Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Fathers of the Church

Epistle LVIII: to Basil


An attack had been made in Gregory's presence on the orthodoxy of Basil in respect of the Deity of God the Holy Ghost; and in this letter he gives his friend an account of the way in which he had defended him. Unfortunately Basil was not pleased with the letter, taking it as intended to convey reproach under the guise of friendly sympathy.


Gregory was the first Greek author to publish a collection of his letters; he did so at the request of Nicobulus, a grandson of his sister Gorgonia. Incidentally, he also sets forth a theory of epistolography; he demands that a good letter should have four characteristics: shortness, clearness, charm and simplicity. Although he refuses to present his own epistles as models, they are carefully written, in many cases not without humor, and most of them are brief and pointed. (Quasten)

by Gregory Nazianzen in Unknown | translated by Charles Gordon Browne, M.A., James Edward Swallow, M.A

From the first I have taken you, and I take you still, for my guide of life and my teacher of the faith, and for every thing honourable that can be said; and if any one else praises your merits, he is altogether with me, or even behind me, so far am I surpassed by your piety, and so thoroughly am I yours. And no wonder; for the longer the intimacy the greater the experience; and where the experience is more abundant the testimony is more perfect. And if I get any profit in life it is from your friendship and company. This is my disposition in regard to these matters, and I hope always will be. What I now write I write unwillingly, but still I write it. Do not be angry with me, or I shall be very angry myself, if you do not give me credit for both saying and writing it out of goodwill to you.

Many people have condemned us as not firm in our faith; those, I mean, who think and think rightly that we thoroughly agree. Some openly charge us with heresy, others with cowardice; with heresy, those who believe that our language is not sound; with cowardice, they who blame our reserve. I need not report what other people say; I will tell you what has recently happened.

There was a party here at which a great many distinguished friends of ours were present, and amongst them was a man who wore the name and dress which betoken piety (i.e. a Monk). They had not yet begun to drink, but were talking about us, as often happens at such parties, and made us rather than anything else the subject of their conversation. They admired everything connected with you, and they brought me in as professing the same philosophy; and they spoke of our friendship, and of Athens, and of our conformity of views and feelings on all points. Our Philosopher was annoyed by this. "What is this, gentlemen?" he said, with a very mighty shout, "what liars and flatterers you are. You may praise these men for other reasons if you like, and I will not contradict you; but I cannot concede to you the most important point, their orthodoxy. Basil and Gregory are falsely praised; the former, because his words are a betrayal of the faith, the latter, because his toleration aids the treason."

What is this, said I, O vain man and new Dathan and Abiram in folly? Where do you come from to lay down the law for us? How do you set yourself up as a judge of such great matters? "I have just come," he replied, "from the festival of the Martyr Eupsychius(a), (and so it really was), and there I heard the great Basil speak most beautifully and perfectly upon the Godhead of the Father and the Son, as hardly anyone else could speak; but he slurred over the Spirit." And he added a sort of illustration from rivers, which pass by rocks and hollow out sand. "As for you my good sir," he said, looking at me, "you do now express yourself openly on the Godhead of the Spirit," and he referred to some remarks of mine in speaking of God at a largely attended Synod, as having added in respect of the Spirit that expression which has made a noise, (how long shall we hide the candle under the bushel?) "but the other man hints obscurely, and as it were, merely suggests the doctrine, but does not openly speak out the truth; flooding people's ears with more policy than piety, and hiding his duplicity by the power of his eloquence."

"It is," I said, "because I (living as I do in a corner, and unknown to most men who do not know what I say, and hardly that I speak at all) can philosophize without danger; but his word is of greater weight, because he is better known, both on his own account and on that of his Church. And everything that he says is public, and the war around him is great, as the heretics try to snatch every naked word from Basil's lips, to get him expelled from the Church; because he is almost the only spark of truth left and the vital force, all else around having been destroyed; so that evil may be rooted in the city, and may spread over the whole world as from a centre in that Church. Surely then it is better to use some reserve in the truth, and ourselves to give way a little to circumstances as to a cloud, rather than by the openness of the proclamation to risk its destruction. For no ham will come to us if we recognize the Spirit as God from other phrases which lead to this conclusion (for the truth consists not so much in sound as in sense), but a very great injury would be done to the Church if the truth were driven away in the person of one man." The company present would not receive my economy, as out of date and mocking them; but they shouted me down as practising it rather from cowardice than for reason. It would be much better, they said, to protect our own people by the truth, than by your so-called Economy to weaken them while failing to win over the others. It would be a long business and perhaps unnecessary to tell you all the details of what I said, and of what I heard, and how vexed I was with the opponents, perhaps immoderately and contrary to my own usual temper. But, in fine, I sent them away in the same fashion. But do you 0 divine and sacred head, instruct me how far I ought to go in setting forth the Deity of the Spirit; and what words I ought to use, and how far to use reserve; that I may be furnished against opponents. For if I, who more than any one else know both you and your opinions, and have often both given and received assurance on this point, still need to be taught the truth of this matter, I shall be of all men the most ignorant and miserable.

Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (LNPF II/VII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.

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