The example of St. Basil of Caesarea shows that, even in a doctrinal crisis of the Church, the steadfast profession and defense of the Faith is not incompatible with a prudential attitude, seeking an accommodation with those who are in error—a practical, realistic approach, aimed at bringing them back to orthodoxy, while preserving the souls entrusted to us.
This article by Fr. Juan-Carlos Iscara (a professor of history at St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Winona, Minnesota) first appeared on sspx.org on March 9, 2012.
In the face of heresy: St. Basil's "economy of silence"
In the fourth century, St. Basil, bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, confronted a hornets’ nest of theological controversy. The Pneumatomachian heresy, an offshoot of Arianism, denied the consubstantiality (homoousia) of the Holy Ghost. The Arians themselves held that the Son was a creature of the Father and the creator of all other things, and so it was only logical for them to consider the Holy Ghost as a creature of the Son. At the same time, some “conservative” semi-Arians, who believed the Son was of a similar nature (homoiousios) to the Father, and the Anomoeans, who denied any such similarity in nature, began explicitly teaching that the Holy Ghost was simply a higher-ranking angel. Even among orthodox Catholics, some considered the term “consubstantial” to be suspect, because not of biblical origin, and opposed its use by the Council of Nicaea on these grounds.
Faced with this situation, St. Basil, while never yielding to error or denying the orthodox belief, carefully avoided the use of the term “consubstantial” (homoousios) in his discussions with heretics. Simply employing this word aroused immediate opposition and effectively ended any effort at discussion or proselytism. Therefore, in order not to burn down the bridges, Basil approached the question of the Holy Ghost’s divinity obliquely. He made use of the terms “community of nature” (physike koinonia) and especially “equality of honor” (homotimia). Each amount to the same meaning as “consubstantial,” since equal dignity and honor with the Father and the Son necessarily presupposes identity of substance. Thus, the traditional doxology implies the Holy Ghost’s divinity; one who is not God cannot be equal to God in dignity. Though his tactic avoided direct controversy, Basil made every effort to answer even insignificant objections with meticulous exactitude. He wanted not only to oppose the error, but also to bring as many heretics as possible back to orthodoxy.
In a letter addressed to the clergy of Tarsus, Basil explained the motives and general attitude that guided his discussions with heretics. In it, he shows his doctrinal orthodoxy, his realistic understanding of the concrete situation, both his own and that of his church of Caesarea, and his zeal and prudence in seeking a solution for the greater good of souls and the preservation of his church:
The present time shows a great inclination toward the destruction of the churches […]. Further, as to the building up of the Church, the correction of errors, compassion toward the weak among the brethren, and protection for those who are sound—not one of these things exists.[…]
Therefore, there is need of great zeal and great care in such a time, so that the churches may receive some benefit. And it is a benefit to those hitherto separated to be united. Moreover, there would be union, if we would be willing to accommodate ourselves to the weaker in whatever matters do not harm to souls.
[…] We ask you to receive in communion those who do not say that the Holy Ghost is a creature, in order that blasphemers may be left alone, and that either being ashamed they may return to the truth, or continuing in their sin may be held unworthy of credit because of their small number.
Therefore, let us seek for nothing more, but hold out to the brethren who wish to be united with us the Creed of Nicaea; and, if they agree with it, let us require further that they must not say that the Holy Ghost is a creature, nor be in communion with those who say it.
But I think that we should demand nothing beyond this. In fact, I am convinced that by a longer association and an experience together without strife, even if it should be necessary to add more for the purpose of explanation, the Lord who makes all things work together unto good for those who love Him will grant it."
This is what St. Athanasius and St. Gregory of Nazianzus called the “economy” of St. Basil. Nonetheless, this method met with fierce opposition from many who otherwise shared Basil’s orthodox belief, as it is clear from his own description of the situation.
What storm at sea was ever so fierce and wild as this tempest of the churches? [...] Every foundation, every bulwark of opinion has been shaken […]. We attack one another. We are overthrown by one another, [and] if our enemy is not the first to strike us, we are wounded by the comrade at our side."
For, in spite of his explanations, St. Basil’s attitude led to the questioning of his orthodoxy by some firebrands who, disregarding his pastoral approach and themselves risking much less than he, demanded a total, uncompromising exposition of the truth—that is, a more outspoken declaration of his belief in the divinity of the Holy Ghost. As his friend St. Gregory of Nazianzus reported in a letter:
Many people have accused us of not being firm in matters of faith—people who sincerely share our concerns. Some accuse us openly of sacrilegious opinions, others of cowardice: of sacrilege, those who think we are no longer in a healthy state of mind; of cowardice, those who charge us with concealing our real thoughts. […] I shall tell you what recently happened.
There was a party, and among the guests present were not a few distinguished people who are our friends; one of them belongs to those who bear both the name and the garb of piety. […] The conversation turned to you and me, as often happens […]. But while everyone admired your way of governing, and spoke, in addition, of our having shared a philosophic life—spoke of our friendship and of Athens, and of our agreement and like-mindedness on every subject — the so-called philosopher became indignant. “What is all this, my friends?” he said, crying out in an insolent way.
You are such liars and flatterers! Let these gentlemen be praised for their other qualities, if you like, and I will make no objection; but I will not grant the most important quality. Basil is wrongly praised for orthodoxy—and Gregory wrongly, as well! The one betrays the faith by the public discourses he holds, the other is an accomplice in the betrayal by not objecting! […] I heard the great Basil speaking excellent and perfect things about the divinity of the Father and the Son, as no one else could easily do, but gliding past the Spirit […].
Then he said, turning to me, 'And why on earth do you, my friend, speak so openly of the Spirit as God […] while he [St. Basil] plays down the fact in murky expressions, and only lays out doctrine in a sketchy way. He will not speak the truth frankly, but bathes our ears in language more political than pious, concealing the ambiguity in the power of his words.” “Since I live in obscurity,” I said, "and am unknown to most people, and since both what I do say and the fact that I say anything at all is hardly noticed, I can be a philosopher without risk. But his pronouncements are more important, since he is better known both on his own account and on account of his Church. Everything he says is public, and a great war is going on about him; the heretics are eager to criticize a simple word, let alone Basil himself, so that he might be expelled from the Church—he who remains virtually the only spark of truth, the force of life, while everyone around him is tainted with heresy—and that this evil might take root in the city, and then, using this Church as a kind of base of operations, overrun the whole world.'
The better path, then, for us is that the truth be managed prudently, that we yield a bit to our times as one would to a cloud, rather than let the truth be destroyed by the bright clarity of our proclamation. For us, after all, there is no harm in recognizing the Spirit as God through other expressions that lead in that direction—for truth is found less in sounds than in the understanding; but for the Church, there will be a great loss if truth is put to flight through the defeat of a single man!"
Although many objected to this idea of “prudent management” of the truth, to his “economy” of silence, “which seemed to them a vapid way of playing with words” and “cowardice rather than doctrine,” St. Basil felt that answering these charges against him was beneath his dignity.
Nonetheless, many of his friends took up his defense. For example, St. Athanasius wrote to the presbyter Palladius, encouraging obedience and suggesting that God should be praised on account of St. Basil’s great goal and his “economy.”
[…] I have learned from our beloved Dianius that [the monks at Caesarea] are vexed, and are opposing our beloved bishop Basil […]. I have pointed out to them what is fitting, namely that as children they should obey their father, and not oppose what he approves.
For if he were suspected as touching the truth, they would do well to combat him. But if they are confident, as we all are, that he is a glory to the Church, contending rather on behalf of the truth and teaching those who require it, it is not right to combat such a man, but rather to accept with thanks his good conscience. For from what the beloved Dianius has related, they appear to be vexed without cause. For he, as I am confident, to the weak becomes weak to gain the weak.
But let our beloved friends look at the scope of his truth, and at his special purpose, and glorify the Lord Who has given such a bishop to Cappadocia as any district must pray to have. And do you, beloved, be good enough to point out to them the duty of obeying, as I write. For this is at once calculated to render them well disposed toward their father, and will preserve peace to the churches […]”
It is beyond any doubt that St. Basil’s hesitation and “economy” with the truth were dictated by prudential reasons, pastoral and canonical, and not by theological ones.
His reticence to call the Holy Ghost “God” in his treatise De Spiritu Sancto is based on the fact that the Council of Nicaea itself didn’t use the term—and St. Basil considered that he had to loyally submit to the canonical function and superiority of the ecumenical council:
We are not able to add anything at all to the Nicene Creed, not the slightest thing, except the glorification of the Holy Spirit, because our Fathers made mention of this part cursorily, since at that time no inquiry had yet been stirred up regarding it [...]."
Moreover, he never called the Holy Ghost homoousion because the terms homoousios and ousia, of philosophical and not biblical origin, were used primarily for material and created substance. The heretics even used these words to support their theory of the subordinate status of the Holy Ghost. In addition, a more open declaration of doctrine would have only poured oil on the fire.
The Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople at last decided the controversy. It adjourned in 381, two years after Basil’s death, having made some important additions to the third article of the Nicene Creed:
We believe… in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets..."
Although not using St. Basil’s exact words, the Council effectively expressed his conceptions, affirming the belief in divine nature of the Holy Ghost, who must be worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son, and, without explicitly calling Him “God,” emphasized His divine operations as the giver of life and the one who reveals through the prophets.
Thus, St. Basil’s teaching and “economic” attitude—both prudent and patient—opened the way for the final resolution of the theological uncertainties and the end of the heresy.
Daley, Brian, SJ. Gregory of Nazianzus. London: Routledge, 2006.
Rousseau, Philip. Basil of Caesarea. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Tsirpanlis, Constantine N. Some reflections on St. Basil’s pneumatology: The “economy” of silence. in: Kleronomia, 13. Thessaloniki: 1981.
Young, Frances M. From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A guide to the literature and its background. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.
1 Basil of Caesarea, Letter 113. FC (Fathers of the Church), vol. 13, pp. 239-240.
2 I.e., a monk.
3 Patrologia Graeca (Migne) 37, col. 115: “Praestat, itaque oeconomiam quandam ad veritatem adhibitam fuisse, nobis videlicet tempori, quasi nebulae quidam, nonnihil cedentibus, quam u tea ob praedicationis perspicuitatem opprimeretur.”
4 Gregory of Nazianzus, Letter 58, in Daley, pp. 179-180.
5 The same letter, in ibidem.
6 Cf. Tsirpanlis.
7 Athanasius, Letter 53, to Palladius.
8 Basil, Letter 258, to Epiphanius, bishop of Cyprus. FC, vol.28, II, pp.218-219. Cf. also Tsirpanlis.
9 Kelly, J. N. D. Early Christian Creeds. New York: McKay, 1972. p.298.