Basil and the Spirit-Fighters

Basil and the Spirit-FightersAround 374 Basil of Caesarea wrote, On the Holy Spirit, his greatest work. It is a careful defence of the equality of the Holy Spirit with the other members of the Trinity. This belief had come under attack by a group referred to by Basil as the ‘Pneumatomachoi‘ – ‘Spirit Fighters’ (which sounds really cool, but isn’t). The Pneumatomachoi had an orthodox understanding of the divinity of Jesus but denied equality of status and glory to the Holy Spirit.

A contemporary of Basil’s, Epiphanius of Salamis, flatteringly referred to the Pneumatomachi as,

“A sort of monstrous, half-formed people of two natures [holding] the truly orthodox view of the Son, that he was forever with the Father…but has been begotten without beginning and not in time. But all of these blaspheme the Holy Spirit, and do not count him in the Godhead with the Father and the Son” (Epiphanius. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Books II and III (Sects 47-80), De Fide). Section VI, Verses 1,1 and 1,3. Translated by Frank Williams. EJ Brill, New York, 1994, pp.471-472)

The Pneumatomachoi forced Basil and other Christians to go back and examine the Scriptures again, and to use all their reasoning ability to understand the truth about the nature of the Holy Spirit. It was while Basil was Bishop at Caesarea that the doxology, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit” was first used, placing all three persons of the Trinity on an equal footing.

It was on the basis of this work that the formulation of the Nicene Creed reads,

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son
is worshipped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.

Reading through Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, I’m struck by how carefully and closely he sought to ground his argument in the text of Scripture. Basil (and friends) didn’t invent the divinity of the Holy Spirit, they argued it from God’s revelation of himself.

Chapter IX

Definitive conceptions about the Spirit which conform to the teaching of the Scriptures.

Let us now investigate what are our common conceptions concerning the Spirit, as well those which have been gathered by us from Holy Scripture concerning It as those which we have received from the unwritten tradition of the Fathers. First of all we ask, who on hearing the titles of the Spirit is not lifted up in soul, who does not raise his conception to the supreme nature? It is called “Spirit of God, “Spirit of truth which proceedeth from the Father, “right Spirit, “a leading Spirit. Its proper and peculiar title is “Holy Spirit;” which is a name specially appropriate to everything that is incorporeal, purely immaterial, and indivisible. So our Lord, when teaching the woman who thought God to be an object of local worship that the incorporeal is incomprehensible, said “God is a spirit. On our hearing, then, of a spirit, it is impossible to form the idea of a nature circumscribed, subject to change and variation, or at all like the creature. We are compelled to advance in our conceptions to the highest, and to think of an intelligent essence, in power infinite, in magnitudeunlimited, unmeasured by times or ages, generous of It’s good gifts, to whom turn all things needing sanctification, after whom reach all things that live in virtue, as being watered by It’s inspiration and helped on toward their natural and proper end; perfecting all other things, but Itself in nothing lacking; living not as needing restoration, but as Supplier of life; not growing by additions; but straightway full, self-established, omnipresent, origin of sanctification, light perceptible to the mind, supplying, as it were, through Itself, illumination to every faculty in the search for truth; by nature un-approachable, apprehended by reason of goodness, filling all things with Its power, but communicated only to the worthy; not shared in one measure, but distributing Its energy according to “the proportion of faith; in essence simple, in powers various, wholly present in each and being wholly everywhere; impassively divided, shared without loss of ceasing to be entire, after the likeness of the sunbeam, whose kindly light falls on him who enjoys it as though it shone for him alone, yet illumines land and sea and mingles with the air. So, too, is the Spirit to every one who receives lt, as though given to him alone, and yet It sends forth grace sufficient and full for all mankind, and is enjoyed by all who share It, according to the capacity, not of Its power, but of their nature.

Now the Spirit is not brought into intimate association with the soul by local approximation. How indeed could there be a corporeal approach to the incorporeal? This association results from the withdrawal of the passions which, coming afterwards gradually on the soul from its friendship to the flesh, have alienated it from its close relationship with God. Only then after a man is purified from the shame whose stain he took through his wickedness, and has come back again to his natural beauty, and as it were cleaning the Royal Image and restoring its ancient form, only thus is it possible for him to draw near to the Paraclete. And He, like the sun, will by the aid of thy purified eye show thee in Himself the image of the invisible, and in the blessed spectacle of the image thou shalt behold the unspeakable beauty of the archetype. Through His aid hearts are lifted up, the weak are held by the hand, and they who are advancing are brought to perfection. Shining upon those that are cleansed from every spot, He makes them spiritual by fellowship with Himself. Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God. Such, then, to instance a few out of many, are the conceptions concerning the Holy Spirit, which we have been taught to hold concerning His greatness, His dignity, and His operations, by the oracles of the Spirit themselves.

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