Happy New Year!
In the Church’s calendar the year kicks off with the commemoration of one of my favorite saints: Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379).
He was a fourth century archbishop in Asia Minor, one of the “Three Great Cappadocians” who were influential in the development of core Christian doctrine. He is often pictured as one of the “Three Hierarchs” who are deeply revered in Orthodoxy, along with Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysosotom.
It may seem odd if you are starting the year celebrating a theologian you have never heard of, but the other option for today is “The Circumcision of the Lord.” (See Luke 2:21. Happy eighth day of Christmas!)
Anyway, I suspect you will rejoice that I’m sticking to Basil.
Basil of Caesarea
Basil was an amazing guy. He became the defining figure for the Orthodox bishop, concerned with keeping the Church’s teaching pure, keeping its worship a beautiful and consistent expression of its theology, and taking good care of those in need.
Theology, worship, and justice. What more do we want from the church’s leaders?
(If you want to know more about St. Basil as a bishop and have a few bucks to spend, see Andrea Sterk’s book Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church: Then Monk-Bishop in Late Antiquity.)
There are many topics one could highlight about St. Basil, but I want to mention his role in one controversy: the Holy Spirit.
What, you may wonder, is the controversy about the Holy Spirit? Isn’t the Bible perfectly clear about the Holy Spirit?
Well, yes and no. The Bible mentions the Holy Spirit many times but, as on most topics, the clarity we think we see took centuries to emerge.
Here is a little running start:
- Everybody knew from the start that there is just one God.
- When the New Testament talked about “the Father” they knew it meant that one God.
- But the New Testament also talked about “Jesus” who is “the Son.”
- In the early fourth century a guy named Arius argued that “the Son” is actually created by the Father, so Jesus is less than God.
- The Council of Nicaea in 325 said the Son is eternally God, “of one substance” with the Father.
On the Holy Spirit
Once it was officially settled that both the Father and the Son are equal Persons of the one eternal God, some raised the question of the Holy Spirit. Surely, they argued, the Holy Spirit is one step down the ladder — holy, okay, but not God.
They called the people who said this the “Pneumatomachi.” It means“fighters against the Spirit.” I think it is one of the more pleasurable theological words to roll off your tongue.
Enter St. Basil of Caesarea. Basil wrote the first full-length book on the Holy Spirit. He gave it a clever title: On the Holy Spirit. (You can read it yourself in this nice edition from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)
Anyway, Basil looked through the biblical material about the Holy Spirit and argued that the Spirit is just as much the eternal God as the Father and the Son. There is one God, and that God is eternally three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All the arguments that had been used a generation before to say the Son is God came in very handy.
But then Basil brought a new kind of argument into the game. He said we should look at the Church’s worship. The way we pray to God and the way we sing about God expresses what we actually believe about God.
He pointed out that from time immemorial Christians everywhere in every liturgy praise the Holy Spirit in terms exactly equal to our praise of the Father and the Son.
Theology in Worship
It is an interesting sort of argument.
It worked because in that era there was such consistency in the way Christians worshipped, wherever Christianity had reached. You get a hint of this if you worship in an Orthodox church, where the liturgy is the same, with the same cycle of prayers and hymns woven in throughout the year, all around the world. The language and style of music may vary, but the actual words of worship will be the same.
And Basil was clearly right about the Spirit. Any Orthodox worship service will convince you that the Spirit is praised as God. Those prayers and hymns go back many centuries.
You can make an argument about Orthodox theology today by listening to Orthodox worship.
It works differently in the Protestant world, though Basil’s point is worthy of serious reflection.
You can’t make an argument about Protestant theology in general from listening to the prayers and hymns of any particular church. Protestantism is far too fragmented for that. Frankly there is little one can say is universal teaching in 21st-century Protestantism. The prayers and hymns of any given congregation will tell you only about the particular slice of the Protestant pie that the congregation is part of.
A Little Experiment
But you can still make good use of Basil’s point as a Protestant. Take a good hard listen to the prayers that are prayed in your congregation. Take a good hard look at the hymns and songs that are sung over the course of a month or a year. In the way you worship you will find what your congregation actually believes — or what your pastor is hoping you will believe.
Take what you learn from those prayers and hymns and write out what they proclaim in a list of bullet points. It may be surprisingly short. It may be surprisingly long. See how much theological content you can articulate from your worship.
Then compare your list of bullet points to some classic summary of your denomination’s theology — a Creed, or a Confession, or a Catechism. Or read through the Bible and highlight all the bits that are found in your bullet points. Then give a longer harder look at the parts of your confessions and your Bible that your worship seems to leave out.
What if you find a gap between the theology of your worship and the theology of your confessions and your Bible? Well then, I’d say you have your work cut out for you.
Before we go…
I’ve had a couple requests for an online non-credit course in the Christian understanding of the Trinity. If you might be interested, click the button below and send me your email so I can get a sense of the interest in theologically-oriented classes!
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