From The Age of the Spirit
It was not until 375 CE that the first book or treatise devoted solely and specifically to discussing the nature of the Holy Spirit appeared on the scene. It was written by a bishop in Cappadocia (part of modern Turkey) named Basil, and known to us as Basil of Caesarea or Basil the Great. Basil’s little book was titled succinctly, abruptly even, On the Holy Spirit. Chapters 1–8 explain the nature of the deity of Christ, after which Basil moves on to argue that the Spirit is equal in the Godhead – clearly, a not yet widely accepted notion:
We must proceed, now, to attack our opponents as they endeavor to advance opinions which are derived from false knowledge. It is not possible, they say, for the Holy Spirit to be ranked with the Father and Son, on account of the difference of his nature and the inferiority of his dignity. But to them I reply with the words of the apostles: “We ought to obey God rather than any human authority.” (Acts 5:29)
“Attack our opponents” indeed! Clearly, the early Christian fathers and mothers didn’t mess around. But what lay behind Basil’s apologia? What was he so agitated about? The answer is Arianism.
Regardless of how colorful Basil of Cappadocia (or how convoluted the stories about him) may have been, there is no question but that Arius, a presbyter in Alexandria, is the heretic whose ideas created the most friction in Basil’s own time and, to some extent, have continued to do so right on into ours. Arius, who had lived from ca. 255 CE to 336 CE, and quite possibly was not the originator of the heresy that bears his name, had argued that God the Father had created God the Son. If so, then it logically followed that there was a time when God the Son was not. Such a scandalous idea had not been voiced before! A time when God the Father was and God the Son was not? What could that even mean?
First of all and as is often true with most heresies, it meant that Arius had employed scripture as proof text in an effort to understand. Jesus himself is recorded in John 14:28 as having said: “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I am coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father, because the Father is greater than I.” And, like it or not, the Apostle Paul had written to the Corinthians, saying, “Yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we live.” (1 Corinthians 8:6)
Nothing could be any clearer or more opaque than that. And because Arius’s non-coequal, non-coeternal understanding of God the Father and God the Son did indeed enjoy some scriptural validity, it had become the most threatening of the early heresies and the most violently opposed. Almost the whole of the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE was absorbed with discussion of Arius and his ideas. Even the emperor Constantine himself became heavily embroiled in the arguments and one of the heroes of Trinitarian theology, Athanasius of Alexandria, had his place sealed forever in ecclesial history because of his brilliant opposition to Arian thought.
There were other doctrinal debates and theological movements beside Arianism, of course, almost all of them labeled heretical by some council or congress of churches and almost all of them destined to be freshly considered and reconsidered over the coming centuries. But there was, among the persistent and troubling heresies that originated in Christianity’s first half millennium, one that was not about the Trinity in terms of God the Son. Rather, it was about the Trinity in terms of God the Holy Spirit, of how to understand it, and of how to relate to God through it. That one was called Montanism.
Montanism was named for its founder, but Montanus, unfortunately, was a man about whom we know practically nothing other than that he lived in the late second century and was probably from Phrygia in Asia Minor. Whoever he was, though, his ideas were, and are, very clear. He taught that the Holy Spirit was alive and active in the world right here and right now and that the Christian must be constantly attuned to the Spirit’s presence and, being attuned by self-discipline and prayer, be ready at all times to perceive and follow the intention or direction of the Spirit. For Montanus, to be fully Christian meant to be receptive to that singular fact with all of one’s senses as well as all of one’s will and understanding. One had to be intentionally and consciously and actively attuned to the Holy Spirit if one were ever to know what God wanted for one’s life.
Unfortunately, original discussions about Montanus and his new doctrine were considerably complicated by his own claims that the Holy Spirit, the parakletos, spoke to him and then through him. Such is an audacious claim at any time, but it was especially so in those days of the mid- to late second century, when Christianity was an outlaw faith and Christians could readily be used as fuel for lighting imperial torches or as bait for energizing the games of the amphitheaters. Generally speaking, the whole idea of an inspiriting Holy Spirit seemed fanciful to many, heretical to others, and downright dangerous to everybody. Who knew what this Holy Spirit really was, and who was this Montanus to presume? There were those who said he was possessed by the devil, and there were those who simply ignored him altogether.
Either way, as we all know, his ideas have continued to live on. In fact, they are ideas that, arguably, live more actively now among us than they did in the days of Montanus himself. Arguably, in fact, they were and are the progenitors of Pentecostalism and the first whispers of a faith more spiritual than it is religious.
And Basil would have had something to say to us about that as well. That is, though he was writing his De Spiritu Sanctu, his monumental Of the Holy Spirit, in 375 CE, he was already acutely aware of the problems that could, and would, arise both from general confusion about the Holy Spirit and also – perhaps most detrimentally – from a natural human reluctance to engage that difficulty at all. “Of the wise men among us,” he wrote, “some have conceived of him [i.e., the Holy Spirit] as an activity, some as a creature, some as God, and some have been uncertain which to call him and therefore neither worship him nor treat him with dishonor, but take up a neutral stance.” Which diagnosis of the problem is as operative today as it was in Basil’s.