St. Basil the Great

St. Basil the Great (329-379), Bishop of Caesarea in the Roman province of Cappadocia, was influential in the development of monasticism in the Eastern Orthodox Church and played a role in the Arian controversy.

One of 10 children, Basil came from a wealthy and noble Christian family of Cappadocia (now in Turkey); his younger brother Gregory, later known as Gregory of Nyssa, also became a bishop and a distinguished theologian. When he was 22, after studying in his native Caesarea and in Constantinople, Basil went to Athens for 5 years to further his liberal education. There he met Gregory of Nazianzus, a fellow student, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. Basil, his brother Gregory, and Gregory of Nazianzus are often referred to as the "Cappadocian fathers."


Cenobitic Monasticism

After teaching rhetoric for a time in Caesarea, Basil decided to abandon the pleasures of secular life and to pursue instead the ideal of Christian perfection. He visited notable Christian ascetics in Egypt and the Near East and then returned, when he was about 30, to his family's estates on the Iris River to lead a life of monastic retirement and rigid discipline. Influencing others by his example, Basil was the inaugurator in Asia Minor of cenobitic monasticism, a system in which monks live in communities under a shared rule of life. Basil's writings on monasticism are the single most important body of regulative documents in Eastern Orthodox monasticism.

Bishop of Caesarea

Because of his leadership and learning, Basil was drawn away from monastic affairs into the wider life and conflicts of the Church. Between 359 and 370 two successive bishops of Caesarea summoned him to their service, the second of them ordaining him a priest. But Basil's strong convictions resulted in strained relations with his superiors, and he often left Caesarea to work among his monasteries. In 370, however, he was made bishop of Caesarea, and until his death in 379 he was one of the most important figures of the Eastern Church.

The most pressing problem Basil faced was the still unresolved Arian controversy, which had severely troubled the Eastern Church over the preceding 50 years. While the Arians asserted that belief in the full deity of Christ was incompatible with monotheism, the chief problem for the various non-Arian groups had come to rest in the question of whether it was possible to preserve the distinctions among God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit, while continuing to assert the full deity of all three.

Basil was certain that Arianism was heretical, but he also believed that the Nicene party, adhering strictly to the language of the Council of Nicaea (325), had not yet presented a defensible theological formulation of the orthodox position. He took the decisive step of agreeing with the Nicene party that there is only one divine substance (Greek, ousia) shared by Father, Son, and Spirit, but of insisting at the same time that each of the three is an individual hypostasis within the triune deity.

As a Church leader, Basil showed notable courage in defying the Eastern emperor Valens, who was intent on forcing a creedal statement tolerant of Arianism on the Church and banishing anti-Arian bishops. In his prolonged attempts to bring order and understanding to the chaotic conflict of parties in the Eastern Church, Basil tried repeatedly but without success to win the aid of the Roman papacy in approving the growing coalition of non-Arian parties. Too much of a moderate to be acceptable to the staunchly Nicene position of the papacy, he paved the way nonetheless for the final victory of his cause at the Council of Constantinople in 381, a victory he did not live to see.


Further Reading on St. Basil the Great

A full-length work on Basil is W.K. Lowther Clarke, St. Basil the Great; A Study in Monasticism (1913). G.L. Prestige, St. Basil the Great and Apollinaris of Laodicea, edited by Henry Chadwick (1956), contains a brief account of Basil's life and a discussion of his correspondence with Apollinaris. There is a brief appreciation of Basil in Hans von Campenhausen, The Fathers of the Greek Church, translated by Stanley Godman (1959).