Basil of Caesarea, or St. Basil the Great, was a monk and bishop who lived during the fourth century AD. He is known as one of the Cappadocian Fathers who defended the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation and worked on behalf of the poor. He is venerated as a saint by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. Basil of Caesarea is sometimes called the “father of communal monasticism” because he set up a Christian community (of both men and women) who were committed to common goals, such as the pursuit of the gospel and helping the poor and needy.
Basil grew up as a somewhat sickly child, but he received an excellent education in Caesarea, Antioch, Constantinople, and Athens. After his studies, he returned to Caesarea where, after some personal tragedies, he adopted an ascetic lifestyle and founded a monastery where he encouraged other monks to dedicate themselves to work, prayer, Bible-reading, and good works. Eventually, Basil joined with the bishop of Caesarea in his struggle against Arianism, a heresy that denied the deity of Christ. When the bishop died, Basil was selected as the new bishop.
Basil of Caesarea defended the gospel against the Arian heresy and the homoiousian (or Semi-Arian) heresy, which both attacked the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ’s deity. Arianism claims that Jesus Christ is not one with the Father but subordinate to Him, having been created “at a point in time”; homoiousianism claims that Jesus is of a “like” essence to God the Father but, again, unequal to Him. Both are a contradiction of Scripture. Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (John 1:1–2). Jesus was therefore not created at “a point in time” but has always been with God and is, in fact, God.
Because of his own experience with the gospel and his strong personality, Basil of Caesarea was the right person to fight Arianism. He also had committed himself to following the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of men: “Much time had I spent in vanity, and had wasted nearly all my youth in the vain labour which I underwent in acquiring the wisdom made foolish by God. Then once upon a time, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel, and I perceived the uselessness of the wisdom of the princes of this world, that come to naught” (Epistle 223, “Against Eustathius of Sebasteia,” §2).
A survey of the life of Basil of Caesarea would lead one to the conclusion that he took to heart the verse that says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). Basil was known as a generous and compassionate man who gave much of his time and resources to caring for the poor, those in pain, and those trapped in sins like prostitution or thievery. Near Caesarea, he built a combination poorhouse, hospice, and hospital, which his lifelong friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, compared to the “seven wonders of the ancient world.”
Basil’s writings still available include many of his sermons, over 300 letters, and various treatises on morals and monasticism. His influence on the church has been profound, most notably his efforts in helping define and clarify the doctrine of the Trinity from a biblical perspective.