Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Book Review: Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact

Basil of Caesarea: His Life and Impact by Marvin Jones. Christian Focus (2014), 176 pp.
Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

Because I’m writing my dissertation on the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus, I jumped at the chance to review this biography of his contemporary and friend, Basil of Caesarea (329–379). Marvin Jones’ volume is one of the first to be released in Christian Focus’ new Early Church Fathers series. The series, edited by Michael Haykin, is meant to reacquaint evangelical Protestants with their ancient forebears in the faith–since, as Haykin points out, the Reformers and Puritans unhesitatingly claimed and studied the Fathers, even when they did not always agree with their interpretations.

Marvin Jones provides an overview of Basil’s life, conversion, and theological contributions, including a close look at a selection of his major writings, such as On the Holy Spirit and the Hexaemeron, a sermon series on Genesis 1. I am always curious how a contemporary Protestant will assess a figure like Basil whose context is, in many ways, far removed from ours. While I will spend time on a few caveats, I should also stress that I thought Jones did a commendable job of demonstrating why Basil deserves our attention.

One claim that gave me pause came in Chapter 2, when Jones writes, “Asceticism was a means of obtaining purity before God. In the modern Evangelical world, the concept of holiness and sanctification could be thought of in the same realm.” I think it is important to tread carefully with this comparison. Jones’ larger point, that today’s evangelical church needs a revived focus on holiness, is excellent. But asceticism in late antiquity is a distinct phenomenon; it does not correspond neatly, in every respect, to the way a twenty-first-century Reformed Protestant would talk about sanctification. These two things might indeed be in the “same realm,” but there are important differences in the respective views of attaining holiness. Helpfully, in Chapter 3, “Solace in the Desert,” Jones discusses Basil’s reforms of monasticism, which sought to undercut isolationism and pride by stressing that monastics’ efforts should be in the service of the church and society, not only of individuals. Basil himself worked against the potential extremes of asceticism, which is a good reminder that the phenomenon was not monolithic in the early church. I just would have appreciated more of a critical assessment of asceticism from an evangelical perspective.

Material in Chapter 2 on the homoousios, and especially Chapter 4’s detailed review of the development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, would be rather tough sledding for many readers. For this reason, I would hesitate to recommend this book to someone who lacks a basic familiarity with the early development of Trinitarian doctrine. The strength of Jones’ analysis, though, is that he never loses sight of the contemporary application of these issues. He rightly praises Basil for paving the way for the Nicene (Constantinopolitan) Creed, and thus for Christians today, with his articulation of Scripture’s teaching on the Spirit. Basil’s theology was driven by concern for proper doxology, the church’s worship of one God in three Persons.

The bibliography seemed a bit dated to me (lacking some of the recent major scholarship like Ayres’ Nicaea and Its Legacy), so I probably wouldn’t use this book if I were teaching a college course. However, it is still well researched, to the extent that I would have liked to hear a bit more of Jones’ voice and fewer quotations from other writers.

There are two things I especially enjoyed in this book. First, I loved the emphasis on preaching. In Chapter 2, Jones notes that “Basil’s sermons were delivered to the congregation with the understanding that the preacher was God’s appointed herald of truth.” In the concluding chapter, he adds, “The sermons of Basil reveal to the Evangelical world that the Word of God is central to the Christian community. The accountability of leadership to surrender to the authority of the Word is neglected today.” In my dissertation I discuss the Fathers’ powerful sense of the efficacy of the preached Word, so it was encouraging to see Jones emphasizing this theme as well. Do Protestants today retain this trust in the power of the Word?

Finally, I loved the emphasis on theological literacy and its importance for worship. Jones takes for granted that Basil’s theological writings were always pastorally motivated; they were not simply intellectual exercises unconnected to the worshiping life of the church. He sums it up well: “Basil comprehended the truth that seems to be forgotten by Evangelicalism today: if the theology of the church declines, no amount of doxology can recover it. One simply cannot praise God without a firm grasp of the truth of God.” Jones’ portrait of Basil of Caesarea offers a good model for the recovery of boldly Trinitarian preaching and worship.

The publisher provided me with an electronic review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review

1 comment:

  1. Sarah,

    Thank you for participating in the Basil of Caesarea blog tour.

    In Christ Alone,

    Dave Jenkins
    Book Promotions Specialist, Cross Focused Reviews