If you grew up in American evangelicalism, like I did, your grasp of church history, especially of the church fathers, may be relatively weak. Like a good fundamentalist, I grew up knowing all about D.L. Moody, George Whitfield, and Billy Sunday. I also had heard of Martin Luther and John Calvin, although I had more suspicion of them. But the church fathers were Roman Catholics from who knows when, and they didn’t have anything to teach me.
This idea, mind you, was “caught,” not “taught.” Church history has much to teach us, and the church fathers wouldn’t so easily fit into the mold of Catholicism as we know it. The early church fathers, especially, are worthy of study, and to them we owe thanks for an orthodox understanding and articulation of such important doctrines as the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the deity of the Holy Spirit.
Basil of Caesarea (329-379 AD), a Greek-speaking Bishop in what is now Turkey, was so important a figure in the fight for biblical orthodoxy, that he is remembered as Basil the Great. He may be the most significant church father that most people haven’t heard of. Athanasius gets more notoriety for defending the Trinity contra mundum (against the world), but Basil was right there with him. Basil’s writings against the Arians, and his work On the Holy Spirit, helped to provide the church with some of the terminology that would eventually make up the orthodox definition of the Trinity: “one essence, but three persons.”
Marvin Jones provides a useful introduction to Basil’s life and thought in Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact. The book is short and accessible and aims to allow Basil to influence the modern Evangelical church. Due to a collection of 350 letters of Basil to his impressive family (his father, sister and brother are all considered saints by the Eastern Orthodox Church) and others, we know more about Basil than any other Christian of the ancient church with the exception of Augustine of Hippo. Basil wrote on a variety of topics too. He aimed at reforming the liturgy or worship of his church, he appreciated but also critiqued monasticism, writing a helpful book with rules geared toward reforming the movement. He interacted with several key figures of the day and became more and more orthodox in his understanding of the Trinity over the course of his ministry. He even left us two series of sermons, one of which is one of the earliest known literal interpretations of the book of Genesis, including a defense of literal 24-hour days in Genesis 1.
This excerpt focuses on Basil’s capable defense of the deity of Jesus Christ.
Basil reviewed [his opponents’] rationale by stating, “They say that the Son is not equal to the Father, but comes after the Father. Therefore it follows that glory should be ascribed to the Father through Him, but not with Him. With Him expresses equality but through Him indicates subordination.”
Basil refuted this concept with a discussion on the word after. Basil asked, “In what way do they say that the Son is after the Father? Is He later in time, or in rank, or in dignity?” The issue is that one cannot conceive of the Father without the Son as if there was an interval in their relationship or existence. He quoted John 1:1 and focused upon the word was as settling the issue of the Son’s eternality. Basil stated, “No matter how far your thoughts travel backward, you cannot get beyond the was. No matter how hard you strain to see what is beyond the Son, you will find it impossible to pass outside the confines of the beginning. Therefore, true religion teaches us to think of the Son with the Father.” (Kindle location 2106-2112)
This book does what it aims to do: it introduces the reader to Basil and the theological debates of his era. In reading some of Basil’s arguments and by considering the doctrines debated, I am impressed by his forceful and clear grasp of the significance of the doctrine of God, and his recognition of the key place that Scripture, over and above tradition, holds. His literal approach to Genesis and his reformer’s approach to monasticism should make studying important and relevant for today’s church.
This book and others in the “Early Church Fathers” series, would make for a great supplement to a homeschool or Christian school curriculum. Many parents, like me, should also read up on this forgotten father. I highly recommend this brief work, and hope that Basil’s passion for the truth will continue to bless the wider church, now and always.
The “Early Church Fathers” series relates the magnificent impact that these fathers of the early church made for our world today. They encountered challenges similar to ones that we face in our postmodern world, and they met them with extraordinary values that will encourage and inspire us today.
About the author
Dr. Marvin Jones is the Assistant Professor of Church History and Theology, Louisiana College, Pineville, Louisiana, and the Chairman of the Christian Studies Department.
Bob Hayton has a BA in Pastoral Theology with a Greek emphasis and a MA in Bible from Fairhaven Baptist College and Seminary in Chesterton, IN. He is a happily married father of seven who resides in St. Paul, MN. Since 2005, he has been blogging theology at FundamentallyReformed.com, where he has also published over 190 book reviews. He can also be found occasionally at KJVOnlyDebate.com.