St Basil the Great and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit

“I neither chose to name the Holy Spirit God nor dare to call him a creature,” declared Eustathius of Sebaste in response to the Neo-Arian denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. At first glance, Eustathius’s ambivalence seems reasonable. After all, where in the Holy Scriptures is the Spirit explicitly stated to be fully divine? Where in the Scriptures is the Spirit said to be God? Is it not best to maintain a position of agnosticism, neither identifying the Spirit as a creature nor affirming him as consubstantial with the Father?

But Eustathius’s fence-sitting did not sit well with St Basil the Great. He viewed this equivocation as simply a soft version of Arian subordinationism, now applied to the person of the Holy Spirit. He called all who refused to affirm the divinity of the Spirit Pneumatomachoi, “fighters against the Spirit.” In response to this heresy, St Basil composed perhaps his most and influential famous tract.

It’s been well over twenty years since I read On the Holy Spirit, but after reading through the Five Theological Orations of St Gregory Nazianzen a few months ago, I thought it might be helpful for me to revisit this book and to compare the respective arguments of these two great saints of the Church. Both were strong supporters of the trinitarian faith as confessed by the Council of Nicaea (though Basil long had reservations about the Nicene confession that the Son is homoousios with the Father, preferring instead the assertion that the Son is of similar substance to the Father). Both were outspoken opponents of the Pneumatomachoi. Both understood that ontological subordination of the Spirit undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Basil’s decisive argument that runs throughout On the Holy Spirit might be described as the denial of the middle ground: there is the uncreated Deity, and there is everything he has created from out of nothing. There are no demigods, no semi-divine intermediaries between God and cosmos; there are no degrees of divinity. There is only God and the world (spiritual and material). The radical biblical distinction between Creator and creature is fully embraced and assimilated. The only question therefore is: on what side of the ontological line do we locate the Holy Spirit? Basil’s answer is clear: the Holy Spirit is divine; he is not a creature. “The Lord has delivered to us a necessary and saving dogma,” he declares: “the Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father” (10.25).

The Bishop of Caeasarea marshals a host of biblical, theological, and liturgical arguments to support his basic thesis. I cannot begin to summarize all of them. But for me personally the most compelling is this: it is only in and by the Spirit that we can confess and worship the Father and the Son:

If we are illumined by divine power, and fix our eyes on the beauty of the image of the invisible God, and through the image are led up to the indescribable beauty of its source, it is because we have been inseparably joined to the Spirit of knowledge. He gives those who love the vision of truth the power which enables them to see the image, and this power is Himself. He does not reveal it to them from outside sources, but leads them to knowledge personally, “No one knows the Father except the Son,” and “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Notice that it does not say through the Spirit, but in the Spirit. It also says, “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth,” and “in Thy light do we see light,” through the illumination of the Holy Spirit, “the true light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.” He reveals the glory of the Only-Begotten in Himself, and He gives true worshippers the knowledge of God in Himself. The way to divine knowledge ascends from one Spirit through the one Son to the one Father. (18.47)

It is only in God and through God that we can know God. It is only in the divine light that we can see the divine light. Our knowledge of divinity enjoys a trinitarian structure: the Father is revealed through the incarnate Son in and by the illumination and transformative presence of the Holy Spirit.

We learn that just as the Father is made visible in the Son, so also the Son is recognized in the Spirit. To worship in the Spirit implies that our intelligence has been enlightened. Consider the words spoken to the Samaritan woman. She was deceived by local custom into believing that worship could only be offered in a specific place, but the Lord, attempting to correct her, said that worship ought to be offered in Spirit and in truth. By truth He clearly meant Himself. If we say that worship offered in the Son (the Truth) is worship offered in the Father’s image, we can say that same about worship offered in the Spirit since the Spirit in Himself reveals the divinity of the Lord. The Holy Spirit cannot be divided from the Father and the Son in worship. If you remain outside the Spirit, you cannot worship at all, and if you are in Him you cannot separate Him from God. Light cannot be separated from what it makes visible, and it is impossible for you to recognize Christ, the Image of the invisible God, unless the Spirit enlightens you. Once you see the Image, you cannot ignore the light; you see the Light and Image simultaneously. It is fitting that when we see Christ, the Brightness of God’s glory, it is always through the illumination of the Spirit. Through Christ the Image, may we be led to the Father, for He bears the seal of the Father’s very likeness. (26.64)

This is an argument that Gregory of Nazianzus will powerfully employ in his defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit: in his Light we see Light.

To deny the divinity of the Spirit, or even to equivocate, as the Pneumatomachoi were doing, is to ultimately deny the gospel and the gift of salvation in Jesus Christ:

I swear to every man who confesses Christ but denies the Father: Christ will profit him nothing. If a man calls upon God, but rejects the Son, his faith is empty. If someone rejects the Spirit, his faith in the Father and the Son is made useless; it is impossible to believe in the Father and the Son without the presence of the Spirit. He who rejects the Spirit rejects the Son, and he who rejects the Son rejects the Father. “No on can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit,” and “no one has ever seen God; the only-begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” Such a person has no part in true worship. It is impossible to worship the Son except in the Holy Spirit; it is impossible to call upon the Father except in the Spirit of adoption. (11.27)

Precisely because the Father, Son, and Spirit are inseparable in this way, all suggestions that the Spirit does not share in or possess the essence of the Father are excluded. “But the Spirit is organically united with God,” St Basil explains, “not because of the needs of each moment, but through communion in the divine nature” (13.20). Not three Gods, of course. There is one God, the Father Almighty. There is one only begotten Son. And there is one Holy Spirit. Whichever divine hypostasis we contemplate, we see only the one God: “The Spirit is one, and we speak of Him as unique, since through the one Son He is joined to the Father. He completes the all-praised and blessed Trinity. He is not ranked with the plurality of creation, but is described in the singular; this is sufficient evidence of His intimacy with the Father and the Son. He is not one of many but one only: just as there is one Father and one Son, there is one Holy Spirit” (18.45). (I am struck by the clause “since through the one Son He is joined to the Father.” I wonder precisely what this means.)

The Father is God. The Son is God. And the Spirit is … divine. St Basil balks at explicitly naming the Spirit “God.” He prefers to remain within the modesty of biblical usage. But perhaps another dynamic is at work here, namely, the monarchy of the Father. John Behr explains:

For the Christian faith there is, unequivocally, but one God, and that is the Father: “There is one God and Father.” For Basil, the one God is not the one divine substance, or a notion of “divinity” which is ascribed to each person of the Trinity, nor is it some kind of unity or communion in which they all exist; the one God is the Father. But this “monarchy” of the Father does not undermine the confession of the true divinity of the Son and the Spirit. Jesus Christ is certainly “true God of true God,” as the Nicene Creed puts it, but he is such as the Son of God, the God who is thus the Father. If the term “God” (theos) is used of Jesus Christ, not only as a predicate, but also as a proper noun with an article, this is only done on the prior confession of him as “Son of God,” and so as other than “the one God” of whom he is the Son; it is necessary to bear in mind this order of Christian theology, lest it collapse in confusion. Basil … followed Scripture in not applying the term “God” to the Holy Spirit, preferring instead the word “divine,” but he is nevertheless clear that the Spirit must belong together with the Father and the Son rather than among created things. (The Nicene Faith, II:307-308)

St Basil’s restraint at this point, however, eventually became a point of contention between him and his old friend from Cappadocia. St Gregory saw that ultimate victory over Arianism required the categorical naming of the Spirit as God and the confession of the consubstantiality of the Spirit with the Father. In his Theological Orations he will break with Basil and make the affirmation that the Church catholic subsequently made her own: the Holy Spirit is God.

(30 November 2012; mildly edited)

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3 Responses to St Basil the Great and the Divinity of the Holy Spirit

  1. What an absolutely outstanding summary!


  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    There is something odd about the Pentecost icon I chose. I would not have noticed until it was pointed out. Can you see the peculiarity?


  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.


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