ST. BASIL OF CAESAREA
To Eustathius the physician.
Humanity is the regular business of all you who practise as physicians. And, in my opinion, to put your science at the head and front of life's pursuits is to decide reasonably and rightly. This at all events seems to be the case if man's most precious possession, life, is painful and not worth living, unless it be lived in health, and if for health we are dependent on your skill. In your own case medicine is seen, as it were, with two right hands; you enlarge the accepted limits of philanthropy by not confining the application of your skill to men's bodies, but by attending also to the cure of the diseases of their souls. It is not only in accordance with popular report that I thus write. I am moved by the personal experience which I have had on many occasions and to a remarkable degree at the present time, in the midst of the unspeakable wickedness of our enemies, which has flooded our life like a noxious torrent. You have most skilfully dispersed it and by pouring in your soothing words have allayed the inflammation of my heart. Having regard to the successive and diversified attacks of my enemies against me, I thought that I ought to keep silence and to bear their successive assaults without reply, and without attempting to contradict foes armed with a lie, that terrible weapon which too often drives its point through the heart of truth herself. You did well in urging me not to abandon the defence of truth, but rather to convict our calumniators, lest haply, by the success of lies, many be hurt.
2. In adopting an unexpected attitude of hatred against me my opponents seem to be repeating the old story in Æsop. He makes the wolf bring certain charges against the lamb, as being really ashamed to seem to kill a creature who had done him no harm without some reasonable pretext; then when the lamb easily rebuts the slander, the wolf, none the less, continues his attack, and, though defeated in equity, comes off winner in biting. Just so with those who seem to count hatred to me as a virtue. They will perhaps blush to hate me without a cause, and so invent pleas and charges against me, without abiding by any of their allegations, but urging as the ground of their detestation now this, now that, and now something else. In no single case is their malice consistent; but when they are baulked in one charge they cling to another and, foiled in this, have recourse to a third; and if all their accusations are scattered they do not drop their ill-will. They say that I preach three Gods, dinning the charge into the ears of the mob and pressing the calumny plausibly and persistently. Nevertheless, truth is fighting on my side; and both in public to all the world, and in private to all whom I meet, I prove that I anathematize every one who maintains three Gods and do not even allow him to be a Christian. No sooner do they hear this than Sabellius is handy for them to urge against me, and it is noised abroad that my teaching is tainted with his error. Once more I hold out in my defence my wonted weapon of truth, and demonstrate that I shudder at Sabellianism as much as at Judaism.
3. What then? After all these efforts were they tired? Did they leave off? Not at all. They are charging me with innovation, and base their charge on my confession of three hypostases, and blame me for asserting one Goodness, one Power, one Godhead. In this they are not wide of the truth, for I do so assert. Their complaint is that their custom does not accept this, and that Scripture does not agree. What is my reply? I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom is to be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favour of that side will be cast the vote of truth. What then is the charge? Two points are advanced at one and the same time in the accusations levelled against me. I am accused on the one hand of parting the hypostases asunder; on the other of never using in the plural any one of the nouns relating to the Divinity, but of always speaking in the singular number of one Goodness, as I have already said; of one Power; one Godhead; and so on. As to the parting of the hypostases, there ought to be no objection nor opposition on the part of those who assert in the case of the divine nature a distinction of essences. For it is unreasonable to maintain three essences and to object to three hypostases. Nothing, then, is left but the charge of using words of the divine nature in the singulars.
4. I have quite a little difficulty in meeting the second charge. Whoever condemns those who assert that the Godhead is one, must of necessity agree with all who maintain many godheads, or with those who maintain that there is none. No third position is conceivable. The teaching of inspired Scripture does not allow of our speaking of many godheads, but, wherever it mentions the Godhead, speaks of it in the singular number; as, for instance,
in him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. Colossians 2:9 And again;
for the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead. Romans 1:20 If, then, to multiply godheads is the special mark of the victims of polytheistic error, and to deny the Godhead altogether is to fall into atheism, what sense is there in this charge against me of confessing one Godhead? But they make a plainer disclosure of the end they have in view; namely, in the case of the Father to agree that He is God, and consenting in like manner that the Son be honoured with the attribute of Godhead; but to refuse to comprehend the Spirit, though reckoned with Father and with Son in the idea of Godhead. They allow that the power of the Godhead extends from the Father to the Son, but they divide the nature of the Spirit from the divine glory. Against this view, to the best of my ability, I must enter a brief defence of my own position.
5. What, then, is my argument? In delivering the Faith of Salvation to those who are being made disciples in His doctrine, the Lord conjoins with Father and with Son the Holy Spirit also. That which is conjoined once I maintain to be conjoined everywhere and always. There is no question here of a ranking together in one respect and isolation in others. In the quickening power whereby our nature is transformed from the life of corruption to immortality, the power of the Spirit is comprehended with Father and with Son, and in many other instances, as in the conception of the good, the holy, the eternal, the wise, the right, the supreme, the efficient, and generally in all terms which have the higher meaning, He is inseparably united. Wherefrom I judge it right to hold that the Spirit, thus conjoined with Father and Son in so many sublime and divine senses, is never separated. Indeed I am unaware of any degrees of better or worse in the terms concerning the divine nature, nor can I imagine its being reverent and right to allow the Spirit a participation in those of lesser dignity, while He is judged unworthy of the higher. For all conceptions and terms which regard the divine are of equal dignity one with another, in that they do not vary in regard to the meaning of the subject matter to which they are applied. Our thought is not led to one subject by the attribution of good, and to another by that of wise, powerful, and just; mention any attributes you will, the thing signified is one and the same. And if you name God, you mean the same Being whom you understood by the rest of the terms. Granting, then, that all the terms applied to the divine nature are of equal force one with another in relation to that which they describe, one emphasizing one point and another another, but all bringing our intelligence to the contemplation of the same object; what ground is there for conceding to the Spirit fellowship with Father and Son in all other terms, and isolating Him from the Godhead alone? There is no escape from the position that we must either allow the fellowship here, or refuse it everywhere. If He is worthy in every other respect, He is certainly not unworthy in this. If, as our opponents argue, He is too insignificant to be allowed fellowship with Father and with Son in Godhead, He is not worthy to share any single one of the divine attributes: for when the terms are carefully considered, and compared with one another, by the help of the special meaning contemplated in each, they will be found to involve nothing less than the title of God. A proof of what I say lies in the fact that even many inferior objects are designated by this name. Nay, Holy Scripture does not even shrink from using this term in the case of things of a totally opposite character, as when it applies the title god to idols.
Let the gods, it is written,
who have not made heaven and earth, be taken away, and cast beneath the earth; and again,
the gods of the nations are idols. And the witch, when she called up the required spirits for Saul, is said to have seen gods. 1 Samuel 28:13 Balaam too, an augur and seer, with the oracles in his hand, as Scripture says, when he had got him the teaching of the demons by his divine ingenuity, is described by Scripture as taking counsel with God. From many similar instances in Holy Scripture it may be proved that the name of God has no pre-eminence over other words which are applied to the divine, since, as has been said, we find it employed without distinction even in the case of things of quite opposite character. On the other hand we are taught by Scripture that the names holy, incorruptible, righteous, and good, are nowhere indiscriminately used of unworthy objects. It follows, then, that if they do not deny that the Holy Spirit is associated with the Son and with the Father, in the names which are specially applied, by the usage of true religion, to the divine nature alone, there is no reasonable ground for refusing to allow the same association in the case of that word alone which, as I have shown, is used as a recognised homonym even of demons and idols.
6. But they contend that this title sets forth the nature of that to which it is applied; that the nature of the Spirit is not a nature shared in common with that of Father and of Son; and that, for this reason, the Spirit ought not to be allowed the common use of the name. It is, therefore, for them to show by what means they have perceived this variation in the nature. If it were indeed possible for the divine nature to be contemplated in itself; could what is proper to it and what is foreign to it be discovered by means of visible things; we should then certainly stand in no need of words or other tokens to lead us to the apprehension of the object of the enquiry. But the divine nature is too exalted to be perceived as objects of enquiry are perceived, and about things which are beyond our knowledge we reason on probable evidence. We are therefore of necessity guided in the investigation of the divine nature by its operations. Suppose we observe the operations of the Father, of the Son, of the Holy Ghost, to be different from one another, we shall then conjecture, from the diversity of the operations that the operating natures are also different. For it is impossible that things which are distinct, as regards their nature, should be associated as regards the form of their operations; fire does not freeze; ice does not warm; difference of natures implies difference of the operations proceeding from them. Grant, then, that we perceive the operation of Father, Son and Holy Ghost to be one and the same, in no respect showing difference or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of the nature.
7. The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost alike hallow, quicken, enlighten, and comfort. No one will attribute a special and peculiar operation of hallowing to the operation of the Spirit, after hearing the Saviour in the Gospel saying to the Father about His disciples, sanctify them in Your name. In like manner all other operations are equally performed, in all who are worthy of them, by the Father and by the Son and by the Holy Ghost; every grace and virtue, guidance, life, consolation, change into the immortal, the passage into freedom and all other good things which come down to man. Nay even the dispensation which is above us in relation to the creature considered both in regard to intelligence and sense, if indeed it is possible for any conjecture concerning what lies above us to be formed from what we know, is not constituted apart from the operation and power of the Holy Ghost, every individual sharing His help in proportion to the dignity and need of each. Truly the ordering and administration of beings above our nature is obscure to our perception; nevertheless any one, arguing from what is known to us, would find it more reasonable to conclude that the power of the Spirit operates even in those beings, than that He is excluded from the government of supramundane things. So to assert is to advance a blasphemy bare and unsupported; it is to support absurdity on fallacy. On the other hand to agree that even the world beyond us is governed by the power of the Spirit, as well as by that of the Father and of the Son, is to advance a contention, supported on the plain testimony of what is seen in human life. Identity of operation in the case of Father and of Son and of Holy Ghost clearly proves invariability of nature. It follows that, even if the name of Godhead does signify nature, the community of essence proves that this title is very properly applied to the Holy Spirit.
8. I am, however, at a loss to understand how our opponents with all their ingenuity can adduce the title of Godhead in proof of nature, as though they had never heard from Scripture that nature does not result from institution and appointment. Moses was made a god of the Egyptians when the divine voice said, See I have made you a god to Pharaoh. Exodus 7:1 The title therefore does give proof of a certain authority of oversight or of action. The divine nature, on the other hand, in all the words which are contrived, remains always inexplicable, as I always teach. We have learned that it is beneficent, judicial, righteous, good, and so on; and so have been taught differences of operations. But we are, nevertheless, unable to understand the nature of the operator through our idea of the operations. Let any one give an account of each one of these names, and of the actual nature to which they are applied, and it will be found that the definition will not in both cases be the same. And where the definition is not identical the nature is different. There is, then, a distinction to be observed between the essence, of which no explanatory term has yet been discovered, and the meaning of the names applied to it in reference to some operation or dignity. That there should be no difference in the operations we infer from the community of terms. But, we derive no clear proof of variation in nature, because, as has been said, identity of operations indicates community of nature. If then Godhead be the name of an operation, we say that the Godhead is one, as there is one operation of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; if, however, as is popularly supposed, the name of Godhead indicates nature, then, since we find no variation in the nature, we reasonably define the Holy Trinity to be of one Godhead.
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/3202189.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.