Fathers of the Church
Letter CCXXXVI: to the Same Amphilochius
by Basil the Great in 357-370 | translated by Blomfield Jackson, M.A
1. ENQUIRY has already frequently been made concerning the saying of the gospels as to our Lord Jesus Christ's ignorance of the day and of the hour of the end; an objection constantly put forward by the Anomoeans to the destruction of the glory of the Only-Begotten, in order to show Him to be unlike in essence and subordinate in dignity; inasmuch as, if He know not all things, He cannot possess the same nature nor be regarded as of one likeness with Him, who by His own prescience and faculty of forecasting the future has knowledge coextensive with the universe. This question has now been proposed to me by your intelligence as a new one. I can give in reply the answer which I heard from our fathers when I was a boy, and which on account of my love for what is good, I have received without question. I do not expect that it can undo the shamelessness of them that fight against Christ, for where is the reasoning strong enough to stand their attack? It may, however, suffice to convince all that love the Lord, and in whom the previous assurance supplied them by faith is stronger than any demonstration of reason.
Now "no man" seems to be a general expression, so that not even one person is excepted by it, but this is not its use in Scripture, as I have observed in the passage "there is none good but one, that is, God." For even in this passage the Son does not so speak to the exclusion of Himself from the good nature. But, since the Father is the first good, we believe the words" no man" to have been uttered with the understood addition of " first." So with the passage "No than knoweth the Son but the Father; " even here there is no charge of ignorance against the Spirit, but only a testimony that knowledge of His own nature naturally belongs to the Father first. Thus also we understand " No man knoweth," to refer to the Father the first knowledge of things, both present and to be, and generally to exhibit to men the first cause. Otherwise how can this passage fall in with the rest of the evidence of Scripture, or agree with the common notions of us who believe that the Only-Begotten is the image of the invisible God, and image not of the bodily figure, but of the very Godhead and of the mighty qualities attributed to the essence of God, image of power, image of wisdom, as Christ is called "the power of God and the wisdom of God "? Now of wisdom knowledge is plainly a part; and if in any part He falls short, He is not an image of the whole; and how can we understand the Father not to have shewn that day and that hour—the smallest portion of the ages—to Him through Whom He made the ages? How can the Creator of the universe fall short of the knowledge of the smallest portion of the things created by Him? How can He who says, when the end is near, that such and such signs shall appear in heaven and in earth, be ignorant of the end itself? When He says, "The end is not yet." He makes a definite statement, as though with knowledge and not in doubt. Then further, it is plain to the fair enquirer that our Lord says many things to men, in the character of man; as for instance, "give me to drink" is a saying of our Lord, expressive of His bodily necessity; and yet the asker was not soulless flesh. but Godhead using flesh endued with soul. So in the present instance no one will be carried beyond the bounds of the interpretation of true religion, who understands the ignorance of him who had received all things according to the oeconomy, and was advancing with God and man in favour and wisdom.
2. It would be worthy of your diligence to set the phrases of the Gospel side by side, and compare together those of Matthew and those of Mark, for these two alone are found in concurrence in this passage. The wording of Matthew is "of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only." That of Mark runs, "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father." What is noticeable in these passages is this; that Matthew says nothing about the ignorance of the Son, and seems to agree with Mark as to sense in saying "but my Father only." Now I understand the word "only" have been used in contradistinction to the angels, but that the Son is not included with His own servants in ignorance.
He could not say what is false Who said "All things that the Father hath are Mine," but one of the things which the Father hath is knowledge of that day and of that hour. In the passage in Matthew, then, the Lord made no mention of His own Person, as a matter beyond controversy, and said that the angels knew not and that His Father alone knew, tacitly asserting the knowledge of His Father to be His own knowledge too, because of what He had said elsewhere. "as the Father knoweth me even so know I the Father," and if the Father has complete knowledge of the Son, nothing excepted, so that He knows all knowledge to dwell in Him, He will clearly be known as fully by the Son with all His inherent wisdom and all His knowledge of things to come. This modification, I think, may be given to the words of Matthew, "but my Father only." Now as to the words of Mark, who appears distinctly to exclude the Son from the knowledge, my opinion is this. No man knoweth, neither the angels of God; nor yet the Son would have known unless the Father had known: that is, the cause of the Son's knowing comes from the Father. To a fair hearer there is no violence in this interpretation, because the wore "only" is not added as it is in Matthew. Mark's sense, then, is as follows: of that day and of that hour knoweth no man, nor the angels of God; but even the Son would not have known if the Father had not known, for the knowledge naturally His was given by the Father. This is very decorous and becoming the divine nature to say of the Son, because He has, His knowledge and His being, beheld in all the wisdom and glory which become His Godhead, from Him with Whom He is consubstantial.
3. As to Jeconias, whom the prophet Jeremiah declares in these words to have been rejected from the land of Judah, "Jeconias was dishonoured like a vessel for which there is no more use; and because he was cast out he and his seed; and none shall rise from his seed sitting upon the throne of David and ruling in Judah," the matter is plain and clear. On the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom s had been destroyed, and there was no longer an hereditary succession of reigns as before. Nevertheless, at that time, the deposed descendants of David were living in captivity. On the return of Salathiel and Zerubbabel the supreme government rested to a greater degree with the people, and the sovereignty was afterwards transferred to the priesthood, on account of the intermingling of the priestly and royal tribes; whence the Lord, in things pertaining, to God, is both King and High Priest. Moreover, the royal tribe did not fail until the coming of the Christ; nevertheless, the seed of Jeconias sat no longer upon the throne of David. Plainly it is the royal dignity which is described by the term "throne." You remember the history, how all Judaea, Idumaea, Moab. both the neighbouring regions of Syria and the further countries up to Mesopotamia, and the country on the other side as far as the river of Egypt, were all tributary to David. If then none of his descendants appeared with a sovereignty so wide, how is not the word of the prophet true that no one of the seed of Jeconias should any longer sit upon the throne of David, for none of his descendants appears to have attained this dignity. Nevertheless, the tribe of Judah did not fail, until He for whom it was destined came. But even He did not sit upon the material throne. The kingdom of Judaea was transferred to Herod, the son of Antipater the Ascalonite, and his sons who divided Judaea into four principalities, when Pilate was Procurator and Tiberius was Master of the Roman Empire. It is the indestructible kingdom which he calls the throne of David on which the Lord sat. He is the expectation of the Gentiles and not of the smallest division of the world, for it is written, " In that day there shall be a root of Jesse which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek." "I have called thee ...for a covenant of the people for a light of the Gentiles "; and thus then God remained a priest although He did not receive the sceptre of Judah, and King of all the earth; so the blessing of Jacob was fulfilled, and in Him "shall all the nations of the earth be blessed," and all the nations shall call the Christ blessed.
4. And as to the tremendous question put by the facetious Encratites, why we do not eat everything? Let this answer be given, that we turn with disgust from our excrements. As far as dignity goes, to us flesh is grass; but as to distinction between what is and what is not serviceable, just as in vegetables, we separate the unwholesome from the wholesome, so in flesh we distinguish between that which is good and that which is bad for food. Hemlock is a vegetable, just as vulture's flesh is flesh yet no one in his senses would eat henbane nor dog's flesh unless he were in very great straits. If he did, however, he would not sin.
5. Next as to those who maintain that human affairs are governed by fate, do not ask information from me, but stab them with their own shafts of rhetoric. The question is too long for my present infirmity. With regard to emerging in baptism—I do not know how it came into your mind to ask such a question, if indeed you understood immersion to fulfil the figure of the three days. It is impossible for any one to be immersed three times, without emerging three times. We write the word "pha'gos" paroxytone.
6. The distinction between ousi'a and hupo'stasis is the same as that between the general and the particular; as, for instance, between the animal and the particular man. Wherefore, in the case of the Godhead, we confess one essence or substance so as not to give a variant definition of existence hut we confess a particular hypostasis, in order that our conception of Father, Son and Holy Spirit may be without confusion and clear. If we have no distinct perception of the separate characteristics, namely, fatherhood, sonship, and sanctification, but form our conception of God from the general idea of existence, we cannot possibly give a sound account of our faith. We must, therefore, confess the faith by adding the particular to the common. The Godhead is common; the fatherhood particular. We must therefore combine the two and say," I believe in God the Father." The like course must be pursued in the confession of the Son; we must combine the particular with the common and say "I believe in God the Son," so in the case of the Holy Ghost we must make our utterance conform to the appellation and say "in God the Holy Ghost." Hence it results that there is a satisfactory preservation of the unity by the confession of the one Godhead, while in the distinction of the individual properties regarded in each there is the confession of the peculiar properties of the Persons. On the other hand those who identify essence or substance and hypostasis are compelled to confess only three Persons, and, in their hesitation to speak of three hypostases, are convicted of failure to avoid the error of Sabellius, for even Sabellius himself, who in many places confuses the conception, yet, by asserting that the same hypostasis changed its form to meet the needs of the moment, does endeavour to distinguish persons.
7. Lastly as to your enquiry in what manner things neutral and indifferent are ordained for us, whether by some chance working by its own accord, or by the righteous providence of God, my answer is this: Health and sickness, riches and poverty, credit and discredit, inasmuch as they do not render their possessors good, are not in the category of things naturally good, but, in so far as in any way they make life's current flow more easily, in each case the former is to be preferred to its contrary, and has a certain kind of value. To some men these things are given by God for stewardship's sake, as for instance to Abraham, to Job and such like. To inferior characters they are a challenge to improvement. For the man who persists in unrighteousness, after so goodly a token of love from God, subjects himself to condemnation without defence. The good man, however, neither turns his heart to wealth when he has it, nor seeks after it if he has it not. He treats what is given him as given him not for his selfish enjoyment, but for wise administration. No one in his senses, runs after the trouble of distributing other people's property, unless he is trying to get the praise of the world, which admires and envies anybody in authority.
Good men take sickness as athletes take their contest, waiting for the crowns that are to reward their endurance. To ascribe the dispensation of these things to any one else is as inconsistent with true religion as it is with common sense.
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. (PNPF II/VIII, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.