ST BASIL THE GREAT OF CAESAREA
The three great lights who are so often referred to as the Three Cappadocians are Basil the Great of Caesarea, his friend Gregory of Nazianzus, and his own brother, Gregory of Nyssa. Basil the Great is the senior venerable member among them. He was the first ascetic leader of the Eastern (Greek) Church tradition. Also called Second Athanasius, he proved his personality not only in the ascetic movement but also in the realms of Church administration and theology.
Basil was one among the ten children of a rich family of Caesarea in Cappadocia around AD 330. His father, Baselius, was known, as a scholar and eminent writer throughout Cappadocea. His mother Emmelia was the daughter of a martyr. Of the ten children in the family, three became bishops: Basil himself, made bishop of Caesarea in 370, Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, and Peter, bishop of Sebasty. The eldest sister Macarena became a nun and started a nunnery.
As a student in Athens, Basil first met Gregory of Nazianzus, joining with him in a friendship so close that in his eulogy to Basil in 381 AD, Gregory said that they were one soul with two bodies. In 359, he became a monk. He traveled through Syria and Egypt to study the life of monks. He came back, sold his property and other belongings and gave the money to the poor. He started a hermitage on the bank of the river Iris. It was a delectable piece of land. The number of hermits gradually increased and Basil formulated a few rules for them. During this time, Gregory of Nazianzus visited him and together they codified Origen’s Spiritual exhortations under the title Philokalia. They also reformed and enlarged the rules for monks. By this time, Eusebius (not the historian Eusebius) of Caesarea heard about Basil and invited him to be his assistant. Basil agreed. Eusebius ordained him as a priest and gave him the responsibility of the diocesan administration. Basil was to him a good councilor, a skillful helper, an expounder of the Scriptures and interpreter of his duties.
After the death of Eusebius, Basil became the bishop of Caesarea. As the Metropolitan, he assumed the charge of administration of Caesarea and the whole of Pontus. Basil emphasized two things in administration: – protection of true faith and social activities. He fought against Arius’ heresy, Macedonianism and Apollinarianism. He found many abuses to be corrected including the simony and the laxity ordination, and faced a good deal of opposition. Finally, he brought the clergy of Caesarea into a high standard of life. He undertook great social relief works. Among the Church Fathers, there seems to be none who gave more importance to social activities than Basil did. He established hospitals, rest houses and center to give training in jobs. He also started institution to help those who suffer from famine and poverty. After a life of hard works, he died on 1 January 379.
Literary Contributions of Basil the Great
Basil’s works may be classified as Books supporting faith (dogmatic works), works about the Bible, those related to ascetic life and homilies, letters etc.
a) Dogmatic works:All his dogmatic works are opposing the existing heresies such as Arianism, Eunomianism, Macedonianism and Apollinarianism. His Against Eunomius (inter AD. 363-365) or, it is called in Greek, Refutation of the Apology of the Impious Eunomius, in three books, is the earliest of his dogmatic writings. It deals with the essence, attributes of God, the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father, and refutes the objections of the heretic against the divinity of the Holy Spirit. His treatise the Holy Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto), was written in 375 AD, treats the consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father and defends the Doxology Glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit. This work was very important for the preparation of the creed in the council of Constantinople (381) regarding the person of the Holy Spirit
b) Exegetical works:
Basil’s exegetical writings are confined entirely to homilies, and they are not purely literary homilies, but his actual preaching. Among them, homilies on Genesis, on the Psalms, and on Isaiah are very important.
c) Ascetical writings:
- A group of Ascetical which contains three treatises- the life of monk as a soldier to Christ, the excellence monastic life, the duties of a monk
- Moralia:- a group of 80 rules or instruction to the monks.
- Two special Monastic rules: – the first contains 55 longer rules and the second contains 313 shorter rules. Both are in question and answer form. They set forth the rules of the monastic life and their application to the daily life. They were received universally in the East and they survive to the present day.
d) Homilies, Letters and Liturgical works.
The 24 homilies of Basil show that he was one of the greatest pastors and orators of the Christianity. The letters of Basil are very highly esteemed. They show the purity of his mind, the great and sympathetic character of his life and the perfection of his writing style. The liturgical text of Basil survives in the Greek original and there are oriental translations.
Teachings of Basil the Great
The Holy Trinity is the main subject of his dogmatic writings. He opposed all those who regarded the Holy Spirit as subordinate to the Son. His teachings insist that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are of the same essence. In order to explain the unity and Trinity of God he used two philosophical terms- Ousia and Hypostasis.The existence of the Father is not from anything (from nothing). The existence of the Son and the Holy Spirit is derived eternally from the Father. The distinction property of the Father is that he is ungenerated. The distinction property of the Son is that He is generated and the Holy Spirit is that He is preceded from the Father. The Father is having no cause for His existence. The son and the Holy Spirit have the Father as the source of their existence.
Basil stressed the full and perfect divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit against the theories of Arians, Eunomians, and Macedonians. At the same time, he clearly rejected Apollinarianism, which denied the perfect humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ. He related the union of the full humanity with the full divinity as a part of the work of Redemption. According to him, if the humanity is not perfect with the human rational Soul then there was no salvation to the human beings.
Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Basil the Great.Mosc (2015).