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
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.

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