Dominican House of Studies

History and Theology of Preaching

Fr. John Burke, O.P.

St. Basil the Great

-his person and his preaching

by Bro. Albert Michael Seul, O.P.

Dominican House of Studies

487 Michigan Avenue, N.E.

Washington, D.C. 20017


1. Introduction

2. Main Part.

2.1. Biography

2.2. Basil's method of preaching

2.3. The Sermon on Justice and Mercy as a example

3. Conclusions

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

In this research paper I want to investigate the person of St. Basil the Great, who lived from 329/330 to 379. Furthermore I will try to show his way of preaching, demonstrating his inventions in the sermon on mercy and justice.

I hope I can show that this saint of the Western and Eastern Church has a relevance for our time, too.

2. Main Part

2.1. Biography

Basil was born 330 in Cesarea in Cappadocia. His father Basil, the elder was a rich landowner with the learned profession of a rhetorician in the sophist school of tradition. His mother Emmilla, a noble woman of Cappadocia, was a devout Christian, like her father. Basil's grandfather was persecuted under Emperor Maximilian. Basil the older and Emmila had ten children. Three of them became bishops (Basil, Gregory, and Peter), one became a monk and another a nun.

One of Basil's brothers, Gregory of Nyssa, also became famous like him. Basil's best friend was Gregory of Nazianzus. All three are saints of the church.

Basil was educated as a rhetorician in his hometown of Caesarea, which was the political capital of Asia Minor, in Constantinople and in Athens. He finished his education there in 355. After that he worked as a teacher of rhetoric, but only for a short time, from 355-56. Like many young men of his time he was interested in the ascetic life. Following this interest he traveled through Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Egypt to visit monasteries.

He was baptized in 357 and he joined his mother and his sister in their ascetic lifestyle. His friend Gregory of Nazianzus decided to do the same. They decided to go to a desert area near his hometown. During this time Basil wrote one of his most famous and influential works: the Asketion, a rule for monks. Later he would write a longer rule. These two rules are still in use as the main rules in the monasteries in the Eastern Church.

Through his very sophisticated education he was able to communicate with the most influential people of his time, discussing and arguing against Arianism and being a proponent for the Nicene position. He emphasized the divinity of the Holy Spirit in the blessed Trinity. He was a well known monk in Cappadocia.

In 360 Basil was ordained as reader, and in 362 or 364 Bishop Eusebius ordained him as a priest. In this position he became the most important counselor of his bishop, since Basil's bishop wasn't as well educated as he was. As his representative he tried to organize the welfare system of the church. He negotiated with the anti-clerical nobles of the city. He renewed liturgical celebrations and integrated the monks and the clergy. " He tried to educate the community to become a more conscious Christian Church through his impressive preaching." Ten years later he became the successor of Eusebius as Bishop of Caesarea.

As the Bishop of Caesarea he was the 'ordinaries' of all Cappadocia. And therefor he was better able to fight for the unity of the church against the Arians. In Contantinople there reigned an Arian Emperor, and so as a result, Basil became more and more the target of envy and public enmity. But "the strength (...) of his person and his writings, especially his social policy, (...) are the reasons why he could act freely." He also became the imperial and ecclesial envoy in Armenia. He used this position to help people who lived in very poor situation.

Furthermore he tried to achieve a greater unity in the Church. So he sought greater union with the western Patriarch in Rome. He had no success, however. Still fighting against enemies and rivals and exhausted through wrestling with the tiring dogmatic and ecclesial questions, Basil died a January 1, 379.

2.2.1. Basil's sermons

Basil was not primarily a theologian, who sat at his desk, writing abstract books, which had no connection to the world. Although he was a monk he was a man, a bishop living in the world and challenged by the necessities of his time. He was confronted with questions of great importance. As a bishop he had to care for the temporal needs of his community and for the truth and purity of their faith. For this reason his sermons are not only important as a source of history in general but also a source of the history of preaching.

"His sermons are the most extensive part of his writings": These include Homilies on Psalms from the years before 370, 23 authentic sermons, 9 sermons about the Hexaemeron from his late lifetime ( perhaps from the year 378 ), and two homilies on the creation of man.

2.2.2. Basil's method of preaching

In Basil's time, fourth century Christianity had already developed a full system of theological language. Basil as a son of a rhetorician and as a sophisticated rhetorician himself was familiar with the whole system of ancient rhetoric.

Hermagoras of Temnos, a ancient teacher of rhetoric in the second century BC, thought, like others before him, that rhetoric had five functions: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. One of these five functions, arrangement or in Greek oikonomia, was very important for Hermagoras. He invented this term, instead of the old term taxis. The new term had a broader meaning. It contained krisis (judgment) and lexis (style). Thus arrangement became more a active power, a true process. A process "that is affected by intellectual, moral, and aesthetic impulses as they attach to both judgment and style.". Rhetoric was concerned with the whole of human life. Such a view tried to see the human being as a part of a continuum.

Christianity could use this type of rhetoric because it saw the human being as sinful and the creator as transcendent. Connections to God as the creator of the cosmos could be made. Basil as a strong believer in the idea of creation used this method of oikonomia. He had a view of the Christian life as a cultured life, a life rooted in principles, a life demanding social acts and a life that mirrors the divine life, which is also a life of communion, to use a modern terry

In his works about the Holy Spirit he often used terms reflecting relation and he found his words in different sources. So his term for omoousios (one being), which was omotimos, has its origin in rhetoric. This is another example of arrangement in the sense of Hermagoras: i.e. to use different sources. "Rhetoric, the exetoric [sic] and philosophy, the esoteric disciplines of antiquity meet here on ideal ground."

In this system of thought the Logos is an important topic. And this is another side of oikounomia, order (taxis), which was very important for Basil. In every part of the creation he saw the ordering hand of the Logos. And everything reflected the order of creation.

And so he reflected this topic in his preaching. Everything is properly ordered. He emphasized the social character of such thinking. Especially in his sermon about the Hexaemeron ( the work of the seven days of creation according- to Genesis ).

"At the end of the homily the same themes are developed, but in reverse order. The reasons why water is good are reviewed, starting (...) with his physical properties in combining with other elements, then moving to its social utility and finally ending with the extension of the social reverence [sic] to the church and its members. The gathering of the waters becomes the gathering of the church itself."

Basil could speak about the Bible only in this way, because of the allegoric method of explaining the scriptures. Allegoric method means, the text of the scriptures, especially the Old Testament is understood as a picture, as a story of examples, which should explain the deeper sense of scriptures.

For Basil speech is like life. Speech is kinetic energy expressing God's creative moral order. It is a sign of life. Silence means death. He calls the Apostles "the lips of Christ" and his friends are "living epistles".

Words were understood by him as an active and living presence. Just deeds became a voice before God.

Hence active presence according to Basil meant a socially active life. The Christian uses words to improve the society. Words were important to build Christian community. He looked upon letter-writing as agape.

Basil gave practical advice about the Christian life in his sermons on the Psalms. In these sermons he spoke about the necessity of being social in the society for the Christians. Since he was also concerned about the practical needs of the people. Basil directed his preaching to the needs of the people..

2.3. The sermon On Mercy And Justice as a example

Mercy and Justice are the content of this sermon . Basil connects these two virtues as a command for Christians. He shows that wealth has always a social dimension: "If you give alms to the poor after you have despoiled them of their goods, it were better for you neither to have taken nor given." so he emphasizes the responsibility of wealth, seeing the whole system of society. He says that acting justly is not enough, but that we as Christians should show mercy in addition to justice as a imitation of God, who " bestows his mercy upon those only whom he commends."

The sermon begins with a long quotation from Paul's letter to the Romans, followed from a lot of other quotations, on the topic mercy and justice After these quotations Basil starts with his own thoughts, but always referring to new scriptural quotations the ones he just quoted. In the last two parts he quotes Christ on mercy and justice showing Christ's teaching about mercy and justice.

This sermon is arranged with the method of oikounomia, as Basil tried to show the well-ordered relation between mercy and justice. Justice without mercy is only following the Law. But Christians have to be merciful, imitating their savior. Yet mere mercy is not enough justice is also required, because very often the rich become after depriving the poor.

To be merciful is not only the act of an individual person: it is related to the whole of the society and the common good, to use terms of St. Thomas. The Christian stands in a continuum ,and he is not a absolute person free from his surroundings.

3. Conclusion

What can a saint like St. Basil mean for us as Christians and as preachers of the Gospel more than 1600 years after his death?

I would suggest two things. First of all he was a Christian, and a Christian, who saw the world in which he lived as it was. He had no illusions about life in the fourth century. From this knowledge he could make his solutions. One of them was that Christians have to be moral acting persons. To be a Christian meant for him not only to bear this name, but to behave as a Christian.

He saw this Christian social life not in an isolated way, but as a part of a larger reality of community. We have to do the same: to see the system and to see the Christians as a part of the system, but although responsible for their actions.

A second lesson is Basil's way of preaching ! He saw the needs of the people and was open to using different methods of proclaiming the gospel. We have to find suitable aids, words and means, old and new, to preach the truth of the of our faith. In this openness we can became like St. Basil a "guide of life and a teacher of the faith."

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