The Word of God in the Life and Works of St. Basil the Great

Very Rev. Basil Koubetch, OSBM — Protoarchimandrite (2004-2012)

Introduction

The St. Basil the Great’s literary achievements strongly influenced the development of theological thought and spirituality in both East and West. Without a doubt, the faithful have quenched their spiritual thrist in his teaching as from living stream, which flows from a familiar source and which calls them back to that very same fount —Sacred Scripture. Christians —from the earliest times to the present— recognize the perennial value of Eastern Monasticism’s Patriarch. His works still attract the attention of academics, theologians, patristic scholars, as well as monks, nuns and the laity.

Scholarly studies on St. Basil’s literary works are many and they can —for the most part— be characterised as historical; that is, they primarily shed light upon his activity within his particular historical context, while themes concerning his ascetical life are for the most part treated only in a general manner (*).[1] The historical works —especially the patristic manuals and histories of spirituality— systematically present St. Basil’s work as a key contribution from an important Church Father (*). Other researchers focus their attention on his shaping of the development of monastic life in the East and West (*). Other studies raise the question of the authenticity of his works. The compostion of the Basilian ascetical works is of a great interest to some (*). Other authors try to elaborate the historical context around the develpoment of his asceticism (*), helping the reader to better grasp the originality of St. Basil’s ascetical approach (*). The theme of the love of God and neighbour are key and particularly accented within his works. There are many publications dedicated to this latter topic (*). Some authors concentrate on the call to holiness and perfection (*), while others dedicate their academic energies to that of contemplation (*), of which there is no separate work written by St. Basil, although it permeates all of his works. Other thematic studies include the activity of the Holy Spirit in the desire for perfection (*); St. Basil’s apologetics in the defence of orthodoxy (*); and various other works, which encompass the entire literary inheritance of St. Basil.

The weight or rather centrality of Holy Scripture, if not stressed, is at least touched upon in all these studies on St. Basil. This emphasis on the weight of the God’s Word in St. Basil’s literary works is treated by many authors in their research, however, there is no one study dedicated to this topic.[2] Those studies which underline St. Basil’s teaching on the inspiration of Sacred Scripture by the Holy Spirit,[3] give the reason behind his veneration of God’s Word. On the basis of these various studies, it is easy to see that he had an excellent knowledge of and complete fidelity to the Word of God. In the light of Vatican II, this attribute of St. Basil becomes even more accented by many authors. As for example, Paul J. Fediuk[4] and Umberto Neri[5] show that in St. Basil’s work “On Baptism” biblical citations make up over fifty percent of the text.[6]

Obviously, this theme is essential in any study on St. Basil; however, it is also extremely broad in its scope. In fact, it is inexhaustible. Moreover, the aim of our present work is to limit ourselves to the goal of the Commission; i.e., to highlight the importance of God’s Word in the life and works of St. Basil, so that with greater fidelity to our founder, we could share the treasure of his doctrine throughout our Order and Christ’s Church.

On the basis of the works and studies on St. Basil, it not necessary to ask ‘if’ and ‘how much’ Sacred Scripture weighs in his works, nor to demonstrate ‘that’ he lived, worked and wrote in accordance with the Word of God. Anyone who as ever read St. Basil’s teachings or rule, or even those academics, who accent this attribute of his works, know this very well.  In this present work, however, I intend to show ‘how’ St. Basil does this in a few chosen texts, with the goal of discovering some answers to the question: “How can we —Basilian monks and nuns— do the same, today?”

1. General Introductory Themes

1.1. Sacred Scripture in the life of St. Basil the Great

There are four separate periods in St. Basil’s life that relate to the Inspired Text:

1) During his infancy and youth at home, of which he speaks in his discourse “On God’s Judgement” about how he learnt Sacred Scripture from his parents, who endowed him with a knowledge of truth.[7]

2) His separation from Sacred Scripture while studying in Athens. Although it is true that during this period he and his friend, Gregory of Nanzianzus, knew only ‘two paths’: one to church and the other to school; nevertheless, he never had enough time, nor the appropriate surroundings and circumstances for reading Sacred Scripture. Moreover, his studies were almost exclusively lead by pagan teachers, concentrating on the works of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek classical authors and philosophers. Upon returning home, he remained distant from God’s light, although the divine light still penetrated the depths of his heart. In Caesarea, he taught rhetoric, which consisted in an analysis of and commentary on various Greek pagan orators. This period did not last long. Within the context of his entire life and activity, it is hard to believe that Basil was wholly content in this period. Nonetheless, the education and experience he acquired at this time played an important role throughout his entire life.

3) The period of his conversion, which begins around 357. Basil himself writes in “Letter 223” about the moment when the light of the Gospel truth penetrated his ‘deep sleep’ in pagan wisdom and worldly knowledge and customs. The seed of God’s Word —sown long ago in his youthful heart— now put out roots in the good soil and grew into the ‘knowledge of truth.’[8]

4) The period of intense study and immersion in the Spirit of Sacred Scripture. Here St. Basil acquired a profound understanding of God’s truth, together with human and Christian maturity. He grasped that every word, which comes from the mouth of God needs to be fulfilled. Educated, intelligent and observant, St. Basil also understood that it is necessary to communicate this truth to the people of God. This period lasted until his death — 1 January 379.

1.2. The Witness and Resolution of St. Basil

The knowledge of God’s will through Sacred Scripture guided and enlightened our father, St. Basil, throughout all his teaching and discourses from 357 until his death. He was deeply taken with the God-inspired books and in them he saw the ‘one rule,’ by which to direct one’s life no matter the circumstance. Basilian theology and spirituality developed as a result of his profound knowledge and perfect obedience to Sacred Scripture.

To better understand his deportment and works, it is necessary to listen to what he himself professes concerning his experience of Sacred Scripture.

“From God’s goodness and love for mankind, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the action of the Holy Spirit, I refrained from the errors of paganism, since from my birth I was raised by Christian parents. In my youth, I learnt Holy Writ from them, which imbued me with the knowledge of truth.”[9]

“All of Sacred Scripture is inspired and beneficial. It is handed down by the Holy Spirit so that we, the people, individually and collectively, as in a general hospital for the soul, are able to find the right medicine for every need.”[10]

“It is necessary to observe everything without exception that is handed down through the Gospel and the Apostles.”[11]

“According to God’s will, it is my duty to hand down to you that which I learnt from the inspired text for the common good. I must adhere to Sacred Scripture.”[12]

“It is necessary to affirm through the witness of Sacred Scripture every statement for the perfect confirmation of the good and for the shame of the wicked.”[13]

Similar quotations can be found throughout all the works of our saintly father. His Moral Rules alone “are made up of 1500 citations from Holy Writ, taken from the New Testament.”[14]

1.2. How St. Basil uses Sacred Scripture (A Basilian hermeneutic)

First of all, the theme of this work requires us to define St. Basil’s point of departure; that is, what held primacy of place in his life and teachings. Did Sacred Scripture ground his thoughts or did he adapt his convictions to Sacred Scripture? Did he search Sacred Scripture for answers to various questions or did he endeavor to think in accord with God’s will, as revealed in the Sacred Text? Without a clear reply to these and similar queries, it is not possible to correctly understand what Sacred Scripture represents in the life and work of St. Basil the Great.

To respond to these questions, what is truly fundamental in life and work of our saint must be highlighted. He had a profound and unshakeble faith in Holy Writ. As a consequence, he speaks of the Holy Scripture in these terms: ‘the sacred texts,’ ‘divine writing,’ ‘word of God,’ ‘God’s voice’ and other similar names and expressions. For him the name ‘Holy Scripture’ contains the very name of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.[15]

One well-known scholar on St. Basil, Paul J. Fediuk, demonstrates the place Sacred Scripture occupies in the construction of the Basilian community by comparing St. Basil to other authors, thus giving us a valuable answer to the above-mentioned questions: “For the most part, Pachomius employs Sacred Scripture, that is he cites it as an approval of his own thoughts, as do the majority of monastic founders and spiritual writers. For Basil, however, Sacred Scripture is not a proof of his own thoughts, but rather it possesses a normative and legislative function. In his works, St. Basil strives to his utmost to be ‘obsequious’ to Sacred Scripture, in the full etymological sense of the term —“to follow, comply with;” i.e., he became a ‘listener’ to Sacred Scripture as it dicated to him the norms of behaviour.”[16]

In order to correctly grasp the teaching of our saintly father, it is necessary to keep in mind this principle: there is no distinction between God’s will and the written word of God.[17] For St. Basil, the Commandments are the highest rule. To do God’s will and to please Him in all things, therefore, is Basil’s constant effort in both his life and doctrine. Consequently, when responding to various questions from his disciples and the faithful, he answers directly from Sacred Scripture. He doesn’t begin with his own knowledge and thoughts, in order to prove his response with citations from Sacred Scripture. On the contrary, he constantly strives to cull his response or doctrine from God’s Word. He “bohomyslyt’”, that is he thinks in accordance with God.

Metropolitan Andrej Sheptyckyj highlights that “St. Basil was able to apply Sacred Scripture to life in such a manner that the one fed the other. He transmitted his doctrine to his audience as if nothing was his own, but rather it was solely Sacred Scripture. He only ordered and presented his doctrine as a reminder of Sacred Scripture, all the while removing himself. His task: to bring us closer to Sacred Scripture, to teach us to drink from it and to be enlightened by it.”[18]

In refering to a certain ‘biblicism’ in St. Basil, one cannot neglect an important characteristic of his hermeneutic; namely, he was a highly educated man, whose studies in Athens were not wasted. He united a scientific-philosophical methodology, terminology and even the content of pagan literature with the necessary pedagogy for the transmission of the Gospel to his contemporary society. Following the example of Christ, the Holy Apostles and Evangelists, and St. Paul, he was well aware of his doctrine’s audience. He employed his rhetorical skills and education in the transmission of the sense of God’s Word. His texts, especially his Moral Rules, are seeped in quotes from Sacred Scripture, not because a certain text pleased him, but rather because he understood every text well and accepted it as both as a ‘perfect Christian’ and a ‘true intellectual.’ St. Basil wrote what he lived. He received the Sacred Text neither literally, nor according to his own understanding; rather he tried to grasp the unfathomable Word of Sacred Scripture by searching for its true sense under the proper guidance. Thus, it is difficult to assign to Basil a ‘biblicism’ in the full —and negative— sense of the term. For we see in him a ‘superior’ (προεστως), who feared commanding anything that was contrary to God’s will as expressed in Scripture. He was radical, but not ‘a radical.’ He was as radical as is the very Word of God. All these observations form part of a methodological approach to the proper understanding of St. Basil’s works.

1.3. Some Conclusions: Attributes of Those That Live According to the Rules and Doctrine of St. Basil (without exhausting the theme)

1.3.1) Attributes of any Christian (monks and nuns included), who live according to the rule and doctrine of St. Basil:

– They have a love of God’s word, in which —under the proper guidance— they can know the truth about God and themselves.

– They constantly and carefully listen and try to radically fulfill the Word of God. They strive to fulfill God’s will in every circumstance in life. They are constantly striving for perfection, to be transfigured into our Lord, to be divinized. They do this because they are convinced that there is no better humanism and means at attain perfection than to become like Jesus Christ.

– They make a special effort to transmit the Word of God to others, helping others come to the truth. Not ‘privatizing,’ nor ‘monopolizing’ the knowledge of truth.

– They strive to please God in all things.

– They are joyful, happy and free, because they are united to God and are detached from material things and other persons, especially themselves. They are forever grateful to God and neighbour.

– They have an unshakable faith in God.

– They love God above all and out of their love of God, they strive to be charitable to their neighbour according to the example of Jesus Christ.

– They are constantly mindful of God — their supreme Benefactor.

– They are forever progressing in all the virtues.

– They are capable of common life and work. They strive to live with everyone in peace, harmony and charity.

– They are ready for any sacrifice for the common good.

– They are ready to not only courageously face their own trials and troubles, but also their neighbour’s difficulties.

– They foster proper values and fulfill the duties of their state in life.

1.3.2) Attributes of any lay person, who live according to the rules and doctrine of St. Basil:

– They transmit to their children God’s Word and give them a Christian education.

– Parents are the first educators of their children, not the school or church.[19]

1.3.3) Special Attributes of monks and nuns, who live according to the rules and doctrine of St. Basil:

– They strive at their best to live the evangelical counsels (vows).

– With resolution they fulfill the ‘practical’[20] duties of the monastic typikon, including obedience to one’s superior, with the certainty that God’s commands are even more demanding.[21]

– In their work and mission, especially in teaching, they fulfill everything according to God’s Word, and their religious/spiritual teachings are imbued with Sacred Scripture in the spirit of the Church’s magisterium.


[1] This symbol (*) represents various studies on a given theme. This present work will give only the main works on St. Basil, which develop the theme of the Word of God in his teaching and works. For a more complete bibliography see: F. Trisoglio, Basilio il grande si presenta; la vita, l’azione, le opere (Todo, Perugia: Litograf Srl, 2004), 279-295; A. Holmes, OSB, A Life Pleasing to God: The Spirituality of the Rules of St. Basil, (Kalamazoo, Michigan: Cistercian Publications, 2000), 263-270; L. Cremaschi, Basilio di Cesarea — Le regole, (Torino: Ed. Qiqijon, Communità di Bose, 1993), 429-436.

[2] M. Girardi, Basilio di Cesarea — interprete della Scrittura, lessico, principi ermeneutici, prassi, (Bari: Edipuglia 1998), 11. Here, the author refers to this lack and cites the only doctorate found on this theme (P. Sciarma, L’esegesi di Basilio di Cesarea nelle Omelie sui Salmi /tesi dattil./, (Roma: Università di Roma “La Sapienza, 1983). He states that: “Basilio raramente introduce una determinata interpretazione connotandone la natura dal punto di vista esegetico; di regola si limita semplicemente a proporla, da sola o in alternativa ad altre.

See also: B. Wawryk, OSBM, De exegesi S. Basilii Magni: De canone, textu et inspiratione S. Scripturae (Dissertatio ad lauream), (Romae: 1940); A. Hawkaluk, Nominum divinorum quae apud S. Baslium Magnum reperiuntur; Catalogus et ratio (Dissertatio ad lauream), (Romae: 1966), 493-507 (this is a valuble work, where the author lists the Scripture texts St. Basil cites and their frequency); S. Batruch, Модель християнського життя у творах св. Василія Великого, (Львів: Вид. Свічадо, 2007), 121-135; P. Scazzoso, Introduzione alla ecclesiologia, in Studia Patristica Mediolanensia, edd. G. Lazzati and R. Cantalamessa, vo. 4, (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1975), 125-144; F. Trisoglio, Basilio il grande si presenta; la vita, l’azione, le opere (Todo, Perugia: Litograf Srl, 2004), 204-224; Basilio tra oriente e occidente, (Torino: Ed. Qiqijon, Communità di Bose, 2001), 67-92.

[3] B. Wawryk, OSBM, Doctrina S. Basilii Magni de canone inspiratione S. Scripturae, (Romae: Apud Curiam Ordinis Basiliani S. Josaphat, 1943).

D. Amand, L’ascèse monastique de Sainte Basile, (Braine-le-Comte, 1949), 82-85.

[4] P. Fediuk, Святий Василій Великий і християнське аскетичне життя, in Analecta OSBM, (Roma-Toronto: 1978), 146.

[5] Basilio di Cesarea, Il Battesimo, ed. U. Neri, (Brescia: Paideia Editrice), 54-97.

[6] Ibid., 54. The author remarks that in such frequent use of Scripture, Basil establishes himself as a theologian (“ciò gli consente di rivelare appieno la sua personalitá di teologo” ) and he also affirms: “E i Moralia, appunto, non sono che una semplice elecazione di testi biblici, intercalata da brevissime enunciazioni interpretive — le cosidette «regole»: a questa ben fornita antologia, Basilio attingerà poi continuamente, nel seguito della sua vita, volta a volta adattandola e intergrandola in ordine alle situazioni nuove che veranno creandosi, o al diverso configurasi dei problemi sui quali occorrerà prendere posizione.”

[7] St. Basil the Great, On God’s Judgement, n. 1.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] St. Basil the Great, Homily on Psalm 1.

[11] Ibid., The Moral Rules, Chapter 3, n. 1.

[12] Ibid, On Faith, n. 1.

[13] Ibid, The Moral Rules, Chapter 1, n. 26.

[14] P. Fediuk, Святий Василій Великий і християнське аскетичне життя, in Analecta OSBM, (Roma-Toronto: 1978), 146.

[15] Cf. B. Wawryk, OSBM, Doctrina S. Basilii Magni de canone inspiratione S. Scripturae, (Romae: Apud Curiam Ordinis Basiliani S. Josaphat, 1943), 19, 21 and 25 and P. Scazzoso, Introduzione alla ecclesiologia, in Studia Patristica Mediolanensia, edd. G. Lazzati and R. Cantalamessa, vo. 4, (Milan: Vita e Pensiero, 1975), 128-129.

[16] P. Fediuk, Святий Василій Великий і християнське аскетичне життя, in Analecta OSBM, (Roma-Toronto: 1978), 145-146.

[17] U. Neri, 58 (“Non c’è distinzione fra la «volontà di Dio» e «le cose che sono scritte»” “There is no distinction between the “will of God” and “what is written”).

[18] Аскетичні твори св. Василія Великого, trans. Metr. Andrej Sheptysky, OSBM, (Rome 1989), vii.

[19] In a certain sense, the parents of Sts. Basil and Macrina’s were very modern. In many countries today, we observe the tendency to take children from their natural-famial context of formation and place them in a schools of formation. Frequently, “highly educated state and private pedagogues,” with convincing expressions, state that —according to them— “education – is formation, and formation is education,’ thus confusing two very separate concepts. Can they truly form children? We find many parents, who do not feel up to the task of forming their children and they quickly abdicate this responsibilty to the Church or State. This subject —in my opinion— is of great importance.

[20] Here ‘practical’ is not to be understood that the evangelical counsels given by St. Basil are not practical, but rather these evangelical counsels for the ordering of monastic common life in the contemporary circumstances of the Church and society.

[21] For the ‘perfect Christian’ there is no more demanding commands than “be merciful or perfect as your Heavenly Father” (Lk 6, 36; Matt. 5, 48), or love you neighbour as Christ loves us (Jn 15, 12), and other such passages.

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