Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith.—Habakkuk 2.4.

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On the Catholick Faith.

By BASIL of CAESAREA.

Translated from the Greek by H.S.B.

TO discourse continually of God, is a righteous employment, and unto a pious soul it never can bring satiety; but worthily to discourse of God, is a thing impossible; for the intellect of man is overpowered by the grandeur of the subject, and his words are outstripped by the conceptions of his intellect.  Since, then, our language is inadequate to the elevation of our ideas, and the elevation of our ideas to the majesty of the theme; doth it not behove us to sit down in silence, lest through the poverty of our speech, the wonders of theology should be profaned? {87}

The desire, indeed, of glorifying God, is natural unto all who are endowed with reason, but all must alike be baffled who would worthily discourse concerning him.  No one is so infatuated, no one so deceives himself, as to imagine that he can arrive at the highest summits of comprehension.  In proportion as a man hath made advances towards this heavenly knowledge, will he perceive and feel his imbecility.

Such was Abraham, such was Moses.  When they beheld the Deity, as far as mortals could behold him, then, especially, did they account themselves as vile; the one declaring he was but earth and ashes, [Gen. 18.27]; the other saying, he was slow and impotent of speech. [Exod. 4.10.]  He saw, he felt, he deplored the inefficiency of his tongue, which was unable to reach the sublimity of his ideas.  But since, in this assembly, each ear is open to receive theological instruction, and since no satiety accrues unto the church, even from continued hearing, but she confirms the preacher’s words, “The {88} ear will not be satisfied with hearing;” it behoves us to discourse according to the measure of our ability.

I purpose to enquire, not how great God is, but how far he may be apprehended.  What, though our eyes be unable to pierce through the regions of unbounded space, shall we refuse to contemplate that portion of the universe accessible to our view?  Let us then, by the tribute of our feeble words, discharge some portion of the debt of piety; but let us acknowledge, that the greatness and magnificence of the argument transcend the most exalted powers of eloquence.  Not even the tongues of angels, whatever they may be,—not even the lips of the archangels,—not all the united voices of all intelligential natures, could worthily celebrate the smallest part, much less the whole of this stupendous subject.  If thou desire to speak of God, or to hear him spoken of, burst asunder the fetters of the body, and break from the thraldom of the senses; leave the earth behind {89} thee, leave the ocean beneath thee, rise above this lowly atmosphere; escape the influence of the seasons; outstrip the march of time; pass by this lower world, and ascend above the firmament.  Consider those resplendent orbs, those starry wonders, which blaze around thee; which astonish thee with their harmonious order, their stupendous bulk, the benefits they afford to man, their wondrous movements, their effulgence, their arrangement, their oppositions and conjunctions.  Behold the milder lustre of the moon, and the more gorgeous glories of the sun.  Having beheld them all, and having soared above them all; with thy pure unclouded intellect, contemplate the intellectual beauties, the cœlestial armies, the chorus of the angels, the præfecture of the archangels, the glory of the potentates, the presidency of the thrones, the principalities, the powers, and the dominions.  Having surveyed them all, having penetrated creation with a glance, upborne on the wings of intellect, continue thine aspiring flight, and {90} contemplate the nature of Divinity.  A nature, permanent, unchangeable, undeviating, uncompounded, and indivisible.  A being who dwells in splendour unapproachable, [1 Tim. 6.16]; a potentate ineffable; a greatness uncircumscribable; a glory all-irradiating; a goodness all desirable; a beauty undefinable; a beauty which is apprehended by the ravished soul, but bids defiance to the powers of expression.[1]

There, in unclouded majesty, are enthroned the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; an independent nature; a regal domination; an unoriginated excellence.  Behold the Father; the cause of all things, the source of being to the things which be, the origin of existence.  From him proceeded the fountain of life, the wisdom, the power, [1 Cor. 1.24,] {91} the unvarying image of God, [Heb. 1.3,] who is invisible, [Col. 1.15]: the Son, who was begotten by the Father, the living Word, he who is with God, and is God, [John 1.1]; essentially existing, not ascititious [additional]; subsisting before the ages, not afterwards engendered; the Son, and not the servant, [Heb. 3.5-6]; the Maker, and not the work; the Creator, and not the creature.  He is every thing which the Father is.  You will observe that I say, “the Father and the Son.”  Be careful to mark their peculiar distinctions.  He, therefore, continuing to be the Son, is every thing which the Father is; according to that saying of our Lord, whatsoever the Father hath, is mine, [John 16.15]; for surely those things which are inherent in the prototype, must also belong unto the image.  “We have beheld his glory,” saith the evangelist, “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,” [John 1.14]; that is, the glory, not of those wondrous powers, which were bestowed upon him by the munificence of God; but the glory of the Son, who, from the sameness of his nature, possessed the {92} dignity of the paternal Godhead.  To receive, is common to all created natures, but to have the natural right of possession, is the property of him who is the begotten Son.  Wherefore, as the son, he possesseth by natural right, whatever belongeth unto his father; and as the only begotten son, he hath in himself the whole, not possessing any thing which is participated by another.  Hence, we learn, from the very appellation of the Son, that he is participant of the Father’s nature; not having been made by a decree, but having beamed forth from the paternal essence, indivisibly and eternally conjoined unto the Father; his equal in excellency, his equal in power, the participator of his glory.  Tell me, what is the Son, but a seal and an image, representing the entire Father? {93}

When we descend from his divinity to his humanity; when we find him discoursing of his manifestation in the flesh, to effect the redemption of the world; when we find him saying, that he was sent forth, that he was unable to do any thing of himself, and had received a mandate; let not these things incline thee to detract from the Divinity of the only begotten Son.  Let not that condescension which was occasioned by thy necessity, be brought forward to lessen the dignity of the Omnipotent.  Understand, that his nature was such as became a God, and when thou meetest aught that is lowly and ignoble, refer it to the œconomy of redemption.—The œconomy of redemption!—Oh! if on this exhaustless subject I were now to attempt discoursing, I should be adding to my present argument an infinitude of ideas, and an infinity of words.  I will, therefore, adhere to my proposition. {94}

The soul, which is purified from material dross, and disengaged from terrene affections; the soul, which can leave behind it all created natures; which, like a fish emerging from the depths of ocean, can rise above its native element, can breathe cœlestial air, and swim on the pure waves of incorporeal existence; that soul will perceive the Spirit where it perceives the Father and the Son.  It will see that the Spirit subsists in one common essence; that it is co-eternal, commensurate, and equipollent; possessing whatever they possess—goodness, righteousness, sanctity, and life.  For the Scripture saith, “Thy good Spirit.” [Psalm 143.10.]  And again, “The righteous Spirit.”  And again, “The holy Spirit.” [Psalm 51.10-12]  The apostle says, “The Law of the Spirit of Life.” [Rom. 8.2.]  Of these perfections, not one is acquired or adventitious; but, as to cast a heat is inseparable from fire, and to shine is inseparable from light, so also to sanctify and to give life can never be separate from the Spirit.

There, exists the Spirit,—there, in that {95} blessed nature,—not reckoned with multitude, but contemplated in a Triad; enunciated by unity, not comprehended in the class of entities.

As the Father is one, and the Son is one, so also is the Spirit; but the ministering spirits [Heb. 1.14,] arranged in their respective orders, indicate a multitude whose number transcends the powers of computation.  Seek not amid created beings that which is above creation, nor degrade the Sanctifier to the condition of the Sanctified.  This Spirit fills the angels, replenishes the archangels, sanctifies the powers, and gives existence to the universe.  This Spirit, though distributed through all creation, though participated in various degrees and measures, is in nought diminished by the profusion of his bounties.  He bestows on all the riches of his grace, and yet, his treasure is unexhausted; for they who receive are abundantly replenished, and he who gives is not impoverished.  As the sun, shining upon various bodies, {96} and gilding them with various degrees of brightness, suffers not a diminution, so the Spirit diffuses over all his grace, yet endures, undiminished and undivided.  He illuminates the minds of all with the knowledge of Deity; he inspires prophets, he enlightens legislators, he makes the priesthood perfect, he strengthens monarchs, he establishes the righteous, he dignifies the prudent, he sheds abroad his graces, he bids the dead to live, he liberates those who had been bound, he adopts those who had been estranged.  These things he operates by the regeneration which is from above.  Does he find a tax-gatherer? He constitutes him an evangelist.  Does he meet with a fisherman? He renders him a divine.  Does he behold a persecutor? He sends him forth an apostle of nations, a herald of the faith, a vessel of election. [2 Tim. 1.11, Acts. 9.15]  By him are the weak invigorated, the poor are enshrined in wealth, the illiterate are rendered wiser than the wise.  Paul was infirm in body, but by the exuberance of the Spirit his {97} very garments extended health to the diseased.  Peter also was subjected to corporeal infirmity, but through that spiritual grace which dwelt within him, the very shadow of his body expelled diseases.  Peter and John were poor, for they had neither silver nor gold, but they bestowed health, which was more precious than gold, and more estimable than silver.  For a lame man, though he had received the alms of many, was still a mendicant; but when he had been cured by Peter, he ceased from begging; he leaped like a hart, and magnified his God.  John was unacquainted with the wisdom of the world; but in the power of the Spirit, he uttered words which no wisdom of man can fathom.—The Spirit is enthroned in heaven, but he pervades the earth, he is everywhere present, and by no bounds is circumscribed.  In each point of space he is altogether present, and yet he is altogether enthroned in heaven.  Not as one who is subservient, does he administer gifts, but of his own will he dispenses {98} blessings; for, saith the Scripture, “He distributes unto each according as it pleases him.” [1 Cor. 12.11.]  He is sent forth, with reference to the œconomy of redemption; but with inherent might he operates.

Let us pray, that he may be present to our souls, and may never fail us.  Let us pray, that he may be present through the grace of Christ our Lord, unto whom be ascribed the glory and the power, for ever and ever.  Amen.[2]


Footnotes:

1. Basil has a very beautiful passage about the Deity, in the exordium of his first Homily on the Hexaemeron, another at the close of the same Homily, and a third, a little way beyond the exordium of his Homily on the first psalm.

2. The reader will probably have remarked, that Basil dwells much longer on the Spirit, than he does on the Father or on the Son.  I therefore think it proper to state the reason, or rather what I conceive to have been the reason.  During the latter period of Basil’s life, the Divinity of the Holy Ghost was made a preeminent subject of controversy, and was assailed, if possible, with more rage and fury than even the Divinity of the Son.  Basil was one of its most strenuous defenders, and on this account was exposed to considerable persecution.  Besides preaching on the subject, he wrote and published an elaborate treatise “On the Holy Spirit.”  It is a most valuable work, and that man who should translate it into English, would confer a real benefit on the Church.  In the 28th chapter there is a passage which eminently displays the fervency of his zeal, and which is so grand and noble, that I cannot refrain from introducing it in this place.  He has been shewing that the expression, “with the Spirit,” had been used from the earliest times by the most eminent preachers, in their doxologies.  He then proceeds thus:

How then am I an innovator, and an architect of newly constructed phrases; I who have evinced, that whole cities and nations, that a custom more ancient than the memory of man, that prelates who were pillars of the church, resplendent in all the power and all the science of the Spirit, were the patrons and champions of this expression?  On this account a hostile army is drawn up against me; and every city and every hamlet, and the farthest limits of the earth, are crowded with mine accusers.  Melancholy are these things, and grievous to the hearts of those who sigh for peace.  But are there not rewards unspeakable for patient endurance in suffering for the faith?  Why, then, let the axe be sharpened, and the sword unsheathed; let a fire be lighted up more dreadful than the Babylonian furnace; let every instrument of torture and of destruction be roused against me; for to me at least, nothing appears more terrible than not to tremble at the judgments with which the Lord hath threatened the blasphemers of his Spirit.