Basil The Great

c.329-379. Cappadocian Father.* Eldest son of Christian parents, and brother of Gregory of Nyssa* and Macrina, he was educated at home in Caesarea (Cappadocia) and Constantinople before going in 351 to the university of Athens. There friendships were formed with the young prince Julian and Gregory, another student from Cappadocia who was later to become famous as Gregory of Nazianzus.* Following his study at Athens, Basil returned to Caesarea about 356 and taught rhetoric with conspicuous success. He resisted attractive offers to undertake educational work in the city because he had already determined to devote himself to an ascetic and devotional life. About 357 he was baptized and ordained reader. This was followed by visits to monastic settlements in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt, which at a later stage helped him decide the nature of the community he wanted to establish. On his return to Pontus he retired to a small hermitage by the river Iris not far from his home. He left his seclusion in 364 at the request of his bishop, Eusebius, who was facing much opposition from extreme Arians,* was ordained presbyter, and proceeded to write books against Eunomius. After Eusebius's death in 370, Basil was made bishop of Caesarea, a role which was to bring him into controversy not only with the Arians but also with the Pneumatomachi* and the emperor. When Emperor Valens visited the province eager to impose Arianism upon a defiant Catholic Church, he was outclassed by the eloquent, forceful arguments of a dignified Basil.

Basil's contributions to the church and theology are threefold: (1) As an ascetic, he devoted much time to introducing and establishing the monastic system into Pontus, and extensive institutions sprang up under his fostering care. A novel feature of this was the Coenobium (Gr. koinobios, “living in community”), for hitherto ascetics had either lived in solitude or in groups of two or three. (2) As a bishop, he showed a genuine gift of leadership which is seen not only in his able directorship of the ecclesiastical affairs of Cappadocia but also in the application of the Gospel to the social needs of his people. On the outskirts of the city he built an elaborate and complex unit of hostels for the poor, a hospital, bishop's house, and clergy dwellings with an imaginative system of oversight. This was so comprehensive at the time that it was called the Newtown and was afterwards known as the Basilead. (3) As a theologian and teacher, he showed determination to uphold Nicene doctrine. De Spiritu Sancto and Adversus Eunomium attack Arian doctrines, but his chief contribution in this field was in fact his towering personality and popularity which made him an ideal mediator between East and West. Through his conciliatory influence, together with that of Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa, the confusion over terminology was eventually resolved. Basil's many letters reveal him as a warm pastor who was concerned for the spiritual and physical well-being of his people. He died at fifty, a prematurely old man, worn out by his self-inflicted privations.

W.K. Clarke, The Ascetic Works of St. Basil (1925); E.R. Hardie (ed.), The Christology of the Later Fathers (1954); J.W.C. Wand, Doctrines and Councils (1962).