Not many people are known as so-and-so “the Great.” But St. Basil the Great was one of the finest thinkers, writers, and preachers in Christian church history. What did this man believe, and what did he ultimately contribute to historic Christianity? Here’s your crash course on the life and accomplishments of St. Basil the Great—and why he still matters today.
Who Was St. Basil?
St. Basil the Great (c. 329–379) was born in Caesarea Mazaca, Cappadocia, to one of the most distinguished and pious Christian families. Along with Basil, the Orthodox and Catholic churches subsequently honored a number of his family members with sainthood. Basil received a notable Christian and classical education in the famous ancient cities of Athens and Constantinople. Basil, along with his brother Gregory of Nyssa and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, made up the theologically potent threesome known as the Cappadocian Fathers. Later serving as the bishop of Caesarea and being one of the architects of ancient Christian monasticism, Basil is honored as a doctor in both churches, East and West. St. Basil the Great suffered ill health, likely due to his ascetic practices, and died at approximately 50 years old.
What Did St. Basil Write?
St. Basil the Great was a prolific author of antiquity. Though he wrote in the fourth century, some 300 of his letters have survived through the centuries. He also wrote a number of books, including three with specific apologetics significance. First, his treatise On the Holy Spirit (Latin: De Spiritu Sancto) develops and defends the full deity of the Spirit of God as the third member of the Trinity. Second, his Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius defends the deity of the Son (Jesus Christ) against an advocate of the Arian heresy (the view that the Son was a creature). Third, his Hexaemeron (a name derived from the Greek roots for “six days”) expounds upon the six creation days of Genesis.
What Did St. Basil Believe?
St. Basil the Great affirmed the truth of historic Christianity, and the following are perhaps his three most important Christian apologetics contributions:
- Along with the two Gregorys, Basil generally developed and defended the implications of the doctrine of the Trinity, arguing for “three persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia).”
- Basil specifically explained and defended the deity of both the Son and the Holy Spirit as the second and third members of the Trinity against the Arian and Apollinarian heresies which helped shape the theology represented at the Council of Constantinople (AD 381).
- Basil affirmed and contributed to the growing Trinitarian liturgy of the Eastern Orthodox Church and served as a preacher and teacher of the faith.
While some have criticized Basil and his fellow Cappadocian Fathers for using theological language that seemed to veer toward tritheism (three gods), the three theologians consciously rejected tritheism and sought to defend the belief that there is only one God who exists as three distinct persons.1 St. Basil the Great is mutually respected in both Eastern and Western Christendom for his important theological and apologetics work.
Why Does St. Basil Matter Today?
St. Basil the Great is relevant today because most Western Christians know very little about the Eastern Orthodox Church, and St. Basil helped develop the theology of that tradition—particularly as it relates to the doctrine of the Trinity. Furthermore, in St. Basil’s shaping of monastic life, he helped found Christian charitable institutions such as hospitals, orphanages, and old-age homes. So when contemporary Christians care for the poor and the sick, they are carrying on a tradition from the ancient Christians.
Other articles in the Christian Thinkers 101 series: St. Augustine; C. S. Lewis; Blaise Pascal; St. Anselm; St. Athanasius; St. Thomas Aquinas; Jonathan Edwards; Søren Kierkegaard; St. Bonaventure; Martin Luther; John Calvin; Irenaeus; Tertullian
Reflections: Your Turn
Can you give a clear and careful definition of the doctrine of the Trinity? Why is the Trinity so important to us as Christians?
- For a summary of St. Basil and the Cappadocian Fathers’ accomplishments, see A Concise History of Christian Thought by Tony Lane.
- Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 38.