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