Saint Basil the Great on Scripture and Tradition

Saint Basil of Caesarea (329 – 379), also known as Saint Basil the Great, due to his highly significant work on early Christian dogmatics (particularly with respect to the Holy Trinity) and his great influence on Eastern monasticism, is remembered (together with Saint Gregory and Saint John Chrysostom) as one of the ‘Three Holy Hierarchs’ in the East and is recognised as a Doctor of the Church by both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. As well as providing valuable testimony for us today regarding the faith and practice of the early Church in general, he is also therefore a voice with a particular amount of authority, fighting as he did to preserve the Trinitarian and Christological doctrines that are foundational to the beliefs of all Christians, regardless of denomination.

The following passage then, in which he discusses the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, should not be discarded lightly. In it Saint Basil reminds those he writes to that Scripture is itself part of a wider body of teaching handed down from the Apostles – it does not detract from the authority of the written teaching to remember that there is also unwritten Tradition (which, as Basil says, ‘has the same force for true piety’) but is a reminder that the authority of the Church to pass on that body of teaching (written and unwritten) is logically prior to the authority of Scripture itself. This runs contrary to a commonly held, though seldom explained, Protestant principle, namely that whilst we may recognise that the Church wrote, preserved and canonised the Bible, this does not enjoin us to recognise the authority vested in the Church which allowed it to do so.

The extent to which Saint Basil emphasises how important unwritten traditions are in the life of the Church, and how widespread knowledge of this principle was, should make it clear just how far those Christians who repudiate Sacred Tradition have diverged from the historic Faith. His listing of the various practices common in the Church but that are not found in Scripture should also give any sola scriptura Christian cause to consider how different their interpretation of faith and worship is from that of the early Church, as well as the extent to which modern churches employ modes of worship which are equally extra-biblical, but that lack any connection to historic, orthodox Christianity.

Saint Basil also provides us with an interesting argument for why a manual (or such like) of the practices he gives examples of was not compiled – that the liturgical traditions he lists were preserved in the Church via unwritten means because they pertained to something too holy and too precious for the uninitiated to be privy too (i.e.; many of the traditions not found in Scripture were not written down precisely because they were so highly valued by the believing community and thus could only be accessed once a commitment to that community had been made).

At any rate, as we approach Christmas, and the usual cries of such-and-such a practise recommended by the Church being unbiblical or ‘just’ tradition, it is good to be reminded of the venerable nature of the unwritten teachings we receive in and through the Church, the wider context in which we must see Scripture as existing, and from whence it draws its authority in the first place:

Of the beliefs and practices preserved in the Church, whether by tacit sanction, or by public decree, we have some delivered from written teaching; others we have received as delivered to us “in a mystery” from the tradition of the Apostles; and both classes have the same force for true piety. No one will dispute these; no one, at any rate, who has even the slightest experience of the institutions of the Church. If we tried to depreciate the customs lacking written authority, on the ground that they have but little validity, we should find ourselves unwittingly inflicting vital injury on the Gospel: or rather reducing official definition to a mere form of words.

For example, to mention the first and commonest instance – who has given us written instructions to sign, with the sign of the cross, those who have set their hope on the name of the Lord Jesus? What written instructions have we for turning to the east in prayer? Which of the saints has left to us, in writing, the words of the invocation at the displaying of the bread of the Eucharist, and the cup of the blessing? For to be sure, we are not content with the record of the Apostle and the Gospel, but we add, by way of preface and conclusion, other elements which we have received from the unwritten teaching, and we regard them as having great importance for the performance of the sacrament. We bless the water of baptism, and the oil of the chrism, and moreover we bless the person who is being baptised. On whose written instructions? Is it not on the authority of silent and secret tradition? And what of the anointing with oil itself? What written word rejoined that? And whence comes the custom of triple immersion? And with regard to the other rites of baptism, from what scripture do we obtain the renunciation of Satan and his angels?

Does this not come from this unpublished and secret teaching? Our fathers, by silence, preserved this teaching from inquisitive meddlers, having been well instructed to safeguard, by silence, the awful solemnity of these mysteries. It was scarcely likely that a public display, in the shape of written documents, should be made of teaching about things at which the uninitiated are not even allowed to look…

…Moses had the wisdom to know that contempt readily falls on the trite and the easily accessible, while eager interest tends naturally to attach to the remote and the unusual. In the same way the Apostles and Fathers, who at the beginning laid down ordinances concerning the Church, were concerned to safeguard the solemnity of the mysteries, by secrecy and reticence; for what is published for the casual hearing of the general public is no mystery at all.

from De Spiritu Sancto, 66 in The Later Christian Fathers (1987), pp.59-60, Oxford University Press.

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