Thursday, February 7, 2013

People You’ve Probably Never Heard of But Should: Basil the Great

This must be a pretty cool cat to not only have a spice named after him but also to get away with calling himself “the Great”. Actually basil the spice doesn’t derive it’s name from this guy. And neither did he call himself great. But that name was conferred upon him later. So what him so great?

Basil lived in the mid-300’s dying on New Year’s day of 379. He is most noted for his work in fighting Arian and Apollonarian heresies. With his homeboy’s Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa (Basil’s brother) they formed a powerful trio known as the Cappadocian Fathers. While not selling a ton of their rap albums they did dispel the Trinitarian heresies of their day.

It was in west Caesarea that Basil was born and raised. In his grandma’s house is where he spent most of his days. Reading books and getting educated, when all of a sudden his life got flipped turned upside down. If you wait just a minute and sit right there I’ll tell you how Basil became known as the Great Hierarch.

It happened in 357 due to the influence of a cool cat named Eustathius of Sebaste. It appears that Basil had a profound encounter with Christ. As he would later write:

I had wasted much time on follies and spent nearly all of my youth in vain labors, and devotion to the teachings of a wisdom that God had made foolish. Suddenly, I awoke as out of a deep sleep. I beheld the wonderful light of the Gospel truth, and I recognized the nothingness of the wisdom of the princes of this world.

Basil was baptized and pursued an aesthetic life. But it held little appeal to him. Eventually he would leave and begin his own band of merry men. Eventually he became a leader in the church at Caeserea where he would eventually die in 379. Here he wrote a good amount of his extant writings.

Why You Should Know Him?

There are really two main reasons to know Basil and one somewhat secondary reason. The first concerns his monastic work. He is known as the Father of Eastern Monasticism. Though he himself was only a monk for five years his work in this area endured.

His form of monasticism seemed to be more concerned with matters of the heart. It was more concerned with “loving obedience” and had “less harsh discipline”. Basil empahsised more communal activities. In community the monks would do work (both intellectual and manual). If this sounds like the monasticism that you are familiar with there is a reason for that; Basilian monkery (if that’s a word) is the basis for most monasticism practiced in Eastern Orthodox churches even to our day. (Benedict of Nursia did something similar for the Western churches).

But why should we 21st century Protestants care about some dude establishing a monastery in the 4th century? Mainly because it was in many of these monasteries that the gospel was preserved. Basil’s emphasis on loving obedience planted significant seeds that is sprouting fruit even in our day.

Secondly, you should know Basil because of his work on Trinitarian theology. There were some that found it politically expedient to compromise with the Arians. The Cappadocian Fathers boldly refused. Who knows what history would look like if they had not refused. He also did a great amount of work on showing the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

And lastly it would do the reader good to read some of Basil’s letters. They are not only historically interesting but also occasionally devotional. Furthermore, there are some excellent quotes from Basil concerning the early churches views on things like abortion.

A Sample:

Here are but a few quotes to give you an idea of the heart and mind of Basil:

When someone steals another's clothes, we call them a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor.

Do not measure your loss by itself; if you do, it will seem intolerable; but if you will take all human affairs into account you will find that some comfort is to be derived from them.

There is still time for endurance, time for patience, time for healing, time for change. Have you slipped? Rise up. Have you sinned? Cease. Do not stand among sinners, but leap aside.

Further Reading:

You can read all of Basil’s works and letters here.

Gregory of Nyssa’s eulogy is also instructive.

Of course you can check out the Wikipedia article here.

Michael Haykin also has a great chapter on Basil in his book Rediscovering the Church Fathers.

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