It is easy looking back at St. 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 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. St. Basil lived in a tumultuous time, a time when the truth was under siege and needed defending.
He 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 of 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 worthy of adoration! It is truly meet and right and befitting the magnificence of Your holiness to praise You, to sing to You, and bless You, to worship You to give thanks to You, to glorify You”—and wait for it—“the only truly existing God”. According to this prayer, 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”. For St. Basil the venerable pagan worship of the old gods was not piety, as they claimed, but mere idolatry. 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 Your 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 Your 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 polemics are unfortunate, and are 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 warm and 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 the truth. At the very beginning, St. Paul denounced his adversaries, both Jews and heretics, in powerful and biting terms. As did St. Athanasius, and (as we have seen) St. Basil the Great. Even our beloved St. 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. St. Jude called it “contending for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). St. Basil the Great agreed with St. Jude. Maybe that was why he was great.