{NB: This is an old unedited paper from seminary. There is much I would probably change in it now that I have read more primary and secondary literature since then. However, I don’t have time to go back through and make adjustments so I am keeping it the way it was. I hope it is still of some use to someone somewhere.}

Introduction

Basil’s apology for the divinity of the Holy Spirit articulately critiques the position of his opponents and in turn establishes a cogent argument for the divinity of the Holy Spirit from Scripture with additional support from tradition. Basil presents the arguments of the Pneumatomachoi (spirit-fighters) and shows them to be absurd and untenable. From Scripture, he proves that the Holy Spirit is in essence divine by applying the argument for the Son’s divinity to the Spirit, then by examining the titles and attributes shared with the Father and finally the role that the Holy Spirit plays in salvation. At the end, Basil includes a small discussion of tradition showing that the Holy Spirits divinity and subsequent worship is not a novel teaching. While his arguments are both inductively strong and deductively valid, he unfortunately writes little of the practical implications of the Holy Spirit’s divinity. Nevertheless, he has produced a wonderful treatise defending the divinity of the Holy Spirit that will continue to influence future Christian generations.

The Pneumatomachoi Position

Those who fought against the divinity of the Holy Spirit did so by objecting to a specific doxology used by Basil. In addition to praying “Glory to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit,” Basil was also known to use the formula “Glory to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.”[1] The Pneumatomachoi objected to this on three grounds: 1) how language relates to nature and Scriptures use of prepositions when speaking of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, 2) the relationship between numbering and rank and 3) the proper recipient of the glory given in the doxology.

The first objection is that different terms describe different natures and Scripture sets the boundaries for this terminology.[2] That is, one differentiates between different things by speaking of them in different terms. They would explain their preferred doxology by saying that the Father is preeminent because all things are from him, the Son is different in nature because the Father works through him, and the Holy Spirit is even more different for the activity that the Father produces through the Son happens in the Holy Spirit. This initially makes sense, for how else is language supposed to distinguish between different natures if not by using different terms? Indeed, the Pneumatomachoi are able to produce Scripture that appears to speak in these terms.[3] Examples such as I Cor. 1:30, 8:6, and 11:12 give the indication that Scripture uses from, through, and in exclusively for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, respectively. If this is true, then Basil is introducing a new tradition that is contrary to Scripture and thus committing idolatry.

The second objection involves an understanding of numbers and rank.[4] Objects listed together are of equal rank, but if an object is numbered after another, that object is then ranked beneath the preceding object.[5] This is the language of everyday life, for one can think of a race where the athlete who finishes first is ranked the highest. In general, when something is said to be “number one”, it is often thought to be first as well. This concept is related to the first argument in that one can distinguish between two objects (in this case their rank) by using different terms (ordinal numbers). Therefore, since the Father is always listed first, he is first in rank. Consequently, the Son is second in rank and possesses lesser glory as he always listed second. The Holy Spirit, always being listed third, is ranked third and receives even less glory. Therefore, the only appropriate doxology is one that reflects this distinction.

The third objection then follows that even if the Holy Spirit is great and powerful, it should not be afforded the glory of the doxologies as it is of a different nature and lesser rank than the Father is.[6] The Church glorifies the Father (through the Son) in their doxologies because 1) he deserves it because of who he is (i.e.- his divine nature; cf. objection 2) and 2) the Scriptures do so (objection one). However, such glory given to the Holy Spirit who is of lesser rank (objection two) cannot be done in the doxologies for such glory should only be directed to the most preeminent thing, which is the Father. Consider the following analogy. Even though the Apostles performed many miracles and the Church understands their teaching to be authoritative and true, they are not glorified in the doxology. Even though glory is given through the Son and in the Holy Spirit, it goes to the Father alone.

The Pneumatomachoi arguments against the divinity of the Holy Spirit seem plausible at first glance. Humans cannot glorify God without thinking in terms of language; therefore, the general principles that rule language in the physical world apply to the spiritual world as well. The danger inherent in this premise is controlled when one restricts the language to that of Scripture for that is where God has revealed God’s self. When these rules are applied, the Holy Spirit is clearly understood to be a creature, thus dramatically changing the practice of the Christian faith. The Holy Spirit and the Son are exalted creatures and no prayer should be given to them. They are mediators of God the Father who is absolutely transcendent above this defiled earthly existence. However, for Basil these conclusions were unacceptable and warranted a timely response.

Basil’s Argument

Basil attacks the Pneumatomachoi understanding of terms in relation to nature (objection one) first because it is this underlying philosophical premise that drives their interpretation of Scripture. Basil is then able to show through Scripture that the Holy Spirit is divine 1) in the same way the Son is divine, 2) by examining the titles and attributes given to the Holy Spirit and their similarities with those given to the Father and 3) by examining the role the Holy Spirit plays in salvation. Finally, Basil addresses their attack on the doxological formula itself and shows it to be firmly set within the Christian tradition.

Terms and Nature

Basil’s first step is to show that their premise concerning terminology and its relation to nature is not a tenable hermeneutic. For example, Basil notes that from is not exclusive to the Father as it is often used of material things as well.[7] Such an example may seem childish, but it gets to the point: one must understand the meaning of Scripture in its context. To apply a contemporary philosophical understanding of prepositions universally (every single instance the preposition appears) to an ancient text written over a long period is anachronistic and fallacious. That is, just because Scripture uses from for the Father, does not mean that from is restricted to the Father alone. The only outcome of such a hermeneutic would be a picture of a fox instead of a king.

Indeed, when one considers the quantitative evidence from Scripture, one sees that from, through and in are used interchangeably for the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.[8] Following his opponent’s logic, Basil concludes that if unlike terms show different natures, then like terms must indicate like natures.[9] What is more troubling for the Pneumatomachoi is that Scripture also uses from when referring to the Holy Spirit (Gal. 6:8; I Jn. 3:24; Lk. 1:20; Jn. 3:6)! All of this talk about prepositions can become confusing, so an example might clear things up. In Rom. 11:36, Paul says: “For from him and through him and to him are all things,” which Basil shows to be speaking of the Son.[10] If Paul uses the prepositions from and through and to when speaking of the Son, then it follows that these said prepositions are not used exclusively which in turn means they do not indicate a difference in natures. Even if the verse is referring to the Father, then they fair no better for the preposition through and to would be used to refer to the Father, and according to their understanding the Father would then become subservient to something else![11] Therefore, he rightly insists that when Paul uses different terms for the Father and the Son, he is doing so not to show their diversity in nature, but in persons.[12]

Here it would be important to note a key differences between Basil and his opponents. One must ask the question: “What is being referred to in the doxology?” The obvious answer might be “God,” but that is vague. Is the Church giving glory to God as God is or are they referring to God’s actions in bringing about salvation? Basil argues that when he uses the prepositions from, through and in, he is giving thanks for God’s actions.[13] When the he uses with in the doxology, it is for speaking of the glory of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as they are.[14] One of the Pneumatomachoi principle errors, besides equating terms and natures, lie in their confusion of God’s essences and God’s actions when singing the doxology. While maintaining this distinction, Basil is nonetheless aware that by glorifying the actions of God, one glorifies the essence of God. [15] Therefore, one must look at how Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirits actions in the divine economy to see if it is worthy of the glory of the doxology.

Role of the Holy Spirit in the Divine Economy

Before Basil can speak of the actions of the Holy Spirit in salvation, he first addresses the divinity of the Son. This will allow him to take the conclusions concerning the Son and apply them to the Holy Spirit and its actions, thus building a stronger argument. In the same way that the Son is shown to be divine by his relationship to the Father, Basil shows the Holy Spirit to be divine by its relation to the Son. As the Son is divine via his relationship to the Father, the Spirit is divine via his relationship to the Son. He then compares the titles and attributes of the Holy Spirit with those given to the Father (and the Son) revealing the Spirits divinity through their similarities. Finally, he describes the role of the Holy Spirit as being essential in effecting salvation.

The Holy Spirit’s Divinity Shown in the Divinity of the Son

Basil establishes his argument for the divinity of the Holy Spirit by first presenting the argument for the divinity of the Son. The Son is understood to be the Son by the work he does in this world. That is, the Son is differentiated in person from the Father by his incarnation, life, death and resurrection (Jn. 1:14-18). If the power displayed by and glory given to the Son is equal to that of the Father (Jn. 1:3, 5:19-20, 17:10; 1 Cor. 1:24; Col. 1:16, 2:3; Heb. 2:10), then the Son is of equal power and glory with the Father and therefore divine.[16] The Pneumatomachoi insist that the Son’s submission proves otherwise (Jn. 12:49-50, 14:24, 31), but Basil argues that when Scripture speaks of the Son submitting himself to the Father, it is to show that the Father and Son are united in the will of the Father.[17] It is not a division of dignity, but an identification of two distinct persons united in one purpose.

In the same way, the Holy Spirit’s divinity is seen in its relation to the Son. If the Holy Spirit’s actions are on par with the Son’s, then it must be divine as the Son is divine. Indeed, one sees an interesting chain between the Holy Spirit, Son and Father. One does not know the Father without the Son (Mt. 11:27), and one cannot confess the Son without the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:3).[18] The Son glorifies the Father through his work (Jn. 17:4) and the Holy Spirit glorifies the Son through its work (Jn. 16:14).[19] Therefore, what is true of the Son is true of the Holy Spirit via its relationship to the Son and the Son’s relationship to the Father.

This is important in his answer to objection two. If the Son is of equal rank with the Father, then the Holy Spirit is of equal rank as well. Arbitrary enumeration is pointless when speaking of the Trinity in essence. Even though the Father works through the Son in the Holy Spirit, their relationship with each other is eternal, and they are therefore eternally one. How can anything be ranked lower than what it is eternally? There are, then, only two ranks when speaking of this matter: divine or creature. If the Holy Spirit is not to be ranked with creation, as its relationship to the Son proves, then it must be ranked with the divine. However, the divine is one and simple and cannot be further divided into various ranks.[20] Therefore, the Holy Spirit shares the same rank as the Father and the Son and is divine.

The Holy Spirit’s Titles Attributes and the Titles and Attributes of God

Scripture also bears witness to the divinity of the Holy Spirit by giving it titles and attributes usually ascribed to the Father. The titles of the Holy Spirit are numerous: many of them are shared with the Father and the Son (spirit, holy, good, upright) or with just the Son (Paraclete), it has titles of its own (ruling spirit, Spirit of truth, Spirit of wisdom) and is even called Lord.[21] These are not accidents (attributes not inherent in one’s nature), but are proper to who the Holy Spirit is. That these titles represent attributes proper to the Holy Spirit’s nature is seen in what the Holy Spirit does for such deeds can only be done by one who possesses such a nature. The Spirit bestows gifts at will, perfects the work of the Son, makes things holy, proclaims the Son, gives foreknowledge, reveals mysteries, glorifies the Son, speaks with authority and intercedes for Christians.[22] Such titles and attributes cannot belong to a creature for what creature ever had such power of its own? By amassing so much evidence from Scripture, Basil makes it impossible to draw any other conclusion than the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit’s Role in Salvation

The third way Basil argues for the divinity of the Holy Spirit is to understand its role in salvation. All of the Father’s workings through the Son take place in the Holy Spirit, whether it is the events in the Old or New Testament. Especially in the New Testament, one sees the Spirit participating in critical events such as the baptism of the Son (in which it anoints the Son, cf. Mt. 3:17; Mk. 1:10; Lk. 3:22; Jn. 1:33), the ministry of Jesus (Mt. 4:1, 12:28; Jn. 20:22-3), the ordering of the Church (through the gifts that it gives, cf. 1 Cor. 12:28) and the foretold resurrection of the dead and divine judgment.[23] Indeed, the Christian life is begun by being baptized and confessing faith in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—something impossible to do without the aid of the Holy Spirit.[24] Basil’s is essentially asking his opponents: “If the Holy Spirit plays such an important role in God’s dispensation of salvation at large and in each individual’s salvation, then should it not be glorified?” Christians shall be raised and glorified in Christ (Eph. 2:6), and if they are then why should the very person who makes such things possible not receive the glory given to the Son and the Father?[25] It is foolish to glorify the Father and Son for what they have done and yet ignore the very person through whom it is made possible: the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit partakes in salvation in such an intimate way, then it must be divine and not a creature.[26]

This last point is important for Basils answer to objection three. The Pneumatomachoi claim that the Spirit does not deserve the glory ascribed to it in Basil’s doxology; it is to be given only honor due to an exalted creature. However, can an exalted creature do the things the Holy Spirit does? The obvious answer is no. The Holy Spirit is either a creature or divine and if no creature can do the things the Spirit does then it must be divine. If the Spirit is divine, then it is worthy to receive the honor and glory given to the Father in the doxology. Basil’s distinction is again, important. When giving thanks to God, use the from, through, in formula. When ascribing glory, use the with formula. The first expresses an understanding of the divine economy, but if one truly understands the divine economy, then one must continue with the second formula and give glory to all three persons together. As said above, to glorify someone for their actions is to essentially glorify who they are.

Argument from Tradition

At the end of his treatise, Basil’s addresses the issue of tradition. Since he is being accused of perverting the original Apostolic tradition by “introducing” a new doxology and consequently a new understanding of God, then it behooves him to show that this understanding is not new. Yet, why does this matter? Should it not be enough to quote some Scripture? Not really, for that is what his opponents are doing. For Basil, the teaching of the Church is not exclusive to what is written in Scripture. This is because not everything the Church taught was written or proclaimed to the whole world (kergyma), but there was also that which was reserved for the members of the Church (dogmata)— the unwritten tradition.[27] Indeed, one might understand the Christian tradition as a composition of both for both find their source in the Apostles and both are therefore of equal authority. To think that tradition, or the liturgical practices of the Church, are meaningless, is to render external reality as a whole meaningless in preference for an invisible world of ideas. Outward forms are not always separable from inward meanings, of which this whole discussion is evidence. Christianity is not merely a religion of the heart; it is a way of life that includes outward forms and this is why his argument from tradition matters.

He has already argued at length concerning what the Scriptures say about the Holy Spirit and if Basil can show his understanding to be part of the long-standing tradition of the Church, his argument has stronger support as the traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit. Basil amasses a strong list of those who understand the Holy Spirit to be equal with the Father and the Son such as Irenaeus, Clement of Rome, Dionysius of Rome, Dionysius of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Origen, Africanus, Athenogenes and Gregory the Wonderworker.[28] From such witnesses, going back two hundred years or more, it is most certain that Basil is not creating a new doctrine. His use of with in the doxology reflects this longstanding understanding of the Holy Spirit’s equality with the Father and the Son. This is the tradition that Basil received from his own forerunner Firmilian, and the tradition he will continue to teach.[29] If the Pneumatomachoi claim that the doxology must conform to Scriptural terms, then they should provide a reference for the from, through, in doxology.[30] If they cannot find a direct quotation and their reference is one of custom, then as Basil has shown, his custom of giving the same glory to the Holy Spirit as is given to the Father and the Son has equal validity.[31]

Analysis of Basil’s Argument

Basil’s has developed an argument that is strong both inductively and deductively. Inductively, he gathers as much Scriptural evidence as he can and allows the evidence to speak for itself. His argument is deductively strong as well when he argues through the divinity of the Son—what is true of the Son must be true of the Spirit. However, these strengths also become his weakness as he says little concerning the practical experience of the Holy Spirit in the life of believers. Nevertheless, Basil has crafted a formidable treatise that will offer much for future generations.

Strengths

The first and foremost strength of Basil’s argument is his knowledge and understanding of Scripture. Objection one of his opponents can only be met when one examines the quantitative evidence. First, Basil shows their understanding of terms and nature (which they impose on Scripture) to be ridiculous when applied consistently. From, through and in are not used only of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but each preposition is used for a specific purpose and is understood only in that context. Rom. 11:36 is an excellent example where all three are applied to the Son (see above). Second, the Pneumatomachoi claim that Scripture speaks of the Holy Spirit as a creature, but Basil is able to amass an impressive amount of verses to show this to be wrong. While there are no verses that say, “the Holy Spirit is God,” there are many which give such an impression as when the Holy Spirit is given titles, attributes and actions usually associated with God. Examples are the giving of gifts for the Church (I Cor. 3:13), receiving blaspheme followed by a death penalty (Acts 5:9) and being called Lord (II Thess. 3:5). Therefore, inductively, Basil has a strong argument. He gathers the evidence and allows it to lead him to a conclusion which is that the Holy Spirit is divine.

The divinity of the Son is clearer in Scripture than the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Basil takes what he believes can be proven and uses that to his advantage. The distinction must first be made that the Holy Spirit is either divine or a creature, for this is to what the issue boils down. There is no continuum from divine to creature; these are two distinct categories. Therefore, divine things share divine traits and creatures share creaturely traits. If two persons are empirically shown to share similar traits then it can be deduced that they share a similar nature (divine or creature). The Scriptures show the Son to be divine for he exhibits divine traits. Therefore, if the Holy Spirit shares titles, attributes and actions with the Son, then it is divine. The Holy Spirit as witnessed in Scripture does share titles, attributes and actions with the Son. Therefore, the Holy Spirit is divine.

Issue not Addressed

When reading this treatise, one it struck by the amount of detail that Basil goes through to make his point. This is important and indeed vital to what he is trying to argue. Ironically, his attempt to argue for the validity of a Church practice lacks practicality. While the divinity of the Holy Spirit makes his congregation feel that they have avoided idolatry, what else does it do? How does the divinity of the Holy Spirit affect the average person’s piety outside of the congregational worship?

Basil’s argument suffers from being to narrow. He is addressing a single practice of his church and therefore the conclusions he draws are restricted to that one item. The issue being attacked is one of corporate worship, so he concludes that their corporate worship is true. However, the role that the Holy Spirit plays is more vital to Christian piety than merely doxological formulas. That is not to say that doxological formulas do not matter, but only that the implications of those formulas should have broader consequences that he does not tackle. For instance, if the Holy Spirit is the one who dispenses gifts for the ordering of the Church (I Cor. 12-14), what does that look like? Basil appears to praise the Holy Spirit for what it does and then offers no account of what Christians are supposed to do with what the Holy Spirit does. Or, if the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, etc…” (Gal. 5:22), how does one identify or cultivate such fruit? In other words, if the Holy Spirit makes Christians holy, how do Christians work with the Spirit in that synergistic process?[32] The greatest proof of the divinity of the Holy Spirit would be that those who have it exhibit the qualities of possessing the Holy Spirit.

To give Basil the benefit of the doubt, he most likely, as a bishop, cared for the practical needs of the congregation. He was not blinded by the intellectual pleasure of theological speculation. Indeed, it is known that he preached on many practical matters, especially on helping the poor; he even built a refuge for the poor just outside of Caesarea.[33] He did care very much about the practical implications of the Christian belief, but because of the philosophical nature of this issue, those practical implications were unfortunately overlooked.

Contemporary Application

On the Holy Spirit is a treatise that will continue to have significance for future Christian generations. Two issues stand out specifically. The first is the way theology relates to Christian worship. The outward forms of Christianity may differ from culture to culture, but that does not make them relative or meaningless. Basil’s use of the with doxology reflects the growth of theological understanding into practice. There is, or at least should be, a strong theological understanding for the way Churches conduct themselves—not just personal opinion. The reason for this is that the very practices of a church will do just as much to influence theological understanding as will Scriptural exegesis—lex orandi, lex credendi. Christianity is not an ethereal religion; it is a religion that encompasses the entirety of life—physical and spiritual. It would behoove modern and future Christian generations to pay careful attention to the practices of their church in order to safeguard a right understanding of who God is and what God does.

The second lasting significance of this treatise is a stronger understanding of the Holy Spirit as an indispensable part of the Trinity. In general (excluding the modern charismatic movements), the Holy Spirit has received less attention throughout Christian history than the Father and the Son. But, if Christians claim to be Trinitarian, then the Holy Spirit cannot be ignored or thought of as a person-less attribute—a mere gift or power of the Father and the Son. It is not an add-on, a side thought, or some menial servant. Indeed, the Holy Spirit plays a vital and role in the actions of the Father and Son and should be given appropriate glory. Where the Father or the Son are, there the Spirit will be as well. Matthew 3:16-17 can be taken as a prime example. Before the Son begins his ministry, he is anointed with the Holy Spirit. From then on, all the Son does is accompanied by and through the Spirit. The same should be true of his body, which is the church.

Conclusion

In his treaties, On the Holy Spirit, Basil of Caesarea presents a convincing argument for the divinity of the Holy Spirit. The Pneumatomachoi arguments against its divinity are philosophically unsound and lack Scriptural evidence. What Scripture does present about the Holy Spirit, when properly interpreted, is its divinity through its relation to the Son, the power it has as witnessed in its actions as seen in Scripture and its vital role in salvation. This has been the traditional understanding of the Holy Spirit, and the Church shall forever glorify it together with the Father and the Son.

Bibliography

St. Basil the Great. On the Holy Spirit. Translated by David Anderson. Popular Patristics Series 5 Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1980.

Daley, Brian E. “Building a New City: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Rhetoric of Philanthropy.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7 no. 3 (1999): 431-61.


 

Notes:

[1] St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, Translated by David Anderson, (PPS 5; Crestwood: St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 1980), 17.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 68-75.

[5] Ibid., 69.

[6] Ibid., 75-6.

[7] Ibid., 21.

[8] Ibid., 27-28.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 22-24.

[11] Ibid., 24.

[12] Ibid., 22.

[13] Ibid., 33.

[14] Ibid., 33.

[15] Ibid., 86.

[16] Ibid., 39.

[17] Ibid., 40.

[18] Ibid., 74.

[19] Ibid., 74.

[20] Ibid., 72.

[21] Ibid., 76, 81-2.

[22] Ibid., 60-4, 78.

[23] Ibid., 65-7.

[24] Ibid., 49-50, 74.

[25] Ibid., 104-5.

[26] Ibid., 79.

[27] Ibid., 99-100.

[28] Ibid., 108-110.

[29] Ibid., 111.

[30] Ibid., 90.

[31] Ibid., 90.

[32] Ibid., 63.

[33] Brian E. Daley, “Building a New City: The Cappadocian Fathers and the Rhetoric of Philanthropy,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 7 no. 3 (1999): 432.

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