Wednesday, June 14, 2023

St Basil the Great on the Value of Tradition

St Basil the Great died on January 1st, 379, after serving the Church as bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia for about 8½ years. The structure of the Byzantine Rite permits the joining of two feasts much more readily than the Roman Rite does, and so it keeps his feast on the day of his death together with that of the Circumcision. In the West, his feast was hardly kept at all before the later 15th century; once it began to spread, the date most commonly chosen for it was that of his episcopal consecration, June 14th, since his death day was already occupied. This choice was then consolidated by the Tridentine Reform, which raised him to what was then the highest of three grades of feast, together with three other Easterners, Ss Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, and granted them all the title of Doctor of the Church.
An icon of St Basil the great, 1764, by the Greek painter Spyridon Romas (1730-86). Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0
Since his feast falls within the octave of Corpus Christi this year, I was planning on finding something to post which he might have said about the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament. Instead, I happened across this very interesting passage from his treatise on the Holy Spirit, which is well worth considering. (chapter 27)

“Of the beliefs and practices, whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined, which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us in a mystery by the tradition of the Apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay – no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we should unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, should make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more.

For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ? (This means the ritual of signing the catechumens with the sign of the cross on their foreheads before baptism.) What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For we are not, as is well known, content with what the Apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and besides this the catechumen who is being baptized.

On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? Nay, by what written word is the anointing of oil itself taught? And whence comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism, from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels? Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learned the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents.”

This translation is taken from the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers series, published between 1886 and 1900, as a companion to the earlier Ante-Nicene Fathers series (1867-73), both originally put out by T&T Clark, which still exists as an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. The founder, Thomas Clark, was a member of a break-away Presbyterian sect called the Free Church of Scotland, and the two series were conceived as a response to a similar series begun in 1836 by the founders of the Oxford Movement, The Library of the Fathers, which was seen as too sympathetic to Roman Catholicism. (Given that one of the founders and most active contributors to the latter, St John Henry Newman, ended his days as a Roman Catholic cardinal and religious, this view was, from a Presbyterian point of view, perfectly reasonable.) The anti-Catholic tenor of the notes in both of Clark’s series is very pronounced, but personally, I find it almost touching to read their fierce defense of points of doctrine which the majority of the churches born at the Reformation would not touch with a barge pole today.

The authors of the series recognized (how could they not?) how damning this passage is to the logical contradiction that is sola Scriptura, and certainly deserve credit for their honesty in noting that the slippery Erasmus tried to remove it as inauthentic, but that this cannot be justified. They therefore introduced certain other passages of St Basil in the same note, which purportedly show that he “is, however, strong on the supremacy of Holy Scripture.” But even if such passages did prove what they imagined they proved, and that St Basil therefore essentially contradicted himself, what this really proves is what the Roman Catholic Church has always taught, namely, that since the Fathers themselves do not agree on every point, it is necessary that there be an authority which can pronounce definitively on the meaning and value of what they say.

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