Marvin Jones. Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact. Fearn: Christian Focus, 2014. 166 pp. $11.99.
“The Church Fathers are a forgotten heirloom from the past.”
Your response to that statement reveals what you will think about Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Work. Too few have read the Church Fathers or about them. Often, pastors do not know where to start.
This is why I highly anticipate the Early Church Fathers series edited by Michael A. G. Haykin. This series recovers yesterday’s treasures for today’s readers. So far two books have released: St. Patrick of Ireland by Haykin and this work by Jones. Forthcoming titles include: Athanasius by Carl Trueman, Cyril of Alexander by Steve McKinion, Augustine by Brad Green, Irenaeus of Lyons by Ligon Duncan, and Tertullian by David Robinson. What a line up!
Jones’s book, Basil of Caesarea, alongside Haykin’s, prove to be pacesetters for this series. Marvin Jones is an Assistant Professor of Church History and Theology at Louisiana College and chairs the Christian Studies department.
Basil of Caesarea first sets the contextual political and theological setting along with a biographical overview of Basil’s life in chapter one. Chapter two delves into his conversion and a broadly sweeping understanding of Basil’s theology. In chapters three through seven Jones scrutinizes critical contexts that incite Basil’s pivotal works. Chapter three discusses the monastic movement, Basil’s contribution of the Moral Rules, and his favor towards a communal (coenobitic) structure for monastic living. Chapter four sets up chapter five. Jones sets the scene that leads Basil to write his magnum opus, On the Holy Spirit, which chapter five considers in detail. Chapter six explores Basil’s homiletical leanings, centering on his unexpected literal interpretation of Genesis 1 in the Hexaemeron, a move contrary to the allegorical method popularized by Origen and prevalent for the time. Chapter seven summarily concludes Basil of Caesarea by bringing together and refreshing many uncannily applicable points for which pastors and leaders profit from Basil’s life.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
Jones’s work, Basil of Caesarea, is no dessicated biography; his expressive energy imbues this book. From the opening anecdote of Basil’s defiance against Modestus (19-21) to his unlikely conversion tale kindled by his beloved sister, Macrina’s, witness (41-42), the narrative of Basil’s life will entrance readers.
Yet, don’t presume that Basil of Caesarea is mere arresting biography. This book amplifies your understanding of pastoral ministry and theology.
For instance, Jones draws us into the political context with which Basil found himself embroiled. This is instructive for pastors. When tensions mount between young Basil and his overseer Eusebius, Basil diffidently withdraws into monastic life. Jones comments:
Regardless of the specific reason, Basil left Caesarea in order to prevent further division that would overflow into the church. He honored the pastor, Eusebius, by not being a continual source of contention, thereby showing great respect for the Lord’s church and the Lord’s pastor at Caesarea. (67)
What a first-rate example for young leaders!
Meanwhile, Basil of Caesarea reacquaints you with subjects such as the Arian Heresy, the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and the ripening of Trinitarian doctrine. These discussions leave you grateful that Basil contended for precise theological language.
Callouts define terms like ousia, hypostases, tropikoi, and the filioque clause, which clarify orthodox articulation. Distantly past heresies, like Sabbelianism, keep you weary of permitting similar, present day, expressions from hooking their claws into the church.
Jones does not leave us with a flawless, rose-tinted, presentation of Basil. He presents a realistic and relatable portrait. We recognize Basil’s brash attempt to enlist Athanasius’s political support for what it is: sensational and misrepresentative. Basil wishing to see Meletius installed as Bishop of Antioch instead of Marcellus, misconstrued Marcellus’s theological views beyond orthodoxy. Basil’s six letters to Athanasius – convincing him of these views – warrant no reply.
Despite the brouhaha with Athanasius, Basil’s writing possesses a classy mettle. There is a thing or two to learn from him about blogging, email, and public address. Read this excerpt from Basil’s, Against Eunomius, a work going toe to toe against Arianism: “So, on account of Your Charity, who enjoins us to do this, and for the sake of our own well being, it is necessary for us to accept the responsibility of allying ourselves with the truth and refuting this falsehood” (50). Basil imbibes social grace, excels in rhetoric, and champions sound doctrine with stoic conviction, even when the cause against Ariansim looks bleak.
There is a lot more to be said about this excellent primer on Basil. May this review put you on a trajectory, not just to read Basil of Caesarea, but to study his other writings as well.
Essential — Recommended — Helpful — Pass It By
Basil of Caesarea is a strategic biographical and theological reconnoiter of a remarkable figure and thinker in the early church.