Basil of Caesarea. By Stephen M. Hildebrand. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2014. xx + 204 pp., paperback. $26.99 (review originally published in the Fall 2014 edition of the Criswell Theological Review).
This new work on Basil of Caesarea is part of Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Spirituality series, which already includes books on Athanasius and Vincent of Lerins. The author, Stephen M. Hildebrand, professor of theology and director of the theology graduate program at Franciscan University of Steubenville (Ohio), has previously authored The Trinitarian Theology of Basil of Caesarea and translated Basil’s famous work On the Holy Spirit into English, which qualifies him quite well for this task.
In terms of related works, this book resembles Philip Rousseau’s 1998 work, Basil of Caesarea as well as Andrea Sterk’s 2004 book Renouncing the World Yet Leading the Church, which deals in part with Basil’s monasticism. That said, Hildebrand’s book is unique in that it looks holistically at Basil’s monastic vocation and his work as a theologian. Hildebrand writes, “The overarching argument that I try to make here is that Basil’s whole theology and spirituality emerge organically out of his simple desire to live a life faithful to the gospel” (p. xvi). He adds, “It is easy for us to divide and separate what Basil did not. His trinitarian thought, for example, is one thing, his ascetic and spiritual thought, another. But it was not so for him” (p. 165).
Given this thesis, Hildebrand’s work is divided into eight balanced chapters. In the opening chapter, he narrates Basil’s monastic journey that includes the ascetic influence of his family and also his awakening to monasticism as an adult. In chapters 2 and 3, Hildebrand discusses Basil’s doctrines of man, creation, and Scripture; while in chapters 4 and 5, he lays out Basil’s trinitarian thought. Chapters 6 and 7 overlap nicely as the author deals with Basil’s view of Christian discipleship, which was largely a monastic experience. Finally, in chapter 8, Hildebrand shows how Basil appropriated tradition—both theological and monastic—to develop his own thought and practice.
This book has a number of strengths. The first of which is the methodology of studying Basil’s monasticism and ministry and his work as a theologian in an integrated manner. This approach has surely given us a more accurate picture of the fourth-century monk-bishop and it ought to be emulated in the study of other church fathers who are often studied theologically but in a contextual vacuum. Second, and also related to context, Hildebrand has helped us grasp Basil’s trinitarian thought—and especially his pneumatology—by clearly laying out the thought of his theological opponents Eunomius and Eustathius (chap. 5). This approach not only offers Basil’s opponents a fair hearing, but it provides greater clarity for grasping the theological terrain of the fourth century. Finally, Hildebrand’s work in chapters 6 and 7 offers a simple but comprehensive view of Basil’s monastic vision and theology. The claim that Basil’s view that authentic Christian discipleship was an ascetic experience in community was well supported in these chapters.
I have two brief critiques. First, though Hildebrand does a good job of capturing Basil’s monastic experience, one element that could have been expanded upon more was Basil’s service as a monk that included caring for the poor, sick, hungry, and stranger, particularly through the ministry of the basileas (“new city”) complex outside of Caesarea. Basil was indeed a monk-bishop living in a community engaged in mission. Second, it is unfortunate that Hildebrand cites an older article from Mendietta who refers to Eustathius’ view of Scripture as “Puritan,” “Protestant,” and “biblicism” (p. 93), which Hildebrand uses to contrast Basil’s practice of interpreting Scripture in light of the tradition of the church. Not only are these terms anachronistic, but it is an unfair caricature of Protestants who surely read Scripture within tradition, including many who do so happily and deliberately. Ironically, evangelicals who hold to the functional authority of Scripture in the thought and life of a believer would be quite pleased with how Hildebrand presents Basil’s high value of Scriptural authority—that which characterizes Christian leaders and that defines his monasticism (pp. 138, 161).
In summary, I appreciate this holistic look at Basil’s life, vocation, and thought. I recommend it to students of church history, Patristics, theology and monastic studies as an excellent resource for understanding Basil and his times.