It’s very important to read the early church thinkers. It’s even more important to read them with discernment in the spirit of the Bereans. These Jewish believers were reported by Luke to have “received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11, KJV).
While the Bereans’ sincere quest for truth is easily laudable, it might surprise some to know that they received “the word” directly out of the mouth of the Apostle Paul. Therefore, despite having direct access to the preaching of a divinely inspired author, they still searched the Scriptures to confirm that Paul was teaching sound doctrine, lest they should fall prey to vain and deceptive teachings. If it was fit for the Bereans to examine the words of Paul according to the Scriptures, then how much more should we analyze the words of any one else in light of Scripture’s authority, be he historical church leader or contemporary street evangelist?
With this thought in mind, I have a few thoughts about a document I came across recently entitled “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” by St. Basil. Some believe that the primary thrust of St. Basil’s argument in this address is directed at encouraging young men to accept the good while throwing out the bad of “pagan literature.” So far, so good.
However, this is not the thesis of St. Basil’s address. The thesis (and support) is much more controversial, and I would argue, not Scripturally sound. Essentially, Basil’s thesis says that “since young men cannot appreciate the deep thoughts contained [in Scripture], they are to study the profane writings, in which truth appears as in a mirror” (Outline, pt. II). I immediately became concerned with the direction of Basil’s address upon reading this at the very beginning of the document. It contradicts Paul’s message to his young student, Timothy, in 1 Timothy 4:13, which exhorts Timothy to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” If young men are too immature to understand Scripture, why did Paul encourage a young man to not only read Scripture publicly, but also to teach it?
Moreover, it’s patently demeaning to the power of the Holy Spirit for St. Basil to argue that immaturity prevents young men from understanding Scripture. If the immaturity of young men is too great for the Spirit such that it cannot reveal to their minds the truths of Scripture, then perhaps the Holy Spirit does not share the omnipotence of God, and therefore, He cannot be a part of the trinity. At this juncture, I find it simple and necessary to reject St. Basil on these grounds–his work logically suggests that the Holy Spirit is limited in power, and therefore, (by extension), not a part of the Godhead.
St. Basil’s bias against the power of the Holy Spirit to speak truth to any mind (young or old) comes through in the 4th point of his outline where he says, “Since the life to come is to be attained through virtue, chief attention must be paid to those passages in which virtue is praised” (Outline, pt. IV). This is nothing short of the articulation of works-based salvation, in which eternal life is attained through our virtue, which we can learn about in pagan literature before we even touch the Scriptures. Instead of salvation being a miraculous process brought about by divine intervention of the Holy Spirit, not based at all upon human works (as Scripture teaches), St. Basil emphasizes that eternal life is attained by being virtuous, something we can learn from certain Greek and Roman heroes. If this is the case, then why study Scripture at all? Why not just study the pagans? Why have a doctrine of the Holy Spirit? Of regeneration? Of redemption? The questions continue as we realize that Basil treads in deep waters.
Basil further errs on this point when he says in the 10th point of his outline that “While this ideal will be matured later by the study of the Scriptures, it is at present to be fostered by the study of the pagan writers; from them should be stored up knowledge for the future” (Outline, pt. X). However, I contend that it is a grave error to assign pagans the authority of establishing epistemology and metaphysics in the mind of a young person, leaving Scripture until later. Scripture must be our prior foundation (2 Corinthians 10:4-5; 1 Peter 3:15) for all knowledge, whether held by the young or old minds. To allow pagan authorities to mold the philosophical depths of young men’s minds is to make pagan authorities the prior foundation for knowledge and subordinate Scripture to their teachings.
Expounding on this point, in his actual address, Basil says, “Just as it is the chief mission of the tree to bear its fruit in its season, though at the same time it puts forth for ornament the leaves which quiver on its boughs, even so the real fruit of the soul is truth, yet it is not without advantage for it to embrace the pagan wisdom, as also leaves offer shelter to the fruit, and an appearance not untimely” (para. 6). Using this metaphor, Basil contends that the pagan teachings shelter the ultimate truths of Scripture. Yet, Scripture exhorts the believer to put on the “full armor of God,” in order to stand against the devil and protect our faith from error (Ephesians 6:10-20). Christians (young and old) are to be armed with truth, righteousness, and the Gospel. We cannot know these unless we know what Scripture tells us about them. In short, Scripture must be capable of guarding itself or else it loses its supreme authority and rests on the protection of the ungodly.
Ultimately, St. Basil’s understanding of salvation manifests itself to be completely in error when he says, “While he who unintentionally violates his obligations perchance receives some pardon from God, he who designedly chooses a life of wickedness doubtless has a far greater punishment to endure” (para. 17). Here, Basil says that those who understand what it means to be virtuous may actually receive pardon from God, even if they do not know of Him. Yet, Romans 1:20 explicitly says that all men are “without excuse.” God has provided only one means of salvation, through the sacrifice and redemption of Christ, which can only cover those who receive the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit and become truly regenerated by His power alone.
Admittedly, the one bright spot of Basil’s address occurs when he says that, “When they recount the words and deeds of good men, you should both love and imitate them, earnestly emulating such conduct. But when they portray base conduct, you must flee from them and stop up your ears, as Odysseus is said to have fled past the song of the sirens, for familiarity with evil writings paves the way for evil deeds.” Admittedly, there are many truths that we may discover in non-Christian sources and there are many lies that we must flee from, but non-Christian literature cannot supplant Scripture’s role in teaching truth and establishing epistemology. All things must be analyzed in light of Scripture, not before or outside of Scripture. Unfortunately, this was not St. Basil’s view when he argued that it was good for young men to redeem the good from pagan literature while rejecting the bad.
Thus, the main thrust of St. Basil’s address to young men runs contrary to core Scriptural doctrines. To blame immaturity as a reason for our inability to comprehend the truth of Scripture is to limit the power of the Holy Spirit in his ability to reveal ultimate truth, leveling His omnipotence to nothing. To articulate virtue as the means by which we achieve salvation is also an unbiblical doctrine. To overthrow the epistemological dominance of Scripture with the folly of pagan authors is a grievous error.
It was not Plato and Homer to whom the Bereans compared the teachings of Paul. It was not Aristole who Paul exhorted Timothy to teach from and to read in public. Scripture was the final and ultimate authority for all, young and old. As such, it seems to me that we should follow their example and not the erroneous advice of St. Basil.
“The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.” – Westminster Confession of Faith, Chap. 1, Part IV