St Basil the Great and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit

“I neither chose to name the Holy Spirit God nor dare to call him a creature,” declared Eustathius of Sebaste in response to the Neo-Arian denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. At first glance, Eustathius’s ambivalence seems reasonable. After all, where in the Holy Scriptures is the Spirit explicitly stated to be fully divine? Where in the Scriptures is the Spirit said to be God? Is it not best to maintain a position of agnosticism, neither identifying the Spirit as a creature nor affirming him as consubstantial with the Father?

But Eustathius’s fence-sitting did not sit well with St Basil the Great. He viewed this agnosticism as simply a soft version of Arian subordinationism, now applied to the person of the Holy Spirit. He called all who refused to affirm the divinity of the Spirit Pneumatomachoi, “fighters against the Spirit.” In response to this heresy, St Basil composed his famous tract On the Holy Spirit.

It’s been well over twenty years since I read On the Holy Spirit, but after reading through the Five Theological Orations of St Gregory Nazianzen a few months ago, I thought it might be helpful for me to revisit this book and to compare the respective arguments of these two great saints of the Church. Both were strong supporters of the trinitarian faith as confessed by the Council of Nicaea (though Basil long had reservations about the Nicene confession that the Son is homoousios with the Father, preferring instead the assertion that the Son is of similar substance to the Father). Both were outspoken opponents of the Pneumatomachoi. Both understood that ontological subordination of the Spirit undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Basil’s decisive argument that runs throughout On the Holy Spirit might be described as the denial of the middle ground: there is the uncreated Deity, and there is everything he has created from out of nothing. There are no demigods, no semi-divine intermediaries between God and the cosmos; there are no degrees of divinity. There is only God and the world (spiritual and material). The radical biblical distinction between Creator and creature is fully embraced and assimilated. The only question therefore is: on what side of the ontological line do we locate the Holy Spirit? St Basil’s answer is clear: the Holy Spirit is divine; he is not a creature. “The Lord has delivered to us a necessary and saving dogma,” he declares: “the Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father” (10.25).

Basil marshals a host of biblical, theological, and liturgical arguments to support his basic thesis. I cannot begin to summarize all of them. But for me personally the argument that I find most compelling is this: it is only in and by the Spirit that we can confess and worship the Father and the Son:

If we are illumined by divine power, and fix our eyes on the beauty of the image of the invisible God, and through the image are led up to the indescribable beauty of its source, it is because we have been inseparably joined to the Spirit of knowledge. He gives those who love the vision of truth the power which enables them to see the image, and this power is Himself. He does not reveal it to them from outside sources, but leads them to knowledge personally, “No one knows the Father except the Son,” and “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Notice that it does not say through the Spirit, but in the Spirit. It also says, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth,” and “in Thy light do we see light,” through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, “the true light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.” He reveals the glory of the Only-Begotten in Himself, and He gives true worshippers the knowledge of God in Himself. The way to divine knowledge ascends from one Spirit through the one Son to the one Father. (18.47).

It is only in God and through God that we can know God. It is only in the divine light that we can see the divine light. Our knowledge of God enjoys a trinitarian structure: the Father is revealed through the incarnate Son in and by the illumination and transformative presence of the Holy Spirit.

We learn that just as the Father is made visible in the Son, so also the Son is recognized in the Spirit. To worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened. Consider the words spoken to the Samaritan woman. She was deceived by local custom into believing that worship could only be offered in a specific place, but the Lord, attempting to correct her, said that worship ought to be offered in Spirit and in truth. By truth He clearly meant Himself. If we say that worship offered in the Son (the Truth) is worship offered in the Father’s image, we can say that same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in Himself reveals the divinity of the Lord. The Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot be separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you. Once you see the Image, you cannot ignore the light; you see the Light and Image simultaneously. It is fitting that when we see Christ, the Brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit. Through Christ the Image, may we be led to the Father, for He bears the seal of the Father’s very likeness. (26.64)

This is an argument that St Gregory will powerfully employ in his defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit: in his Light we see Light.

To deny the divinity of the Spirit, or even to equivocate as the Pneumatomachoi were doing, is to ultimately deny the gospel and the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ:

I swear to every man who confesses Christ but denies the Father: Christ will profit him nothing. If a man calls upon God, but rejects the Son, his faith is empty. If someone rejects the Spirit, his faith in the Father and the Son is made useless; it is impossible to believe in the Father and the Son without the presence of the Spirit. He who rejects the Spirit rejects the Son, and he who rejects the Son rejects the Father. “No on can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit,” and “no one has ever seen God; the only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” Such a person has no part in true worship. It is impossible to worship the Son except in the Holy Spirit; it is impossible to call upon the Father except in the Spirit of adoption. (11.27).

Precisely because the Father, Son, and Spirit are inseparable in this way, all suggestions that the Spirit does not share in or possess the essence of the Father are excluded. “But the Spirit is organically united with God,” St Basil explains, “not because of the needs of each moment, but through communion in the divine nature” (13.20). Not three Gods, of course. There is one God, the Father Almighty. There is one only begotten Son. And there is one Holy Spirit. Whichever divine hypostasis we contemplate, we see only the one God: “The Spirit is one, and we speak of Him as unique, since through the one Son He is joined to the Father. He completes the all-praised and blessed Trinity. He is not ranked with the plurality of creation, but is described in the singular; this is sufficient evidence of His intimacy with the Father and the Son. He is not one of many but one only: just as there is one Father and one Son, there is one Holy Spirit” (18.45). (I am struck by the clause “since through the one Son He is joined to the Father.” I wonder precisely what this means.)

The Father is God. The Son is God. And the Spirit is … divine. St Basil balks at explicitly naming the Spirit “God.” He prefers to remain within the modesty of biblical usage. But perhaps another dynamic is at work here, namely, the monarchy of the Father. John Behr explains:

For the Christian faith there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father: “There is one God and Father.” For Basil, the one God is not the one divine substance, or a notion of “divinity” which is ascribed to each person of the Trinity, nor is it some kind of unity or communion in which they all exist; the one God is the Father. But this “monarchy” of the Father does not undermine the confession of the true divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is certainly “true God of true God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, but he is such as the Son of God, the God who is thus the Father. If the term “God” (theos) is used of Jesus Christ, not only as a predicate, but also as a proper noun with an article, this is only done on the prior confession of him as “Son of God,” and so as other than “the one God” of whom he is the Son; it is necessary to bear in mind this order of Christian theology, lest it collapse in confusion. Basil … followed Scripture in not applying the term “God” to the Holy Spirit, preferring instead the word “divine,” but he is nevertheless clear that the Spirit must belong together with the Father and the Son rather than among created things. (The Nicene Faith, II:307-308)

Basil’s restraint at this point, however, eventually became a point of contention between him and his old friend from Cappadocia. St Gregory saw that ultimate victory over Arianism required the naming of the Spirit as God and the confession of the consubstantiality of the Spirit with the Father. In his Theological Orations he will break with Basil and make the affirmation that the Church catholic subsequently made her own: the Holy Spirit is God.

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5 Responses to St Basil the Great and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Though I did not want to include this parenthetical thought in the article, I did want to mention a question that occurred to me while reading the quoted paragraph that we are only able to believe and worship God if we are “in” the Spirit: May this not also be considered the Orthodox answer to all forms of Pelagianism?


  2. bekkos says:

    A few observations. First, On the Holy Spirit was written late in St. Basil’s career, probably in the mid-370s (he died in the year 379). Although it is the only large work by Basil on the subject of the Holy Spirit that has yet been translated into English, it should be remembered that, earlier in his career, St. Basil wrote other things; some of these things, like the short work De Spiritu and book three of his Adversus Eunomium, have not yet been translated into our language. This is a pity, in part because it prevents English speakers from recognizing the extent to which St. Basil’s views on this subject developed over the course of time, and in part because the earlier writings often shed light upon Basil’s meaning in the better-known work.

    One of the earliest things by Basil on trinitarian theology is the correspondence with Apollinarius (Basil, Letters 361-364); most patristic scholars these days follow G. L. Prestige and H. de Riedmatten in viewing this correspondence as authentic. The correspondence shows Basil, as a young man, writing to Apollinarius, at that time generally revered as a champion of nicene orthodoxy, asking him for clarification on the doctrine of the homoousion, that is, the Nicene teaching that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are consubstantial. Basil, in the first of these letters, expresses intellectual difficulties with the doctrine; he tells Apollinarius that he prefers the expression “undeviatingly similar” to the word “consubstantial,” mainly because he can connect that word only with notions of a common material substratum, on the one hand, or of an overarching genus, on the other; neither of these notions properly apply to God. Assuming that the correspondence is authentic, it shows that, at this early point in his career, St. Basil shared some of the ideas of those people who later came to be called “Semi-Arian” (by Orthodox writers such as St. Epiphanius). The fact that Basil had a long-standing association with Eustathius of Sebaste, a prominent Homoiousian cleric, lends some support to the idea that Basil’s commitment to the Nicene homoousion may have come about gradually. (It is possible that St. Basil the Great was the “Basil” mentioned by Philostorgius who accompanied Basil of Ancyra and Eustathius of Sebaste to Constantinople in 359 in the aftermath of the Council of Seleucium; the editor of the Sources Chrétiennes edition of Basil’s Adversus Eunomium thinks that Basil wrote that work as a kind of theological briefing for the Homoiousian bishops who met at that council, and was intended to be read aloud there.)

    One question you raise here is, what does St. Basil mean when he says that it is through the Son that the Holy Spirit is joined to the one Father? If I may cite a text that was a favorite of John Bekkos’s in the thirteenth century, I would note that, in book two of his Adversus Eunomium, Basil wrote about the mediating role of the Son in the following way:

    “But to whom of all people is it not apparent, that no activity of the Son is separated from the Father, nor does there exist anything among the things in the Son that is alien from the Father? For, he says, ‘all that are mine are thine, and thine are mine’ (Jn 17:10). Why then does Eunomius ascribe the cause of the Spirit to the Son alone, and take the making of him as a reproach against his nature? If then, in saying these things, he sets two causes in opposition to each other, he will be the comrade of Mani and Marcion; but if the statement that ‘all things came to be through’ the Son (Jn 1:3) connects existing things to a single cause, it implies a reference back to the first cause. So that, even though we believe that all things were brought into being through the Word of God, nevertheless we do not deprive the God of the universe of being the cause of all things.” Basil, Adv. Eunomium II.34; cited by Bekkos, De unione ecclesiarum §9 (PG 141, 25D-28A).

    When Basil says that the Holy Spirit is joined to the one Father through the one Son, Bekkos reads that as implying that the Son has a causal role to play in the procession of the Holy Spirit. For Bekkos, that causal role does not take away the Father’s monarchy, just as the creation of the world “through the Son” in no way detracts from the Father’s monarchy.

    Other things St. Basil says in his Adversus Eunomium tend (in my view) to support Bekkos’s reading. Shortly before this passage, there is another one, one which Bekkos evidently overlooked: at Adv. Eunomium II.32, Basil (arguing with Eunomius) writes:

    “But supposing that, because of the simplicity and incomposite character of the divine nature, substance there coincides with power, and, by reason of the goodness that is God’s by right, all of the Father’s power is moved, one might say, for the purpose of begetting the Son, and, again, all the Only-begotten’s [is moved] for the sake of the subsistence (hypostasis) of the Holy Spirit, such that, from the Spirit, one might contemplate both the power of the Only-begotten and, simultaneously, his substance, and again, from the Only-begotten one might understand both the power and the substance of the Father — what then follows? For, from those very things by which he sought to establish their unlikeness of substance, he is found to be in the process of showing their likeness.”

    Granted that this is expressed in a hypothetical fashion, yet it evidently shows St. Basil expressing, with approbation, the notion that the Holy Spirit’s hypostasis is in some manner produced by the Son; it is on account of this production that the Holy Spirit can be taken to reveal the Son’s substance and power.

    Finally, one may note the famous passage in Adv. Eunomium III.1; this was cited at the Council of Florence, and has occasioned much debate because the text exists in two different versions. The version supported by the Latins and the Greek unionists goes like this:

    “For what necessity is there, if the Spirit exists as third in dignity and in order, that he exist as a third also in nature? Although religious language gives the tradition that he comes after the Son in rank, in that he has being from him, and receives from him and announces to us, and depends entirely on this cause, nevertheless we have neither been taught by the Holy Scriptures to use the expression ‘third in nature,’ nor is it possible to infer this from the things previously said. For as, on the one hand, the Son is second to the Father in order, because he is from him, and in dignity, because the Father is principle and cause of his being and because, through him, there is access and approach to the God and Father, but, on the other hand, in terms of nature he is no longer second, because the Godhead in each of them is one; so it is also manifest that, even if the Holy Spirit were to come after the Son in order and in dignity, we would never have reason to say that he comes after as though existing of a different nature.”

    The version of this supported by antiunionists such as Mark of Ephesus reads as follows:

    “For what necessity is there, if the Spirit exists as third in dignity and in order, that he exist as a third also in nature? For, while it may be that religious language gives the tradition that he comes after the Son in rank, nevertheless we have neither been taught by the Holy Scriptures to use the expression ‘third in nature,’ nor is it possible to infer this from the things previously said….”

    The debate over which of these two texts is the original version continues to this day, although current opinion tends to support the latter one. Some Orthodox writers argue that the longer passage contains additions that were inserted into the text in the seventh century; one ingenious scholar thinks that the additions were added when a scribe innocently inserted in the body of the text annotations that he found in the margin, little knowing that the marginal notes originated with Eunomius himself! For my part, I tend to find that explanation unconvincing. I think the longer version could well go back to Basil himself. It is not a Filioquist text; its premises are Origenist. Both Basil and Eunomius were conservative Greek churchmen who had been schooled in Origen’s writings; their argument was, in large part, over the meaning of that spiritual inheritance. Basil saw it as consistent with Christian orthodoxy, an orthodoxy which, eventually at least, he identified with the faith of Nicaea; Eunomius saw it as denying everything Nicaea stood for. That is, I think, the background, or at least part of the background, for Basil’s language about the Spirit being joined to the Father “through the Son.”

    As for your quotation from Fr. Behr’s The Nicene Faith, I think he really overstates things when he says that, for Basil, the one God is the Father, and that the Son is other than “the one God” of whom he is the Son. That is not, for instance, the way St. Gregory the Theologian talks about the phrase “the one God” in his third dogmatic poem On the Holy Spirit; he acknowledges there that the expression εἷς Θεός, “the one God,” legitimately applies to all three of the persons.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Peter, welcome to Eclectic Orthodoxy! And thank you for your thoughtful and well-informed comment. I hope it will be the one of many.

      I knew that when I wrote “Both were strong supporters of the trinitarian faith as confessed by the Council of Nicaea” that I was leaving myself open to criticism. 🙂 As you rightly point out, St Basil’s support of the Nicene homoousion came late in his career. I may have to revise that sentence. Do you think it possible or likely that Athanasius’s de Synodis may have influenced Basil in his final acceptance of homoousios? BTW, did St Gregory Nazianzen also go through a similar development? When did he begin to support the homoousion?

      Your discussion of Bekkos’s reading of St Basil is fascinating. Thank you for providing the citations from Basil’s other writings. An English translation of Basil’s Contra Eunomium has just recently been published in the Fathers of the Church series. After reading John Behr’s discussion of Eunomius and Basil’s critique, I confess that I am not tempted to acquire this book. It’s way over my pay-grade. I just don’t have the patristic and philosophical training to make heads or tails out of it all, especially regarding their respective understanding of theological language. I know this deficiency also impacts my ability to properly understand Gregory’s Theological Orations. Oh well, one can only do one’s best.

      Regarding Behr’s emphatic insistence that the Father is the one God, I too have wondered if he has over-stated the case a tad. For example, in Or 38 St Gregory writes, “But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Does this suggest a fluidity of linguistic usage on Gregory’s part?

      Thank you again, Peter, for your comment. Please keep them coming. I need all the help I can get!!!


  3. bekkos says:

    Thanks for the reference to the new translation of Against Eunomius; I just ordered a copy.

    So far as I can see, St. Gregory adhered to the homoousion throughout his career, that is, from at least the time of his ordination. In many ways, both he and Basil were responding to current events: in the year 362, a synod was held at Alexandria, under the presidency of St. Athanasius, that sought to reconcile the strict Nicene party and the Easterners. That synod was always seen by St. Gregory as a crucial event (see his oration In praise of Athanasius), that helped to create a united ecclesiastical response, in the East, to an Arianizing imperial government. It brought about a fragile reconciliation between the party of St. Meletius of Antioch (with which St. Basil was aligned) and the “Old Nicenes,” who tended to be supported by the West.

    Gregory’s usage may be fluid, but I think it is consistent, and I don’t think the old saw that “the Cappadocians start with the three (hypostases), the West starts with the one (nature)” does it justice. He always stresses both sides of the mystery. I think in fact that he states, as clearly as any Greek father, what is often seen to be a peculiarly Western doctrine or insight, that is, the real identification of the persons with the divine nature. He says at or. 39.11, “For the Godhead is one in three, and the three are one, in whom the Godhead is, or, to speak more accurately, who are the Godhead.” St. John of Damascus says the same thing (as often, he quotes St. Gregory verbatim). Those who would minimize or dismiss Gregory’s and John of Damascus’s language here, out of some preformed notions of what constitutes “real” patristic theology (i.e., “real” patristic theology makes a real ontological distinction between the persons and the nature, on the one hand, and between both of these and the uncreated “energies,” on the other), would do well to try to read the fathers with an open mind; if they did so, they might be surprised at the things they would find.


  4. Gary Knight says:

    At 60 years I am a total neophyte here. But I wonder if perhaps John Behr’s ‘read’ of Basil as equivocating on the Godheadness of the Son signifies something of Behr’s own communitarian perspective on the Incarnation. Recently (eg. in postscript to The Mystery of Christ; also in his translation of Athanasius’ De Incarnatione) Behr treats incarnation much the same as N.T. Wright’s ’embodiment in all believers’, to the detriment of the Catholic tradition of bending the knee at the Nicene phrase “and became man”. But Father Aidan does rather set Basil up in lopsided paraphrase: “There is one God, the Father Almighty. There is one only begotten Son. And there is one Holy Spirit. Whichever divine hypostasis we contemplate, we see only the one God”. Maybe better to have said “There is one God. There is the Father Almighty .. etc, and I presume that’s more akin to what Basil actually meant, judging from Peter’s comments and Father Aidan’s agreeable reply. At any rate, Behr can’t be excused by Father Aidan’s paraphrase of Basil. As for the phrase ‘through the one Son He is joined to the Father’, I was struck how this would have informed Augustine’s light that the Spirit consists of the love-bond between Father and Son. In explaining this (a tertiary Augustinian) I have noted that tacitly Augustine says that this power lacks no perfection or attribute of God, being as it is totally self-giving agape; and that entails that this great power does not lack the attribute of Personhood to the same perfections as Father and Son. So forebear Basil could be forgiven a gloss on ‘through the one Spirit the Son is joined to the Father’. In fact the transposition could (here I stay willfully ignorant of historical criticism), or might have been deliberate sacred poetry or bold rhetoric to depict the total equivalence — at least if I choose to project the later Basil. In this connection I note that the cited reference “But the Spirit is organically united with God .. not because of the needs of each moment, but through communion in the divine nature” might ring truer to the intended qualification with the phrase “not by contingent or temporal necessities” (since temporal necessities are always contingent; while God being the only necessary being is not necessitous in the contingent sense). And here lies a happy confirmation that Basil too does not shun the use of one “divine nature” that Peter notes has been over-attributed to the West.

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