Basil on the Spirit’s Procession from the Son

I was surprised while reading Basil’s On the Faith that he teaches that the Son sends the Holy Spirit in the same way the Father sends the Son, “The Holy Spirit does not speak from himself, nor does the Son do anything from himself, but the Father sends the Son, and the Son sends the Holy Spirit.” Basil is held in very high regard in Eastern Orthodoxy, which designates him the greatest of their three holy hierarchs. He’s a big deal in their tradition, which rejects the filioque clause on multiple grounds, including doctrinal. Yet Basil’s affirmation goes further than the contested filioque clause in the Nicene Creed, as he does not teach that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, just that the Son sends the Spirit.

The creed speaks of the Spirit coming from (ἐκπορευόμενον, a compound of ἐκ and πορεύομαι) and Basil speaks of the Son sending (πέμοντος).  The cognitive similarities are clear, indicating that the doctrine in view is the same. But the dating here matters. On the Faith was likely written around 360 A.D., while the version of the Nicene Creed held by the church was not finished until the Council of Constantinople in 381. Basil’s terminology does not have the disputes surrounding the filioque clause in sight. However, Gregory of Nazianzus, in his important Oration 39 (Oration on the Holy Lights; §12) says “The Holy Spirit is truly spirit, coming forth from (προϊὸν; from προϊέναι) the Father indeed, but not after the manner of the Son, for it is not by generation but by ‘procession’ (ἐκπορευτῶς), since I must coin a word for the sake of clearness.” Gregory Nazianzen preached this in January 381, just before he led the Council of Constantinople. He crafted the term ἐκπορευτῶς for the economic relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father, meaning that Basil would not have had those semantic nuances in mind 20 years earlier. Basil is not distinguishing the manners in which the Son and Spirit are sent (generation versus procession), respectively, but teaching that it is the Son who sends the Spirit as the Father sends the Son. Since ἐκπορευόμενον had not yet been coined, it is impossible to say whether Basil saw πέμοντος as closer to Nazianzen’s “procession” or προϊὸν. Be that as it may, Nazianzen is not ruling out the Son’s role in the Spirit’s procession, but asserting that the Spirit proceeds (ἐκπορευτῶς) from the Father, not that he is begotten (γεννητῶς) like the Son.

Regardless, Basil in a creedal/confessional form teaches that the Son sends the Spirit. Between the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople a number of congregations and dioceses had their own local creeds (Athanasius commends and criticizes some of them in On Synods). Basil in On the Faith presents a confession of the Christian faith in creedal format. This creedal statement concludes with his affirmation of the Son sending the Spirit. Whether or not he intended the economic relationship of ἐκπορευόμενον and filioque clause to be taught is not only anachronistic, but misses the point: Basil believed that the Christian must believe and confess that the Son sends the Spirit as the Father sends the Son. It seems then that the filioque clause is appropriate to Nicene theology, and that its path to Constantinople runs not only through Nazianzen, but Basil first.

This is Basil’s confession of faith:

“Therefore, we believe and confess: One, alone true and good God and father almighty, from whom are all things, the God and Father of our Lord and God Jesus Christ.

And One, his only-begotten Son, our Lord and God Jesus Christ, alone true, through whom all things came into being, both visible and invisible, and to to whom all things cohere; who was in the beginning with God and was God, and afterwards, according to the Scripture, appeared on earth and dwelt among men; who, being in the form of God, did not consider being equal to God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, and, taking the form of a servant through birth from a virgin and having been found in frame as a man, he fulfilled in himself all the things that had been written about him, according to the command of the Father, becoming obedient to death–a death on a cross–and, having risen from the dead on the third day according to the Scriptures, he appeared to his holy disciples and the rest, as it is written; who ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, whence he comes at the end of this age to raise all and to render to each according to their work, when the righteous will be taken up into life eternal of the kingdom of heaven while the sinners will be condemned to eternal punishment, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.

And One only Holy Spirit, the Comforter, in whom we have been sealed unto the day of redemption; the Spirit of truth, the Spirit of adoption, in whim we cry, ‘Abba, Father’; who divides and works the gifts that originates from God for the benefit of each just as he desires; who teaches and brings to remembrance all things, as many as he hears from the Son, who is good who leads unto all truth and establishes all those who believe with sure knowledge and an accurate confession and pious religion and spiritual and true worship of God the Father and of his only begotten Son our Lord and God Jesus Christ and of himself. Each name correctly and clearly distinguishes for us the distinctive characteristics of the one named and all the particular characteristics that follow from these which we piously contemplate–the Father in the characteristics of father, the Son in the characteristics of son, and the Holy Spirit in the characteristics belonging to him. The Holy Spirit does not speak from himself, nor does the Son do anything from himself, but the Father sends the Son, and the Son sends the Holy Spirit.

Thus we think, and this we baptize into the Trinity, one in essence, according to the commandment of our same Lord Jesus Christ.”

On the Faith, 79-83.