In 370 Basil became Bishop of Caesarea. It must have been a great relief to finally have a last name. It seems he wasn’t particularly keen on the job, but the Church leadership needed someone with his gifts to take on the growing threat of Arianism.
Arianism, simply put, is the belief in, and worship of, Jesus as a lesser god than God the Father. “Only Begotten Son” as opposed to “Unbegotten” Father. It probably ranks alongside the Protestant Reformation as the most serious and widespread theological contention about genuine Christianity. Due to the work of an Arian missionary, Ulfilas, who evangelised the Goths and other (black-clad-death-worshipping?) Germanic Tribes, large parts of the Western Roman Empire were Arian in their beliefs about Jesus’ divinity. For some periods throughout the 4th C it appears that there were parallel Churches in parts of Western Europe, one holding to Orthodox beliefs and another to Arian: both undoubtedly claiming to be true Christianity.
For a bit of historical curiosity, I’ve included the Creed of Ulfilas, a classic statement of the Arian position.
I believe that there is only one God the Father, alone unbegotten and invisible, and in His only-begotten Son, our Lord and God, creator and maker of all things, not having any like unto Him. Therefore there is one God of all, who is also God of our God, And I believe in one Holy Spirit, an enlightening and sanctifying power. As Christ says after the resurrection to his Apostles: “Behold I send the promise of my Father upon you; but tarry ye in the city of Jerusalem until ye be clothed with power from on high.” (Luke 24.49) And again: “And ye shall receive power coming upon you by the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1.8) Neither God nor Lord, but the faithful minister of Christ; not equal, but subject and obedient in all things to the Son. And I believe the Son to be subject and obedient in all things to God the Father.
The creed of Ulfilas, as found in the Letter of Auxentius
It almost sounds right at points, it’s supported in parts by quotation from Scripture…
this was a tough, incredibly serious issue.
this was Basil’s cup of tea.
At the time Basil was appointed Bishop of Caesarea, the Roman Emperor Valens was himself a paid-up, card-carrying Arian and he also wasn’t a firm believer in the separation of Church and State (actually, he didn’t believe in it at all).
In an attempt to intimidate Basil, and move him from the Orthodox position, Valens sent the Prefect of the Imperial Guard, Modestus, to “persuade” him with some “robust” reasoning…
(I’ma gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse…)
Basil answered that he was ready and eager to die for Jesus, and he had so few possessions that banishment, confiscation, or imprisonment would not make much difference. To be perfectly honest, banishment, confiscation, and imprisonment were the Basic Rules of his monastic lifestyle.
Modestus complained that no-one ever spoke to him like that.
Basil answered that, perhaps he had never met a Bishop before: “When the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else.”
That was one tough Shepherd of the Flock…
Valens backed off and left him to get on with the job.