Today we are surrounded by a host of voices that say, “Peace.” “Live and let live.” “There are a thousand different voices, let’s accept everyone’s views.” But Christians must remember that the essentials of the Faith cannot be compromised. The life story of Basil of Caesarea demonstrates the commitment that Christians have made through the ages to maintain the essentials of the Faith. The world is temporary, but God and his Kingdom are everlasting.
Basil of Caesarea
In 372(1) the Praetorian Prefect (local imperial representative) Modestus confronted Bishop Basil of Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern central Turkey) with a choice between signing the Arian confession of faith or being tortured and sent into exile. The bishop’s reply was something that the proud magistrate was not prepared to hear.
The Arian controversy raged for a large part of the fourth century. The Arian party—named after Arius, a priest from Alexandria in Egypt—rejected the full divinity of Christ and taught that, although Christ was God’s greatest creature, He was still subordinate to God the Father.(2) The Council of Nicaea (325) rejected this view as heretical and upheld a position that the Son of God was in all respects equal to the Father. However, the council did not put an end to the controversy which continued to divide the Church. Basil of Caesarea belonged to the circle of the Cappadocian Fathers to whom we owe the defense of the doctrine of the Trinity, during the time when this doctrine was challenged by the heretics.
Basil was an extraordinary leader. Although he came from a wealthy aristocratic family and was a bishop of a large and influential diocese in Pontus, he preferred to live in poverty and simplicity. During his short episcopacy in Caesarea (370-379), he founded several monasteries, established hospitals for the sick, homes for the poor, and hospices for travellers and strangers. He often raised his voice against the rich and powerful to protect the socially vulnerable. He also fought to legalise the Church’s tax-exempt status.
When Basil defied Modestus’ order to sign the confession which would make him deny the divinity of Christ, the bishop knew that he was offending the Emperor Valens himself, who sided with the Arians. Modestus was quick to point this out, asking Basil why he was “refusing to respect the religion of your Sovereign, when all others have yielded and submitted themselves”.(3) Basil replied that he was more afraid to dishonor God, who was his real Sovereign, than one of God’s creatures, even if he was a powerful emperor. Modestus was shocked by such boldness and threatened Basil with “confiscation, banishment, torture, and death.”(4) Basil replied:
None of these can reach me... A man who has nothing is beyond the reach of confiscation, unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books which are my only possessions. Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I now dwell, nor all of that into which I may be hurled; or, rather, counting it all God’s, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be?... Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening.(5)
Unsure what to do, the prefect reported Basil’s reply directly to the emperor. Valens was so impressed with the bishop’s courage that he visited him in Caesarea and even made a donation to his diocese.
Throughout his stormy episcopate Basil showed himself an unbending defender of the doctrines of the Trinity and divinity of Christ. Basil knew that his first priority must always be faithfulness to Christ, even in the face of severe persecution. As Basil put it, “where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object.”(6)
1 Another possible date is 370, for the discussion of plausible dates of this encounter, see Philip Rousseau, Basil of Caesarea (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 351-353. 2 In one form or another, this heretical view of Jesus continues today in such diverse religions as Unitarianism, Mormonism, and Islam. 3 Gregory of Nazianzus, “Panegyric on St. Basil,” Oration, in vol. 7 of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 2nd ser. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 411. In other translation see 43.48. 4 Ibid. In other translations see 43.49. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid., 43.50.