New Advent
 Home   Encyclopedia   Summa   Fathers   Bible   Library 
 A  B  C  D  E  F  G  H  I  J  K  L  M  N  O  P  Q  R  S  T  U  V  W  X  Y  Z 
Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters (St. Basil of Caesarea) > Letter 8

Letter 8

ST. BASIL OF CAESAREA

To the Cæsareans. A defence of his withdrawal, and concerning the faith.

1. I have often been astonished at your feeling towards me as you do, and how it comes about that an individual so small and insignificant, and having, maybe, very little that is lovable about him, should have so won your allegiance. You remind me of the claims of friendship and of fatherland, and press me urgently in your attempt to make me come back to you, as though I were a runaway from a father's heart and home. That I am a runaway I confess. I should be sorry to deny it; since you are already regretting me, you shall be told the cause. I was astounded like a man stunned by some sudden noise. I did not crush my thoughts, but dwelt upon them as I fled, and now I have been absent from you a considerable time. Then I began to yearn for the divine doctrines, and the philosophy that is concerned with them. How, said I, could I overcome the mischief dwelling with us? Who is to be my Laban, setting me free from Esau, and leading me to the supreme philosophy? By God's help, I have, so far as in me lies, attained my object; I have found a chosen vessel, a deep well; I mean Gregory, Christ's mouth. Give me, therefore, I beg you, a little time. I am not embracing a city life. I am quite well aware how the evil one by such means devises deceit for mankind, but I do hold the society of the saints most useful. For in the more constant change of ideas about the divine dogmas I am acquiring a lasting habit of contemplation. Such is my present situation.

2. Friends godly and well beloved, do, I implore you, beware of the shepherds of the Philistines; let them not choke your wills unawares; let them not befoul the purity of your knowledge of the faith. This is ever their object, not to teach simple souls lessons drawn from Holy Scripture, but to mar the harmony of the truth by heathen philosophy. Is not he an open Philistine who is introducing the terms unbegotten and begotten into our faith, and asserts that there was once a time when the Everlasting was not; that He who is by nature and eternally a Father became a Father; that the Holy Ghost is not eternal? He bewitches our Patriarch's sheep that they may not drink of the well of water springing up into everlasting life, John 4:14 but may rather bring upon themselves the words of the prophet, They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water; Jeremiah 2:13 when all the while they ought to confess that the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, as they have been taught by the divine words, and by those who have understood them in their highest sense. Against those who cast it in our teeth that we are Tritheists, let it be answered that we confess one God not in number but in nature. For everything which is called one in number is not one absolutely, nor yet simple in nature; but God is universally confessed to be simple and not composite. God therefore is not one in number. What I mean is this. We say that the world is one in number, but not one by nature nor yet simple; for we divide it into its constituent elements, fire, water, air, and earth. Again, man is called one in number. We frequently speak of one man, but man who is composed of body and soul is not simple. Similarly we say one angel in number, but not one by nature nor yet simple, for we conceive of the hypostasis of the angel as essence with sanctification. If therefore everything which is one in number is not one in nature, and that which is one and simple in nature is not one in number; and if we call God one in nature how can number be charged against us, when we utterly exclude it from that blessed and spiritual nature? Number relates to quantity; and quantity is conjoined with bodily nature, for number is of bodily nature. We believe our Lord to be Creator of bodies. Wherefore every number indicates those things which have received a material and circumscribed nature. Monad and Unity on the other hand signify the nature which is simple and incomprehensible. Whoever therefore confesses either the Son of God or the Holy Ghost to be number or creature introduces unawares a material and circumscribed nature. And by circumscribed I mean not only locally limited, but a nature which is comprehended in foreknowledge by Him who is about to educe it from the non-existent into the existent and which can be comprehended by science. Every holy thing then of which the nature is circumscribed and of which the holiness is acquired is not insusceptible of evil. But the Son and the Holy Ghost are the source of sanctification by which every reasonable creature is hallowed in proportion to its virtue.

3. We in accordance with the true doctrine speak of the Son as neither like, nor unlike the Father. Each of these terms is equally impossible, for like and unlike are predicated in relation to quality, and the divine is free from quality. We, on the contrary, confess identity of nature and accepting the consubstantiality, and rejecting the composition of the Father, God in substance, Who begot the Son, God in substance. From this the consubstantiality is proved. For God in essence or substance is co-essential or con-substantial with God in essence or substance. But when even man is called god as in the words, I have said you are gods, and dæmon as in the words, The gods of the nations are dæmons, in the former case the name is given by favour, in the latter untruly. God alone is substantially and essentially God. When I say alone I set forth the holy and uncreated essence and substance of God. For the word alone is used in the case of any individual and generally of human nature. In the case of an individual, as for instance of Paul, that he alone was caught into the third heaven and heard unspeakable words which it is not lawful for a man to utter, 2 Corinthians 12:4 and of human nature, as when David says, as for man his days are as grass, not meaning any particular man, but human nature generally; for every man is short-lived and mortal. So we understand these words to be said of the nature, who alone has immortality 1 Timothy 6:16 and to God only wise, Romans 16:27 and none is good save one, that is God, Luke 18:19 for here one means the same as alone. So also, which alone spreadest out the heavens, Job 9:8 and again You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve. There is no God beside me. In Scripture one and only are not predicated of God to mark distinction from the Son and the Holy Ghost, but to except the unreal gods falsely so called. As for instance, The Lord alone did lead them and there was no strange god with them, and then the children of Israel did put away Baalim and Ashtaroth, and did serve the Lord only. 1 Samuel 7:4 And so St. Paul, For as there be gods many and lords many, but to us there is but one god, the Father, of whom are all things; and one Lord Jesus Christ by Whom are all things. 1 Corinthians 8:5-6 Here we enquire why when he had said one God he was not content, for we have said that one and only when applied to God, indicate nature. Why did he add the word Father and make mention of Christ? Paul, a chosen vessel, did not, I imagine, think it sufficient only to preach that the Son is God and the Holy Ghost God, which he had expressed by the phrase one God, without, by the further addition of the Father, expressing Him of Whom are all things; and, by mentioning the Lord, signifying the Word by Whom are all things; and yet further, by adding the words Jesus Christ, announcing the incarnation, setting forth the passion and publishing the resurrection. For the word Jesus Christ suggests all these ideas to us. For this reason too before His passion our Lord deprecates the designation of Jesus Christ, and charges His disciples to tell no man that He was Jesus, the Christ. Matthew 16:19 For His purpose was, after the completion of the œconomy, after His resurrection from the dead, and His assumption into heaven, to commit to them the preaching of Him as Jesus, the Christ. Such is the force of the words That they may know You the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent, John 17:3 and again You believe in God, believe also in me. John 14:1 Everywhere the Holy Ghost secures our conception of Him to save us from falling in one direction while we advance in the other, heeding the theology but neglecting the œconomy, and so by omission falling into impiety.

4. Now let us examine, and to the best of our ability explain, the meaning of the words of Holy Scripture, which our opponents seize and wrest to their own sense, and urge against us for the destruction of the glory of the Only-begotten. First of all take the words I live because of the Father, for this is one of the shafts hurled heavenward by those who impiously use it. These words I do not understand to refer to the eternal life; for whatever lives because of something else cannot be self-existent, just as that which is warmed by another cannot be warmth itself; but He Who is our Christ and God says, I am the life. John 11:25 I understand the life lived because of the Father to be this life in the flesh, and in this time. Of His own will He came to live the life of men. He did not say I have lived because of the Father, but I live because of the Father, clearly indicating the present time, and the Christ, having the word of God in Himself, is able to call the life which He leads, life, and that this is His meaning we shall learn from what follows. He that eats me, He says, he also shall live because of me; for we eat His flesh, and drink His blood, being made through His incarnation and His visible life partakers of His Word and of His Wisdom. For all His mystic sojourn among us He called flesh and blood, and set forth the teaching consisting of practical science, of physics, and of theology, whereby our soul is nourished and is meanwhile trained for the contemplation of actual realities. This is perhaps the intended meaning of what He says.

5. And again, My Father is greater than I. John 14:28 This passage is also employed by the ungrateful creatures, the brood of the evil one. I believe that even from this passage the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father is set forth. For I know that comparisons may properly be made between things which are of the same nature. We speak of angel as greater than angel, of man as juster than man, of bird as fleeter than bird. If then comparisons are made between things of the same species, and the Father by comparison is said to be greater than the Son, then the Son is of the same substance as the Father. But there is another sense underlying the expression. In what is it extraordinary that He who is the Word and was made flesh John 1:14 confesses His Father to be greater than Himself, when He was seen in glory inferior to the angels, and in form to men? For You have made him a little lower than the angels, and again Who was made a little lower than the angels, Hebrews 2:9 and we saw Him and He had neither form nor comeliness, his form was deficient beyond all men. All this He endured on account of His abundant loving kindness towards His work, that He might save the lost sheep and bring it home when He had saved it, and bring back safe and sound to his own land the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and so fell among thieves. Will the heretic cast in His teeth the manger out of which he in his unreasonableness was fed by the Word of reason? Will he, because the carpenter's son had no bed to lie on, complain of His being poor? This is why the Son is less than the Father; for your sakes He was made dead to free you from death and make you sharer in heavenly life. It is just as though any one were to find fault with the physician for stooping to sickness, and breathing its foul breath, that he may heal the sick.

6. It is on your account that He knows not the hour and the day of judgment. Yet nothing is beyond the ken of the real Wisdom, for all things were made by Him; John 1:3 and even among men no one is ignorant of what he has made. But this is His dispensation because of your own infirmity, that sinners be not plunged into despair by the narrow limits of the appointed period, no opportunity for repentance being left them; and that, on the other hand, those who are waging a long war with the forces of the enemy may not desert their post on account of the protracted time. For both of these classes He arranges by means of His assumed ignorance; for the former cutting the time short for their glorious struggle's sake; for the latter providing an opportunity for repentance because of their sins. In the gospels He numbered Himself among the ignorant, on account, as I have said, of the infirmity of the greater part of mankind. In the Acts of the Apostles, speaking, as it were, to the perfect apart, He says, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in His own power. Acts 1:7 Here He implicitly excepts Himself. So much for a rough statement by way of preliminary attack. Now let us enquire into the meaning of the text from a higher point of view. Let me knock at the door of knowledge, if haply I may wake the Master of the house, Who gives the spiritual bread to them who ask Him, since they whom we are eager to entertain are friends and brothers.

7. Our Saviour's holy disciples, after getting beyond the limits of human thought, and then being purified by the word, are enquiring about the end, and longing to know the ultimate blessedness which our Lord declared to be unknown to His angels and to Himself. He calls all the exact comprehension of the purposes of God, a day; and the contemplation of the One-ness and Unity, knowledge of which He attributes to the Father alone, an hour. I apprehend, therefore, that God is said to know of Himself what is; and not to know what is not; God, Who is, of His own nature, very righteousness and wisdom, is said to know righteousness and wisdom; but to be ignorant of unrighteousness and wickedness; for God who created us is not unrighteousness and wickedness. If, then, God is said to know about Himself that which is, and not to know that which is not; and if our Lord, according to the purpose of the Incarnation and the denser doctrine, is not the ultimate object of desire; then our Saviour does not know the end and the ultimate blessedness. But He says the angels do not know; Mark 13:32 that is to say, not even the contemplation which is in them, nor the methods of their ministries are the ultimate object of desire. For even their knowledge, when compared with the knowledge which is face to face, is dense. Only the Father, He says, knows, since He is Himself the end and the ultimate blessedness, for when we no longer know God in mirrors and not immediately, but approach Him as one and alone, then we shall know even the ultimate end. For all material knowledge is said to be the kingdom of Christ; while immaterial knowledge, and so to say the knowledge of actual Godhead, is that of God the Father. But our Lord is also Himself the end and the ultimate blessedness according to the purpose of the Word; for what does He say in the Gospel? I will raise him up at the last day. John 6:40 He calls the transition from material knowledge to immaterial contemplation a resurrection, speaking of that knowledge after which there is no other, as the last day: for our intelligence is raised up and roused to a height of blessedness at the time when it contemplates the One-ness and Unity of the Word. But since our intelligence is made dense and bound to earth, it is both commingled with clay and incapable of gazing intently in pure contemplation, being led through adornments cognate to its own body. It considers the operations of the Creator, and judges of them meanwhile by their effects, to the end that growing little by little it may one day wax strong enough to approach even the actual unveiled Godhead. This is the meaning, I think, of the words my Father is greater than I, John 14:28 and also of the statement, It is not mine to give save to those for whom it is prepared by my Father. This too is what is meant by Christ's delivering up the kingdom to God even the Father; 1 Corinthians 15:24 inasmuch as according to the denser doctrine which, as I said, is regarded relatively to us and not to the Son Himself, He is not the end but the first fruits. It is in accordance with this view that when His disciples asked Him again in the Acts of the Apostles, When will you restore the kingdom of Israel? He replied, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in His own power. Acts 1:6-7 That is to say, the knowledge of such a kingdom is not for them that are bound in flesh and blood. This contemplation the Father has put away in His own power, meaning by power those that are empowered, and by His own those who are not held down by the ignorance of things below. Do not, I beg you, have in mind times and seasons of sense but certain distinctions of knowledge made by the sun apprehended by mental perception. For our Lord's prayer must be carried out. It is Jesus Who prayed Grant that they may be one in us as I and Thou are one, Father. For when God, Who is one, is in each, He makes all out; and number is lost in the in-dwelling of Unity.

This is my second attempt to attack the text. If any one has a better interpretation to give, and can consistently with true religion amend what I say, let him speak and let him amend, and the Lord will reward him for me. There is no jealousy in my heart. I have not approached this investigation of these passages for strife and vain glory. I have done so to help my brothers, lest the earthen vessels which hold the treasure of God should seem to be deceived by stony-hearted and uncircumcised men, whose weapons are the wisdom of folly.

8. Again, as is said through Solomon the Wise in the Proverbs, He was created; and He is named Beginning of ways of good news, which lead us to the kingdom of heaven. He is not in essence and substance a creature, but is made a way according to the œconomy. Being made and being created signify the same thing. As He was made a way, so was He made a door, a shepherd, an angel, a sheep, and again a High Priest and an Apostle, Hebrews 3:1 the names being used in other senses. What again would the heretics say about God unsubjected, and about His being made sin for us? For it is written But when all things shall be subdued unto Him, then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him. Are you not afraid, sir, of God called unsubjected? For He makes your subjection His own; and because of your struggling against goodness He calls himself unsubjected. In this sense too He once spoke of Himself as persecutedSaul, Saul, He says, why do you persecute me? Acts 9:4 on the occasion when Saul was hurrying to Damascus with a desire to imprison the disciples. Again He calls Himself naked, when any one of his brethren is naked. I was naked, He says, and you clothed me; Matthew 25:36 and so when another is in prison He speaks of Himself as imprisoned, for He Himself took away our sins and bare our sicknesses. Now one of our infirmities is not being subject, and He bare this. So all the things which happen to us to our hurt He makes His own, taking upon Him our sufferings in His fellowship with us.

9. But another passage is also seized by those who are fighting against God to the perversion of their hearers: I mean the words The Son can do nothing of Himself. John 5:19 To me this saying too seems distinctly declaratory of the Son's being of the same nature as the Father. For if every rational creature is able to do anything of himself, and the inclination which each has to the worse and to the better is in his own power, but the Son can do nothing of Himself, then the Son is not a creature. And if He is not a creature, then He is of one essence and substance with the Father. Again; no creature can do what he likes. But the Son does what He wills in heaven and in earth. Therefore the Son is not a creature. Again; all creatures are either constituted of contraries or receptive of contraries. But the Son is very righteousness, and immaterial. Therefore the Son is not a creature, and if He is not a creature, He is of one essence and substance with the Father.

10. This examination of the passages before us is, so far as my ability goes, sufficient. Now let us turn the discussion on those who attack the Holy Spirit, and cast down every high thing of their intellect that exalts itself against the knowledge of God. 2 Corinthians 11:5 You say that the Holy Ghost is a creature. And every creature is a servant of the Creator, for all are your servants. If then He is a servant, His holiness is acquired; and everything of which the holiness is acquired is receptive of evil; but the Holy Ghost being holy in essence is called fount of holiness. Romans 1:4 Therefore the Holy Ghost is not a creature. If He is not a creature, He is of one essence and substance with the Father. How, tell me, can you give the name of servant to Him Who through your baptism frees you from your servitude? The law, it is said, of the Spirit of life has made me free from the law of sin. Romans 8:2 But you will never venture to call His nature even variable, so long as you have regard to the nature of the opposing power of the enemy, which, like lightning, is fallen from heaven and fell out of the true life because its holiness was acquired, and its evil counsels were followed by its change. So when it had fallen away from the Unity and had cast from it its angelic dignity, it was named after its character Devil, its former and blessed condition being extinct and this hostile power being kindled.

Furthermore if he calls the Holy Ghost a creature he describes His nature as limited. How then can the two following passages stand? The Spirit of the Lord fills the world; Wisdom 1:7 and Whither shall I go from your Spirit? But he does not, it would seem, confess Him to be simple in nature; for he describes Him as one in number. And, as I have already said, everything that is one in number is not simple. And if the Holy Spirit is not simple, He consists of essence and sanctification, and is therefore composite. But who is mad enough to describe the Holy Spirit as composite, and not simple, and consubstantial with the Father and the Son?

11. If we ought to advance our argument yet further, and turn our inspection to higher themes, let us contemplate the divine nature of the Holy Spirit specially from the following point of view. In Scripture we find mention of three creations. The first is the evolution from non-being into being. The second is change from the worse to the better. The third is the resurrection of the dead. In these you will find the Holy Ghost cooperating with the Father and the Son. There is a bringing into existence of the heavens; and what says David? By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. Again, man is created through baptism, for if any man be in Christ he is a new creature. 2 Corinthians 5:17 And why does the Saviour say to the disciples, Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost? Here too you see the Holy Ghost present with the Father and the Son. And what would you say also as to the resurrection of the dead when we shall have failed and returned to our dust? Dust we are and unto dust we shall return. And He will send the Holy Ghost and create us and renew the face of the earth. For what the holy Paul calls resurrection David describes as renewal. Let us hear, once more, him who was caught into the third heaven. What does he say? You are the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you. 1 Corinthians 6:19 Now every temple is a temple of God, and if we are a temple of the Holy Ghost, then the Holy Ghost is God. It is also called Solomon's temple, but this is in the sense of his being its builder. And if we are a temple of the Holy Ghost in this sense, then the Holy Ghost is God, for He that built all things is God. Hebrews 3:4 If we are a temple of one who is worshipped, and who dwells in us, let us confess Him to be God, for you shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve. Supposing them to object to the word God, let them learn what this word means. God is called Θεὸς either because He placed (τεθεικέναι) all things or because He beholds (Θεᾶσθαι) all things. If He is called Θεὸς because He placed or beholds all things, and the Spirit knows all the things of God, as the Spirit in us knows our things, then the Holy Ghost is God. Again, if the sword of the spirit is the word of God, Ephesians 6:17 then the Holy Ghost is God, inasmuch as the sword belongs to Him of whom it is also called the word. Is He named the right hand of the Father? For the right hand of the Lord brings mighty things to pass; and your right hand, O Lord, has dashed in pieces the enemy. Exodus 15:6 But the Holy Ghost is the finger of God, as it is said if I by the finger of God cast out devils, Luke 11:20 of which the version in another Gospel is if I by the Spirit of God cast out devils. Matthew 12:28 So the Holy Ghost is of the same nature as the Father and the Son.

12. So much must suffice for the present on the subject of the adorable and holy Trinity. It is not now possible to extend the enquiry about it further. Do ye take seeds from a humble person like me, and cultivate the ripe ear for yourselves, for, as you know, in such cases we look for interest. But I trust in God that you, because of your pure lives, will bring forth fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundred fold. For, it is said, Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. Matthew 5:8 And, my brethren, entertain no other conception of the kingdom of the heavens than that it is the very contemplation of realities. This the divine Scriptures call blessedness. For the kingdom of heaven is within you.

The inner man consists of nothing but contemplation. The kingdom of the heavens, then, must be contemplation. Now we behold their shadows as in a glass; hereafter, set free from this earthly body, clad in the incorruptible and the immortal, we shall behold their archetypes, we shall see them, that is, if we have steered our own life's course aright, and if we have heeded the right faith, for otherwise none shall see the Lord. For, it is said, into a malicious soul Wisdom shall not enter, nor dwell in the body that is subject unto sin. Wisdom 1:4 And let no one urge in objection that, while I am ignoring what is before our eyes, I am philosophizing to them about bodiless and immaterial being. It seems to me perfectly absurd, while the senses are allowed free action in relation to their proper matter, to exclude mind alone from its peculiar operation. Precisely in the same manner in which sense touches sensible objects, so mind apprehends the objects of mental perception. This too must be said that God our Creator has not included natural faculties among things which can be taught. No one teaches sight to apprehend colour or form, nor hearing to apprehend sound and speech, nor smell, pleasant and unpleasant scents, nor taste, flavours and savours, nor touch, soft and hard, hot and cold. Nor would any one teach the mind to reach objects of mental perception; and just as the senses in the case of their being in any way diseased, or injured, require only proper treatment and then readily fulfil their own functions; just so the mind, imprisoned in flesh, and full of the thoughts that arise thence, requires faith and right conversation which make its feet like hinds' feet, and set it on its high places. The same advice is given us by Solomon the wise, who in one passage offers us the example of the diligent worker the ant, and recommends her active life; and in another the work of the wise bee in forming its cells, and thereby suggests a natural contemplation wherein also the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is contained, if at least the Creator is considered in proportion to the beauty of the things created.

But with thanks to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost let me make an end to my letter, for, as the proverb has it, πᾶν μέτρον ἄριστον .

About this page

Source. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202008.htm>.

Contact information. The editor of New Advent is Kevin Knight. My email address is feedback732 at newadvent.org. (To help fight spam, this address might change occasionally.) Regrettably, I can't reply to every letter, but I greatly appreciate your feedback — especially notifications about typographical errors and inappropriate ads.

Copyright © 2009 by Kevin Knight. Dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

CONTACT US