St Basil of Caesarea: A Short Course in the Trinity

Scholars are unable to date St Basil of Caesarea’s homily On Faith (De fide) with much accuracy. It appears to have been composed sometime between 365 and 375, with 372-375 being the most likely years, given the attention given to the person of the Spirit. The fourth century was a time of contentious debate about the nature of the Christian God, yet the homily is restrained, sober, and free from excessive polemic. On Faith, Mark DelCogliano writes, “is one of the classic expressions of [Basil’s] Trinitarian doctrine” (On Christian Doctrine and Practice, p. 227). Given its brevity and the absence of technical vocabulary, the homily would be a good piece to put into the hands of someone who wants to know more about the Eastern approach to the doctrine of the Trinity.

“It is audacious to expound upon God in speech,” begins Basil (Fide 1). The human mind has become alienated from divine realities, yet human conceptuality is even less up to the task. The experience of the saints have taught us that the more a person advances in the knowledge of God, the more he realizes his incapacity to speak accurately of God. But we cannot remain silent, for the Church is eager to hear the Word preached and taught.

Basil describes the ascent to God through a process of negative contemplation. We must liberate our thoughts from corporeality and temporality and raise our souls to the One who utterly transcends the cosmos:

Now if you want to say or hear something about God, break free from your body, break free from your sense perceptions, leave behind the earth, leave behind the sea, rise above the air, fly past the hours of day, the cycles of the seasons, the rhythms of the earth, climb above the aether, pass beyond the stars, their marvels, their harmonious order, their immense size, the benefits they supply to all, their good arrangement, their splendor, their position, their motion, their constellations and oppositions. Once you have passed beyond all things in your thoughts, transcended the heaven, and risen above it, behold the beauty there with your mind alone: the heavenly armies, the choirs of angels, the dignities or archangels, the glories of the dominions, the preeminence of the thrones, the powers, the principalities, the authorities. Once you have flown past all these things, transcended the entire created order in your thoughts, and raised your intellect far beyond these, contemplate the divine nature: permanent, immutable, inalterable, impassible, simple, incomposite, indivisible, unapproachable light, ineffable power, uncircumscribed greatness, supereminent glory, desirable goodness, extraordinary beauty that ravishes the soul pierced by it but that cannot be worthily expressed in speech. (Fide 1)

Basil begins his theological reflection with the apophatic apprehension of God. The Creator is not to be identified with any being or object in his creation. He is not bound to matter nor constrained by the passage of time. This process of negation is more than just an intellectual exercise. Basil speaks of encountering an ineffable beauty and glory that ravishes the soul. As much as we may purify our hearts and elevate our minds, God remains free in his gracious self-communication:  God reveals himself, at a time and place of his own choosing.

But while one might think that the process of denial would lead to a state of utter unknowing, Basil also speaks of encountering the Holy Trinity: “There we find Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the uncreated nature, the lordly dignity, the natural goodness” (Fide 2). Basil has not left the economy of salvation totally behind, despite his apophatic methodology. The trinitarian God revealed to Basil in the economy is the same God Basil now contemplates in his incomprehensible transcendence. Basil, in other words, is engaged in theologia: “In discussing the ‘Cappadocians,'” explains Lewis Ayres, “much is often made of the distinction between θεολογία and οικονόμια. Some caution is required here. Basil generally uses θεολογία of a mode of insight into the nature of God that comes as a result of an ability to see beyond material reality, or beyond the material-sounding phraseology of some scriptural passages” (Nicaea and Its Legacy, p. 220).

Basil then describes for us the identities of the Father and Son and their mutual relations:

The Father is the principle of all, the cause of being for whatever exists, the root of the living. From him proceeded the source of life; the wisdom, the power, and the indistinguishable image of the invisible God; the Son who was begotten from the Father; the living Word; he who is both God and with God; he who is, not adventitious; he who exists before the ages, not a late acquisition; he who is Son, not something possessed; he who is Maker, not something made; he who is Creator, not a creature; who is everything that the Father is. (Fide 2)

Basil asserts the Monarchy of the Father. The Father generates the Son, yet the Son is not a creature, for he eternally possesses “everything that the Father is.” He is both God and with God. He does not receive his existence as creatures receive their existence. “The Son possesses the dignity of the Father’s divinity on account of their community in nature,” explains Basil; hence “he naturally possesses what belongs to the Father; as Only-Begotten, he contains within himself all that is the Father’s, with none of it being passed down to another” (Fide 2). Here is the deepest meaning of the divine Sonship:

Therefore, the very designation “Son” teaches us that he shares in the nature [of the Father], not created by a command but having shone forth from the Father’s substance and been conjoined to him instantaneously beyond all time, his equal in goodness, his equal in power, sharing in his glory. And indeed what is he but the seal and image that reveals within himself the whole Father? (Fide 2)

Creatures are created by divine command through a decision of will: God speaks the world into being from out of nothing. But the generation of the Son is an eternal act that, in a sense, happens in God. The Son radiates from the Father’s substance. This is an allusion to the phrasing found in the 325 Creed of Nicaea, in which Christ is confessed as begotten “of the substance of the Father.” This phrase was not included in the 381 Creed of Constantinople; but its presence here in Basil’s homily calls into question the claim of John Zizioulas that it was intentionally omitted by the Council Fathers for important theological reasons. Zizioulas interprets Basil as innovatively exalting person over substance, of taking the first decisive step to a personalist ontology, yet one wonders whether this construal is more modern than patristic:

“[Zizioulas] argues that in Basil’s theology for the first time all things originate from a ‘person’, and ‘person’ is now the fullest expression of existence. Zizioulas’s proposal quickly falls apart in the face of the evidence. While it is true to say that Basil sees the person of the Father as the source of all, insistence on the incomprehensibility of what it means for the Father to be a ‘person’ means that this statement entails only that the universe is the product of a willed agency. Jews and Christians prior to the fourth century would have happily agreed. Similarly, the fact that the world is the product of a ‘person’ does not entail that ‘being’ is necessarily ‘personal’. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa develop accounts of creation in which the basic units are indivisible natures constituted by intrinsic powers, without any sense that these are ‘personal realities’. We do not find, then, the Cappadocians attempting to construct a Christian ontology based on the primary reality of the person over against non-Christian ontologies. (Ayres, p. 313)

Just as the purified mind encounters the Father and Son in the eternal transcendence, so it also encounters with them the Holy Spirit. “He too has everything essentially by nature,” states Basil: “goodness, uprightness, holiness, life. … There now stands the Spirit—there, in that blessed nature—not counted with the multitude, but contemplated in the Trinity. He is proclaimed in the singular, not included among the creatures. For as the Father is one and the Son is one, so too the Holy Spirit is one” (Fide 3).

The Spirit possesses the identical attributes of the Godhead and shares in its divine simplicity. He is one and indivisible, just as the Father and Son each is one. Perhaps most strikingly, Basil speaks of the Spirit in its divine capacity for undiminished giving:

The Spirit fills angels, fills archangels, sanctifies the powers, gives life to all things. The Spirit, though divided among all creatures and participated in by the different ones in different ways, is yet not at all diminished by those who participate in him. Though he bestows his grace on all, yet he is not expended among those who participate in him. On the contrary, those who receive him are filled while he loses nothing. Indeed, just as the sun, though it shines on various bodies and is participated in by these bodies in various ways, and yet is not dimmed by those bodies which participate in it, so too the Spirit bestows his own grace on all while remaining undiminished and undivided. (Fide 3)

The Spirit, in his own person and authority, bestows himself upon creation, each finite being participating in him in the ways appropriate to itself. The Spirit bestows the whole of himself, not a part, yet he is never diminished by this self-giving. If I give you five dollars, my gift both changes you (you are now five dollars richer) and diminishes me (I am five dollars poorer). Not so with the Holy Spirit. He gives himself without depletion or loss (see the discussion in Andrew Radde-Gallwitz, Basil of Caesarea, pp. 104-105).

The divinity and personhood of the Spirit were much debated around this time. Basil was being pulled in two opposite directions by two close friends. On the one hand, St Gregory the Theologian argued that the Church needed to affirm the full consubstantiality of the Spirit in order to ensure her soteriological message; on the other hand, Eustathius of Sebaste maintaianed that the Spirit is best understood as sanctifying gift, neither God nor creature (see Michael Haykin, “Defending the Holy Spirit’s Deity”). Basil refrained from naming the Spirit “God” (to Gregory’s disappointment and frustration); but he clearly and decisively located the Spirit on the divine side of the Creator/creature divide. Basil’s restraint was continued in the written text of the creed adopted by the Second Ecumenical Council; but the Theologian’s conviction that the Spirit is homoousios with the Father ultimately won the heart of the Church.

(2 January 2014; mildly edited)

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