Review: On Christian Ethics

Review: On Christian Ethics

Posted by SVS Press on 27th Aug 2020

The Christian life is even more demanding than you think, offers Basil the Great

If you have ever been tempted to think that God grades sins on a sort of sliding scale, that some sins are more scandalous than others, that you are, on the whole, good, moral, normal, and upright because the sins you commit are relatively minor, then I have news for you. Saint Basil the Great will shatter all of that in On Christian Ethics, published by St Vladimir’s Seminary (SVS) Press.

On Christian Ethics, translated by Jacob N. Van Sickle, is made up of three works by Basil. On the Judgment of God and On the Faith serve as an introduction to the Ethics, which Van Sickle writes “is widely regarded as Basil’s most complete exposition of the Christian life.”

Basil found that people were judging their sins to be less heinous than grievous sins, not realizing that God judges all sins equally. As a result, they were continuing in those sins unrepentant. Writes Basil in On the Judgment of God:

This tradition avoids some sins to be sure, but it indiscriminately embraces others—affecting a violent irritation against some, such as murder, adultery, and the like, while adjudging others unworthy even of censure, such as anger, an abusive tongue, drunkenness, arrogance, and others like these. Yet elsewhere Paul, speaking in Christ, has assigned to all of these the same sentence, saying, “Those who practice such things are worthy of death.”

Basil was responding to the moral degradation of the fourth century Church which, he believed, resulted from ignorance of the Scriptures and was the main cause of the many heresies of the day. Basil thought that the only response was a return to the primacy of Scripture as the final arbiter of true Christian living.

But he asserts in On the Faith that Scripture alone is not able to guard the flock from the arguments of heretics because the words of Scripture “afford only a hint of the truth,” writes Van Sickle. What is needed are Church teachers who can answer false teaching “in the spirit of the Scriptures when the letter alone is not sufficient.” And this is exactly what Basil sets out to do in the Ethics.

I admit that as I read the many maxims that make up the Ethics, with their often attendant pronouncement of doom, I thought that Basil was being harsh and legalistic. But then I would read the Scriptures that he offers to support his points and I would see that it is Christ himself, and his Apostles, who demand of us a Christianity that is sober, vigilant, unwavering, and bears real fruit. Here are two examples from the Ethics:

1.1That it is necessary for those believing in the Lord first to repent, according to the preaching of John and of our Lord Jesus Christ himself; for those now who do not repent are more severely judged than those condemned prior to the Gospel.

MATTHEW: From that time Jesus began to preach, saying “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (4.17).

MATTHEW: Then he began to upbraid the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. It shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you” (11.20-22).

21.2That the one who comes to communion without consideration for the reason why the participation of the flesh and blood of Christ is given is in no way benefited, rather the one receiving unworthily is condemned.

JOHN: Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you (6.53). And a little further: But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples murmured at it, said to them, “Does this scandalize you? Then what if you were to see the Son of man ascending where he was before? The flesh is of no avail; it is the spirit that gives life. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (6.61-63).

I Corinthians: Whoever, therefore, eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks unworthily, without discerning the body of the Lord, eats and drinks judgment upon himself (11.27-29).

There are earlier English translations of these works by Basil but some are out of print while others feature dated language. Van Sickle writes that “it seems good finally to liberate the three works of Basil here from identification as strictly ‘monastic’ works” and that “they remain a timely and necessary challenge to followers of Christ today, who are supposed to be recognizable from their fruits and from their love for one another.”


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