Marvin JONES. Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact. Early Christian Fathers series, ed. Michael A. G. Haykin. Glasgow, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2014. 175 pp., $11.99 paperback. ISBN: 978-1-7819-1302-4. Reviewed by Steve W. LEMKE, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, New Orleans, LA 70126
The Early Christian Fathers series is a reflection of the renewed appreciation that evangelicals have found for the early church fathers. In this volume, Marvin Jones, Associate Professor of Church History and Theology at Louisiana College, traces the life and ministry of Basil of Caesarea. Basil, a supporter of Athanasian orthodoxy, led the champions of Nicene orthodoxy against the second wave of the Arianism in the fourth century. As one of the three influential Cappadocian fathers, Basil became the bishop of Caesarea, his brother Gregory became the bishop of Nyssa, and their close friend Gregory of Nazianzus became the patriarch of Constantinople.
Constantine gave his favor to the Christian church with his ascendency to the throne of the Roman empire in the early fourth century. He hoped that the church would help unify the empire, however, the church was divided by controversies over the divinity of Christ. The Arians believed that Jesus was not co-eternal with the Father (that is, that there was a time when He was not). After the Council of Nicea, the Athanasian orthodox party won the council’s affirmation of the Nicene Creed. However, questions remained about the interrelation of the two natures of Christ, and in the mid-fourth century, a semi-Arian party arose which questioned the full divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Jones traces how Basil’s theology evolved through his life and ministry. As he wrestled with the technical language regarding Trinitarian doctrine, Basil’s thought went through three phases. As a younger minister at the Council of Constantinople, he favored the homoiousios position (that Jesus was similar or consubstantial to the Father but was not the identical substance with the Father) against the heterousios position (that Jesus was of a different substance from the Father). With the intervention of the Emperor Constantius, the homoiousian position was affirmed with a version of the Homoian creed of the Council of Constantinople of 360 AD. As Basil described it, two lights were similar but not of the same substance. However, within a few years, Basil moved to affirming the homoousios position (that Jesus was the same substance as the Father). As the theological discussions were extended to debate the role of the Holy Spirit, Basil utilized hypostasis to bring out the individual personhood of the three members of the Trinity while affirming their full divinity. In particular, Basil used the word hypostasis in a more technical sense, distinguishing it from ousia (essence), in arguing against the modalistic heresy of Sabellianism, the Arians, and the Anomoeans. Ultimately, the formula of one ousia and three hypostases became the standard formula for Christianity orthodoxy.
A resurgence of Arianism and semi-Arianism, as advocated by the Pneumatomachians and the Tropikoi and led by Eustathius of Sabeste, whom Michael Haykin has described as a “subordinationist Binitarian” (p. 119), raised questions about the full divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil addressed these questions about Pneumatology in his On the Holy Spirit, strongly affirming the co-eternity and co-divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil’s concepts were utilized soon after his death at the better known and more authoritative Council of Constantinople of 381 AD (sometimes described as the First Council of Constantinople, or the second ecumenical council, in distinction from the Council of Constantinople of 360 AD mentioned earlier), which affirmed a creed expressing a high view of the Holy Spirit’s divinity that was influential in shaping the doctrine of both the eastern and western church.
Basil also impacted the monasticism of his day. The traditional form of monasticism was the anchoritic monasticism associated with St. Anthony. Anchoritic monasticism focused on hermits withdrawing from society into a solitary ascetic life to dedicate themselves to prayer. However, when as a young minister Basil explored many of the anchoritic monastaries, he became concerned that anchoritic monasticism could lead to spiritual pride, and its separate life did not allow the monks to perform the ministry of love for others so fundamental to the Christian life. Basil thus became an early advocate of the coenobitic monasticism associated with Pachomius. In coenobitic monasticism, the monks lived as a social community and engaged persons beyond the monastery with acts of service. Basil favored and facilitated coenobitic monasticism, writing the shorter Moral Rules and the Larger Asceticon as rules for coenobitic monastic life.
Another contribution of Basil was his affirmation (to some extent) of literal hermeneutics, as opposed to the extravagant allegorical hermeneutics of his day. Preaching a series of sermons from Genesis which were published under the title Hexaemeron Basil applied a literal translation to the creation accounts as the basis of his sermons, in part because of his concern that allegorical interpretations might be misunderstood by the uneducated people in his congregation. He and the other Cappadocian fathers became associated with this more literal, plain sense reading of Scripture.
Jones through this work traces the theologians and theological issues leading up to Basil’s day, providing a rich background for the settings which framed his thought. The work is richly researched and documented. Sidebars are provided to define key theological terms or movements. Basil of Caesarea provides an excellent introduction to the thought of Basil the Great. Highly recommended for theologians and pastor theologians.