Basil of Caesarea

Article by   April 2015
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Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea. Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. 224 pp. $24.99

J.I. Packer once likened the English Puritans to the giant redwood trees of California, that not only astound by their soaring height and vast girth but also conjure up an overwhelming sense of smallness as they dwarf everything in sight. Where twenty-five years ago Packer looked up to the Puritans as remedy for the Western church's unreflective immaturity, many today - even within the evangelical world - are gazing up at the soaring theological and spiritual maturity of the Fathers. 

And with good reason. 

What one finds among the choicest trees in the Fathers is an integration of theological reflection and spiritual vigor which stands in stark contrast to how theology is often presented today. We have no shortage of tight arguments and slick hermeneutical moves. What we lack are three-dimensional pictures of Christians who write theology, in the words of David Bentley Hart, as 'an act of thoughtful prayer'. The Church Fathers present a thick forest of theologians at prayer. 

But it is a thick forest, and so field guides are necessary in order to help identify worthy paths and the trees demanding extended study. We find such guides in a relatively new series by Baker Academic, "Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality". Edited by Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, the series aims at a three-fold retrieval of significant figures from the early church. They believe such a ressourcement will contribute to (1) theological renewal across Christian traditions; (2) deepened exegetical practice that undergirds mature theological reflection; (3) and, finally, a spiritual vision of reality that reverses the fragmentation of modern life. Thus far the series has produced a volume on Athanasius by Peter J. Leithart (2011), one on Vincent of Lerins by Thomas G. Guarino (2013), and, the most recent, Basil of Caesarea by Stephen M. Hildebrand (2014) - the volume reviewed here. Hildebrand's relevant previous work includes his published doctoral thesis on Basil's Trinitarian theology (The Trinitarian Theology of Basil Caesarea: A Synthesis of Greek Thought and Biblical Truth, The Catholic University of America Press, 2009) and a translation of Basil's seminal work on the Holy Spirit (On the Holy Spirit, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2011). 

While Hildebrand's Basil of Caesarea (hereafter Basil) is a reliable guide, it is not for the beginner (for an excellent introduction to Basil, see Andrew Radde-Gallwitz's Basil of Caesarea: A Guide to His Life and Doctrine, Cascade Books, 2012). Hildebrand's book, as well as the series, is for someone who already has a lay of the forest, as it were, and has begun studying a few of its trees. With some background in the 4th century theological and ecclesiastical debates, and at least a touch of familiarity with the Cappadocian Fathers (of which Basil is a member, along with his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa), Basil puts together for the reader the various parts of Basil's thought and ecclesiastical instruction as well as analyzing the increasing field of Basilean scholarship. Unfortunately, much of that scholarship is analyzed in the endnotes - endnotes-grr! - rather than footnotes. Perhaps the endnotes reflect a tension between the vision of the publishers of the series and the reality faced by its authors. Hildebrand, at least, felt the need to shed light on disputed questions in Basil through frequent interaction with secondary sources. By putting many of his comments in endnotes, it keeps the text 'clean' yet disrupts the reader who must flip-back-and-forth. With that structural complaint out of the way, let's proceed to happier matters: the contents of the book. Hildebrand starts with sketching a picture of Basil the man.

If we were to look for a parallel figure to Basil in the early church it would be Augustine. Augustine came a little later, of course, and wrote in Latin rather than Greek. Like Augustine, though, we know a lot about Basil the man. Perhaps we know more about these two men - Basil and Augustine - than any other of the Church Fathers. That knowledge of biography helps us better situate their theology and enables the aforementioned three-dimensional pictures to emerge. One is struck, for example, by Basil's 'humanity', revealed through his copious letters expressing everything from pastoral empathy to friendly banter to hard-knuckled theological conflict (You can reference 4 volumes of his letters published in Harvard's Loeb series.).   

Basil contrasts with Augustine in significant ways, however, and those distinguishing marks begin to tell the story of his life. Unlike Augustine, who came from a family of mixed faith, Basil was from strong Christian stock: at home he learned Scripture and church traditions while engaging in the practice of hospitality and Gospel charity. But like many who have grown up in Christian homes, it was not a straight line to vigorous faith for Basil. While he didn't quite follow the wandering path of Augustine, he knew enough spiritual malaise to experience acute 'awakenings' to the realities of God and His call on his life. 

The first came when he returned from 'college' in Athens, where he studied with the brightest of his day (including his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the emperor to be, Julian the Apostate). The occasion for his return to Cappadocia (located in central modern day Turkey) may very well have been the death of his next younger brother, Naucratius. Another sibling, his sister Macrina, then became instrumental in his spiritual transformation at this time of personal suffering. She convinced him to break from the trajectory he had been on to be a devout Christian aristocrat, and pursue, rather, a sacrificial life of asceticism.  

Hildebrand explores these consequential plot twists in Basil's life in chapter 1, because, as he sees it, all of the developments in Basil's theology and ecclesiastical career find their root in his spiritual awakenings: "The seeds of these awakenings were planted in Basil's childhood, both in the piety of his parents and the memory of his grandparents. The seeds lay dormant for a while until they were germinated by the example and death of Basil's brother Naucratius, and watered by the courage and encouragement of his sister Macrina" (p. 16). Basil continued to grow - hence, "awakenings" - throughout his life, maturing in his understanding of asceticism, exegetical practice, and articulation of theology. 

Maturation, for Basil, is progress toward God and, on one level, a completely natural process. That is to say, the capability of godliness was built into the very creation of humanity - made in the 'likeness of God' - and is accomplished in the redeemed life by 'putting on Christ'. There's a certain 'incompleteness' to the constitution of humanity, even in its unfallen state, because the world is a theatre in which humanity progresses to God through worshipful living. Basil's spiritual anthropology is elucidated by Hildebrand in chapter 2, where he compares and contrasts it with the likes of Tertullian, Origen and Eusebius, and helpfully highlights the dynamic connections between Basil's understanding of what it means to be human and what he sees God doing in his own life.

Chapter 3 pivots to consider how redeemed humanity engages creation and scripture - the two 'books' given by God to educate us in godliness. Here Hildebrand takes up the vexed question of whether Basil utilized a particular style of exegesis - was he Antiochene or Alexandrian, a literalist or allegorist? After an extended discussion and analysis of scholarly debates over the matter, Hildebrand reaches the conclusion that, like in many areas of Basil's life, he grew in his understanding and practice. While not entirely eschewing allegory (after all, he rightfully sees the practice of allegory in the New Testament itself), Basil became more mindful of its pitfalls while continuing to stress the unity of the biblical testaments and "the freedom of God to communicate truths about Christ and the life of Christians throughout the texts of the Old Testament" (p. 56). Hildebrand's analysis on these questions is measured and helpful.

At the center of the book are chapters 4 & 5 which, together, consider Basil's doctrine of the Trinity. Given his own doctoral research, Hildebrand is quite at home in examining Basil's theological writings and he ably draws out their many distinctions. Here he distinguishes between what he sees as Basil's simple expressions of Trinitarian doctrine that emerge from the baptismal formula and the more dense accounts coming from a polemical context. In the more simple mode, Basil was keen to base doctrine in the worship practices of the church, and to demonstrate how our salvation and progress in godliness 'map' the order of the divine persons derived from their mutual relationships: we are first indwelt by the Holy Spirit, who unites us to the Son, through whom we have fellowship with the Father. The polemical context reveals a Basil who was a creative and adroit theologian, addressing a number of background issues affecting Trinitarian doctrine, from a theory of names to styles of exegesis. At heart, Basil is concerned with combating views that would "compromise our access to God the Father and so ruin our very salvation" (p. 80). In doing so he marshaled his philosophical training and rhetorical skill in order to establish a theological epistemology which upholds genuine Trinitarian understanding. 

Chapters 6 & 7 transition to consider Basil's teaching on the Christian life. These chapters present particular challenges for an evangelical or reformed audience. As Hildebrand stresses, the monastic life for Basil was not an alternative calling for a select group of Christians; rather, it is the most authentic expression of Christian discipleship. That is to say, the Christian life is one of increasing growth in godliness, where maturity finds expression in the practice of monasticism. The theological root of such a view is found, according to Hildebrand, in an over-realized eschatology. Even if Basil avoided the more extreme forms of asceticism present in his day, in the end his view had no room for the living of the gospel in the midst of a secular order. The prevailing order must be replaced by making the 'not yet' of the eschaton present in the 'now' through the communal practice of Christians. 

It would be unfortunate, at least according to this writer, to flippantly dismiss these parts of Basil's corpus with trite evangelical sayings. Hildebrand provides enough exposition and analysis to reveal the biblical seriousness of Basil's proposals. One does not need to agree fully with his suggested applications in order to feel the challenge of the ascetical tradition to America's decadent individualism. In fact, when reading someone like Basil on asceticism and monasticism we must carefully examine whether we are more unsettled at the potential implications for living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ or the American gospel of you-can-be-whoever-you-want-to-be. 

The emphasis on sacrifice and material humility, in particular, challenges the reader to think through the implications of the Gospel for ordering our lives, including together as a community of believers (even if we are not living under the same roof!). After all, it was through Basil's thoughtful leadership that the church in Caesarea developed publicly ordered forms of ministry that brought relief especially to the poor. For example, we see in Basil's Ep. 94 a description of his 'new city' that contained a prayer house, residence for church workers, a 'hotel' for visitors, a hospital, and a place for feeding the hungry. What is remarkable is the poor were not only fed but also received training in various crafts so that they could 'get back up on their feet' and, following 2 Thessalonians 3:10, 'work for their food'. This kind of organized, corporate charity among the Church required tireless leadership, which included a deliberate vision that called Christians to sacrificially supply the means to provide such relief and hospitality. 

By and large today such benefits are provided through the burgeoning arms of the State or cultural institutions that actively separate material relief from spiritual nourishment. In our present society how does the church rediscover its voice and build again structures that tangibly present to the existing cultural order the implications of the Gospel? Would this require a thoughtful removal from an increasingly hostile secularism in order to guard and preserve certain elements of our faith even while we cultivate 'alternative societies' that serve ministerially the bruised and broken of our culture? These are not easy questions to answer. We find in Basil, at least, wisdom that is worthy of our ears. 

Hildebrand's final chapter explores the interaction between creativity and tradition within Basil's theological and ascetical thought. Reflecting the judgments of Basilian scholar Mark DelCogliano, Hildebrand sees a "blend" of retrieval and innovation where Basil makes the preceding tradition "his own" (p. 148). The Scriptures stand apart, of course, as holding prime authoritative position, but, as Hildebrand demonstrates, other writings in the history of the church are judiciously assimilated after being sifted through Basil's exacting intellect. Thus, Basil's reforming instincts in theology and the practice of the church were first to engage the Scriptures and then invite deeper reflection and meaningful understanding through critical engagement with other Christian writers. Certainly that is a model for all time, where there is a heartbeat of faithfulness extending into a desire for fresh insight into the challenging questions of the day. 

So many of our figures of the past are 'frozen' into a picture sketched by one significant work, if not a singular memorable quote. What is too often missed is a dynamism that resembles something living - a view of how certain writings reflect the struggles and growth of real life lived in space and time. At its best, Basil draws attention to the connections between what God was doing in Basil's life - through awakenings or often ecclesiastical and theological conflict - and the vast literature that has been handed down to us from Basil's pen. Indeed, as evangelical and reformed readers might instinctively be drawn to Basil's well-known Trinitarian writings, such as Against Eunomius or On the Holy Spirit, Hildebrand does not let us miss the context in which these works were born. On the one hand, that context was the ecclesiastical battlefield where Basil was pastorally defending the saving realities of God. On the other, it was certain ascetical disciplines that guarded against worldly distraction while encouraging mindfulness of God through prayer, the singing of the Psalms, and the reading of Scripture. 

Basil presents nothing groundbreaking in Basilian studies. But I do not think that was its intent. Here is a hearty reminder that theological reflection is a product of something deeper - a personal soil that can be enriched through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and disciplined utilization of the means of grace. When that soil has been as enriched to the extent found in Basil 'the Great', we begin to understand why he is a member of the Redwoods. 
 
Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on twitter @dblairsmith 
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