St. Basil the Great (330-379) is best known as the founder of eastern monasticism. He was also a father of the Church, one of the great early theologians who helped usher the Church from the period of the apostles into the period when Catholic teaching approached maturity.
Basil's greatest contribution to theology was his insistence on the divinity of the Holy Spirit and on the Spirit's substantial unity with the Father and the Son.
He lived at a time of tremendous ferment in the Church, between the Council of Nicea (325) and the Council of Constantinople (381). The first council produced the Nicene Creed, a clear and full summary of essential Christian beliefs.
One would have expected the endorsement of this creed to have quieted theological dissent. In fact, the exact opposite occurred. Promoters of the Arian heresy - the belief that Jesus was not God, but only one of God's creatures - were determined to overthrow the Nicene Creed.
Tied in with the rise of the Arians was Christianity's new position as the state religion of the Roman Empire. Instead of being persecuted and martyred, Christians were now the establishment. The emperor took great interest in Church affairs and held considerable influence and power over them. Those social climbers and careerists who previously would have scorned the Church now used it to enhance their own positions.
The emperor and the careerists were all Arians. They used their positions to force bishops to sign Arian decrees and to appoint scores of new Arian bishops. Why were they so favourable to the Arian position? Because if Jesus is not God, then the Church is just another organization, one to which the state and other secular organizations need to pay little obeisance.
The main foe of the Arians was the great St. Athanasius who saw all this (and much more) quite clearly and who was hunted relentlessly by the Arians. Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria in Egypt, went into hiding in the desert several times to escape his persecutors.
Basil was Athanasius' contemporary and one of the few educated people who strongly supported his position. He knew that if the Church did not recognize the divinity of Jesus, it would never recognize that of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, if the Holy Spirit is not God, then the whole doctrine of salvation is for naught. For what is salvation if it is not our coming to share in the divine nature? St. Paul was quite clear in saying that we are baptized into the Holy Spirit. But if the Spirit is not God, then of what significance is that?
Basil's treatise On the Holy Spirit is at times a tiresome examination of the meaning of various prepositions. At other times, it is a sarcastic rant against his theological opponents. Their arguments are "nonsense, "absurdity" and "the depths of folly." They themselves are "contentious and feeble-minded" men who "nearly fill the Church with their meaningless cries and unintelligible shouts."
The good orthodox Christians, for Basil, are "country people (who) cling to ancient patterns of speech." The Arians are "cunning disputants" who are never content with accepted ways and who always seek "the latest trends of thought."
In the midst of the treatise is a little section praising the Spirit and his works. The Divine Spirit is not subject to change or limited in nature, Basil says. He is "an intelligent being, boundless in power, of unlimited greatness, generous in goodness, whom time cannot measure.
"All things thirsting for holiness turn to him; everything living in virtue never turns away from him. He waters them with his life-giving breath and helps them reach their proper fulfillment. He perfects all things, and himself lacks nothing; he gives life to all things and is never depleted. . . ."
This brief section is testimony to the fact that to know God is to praise him. Knowledge of God is not like knowledge of mathematics or even of music and the arts. Knowing God means loving him.
Basil loved God and he loved him courageously at a crucial time when lesser men cowered in corners to protect their own hides.
Basil and Athanasius were God's instruments to ensure that the Church recognized the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as one God in three persons. Without that recognition, the Church would have been lost and God's plan for salvation would have never been understood.