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Monday, June 9, 2014

"Basil of Caesarea" (Marvin Jones)

TITLE: Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact (Biography)
AUTHOR: Marvin Jones
PUBLISHER: Ross-shire, Scotland, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2014, (434 pages).

During the late fourth century, one man dared to stand against the Emperor Valens. Refusing to work with Arian bishops over theological grounds, this man confronted the political establishment with courage and eloquent scholarship. The period was the early years of Christendom in Europe. The man was Basil of Caesaria (329-379 AD). In a land that has the Church and State increasingly integrated, the fight includes theological battles. One such fight was Orthodox Christianity vs the rising influence of Arianism. As one of the famous Cappadocian Fathers, (the other being Gregory of Nyssa, his brother, and Gregory of Nazianzus), Basil led the fight which led to the gathering of the Council of Nicea, and the formation of the Nicene Creed, which is a particular emphasis to re-affirm the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

Basil's Theological Impact
While many were unable to withstand the onslaught of Arianism and Alexendrianism, Orthodox Christianity had the Cappadocian Fathers to thank for. Of all the challenges, Arianism was perhaps the most formidable. Serious doubts were cast on the divinity of Christ, the Holy Spirit, and ultimately on the Trinity. Basil of Caesarea, together with a few others were also tempted to just avoid the controversies of the day, and to spring toward an ascetic lifestyle, to get away from the world. After all, it is easy to run away, and troublesome to fight the Arians. Fortunately, Basil chose to fight the huge heresy, moving from a "homoiousian theologian" to the orthodox "homoousian" theologian. The former argues that Jesus is "similar to or like" the Father, while the latter insists that Jesus is of the "same substance" as God the Father.In doing so, Basil began a tough journey to unify the Eastern and Western Church. Other theological battles include the fight against Sabellianism (modalism that effectively denies the Orthodox Trinity position); Anomoeans (that the Son was a different substance than the Father); and his most well-known contribution: "On the Holy Spirit."

One way to think about the impact of Basil the Great is to think of what Christianity would be without him. I shudder even to imagine the victory of the heretics and how our own theology would look like now. Together with the other Cappadocian Fathers, the theological contribution of Basil is significant as it sets the beginning of the Nicene Creed, defending the doctrine of the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Taking pains to describe the minor details that are significant for the major doctrines, Jones shows the journey of Basil from being a mere acceptance of what the semi-Arians had proposed to becoming a Trinitarian scholar and advocate.

Basil and Contributions to Evangelicalism

At this point, one may be asking that if Basil was such a powerful influence, where did he first get his influence. There are several. There was Macrina who influenced Basil in his conversion to Christianity. There was also the desert fathers such as Antony, Pachomius, and others. While he appreciated the asceticism adopted by the monks, he was not sure about the legalistic way the monks practised their spirituality. Basil's contribution is to attempt to bring in spirituality in the light of the ascetic practices together with an ecclesiastical interpretation. Basil is credited with contributing many things toward evangelicalism of today: Biblical inerrancy, Holiness, Spiritual Gifts, and above all, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The chapter on interpretation of allegory vs literal is a fascinating look at how Basil shifted from allegory to an increasingly more literal read of the Bible, based primarily on his series of sermons called the Hexaemeron, a literal six days creation.

So What?

It would be a pity for anyone to miss out learning of this significant figure in fourth century Christianity. Many of the resources on Basil the Great and the Cappodocian Fathers may not be easily accessible due to archaic language and outdated translations. Marvin Jones cuts through all these barriers by giving us an updated retelling of the story of the life and impact of this man of God, and reminds us once again that if we want to learn, one of the best ways is via history. Let me give three comments. First, though Basil is a theological champion against the heresies of his day, he began with a semi-Arius position. Over time, with his constant yearning to seek out truth, he shifts his position. Such a desire to learn was also seen in the way he shifts from legalistic asceticism toward something more communal and more beneficial to the unity of the Church. We need theological champions in every era. Second, moral courage is needed. Those who are trained have a special responsibility to speak up against the heresies of their age. Basil plays a bold "David" against a "Goliath" of Arianism. It is easy to talk about some doctrine from afar, but it is not easy to engage passionately with those who disagree. It takes lots of courage, and it requires something more than sheer will to fight against the establishment. It takes a strong sense of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and I believe this stance against he heretics prepared him well to produce a treatise On the Holy Spirit, which remains a powerful testimony for the Trinity. Third, we need to continue to learn from the early fathers, and this book is a good step in this direction. In the upcoming series, there will be others such as Irenaeus of Lyons (d. c.202); Tertullian (fl.190-215); Athanasius (c.297-373); Hilary of Poitiers (c.315-367/8); Basil of Caesarea (c.330-379); John Chrysostom (c.347-407); Patrick (c.390-c.461); Augustine (c.354-430); Cyril of Alexandria (c.376); and others. Learn it well so that when history repeats itself, we do not need to go re-invent the wheel.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Christian Focus Publications and Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.


  1. Conrade,

    Thanks for providing such a thorough review!

  2. Shaun, you're most welcome. Thank you too for helping provide the resource.