The Ecumenical Plea of St. Basil the Great

At the close of the Arian controversy, the Church found itself in a new crisis: She was fighting herself. The Church leaders had become so accustomed to fighting that when the Arian crisis began to die off, they turned on each other over small matters. This, unfortunately, began to resurrect the Arian crisis. The Church leaders were too busy fighting amongst themselves to combat the heresy that was creeping back into the Church. This led St. Basil the Great to write “On the Holy Spirit” to defend the Trinitarian concept of God.

However, it is at the end of this book that he offers up a plea for those who are likeminded on the basics of the Christian faith. I happen to believe that his plea is extremely appropriate for today, especially in Protestant circles where we divide over things like a person’s view of predestination or use of tongues. This plea specifically applies to the Southern Baptist Convention, who after fighting off liberalism in the 1980’s is succumbing to infighting. Men will bash other men in order to advance their position at a seminary or church. St. Basil’s plea needs to be heard in such an environment:

To what can I compare our present condition? It is like a naval battle, kindled by old quarrels, fought by men who love war, who cultivate hatred for one another, and have long experience in naval warfare. Look at the fearful picture I a painting for you; see the rival fleets rushing against each other on both sides, and finally they converge in a burst of desperate fury. Imagine, if you will, the ships driven into confusion by a raging tempest, while thick darkness falls from the clouds and blackens the entire scene, so that signals cannot be recognized, and one can no longer distinguish between friend and foe. To add more details to this picture, imagine the sea swollen and whirling up from the deeps, while torrents of rain pour from the clouds and the terrible waves rise higher and higher. All four winds meet together and dash one fleet against the other. Meanwhile some of the combatants are betraying each other; some are deserting in the middle of the battle; while others at the same time are compelled while the wind drives them on, to urge their boats forwards against the enemy. The men become jealous of those who in higher authority, and lusting for power among themselves, they split into factions and begin to slaughter each other.

Think of the confused and unintelligible din raging over the entire sea, from the howling winds, the splintering of ships, the boiling surf, the cries of the warriors as they give vent to their passions with every kind of noise, so that not a single word from the admiral or pilot can be heard. The disorder and confusion is beyond description, but the worst evil of all soon raises its head: once men despair for their lives, they claim license for every sort of wickedness. Suppose they are stricken with the incurable sickness of megalomania; then they will not cease their efforts to defeat one another even as their ships sink into the abyss.

Now I ask you to turn from this fanciful description to the evil reality. When the Arian schism was first denounced as a sect opposed to the Church of God, did it not appear then to stand alone? But when the enemy’s policy against us was changed form one of long and bitter contention to open warfare, then, as everyone knows, th war was split into a myriad of factions, so that all men succumbed to irreconcilable hatred, either through individual suspicion or party spirit. What storm as sea was ever so savage as this tempest of the Churches? It moved every boundary established by the Fathers; every foundation, every established bulwark of doctrine has been shaken. Everything still remaining afloat is shaken by unsound teaching and thrown back into the abyss.

We attack one another; we are overthrown by one another. If the enemy does not strike us first we are wounded by our comrade; if he is wounded and falls, he is trampled by his fellow soldier. Although we are united in our hatred of common foes, no sooner do they retreat, and we find enemies in each other.

Who could even list all the casualties? Some have fallen in battle with the enemy; some have been treacherously betrayed by their allies; others are the victims of their leaders’ incompetence. Entire churches are dashed and shattered on the sunken reefs of subtle heresy, while other enemies of the Spirit of salvation have seized the helm and made shipwreck of the faith. The tumults devised by the princes of their world have brought about the downfall of the people with violence surpassing hurricane or tornado. A darkness full of gloom and misery has descended on the Churches: the lights of the world, established by God to enlighten the souls of the people, have been exiled.

The terror of universal destruction already hangs over us, yet they continue enjoying their rivalries, ignoring any sense of danger. Private enmities are more important to these men than the struggle of an entire people; they prefer the glory of subduing their opponents to securing the common welfare and they love the immediate delights of worldly honor more than the rewards awaiting us in the age to come.

So all men alike, depending on how much power each one has, rush upon each other with murderous hands. They will fight against each other with harsh words; they nearly fill the Church with the meaningless cries and unintelligible shouts of their incessant clamor. They continually pervert the teachings of true religion, sometimes by adding to them, and other times by reducing them. On the one hand are those who confuse the Persons and revert to Judaism; on the other are those who oppose the natures, and are swept away into Greek polytheism.

Inspired scripture is powerless to mediate between these two parties, nor can apostolic tradition offer them terms of reconciliation. One honest word and your friendship with them is finished; one disagreement with their opinions is sufficient pretext for a quarrel. No oath is so effective for holding a conspiracy together as common fellowship in error. Every man is a theologian; it does not matter that his soul is covered with more blemishes than can be counted. The result is that these innovators find an abundance of men to join their factions.

So ambitious, self-elected men divide the government of the Churches among themselves, and reject the authority of the Holy Spirit. The ordinances of the Gospel have been thrown into confusion everywhere for lack of discipline; the jostling for high positions is incredible, as every ambitious man tries to thrust himself into high office. The result of this lust for power is that wild anarchy prevails among the people; the exhortations of those in authority are rendered utterly void and unprofitable, since every man in his arrogant delusion thinks that it is more his business to give orders to others than to obey anyone himself.

Since no human voice is powerful enough to be heard in such an uproar, I reckon that silence is more profitable than words. If the words of the Preacher are true: “The words of the wise are heard in quiet” (Eccl. 9:17) then with the present state of affairs, any discussion of them at all is scarcely appropriate. Moreover, I am restrained by the prophet’s words: “Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time,” (Amos 5:13) a time when some trip their neighbors, others kick a man already fallen, others applaud, but no one is sympathetic enough to lend a helping hand to the weary, even though the old law says “if you see the beast of one who hates you lying under its burden, you shall refrain from leaving him with it, but you shall help him to lift it up.” (Ex. 23:5).

This is certainly not the case now. Why not? The love of many has grown cold; concord among brothers is no more; the very name of unity is ignored; Christian compassion or sympathetic tears cannot be found anywhere. There is no one to welcome someone weak in the faith (Rom 14:1), but mutual hatred blazes so fiercely among brothers that a neighbors’ fall brings them more joy than their own household’s success. And just as a contagious disease spreads from the sick to the healthy during an epidemic, in these days we have become like everyone else: imitators of evil, carries away by this wicked rivalry possessing our souls.

Those who judge the erring are merciless and bitter, while those judging the upright are unfair and hostile. This evil is so firmly rooted in us that we have become more brutish than the beasts: At least they herd together with their own kindred, but we reserve our most savage warfare for the members of our own household.