28 November, 2010

Basil the Great on the Authority of Scripture

I do not consider it fair that the custom which obtains among them should be regarded as a law and rule of orthodoxy. If custom be taken in proof of what is right, then it is certainly competent for me to put forward on my side the custom which obtains here. If they reject this, we are clearly not bound to follow them. Therefore let God-inspired Scripture decide between us; and on whichever side be found doctrines in harmony with the word of God, in favour of that side will be cast the vote of truth.

Basil the Great (330 - 379), Letter to Eustathius the Physician, written circa 374-375; NPNF Series II, Vol. VIII:229.

This letter to Eustathius the Physician was written in the midst of Basil's conflict with another Eustathius, Eustathius of Sebaste, a bishop with Arian sympathies.

This is an interesting quotation for several reasons. Firstly, Basil clearly appeals to scripture, and not custom, as the judge in this doctrinal dispute - note well, then, that Basil must therefore have had confidence in scripture's clarity and ability to function as a judge. Secondly, he alludes to "the vote of truth" being cast; this is possibly just a figure of speech, referring to Basil's confidence that his position will be vindicated in the judgment of the Christian public because it is based on scripture, but it could also refer to the hope that a synod would resolve the dispute. And thirdly, it is particularly interesting that Basil here appears to contradict a famous passage from his On the Holy Spirit which is often quoted in support of unwritten tradition as a source of doctrine and practice. Thus there is either an inconsistency in Basil's thought, or he has been misunderstood; this is a question I hope to explore more fully in the future.

What was the question under dispute? Basil writes: "Two points are advanced at one and the same time in the accusations levelled against me. I am accused on the one hand of parting the hypostases asunder; on the other of never using in the plural any one of the nouns relating to the Divinity, but of always speaking in the singular number of one Goodness, as I have already said; of one Power; one Godhead; and so on."

Basil follows with an exposition of pertinent scripture passages.
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