Basil, the Great

Today the eastern church remembers Basil the Great, Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (329-379). I was introduced to his writings about a year ago. I found his magisterial work On the Holy Spirit to be very influential in my thinking regarding the deity of the Holy Spirit. What I will share here, in his honor, is a summary of his explanation of the differences between οὐσία and ὑπόστασις in a letter to his brother, Gregory.

(1) Basil is concerned that there are some who find no difference between speaking of “substance/ousia” (οὐσία) or “person/hypostasis” (ὑπόστασις). He does not want to see Gregory make the same mistake. This it the motivation for this letter.

(2) Some will speak of one substance and one person as if these are interchangeable. These are not interchangeable. When we speak of Peter, Andrew, John, and James we may acknowledge that they share the same substance (ὁμοουσιοι), male human, but we must acknowledge differentiating properties for it to make any sense to speak of each individual.

(3) If we set Peter, Andrew, and John next to each other we can recognized shared substance, but we would also see differing characteristics. Hypostasis captures what is different. If we say “the man” you will not know who is being mentioned. If we say a name, “Peter”, you will know which hypothesis is the referent.

(4) As refers to the Father, Son, and Spirit there are certain things which connotate a shared ousia, such as being uncreated, being infinite, etc. Of this Basil notes, there is a “…certain communion indissoluble and continuous.” He says there is nothing in between Father, Son, and Spirit (unlike if we sat down Peter, Andrew, and John). Nothing can break apart the divine essence: “He who perceives the Father, and perceives Him by Himself, has at the same time mental perception of the Son; and he who receives the Son does not divide Him from the Spirit, but, in consecution so far as order is concerned, in conjunction so far as nature is concerned, expresses the faith commingled in himself in the three together.”

(5) So we see for Basil that even meditation on the Father must, by default, include meditation on the Son and Spirit, for there is no division in the Trinity. Whoever has Father, has Son and Spirit. Whoever has Son, has Father and Spirit. Whoever has Spirit, has Father and Son.

(6) Basil uses the example (he is careful to qualify it as an example) of a rainbow because it has different colors, yet whose colors are so unified it is hard to know where one color begins and another ends. So the Father, Son, and Spirit. We must remember that this analogy is before modern science so that it is an phenomenological reality.

(7) Another example is the brightness of a flame. Yes, there is distinction between the flame itself and the brightness, but it is essentially one. We cannot drive the division too far, but we must note that there are differences while maintaining the unity. We must also note this distinction from modalism: Basil does not say the flame changes into brightness and the brightness into flame. The flame and brightness co-exist; distinct yet one.

(8) At the end Basil reminds Gregory that the relationship between Father and Son (and contextually the Spirit) are so close that we can affirm that when one see the Son the Father is seen and that the Son is the express image of the Father. We see the Unbegotten in the Begotten just like we see the face of a person in a reflection of a polished mirror.

In summary, for Basil, we must hold the tension of the Trinity in that we cannot dissolve hypostasis into ousia, but that does not mean that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not radically one. For those who mistakenly see Tritheism in Trinitarian dogma this is a good reminder that Basil and the others had no desire to abandon the strict monotheism of the apostle. Rather, as is always the case with those who study the Scriptures, Basil sought to hold in tension the oneness and the threeness (Father, Son, and Spirit) of God.