An Exegesis of St. Basil’s Letter 234
In his Letter 234, written to Amphilochius of Iconium (a Christian bishop and friend of his), St. Basil the Great answers the sly objections of the Eunomian heretics, who believed that God’s Attributes were truly distinct things, apart from the Divine Essence, and that the Essence could be comprehended fully and completely, as being wholly “Unbegotteness.” He finds himself in a language battle, feeling obligated to express himself in such a manner so that, while defending the simplicity of the Divine Essence of God, one cannot interpret his words as to mean that men can comprehend the fullness and entirety of the Infinite God.
The Eunomians asked Basil if he worshiped what was known to him, or what was not known to him, in the most absolute sense. He answers them by saying, “I worship what I know.” In their cunning ways, they took his response to an extreme, as if he was saying that he knew God in His entirety, in the most absolute sense, then demanding from him an explanation of this total, absolute knowledge of the whole of the Divine Essence: “When then our opponents include the whole [of the essence] in their question, if they catch us in the confession that we know, they straightway demand from us knowledge of the essence” (Letter 235). However, Basil would only say that we “know” the Essence in a certain sense, in that we can know certain “things” about God (that He is Power and Love) but cannot fully know Him, or rather, comprehend Him.
He then attempts to express the truth in a different way, by saying that he is “ignorant of the essence,” but they, again, interpret his words falsely, taking them to the opposite extreme, telling him that he worships one who he doesn’t know anything about, whatsoever. Though, Basil, by saying “I am ignorant of the essence,” is not claiming to be totally ignorant (as if he didn’t know anything about God), but that he cannot comprehend the Essence.
The words “to know” can be understood in two different ways: for there is absolute, perfect, complete comprehension of something; and there is limited, imperfect, incomplete knowledge of something. Basil would explain, in his following letter to Amphilochius, that he does know God in a certain sense, and does not know God in another sense: “It is not that I do not know in the same way in which I do know; but I know in one way and am ignorant in one way” (Letter 235). According to Basil, we can know God, but cannot comprehend Him.
Basil says that we do know God’s greatness, His power, and some of His other “attributes,” “but not His very essence,” in that we can only understand certain “things” of God—that our knowledge of God will always be incomplete, due to our limited capability and capacity (for the finite man cannot comprehend that which is infinite).
He goes on to say that, though we deny to know (to comprehend) the Divine Essence, we can have an incomplete “idea of God,” based on our gathering of the many attributes which we predicate of Him. Basil writes of these ideas that we have about God, that He is Power and Wisdom, saying that they are the “mighty qualities attributed to the essence of God,” (Letter 236).
Though we know certain “attributes” of God, we do not absolutely know His Essence. Basil exposes the absurdities in the Eunomians’ ignorant objection, being that if one claims to know an attribute of God, then this attribute, when being named, can describe the whole of the Divine Essence. He explains how the attributes which we predicate of God are not synonymous with each other, and that we cannot use one name or another, to describe the Divine Essence in Its entirety. And so, when one mentions of these names, he cannot declare the Essence, but he can say and know that God is “awful, or just, or merciful.”
The Eunomians confessed there to be “a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated,” but not as St. Basil did. For they believed that the Essence could be fully comprehended, and that the attributes were truly distinct, separate things from it. Basil taught that the attributes were distinct from the Divine Essence, only in so much as that one could not discern fully the Essence of God, by recognizing the finite attributes which we predicate of Him.
God makes Himself known to us, by His various works or “operations” (Basil later defines his use of the word “operation”). And it is by these operations which “come down to us“—that is to say, which are in the earth, which we are witnesses of—that we are able to know Him. Observing His works in the world, we attribute names to Him, like “awful, or just, or merciful,” though, by the use of none are we able to know or describe Him, perfectly and absolutely, for “His essence remains beyond our reach,” and beyond our comprehension. The Divine Essence, being infinite and incomprehensible, cannot be explained by the finite words of men, and neither known by our finite perception—based on our finite observance—but by witnessing His works, we can begin to know the One Who Is.
The Eunomians again accused Basil of being ignorant of God, since he states that men cannot have full comprehension of the Essence. He tells them that they are the ones ignorant of God, due to their belief that man is able to fully comprehend His Essence—for if they knew God, they would’ve known that His Essence is incomprehensible.
St. Basil uses the analogy of a hallucinating man, in comparison to that of the Eunomian. The Eunomian who, in his contemplation of God, thinking he comprehends Him and can define His Essence as Unbegotteness, is as the man who was bitten by the mad dog and, through his hallucinations, thinks he is seeing the dog in a dish, but what “is seen by people in good health” is a mere mad dog. The Eunomian is “looking at” (or trying to comprehend) the same God as the Christian, but by his insanity, he perceives foolish things, and is to be pitied; “he thinks he sees” something (the fullness of the Divine Essence) which isn’t actually there, “what he does not [actually] see.”
We worship Him Who we know, though we cannot comprehend Him. And we know Him, in this way: that He Is, that He “exists,” though we do not know how He Is, or what His existence or reality actually is, for He is incomprehensible. Basil says that “in our belief about God, first comes the idea that God is. This we gather from His works” (Letter 235). Having faith in God and seeking Him, He will then reward us, revealing Himself to us by His works.
No man will ever “see” God, in that no man is able to comprehend the entirety of the Infinite, Divine Essence, for we are finite and cannot comprehend infinity, and “no one knows the Father, except the Son” (Matthew 11:27). We only know as much as God has declares to us, whether by His Son, or by His other operations—creation itself being the first of them, for His operations, by which we come to know Him, are in the created world.
Christ has declared to us the Power of God, and so we can confidently say that God is Power, and that we know God in this way (that He is Power). The Divine Attributes that we become aware of, we can never use to declare the whole of the Divine Essence, and neither can we separate or distinguish these things in God, but we can in contemplation and in theory, for in God, there is just the Divine Essence which Is, and which is One, and which exists (or “subsists”) in Three Persons (or “subsistences”). For Basil writes that “all conceptions and terms which regard the divine are of equal dignity one with another, in that they do not vary in regard to the meaning of the subject matter to which they are applied. Our thought is not led to one subject by the attribution of good, and to another by that of wise, powerful, and just; mention any attributes you will, the thing signified is one and the same” (Letter 189).
The Eunomians believed that the name “Unbegotteness” could be used to signify the whole of the Essence, and so Basil questions them, asking them when the Son did ever declare this—but, of course, as St. Basil knows, He never did so.
Basil explains how the disciples worshiped Christ, and that this worship came from the knowledge of His operations, which they were witnesses of. In this case, he gives an example of an “operation,” being the subjection of the sea and winds to God, therefore defining it as a created work in the world, from which the apostles received knowledge of God. This is what he means, when he says that “we know God from His operations” and “His operations come down to us“—we know (not the whole, but “part” of it; for the entire knowledge of the Infinite, Divine Essence “remains beyond our reach“) the invisible Godhead, by His works, by the things that are made, by the created things that we see in the created world (Romans 1:20).
God uses the finite, created world as a means by which to reveal Himself to mankind, whose knowledge, perception and understanding is finite. By being a witness of an operation of God, by which we perceive His Goodness, we can say that “God is good”; and by an operation, by which we perceive His Wisdom, we can say that “God is wise.” St. Basil says, “For, as we perceive His wisdom, His goodness, and all His invisible things from the creation of the world, so we know Him” (Letter 235).
We know God from His power, which He has made manifest to us, by His works, through which He has made Himself known. By witnessing His power in creation, we are led to faith in Him, that is, to “the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4); and by faith, we worship Him, for “worship follows faith.” We, therefore, worship Him who we believe in; and we believe in Him Who we know; and we know Him, by the knowledge that He has bestowed unto us, through His Works.