BASIL OF CAESAREA: A BOOK REVIEW
Basil of Caesarea. By Stephen M. Hildebrand. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. 204 pp. $30.99. ISBN 978-0-8010-4907-1.
In recent times there seems to have been a renewal of interest in the theological writings of the early church Greek Cappadocian fathers. This book, therefore, is a timely addition to the growing collection of works that consider the theologically deep and spiritually challenging writings of these great men of faith. The book Basil of Caesarea is published in Baker Academic’s series “Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality”. The purpose of this series is to explore “how biblical exegesis, dogmatic theology, and participatory metaphysics relate in the thought of a particular church father.” All of the books in this series are intended to be scholarly introductions that are useful for seminary and university courses, and yet are easily readable by interested lay-people. In this book review we will begin by considering the purpose of this book. This will be followed by an overview of how the author goes about accomplishing this purpose. Finally, we will consider the relative worth of this book.
Stephen M. Hildebrand explains that “the overarching argument that I try to make here is that Basil’s whole theology and spirituality emerge organically out of his simple desire to live a life faithful to the gospel.” That is, he seeks to show that Basil’s perspective on theology and Christian spirituality is entirely based on his constant desire to understand accurately, and put into practice faithfully, the words of revealed scriptures. Hildebrand thinks that there is a key to Basil’s theological ponderings, and seeks to show that “the single theological vantage point from which we can view the whole of Basil’s thought, I think, is his anthropology.” If this is true, then what better place to start with than Basil’s anthropology?
Hildebrand begins, in chapter 1, by providing the reader with a spiritual biography of Basil’s upbringing. He opens up this biography by surveying some of the elements of Basil’s Christian upbringing that affected Basil’s later theological developments, including: the view of baptism in the fourth century, the development of domestic asceticism in the fourth century, and the friendship of Eustathius of Sebaste. Hildebrand then describes Basil’s “awakening” experience, which, though not a conversion as commonly understood, was a conversion in the sense that it changed the entire aim of Basil’s life. In chapter 2 Hildebrand presents, explores and explains the theory that, for Basil, “man is, at the heart of his identity, a reader and an interpreter…both reader and book or text, reader in soul and book in body.” For Basil, God made man to read, and provided man with two books: the divinely inspired scriptures and creation. In this chapter Hildebrand explains Basil’s understanding of man as a reader (this includes a very interesting explanation of Basil’s interpretation of Genesis 1:26). He first explores man’s rational nature, and then discusses Basil’s view of the human body (in comparison with Plato, Plotinus, Origen, Tertullian, and Eusebius of Caesarea. In chapter 3 Hildebrand considers Basil’s explanations of the two books that God have given to man. Hildebrand begins with Basil’s view on the book of creation. In so doing Hildebrand discusses how the thought of the Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle might have influenced Basil. He then turns to Basil’s view of the divinely inspired scriptures. He begins by discussing Basil’s view of inspiration, inerrancy, and the help of the Holy Spirit in interpretation. We are then introduced to Basil’s interpretative method. Hildebrand situates Basil’s method in the debate between the “Alexandrian school” and the “Antiochene school”, and attempts to show that though Basil may have occasionally interpreted the scriptures “allegorically” in the manner of Origen, for the most part Basil abhorred “allegorical” interpretation when it was not called for the by the text, and sought to remain as faithful to the text as possible (though he did not limit himself in applying the texts in different ways).
In chapter 4 Hildebrand considers the two different ways in which Basil explains the trinity, and seeks to show that they are written differently because of the audience to whom they were written. One was written against Heresy, and the other a positive explanation of the trinity. Regardless of the differences, Basil maintains and defends doctrinal orthodoxy on the doctrine of the trinity. Hildebrand then, in chapter 5, goes on to explain how Basil explained the trinity in polemical situations. He begins by explaining the thought of Eunomius and Eustathius, and then explains Basil’s responses to these two different errors. Hildebrand notes that Basil’s interactions with Eunomius and Eustathius became the occasion for the development of a theory of names (how we talk about God), and for the development of a theory concerning church tradition. He goes on to explain Basil’s development of these two important theories.
In chapter 6 Hildebrand explains Basil’s basic view of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. Basil, in looking at the state of the church in the fourth century, was concerned with the spiritual laziness of those who called themselves Christians, and the major divisions over important doctrinal issues. He thought that both of these problems were due primarily to sin. In this chapter Hildebrand seeks, primarily, to answer the question, for Basil, “is there one form of discipleship or two?” In other words, must one become an ascetic in order to truly be a Christian disciple, or is it possible to be a disciple without entering into the life of monastic ascetism? Basil’s answer is, there are two forms of discipleship (the monastic ascetic life, and that of lay-Christians); however, the latter is ordered to the prior as to the goal of Christian life. Hildebrand concludes this chapter by explaining some of the important elements of Basil’s view of Christian discipleship: Repentance and Renunciation, divine rule, baptism, the Eucharist, and the memory of God. In chapter 7 Hildebrand describes Basil’s understanding of what constitutes the Monastic life. He discusses the importance of communal living, and separation from the world; how one gains entrance to the Monastic life; and the principles of Monastic life as concerns self-control, dress, slaves, married people, children, the role of the leaders, and the role of those that are led.
In chapter 8 Hildebrand rounds off his introduction to Basil with a discussion of how Basil went about doing theology. He begins by noting that Basil “felt an absolute obligation to be faithful to the Scriptures.” He then goes on to explain how Basil interacts with church tradition. This is followed by illustrations of how Basil interacted with the theological views of a number of church fathers, including, Origen, Eusebius, and Athanasius. Hildebrand then considers Basil’s views on ascetism, in relation to the view of the fourth century church. Hildebrand sums up his book with a short conclusion in which he summarizes what he has shown, and reminds us of the importance of scripture for Basil’s theology, and of how much of Basil’s theology can be understood through Basil’s biblical anthropology.
Hildebrand brings up (when he discusses the two books), but does not fully develop, Basil’s view of man’s knowledge of God through creation. It is interesting to note how Basil struggled with the problems of how to think (or reason) about scripture, what counts as authority for Christian doctrine, and the sufficiency (or insufficiency) of scriptures. This book is a very interesting introduction to the spiritually profound and theologically intricate thought of a great theologian. Basil of Caesarea is one of the greatest theologians of church history, and an important defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. All theologians, aspiring or accomplished, should have this book in their library. They author provides an enormous list of books cited which will be helpful for further study. The book also has a good sized index which will help the interested student of theology to find important elements of Hildebrand’s introduction. I highly recommend this book.
Stephen M. Hildebrand, Basil of Caesarea (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2014), ix.
For further information concerning the Natural Theology of the Cappadocian fathers (including Basil of Caesarea), I would recommend getting: Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).