St Basil of Caesarea and the Not so Simple God of the Gospel

If Eunomius is convinced that we may comprehend the substance of God and accurately name it “unbegotten,” St Basil the Great is equally convinced that the living God of Jesus Christ surpasses all human knowing and is beyond all names. In his transcendent reality God is ineffable, mysterious, incomprehensible, undefinable. His substance cannot be grasped by the minds of finite rational beings. Basil is amazed by the hubris of Eunomius. How could any sinner imagine that he could comprehend the substance of the infinite Creator?

Generally speaking, how much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think he has discovered the very substance of God above all? For by their bragging they nearly eclipse even the one who said: “Above the stars I will set my throne” [Is 14.13]. Yet these men are not insolently attacking the stars or heaven, but are bragging that they have penetrated the very substance of the God of the universe! Let’s ask him from which source he claims to have comprehended it. So, then, from a common notion? But this tells us that God exists, not what God is. Perhaps from the Spirit’s teaching? Which one? Where is it located? Isn’t it clear that the great David, to whom God manifested the secret and hidden things of his own wisdom, confessed that such knowledge is inaccessible? For he said: “I regard knowledge of you as a marvel, as too strong–I am not able to attain it [Ps 138.6]. And when Isaiah came to contemplate the glory of God, what did he reveal to us about the divine substance? He is the one who testified in the prophecy about Christ, saying: “Who shall tell of his begetting? [Is 53.8] Then there’s Paul, “the vessel of election” [Acts 9.15], who had “Christ speaking in him” [2 Cor 13.3] and “was snatched away up to the third heaven and heard ineffable words which are impossible for a person to utter [2 Cor 12.2-4]. What teaching did he bequeath to us about the substance of God? He is the one who peered into the particular reasons for the economy and cried out with this voice, as if the vastness of what he contemplated made him dizzy: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments, and how unsearchable are his ways! [Rom 11.33] If these things are beyond the understanding of those who have attained the measure of the knowledge of Paul, how great is the conceit of those who profess to know the substance of God? (Eun. 1.12).

The Only-Begotten and the Holy Spirit, writes Basil, directly contemplate the Father and comprehend his substance; human beings, on the other hand, “are led up from the activities of God and gain knowledge of the Maker through what he has made, and so come in this way to an understanding of his goodness and wisdom. For ‘what can be known about God is that which God has manifested’ [Rom 1.19] to all human beings” (Eun. 1.14). The Eunomians propose the exact opposite: they deny to the Son and Spirit the contemplation of the Father yet “make the apprehension of God’s substance commensurate with themselves” (Eun. 1.14).

Basil posits, as we saw in an earlier article, two kinds of theological statements. Negative statements tell us what God is not and deter us from projecting corporeal characteristics upon divinity. They exercise a purely purgative function. Positive statements tell us “what is present to God”: they “indicate the affirmation and existence of what has affinity with God and is appropriately considered in connection with him” (Eun. 1.10). They give us affirmative content. St Basil does not take the extreme apophatic route, as do later Byzantine theologians. Following the discourse of Scripture, he believes that we may and must attribute properties of the divine substance: God is good, just, merciful, light, power, life, and so forth. These essential properties are predicated equally of each of the three divine hypostases. Years later in his Apology for the Apology, Eunomius would accuse Basil of compromising the divine simplicity. If these positive terms are not synonymous and retain their distinct meanings, then how can the simple essence be simple? Negative statements do not impact the deity in its simplicity–after all, they do not say anything about what God is–but a multiplicity of positive statements would seem to call the divine simplicity into question. If God is all that we say he is, then we appear to have transformed him into a complex being. How can the substance be a simple unity and yet be described under multiple aspects? And just what does it mean to say that God is goodness or justice if the divine substance is incomprehensible? Have we not broken theological language altogether?

The Bishop of Caesarea constructs a mediating position between Eunomian simplicity and radical apophaticism. On the one hand, he denies that we can know the divine substance in such a way as to be able to define it. It’s not just that Eunomius has chosen the wrong name–no name can properly name and specify the ousia of God. “Yet it seems,” Basil sarcastically remarks, “that to Eunomius God has manifested not only his name, but also his very substance!” (Eun. 1. 13). On the other hand, he insists that we can describe the divine substance. He terms these essential attributes “propria” (idiotes). The propria, Andrew Radde-Gallwitz explains, are “properties co-extensive with and intrinsic to the divine essence, but not individually definitive of that essence. They are neither accidents nor essential complements nor synonyms, and yet they do render knowledge of the divine substance, albeit incomplete knowledge” (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and the Transformation of Divine Simplicity, pp. 107-108). Basil thus affirms the divine simplicity, yet he rejects the identification of divinity and essence. God is ineffable mystery, yet through Jesus Christ we are given to know him as he is in his revealed propria.

Anticipating future criticism from Eunomius, Basil writes:

If we were to understand unbegottenness as part of the substance, there would be room for the argument which claims that what is compounded from different things is composite. But if we were to posit, on the one hand, the light of the life or the good as the substance of God, claiming that the very thing which God is is life as a whole, light as a whole, and good as a whole, while positing, on the other hand, that the life has unbegotteness as a concomitant, then how is the one who is simple in substance not incomposite? For surely the ways of indicating his proprium will not violate the account of simplicity. Otherwise, all the things said about God will indicate to us that God is composite. (Eun. 2.29)

As Radde-Gallwitz notes, Basil’s argument depends on the distinction between “as a part” and “as a whole” (pp. 156-157). If we were to say that the divine substance is good but only in part, we would clearly be violating the divine simplicity. But Basil qualifies and protects himself: the divine substance is good “as a whole”; the divine substance is life “as a whole”; the divine substance is merciful “as a whole.” The positive qualities are predicated of the substance as a whole, not just of one aspect, dimension, or part of the substance:

So then, Basil envisions a set of coextensive properties predicated of the divine substance. The fact that they are predicated of the divine substance, rather than some other concept, implies that these terms have an extra-mental referent. In other words, conceptualism would be an incorrect interpretation of light, life, and goodness, even though these properties have corresponding mental concepts. Basil and Gregory can speak of the ‘concept (ennoia) of the life of God’, but the life of God itself is not a concept. This seemingly trivial point is of prime importance for our study. It is all well and good to say that we have multiple, distinct ideas of God that are nothing more than ideas in our minds devised through conceptualization; surely this does not violate simplicity (though if Eunomius is right it violates the truth of the ideas). But, to say that there are multiple properties of God’s simple substance as a whole, is a significant claim. Are we to conceive of these as actually distinct properties? How do they relate to the divine substance?

Basil is less than explicit on this point, so let us begin by analyzing the notion of having a property ‘as a whole’. From ‘God’s substance is good as a whole’ and ‘God’s substance is light as a whole’, it does not follow either that goodness is identical with light or that goodness or light is identical with the divine substance. All that follows is that goodness and light are coextensive properties. (Radde-Gallwitz, p. 158)

St Basil lays the groundwork for an understanding of divine simplicity that respects the diversity of the biblical testimony to the living God. He will not allow the Church’s experience of the divine mystery to be reduced to a scholastic formula, but neither will he allow escape to a rigorous negative theology that effectively denies the concrete self-manifestation of God in Jesus Christ, as mediated by the language of Israel and the Apostles. We do not and cannot comprehend the essence of God; but we do know God through his revelation, and we rightly speak of him in ways that communicate cataphatic content. The translators of the Contra Eunomium suggest that Basil’s “single greatest contribution to Trinitarian theology in Against Eunomius is his argument that there are terms predicated of Father and Son in common and with the same sense. These terms name what Basil calls ‘the commonality of the substance,’ and they are the same set of terms that … name the ‘distinguishing feature’ [proprium] of God’s substance. So, when the Bible says that the Father ‘dwells in unapproachable light’ (1 Tim 6.16), and that the Son is the ‘true light’ (Jn 1.9), the term ‘light’ means the same thing in both instances” (Against Eunomius, p. 50). With this critical insight, the program of Eunomius is undone.

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3 Responses to St Basil of Caesarea and the Not so Simple God of the Gospel

  1. Nicole says:

    This is all probably above my head, but I like theology, and it is interesting. I thing God is amazing and definitely not some sort of “substance” anyone can define. His ways are above our ways and his thoughts are above our thoughts.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      It’s way over my head, too, Nicole! Just because I blog on something doesn’t mean that I understand anything. 🙂

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Of interest here is Joseph O’Leary’s review of the Radde-Galwitz book.

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