Sunset - Larnaca

Sunset - Larnaca

Monday, 17 October 2016

The Holy Spirit: Saint Basil's Letter to Amphilochius

St Amphilochius was born in Caesarea in Cappadocia. It was in the year 373 that Amphilochius was ordained Bishop of Iconium, with St Basil, his spiritual father, passing away in 379 at the age of 49. Several theological challenges by 370 had been made sense of, particularly regarding the controversies surrounding Arius and Eustathius, and for this reason Basil was able to write on newly arising issues in a time of maturity, when able to teach with confidence from his ecclesiastical position in his episcopacy.(1) This short piece will discuss ways in which Basil’s letter to Amphilochius, with its differentiation between Ousia and Hypostasis, and implications on the Trinitarian Doctrine, was highly significant for Orthodox Christian Theology.


Saint Basil’s letter to Amphilochius, highlights the distinction between the key terms Ousia and HypostasisThe distinction is the same as that of the general and the particular, as for instance between a ‘living thing’ such as the animal and the particular man. Thus, when it comes to the Godhead - the Holy, Consubstantial and Undivided Trinity - St Basil notes that we confess one essence (so we do not have a variant definition of existence) while confessing a particular hypostasis so we do not confuse the persons of the one Godhead. We must have distinct perceptions of these Three Persons, of their characteristics as Father Son and Spirit, which forms our coherent perception of the ‘common’ Godhead. So these two terms, for St Basil, provide us with the essential link between God’s unity of Persons, but also their diversity of characteristics. 

Basil, criticising Sabellius’ teaching that God was single and indivisible, with three manifestations of one Person, provides the Church with the coherent understanding of one ουσία and three ὑπόστασιςOusia being the existence, essence or substantial entity of God, and Hypostasis signifying this essence in a particular mode, and the manner of being of each Person. Each of the divine hypostases is the Ousia, or Essence of the Godhead, determined by its appropriate, particular characteristics; the Father’s paternity, the Son’s Sonship, and the Spirit’s sanctification. (2)

The Holy Spirit, the ‘Comforter’ proceeds from the Father (John 15:26), ‘Who together with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified’ (Symbol of Faith) Orthodox Christian doctrine, following the teaching of St Basil, confesses that God the Father is the eternal origin, and source of, the Holy Spirit, just as He is the Source of the Son. As we read within Basil’s letter to Amphilochius, there is a difference in the manner which the Spirit proceeds from the Father, from the way the Son is begotten and born from the Father. (3)  He particularly uses the term ‘sanctification’ when describing the work of the Holy Spirit, which he later characterises as the giver of life: ‘All things thirsting for holiness turn to Him… He waters them with His Life-Giving breath and helps them reach their proper fulfilment… He is the source of sanctification, spiritual light, Who gives illumination..and the illumination He gives is Himself.’  (4) Siding with Sabellius, one might argue that the Spirit of God (since it seems to have different roles or characteristics to that of the Father and Son) is simply a manifestation of Himself, or even one of his energies, or acts, rather than God Himself; the third person of the GodHead. Basil offers us a Scriptural answer to this question: ‘When the Lord established the Baptism of salvation, did He not clearly command His disciples to baptise all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?’ (5)

Thus we see that Basil’s letter to Amphilochius is essential, in the sense that it offers (as he expresses it) a ‘healthy’ account of our Trinitarian Doctrine, our conception of God. The letter, through its distinction between Ousia and Hypostasis offers a coherent understanding of the ‘union and fellowship’ (6)  between the Three Persons, their distinctive characteristics, all (and together) fundamentally necessary for our salvation. Taking Basil’s example of Baptism, it is notable through the reading of Scripture alone, we are unable to refer to the Father without the Son and Spirit, and vice-versa: ‘It is impossible to worship the Son except in the Holy Spirit; it is impossible to call upon the Father except in the Spirit of adoption.’ (7)  Saint Paul tells us that ‘As many of you who were baptised into Christ have put on Christ’ (Gal 3:27) while Saint Peter notes ‘God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 10:38) It is through the invocation of the Spirit’s name alone that, not only baptism, but the Christian Church and life is complete, restored and fulfilled. So, rather than a simple gift of God, or even manifestation of God, the Holy and Life-Giving Spirit is the Lord and Illuminator Himself, the Third Person of the Godhead,  for ‘there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit’ (1 Cor 12:4-6) (8) present everywhere, as God is of one essence (ουσία) though consisting of these three hypostasis. According to Stephen Hildebrand, the successful synthesis and understanding created by Basil was down to his Greek and Christian thought linked together. It was through his writings (between 360-378) that Christianity noticed a significant development regarding Trinitarian language and expression. (9)


Through summarising the chosen letter to Amphilochius, discussing the terminology of ousia and hypostasis, how the writer synthesises the unity of the Godhead as well as His three hypostases as different Persons, this short essay has highlighted the importance of Basil’s Trinitarian theology.


 1) Stephen Hildebrand, The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea: A Synthesis of Greek Thought and Biblical Truth (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2007) 27-28.
2) Leo Donald Davis, The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 1990) 112.
3) Holy Spirit, within the OCA’s online series: ‘Doctrine and Scripture,’ The Symbol of Faith: Volume 1. Accessed from https://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/doctrine-scripture/the-symbol-of-faith/holy-spirit.
4)  St Basil the Great (Translated by David Anderson) On the Holy Spirit (New York: SVS, 1980) 43.
5) St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 45.
6) St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 45.
7) St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 48.
8) St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, 60-61.
9) Stephen Hildebrand, The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea30-33.

Thursday, 13 October 2016

St Athanasius and the First Ecumenical Council

Saint Athanasius spent the early part of his ecclesiastical work as Alexander’s (Bishop of Alexandria) secretary, and in 325 became his Archdeacon. His writings proved to lead the way against the Arian controversy, and assisted Alexander, to a great extent, when attending the Nicene Council. His defence of the Nicene Council, our chosen text, would have been written between 346 and 356. Acacius (Arian) was Bishop of Caesarea by this point, and Eusebius of Nicomedia is not referred to as though still alive, having died in 342. Not only is it an attack on the Arian heresy, but also a criticism of their conduct during the Council; ‘caught whispering..and winking with their eyes.’

 A question one might ask regarding the work, career and theology of Athanasius, is to what extent he was motivated politically? The German scholar Eduard Schwartz for example, argues his motivations were purely political, and that his theological opinions surrounding the Council were simply pretexts to cover his desire for power. It could certainly be argued that Athanasius sought power, in the sense that he suppressed opposition within his diocese and was suspicious of the Emperor Constantius who challenged his imperial authority. However, the flaw in Schwartz’ argument, is the lack of realisation of how important theology was throughout this period, for the Early Church. These are undoubtedly spiritual matters affecting the life of the Church, with the central source for Athanasius’ decree on the Council of Nicaea being the Holy Scriptures. The reason for the Church exerting its power and authority is in order to preserve the Orthodox, Scriptural, Apostolic Faith, discerned and preached by the Council and its Bishops. It is also perhaps easy for us to misconceive the way in which the Christian faith and doctrine was linked to the Empire, and to the political situation under Constantine.

Athanasius, within his ‘Decree of the Council of Nicaea,’ rebukes the Arian notion of Christ being ‘a creature,’ or ‘belonging to us’ men, but is rather, according to him,‘other than’ all God-created things; thus defending the Orthodox position of the Council. His decree, written in 350/351AD, defends Nicene terminology, as it was accused of being non-Scriptural.    Separated from all other created beings, the incarnate Word is ‘Lord and Fashioner of all.’ For this reason, according to Athanasius, the Council declares Christ to be ‘of the substance of the Father,’ as He is ‘other than generated beings,’ ‘unalterable,’ ‘always existing,’ and eternally the same God.

Unlike the human relationship between Father and Son, Athanasius describes the relationship between these two persons of the consubstantial Trinity as inseparable, in the sense that they are of one substance, for ‘the Word is always in the Father and the Father in the Word.’ Interestingly, he explains this relationship further with the example of radiance in relation to light. The light (Father) as the source of the radiance (Son) shares the same substance, however simultaneously begets, and acts through (1 Cor 8:6) this radiance in every action, when sharing the light upon the world. 

St Athanasius’ writings during this period would certainly have been influenced by Origen’s, who’s writings had already stated the importance of Christ’s eternal nature. However, for Origen, because the works done by the Son are those of the Father, he assumed there was ‘absolutely no dissimilarity between the Father and the Son,’ while the Father, or first person, is the only one who is God in the fullest sense, whereas the Son is his δύναμις, power. Athanasius would instead describe the Son as the Father’s image, and the Father as the Source Who begets His Only-Begotten Word. They are of the ‘same substance,’ yet both identifiably different. (later to be clarified as two different persons) Nonetheless, Origen had previously noted that it was impossible for there to be a time when Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, was not, and this view is approved of by Athanasius and taken further. As Athanasius later notes, Arianism undermines the Christian doctrine of God by presupposing that the Son (and the Holy Spirit ) is not eternal, which virtually reintroduces polytheism. The eternity of the Word and Son of God is essential for our understanding of salvation in Christ, for only ‘if the Mediator was Himself divine could man hope to re-establish fellowship with God.’ 


To conclude, Athanasius’ Decree of Nicaea affirms Christ as γεννηθέντα ού ποιηθέντα (Begotten not Made), as ομοούσιον του Πατρός (of the same being, or essence as the Father) and as true God. This short piece has discussed the relevant doctrine, Athanasius’ contribution at the time of, and following the Council, and ways in which he had been influenced by, and worked upon, Origen’s theology. 


Apart from the Primary Source (St Athanasius' Decree of Nicaea) the following sources were used:

Behr, J 2001, The Way to Nicaea, SVS, New York.
Hanson, R.P 2005, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, T&T, Edinburgh.
Jurgens, W.A 1970, The Faith of the Early Fathers, Liturgical Press, Minnesota.
Kelly, J. N. D 1968, Early Christian Doctrines, A&C, London.
Newman 1957, St Athanasius: Select Works and Letters, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.

Online Articles:

 - Perry M 2003, Athanasius and his Influence at the Council of Nicaea, accessed from http://www.quodlibet.net/articles/perry-athanasius.shtml.
 - Origen, within the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/origen/.

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Are they humble?

It was recently suggested to me that, simply by witnessing ones characteristics and manners, it can be understood whether or not one is humble. Although humility can undoubtedly be transforming on an outward level, and can be experienced or witnessed through external deeds, is it really as closely related to our characteristics and mannerisms as we often assume?

From the Old Testament, through to the Gospels and St Paul’s Epistles, we realise humility is a fundamental virtue. As a key element and example of Christ’s life, Christians are called to imitate His humility; seen in all its fullness on the Cross, as our Lord and God sacrifices Himself ‘for the life of the world,’ (John 6:51) emptying Himself, ‘taking the form of a servant.’ (Phil 2:7) 

Our Lord however, as the archetype of humility, seems to contradict some of our common misconceptions of humility; overturning ‘the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons’ saying ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer..’ (Matt 21:12-13) This would seem harsh, abrupt, emphatic, or rude, and therefore contrary to most common descriptions of humility. 

St John of Kronstadt describes humility as distancing ourselves from pride, which is often manifested in the judging of others, and our impatience or irritability when others oppose or annoy us. For St John, humility is purely based on our relationship with God, flowing through to our relationships with others, in our efforts to be patient, understanding, and fundamentally to love. Christ teaches us to serve, (Matt 20:25–28) to offer ourselves to the other, doing ‘nothing from selfishness or conceit.’ (Phil 2:3) Our Lord is the very definition of humbleness, not because of personal characteristics, but because He associates Himself with the lowest, cares about the least, becoming a true servant to all. 

Particularly within Church circles, we are quick to judge whether a priest, sister or brother is loud, quiet,  ‘show-offy,’ harsh, strict, too lenient, too soft, not passionate enough about the faith, crazy, lazy, too ‘rough’ or ‘theatrical.’ Often we associate humility with quietness, tenderness, or perhaps even lack of emotion, or energy. However, our Scriptures and teachings of the Saints do not speak of such humility based on characteristics or individual mannerisms at all, but rather something deeper, within the heart of man. As Christians, we are not called to act in the same way, converse with the same manner, speak with the same accent, or have the same personal characteristics. The Church unites us, and by doing so brings out all our individual personalities in their fullness, with this diversity of persons being a wonderful gift to Christ’s body, His Church. 

Saint Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans is abundantly clear on this matter; ‘Though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another, we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them..’ (Rom 12:5-8)

Similarly, Saint Augustine, realising our various ways of humbly reaching out with love to our fellows, and knowing the importance of discretion, tells us; ‘If you keep silent, keep silent by love: if you speak, speak by love; if you correct, correct by love; if you pardon, pardon by love; let love be rooted in you, and from the root nothing but good can grow. Love and do what you will.’


For this reason, it is surely limiting, and contrary to our understanding of what humility is, when we often look for, and focus on certain outward behaviours. We are surrounded with such diverse personalities, characters, images of God, who can be equally humble, self-sacrificing, servants of God, in their own personal ways, within their own contexts and ways of expression. Both the loud, emotive, rather harsh Bishop, and the sedate, perhaps sombre monastic can equally treasure God’s wonderful, yet diverse gift and virtue of humility. May we also, through the sacramental life of His Church, and through our own prayerful struggle acquire this virtue; in our own personal contexts.