Was St. Basil a Protestant? Sola Fide? Sola Scriptura?



St. Basil the Great

An acquaintance has made known a certain text of St. Basil the Great (330-379), Bishop of Caesarea Mazaca in Cappadocia, Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), wherein it might be read as if he was an early Proto-Calvinist with regard to the grace of justification.  This can only be when one divorces St. Basil from the immediate context, which happens to be his 20th Homilly De Humilitate, and the broader context of his soteriological thought. . For starters, St. Basil believed that a recipient of justification can lose it, which already means you have something of an initial vs progressive idea. At the very least, good works to maintain, where evil works do not. But that, in and of itself is no proof he was supported a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox concept. After all, he could be a proto-Weslyan for all we know. Even Luther himself believed one could lose their salvation. For, the true Calvinistic, however, one must not believe that once you are justified, you can afterwards lose it through grave sin. At best, the Calvinist says that serious grave sin or apostasy after being justified only reveals that one has never even been justified to start with.

Let’s look at the immediate context of St. Basil’s homily . When you read the whole section from which you are quoting, it is clear that the “justice”  or “righteousness” is not necessarily an extra nos reality, but seems to be closely linked with an inwardly known transformation, as St. Basil quotes St. Paul’s 3rd chapter to the Phillipians in the process. He wrote:

This is complete and perfect glorying in God, when a man is uplifted, not because of his own justice, but because he knows he is empty of true glory, and made just only through his faith in Christ. In this Paul gloried, that he thought nothing of his own justice; that he sought that justice alone which comes through Christ, which is from God, justice in faith (Phil. 3. 9); and that he might know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the sharing of His sufferings, and be made like Him in His death, if by any means he might himself attain to the resurrection which is from the dead. It is here that the whole top-loftiness of arrogance falls down. Nothing is left to you to glory in, O man; whose true glorying and whose hope is in mortifying yourself in all things, and in seeking for that future life in Christ, of which we have already a foretaste when we live wholly in the love and in the grace of God. ”

This is entirely consistent with the Tridentine dogma. The justice which comes to us in Christ, as Trent taught, is alien, but which is then infused into the soul, making for the remission of sins and the possession of divine virtues. This is not the righteousness “of men”, but truly, “of God” (Rom 10:2-4). No apparent contradiction there.

Now, that St. Basil believed you could at once be justified and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, only to afterwards be damned (as Trent taught), is clearly shown in the 15th chapter of his De Spiritu Sancto:

Moreover by any one who carefully uses his reason it will be found that even at the moment of the expected appearance of the Lord from heaven the Holy Spirit will not, as some suppose, have no functions to discharge: on the contrary, even in the day of His revelation, in which the blessed and only potentate will judge the world in righteousness, the Holy Spirit will be present with Him. For who is so ignorant of the good things prepared by God for them that are worthy, as not to know that the crown of the righteous is the grace of the Spirit, bestowed in more abundant and perfect measure in that day, when spiritual glory shall be distributed to each in proportion as he shall have nobly played the man? For among the glories of the saints are many mansions in the Father’s house, that is differences of dignities: for as star differs from star in glory, so also is the resurrection of the dead. They, then, that were sealed by the Spirit unto the day of redemption, and preserve pure and undiminished the first fruits which they received of the Spirit, are they that shall hear the words well done thou good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. In like manner they which have grieved the Holy Spirit by the wickedness of their ways, or have not wrought for Him that gave to them, shall be deprived of what they have received, their grace being transferred to others; or, according to one of the evangelists, they shall even be wholly cut asunder, — the cutting asunder meaning complete separation from the Spirit

In Letter 174, Basil speaks of looking hastily for the future judgement:

Truly blessed is the soul, which by night and by day has no other anxiety than how, when the great day comes wherein all creation shall stand before the Judge and shall give an account for its deeds, she too may be able easily to get quit of the reckoning of life. For he who keeps that day and that hour ever before him, and is ever meditating upon the defence to be made before the tribunal where no excuses will avail, will sin not at all, or not seriously, for we begin to sin when there is a lack of the fear of God in us. When men have a clear apprehension of what is threatened them, the awe inherent in them will never allow them to fall into inconsiderate action or thought. Be mindful therefore of God. Keep the fear of Him in your heart, and enlist all men to join with you in your prayers, for great is the aid of them that are able to move God by their importunity. Never cease to do this. Even while we are living this life in the flesh, prayer will be a mighty helper to us, and when we are departing hence it will be a sufficient provision for us on the journey to the world to come.”

And another citation on the final judgement:

A man who is under sentence of death, knowing that there is One who saves, One who delivers, says: ‘In you I have hoped, save me’ from my inability ‘and deliver me’ from captivity. I think that the noble athletes of God, who have wrestled all their lives with the invisible enemies, after they have escaped all of their persecutions and have come to the end of life, are examined by the prince of this world; and if they are found to have any wounds from their wrestling, any stains or effects of sin, they are detained. If, however, they are found unwounded and without stain, they are, as unconquered, brought by Christ into their rest” (Homily on the Psalms, On Psalm #7, no. 5)

You will notice that this final judgement, in the mind of Basil, is not merely a process of showing who it was who was justified without works. Rather, it is deterministic. The Christians who had the Spirit but who spoiled their lives in evil deeds will be judged and sentenced to hell. How does that comport with Reformed Calvinism? 

Also, some other statements which make it clear that Basil was on a much different page soteriologically.  As to the preparedness of the soul before receiving Holy Communion:

“He, therefore, who approaches the Body and Blood of Christ in commemoration of Him who died for us and rose again must be free not only from defilement of flesh and spirit, in order that he may not eat drink unto judgement, but he must actively manifest the remembrance of Him who died for us and rose again, by being dead to sin, to the world, and to himself, and alive unto God in Christ Jesus, our Lord”. (Concerning Baptism Book I, Ch. 3.)

With regard to the grace of baptismal regeneration:

This then is what it means to be born again of water and Spirit: just as our dying is effected in the water, our living is wrought through the Spirit. In three immersions and in an equal number of invocations the great mystery of Baptism is completed in such a way that the type of death may be shown figuratively, and that by the handing on of divine knowledge the souls of the baptized may be illuminated. If, therefore, there is any grace in the water, it is not from the nature of water but from the Spirit’s presence there” (De Spiritu Sancto, Ch 15, line 35)

You will notice here that the word “figuratively” might suggest to the Protestant reader that he means nothing other than symbolism contra sacrament ex opere operato. This is often the case when it is read with a rigid set of Protestant glasses. However, if you read the context, it is unmistakable that he means that it is in and through the physical water that this Baptismal mystery is completed.

Now, lest one would disjoin the justification-act taught in De Humilitate (from where Dominic Foo withdrew) and the Baptismal-act, we have in the same chapter of De Spiritu Sancto:
Our restoration to paradise, our ascent to the Kingdom of Heaven, our return to the adoption of sons, our vocal freedom to call God our Father, our being made sharers in the grace of Christ, our being termed children of light, our being participants in eternal glory, and in a word, our being brought into the fullness of blessing in this world and in the future, is through the Holy Spirit” (15.26)

And finally, that Basil was no Sola Scripturist, we have this from chapter 27 of the same De Spiritu Sancto:

Of the dogmas and kerygmas preserved in the Church, some we possess from written teaching and others we receive from the tradition of the Apostles, handed on to us in mystery. In respect to piety both are the same force. No one will contradict any of these , no one, at any rate, who is even moderately versed in matters ecclesiastical. Indeed, were we to try to reject unwritten customs as having no great authority, we would unwittingly injure the Gospel in its vitals; or rather, we would reduce kerygma to a mere term. For instance, we take the first and most general example, who taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? What writing has taught us to turn to the East in prayer? Which of the saints left us in writing the words of the Epiclesis [prayer] at the consecration of the bread of Eucharist and of the Cup of Benediction? For we are not content with those words of the Apostle or the gospel has recorded, but we say other things also, both before and after; and we regard these other words, which we have received from unwritten teaching, as being of great importance to the mystery. Where is it written that we are to bless the baptismal water, the oil of annointing, and even the one who is being baptized? Is it not from silent and mystical tradition? Indeed, in what written word is even the annointing with oil taught? Where does it say that in baptizing there is to be a triple immersion? And the rest of the things done at Baptism, — where is it written that we are to renounce Satan and his angels? Does this not come from the secret and arcane teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence not too curiously meddled with and not idly investigation, when they had learned well that reverence for the mysteries is best preserved by silence….In the same way, the Apostles and Fathers who, in the beginning, prescribed the Church’s rites, guarded in secrecy and silence the dignity of the mysteries; for that which is blabbed at random and in the public ear is no mystery at all. This is the reason for our handing on of unwritten precepts and practices: that the knowledge o our dogmas may not be neglected and held in contempt by the multitude through too great a familiarity. Dogma and kerygma are two distinct things. Dogma is observed in silence; kerygma is proclaimed to the whole world

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