Basil on traditions

Saint Basil

From Chapters 66-67 of Saint Basil’s On the Holy Spirit. In this book, Basil argues against the newly-arisen pneumatomach (“spirit fighters”) movement, which taught that the Holy Spirit is not to be glorified or worshiped. In Chapter 1 he writes:

Lately when praying with the people, and using the full doxology to God the Father in both forms, at one time “[Glory to the Father] with the Son together with the Holy Ghost,” and at another “through the Son in the Holy Ghost,” I was attacked by some of those present on the ground that I was introducing novel and at the same time mutually contradictory terms.

The controversy was in part over the exact words with which scripture refers to the Holy Spirit. In this chapter, Basil pauses to note that not everything we say or do in prayer is verbatim from scripture — yet none of his readers, in any of the churches of the ancient east or west, would suggest changing these ancient practices.

Of the beliefs and practices, whether generally accepted or publicly enjoined, which are preserved in the Church, some we possess derived from written teaching; others we have received delivered to us “in a mystery” by the tradition of the apostles; and both of these in relation to true religion have the same force. And these no one will gainsay — no one, at all events, who is even moderately versed in the institutions of the Church. For were we to attempt to reject such customs as have no written authority, on the ground that the importance they possess is small, we would unintentionally injure the Gospel in its very vitals; or, rather, would make our public definition a mere phrase and nothing more. For instance, to take the first and most general example, who is thence who has taught us in writing to sign with the sign of the cross those who have trusted in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?

What writing has taught us to turn to the East at the prayer? Which of the saints has left us in writing the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist and the cup of blessing? For, as is well known, we are not content with what the apostle or the Gospel has recorded, but both in preface and conclusion we add other words as being of great importance to the validity of the ministry, and these we derive from unwritten teaching. Moreover we bless the water of baptism and the oil of the chrism, and we also bless the catechumen who is being baptized. On what written authority do we do this? Is not our authority silent and mystical tradition? In fact, by what written word is the anointing with oil itself taught? And from where comes the custom of baptizing thrice? And as to the other customs of baptism from what Scripture do we derive the renunciation of Satan and his angels?

Does not this come from that unpublished and secret teaching which our fathers guarded in a silence out of the reach of curious meddling and inquisitive investigation? Well had they learnt the lesson that the awful dignity of the mysteries is best preserved by silence. What the uninitiated are not even allowed to look at was hardly likely to be publicly paraded about in written documents. What was the meaning of the mighty Moses in not making all the parts of the tabernacle open to every one?

The profane he stationed outside the sacred barriers; the first courts he conceded to the purer. The Levites alone he judged worthy of being servants of the Deity; sacrifices and burnt offerings and the rest of the priestly functions he allotted to the priests; one chosen out of all he admitted to the sanctuary, and even this one not always but on only one day in the year. And of this one day a time was fixed for his entry so that he might gaze on the Holy of Holies amazed at the strangeness and novelty of the sight. Moses was wise enough to know that contempt stretches to the trite and to the obvious, while a keen interest is naturally associated with the unusual and the unfamiliar. In the same manner the Apostles and Fathers who laid down laws for the Church from the beginning thus guarded the awesome dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad randomly among the common folk is no mystery at all.

This is the reason for our tradition of unwritten precepts and practices, that the knowledge of our dogmas may not become neglected and held in contempt by the multitude through familiarity.

Dogma [that which is believed] and Kerygma [that which is preached] are two distinct things; the former is observed in silence; the latter is proclaimed to all the world. One form of this silence is the obscurity employed in Scripture, which makes the meaning of “dogmas” difficult to be understood for the very advantage of the reader.

Thus we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own old country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East. We pray standing, on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection [Greek standing again] we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we have risen with Christ, and are bound to “seek those things which are above,” but because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we await. Therefore, though it is the beginning of days, it is not called by Moses first, but one. For he says “There was evening, and there was morning, one day,” as though the same day often recurred.

Now this “one” day and the “eighth” day are the same, in itself distinctly indicating that really “one” and “eighth” of which the Psalmist makes mention in certain titles of the Psalms. The eighth day is the state which follows after this present time, the day which knows no waning or evening, and no successor; that age which does not end nor grow old. Of necessity, then, the church teaches her own foster children to offer their prayers on that day standing, so that through continual reminder of the endless life we may not neglect to make provision for our removal thither. Moreover all of Pentecost is a reminder of the resurrection expected in the age to come. For that one and first day, if seven times multiplied by seven, completes the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost; for, beginning at the first, Pentecost ends with the same, making fifty revolutions through the intervening days.

And so it is a likeness of eternity, beginning as it does and ending as in a circling course, at the same point. On this day the rules of the church have educated us to prefer the upright attitude of prayer, for by their plain reminder they, as it were, make our mind to dwell no longer in the present but in the future. Moreover every time we fall upon our knees and rise from off them we shew by the very deed that by our sin we fell down to earth, and by the loving kindness of our Creator were called back to heaven.

Time will fail me if I attempt to recount the unwritten mysteries of the Church. Of the rest I say nothing; but of the very confession of our faith in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, what is the written source? If it be granted that, we are under obligation to believe in the same way we were baptized, then we make our confession in like terms as our baptism, in accordance with the tradition of our baptism and in conformity with the principles of true religion. So let our opponents grant us too the right to be as consistent in our giving glory as in our confession of faith. If they deprecate our doxology on the ground that it lacks written authority, then let them give us the written evidence for the confession of our faith and the other matters which we have enumerated. While the unwritten traditions are so many, and their bearing on “the mystery of godliness” is so important, can they refuse to allow us a single word which has come down to us from the Fathers — which we found, derived from untutored custom, abiding in unperverted churches — a word for which the arguments are strong, and which contributes in no small degree to the completeness of the force of the mystery?

Author: Father Silouan Thompson

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