Basil: Contra Eunomius Bk 1.8


Let’s not pass by the fact that he makes a show of reverent caution only to bring those who listen to him to ruin. For he says that we do “not honour God by human conceptualisation” when we designate him ‘unbegotten,’ but rather that we “repay him the most necessary debt of all” when we “confess that he is what he is.” What could we say that would fittingly describe this wily duplicity? He attempts to alarm the more simple by claiming that they fail to render what is owed to God unless they confess that unbegottenness is his substance. In addition, he calls his own impiety the payment of a debt, so that he appears not to be saying something on his own authority, but to be fulfilling the debt we are constrained to pay to God. And to others he indicates that, once they have placed unbegottenness in the substance of God, they will be discharged as innocent. But if they understand the matter differently, in the pious way, the should expect inexorable wrath, on the grounds that they failed to repay the most important and most necessary of all obligations.

Gladly, then, would I scrutinise him to see if he similarly sticks to this prudence in the case of all that is said about God, or if he does so only in the case of this word. For if he does not consider anything at all by the way of conceptualisation so as to avoid the appearance of honouring God with human designations, then he will confess this: that all things attributed to God similarly refer to his substance. But how is it not ridiculous to say that his creative power is his substance? Or that his providence is his substance? Or the same for his foreknowledge? In other words, how is it not ridiculous to regard every activity of his as his substance? And if all these names converge upon a single meaning, each one has to signify the same thing as the others, such as is the case with polyonyms, as when we call the same man ‘Simon,’ ‘Peter,’ and ‘Cephas.’ In the same vein, whoever has heard that God does not change will also be led to his unbegottenness, and whoever has heard that he has no parts will also brought to his creative power. What is more absurd that this confusion? Each of the names is deprived of its proper signification, and conventions are established that contradict both common usage and the teaching of the Spirit. And yet, when we hear it said about God that in wisdom he made all things (Ps. 103.24), we learn of his creative art. When it is said that he opens the mind and fills every living thing with delight (Ps. 144.16), it is a question of his providence that extends everywhere. When it is said that he made the darkness his hiding place (Ps. 17.12), we are taught that his nature is invisible. Furthermore, when we hear what was said by God himself, As for me I am and do not change (Mal. 3.6), we learn that the divine substance is always the same and unchanging. So, then, how is it not sheer madness to deny that a proper signification underlies each of the names, and to claim in contradiction to their actual meaning that all names mean the same thing as one another?

Nevertheless, even if we were to concede this point, not even then will they come any closer to reaching their goal. For if all these names which are used for our God and Father signify his substance—I mean ‘unchangeable,’ ‘invisible,’ and ‘incorruptible’—then it is basically clear that they will also be indicative of substance in the case of the only-begotten Son and God. For we also call the only-begotten Son ‘invisible,’ ‘unchangeable,’ ‘incorruptible,’ ‘partless,’ and all such names. And thus will their cleverness come back to refute them. For they will be no more capable of demonstrating that the Son is unlike in substance because of a single different designation than compelled by the very necessity the terms admitted to confess his likeness because of many shared designations. If he were to say that he has employed this reverent caution only in the case of the term ‘unbegotten,’ whereas in the other cases he is careless, let us once more put a question to him: why this arbitrary selection? When there are so many things that are said about God, why does he opt to be exact in this case alone? And if in the case of this name he is paying a debt of “confessing that he is what he is,” why in the case of other names does he not refrain from honouring him with the whole multitude of human conceptualisations? For the one who has many debts but repays only one is not prudent for repaying this one but rather exceedingly imprudent for withholding the repayment of all the rest. Therefore, as if they were traps set for wild beasts, Eunomius is caught by his own wiles: the more he attempts to escape from them, the more he is refuted by them.


Such is the situation. There is no one name which encompasses the entire nature of God and suffices to express it adequately. Rather there are many diverse names, and each one contributes, in accordance with its own meaning, to a notion that is altogether dim and trifling as regards the whole but that is at least sufficient for us. Now some of the names applied to God are indicative of what is present to God; others, on the contrary, of what is not present. From these two something like an impression of God is made in us, namely, from the denial of what is incongruous with him and from the affirmation to what belongs to him.

For example, whenever we call him ‘incorruptible’, we are implicitly saying to ourselves or to those who hear us: “Do not think that God is subject to corruption.” Whenever we call him ‘invisible’: “Do not suppose that he can be comprehended by the perception of what comes through the eyes.” Whenever we call him ‘immortal’: “Do not think that death happens to God” It is the same whenever we call him ‘unbegotten’: “Do not believe that the being of God depends on any cause or principle.” On the whole, we learn form each of those names not to fall into inappropriate notions in our suppositions about God. So, then, in order that we may come to know the particular distinguishing mark about God, in our statements about God we forbid each to lower thoughts to the level of what is not appropriate. We do this so that human beings will never consider God to be one of the things that are corruptible, or one of those things that are visible, or one of those things that are begotten. Forbidding all these names results in something like a denial of what is foreign to him, since our minds articulate distinctly and cast aside the suppositions concerning what is not present to him.

Again, we say that God is ‘good,’ ‘just,’ ‘Creator,’ ‘Judge,’ and all such things. So, then, as in the case of the terms we just spoke about which signified a denial and rejection of what is foreign to God, so here they indicate the affirmation and existence of what has affinity with God and is appropriately considered in connection with him. Accordingly, we learn from each of the two forms of designation either that what is present is present or that what is not present is not present to God. But it makes no difference to us if someone wants designate this a ‘negation’ or a ‘rejection’ or a ‘denial’ or some such thing. I think that what I have said has sufficiently demonstrated that ‘unbegotten’ is not indicative of what belongs to God. Now the substance is not one of the things not present, but is rather the very being of God; indeed, it is the pinnacle of insanity to count it among that which does not have being. For if the substance is among that which does not have being, then it could hardly be the case that any of the other things we have mentioned has being. So, then, it has been demonstrated that ‘unbegotten’ is classed with what is not present. Therefore, whoever holds that this term is indicative of the substance itself is a liar.


Generally speaking, how much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think that he had discovered the very substance of God above all? For by their bragging they nearly eclipse even the one who said, Above the stars I will set my throne (Isaiah 14.13). Yet these men are not insolently attacking the stars or heaven, but are bragging that they have penetrated the very substance of the God of the universe! Let’s ask him from which source he claims to have comprehended it. So, then, from a common notion? But this tells us that God exists, not what God is. Perhaps from the Spirit’s teaching? Which one? Where is it located? Isn’t it clear that the great David, to whom God manifested the secret and hidden things of his own wisdom, confessed that such knowledge is inaccessible? For he said: I regard knowledge of you as a marvel, as too strong—I am not able to attain it (Ps. 138.6). And when Isaiah came to contemplate the glory of God, what did he reveal to us about the divine substance? He is the one who testified in the prophecy about Christ, saying: Who shall tell of his begetting? (Is. 53.8). Then there’s Paul,  the vessel of election (Acts 9.15), who had Christ speaking in him (2Cor 13.3) and  was snatched away up to the third heaven and heard ineffable words which are impossible for a person to utter (2Cor 12.2-4). What teaching did he bequeath to us about the substance of God? He is the one who peered into the particular reasons for the economy and cried out with this voice, as if the vastness of what he contemplated made him dizzy: O the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgments, and how unsearchable are his ways! (Rom. 11.33) If these things are beyond the understanding of those who have attained the measure of the knowledge of Paul, how great is the conceit of those who profess to know the substance of God.

I would like to ask them about the earth upon which they stand from which they come—what do they say? What do they tell us is its substance? If they were to argue incontrovertibly about what lies on the ground and under their feet, we would believe them when they concern themselves with the things beyond every motion. What, then, is the substance of the earth? What is its mode of comprehension? Let them respond and tell us whether it is a rational account or sense-perception, by which of the sense is it comprehensible? By sight? But sight apprehends colours. Perhaps by touch? But touch can distinguish between hardness and softness, between hot and cold, and such things, none of which anyone would call substance—unless he had been carried away to the utmost insanity! For taste and smell, what do we need to say about these senses? The former apprehends flavours; the latter odours. And as for hearing, it is perceptive of noises and voices, things which have no relationship to the earth. Therefore, the only option left to them is to say that they have discovered the substance of the earth by a rational account. What sort of rational account is this? Where is it located in the Scriptures? Which of the saints handed it down?


The one who gave us an account of creation taught us only this much: In the beginning God made the heavens and the earth; now the earth was invisible and without form (Gen 1.1-2). Thinking it sufficient to state that who made the earth and set it in order, he has refused to waste his time investigating what the earth’s substance is, on the grounds that such an endeavour is pointless and useless to its audience. Hence, if knowledge of the earth’s substance is established neither by the testimony derived from sense-perception nor by the teaching derived from the rational account, on what basis do they still claim to possess comprehension of it? Insofar as the earth is perceptible to the senses, it is either colour or mass or lightness or heaviness or density or rarity or hardness or softness or coldness or hotness, or qualities pertaining to flavour, or shape or magnitude—none of which they can say is its substance, not even if they were to affirm all of them readily. Yet none of the wise and blessed has provided a rational account which has made it possible to consider the earth’s substance. Therefore what mode of knowledge still remains? Let them answer us, seeing that they despise all things under their feet, transcend the heaven and all the supercosmic powers, and join themselves to the first substance itself through their intellect. But it seems that self-conceit is the most difficult of all the passion in human beings since in actual fact it envelops those whom it affects in the condemnation of the devil. Hence those who have no understanding of the nature of the earth on which they trample go so far as to brag that they have penetrated the very substance of God of the universe!

God said that he was the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, for this is my everlasting name and my memorial to the generations of generations (Ex. 3.15). When he said this, he was placing a high value on being named the God of such men due to their perfection in all virtue, considering being thus named as something proper and fitting to his majesty. Yet God did not even disclose his name to the saints, namely to Abraham and to Isaac and to Jacob, and much less did he reveal what his substance is! For he said: I am the Lord, and I appeared to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, as I am their God, and I not disclose my name to them (Ex. 6.2-3). Clearly, he said this because his name is too great for human ears. Yet it seems that to Eunomius God has manifested not only his name, but also his very substance! This great secret, which was not manifested to any of the saints, he makes public by writing it in his books, and blurts it out to all people recklessly. While the promised blessing stored up for us are beyond human knowledge, and the peace of God surpasses intelligence (Phil. 4.7), he does not admit that the very substance of God is beyond all intelligence and beyond all human knowledge.


I think that comprehension of God’s substance transcends not only human beings, but also every rational nature. Now by “rational nature” here, I mean one which belongs to creation. For the Father is known by the Son alone, and by the Holy Spirit. because: No one knows the Father except the Son (Matt 11.27), and: The Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For no one knows what belongs to a man except the spirit that is in him, and know one knows what belongs to God except the Spirit that is from God (1Cor. 2.10-11)What, then, will remain distinctive about the knowledge that the Only-Begotten or the Holy Spirit has, if indeed they themselves have comprehension of the very substance? Even though they do not attribute to the Only-Begotten the contemplation of the power and goodness and wisdom of God, they have nonetheless made the apprehension of God’s substance commensurate with themselves. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. It is to be expected that the very substance of God is incomprehensible to everyone except the Only-Begotten and the Holy Spirit. But we are led up from the activities of God and gain knowledge from the Maker through what he has made, and so come in this way to an understanding of his goodness and wisdom. For what can be known about God is that God has manifested (Rom. 1.19) to all human beings.

Since whatever the theologians seem to have recorded about the substance of God has been expressed in figurative language or even in allegories, the words transport us to other notions. Hence if someone should contentiously stand by the mere letter, taking it in its obvious interpretation without duly examining it, he has strayed into the myths of the Jews (Ti. 1.14) and silly old wives tales (1Tim 4.7), and will grow old in abject poverty, devoid of worthy concepts of God. For in addition to thinking that the substance of God is something material and thereby agreeing with the Greek atheists, he will also suppose that it is complex and composite. For example, the prophet describes God as like amber from his loins upward and composed of fire below (Ezek. 8.2). Whoever does not ascend, by means of the letter, to the loftier notions and somehow sticks to the corporeal descriptions of the passage learns from Ezekiel that this is what the substance of God is like. Then again, he will hear from Moses that God is fire (Dt. 4.24). In addition, the wise man Daniel will lead him to other suppositions. Hence when he reads the Scriptures he will find in them images which are not only false but also in conflict with one another.

Therefore, putting aside this idle curiosity about the substance since it is unattainable, we ought to obey the simple advice of the Apostle, who said: One must first believe that God exists and that he rewards those who seek him (Heb. 11.6). For it is not the investigation of what he is, but rather the confession that he is, which prepares salvation or us. Therefore, since it has been demonstrated that the substance of God is incomprehensible to human nature and completely ineffable, it remains that we must thoroughly examine unbeggotenness itself both what it is and how it is considered in the God of the universe.


So, then, when we reflect upon the matter, we find that our notion of unbegottenness does not fail under the examination of ‘what it is’ but rather—and here I am forced to speak this way—under the examination of ‘what it is like.’ When our mind scrutinises whether God who is over all (Rom 9.5) has some cause superior to himself, then, unable to conceptualise any, it designates the fact that this life is without beginning as ‘unbegotten.’ When we talk about human beings and say that this person has come from that person, we are not relating  the ‘what it is’ of each but the ‘from where he has come.’ Similarly, when we talk about God, the term ‘unbegotten’ does not signify his ‘what’ but that he is ‘from no source.’

My point can be clarified as follows. When Luke the evangelist recounted the genealogy of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ according to the flesh, he worked his way backwards from the last to the first. He began with Joseph, saying that he was the son of Heli, who was the son of Matthan. He traced the lineage similarly all the way back to Adam. When he reached the end, he said that Seth came from Adam but that Adam came from God, and stopped there. In narrating the begetting of each person, he did not indicate the substances of those enumerated but recounted the proximate origin from which each one came. So just as Luke said that Adam came from God, let us ask ourselves: “Did God come from anyone?” Isn’t it obvious in each one of our minds that God came from no one? Clearly, that which is ‘from no one’ is ‘without origin,’ and that which is ‘without origin’ is ‘unbegotten.’ Therefore, just as being ‘from someone’ so too when we are talking about the God of the universe it is not possible to say that ‘unbegotten’ (which is equivalent to saying ‘from no one’) is the substance. Whoever says that being ‘without origin’ is the substance equates himself with someone who, when asked, “What is the substance of Adam? What is his nature?” replies that he is not formed from the copulation of a man and a women, but rather by the divine hand. The recipient of such a reply may object: “I am not seeking the manner of his subsistence but rather the material substrate of the man himself. Your response has not answered my question.” So, then, this is how it is for those of us who have learned from the term ‘unbegotten’ what God is like rather than his very nature.


Hence through this one blasphemy he rejects all terms handed down by the Holy Spirit for the glorification of the Only-Begotten, even though the gospel teaches that the Father, God, has set his seal upon him (John 6.27), and the Apostle that he is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1.15). He is not a lifeless image, nor handmade, nor a product of art or conceptualisation, but a living image, or rather self-existent life which always preserves the indistinguishability, not by likeness of shape, but in his very substance. In my opinion, I say that existing in the form of God (Phil 2.6) means the same as “existing in the substance of God.” For just as having taken up the form of a slave (Phil. 2.7) signifies that our Lord was begotten in the substance of humanity, so too saying existing in the form of God (Phil. 2.6) certainly reveals the distinctive feature of the divine substance.The one who sees me, he says, sees the Father (John 14.9).

When Eunomius alienates the Only-Begotten from the Father and utterly separates him from fellowship with the Father, he cuts off (insofar as he can) the way upward to knowledge that occurs through the Son. While the Lord says: All that the Father has is mine (John 17.9), Eunomius says that the Father has no fellowship whatsoever with the one who comes from him. In addition, the Lord himself has taught us that as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted also to the Son to have life in himself (John 5.26). But what has Eunomius taught us? That the one who is begotten has no comparison with the one who has begotten him. Through this one statement he once and for all does away with the account of the image and denies that the Son is the Father’s radiance and the character of his subsistence (Hebrews 1.3). Now it is impossible to conceive and image of something that in incomparable or for there to be a radiance of something with which it has not fellowship by nature. But once again, he persists in the same kind of scheme, saying that “the unbegotten has no comparison with the begotten.” He does not say “the Father has no comparison with the one from him” in order to demonstrate the opposition between these words, thereby transferring this opposition to the very substance of the Father and the Son.


In order to keep our treatise from becoming excessively long by going through each of the blasphemies and trying to correct everything he said, we will omit those passages whose impiety is obvious and immediately manifest to those who read them. Instead, we will adduce those passages which need some argument for their refutation. After he established in manifold ways that the Father’s substance has no fellowship with the Son and demonstrated absurdity in every way (or so he thinks), he adds:

Now they would certainly not say the following: that while the substance is common to both, it is due to order and to superiorities based on time that the one is a first and the other a second. This is because the cause of the pre-eminence must be present in that which is pre-eminent, but neither time nor age nor order has been joined with the substance of God. For order is secondary to the orderer, but nothing that belongs to God has been ordered by another. Time is a certain kind of motion of the stars, but the stars came into being not only later than the substance of the unbegotten and all the intelligibles, but also later than the primary bodies. Do we not even need to speak about ages? For scripture clearly declares: Before the ages God exists (Ps. 54.20).

In the course of the treatise he has presupposed whatever he wanted and drawn what follows from his presuppositions. Then, diving headlong into absurd notions, he thinks that from this reasoning he has demonstrated the necessity of accepting his own doctrines. He says: “they would not say the following: that while the substance is common to both, it is due to order and superiorities based on time that the one is a first and the other a second.” So then, if he is speaking of the commonality of the substance, conceiving it to be a king of doling out and division of pre-existent matter into things that come from it, this understanding is unacceptable to us. God forbid! We declare that those who speak in this way (of indeed anyone really does) are no less impious that those who affirm the ‘unlike.’ But if someone takes the commonality of the substance to mean that one and the same formula of being is observed in both, such that if, hypothetically speaking, the Father is conceived of as light in his substrate, then the substance of the Only-Begotten is also confessed as light, and whatever one may assign to the Father as the formula of his being, the very same also applies to the Son. If someone takes the commonality of the substance in this way, we accept it and claim it as our doctrine. For this is how divinity is one. Clearly, their unity is conceived to be a matter of the formula of the substance. Hence while there is difference in number and in distinctive features that characterise each, their unity is observed in the formula of the divinity.


Is there anyone in the world to whom it is not clear that greater than (John 14.28) is said either according to the account of cause, or according to excess of power, or according to pre-eminence of dignity, or according to superabundance of mass? So, then, Eunomius himself has already said that greater than is not to be understood according to mass. Now this is reasonable, since greater than is a question of magnitude to the same extent that both ‘lesser than’ and ‘even more so’ are. Who would compare with one another things uncircumscribed by magnitude, or rather thing without magnitude and completely without quantity? In what way would superiority be detected in things whose comparison is impossible?

Saying that Christ the power of God (1Cor 1.24) is deficient in power characterises those who are altogether infantile and have not heard the voice of the Lord, who said, I and the Father are one (John 10.30). The Lord takes this one as equality in power, as we will show from the very words of the gospel. For after he said concerning believers: No one will snatch them from my hand (John 10.28) and: The Father who gave them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them from the hand of the Father (John 10.29) he added: I and the Father are one (John 10.30). Clearly he takes this one as equality and identity in power. Furthermore, if the ‘throne of God’ is a name of dignity (as we ourselves believe it to be), what else does this seat reserved for the Son at the right hand of the Father signify if not equal honour of their rank? The Lord also promised that he would come in the glory of the Father (Mt. 16.27).

All that remains, then, is that greater than is said here according to the account of cause. Since the Son’s principle comes from the Father, it is in this sense that the Father is greater, as cause and principle. For this reason too the Lord said the following: The Father is greater than I (John 14.28), clearly meaning insofar as he is Father. But what else does ‘Father’ signify, other that that he is the cause and principle of the one begotten from him? Generally speaking, a substance is not said to be greater or lesser than a substance, even according to your wisdom. Hence, according to them and truth itself, there is pre-eminence according to substance. In addition, Eunomius himself would not claim that the Father is greater according to mass, since he had declared that one must not suppose magnitude in connection with God. So, then, all that remains is the way of being greater than that we have stated, I mean that of principle and cause. So, then, such is how he attempted to blaspheme against greater than.