David Holford

On the Ninth Day of Christmas

Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, Who spoke by the prophets? If you do, then today is an important day for you.

Today is the feast of St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian on most Western calendars. Both are quite extraordinary men in the history of Church. They also happened to be very good friends. This may be the reason Gregory’s feast is commemorated in the West on the day of Basil’s death. In the East, Gregory is remembered on January 25, the day of his own repose.

It was Basil in his work, On the Holy Spirit, who laid the groundwork for the Church’s understand of the Third Person of the Trinity. In a time of upheaval and competing views, Basil argued persuasively for the divinity and consubstantiality of the Holy Spirit. It is his views that were adopted by the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 when it gave what is common called the Nicene Creed its final form.

The original Nicene Creed of 325 ended with the words, “and in the Holy Spirit”.   At Nicea, the issue was the relationship between the Father and the Son. Nicea confirmed the eternal existence of the Son and his consubstantiality (that he is of the same essence) with the Father. There wasn’t seen to be a pressing need to further describe the Holy Spirit.

After Nicea, the conflicts with the Arians who rejected the Creed continued, but there were also the Pneumatomachi to contend with. (Pneumatomachi  is Greek for “Spirit fighters”, as in those fighting against the Spirit.) They were also called Macedonians. (This was not because they were from Macedonia, but rather because one of the leading bishops with this view was named Macedonius.) While they tended to have a lot in common with the Arians on the matter of the Father and Son, they also denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit.

It wasn’t that most of the Church didn’t already believe that the Holy Spirit was God. It was that they couldn’t explain why. The implications of holding one view or the other had not been laid out in a scholarly way. Even though the Pneumatomachi were denied seats at the Second Council as heretics, this was clearly a matter that needed to be addressed. Basil’s work was principally what they relied upon.

Basil wasn’t at the Second Council. He died two years before it convened.

Gregory was installed as bishop of Constantinople at the time of the Council, but resigned before the it’s conclusion, for reasons having to do with Church politics. He returned to Nazianzus, where he had originally succeeded his father as bishop. (This was a century before the bishops began to be elevated solely from the ranks of the celibate.)  Gregory was also an important theologian on the nature of the Trinity, including the Holy Spirit. His contribution to the Creed was his use of the term “procession” to explain the relationship of the Spirit to the Father.

His sermons and other writings shaped the Church of the 5th century and beyond. He was one of the most notable and respected scholars of the early Church. In the Eastern Church only three people have been referred to as “the Theologian” and Gregory is one of them. (One of the others is the Apostle John.)

Sadly for much of the Church today, enamored with the latest revelation, the importance of the contributions of Basil and Gregory have been forgotten. So many Christians today think that their most basic theological presuppositions are simply based upon Scripture. They are unaware of the theological lenses with which they have been fitted.

Inasmuch as their interpretation of Scripture with regard to the basic doctrines of the Faith are orthodox and not mired in the heresies that line the straight and narrow way on both sides and spread out like quicksand to the horizon, they owe a great debt to their Fathers. This brings us once again to the Holy Spirit.

Jesus told the Apostles in the his final talk with them before the Passion, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.” (John 16:12-13) Jesus was not speaking to the Apostles in their capacity as individuals. Even more so, Jesus is not speaking to us in this passage as individuals. He was speaking to those who collectively became the foundation of the church. He was speaking to them as His Church.

Every individual who claims to be a Christian is not guided in all truth. Even those who think they have more of the Spirit than their fellow believer are not guided in all truth. It is the Church that is guided in all truth. The truth is that which has been believed always, everywhere and by all.

It is the foundational theologians – the Fathers – of the Church who have built the guard rails on the straight and narrow way. They disagree with each other at times. As one of my Eastern friends once said, 100% of the Fathers are 85% orthodox. But together they pass on the truth to us. Pre-eminent among these Fathers are Basil and Gregory.

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