Saint Basil the Great Polemicist

It is easy looking back at Saint Basil and his patristic compatriots from such a distance to forget that they too lived in times of struggle and uncertainty.  As we look back at the fourth century we can view it as the beginning of Byzantium, the start of a long stretch of glorious Christian ascendency, and we somehow assume that they knew at the time that they were riding what was destined to be a long wave.  It was not true actually.  In the fourth century paganism was alive and well in the public life, and a number of Christians at that time thought their new-found ascendency was too good to last.  The hostility of the pagan emperor Julian seemed for a while to prove to fourth century Christians that their time of ascendency was about to blow over.  Much of the well-heeled and well-connected upper crust was still profoundly committed to the old ways, and paganism was still good and strong.  As was heresy.  The struggle against Arianism was far from over, and even after the Council of Nicea in AD 325 Arian teaching was still a threat.  And then there was the heresy of Macedonianism—a kind of “Arianism: the Sequel,” which though giving lip service to the divinity of the Son denied the divinity of the Spirit.  Saint Basil lived in a tumultuous time, a time when the truth was under siege and needed defending.

Saint Basil was up to the task.  Both in his ecclesiastical politicking and his literary productions, he contended for the truth, fighting on two fronts against both pagans and heretics.  We see the traces of this struggle in the anaphora ascribed to him, served every Sunday during Great Lent.  Now that the smoke of battle has long since cleared away, we can miss how polemical and even provocative some of his phrases were.  But in his day, Basil was fighting for the truth even as he praised God in the Eucharistic consecration.

Take for example the opening thanksgiving of his anaphora:  “O existing one, Master, Lord God, Father almighty and adorable!  It is truly meet and right and befitting the magnificence of Thy holiness to praise Thee, to sing to Thee, to bless Thee, to worship Thee, to give thanks to Thee, to glorify Thee”—wait for it—“the only truly existing God.”  Did you catch it?  The Christian deity was “the only truly existing God”—all the pagan deities were non-existent, idols, vanities, demons.  No devout pagan at the time somehow overhearing the prayer could miss the liturgical slap.

And to take another example:  as one of His saving acts Christ “gave us commandments of salvation, releasing us from the delusions of idolatry.”  The “delusions of idolatry!”  The pagan worship of the old gods was not piety as they claimed, but mere idolatry.  Take that, pagan!  Or again, from the end of the anaphora:  “Prevent schisms among the churches; pacify the ragings of the pagans; quickly destroy the uprisings of heresies by the power of Thy Holy Spirit.”  People got the point, as they would today if we paraphrased and prayed, “pacify the ragings of the secularists, quickly destroy the rebellion of the theological liberals by the power of Thy Holy Spirit.”  I am of course not suggesting we emend the prayer, only that we recognize its original polemical power.

For some people today all polemicism is unfortunate, and is equated with quarrelsomeness or even with just plain spiteful bad manners.  Christians should not denounce anyone or anything.  They should be—well, nice.  They should accentuate the positive and not put anybody down.  Be elegant, tolerant, ecumenical, and never be negative.  The problem with such a happy approach is that no Christian famous in Church history was ever like that.  No famous Christian was ever reluctant to denounce error and trumpet truth.  At the very beginning, Saint Paul denounced his adversaries, both Jews and heretics, in powerful and biting terms.  As did Saint Athanasius, and (as we have seen) Saint Basil.  Even our beloved Saint Herman of Alaska suggested to his Lutheran friend Ferdinand von Wrangell that “those who have left the true Orthodox Church are not on the right path.”  (Von Wrangell wrote in his diary that “this discussion displeased me.”)  The fact is that spirited defense of the faith and the consequent identification and rejection of error is in our ecclesial DNA.  Some might call this polemics.  Saint Jude called it “contending for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).  Saint Basil the Great agreed with Saint Jude.  Maybe that was why he was great.