St. Basil the Great’s On Christian Ethics should be required reading for all Christians, especially German and American bishops and cardinals of the Catholic Church intent on altering doctrine. Catholic dissenters who agree with these wayward hierarchs and liberal Orthodox and Protestants should also take note.
This translation, recently published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, is the third English translation of the Ethics. Scholar Jacob N. Van Sickle, translator of this latest version, says a new translation was needed because, among other reasons, earlier translations are out of print and the Ethics deserves a wide audience of both scholars and Christians because its content is so necessary and timely.
Necessary and timely, indeed.
The Ethics, thought to have been written sometime in the mid-360s, provides Christians with a clear and unambiguous rule of life. Timely in St. Basil’s day, it is equally timely today.
On Christian Ethics includes St. Basil’s Ethics, a compilation of eighty rules that unambiguously state Church doctrine built on the foundation of Scripture, and two prefaces that explain why St. Basil thought it necessary to write them: “On the Judgment of God” and “On the Faith.”
“On the Judgment of God,” the first of the two prefaces, is a reflection on the Church of St. Basil’s times, sin, and disobedience. Comparing the Church in his times to other institutions in the arts and sciences, St. Basil sees harmony in these secular institutions and disharmony within the Church.
His words pierce the heart and resonate today:
“… what is most horrible, its very leaders are in such disagreement with one another in judgment and opinion and act in such opposition to the commandments of our Lord Jesus Christ, mercilessly tearing apart the Church of God and unsparingly throwing his flock into confusion … .”
For St. Basil the antidote was a close study of what he calls the “God-breathed Scriptures.” Through this study he says he became:
“. . . thoroughly and incontrovertibly convinced that the harmony of the whole Church of God in accordance with the will of Christ in the Holy Spirit was necessary and that disobedience to God in mutual dissension was dangerous and deadly. . . .”
He decided, therefore, to examine sin in Scripture, particularly disobedience to God’s commandments, and this led him to:
“. . . set forth the sound faith and pious conception of Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and then to attach the Ethics.”
The two prefaces are excellent reading and, along with Van Sickle’s fine introduction, provide context for the Ethics, a masterpiece of analysis and sound catechetical and Scriptural instruction.
St. Basil’s pithy rules cover, among other topics, love, faith, sin, baptism, the worthy reception of Holy Communion, good works in this life, contempt of good works, teachers of false doctrine, the second-coming, forgiveness, prayer, marriage, and the marks of a true Christian.
His first rule concerns the necessity of repentance, a truth that eludes many Christians today, and in light our times, especially those pushing for the reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and civilly remarried.
A failure to repent, St. Basil writes, has severe consequences. He supports this rule with two passages from Matthew: Our Lord’s call to repentance (4:17) and his warning to the unrepentant residents of Chorazin and Bethsaida (11:20-22).
Another aspect of repentance he considers, still emphasized somewhat in the east but neglected in the west, is that true repentance brings with it the weeping of tears.
St. Basil leaves no question about his thoughts on marriage and divorce. Divorce, he writes, can occur only “if one of them [husband or wife] should fall into sexual immorality or be a hindrance to godly piety.”
Yet this is no open door to remarriage. St. Basil is unequivocal in stating:
“That neither is the one who has divorced himself from his wife permitted to marry another nor the one divorced from her husband to marry someone else.”
In some corners of the Church today, we are far from St. Basil’s understanding of Scripture and clarity in expressing doctrine.
Readers of the Ethics will have no doubt about why Holy Communion cannot be offered to the divorced and civilly married or why the Church can never recognize same-sex unions and similar falsehoods some wish to introduce into the Church.
Van Sickle has done a great service in making St. Basil’s Ethics accessible to scholars and laity alike. Read, re-read, and reflect on the Ethics. You will come away with a greater understanding of the sound doctrine that has been taught throughout time by the Church, as well as a greater ability to avoid the snares of false teachers.