Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Basil

st-basil-the-great-3Not 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.

CRASH COURSE- BASIL

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:

  1. 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).”
  2. 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).
  3. 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?

Resources

  • For a summary of St. Basil and the Cappadocian Fathers’ accomplishments, see A Concise History of Christian Thought by Tony Lane.

Endnotes

  1. Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 38.

  One thought on “Christian Thinkers 101: A Crash Course on St. Basil

  1. October 18, 2016 at 7:08 am

    Thanks for another excellent post in this series.

    • October 18, 2016 at 4:18 pm

      Thanks, JW.

      Ken Samples

  2. October 18, 2016 at 8:16 am

    Yay for St. Basil! Amazing family. His mother Emmilia had 10 kids, 5 were “sainted” as was she and her husband. Super example of godly living in those days. I wrote a novel about their fictional descendants who own a Trunk of Scripture Scrolls set aside by Basil and Gregory. Novel just came out this week. Discusses the idea of whether we should “follow the path” left before us by godly men and women of faith or if we should forge our own path in the “modern” world. I hope you enjoy it. May it draw everyone who reads it closer to the Christ who lived and died for us in this mucky battlefield we call earth. Glad to read this article about Basil.

    Trunk of Scrolls by Darlene N. Bocek on Amazon at http://bit.ly/TrunkOfScrolls (paperback also available here: http://bit.ly/TOSsales)

    • October 18, 2016 at 4:22 pm

      Darlene:

      Thanks for your comments.

      I’ll look for your novel.

      Ken Samples

      • October 19, 2016 at 1:51 am

        May it be a blessing.

  3. October 18, 2016 at 12:19 pm

    Thanks again Ken for your Crash Courses on the great minds of history that God has used to advance the spread of His Gospel. Here’s my attempt at your invitation for comments on the deep and rich topic of the Trinity:
    God as three Persons in one perfect self-existing entity is an eternal mystery that we as finite creatures will never fully comprehend, but to try to illustrate it I compare it to our own mind, body, and emotion. Each component of ourselves feeds off the other as we plan and experience our lives. We use our mind to decide what to do (Father), our body executes the plan and completes it (Son), and our emotion provides the energy and feedback on the results (Spirit).
    God as a Trinity is essential to our existence and to our reconciliation to Him. God in eternity past overflowed with love within His three Persons, moving Him to create a physical arena where each Person could perform love for and to each other Person. He created this universe and then us in His image — with will, body, and emotion — to live in it with the capacity to choose to love Him or ourselves. But our freewill inevitably led to rejection and disobedience against God’s infinite perfection, and therefore we deserve infinite punishment, and only an infinite being (Christ the Son) could stand in our place to bear that righteous judgment, and provide for our re-entry into God’s direct presence. So then, our gratitude and love for our Savior is the Father’s gift to the Son, who uses the Spirit to bring us through faith in the Son back to the Father’s love where we can live forever.

    • October 18, 2016 at 4:25 pm

      MFD:

      Thank you for reading my article and for your reflections on the Trinity.

      Ken Samples

  4. Rita Gorski
    October 25, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Clear and careful definition? Wow – not too much to ask! Here is my humble stab at it (and hope I don’t express some heresy within it): God is an eternal being with covenantal intentional loving relationship within himself that, in a sense, has to have been expressed in three distinct persons to accomplish his intentions in creating and saving man from himself. Why important to Christians? He expresses Himself thusly in Scripture so it’s beholden to us to believe it, and I don’t know how Jesus could be our Savior/Lord, Holy Spirit as Counselor/Advocate/our Guide to all truth, without them being also being God in the Trinity. That work could only be done as God.

    Thank you for helping us stretch our brain muscles! Will you give us your definition?

    • October 25, 2016 at 12:35 pm

      Thank you, Rita.

      I appreciate your theological thoughts.

      Ken Samples

  5. December 1, 2016 at 11:15 am

    Reblogged this on Is Christianity True?.

    • December 1, 2016 at 12:29 pm

      Thanks, Steve.

      Ken Samples

  6. December 1, 2016 at 9:47 pm

    I came across this quote by Philip Melanchthon, the man who took up where Martin Luther left off. It’s his written exhortation to himself at the door of death, as to why he should welcome it:

    “Negative: You will depart from sins. You will be freed from tribulations, and from the mad rage of theologians.
    Positive: You will come into the light. You will see God. You will behold the Son of God. You will learn those wondrous secrets which you were not able to understand in this life: why we were created as we were; what the union of the two natures in Christ is.”

    I think the Trinity is one of those boggling questions. But we can’t know for sure if we will even ever understand the ins and outs of it. In Turkey we often have people struggling with the concept, not understanding how it could be, or HOW it could be. Then, as if God untied the knot in their head, they come with a smile and say, “I got it. I can’t explain it, but I get it.” Faith in God means the character of God explains the mysteries. His character makes it make sense though the logistics aren’t quite dot-to-dot.

    Like when Thomas fell to Jesus’ feet, “My Lord and my God.” Or Peter, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Though the dual-nature of Christ is a different can of worms, it also holds the essence of the unique PERSONhood of each member of the Trinity.

    I’m not at all for “just-believism” about the Trinity. But I do recognize that God explains himself to his people in a satisfactory way “in ways that words cannot express.” And until he does that to the satisfaction of our soul and mind we cannot accept the Trinity.

    • December 2, 2016 at 9:35 am

      Darlene:

      Thank you for the quote from Melanchthon. Nice.

      A also appreciate your insightful comments about the mystery of the Trinity. Very good.

      Best regards in the Triune God.

      Ken Samples

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