330 in the Roman province of Cappadocia (now central Turkey). His family were fairly well-to-do, his father, also called Basil, being a teacher of rhetoric (i.e. the art of public speaking), and his mother, Emmelia, coming from landed aristocracy. The family’s Christianity can be traced back to Basil’s paternal grandmother, Macrina, who was converted under the preaching of Gregory Thaumaturgus, one of the students of the Alexandrian exegete Origen (died c.254). The family thus had a predilection for Origenist spirituality and thought.
Of Basil’s eight siblings we know the names of five: Macrina (c.327-c.379), Naucratius, Peter, later the bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, and Gregory of Nyssa (died c.395), one of the leading theologians of the fourth century.
Friendship with Gregory of Nazianzus
Basil went to school in Caesarea, as well as in Constantinople, and then, in 350 or so, he went to study in Athens, where he became a close friend of Gregory of Nazianzus (c.329-c.389), who, along with Basil, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, are sometimes called the Cappadocian Fathers. Nazianzus later recalled his friendship with Basil during this time together as students:
“In studies, in lodgings, in discussions I had him as companion. …We had all things in common,… But above all it was God, of course, and a mutual desire for higher things, that drew us to each other. As a result we reached such a pitch of confidence that we revealed the depths of our hearts, becoming ever more united in our yearning.” [De vita sua 225ff., trans. Denise Molaise Meehan, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: Three Poems (The Fathers of the Church, vol. 75; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), 83-84].
Given this estimation of friendship, it is no surprise that Gregory could also state: “If anyone were to ask me, ‘What is the best thing in life?’, I would answer, ‘Friends’.” [Carolinne White, Christian Friendship in the Fourth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 70].
Conversion and a monastic calling
In 356 Basil returned to Caesarea, hoping to open a school of rhetoric. His older sister Macrina, however, challenged him to give his life unreservedly to Christ. So it was in that same year that Basil was converted. In his own words:
“I wasted nearly all of my youth in the vain labour which occupied me in the acquisition of the teachings of that wisdom which God has made foolish. Then at last, as if roused from a deep sleep, I looked at the wonderful light of the truth of the gospel, and I perceived the worthlessness of the wisdom of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to destruction. After I had mourned deeply for my miserable life I prayed that guidance be given to me for my introduction to the precepts of piety.” (Letter 223.2).
Basil’s conversion to Christ was also a conversion to a monastic lifestyle. Basil never had the impression that the monastic lifestyle was for every believer. Yet, he did believe that in fourth-century Graeco-Roman society—where, since the toleration of Christianity by Constantine, many were now flocking into the church for base motives—monasticism was a needed force for church renewal.
In time, during the 360s, Basil became a leading figure in the establishment of monastic communities, which he sought to model after the experience of the Jerusalem church as it is depicted in the early chapters of Acts.
Labours as a bishop
After founding a number of monasteries, he was ordained an elder in the church at Caesarea, Cappadocia, in the mid-360s. He became bishop of Caesarea in 370. As a bishop Basil was an ardent activist for personal and ecclesial holiness:
- He was fearless in denouncing evil wherever he found it within the Church. For instance, he fought simony.
- He was also fearless in denouncing evil in society as a whole. For example, he was not afraid to excommunicate those involved in the prostitution trade in Cappadocia.
- He established hospitals—the first hospitals in the ancient world apart from those attached to the Roman army
Inheriting the mantle of Athanasius
But Basil was not only a Christian activist. He was also a clear-headed theologian. Basil inherited the mantle of Athanasius (died 373), the great defender of Trinitarian Christianity. Arianism, which Athanasius had combatted, was still widespread in the eastern Mediterranean. There is little doubt that Basil played a key role in the victory of orthodox Trinitarianism over Arianism, which denied the deity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit, in this region of the Roman Empire. For instance, in one of his earliest books, written around 363 or 364, Basil attacked the views of Arian theologian by the name of Eunomius (c.335-393/395), and defended the full deity of the Son and the Spirit.
His great Trinitarian achievement, though, lay in the realm of pneumatology. While there are a number of books on the person and work of Christ in the early centuries of the Church, it was not until Basil wrote his On the Holy Spirit in 375 that there was a book specifically devoted to the person of the Spirit of God.
The break with Eustathius of Sebaste
In the early 370s, though, Basil found himself locked in combat with professing Christians, who, though they confessed the full deity of Christ, denied that the Spirit was fully God. Leading these “fighters against the Spirit” (Pneumatomachi), as they came to be called, was one of his former friends, indeed the man who had been his mentor when he first became a Christian in 356, Eustathius of Sebaste (c.300-377).
Eustathius’ interest in the Spirit seems to have been focused on the Spirit’s work, not his person. For him, the Holy Spirit was primarily a divine gift within the Spirit-filled person, One who produced holiness. When, on one occasion at a synod in 364, he was pressed to say what he thought of the Spirit’s nature, he replied: “I neither chose to name the Holy Spirit God nor dare to call him a creature”!
For a number of years, Basil sought to win Eustathius over to the orthodox position. Finally, in the summer of 373 he met with him for an important two-day colloquy. After much discussion and prayer, Eustathius agreed to sign a statement of faith in which it was stated that:
“[We] must anathematize all who call the Holy Spirit a creature, and …all who do not confess that he is holy by nature, as the Father is holy by nature and the Son is holy by nature, and refuse him his place in the blessed divine nature. …We have been taught that the Spirit of truth proceeds from the Father, and we confess him to be of God without creation” (Basil, Letter 125).
A second meeting was arranged for the autumn of 373, at which Eustathius would sign this declaration in the presence of a number of Christian leaders. But on the way home from his meeting with Basil, Eustathius was convinced by some of his friends that Basil was theologically in error. For the next two years Eustathius crisscrossed what is now modern Turkey denouncing Basil, and claiming that he was the heretic, one who believed that there were absolutely no distinctions between the persons of the Godhead.
Basil was so stunned by what had transpired that he kept his peace for close to two years. Finally, he simply felt that he had to speak. His words were those of the one most important books of the entire patristic period, On the Holy Spirit.
On the Holy Spirit (375)
After showing why Christians believe in the deity of Christ (chapters 1-8), Basil devotes the heart of the treatise to demonstrating from Scripture why the Spirit is to be recognized as God (chapters 10-27). The Spirit gives insight into divine mysteries, since he plumbs the depths of God (1 Corinthians 2:10), something only that One who is fully divine could do. He enables men and women to confess the true identity of Christ and worship him (1 Corinthians 12:3). He gives spiritual gifts “as he wills” (1 Corinthians 12:11), an indication of his sovereign lordship over the church. He is omnipresent (Psalm 139:7), an attribute possessed only by God. He is implicitly called “God” by Peter (Acts 5:3-4).
In the words of chapter 9, which introduces Basil’s study of the Spirit’s person and work in Scripture, Basil states by way of anticipation what he will seek to show:
“He perfects all other beings, but he himself lacks nothing… He does not grow or increase, but is immediate fulness, firmly established in himself, and omnipresent… From him comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, comprehension of hidden realities, distribution of spiritual gifts, the heavenly citizenship,…everlasting joy, abiding in God… Such then, to mention only a few of many, are the conceptions about the Spirit which we have been taught by the oracles of the Spirit themselves [i.e. the Scriptures] to hold about his greatness, his dignity and his activities.”
Basil died in 379, worn out by hard work and illness, the latter probably associated with the liver.
Basil and the Creed
Two years later, the Council of Constantinople (381) incorporated Basil’s defence of the Spirit’s essential deity into the credal statement known as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed or what is simply called the Nicene Creed. The article on the Spirit, deeply indebted to Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, was probably written by Basil’s younger brother Gregory of Nyssa.
This article is a landmark statement in the history of the church and runs thus: “We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father, who is worshipped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, who spoke through the prophets.” Thus did Basil’s faithful witness to the Spirit bear fruit that has stood the test of time, for it is solidly biblical.