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St. Basil and the Holy Spirit

September 14th, 2005 by isaac · 6 Comments

I have been reading Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit (you can read it here). The following are some quotes I thought worth reflecting on:

“But we cannot become like God unless we have knowledge of Him, and without lessons there will be no knowledge. Instruction begins with the proper use of speech, and syllables and words are the elements of speech. Therefore to scrutinize syllables is not a superfluous task. Just because certain questions seem insignificant is no reason to ignore them. Hunting truth is no easy task; we must look everywhere for its tracks.” (1.2)

St. Basil has no room for naive anti-intellectualism. “Knowledge of God” is a necessary aspect of our journey into the reality of eternal life. This process of sanctification is what the early church Fathers called theosis, our “deification”—the Father calling us to share in the divine life of eternal love found in the Son through the power of the Spirit. The instruction by which we grow in the knowledge of God is contemplation on the Scriptures. For this reason every element of speech matters. Our job is to engage in the hunt for truth where we follow the tracks of Scripture with the voices of an interpretive tradition as our guide into the divine reality.

It is also important to note that the “knowledge of God” Basil talks about is not purely academic. He is not going to say that those who study Scripture in the university are necessarily better at understanding it than the rest. He actually has some harsh words later in his treatise for those who hide their unbelief behind sophisticated Scriptural exegesis: “They are not really concerned with syllables, or various usages of words, but with defending a position radically different in authority and truth from our own” (25.59). These exegetes use their sophistry to resist conformity to authority and truth. They are schismatics siezing the opportunity for ecclesiatical power during a time of doctrinal and authorial confusion.

For Basil, we gain knowledge of God while we travel on the path revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And this traveling is made possible by the illuminated power of the Holy Spirit:

“whenever the Lord is called the Way, we should be raised to a higher meaning, and not to the comon understanding of the word. We understand the Way to be the road to perfection, advancing in order step by step through the words of righteousness and the illumination of knowledge, always yearning for that which lies ahead and straining toward the last mile, until we reach that blessed end, the knowledge of God, with which the Lord blesses those who believe in Him. For truly our Lord is a good Way, a straight road with no confusing forks or turns, leading us directly to the Father. ‘No one comes to the Father,’ He says, ‘except through me’ (Jn.14:6). Such is our way up to God through His Son.” (8.18)

The Christian life is about following along this Way, a road to perfection, on which we are always yearing for that which lies ahead. This is a step by step process where we learn to strain our whole being (mind and body) toward that last mile that promises the blessings of the Father. This road on which we travel is the Son, Jesus Christ. For Basil, the Christian life is a patient journey of contemplative living that receives the life of the Son through the gift of the Spirit as the straight road into the eternal love of the Father’s embrace.

Here’s one last quote:

“The Apostle’s words are well spoken: ‘For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things’ (Rom.11:36). The cause of being comes from Him to all things that exist, according to the will of God the Father. Through Him structure and preservation are given to all things, for He created everything, and dispenses well-being to all things, according to the need of each. Therefore all things are turned toward Him, looking with irresistible longing and unspeakable love to the creator and sustainer of life as it is written: ‘The eyes of all look hopefully to Thee’ (Ps.145:15), and ‘These all look to Thee, to give them their food in due season’ (Ps.104:27), and again, ‘Thou openest Thy hand, and satisfiest the desire of every living thing’ (Ps.145:16).” (5.7)

Tags: reading corner · theology

6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jason // Sep 22, 2005 at 3:29 am

    I especially like the second quote. His integration of spiritual formation and study of God intrigues me. Often it feels as though study is a secondary means to God. Study is only learning about God, while something like prayer or reading Scripture is actuallz communicating with God (that’s what I’ve grown up believing anyway). I wonder if, for Basil, knowledge of God was a melding of both objective and personal knowledge of God. What would he thought of our seminaries today, I wonder?

  • 2 Fr. Joshua Beecham // May 9, 2008 at 7:35 am

    Dear Isaac,

    It is always refreshing to me to discover people from an Evangelical tradition so well versed in orthodox Christianity. Generally speaking it seems to me that is often not the case.

    Most of us in the Evangelical Orthodox Church are also from Evangelical backgrounds but have found great wealth and treasures in the writings and practices of Christians from ages past.

    Thanks for being open to the Holy Spirit whom St. Basil wrote about, the One who “leads us into all truth.” He never contradicts Himself, so we should expect that how He speaks today is going to be the same as He has spoken in the past.

    Glory to the Holy Spirit, who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and adored, now and ever and unto ages of ages!

    Fr. Joshua Beecham
    St. Paul the Apostle Evangelical Orthodox Church

  • 3 isaac // May 12, 2008 at 10:16 am

    Father Joshua,

    Thank you for visiting the blog, and for the encouraging words—”so well versed in orthodox Christianity.”

    It’s hard to say how well I fit in the Evangelical tradition. As I like to say, if you want to call Karl Barth and Menno Simons are evangelical, then you can call me one too.

  • 4 jamaal // Dec 11, 2008 at 7:15 pm

    “The bread which you use is the bread of the hungry; the garment hanging in your wardrobe is the garment of him who is naked; the shoes you do not wear are the shoes of the one who is barefoot; the acts of charity that you do not perform are so many injustices that you commit. ” St. Basil

  • 5 damarcus // Dec 11, 2008 at 7:16 pm


  • 6 isaac // Dec 22, 2008 at 6:01 am

    Jamaal, that quote is wonderful. Thanks for it.