A Summary of On the Holy Spirit by St. Basil

Sources used for summary:
1. Basil of Caesarea. “The Book of Saint Basil on the Spirit.” St. Basil: 
Letters and Select Works. Ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Trans. 
Blomfield Jackson. Vol. 8. New York: Christian Literature Company, 1895. 
Print. A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the 
Christian Church, Second Series. (click here for free copy)
2. Adult Patristics Study On the Holy Spirit by Brian Ephrem Fitzgerald
3. St. Basil and Faith in the Holy Spirit by Fr. Cantalamessa
4. Basil, Gregory, and the Holy Spirit by Dominicans of St. Joseph

St. Basil the Great,  the famous 4th century Cappadocian father, best known for developing and perfecting the trinitarian theology of St. Athanasius the Great (c. 295-373), composed On the Holy Spirit in 375. 51zf0UiU48L._SX344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Reason for Basil’s treatise

The immediate occasion for this treatise was the accusation that the doxology St. Basil used in public worship, “glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” was an innovation. His opponents preferred, “glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit“, which was a traditional formula.

Since prayer and theology are inseparable (lex orandi lex est credendi), a debate over proper worship necessarily involved a debate about correct theology.

The argument from Basil’s opponents

The second doxology was supposedly superior in that it expressed more precisely what these contenders saw as the distinct levels of glory appropriate to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

Their apparent contention was that any mention of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as different facilitates the argument that they are different in nature (variation of language = variation of nature).

The preposition from is best used concerning God the Father, through concerning God the Son, and in concerning God the Holy Spirit.

These prepositions indicate distinctions in essence and thus should not be used interchangeably. From supposedly indicates the cause of all things, through indicates instrumentality, whereas in indicates the time and place for such action.

Basil’s defence

St. Basil answered the pneumatomachoi, or “Spirit fighters,” who denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, in several ways.st-basil-the-great-3.jpg

First, he critiques them for using pagan philosophy in their strict adherence to prepositions for the different persons in the Trinity. St. Basil thus accused his opponents of polluting the clear and simple doctrine of the Holy Spirit with their love of pagan philosophical distinctions.

Second, St. Basil affirmed that the Church knew and used BOTH formulas, each having its own proper context in worship and prayer, each with their unique emphasis. These doxologies are therefore complimentary rather than contradictory.

  • With the Holy Spirit = expresses best the communion of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son in essence and in all the relations and activities of the Holy Trinity.
  • In the Holy Spirit = emphasizes the relationship between the Holy Spirit and us, namely in the magnitude of blessings we receive from the Holy Spirit.

Third, St. Basil uses both unwritten and written Tradition of the Church Fathers to affirm this truth.

  • Unwritten traditions mentioned – signing the Cross, words uttered in invocation over bread & wine, blessing of baptismal water, triple immersion at baptism.

How then can I be an innovator and creator of new terms, when I adduce as originators and champions of the word whole nations, cities, custom going back beyond the memory of man, men who were pillars of the church and conspicuous for all knowledge and spiritual power? ~ St. Basil

Fourth and most importantly, St. Basil uses the authority of Holy Scripture to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit was called Lord and thus ranked no less than the Father and the Son. Since he is debating Christians, Scripture becomes Basil’s most powerful defence tool.

  • First, their own doxology is NOT found in Scripture.
  • Second, from the magnitude and glory of the Holy Spirit’s works in our illumination, sanctification and salvation, and in creation as well, he demonstrated the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Works attributed only properly to God can only be performed by God. Since such were the works of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must be divine.
  • Third, Holy Scripture does not abide by these restrictions. Scripture varies its expressions as occasion requires. Holy Scripture and Christians rightly bind the Master of all with all appropriate prepositions.
  • Fourth, due to the logical equivalence of and with, the baptismal commandment of the Lord does not differ in meaning from St. Basil’s formula, “glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.” Basil talks about the necessity of baptism for salvation and how perilous it is for the Spirit to be separated from the Father and the Son in the baptismal formula.


Although St. Basil never utters the words, “the Holy Spirit is God”(because Scripture and written Tradition did not say this either), the divinity of the Holy Spirit remains the indisputable logical conclusion of this work.

“In demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil’s treatise, On the Holy Spirit, lays the foundations of Eastern Orthodox trinitarian theology both conceptually and terminologically. Although refined and clarified by the Cappadocian Fathers who survived him, St. Basil’s work laid the foundations of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. This alone justifies the study of this work since it is fundamental to Orthodox trinitarian theology. Yet its value transcends being a theological source. St. Basil uses and discusses here the sources and methods of Eastern Orthodox theology. His masterful use of Holy Writ, the worship traditions of the Church, the writings of the Church Fathers, of logic, and of precise theological language make this treatise an example of how Orthodox theology is done. On the Holy Spirit is a therefore a work which every Orthodox Christian should both read and reread.” ~ Fr. Brian Ephrem Fitzgerald, Ph.D.

Some More Quotes…

Truth is always a quarry hard to hunt, and therefore we must look everywhere for its tracks

The superior remoteness of the Father is really inconceivable, in that thought and intelligence are wholly impotent to go beyond the generation of the Lord; and St. John has admirably confined the conception within circumscribed boundaries by two words, “In the beginning was the Word.” For thought cannot travel outside “was,” nor imagination beyond “beginning.” Let your thought travel ever so far backward, you cannot get beyond the “was,” and however you may strain and strive to see what is beyond the Son, you will find it impossible to get further than the “beginning.” True religion, therefore, thus teaches us to think of the Son together with the Father.

We must not, however, regard the economy through the Son as a compulsory and subordinate ministration resulting from the low estate of a slave, but rather the voluntary solicitude working effectually for His own creation in goodness and in pity, according to the will of God the Father.

When then He says, “I have not spoken of myself,” and again, “As the Father said unto me, so I speak,”6 and “The word which ye hear is not mine, but [the Father’s] which sent me,” and in another place, “As the Father gave me commandment, even so I do,”8 it is not because He lacks deliberate purpose or power of initiation, nor yet because He has to wait for the preconcerted key-note, that he employs language of this kind. His object is to make it plain that His own will is connected in indissoluble union with the Father. Do not then let us understand by what is called a “commandment” a peremptory mandate delivered by organs of speech, and giving orders to the Son, as to a subordinate, concerning what He ought to do. Let us rather, in a sense befitting the Godhead, perceive a transmission of will, like the reflexion of an object in a mirror, passing without note of time from Father to Son

Its proper and peculiar title is “Holy Spirit;” which is a name specially appropriate to everything that is incorporeal, purely immaterial, and indivisible.

Just as when a sunbeam falls on bright and transparent bodies, they themselves become brilliant too, and shed forth a fresh brightness from themselves, so souls wherein the Spirit dwells, illuminated by the Spirit, themselves become spiritual, and send forth their grace to others. Hence comes foreknowledge of the future, understanding of mysteries, apprehension of what is hidden, distribution of good gifts, the heavenly citizenship, a place in the chorus of angels, joy without end, abiding in God, the being made like to God, and, highest of all, the being made God.

For if our Lord, when enjoining the baptism of salvation, charged His disciples to baptize all nations in the name “of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost,” not disdaining fellowship with Him, and these men allege that we must not rank Him with the Father and the Son, is it not clear that they openly withstand the commandment of God?

But the greatest proof of the conjunction of the Spirit with the Father and the Son is that He is said to have the same relation to God which the spirit in us has to each of us. “For what man” it is said, “knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God knoweth no man but the Spirit of God.” (1 Cor 2:11).

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