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.

“‘Do you worship what you know or what you do not know?’ If I answer, ‘I worship what I know,’ they immediately reply, ‘What is the essence of the object of worship?’ Then, if I confess that I am ignorant of the essence, they turn on me again and say, ‘So you worship you know not what’” (Letter 234, ¶ I).

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.

“I answer that the word[s] ‘to know’ [have] many meanings. We say that we know the greatness of God, His power, His wisdom, His goodness, His providence over us, and the justness of His judgment; but not His very essence. The question is, therefore, only put for the sake of dispute. For he who denies that he knows the essence does not confess himself to be ignorant of God, because our idea of God is gathered from all the attributes which I have enumerated” (Letter 234, ¶ I).

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).

“‘But God,’ he says, ‘is simple, and whatever attribute of Him you have reckoned as knowable is of His essence.’ But the absurdities involved in this sophism are innumerable. When all these high attributes have been enumerated, are they all names of one essence? And is there the same mutual force in His awfulness and His loving-kindness, His justice and His creative power, His providence and His foreknowledge, and His bestowal of rewards and punishments, His majesty and His providence? In mentioning any one of these do we declare His essence? If they say, yes, let them not ask if we know the essence of God, but let them enquire of us whether we know God to be awful, or just, or merciful. These we confess that we know” (Letter 234, ¶ I).

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.”

“If they say that essence is something distinct, let them not put us in the wrong on the score of simplicity. For they confess themselves that there is a distinction between the essence and each one of the attributes enumerated. The operations are various, and the essence simple, but we say that we know our God from His operations, but do not undertake to approach near to His essence. His operations come down to us, but His essence remains beyond our reach” (Letter 234, ¶ I).

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.

“But, it is replied, ‘if you are ignorant of the essence, you are ignorant of Himself.’ Retort, If you say that you know His essence, you are ignorant of Himself. A man who has been bitten by a mad dog, and sees a dog in a dish, does not really see any more than is seen by people in good health; he is to be pitied because he thinks he sees what he does not see. Do not then admire him for his announcement, but pity him for his insanity” (Letter 234, ¶ II).

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.”

“Recognize that the voice is the voice of mockers, when they say, ‘if you are ignorant of the essence of God, you worship what you do not know.’ I do know that He exists; what His essence is, I look at as beyond intelligence. How then am I saved? Through faith. It is faith sufficient to know that God exists, without knowing what He is; and ‘He is a rewarder of them that seek Him’ (Hebrews 11:6). So knowledge of the divine essence involves perception of His incomprehensibility, and the object of our worship is not that of which we comprehend the essence, but of which we comprehend that the essence exists” (Letter 234, ¶ II).

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.

“And the following counter question may also be put to them. ‘No man has seen God at any time, the Only-begotten which is in the bosom has declared him’ (John 1:18). What of the Father did the Only-begotten Son declare? His essence or His power? If His power, we know so much as He declared to us. If His essence, tell me where He said that His essence was the being unbegotten” (Letter 234, ¶ III).

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.

“When did Abraham worship? Was it not when he believed? And when did he believe? Was it not when he was called? Where in this place is there any testimony in Scripture to Abraham’s comprehending? When did the disciples worship Him? Was it not when they saw creation subject to Him? It was from the obedience of sea and winds to Him that they recognized His Godhead. Therefore the knowledge came from the operations, and the worship from the knowledge” (Letter 234, ¶ III).

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).

“‘Do you believe that I am able to do this?’ ‘I believe, Lord’; and he worshiped Him. So worship follows faith, and faith is confirmed by power. But if you say that the believer also knows, he knows from what he believes; and vice versa he believes from what he knows. We know God from His power. We, therefore, believe in Him who is known, and we worship Him who is believed in” (Letter 234, ¶ III).

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.