St. Basil the Great: Tradition Should Follow Scripture

St. Basil was a senior pastor in Christ’s Church during the 4th Century AD. During this stormy time he found himself beset by opponents on several fronts. During one of the conflicts he wrote a short little piece, “On the Holy Spirit”. In this work he strove to counter the pneumatomachoi (fighters against the Spirit). Their position was that the Son was less than the Father and came after Him in time, and that the Spirit was underneath the Father and the Son.

While St. Basil was showing that the Father and the Son are “inseparably joined in name and nature” (34), he made a unexpected statement about tradition and Scripture. What is surprising is the position in which he puts tradition:

“…therefore we offer the doxology to the Father with the Son. But we are not content simply because this is the tradition of the Fathers. What is important is that the Fathers followed the meaning of Scripture, beginning with the evidence which I have just extracted from the Scriptures and presented to you” (34, emphasis mine-MWP).

Now to give Basil his due, later in “On the Holy Spirit” he made a case for the equal force of dogmatic pronouncements that “have been given to us secretly, through apostolic tradition” (98), which then included a whole host of practices that are nowhere found in the apostolic writings, nor in the earlier pastors/theologians of the Church (99ff). Basil got seriously sidetracked in this area because he followed too closely the maxim lex orandi lex credendi est (the law of prayer is the law of faith), or to put it in other words, he adhered to the problematic model: practice establishing principle.

Nevertheless, Basil’s earlier claim to not be content with tradition, but that the important thing was for the tradition (found in the Fathers) to follow Scripture, shows that at times a tension-of-priority between tradition and Scripture existed in the hearts and minds of the early pastors. In fact, Basil’s statement sounds almost as if he conceived of a hierarchy of authority: tradition was good, but above tradition reigned Holy Scripture. That pattern resurfaced in the Reformation and still, technically, holds the day for classic Protestant churches. Tradition is good (“Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms”, “Three Forms of Unity”, “Thirty Nine Articles of Religion”, etc), but Holy Scripture is the final rule of faith and life.

The trap we must be leery of is the very trap Basil got snagged by in the later portion of his little book: practice establishing principle.

Mike the Muckraker


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