June 22, 2021

A Summary of "On the Holy Spirit" by Saint Basil the Great


St. Basil the Great, the famous 4th century Cappadocian father, best known for developing and perfecting the trinitarian theology of St. Athanasius the Great (c. 295-373), composed On the Holy Spirit in 375.

Reason for Basil’s Treatise

The immediate occasion for this treatise was the accusation that the doxology St. Basil used in public worship, “glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” was an innovation. His opponents preferred, “glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit“, which was a traditional formula.

Since prayer and theology are inseparable (lex orandi lex est credendi), a debate over proper worship necessarily involved a debate about correct theology.

The Argument from Basil’s Opponents

The second doxology was supposedly superior in that it expressed more precisely what these contenders saw as the distinct levels of glory appropriate to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

Their apparent contention was that any mention of Father, Son and Holy Spirit as different facilitates the argument that they are different in nature (variation of language = variation of nature).

The preposition from is best used concerning God the Father, through concerning God the Son, and in concerning God the Holy Spirit.

These prepositions indicate distinctions in essence and thus should not be used interchangeably. From supposedly indicates the cause of all things, through indicates instrumentality, whereas in indicates the time and place for such action.

Basil’s Defense

St. Basil answered the pneumatomachoi, or “Spirit fighters,” who denied the full divinity of the Holy Spirit, in several ways.

First, he critiques them for using pagan philosophy in their strict adherence to prepositions for the different persons in the Trinity. St. Basil thus accused his opponents of polluting the clear and simple doctrine of the Holy Spirit with their love of pagan philosophical distinctions.

Second, St. Basil affirmed that the Church knew and used BOTH formulas, each having its own proper context in worship and prayer, each with their unique emphasis. These doxologies are therefore complimentary rather than contradictory.

- With the Holy Spirit = expresses best the communion of the Holy Spirit with the Father and the Son in essence and in all the relations and activities of the Holy Trinity.

- In the Holy Spirit = emphasizes the relationship between the Holy Spirit and us, namely in the magnitude of blessings we receive from the Holy Spirit.

Third, St. Basil uses both unwritten and written Tradition of the Church Fathers to affirm this truth.

- Unwritten traditions mentioned – signing the Cross, words uttered in invocation over bread & wine, blessing of baptismal water, triple immersion at baptism.

"How then can I be an innovator and creator of new terms, when I adduce as originators and champions of the word whole nations, cities, custom going back beyond the memory of man, men who were pillars of the church and conspicuous for all knowledge and spiritual power?" ~ St. Basil

Fourth and most importantly, St. Basil uses the authority of Holy Scripture to demonstrate that the Holy Spirit was called Lord and thus ranked no less than the Father and the Son. Since he is debating Christians, Scripture becomes Basil’s most powerful defense tool.

- First, their own doxology is NOT found in Scripture.

- Second, from the magnitude and glory of the Holy Spirit’s works in our illumination, sanctification and salvation, and in creation as well, he demonstrated the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Works attributed only properly to God can only be performed by God. Since such were the works of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit must be divine.

- Third, Holy Scripture does not abide by these restrictions. Scripture varies its expressions as occasion requires. Holy Scripture and Christians rightly bind the Master of all with all appropriate prepositions.
- Fourth, due to the logical equivalence of and with, the baptismal commandment of the Lord does not differ in meaning from St. Basil’s formula, “glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit.” Basil talks about the necessity of baptism for salvation and how perilous it is for the Spirit to be separated from the Father and the Son in the baptismal formula.


Although St. Basil never utters the words, “the Holy Spirit is God” (because Scripture and written Tradition did not say this either), the divinity of the Holy Spirit remains the indisputable logical conclusion of this work.

“In demonstrating the divinity of the Holy Spirit, St. Basil’s treatise, On the Holy Spirit, lays the foundations of Eastern Orthodox trinitarian theology both conceptually and terminologically. Although refined and clarified by the Cappadocian Fathers who survived him, St. Basil’s work laid the foundations of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381. This alone justifies the study of this work since it is fundamental to Orthodox trinitarian theology. Yet its value transcends being a theological source. St. Basil uses and discusses here the sources and methods of Eastern Orthodox theology. His masterful use of Holy Writ, the worship traditions of the Church, the writings of the Church Fathers, of logic, and of precise theological language make this treatise an example of how Orthodox theology is done. On the Holy Spirit is therefore a work which every Orthodox Christian should both read and reread.” ~ Fr. Brian Ephrem Fitzgerald, Ph.D.