St Basil the Great: Homily Against the Sabellians et Alios (part 3)

Having spent half of his homily addressing the two defining trinitarian heresies, Sabellianism and Heterousianism, St Basil knows it’s time to change topics.  The tell-tale signs are universal and timeless: people start fidgeting, they walk around and gossip with their neighbors, they are constantly looking at their wristdials, they drum their fingers on the icons—and of course there’s the snoring.

One can almost feel Basil’s exasperation when he exclaims: “For quite some time now I have realized that what I am saying bores you” (Sab. 4). They have heard all this Nicene preaching on the eternal Son many times before. So what do the brethren want their bishop to preach on? The Holy Spirit! Alas, they are not asking him to teach them how they may grow in the Spirit. Would that were the case, Basil would no doubt have said. Rather, they want him to wade into the heated debates swirling around the Spirit’s divinity. Is he or ain’t he?

Basil devotes the remainder of his homily to the person of the Spirit. Though he will not explicitly name the Spirit “God,” he does want his flock to know that the Spirit is fully divine. He is not a creature. If he were, the risen Lord would not have named him alongside himself and his Father: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19). “If the Spirit were foreign in nature,” Basil asks, “how could he be numbered with them? And if he were added to the Father and Son later in time, how could he be ranked with the eternal nature?” (Sab. 5). In Basil’s mind it is obvious that the Son and Spirit are associated with the Father in the baptismal mandate precisely because they share equally in the divine nature of the Father. If the Spirit is a creature, then why not simply name all creatures along with the Father and Son? One can imagine Basil’s amusement:

Those who separate the Spirit from the Father and Son and number him with the created order render baptism incomplete and the confession of faith defective. For the Trinity does not remain the Trinity when the Spirit is subtracted. Then again, if one of the creatures were added, all creation will enter into the connumeration of the Father and Son. For what would hinder anyone from saying: “We believe in the Father and Son and in the entire creation?” After all, if it were pious to believe in a part of creation, then perhaps it would be even more devout to include all creation in the confession! By believing in all creation, you believe not only in the angels and the ministering spirits, but also in whatever adversarial powers there may be. Since these two are part of creation, you also assent to these being in the faith. Thus the blasphemy against the Spirit leads you into impious and wicked teachings. (Sab. 5)

Basil thus raises the stakes. To confess the Holy Spirit a creature amounts to nothing less than the unforgivable sin against the Spirit and evidences the Spirit’s abandonment. The divinity of the Spirit is not a theologoumenon upon which Christians may amicably disagree. “Let the tradition shame you,” he tells his people,” into not separating the Holy Spirit from the Father and Son. This is what the Lord taught, the Apostles preached, the Fathers preserved, the Martyrs confirmed” (Sab. 6). Basil firmly denies any suggestion that he has departed from the received tradition. He is, of course, well aware that the biblical attestation to the Spirit’s divinity and distinct personhood may not be as obvious as some would like, yet he is convinced that when the Scriptures are properly interpreted, the matter is clear—indeed, dogmatically so.

To his church, and to all churches, the bishop of Caesarea proclaims the catholic faith:

There exists the Father with perfect being, self-sufficient, and the root and source of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. There exists the Son, living Word in full divinity and the self-sufficient offspring begotten of the Father. Full too is the Spirit, not part of another, but considered perfect and complete in himself. In addition, the Son is inseparably conjoined to the Father and the Spirit to the Son. For nothing separates them, nor does anything sever their eternal conjunction. No age intrudes between them, not indeed does our soul admit the concept of separation, as if either the Only-Begotten were not always together with the Father or the Holy Spirit were not co-existent with the Son. (Sab. 4)

Basil has no biblical term by which to speak of the Spirit’s procession from the Father. The New Testament had provided a term for the Son’s eternal origin (“begotten”), but it had not provided an analogous term for the Spirit’s origin: “Even though all are said to be from God, nonetheless the Son is from God and the Spirit from God in the proper sense. For the Son comes forth from the Father and the Spirit proceeds from the Father. But while the Son is from the Father in a begotten way, the Spirit is from God in a way that cannot be explained” (Sab. 7). St Gregory the Theologian would later innovatively designate the Spirit as “the One who Proceeds.”

Addressing those in his congregation who still deny the Spirit’s full divinity, Basil concludes his homily with words I have never dared to speak from the pulpit: “You are so stupid that not even by the term [“divinity”] itself can you be brought to worthy notions about the Spirit” (Sab. 7).  Modern preachers might want to avoid this particular rhetorical strategy.

(Return to part 1)

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