of St. Basil of Caesarea in times of heresy: an explanation of the
“economy” of silence
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
Juan-Carlos Iscara is a professor of history at St. Thomas Aquinas
Seminary in Winona, Minnesota.
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
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
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
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
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
Basil […]. I have pointed out to them what is fitting, namely that
as children they should
their father, and not oppose what he approves.
For if he were
suspected as touching the
they would do well to combat him. But if they are confident, as we
all are, that he is a
contending rather on behalf of the
and teaching those who require it, it is not right to combat such a
man, but rather to accept with thanks his good
For from what the beloved Dianius has related, they appear to be
For he, as I am confident, to the weak becomes weak to gain the
But let our
beloved friends look at the scope of his
and at his special purpose, and glorify the Lord Who has given such
to Cappadocia as any district must
to have. And do you, beloved, be good enough to point out to them
the duty of
as I write. For this is at once calculated to render them well
disposed toward their father, and will preserve peace to the
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 Spirit, 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.
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,
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.
YOUNG, Frances M. From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A guide to the
literature and its background. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic,
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.
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.