What, one asks St Basil, does the Holy Spirit do?

The Chancel of this church, a lovely image from Sacred Scotland

This morning I worshipped at a local Anglo-Catholic church; like many high Anglican churches, this particular parish tends to be broadly orthodox with a bit of a liberal bend. This Sunday was the first Sunday for their new curate to preach. Before preaching, she decorously mounted the pulpit (oddly on the right-hand side of the sanctuary) and proclaimed:

In the name of the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier. Amen.

I’d heard rumours of this economic Trinity being used to replace the traditional (Biblical) appellations for the Three Persons of the Glorious Trinity — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Besides the fact that neither Scripture nor Tradition recommends this naming of the All-holy Trinity, it obscures the bases of Trinitarian thought, such as the relationship between the First and Second Persons — Father and Son. It also reduces the ThreePersons to their economic activity in our salvation.

Given that All Three Persons is involved in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying it, we also get a bit blurry on how the doctrine of the Trinity — our understanding of the Godhead based upon meditative readings of Scripture and Tradition — is actually formulated.

As luck (Providence?) would have it, today I was reading St Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit, today in preparation for a Byzantine theology reading group I’m part of tomorrow night. I’ve blogged about this work of his before here. St Basil, too, began with a discourse on the use of the doxology.

St Basil’s primary goal in this treatise is to prove the fully Godhead of the Person of the Holy Spirit. He begins by approaching the Person of the Son’s Divinity using philological and scriptural proofs, then does the same for the Spirit before discussing various potential protestations using arguments from Scripture, Tradition, and the brute force of logic.

St Basil the Great

Along the way, a few words about the action of the Spirit are said — and we see that the Person of the Spirit is more than our Sanctifier (yet another problem with the politically correct doxology above). I quote the translation by David Anderson in the 1980 SVS Press Popular Patristics edition (Fr John Behr has a new 2011 edition out for said series):

All things thirsting for holiness turn to Him;* everything living in virtue never turns away from Him. He waters them with His life-giving breath and helps them reach their proper fulfillment. He perfects all other things, and Himself lacks nothing; He gives life to all things, and is never depleted. … He is the source of sanctification, spiritual light, who gives illumination to everyone using His powers to search for the truth — and the illumination He gives is Himself. His nature is unapproachable; only through His goodness are we able to draw near it. He fills all things with His power, but only those who are worthy may share it. He distributes His energy in proportion to the faith of the recipient, not confining it to a single share. … the Spirit is given to each one who receives Him as if He were the possession of that person alone … (section 22, p. 43)

This passage is largely about the sanctifying and sustaining power of the Spirit, but it is beautiful and lyrical. Basil here also points to the important role of the Holy Spirit in drawing us into communion with the Trinitarian Life. Elsewhere, he says:

One cannot see the Father without the Spirit! It would be like living in a house at night when the lamps are extinguished; one’s eyes would be darkened and could not exercise their function. Unable to distinguish the value of objects, one might very well treat gold as if it were iron. It is the same in the spiritual world, it is impossible to maintain a life of holiness without the Spirit. (section 38, p. 64)

And:

Is it not indisputably clear that the Church is set in order by the Holy Spirit? (section 39, p. 65)

And how does the Holy Spirit sanctify us? As with Moses on the Mountain — Contemplation:

Objects placed near something brilliantly-colored themselves become tinted through reflected light; likewise he who fixes his gaze on the Spirit is transfigured to greater brightness, his heart illumined by the light of the Spirit’s truth. Then the glory of the Spirit is changed into such a person’s own glory, not stingily, or dimly, but with the abundance we would expect to find within someone who had been enlightened by the Spirit. (section 52, p. 83)

Basil’s ascetic and mystical vision for the Christian life is more fully set out in his ascetical works, the so-called Longer Rule and Shorter Rule. Throughout this treatise, Basil refers to the work of the Spirit in prophecy, in the giving of knowledge, and so forth. Finally, I give you this passage from section 49 (p. 77):

The Spirit enables the heavenly powers to avoid evil, and persevere in goodness. Christ comes, and the Spirit prepares His way. He comes in the flesh, but the Spirit is never separated from Him. Working of miracles and gifts of healing come from the Holy Spirit. Demons are driven out by the Spirit of God. The presence of the Spirit despoils the devil. Remission of sins is given through the gift of the Spirit. … Through the Spirit we become intimate with God … He gives us risen life, refashioning our souls in the spiritual life.

Charismatics will be pleased with my last chosen passage — here we see the Holy Spirit performing miracles and healing and driving out demons! Indeed, the ancient Church never imagined the cessation of such manifestational gifts of the Spirit, although the theologians tend to be quiet about them. Most theological works tend to focus on either the interpretation of Scripture, the solving of a particular problem, or the refutation of a divergent opinion.

The Spirit certainly sanctifies us — but it is clear that He does much more than that!

*Here, Anderson gives the note that in Greek pneuma is neuter, so neuter pronouns are used for the Person of the Spirit throughout. However, in English this would nullify the Spirit’s personhood. In Syriac, the word used where Greek says pneuma is feminine, and in Latin, spiritus is masculine. The Spirit transcends gender, using one of a few choices, depending on language!

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