St Basil the Great: Homily on the Beginning of the Gospel of John

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God (Jn 1:1-2)

John 1:1-2 was one of St Basil of Caesarea’s favorite texts, and he addresses it in multiple places in his extant corpus. His homily On the Beginning of the Gospel of John (In illud, In principio erat Verbum) presents his most developed discussion of the text. As Mark DelCogliano notes, in these verses Basil found both divine sanction for and succinct encapsulation of his trinitarian theology (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 242).

“In the beginning was the Word …”

Basil sees in this clause a preemptive word from God anticipating the heresies of Arius and Eunomius. “If he was begotten, he was not,” the Eunomians declare; and “Before his begetting, he was not” and “He received his subsistence from nothing” (Verb. 1). Against all such claims stands the declaration of John: “In the beginning was the Word.” Within the created world there are many beginnings, but John refers here to the absolute beginning. If we allow the Hexaemeron to be our guide, he appears to be thinking, not of the beginning of our material world but of the spiritual world (Hex. 1.5-6). But it probably does not matter which absolute beginning he is thinking of. He might well be thinking of the “beginning” of the Only-Begotten, which cannot be conceived as a beginning. “The very tip of the beginning,” says Basil, “cannot be comprehended. What is beyond the beginning cannot be found” (Verb. 1).  All talk of a moment “before” which the Word did not exist is nonsensical.  “How is it logical,” Basils asks, “that the maker of time has a begetting that is subject to temporal designations?” (Verb. 2). He thus understands the text as clearly affirming the eternal coexistence of the Son with the Father. In the beginning, “before” there was anything, there was Father and his Son (and his Spirit).

Why does the Apostle give the title “Word” to the Son? In order, suggests Basil, to indicate the immaterial, spiritual nature of the divine begetting: just as our spoken words express our thoughts, so the divine Word perfectly and passionlessly embodies the divine Intellect that is the Father. If the Apostle had used the word “Son” instead of “Word,” perhaps, DelCogliano explains, “it would be permissible to think of the Father’s begetting of the Son as involving time, passion, and suffering, since the word ‘son’ has such associations. But the use of the term Logos precludes those associations since a spoken word proceeds from the mind timelessly and without change” (p. 246). But Basil also sees another reason for the choice of “Word.” The divine Word perfectly images “his begetter, showing in himself the whole of the begetter, not divided from him in any way and existing perfect in himself, just as our word also reflects the whole of our thought” (Verb. 3). Basil joins the eternal Logos with the long-standing confession of the Son as the Imago Dei. “So then,” Basil concludes, “he said Word so that he could communicate to you the Father’s passionless begetting and teach you the theology of the perfect existence of the Son, and through these demonstrate the Son’s non-temporal conjunction with the Father” (Verb. 3).

“and the Word was with God …”

So where was this Word “before” the beginning? “With God” … but not as in a place.

For that which is uncircumscribed is not contained in a place. … The Father is infinite and the Son is infinite. Whatever place you can conceive of, wherever you can go in your spirit, you will find it filled with God, and everywhere you will find the co-extensive subsistence of the Son.” (Verb. 4)

Just as we cannot think of the eternal Creator as existing in time, so we cannot think of him as existing in space.  The Son shares in the omnipresence of God: every locatable place is filled—wholly, completely, indivisibly, perfectly—with God and his Word.

The preposition “with” also suggests the Son’s distinct subsistence. If John had instead used “in,” Marcellus and his followers might have invoked the verse to support their “claim that Father and Son and Holy Spirit are a single subject” (Verb. 4). But the Apostle snatches away the future distortions of the modalists and teaches us that the Word cannot be collapsed into the one person of the Father. The Son enjoys an eternal and distinct existence.

”the Word was God. This one was in the beginning with God.”

With these words the Apostle John sums up his entire theology of the Only-Begotten. Who is this one? This one is the Word of God.

Basil then takes a curious introspective turn:

After articulating to you how to think about him, as if impressing upon your soul what you did not know through his teaching and causing Christ the Word to dwell in your heart, he says: This one. What is this one? Do not look outside yourself, searching for what the demonstrative pronoun indicates, but enter into the hidden recesses of your own soul. There once you have identified and marveled at the God whom you have learned was in the beginning, who proceeded as Word, who is with God, once you have worshipped your own Master who dwells in you through this teaching, realize that this one was in the beginning, that is, he is always with God his Father. (Verb. 4)

I confess I do not understand how this works. Is it because I do not live in a Neo-Platonist world, or because I’m not a contemplative? I don’t think I’ve ever advised someone, Descend into your heart if you wish to confirm the equal divinity of the Son and refute trinitarian heresies. St Basil interprets the Johannine Prologue as theologia, yet would not the Evangelist counsel his readers to read his gospel if they want to know the identity of the Word of whom the Prologue speaks? There is no Logos asarkos. Not now. Not for us. There is now only the Word made flesh—the Christ baptized by John, crucified under Pontius Pilate, risen on the third day. Thomas F. Torrance speaks truly of the pastoral significance of Logos ensarkos:

Here we have to do with a theological principle which is of immense importance in pastoral care. How often people have said to me: ‘Will God really turn out to be what we believe him to be in Jesus Christ?’ That is a question I have been asked on the battle field by a young man who had barely half an hour to live: ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ Questions like that which gnaw at the back of people’s minds but which they suppress and which come to the surface only in moments of sharp crisis and hurt, tell us of the insidious damage done to people’s faith by dualist habits of thought which drive a wedge between Jesus and God. Fearful anxiety arises in the human heart when people cannot connect Jesus up in their faith or understanding with the ultimate Being of God, for then the ultimate Being of God can be to them only a dark, inscrutable, arbitrary Deity whom they inevitably think of with terror for their guilty conscience makes them paint harsh angry streaks upon his face. It is quite different when the face of Jesus is identical with the face of God. (The Mediation of Christ, p. 70)

Or as Jesus himself declared, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:9). Hence I am suspicious of attempts, theological and ascetical, to bypass the sacred humanity of Christ in order to encounter the pure Trinity. But perhaps the Bishop of Caesarea presupposes the spiritual internalization in his hearers of the Johannine story of the incarnate Word and is simply inviting his flock to rediscover through prayer the One who indwells their hearts. Or perhaps Basil believes that the dynamics of human consciousness analogically reveals, as Augustine believed, the trinitarian structure of the Creator. I do not know.

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3 Responses to St Basil the Great: Homily on the Beginning of the Gospel of John

  1. Agni Ashwin says:

    David Hart explains this is why God is ‘consciousness’ (‘in the heart, in silence’) and can be found via contemplative prayer.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I certainly do not question the various forms of contemplative (quite the contrary); but I question whether one will find the Trinity through contemplation, without any formation in the biblical story and the teaching of the Church. One may find God, as have so many throughout the world (as Hart suggests); but will one find the Father, Son, and Spirit? This raises the question: Is there such a thing as a pure, preconceptual religious experience, independent of belief and culture? If St Basil found the Trinity in his contemplative prayer, was this not partially because he was already instructed in the Christian faith?

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I woke up with this question: Is it possible that Basil believed that human consciousness has a trinitarian structure that reveals or confirms the trinitarian being of God? After all, he has already compared the God/Word relationship to the human mind/word relationship. I then recalled that David Hart argues for something along these lines with regard to Gregory of Nyssa: “The Mirror of the Infinite: Gregory of Nyssa on the Vestigia Trinitatis.”

    If true, that would make sense of the passage that I find so difficult.

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