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Home > Fathers of the Church > Letters (St. Basil of Caesarea) > Letter 52

Letter 52

ST. BASIL OF CAESAREA

To the Canonicæ.

1. I have been very much distressed by a painful report which reached my ears; but I have been equally delighted by my brother, beloved of God, bishop Bosporius, who has brought a more satisfactory account of you. He avers by God's grace that all those stories spread abroad about you are inventions of men who are not exactly informed as to the truth about you. He added, moreover, that he found among you impious calumnies about me, of a kind likely to be uttered by those who do not expect to have to give the Judge in the day of His righteous retribution an account of even an idle word. I thank God, then, both because I am cured of my damaging opinion of you, an opinion which I have derived from the calumnies of men, and because I have heard of your abandonment of those baseless notions about me, on hearing the assurances of my brother. He, in all that he has said as coming from himself, has also completely expressed my own feeling. For in us both there is one mind about the faith, as being heirs of the same Fathers who once at Nicæa promulgated their great decree concerning the faith. Of this, some portions are universally accepted without cavil, but the homoousion, ill received in certain quarters, is still rejected by some. These objectors we may very properly blame, and yet on the contrary deem them deserving of pardon. To refuse to follow the Fathers, not holding their declaration of more authority than one's own opinion, is conduct worthy of blame, as being brimful of self-sufficiency. On the other hand the fact that they view with suspicion a phrase which is misrepresented by an opposite party does seem to a small extent to relieve them from blame. Moreover, as a matter of fact, the members of the synods which met to discuss the case of Paul of Samosata did find fault with the term as an unfortunate one.

For they maintained that the homoousion set forth the idea both of essence and of what is derived from it, so that the essence, when divided, confers the title of co-essential on the parts into which it is divided. This explanation has some reason in the case of bronze and coins made therefrom, but in the case of God the Father and God the Son there is no question of substance anterior or even underlying both; the mere thought and utterance of such a thing is the last extravagance of impiety. What can be conceived of as anterior to the Unbegotten? By this blasphemy faith in the Father and the Son is destroyed, for things, constituted out of one, have to one another the relation of brothers.

2. Because even at that time there were men who asserted the Son to have been brought into being out of the non-existent, the term homoousion was adopted, to extirpate this impiety. For the conjunction of the Son with the Father is without time and without interval. The preceding words show this to have been the intended meaning. For after saying that the Son was light of light, and begotten of the substance of the Father, but was not made, they went on to add the homoousion, thereby showing that whatever proportion of light any one would attribute in the case of the Father will obtain also in that of the Son. For very light in relation to very light, according to the actual sense of light, will have no variation. Since then the Father is light without beginning, and the Son begotten light, but each of Them light and light; they rightly said of one substance, in order to set forth the equal dignity of the nature. Things, that have a relation of brotherhood, are not, as some persons have supposed, of one substance; but when both the cause and that which derives its natural existence from the cause are of the same nature, then they are called of one substance.

3. This term also corrects the error of Sabellius, for it removes the idea of the identity of the hypostases, and introduces in perfection the idea of the Persons. For nothing can be of one substance with itself, but one thing is of one substance with another. The word has therefore an excellent and orthodox use, defining as it does both the proper character of the hypostases, and setting forth the invariability of the nature. And when we are taught that the Son is of the substance of the Father, begotten and not made, let us not fall into the material sense of the relations. For the substance was not separated from the Father and bestowed on the Son; neither did the substance engender by fluxion, nor yet by shooting forth as plants their fruits. The mode of the divine begetting is ineffable and inconceivable by human thought. It is indeed characteristic of poor and carnal intelligence to compare the things that are eternal with the perishing things of time, and to imagine, that as corporeal things beget, so does God in like manner; it is rather our duty to rise to the truth by arguments of the contrary, and to say, that since thus is the mortal, not thus is He who is immortal. We must neither then deny the divine generation, nor contaminate our intelligence with corporeal senses.

4. The Holy Spirit, too, is numbered with the Father and the Son, because He is above creation, and is ranked as we are taught by the words of the Lord in the Gospel, Go and baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Matthew 28:19 He who, on the contrary, places the Spirit before the Son, or alleges Him to be older than the Father, resists the ordinance of God, and is a stranger to the sound faith, since he fails to preserve the form of doxology which he has received, but adopts some new fangled device in order to be pleasing to men. It is written The Spirit is of God, 1 Corinthians 2:12 and if He is of God, how can He be older than that of which He is? And what folly is it not, when there is one Unbegotten, to speak of something else as superior to the Unbegotten? He is not even anterior, for nothing intervenes between Son and Father. If, however, He is not of God but is through Christ, He does not even exist at all. It follows, that this new invention about the order really involves the destruction of the actual existence, and is a denial of the whole faith. It is equally impious to reduce Him to the level of a creature, and to subordinate Him either to Son or to Father, either in time or in rank. These are the points on which I have heard that you are making enquiry. If the Lord grant that we meet I may possibly have more to say on these subjects, and may myself, concerning points which I am investigating, receive satisfactory information from you.

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Source. Translated by Blomfield Jackson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 8. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202052.htm>.

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