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Some Reflections on St. Basil's Pneumatology : The "Economy" of Silence

Constantine N. Tsirpanlis, Κληρονομία 13,
τευχ. Α΄. Ιουν. 1981, Θεσσαλονίκη, σελ. 173-182


St. Basil the Great of Caesarea (1) contributed considerably to the solution of the Pneumatomachian controversy at Constantinople, in 381 A.D., especially through his work De Spiritu Sancto.

The situation of the Church, during which this monumental work was written, was so serious that St. Gregory of Nyssa, the younger brother of Basil, wrote in his Encomium that when "almost all men" had come under the sway of utter apostasy, "then the great Basil was exhibited by God, just as Elias in the time of Achab " (2).

It is the purpose of this communication to discuss an extremely important aspect of St. Basil's Pneumatology : the 'economy' of silence, and to evaluate his contribution to the right understanding of the Holy Spirit's "consubstantiality" and divinity.

I. Homotimia-Homoousia-Physis-Theotes

Saint Basil was clearly aware of the intimate connection between Christology and Pneumatology, therefore he never failed to realize that the new heresy (" Macedonianism ", 366) against the homoousia of the Holy Spirit was really an offshoot of Arianism (3). For the Arians, who held that the Son was a creature of the Father and the creator of all other things, it was only logical to see the Holy Spirit as a creature of the Son. Not only the Arians, but also some of the "conservative" semi-Arians, who considered the Son homoiousios with the Father ( Eustathius of Sebaste ?), and the Anomoeans, began to teach explicitly that the Holy Spirit was simply a ministering spirit (4) differing from the angels only in rank. Furthermore, the Nicean watchword homoousios was so suspect as non-Biblical that Basil avoided to use it. Instead of using homoousios, Basil employs the terms physike koinonia (community of nature) and homotimia, which actually have the same meaning as homoousia, since the Holy Spirit's equal dignity and honor in the traditional doxology presupposes and is possible only by identity of substance or ousia (5).

The point that the terms: homotimos and homoousios are equivalent in the Trinitarian doxology and that they spring from Scriptural experience as well, is proved, convincingly I think, by St. Basil in the chapters 6 and 8 of his De Spiritu Sancto (6). Chapter 9 especially outlines his characteristic iconology. This doctrine, which already occurs in Origen, is amplified by Basil in the understanding of the third hypostasis. The image ( eikon ) of the Father is the Son, and the image of the Son is the Holy Spirit. In order to come to a knowledge of God, we have to go the opposite way, so that "our mind, enlightened by the Spirit, looks toward the Son, and in Him, as in an image, contemplates the Father" (7). According to St. Basil, the Spirit "will show thee in Himself the image of the invisible, and in the blessed spectacle of the image thou shalt behold the unspeakable beauty of the archetype" (8).

Against the heretics who argued that the difference between angels or "ministering spirits" and the Holy Spirit was only one of degree, Basil points out that there is a most essential difference: While the angels need to be sanctified and perfected, the Holy Spirit is the Sancti-fier himself (9).

St. Basil emphasizes, on the other hand, that the Holy Spirit and even the Son are subnumerated not because they are of lower dignity and nature than the Father, but because that number merely is "a sign indicative of the plurality of subjects" and "nothing has lost its nature by being numbered" (10). He furthermore justifies this subnumeration as necessary in confessing the distinction of the Persons in the Godhead (i.e. the hypostases). It is true that the Father and the Son are one and one according to the distinction of Persons, but they are one according to the "community of nature" ( physike koinonia ) (11). St. Basil points out that the Holy Spirit has his origin directly in God. One of his proofs for the natural community between the Father and the Holy Spirit derives from the fact that he is said to be "of God" (12), "not indeed in the sense in which 'all things are of God', but in the sense of proceeding out of God, not by generation, like the Son, "but as Breath of His mouth" (13).

The main point of Basil's opposition to Eunomius is that the word unbegotten is not a name indicative of the essence of God, but only of a condition (mode) of existence: «T ό ἀγέννητον ὑπάρξεως τρόπος καί οὐκ οὐσίας ὄνομα » (14). If every peculiar mode of existence causes a distinction in essence also, then the Son cannot be of the same essence with the Father, because He has a peculiar mode of existence, and the Father another; and men cannot be of the same essence, because each of them represents a different mode of existence. By the name of Father, Son, and Spirit, we do not understand different essences ( οὐσίας ), but they are names which distinguish the ὕπαρξις of each. All are God, and the Father is no more God than the Son, as one man is no more man that another. Quantitative differences are not reckoned in respect of essence; the question is only of being or non-being. But this does not exclude the idea of a variety in condition in the Father and the Son ( ἑτέρως ἔχειν ), - the generation of the Latter. The dignity of both is equal. The essence of Begetter and Begotten is identical (15).

Since the Pneumatomachoi wanted to degrade the Spirit to a creature, Basil emphasizes that the subsistence of the Holy Spirit derives from the Father, as the subsistence of the Son does. So the Father is the origin ( ἀρχή ) of the Holy Spirit as well as of the Son. However, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and is sent through the Son, not ἀμέσως , but ἐμμέσως , interventu filii. Consequently, "the natural Goodness and the inherent Holiness and the royal Dignity extend from the Father through the Only-begotten to the Spirit"; and "thus there is both acknowledgement of the hypostases and the true dogma of the Monarchy is not lost" (16). This is exactly what the Eastern Orthodox Church objects to the Filioque, since it implies the existence of two ἀρχαί in the Godhead, δυαρχία ; and if we believe in two δύο ἀρχαί, we, in effect, believe in two Gods (17).

However, even Saint Basil himself, cannot understand and explain completely the "procession" ( ekporefsis ) of the Holy Spirit, which he characterizes as "unspeakable" and " uneffable " (18), but by which the essential relationship and the mode of existence is preserved (19). In any case, St. Basil considers such an ignorance as harmless (20) and is never in doubt that the Holy Spirit is a proper Person in the Trinity. He writes:

"The Spirit is not identical with the Father, because of its being written « God is a Spirit » (21). Nor on the other hand is there one Person of Son and of Spirit, because it is said, « If any man have not the spirit of Christ he is none of his...Christ is in you » (22). From this passage some persons have been deceived into the opinion that the Spirit and Christ are identical. But what do we assert ? That in this passage is declared the intimate relation of nature and not a confusion of persons ...The Son is inseparably conjoined with the Father and the Spirit with the Son...No age intervenes, nor yet can our soul entertain a thought of separation as though the Only-begotten were not ever with the Father, or the Holy Spirit not coexistent with the Son. Whenever then we conjoin the Trinity, be careful not to imagine the Three as parts of one undivided thing, but receive the idea of the undivided and common essense of Three perfect incorporeal existences. Wherever is the presence of the Holy Spirit, there is the indwelling of Christ: Wherever Christ is, there the Father is present" (23).

ΙΙ. Tradition-Dogma- Kerygma

According to Saint Basil, his doxology, using "with whom", is deeply rooted in the TRADITION of the Apostles. And there are many customs which we did not receive from the written tradition, but "in a mystery" (ἐν μυστηρίῳ) through the TRADITION of the Apostles, e.g. the sign of the cross, the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing. But if we were to reject all those customs, we would "injure the Gospel in its very vitals" 24. It must be noted that Basil's distinction between dogma and kerygma is contrary to the present usage. He generally employs the word kerygma for a dogma of the Church, and calls dogmata the doctrines and practices privately sanctioned in the Church (25).

Basil himself "cherishes this phrase (i.e. "with the Spirit") as a legacy left to me by my fathers" (26). Besides Dianius, bishop of Caesarea, Irenaeus, and Clement of Rome he mentions Dionysius of Rome Dionysius of Alexandria, Eusebius of Caesarea, Origen and Athenogenes as supporting "the right sense of true religion" (27). Origen also used the form of doxology "with" the Holy Spirit, but "the opinions which he held concerning the Spirit were not always and everywhere sound" (28). Basil mentions also Julius Africanus, Firmilian, and Mele-tius, but "the great Gregory" (i.e. Gregory, bishop of Neocaesarea, known as Gregory Thaumaturgos ) he wants to place even "among Apostles and Prophets" (29). "And even today", Basil asks, "does not Cappadocia and the whole West support his usage of the word 'with'"? ( 30).

However, when Basil goes on to describe the situation in which he wrote, it becomes obvious that the support for his view cannot have been quite as unanimous: "What storm at sea ever so fierce and wild as this tempest of the churches?" he asks. "Every foundation, every bulwark of opinion has been shaken". "We attack one another. We are overthrown by one another", and "if our enemy is not the first to strike us, we are wounded by the comrade at our side" (31).

Basil's calm attitude in such a situation is remarkable. He tries to answer even insignificant objections with meticulous exactitude in an apparent attempt not simply to condemn the heresy, but to bring as many of the heretics as possible back to orthodoxy. H. B. Swete sums up that "Basil's treatment of the whole subject is distinguished by the reverent awe, the uplifted attitude of mind, the spirit of devout self-restraint with which he approaches a heated controversy" (32).


ΙΙΙ. The "Economy" of St. Basil

Basil was both surprised and disappointed, when Gregory of Nazianzus reported that his orthodoxy had been questioned. At a meeting, a monk (!) had praised Gregory for calling the Spirit God, and had accused Basil of making only unclear and concealing statements without openly revealing the truth (33). What made the incident even worse was the fact that many people agreed with the man, whom Benoit Pruche calls " audace heretique " (bold heretic) (34). Gregory of Nazianzus himself urged the friend how far one should go in the theology of the Holy Spirit ( μέχρι τίνος προϊτέον ἡμῖν τῆς τοῦ πνεύματος θεολογίας ), what words to use and how far one could adapt ( μέχρι τίνος οἰκονομητέον ) (35). Basil felt that an answer was below his dignity. Many of his friends spoke up to defend Basil's position. In his Epistula ad Palladium Athanasius explains that Basil, like Paul, became weak to the weak in order that he may win the weak (36). He suggests that we should praise God because of Basil's great goal and his "economy" (37). Also Gregory of Nazianzus continued to defend Basil and pointed out that he worshipped the Holy Spirit in the same nature and the same honor with the Father and the Son ( ὁμούσιον καί ὁμότιμον ) (38).

Basil's hesitation to explicitly call the Holy Spirit 'God' in his De Spiritu Sancto, must be understood and justified in the light of a cardinal passage in his letter 258, which he wrote only two years before his death to the bishop Epiphanius of Cyprus and which was completely overlooked by all Basilian scholars up to the present. This passage runs as follows:

"We are not able to add anything at all to the Nicene Creed, not the slightest thing, except the glorification (doxology) of the Holy Spirit, because our Fathers made mention of this part cursorily, since at that time (325) no inquiry had yet been stirred up regarding it...". (39)

It is more than clear that Basil's hesitation and "economy" is dictated by canonical reasons and not theological nor doctrinal. Yet St. Basil here admits an addition which he holds justified, in the case of the glorification of the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, St. Basil never calls the Holy Spirit " homoousion " because the philosophical and non-Biblical terms " homoousios " and " ousia " mean primarily material and created substance, and were employed by the pneumatomachoi in order to support their subordination theory (40).

Also recent scholarship tends to support Basil's "economy" for various reasons. C.F.H. Jonston in his edition of the De Spiritu Sancto remarked that "a more open declaration of doctrine would only have proved like pouring oil on fire" (41). Benoit Pruche considers Basil's unwillingness to call the Holy Spirit 'God', "la prudente reserve qu'il s'etait fixee " (42).

True, Basil's arguments ultimately did not prove strong enough to convince his former friend Eustathius of Sebaste. Dorries even speaks of an intensification (Verscharfung) of the pneumatomachian controversy after the publication of the De Spiritu Sancto (43). But this was only logical, because Basil's book provided orthodoxy for the first time with a clear dogmatic outline of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and thus prepared the way for the ultimate solution of the theological uncertainty and the end of the heresy.

While the heretics reacted with greater hostility to Basil's pneumatology, Amphilochius was able to inform him that in 377 a synod at Iconium had formally approved it (44).

The decisive event in the whole controversy was the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople. It adjourned in 381, two years after the death of St. Basil. Some important additions were made in the third article:

"We believe..in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and life-giver, Who proceeds from the Father, Who with the Father and the Son is together worshipped and together glorified, Who spoke through the prophets..." (45).

Even though those are not exactly Basil's words, this statement of the third article expresses largely his conceptions: It is pointed out that the Holy Spirit has his subsistence from the Father, which clearly supports his divine nature (46). The creed also affirms Basil's doxology, s ince we have to worship and glorify the Holy Spirit together with the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit is not called God, but his divine operations are emphasized. He is the giver of life ( τό ζωοποιοῦν ) and the one who reveals through the prophets. Moreover, it should be mentioned that some of Basil's convictions about the Holy Spirit do not appear in the new creed. These are the community of nature ( κοινωνία φυσική ), the part of the Holy Spirit in creation and salvation, and the connection of baptism, faith and doxology. These may, however, also have been in agreement with St. Basil, who did not want to add anything which was not absolutely necessary to the creed (47). He never mentions the Nicean creed in De Spiritu Sancto, but he believes in its conclusive validity. Basil certainly realized that a supplement in the third article was necessary, but he felt absolute loyalty to the canonical function and superiority of the Ecumenical Council.


Adv. Eun. St. Basil, Adversm Eunomium ; PG 29, 573-680.

FC St. Basil, Letters. The Fathers of the Church, ed. R. J. Deferrari, vols. 13 (I, 1965), 28 (II, 1955). Washington, D. C: The Catholic University of America Press.

De Sp. S. St. Basil, De Spiritu Sancto.

LNPF A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, ed. by Ph. Schaff and H. Wace, reprinted: Grand Rapids, Mich. 1952ff. English translation of the De Sp. S., in vol. VIII, 2nd ser. (1975).

Hom. XXIV St. Basil, Homily XXIV: Against Sabellians, Arians and Anomoeans ;

PG 31, 600 ff.

PG J. P. Migne (ed.), Patrologiae Cursus Completus, Series Graeca (Paris, 1857-1866).

RSR Recherches de Science Religieuse


A. All references to the De Sp. S. are, taken from the edition of Apostolike Diakonia, Vol. 52, Athens 1975.

B. The references to the Letters of St. Basil, are taken from the edition of The Fathers of the Church by R. J. Deferrari. Washington, D.C. : The Catholic University of America Press, vols. 13 (I, repr. 1965), 28 (II, 1955).

** This paper was presented at ST. BASIL SYMPOSIUM of St. Michael's College, on June 13, 1979, in Toronto ( Canada ).


1. For recent publications on St. Basil's life and thought see the valuable works of Professor Pan. K. Christou, O Meghas Basileios : Bios kai Politeia-Syngrammata-Theologhike Skepsis (in Greek), Thessaloniki, Patriarchikon Idryma Paterikon Meleton, 1978; K. Bonis, Basileios Kaesareas o Meghas : Bios kai Ergha-Syngrammata kai Didaskalia, Athens 1975; P. J. Fed wick, The Church and the Charisma of Leadership in Basil of Caesarea, Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto 1979.

2. Gregory of Nyssa, Encomium of Saint Gregory Bishop of Nyssa on his Brother Saint Basil, Archbishop of Cappadocian Caesarea, Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 1920, p. 17.

3. Amand de Mendieta, E., The 'Unwritten' and 'Secret' Apostolic Tradition in the Theological Thought of St. Basil of Caesarea, Oliver and Boyd, London 1965, p. 23.

4. Heb. 1,14.

5. Letters 90 (FC vol. 13,1, p. 200); 8 (FC vol. 13,1, pp. 35-40); 38 ( ib., pp. 88-96); 258 (FC vol. 28, II, pp. 217-221). Cf. Homily XXIV: Against Sabellians, Arians and Anomoeans, PG 31, 600b. Adversus Eunomium II & III, PG 29, 653b & 657b; 573a-652c. Espec. left. 159 (FC vol. 13,1, p. 313, PG 32, 621a; and De Spiritu Sancto, 27, PG 32,193a. Cp. B. Pruche, "Autour du traite sur le Saint-Esprit de Saint Basile de Cesaree ", in Recherches de Science Religieuse 52 (1964) 208-211 especially.

6. De Sp. S., 8, PG 32, 104a-105c; 6, PG 32, 92d. LNPF v. VIII, 8-10, 11-15.

7. St. Basil, Lett. 236 (FC vol. 28, II, p. 166), PG 32, 884. Cf. De Sp. S., 9, 23, PG 32, 109; 26, 64, PG 32, 185. LNPFv. VIII, 15-16, 40.

8. De Sp. S., 9, PG 32, 109. Cp. LNPFv. VIII (2nd ser., repr. 1975), p. 15.

9. De Sp. S., 13, 29-30, PG 32, 120-121, LNPFv. VIII, 18-19.

10. Ibid. 17, 43, PG 32, 148a. LNPF v. VIII, 26-27.

11. Ibid. 13, 30 PG 32, 121; 18, 45, PG 32, 148-153. LNPF v. VIII, 19; 28-30. Cf. Lett. 210 (FC vol. 28, II, pp. 91-93; PG 32, 773).

12. 2 Cor. 1, 12.

13. De Sp. S., 18, 46, PG 32, 152-153, LNPF v. VIII, p. 29. The Holy Spirit is "divine and blessed physis ": Lett. 125 (FC vol. 13, I, p. 259, PG 32, 549).

14. Adv. Eun. IV, PG 29, 680.

15. De Sp. S., 8, 19-21, PG 32, 104-107; 26, 63-64, PG 32, 184-185. LNPF vol. VIII, pp. 13, 39.

16. The term «Mo ναρχία » was originally used to express the divine unity as opposed to Polytheism and Oriental Dualism, e.g. by Justin and Irenaeus ; later it was used as opposed to Tritheism by Dionysius of Rome and Basil the Great. On the other hand " Monarchians " was a name for a heresy which pushed the doctrine of the Unity to an extreme, involving denial of the Trinity. Monarchianism culminated in Sabellius, the "most original, ingenious and profound of the Monarchians " (Ph. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids, Mich. 1971, v. I, 293). According to Basil, Arianism is practical paganism, for to make the Son a creature, and at the same time to offer Him worship, is to reintroduce polytheism. Sabellianism is practical Judaism, - a denial of the Son (as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity). John 1, 1; 14, 9, 7; 16, 28, and 8, 16 are quoted against both extremes: Horn. XXIV, PG 31, 600f.

17. Cp. Pan. K. Christou, The Doctrine of Basil the Great on the Holy Spirit, (in Greek), in his Theologika Meletimata, 2, Thessaloniki 1975, p. 184-185. Also in French: L 'Enseignement de Saint Basile sur le Saint-Esprit, in fitudes Patristiques. Le trait e sur le Saint-Esprit de Saint Basile, Verbum Caro XXII (No. 88), p. 158-171, and in his Theol. Melet. 2, Thessaloniki 1975, p. 159-173. See also my book, Mark Eugenicus and the Council of Florence : A historical re-evaluation of his personality, 2nd print., New York 1979, p. 89-94.

18. Horn. XXIV, 7, PG 31, 616.

19. De Sp. S., 18, 46, PG 32, 152. LNPFv. VIII, p. 28.

20. Horn. XXIV, 6, PG 32, 613. Cp. Adv. Eun, III, 7,PG 29, 669 and Pan.K. Christou, op. c, p. 184, 188.

21. John 4, 24.

22. Rom. 8, 9, & 10.

23. 1 Cor. 6, 19: "Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit which is in you?". Horn. XXIV, 5, PG 31, 600.

24. De Sp. S., 27, 66, PG 32,188a-192a. LNPFv. VIII, p. 40-42, Cf. Hom.XXN, 6, PG 31, 612.

25. Ibid. 27, 66, PG 32, 189. LNPF, p. 41.

26. Ibid 29, 71, PG 32, 203. LNPF, p. 45.

27. Ibid. 29, 72-74, PG 32, 201-206. LNPF. p. 45-47.

28. Ibid. 29, 73, PG 32, 204. LNPF p. 46.

29. De Sp. S., 29, 74, PG 32, 208-209. LNPF v. VIII, p. 46-47.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid. 30, 77-79, PG 32, 213-217a. LNPFv. VIII, p. 48-50.

32. H. B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church, 1912, p. 239.

33. H. Dorries, De Spiritu Sancto. Der Beitrag des Basilius zum Abschluss des trinitärischen Dogmas, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 1956, p. 23.

34. B. Pruche ( ed.), Basile de C é saree, Traité du Saint-Esprit, Sources Chrétiennes 17, Paris 1947, p. 18.

35. Gregory of Nazianzus, letter 58, PG 37, 116.

36. 1 Cor. 9, 22.

37. St. Athanasius, Letter to Palladius, Bibliotheke Ellenon. Pateron..., 33, Edition of Apostolike Diakonia, Athens 1963, p. 89.

38. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio 43, 69, PG 36, 589.

39. Saint Basil, Letter 258 (FC v. 28, II, pp. 218-219).

40. Cp. Pan. K. Christou, op. c, p. 185-186.

41. Basilius the Great of Caesarea, The Book of Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea in Cappadocia on the Holy Spirit. A revised text with notes and introduction by C. F. H. Johnston, Oxford : Clarendon 1892, p. li.

42. B. Pruche ( ed.), Basile de Césarée, Traité du Saint-Esprit. Sources Chrétiennes 17, 1947, p. 14.

43. H. Dorries, op. cit., p. 102.

44. Ibid., op. cit., p. 171.

45. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds. Third edition. David McKay, New York 1972, p. 298.

46. St. Basil, Letter 38 (FC v. 13,1, p. 88, 90)


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