Book Review: Basil of Caesarea

Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea. Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014. Pp. 204 + xx.

UnknownIn this third volume in the Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality series, Franciscan University’s Stephen M. Hildebrand takes up the study of the well-known Cappadocian Basil of Caesarea. Without question, Hildebrand provides, in one volume, a very thorough account of Basil’s life and thought. After a brief account of Basil’s life (chap. 1), Hildebrand gives introductions to Basil’s views on theological anthropology (chap. 2), revelation both general and specific (chap. 3), trinitarian theology (chaps. 4-5), Christian discipleship (chap. 6), monasticism (chap. 7), and tradition (chap. 8).

Hildebrand in each chapter provides nuanced engagement with relevant secondary literature, and yet the depth of his analysis, which often assumes great familiarity with the world of fourth-century Christianity, at times might place this book beyond the “educated lay readers” included in its target audience (xi). On the other hand, the book’s consistently laudatory tone towards Basil might turn off some readers in the academy. A timeline, giving the dates of Basil’s most important writings and significant events in his ecclesiastical career, would have been a welcome tool for the reader’s reference, especially when tracking Basil’s theological development over time.

Still, Hildebrand’s introduction to Basil of Caesarea will no doubt serve as a very helpful entrance into the world of Basilian scholarship. Not only that, but Hildebrand’s summary of Basil’s theological method as “weav[ing] together the dogmatic and the ascetic” (166) provides much food for thought for contemporary Christianity. While many Christians continue to exalt either the heart or the mind at the expense of the other, Basil stands as an example of one whose “theology and spirituality converge into a single movement of the person—or rather, the human community—toward God” (167). In presenting Basil in this light, Hildebrand does service not just to the academy but to the church as well.

Of particular interest to me was Hildebrand’s discussion of Basil’s understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. The full divinity of the Holy Spirit was something that really did not receive much attention until Basil, whose On the Holy Spirit is devoted to that exact topic. While Basil argued for the Spirit’s full divinity, his many opponents utilized an argument which we will find familiar: that of sola scriptura. Basil’s opponents blast him for not providing Scriptural proof of the Spirit’s divinity. Basil, however, “argues that the Scriptures cannot be rightly understood apart from apostolic and patristic tradition, and in this case the tradition is liturgical” (93). To quote Hildebrand’s conclusions more fully (96):

Basil realized that his opponents had focused too narrowly on the authority of the Scriptures. Their demand for explicit scriptural proof for all teachings compromised the integrity of the faith. […] As did fathers before him, Basil learned that the Scriptures did not interpret themselves, and, as they did, he thinks that the rule of faith enshrined in the liturgy has a special place here. […] That is to say that authentic tradition must be consistent with apostolic (in the broad sense) liturgy and worship.

There are two things worth noting here. First, we owe the very doctrine of the full divinity of the Spirit to extra-biblical innovation (that is, to tradition, and not Scripture). Of course, tradition and Scripture are deeply interwoven, but in this case it is noteworthy that Basil’s opponents appealed to the principle of sola scriptura in order to deny the divinity of the Spirit. A rigid understanding of sola scriptura, both then and today, is not a recipe for orthodoxy. Second, Hildebrand correctly draws our attention to the role of worship in the formulation of tradition. It is likewise true both for Basil and for us that a church’s worship is the mother of a church’s theology. We should not underestimate the power of our “liturgy” (no matter how explicit or implicit that liturgy may be) in shaping our core understanding of the Christian faith. With this as just one example, I found Hildebrand’s book to be both historically informative as well as contemporarily relevant.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review.


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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5 Responses to Book Review: Basil of Caesarea

  1. Shane Angland says:

    Thanks Kyle, I always enjoy reading your blog.

    How would you define Sola Scriptura as you use it here? Did Basil’s opponents have the same understanding of Sola Scriptura as the Reformers did? Also, what’s your understanding of Basil’s appeal to Scripture as the arbitrator between conflicting traditions? “…we do not rest only on the fact that such is the tradition of the Fathers; for they too followed the sense of Scripture, and started from the evidence which, a few sentences back, I deduced from Scripture and laid before you.” (Basil. On the Holy Spirit 7.16). Basil appears to have held to the authority of Scripture as higher than tradition when ecclesiastical tradition was divided. “let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the Word of God, in favor of that side will be cast the vote of truth.” (Basil, Letter 189.3).

    I don’t think the issues involved in a developing pneumatology in the fourth century can be re-cast as a critique on the merits or demerits of Sola Scriptura. Writers like Athanasius and Augustine claimed their Trinitarian theology was derived from Scripture and developed in tradition (Athanasius, To Adelphius, Letter 60.6; de Synodis, Part 1.6; Augustine, De Trin. 1.2.4). I cannot find any any early church father who appealed to the authority of tradition alone to claim the origin of a central tenant of orthodoxy.

    • krhughes14 says:

      Hi Shane,

      Nice to hear from you; hope all is well. I think you’re correct to point out the very high view of Scripture that Basil, as well as almost all other Fathers, held. I’m happy to concede that Basil held to the primacy of the “authority of Scripture,” as you put it, but will continue to insist that, for Basil, the authority of Scripture by definition includes its orthodox interpretation as reflected in the creeds and liturgy of the church. So the “Sola Scriptura” I am attacking here is that which thinks that the basic traditions of the church (e.g., Trinitarianism, or the hypostatic union) are not needed to rightly interpret Scripture. Instead, with the Fathers, I see these theological principles as both derived from Scripture and yet also standing above Scripture as the Spirit-directed, authorized lens by which to interpret it. In other words, the Bible doesn’t interpret itself.

      Perhaps the larger point to take away from Basil on this matter is his emphasis on the validity of non-scriptural traditions in formulating both doctrine and practice (On H. Sp. 27.65-67). So while you’re correct that tradition alone is not used to justify any “central tenant of orthodoxy,” I agree with Basil that examining, e.g., the worshipping life of the church can be a profitable foundation in developing the interpretive principle by which to correctly read Scripture. For instance, we can think of the Arian debate: both Arius and his opponents used Scripture to justify their beliefs. So who was right? The fact that the church at this time had a long history of worshipping Christ as God did play, I believe, an important role in “proving” that the pro-Nicene reading of Scripture was superior to the Arian one. So, too, for Basil on the divinity of the Spirit: while Scripture is indeed the ultimate authority on the matter, one line of evidence that can be used to adjudicate between conflicting interpretations of Scripture (besides piling up more evidence for one’s own view, as Basil does elsewhere) is that of tradition.

  2. jamestobrien says:

    Kyle, I tried working my way through Rousseau’s book on Basil. I found it badly organized and very difficult to follow. Have you read it? Can you compare the two?

    • krhughes14 says:


      I think it’s fair to say that Rousseau is trying to organize his book somewhat chronologically, whereas Hildebrand certainly organizes his book topically. As such, I think Hildebrand is an earlier starting point for entering into Basilian thought, and then points of interest can be supplemented with the relevant portions of Rousseau. Hildebrand’s work is also newer, so it brings out and consolidates some of Rousseau’s more interesting arguments. I really like the Routledge Early Church Fathers series, and would love to see a volume in that series on Basil soon…

  3. Pingback: BA Books & Authors on the Web – October 24, 2014

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