Basil the Great’s (c. 330-379) treatise On the Holy Spirit is an excellent defense of the full deity of the Holy Spirit written at a time when the issue was being hotly debated within the Church. It demonstrates Basil’s devotion to Scripture, ability to reason, and passion for truth. Throughout he upholds the absolute necessity of believing in the divinity of the Spirit, and hence in the Trinity, in order to secure one’s salvation. Apart from a belief in the Triune God, man is lost. “I testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father” (17f.).

Basil wrote this treatise to one Amphilochius, a brother who was desirous of understanding more of the Spirit. In a series of commendations to Amphilochius for his pursuit of truth, Basil makes some wonderful comments about this pursuit. He notes:

“And this in you yet further moves my admiration, that you do not, according to the manners of the most part of the men of our time, propose your questions by way of mere test, but with the honest desire to arrive at the actual truth” (2).

“The beginning of teaching is speech, and syllables and words are parts of speech. It follows then that to investigate syllables is not to shoot wide of the mark, nor, because the questions raised are what might seem to some insignificant, are they on that account to be held unworthy of heed. Truth is always a quarry hard to hunt, and therefore we must look everywhere for its tracks. The acquisition of true religion is just like that of crafts; both grow bit by bit; apprentices must despise nothing. If a man despise the first elements as small and insignificant, he will never reach the perfection of wisdom” (2).

Later he comments:

“But we will not slacken in our defence of the truth. We will not cowardly abandon the cause. The Lord has delivered to us as necessary and saving doctrine that the Holy Spirit is to be ranked with the Father. Our opponents think differently, and see fit to divide and rend asunder, and relegate Him to the nature of a ministering spirit. Is it not then indisputable that they make their own blasphemy more authoritative than the law prescribed by the Lord?” (17)

Basil’s note in the second quote is somewhat of a defense for the first section of his work wherein he grapples with his opponents on the meaning of the prepositional phrases “of whom,” “through whom,” and “by whom.” It seems that the Arians and Pneumatachoi made use of these phrases to deny the deity of the Holy Spirit. They claimed that all things were made “by” the Father (Creator), “through” the Son (subordinate agent), “of” or “in” the Spirit (material out of which all made or place in which all occurs). The Spirit hence was impersonal and non-divine. The exact purpose of these distinctions somewhat escapes me. Basil himself seems to bounce back and forth in his representation of his opponents. Elsewhere he claims the opponents use “of whom” to indicate the Creator.

Basil attacks this whole bit of sophistry by a series of arguments. First, he demonstrates that the various prepositions are not so carefully distinguished in Scripture. The prepositions are used interchangeably and, hence, if his opponents desire to argue against the deity of the Spirit using these distinctions they must also argue against the deity of the Son and even the Father (reductio ad absurdum). Second, he clearly argues that the prepositions “of” and “in” do not necessarily indicate material or time–in fact they are used in a variety of ways. “In a word, the diligent reader will perceive that ‘of whom’ is used in diverse manners” (6).

A couple notes on Basil’s work. First, he makes extensive use of reductio ad absurdum. Routinely he takes his opponents’ position and takes it to its logical outcome. The following is an example:

“For if they will not grant that the three expressions ‘of him’ and ‘through him’ and ‘to him’ are spoken of the Lord, they cannot but be applied to God the Father. Then without question their rule will fall through, for we find not only ‘of whom,’ but also ‘through whom’ applied to the Father. And if this latter phrase indicates nothing derogatory, why in the world should it be confined, as though conveying the sense of inferiority, to the Son? If it always and everywhere implies ministry, let them tell us to what superior the God of glory and Father of the Christ is subordinate” (6).

In another passage he comments regarding the deity of Christ, reducing Arianism to absurdity by demonstrating that if Christ has not eternally possessed all knowledge then he will be eternally progressing in knowledge. In this he seems to presage Process Theology and Mormonism, which took the creation of the Son to its logical conclusion.

“Hence, if you have sense to abide by what logically follows, you will find the Son being eternally taught, nor yet ever able to reach the end of perfection, insasmuch as the wisdom of the Father is infinite, and the end of the infinite is beyond apprehension. It results that whoever refuses to grant that the Son has all things from the beginning will never grant that He will reach perfection” (14).

Other examples of this type of argumentation abound (e.g., pp. 5, 20, 30).

Second, Basil relies heavily on the declaration of the Nicene Council regarding the deity of Christ. He uses the same lines of reasoning to confirm the deity of the Spirit that had been used to defend the deity of the Son. If we accept the deity of the Son, we must accept the deity of the Spirit.

After concluding his discussion of the prepositional phrases used by his opponents, Basil proceeds to set forth some of the positive reasons to adopt the deity of the Spirit. The two main foci of his defense are (1) the baptismal formula and (2) the doxology. In the baptismal formula, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are conjoined in such a way that the separate them is impossible (pp. 16ff). There follows an extended discussion of the Spirit’s relation to baptism and some discussion of baptism itself.

So, first he argues for the deity of the Spirit from the baptismal formula. Some of his comments on baptism are worth noting. He ties our “regeneration” with baptism when he comments, “And in what way are we saved? Plainly because we were regenerate through the grace given in our baptism. How else could we be?” (17) Elsewhere he exhorts the baptized, “and them I charge to preserve the faith secure until the day of Christ, and to keep the Spirit undivided from the Father and the Son, preserving, both in the confession of faith and in the doxology, the doctrine taught them at their baptism” (17).

According to Basil those who deny the deity of the Spirit are to be regarded as covenant-breakers. They have violated their baptismal covenant which was inaugurated in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “And to him who denies the Spirit, what title do you wish me to apply? Must it not be [a transgressor], inasmuch as he has broken his covenant with God? . . . I testify to every man who is confessing Christ and denying God, that Christ will profit him nothing; to every man that calls upon God but rejects the Son, that his faith is vain; to every man that sets aside the Spirit, that his faith in the Father and the Son will be useless, for he cannot even hold it without the presence of the Spirit. For he who does not believe the Spirit does not believe in the Son, and he who has not believed in the Son does not believe in the Father” (17f.).

Basil links our Trinitarian faith with our Trinitarian baptism:

“If then in baptism the separation of the Spirit from the Father and the Son is perilous to the baptizer, and of no advantage to the baptized, how can the rending asunder of the Spirit from Father and from Son be safe for us? Faith and baptism are two kindred and inseparable ways of salvation: faith is perfected through baptism, baptism is established through faith, and both are completed by the same names. For as we believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, so are we also baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: first comes the confession, introducing us to salvation, and baptism follows, setting the seal upon our assent” (18).

While insisting that baptism and salvation are closely tied together, he nevertheless insists that baptism is not absolutely necessary. The work of the Spirit can be distinguished from baptism; yet he argues that the two should never be separated. Hence, those who die as martyrs prior to their actual baptism have been “baptized” by their own blood. The Spirit has obviously worked in their hearts and this work can be distinguished from baptism.

Having discussed the relationship of the Spirit and baptism, Basil goes on to treat more particularly of our faith in the Spirit. He discusses a number of biblical texts and their bearing on our doctrine of the Spirit. He begins by arguing that because (1) the Spirit gives gifts to the Church and (2) “sins against the Holy Spirit and against God are the same,” we should confess the Spirit to be divine. He proceeds to distinguish the Spirit from the created order and from the angelic world. He discusses the role of each person of the Trinity in creation:

“The Father, who creates by His sole will, could not stand in any need of the Son, but nevertheless He wills through the Son; nor could the Son, who works according to the likeness of the Father, need cooperation, but the Son too wills to make perfect through the Spirit. . . . You are therefore to perceive three, the Lord who gives the order, the Word who creates, and the Spirit who confirms” (24).

He argues that the Spirit is the one who gives life and empowerment to all things, including angels, Christ and the Church. “All the glorious and unspeakable harmony of the highest heavens both in the service of God, and in the mutual concord of the celestial powers, can therefore only be preserved by the direction of the Spirit” (24). “Whether you wish to examine ancient evidence . . . or on the other hand things done in the dispensation of the coming of our Lord in the flesh;–all is through the Spirit. . . . every operation was wrought with the cooperation of the Spirit” (25). “For there is not even one single gift which reaches creation without the Holy Ghost; . . .” (35).

He concludes by returning to a discussion of various prepositional phrases and their bearing on the matter. He argues that “with” is the best preposition to use since it conveys both the sense of the Spirit’s functional subordination to the Father and yet his essential equality with the Father and the Son. “For to say that the Son is with the Father is to exhibit at once the distinction of the hypostases, and the inseparability of the fellowship. . . . Thus while the word ‘with’ upsets the error of Sabellius as no other word can, it routs also sinners who err in the very opposite direction; those, I mean, who separate the Son from the Father and the Sprit from the Son, by intervals of time” (37). “The preposition ‘in’ states the truth [of the Spirit’s divinity] rather relatively to ourselves; while ‘with’ proclaims the fellowship of the Spirit with God wherefore we use both words, by the one expressing the dignity of the Spirit; by the other announcing the grace that is with us” (43).

Proofs of Deity:
i. Distributes gifts to the Church (1 Cor 12, 14)
ii. Sins against the Holy Spirit and against God equated (Acts 5)
iii. Empowers our confession of Jesus Christ (1 Cor 12:3)
iv. Stands in closest possible relation to God, as soul of man to man (1 Cor 2:10f)*
*He calls this the greatest proof
v. Spoken of in conjunction with Father and the Son in baptism & doxology (Mt 28)
vi. Called the Spirit “of God” and “of Christ” (2 Cor 1:12; Ro 8:9)
vii. Called the Lord in numerous passages (1 Thes 3:12f; 2 Cor 3:17; 1 Cor 3:16; 2 Tim 3:16)
viii. He has attributes that are only appropriately ascribed to God (See pp. 34f)

“Moreover the surpassing excellence of the nature of the Spirit is to be learned not only from His having the same title as the Father and the Son, and sharing in their operations, but also from His being, like the Father and the Son, unapproachable in thought” (34).

Trinitarian confession:

“There is one God and Father, one Only-begotten, and one Holy Ghost. We proclaim each of the hypostases singly; and, when count we must, we do not let an ignorant arithmetic carry us away to the idea of a plurality of Gods” (28).

Spirit to be glorified together with the Father and the Son (Quotes Ecclesiasticus):

“Exalt Him as much as you can, for even yet will He far exceed; and when you exalt Him put forth all your strength, and be not weary, for you can never go far enough” (44, Ecclus 43:30)

Basil discusses at some length the works of the Spirit (pp. 30, 31). He then offers a helpful definition of Arianism.

“The Son, according to them, is not together with the Father, but after the Father. . . . They further assert that the Spirit is not to be ranked along with the Father and the Son, but under the Son and the Father; not coordinated, but subordinated; not connumerated, but subnumerated. . . . What is our answer to this? We say, Blessed are the ears that have not heard you and the hearts that have been kept from the wounds of your words” (8).

Basil places considerable weight upon oral tradition. He is critical of his opponents for demanding “written proof, and reject[ing] as worthless the unwritten tradition of the Fathers” (16). According to the notes in the text, Gregory Nazianzus is supposed to have said, “They find a cloak for their impiety in their affection for Scripture.” The notes remark that “the Arians at Nicaea objected to the homoousion as unscriptural.” (17) This section at least seems to illustrate the danger of “Scriptural” reasoning when divested of some sense of tradition–a sound board on which to test one’s interpretation. Whether to accord “unwritten” tradition the place Basil does seems untenable at this time given the corruption which has filled the church. However, his words surely could speak to us about the importance of valuing tradition.

He remarks later: “For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals. . . . [Do not many things] come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? . . . In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad at random among the common folk is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and contemned by the multitude through familiarity” (41,42). See further comments on pp. 44,45,

Basil’s comments on the Mosaic law are worth considering. He clearly understands types (pp. 19f).

“For He spares our weakness, and in the depth of the riches of His wisdom, and the inscrutable judgments of His intelligence, used this gentle treatment, fitted for our needs, gradually accustoming us to see first the shadows of objects, and to look at the sun in water, to save us from dashing against the spectacle of pure unadulterated light, and being blinded. Just so the Law, having a shadow of things to come, and the typical teaching of the prophets, which is a dark utterance of the truth, have been devised as means to train the eyes of the heart, in that hence the transition to the wisdom hidden in mystery will be made easy. Enough so far concerning types; . . .” (21).

His realist, rather than covenantal, view of baptism affects his understanding of the state of OT saints. Because dying to sin and rising with Christ occurs in baptism OT could not have participated in these blessings and hence did not participate in many of the blessings we now enjoy. “Those men did not die with Christ; wherefore they were not raised with Him. They did not ‘bear the image of the heavenly;’ they did not ‘bear about in the body the dying of Jesus;’ they did not ‘put off the old man;’ . . .” (20).