An Incredible 4th Century Family

An Incredible 4th Century Family

In this issue we will look at one of the most unusual families in all Christian history, a family who contributed person after person, generation after generation, both men and women, to significant Christian ministry. We will look at this family through its most famous son whose name was Basil. Born about AD 330 and educated for high position and prestige, Basil had everything needed to establish himself successfully in this world, but he chose the service of Christ above earthly power.

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His family was a wealthy Christian family from Cappadocia, in east-central Asia Minor, modern day Turkey. History does not record exactly when the Gospel came to Cappadocia, but possibly it was through Jews who heard Peter's powerful sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:9). By the end of his life, Peter was writing to Christians in their area (I Peter 1:1). But the church in Cappadocia became firmly established in the region through the evangelism done by Bishop Gregory, often called Thaumaturgus or the Wonder-worker. Note that after the apostle Paul, Gregory "The Wonder-worker" was one of the few "big name" Christian ministers for the next 250 years.

This was a period of persecution and there were no public mass evangelism meetings allowed. Basil's grandmother Macrina came to Christ through Gregory the Wonder-worker's ministry in the third century. When persecution of the Christians broke out under Emperor Diocletian, Macrina and her husband fled their home and lived in the hill forests of Pontus for seven years. When they did return to their homes, persecution again broke out, and much of their property was confiscated. Macrina's son Basil later married Emmelia, who was the daughter of a martyr. Basil and Emmelia had ten children and raised them all in the Christian faith for which their parents had suffered so greatly. The oldest child, a girl, was named Macrina after Basil's mother. The second oldest, a boy, was named Basil after his father; he is the main subject of our story.

Basil, Sr., was a lawyer and rhetorician in Cappadocia, and he provided Basil, Jr., with a classic education to follow in his steps. After schooling in Caesarea and Constantinople, Basil went to Athens where he studied for six years. There he became friends with Prince Julian, later Roman Emperor, and fellow-Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus. Basil excelled at rhetoric and became very proud of his abilities. When he came home, he began teaching at the university of Caesarea. Basil's father had died when he was away, and on his return he found his sister Macrina had taken over the care of their mother and was looking after the education of the younger children. Macrina was an extraordinary woman. Gregory of Nazianzus once wrote regarding her, "it was a woman who was the subject of our discourse, if indeed you can say 'a woman' for I do not know if it is appropriate to call her by a name taken from nature when she surpasses nature."

Macrina's Marriage Plans
Disappointed Macrina was engaged to be married when she was twelve, but her fiancé died. She resolved to remain unmarried and devote her life to the Lord and the service of others. Since a young girl Macrina had especially studied the Song of Solomon and the Psalms. As her brother Gregory later wrote: She went through each part of the Psalm at its special time, when getting up, when engaging in work, when resting, when she took her meals, when she arose from the table, when she went to bed or arose for prayers; always she had the Psalms with her like a good traveling companion. Not forsaking them for a moment.

A Sister's Rebuke, a Brother's Death
When Basil returned from Athens, Macrina warned him about his pride in his rhetorical abilities and the way he exalted himself and despised very worthy men. Macrina showed him that worldly success was less important than being right with God. At first Basil shrugged off Macrina's words, but when his brother Naucratius died unexpectedly, Basil was shaken. He woke up as if he had been in a deep sleep and saw his preoccupation with rhetoric as "vain labor in which I was engaged, occupying myself in acquiring a knowledge made foolish by God."

What to Do with His Life
But if as a Christian Basil was not to be consumed with a worldly education, how was he to live? He studied the gospels closely to see what his life should be like: Accordingly, having read the Gospel and having seen clearly there that the greatest means for perfection is the selling of one's possessions, the sharing with needy brethren, the complete renouncing of solicitude for this life, and the refusing of the soul to be led astray by any affection for things of earth, I prayed to find some one of the brethren who had chosen this way of life, so as to pass with him over life's brief and troubled waters.

Basil's sister Macrina had moved with her mother and female servants to the family's property at Annesi in Pontus and established a female monastery there with Macrina as leader. Basil too renounced his worldly office and decided to lead an ascetic life. He visited monastic communities in Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Mesopotamia before establishing his own community in Pontus. Basil was strongly in favor of a community life rather than the life of a solitary ascetic, for many of Christ's commands could only be fulfilled by living with others and serving them. Basil's brother Gregory and his lifelong friend Gregory of Nazianzus joined with Basil in the monastic life. Basil believed strongly that the monastery should not be autonomous but should be under the control of the local bishop and work closely with the church. He established seven times of prayer a day and established rules which continue to be followed by Eastern monasteries and influenced the rule Benedict established in the West in the sixth century. He encouraged monks to minister to the surrounding population by providing medical care, relief for the poor, and education for the young.

Refusing the Emperor, Feeding the Poor
Julian, Basil's friend from his schooldays in Athens, had become Emperor and tried to encourage Basil to work at his court, but Basil refused the call of the world and chose the ascetic life. He had only lived in the monastery six years, however, when he was persuaded to return to the city of Caesarea and be ordained. When famine came to Caesarea in 368, Basil worked tirelessly to help the people of the city. He sold much of his inheritance to provide food for the people and received funds from many wealthy patrons to avert disaster. He also worked to persuade the merchants to keep their prices down and not profit at the expense of the people's welfare.

You Can't Bribe a "Guest of God"
In 370 Basil was chosen Bishop of Caesarea. He used his position to stand firm for the orthodoxy established at the Council of Nicea. Valens, the Emperor by this time, was a strong Arian, denying the deity of Jesus Christ. He tried to use every means at his disposal to bring Basil over to Arian beliefs. First he tried to bribe Basil to tolerate the heretical Arian bishops, but Basil would not be bought. Then Valens sent officials to openly threaten Basil with confiscation of his property, banishment, and death, but Basil would not be intimidated. He told the officials: "Nothing more? Not one of these things touches me. His property cannot be forfeited who has none; banishment I know not, for I am restricted to no place, and am the guest of God, to whom the whole earth belongs; for martyrdom I am unfit, but death is a benefactor to me, for it sends me more quickly to God, to whom I live and move . . . ." Valens was about to banish Basil when his son became very ill; he called for Basil to pray for the boy, and he recovered for a time.

Through correspondence, sermons, and theological treatises, Basil stood firmly for the doctrine of the Trinity. He and his brother Gregory, who became Bishop of Nyssa, were staunch defenders of the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit and were influential in defining the terms by which the three persons of the Trinity were one deity. With Gregory of Nazianzus, they also defended the complete humanity of Jesus. One heresy of the day was that Jesus had a human body but not a human soul or mind. The Cappadocians recognized that Jesus had to be fully human if he was to save us fully. The importance of the role of the Cappadocians in the theological and doctrinal realm cannot be overestimated. The church had been scandalously divided over theological issues, particularly Arianism. It even led to rioting in the streets in major cities, various forms of violence, and exiling of bishops. The Cappadocians skillfully worked through key issues with deeper understanding so that a level of peace could be achieved.

Basil combined a pastor's heart in caring for his church with a theologian's love for the truth. When he died in 379 his last words were "Into Thy hands, O Lord I commit my spirit; Thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth."

Two years after Basil's death, the new Emperor Theodosius called a church council at Constantinople to finally deal with the Arian heresy. The two Cappadocian Gregories, Basil's brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, were leaders in formulating what is now known as the Nicene Creed. Today Basil is considered among the eight doctors of the early church, along with Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Athanasius, and John Chrysostom.

Six Saints in One Family
In the Eastern Orthodox church, not only is Basil himself venerated as a saint, but so are his sister Macrina, his two brothers, Gregory Bishop of Nyssa and Peter Bishop of Sebaste, his grandmother Macrina the Elder, and his mother Emmelia. Quite a Cappadocian family!

Originally published May 03, 2010.