On Not Three Gods (Adversus eos qui per calumniam dicunt dici a nobis deos tres)—it’s a curious homily and perhaps not a successful one. St Basil, bishop of Caesarea, has been denounced for preaching tritheism. He takes advantage of a festival commemorating unnamed martyrs to respond to the accusation. The feast had been instituted by his predecessors to foster love and fellowship; yet the gathered assembly, Basil declares, is filled with spies primarily interested in finding polemical ammunition to use against him, thus violating the spirit and rationale of their celebration.
Basil feels the accusation keenly. The charge is serious, as it effectively claims that Basil has embraced the very polytheism from which the gospel has delivered the faithful. If not three gods, why not four or eight or twelve? If by preaching the Holy Trinity Basil is guilty of polytheism, then blame Jesus. He was the One who commanded the Church to baptize in the trinitarian Name:
Do you not realize that you impugn the Lord? Who bequeathed to us that we are to baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit? Did I, or did the Master? Whose words are these? The one who proclaimed them or the one whom he commissioned? Why do you find me liable to these calumnies of yours when I repeat this confession. Do you not realize that by attacking me you impugn the truth?” (Trin. 3)
But Basil’s opponents would no doubt reply that they do not attack him because he baptizes in the trinitarian Name but because of his heretical interpretation of the Name.
Basil insists that he proclaims the one Lordship of both the Father and the Son: “Even if I name the Son ‘Lord,’ I do not dole out the lordship to two lords or to many gods. The Father is Lord; the Son is Lord,” just as there is one faith and one baptism (Trin. 3).
As it stands, this is hardly a cogent argument. Repeating the word “one” does not rebut the charge of polytheism. Basil’s exposition in On the Holy Spirit is more persuasive, for example (see “The Stupid Arithmetic of the Trinity”). What is needed is the clear distinction between ousia and hypostasis (see “Search for Hypostasis“). This distinction is implied in Basil’s iteration of the one Lordship of the Father and Son. Depending on the dating of the homily, Basil either had not yet clearly defined the distinction or, for whatever reasons, chose not to employ it in his argument.
Basil then moves on to the Holy Spirit. Apparently it is precisely his denial of the creaturehood of the Spirit that has unleashed the accusation of tritheism: “If I do not denigrate the Spirit, nor place him in the category of those who serve, then for this reason I become the object of your calumnies” (Trin. 3). Mark DelCogliano infers from this statement that the accusations are being advanced by Eustathius of Sebaste (“Basil of Caesarea’s Homily On Not Three Gods”). If this is so, then Eustathius has chosen an odd way to attack Basil. Though Eustathius denied the divinity of the Spirit, he publicly affirmed the Nicene consubtantiality of the Father and the Son. Hence for Eustathius to accuse Basil of tritheism is to leave himself open to the charge of binitarianism. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. As St Gregory of Nazianzus would later ask his Pneumatomachian opponents, “Though you are in revolt from the Spirit, you worship the Son. What right have you to accuse us of tritheism—are you not ditheists?” (Or. 31.13).