Denying Gold to Julian : Basil of Caesarea’s Radical Politics
Here I explore Basil the Great's response to an Emperor, and what we can learn from one of the early Christian writers.
Basil of Caesarea (also known as Basil the Great) was a Cappadocian monk that came from an area in what is now Turkey. He lived a highly aesthetic lifestyle, choosing not to eat many foods so that he would focus on God. While his works often discuss many things to do with theology (“On the Holy Spirit” and his “Homilies on Genesis” are Christian classics, read them!), in this article I’m discussing his response to a non-Christian emperor called Julian the Apostate. This is in the hopes that both Non-Christian and Christian readers will read the Church fathers and come to realise that many of the thinkers we have in the 4th Century have significant relevance and application today.
To give context to this absolutely stunning letter, Julian the Apostate was a subtler persecutor of the Church than previous pagan emperors. Ruling from 361-363 AD, he actively sought to remove Christianity from the governing sphere. He required public school teachers to be approved by the Empire (and he did not approve of Christian teaching), and removed financial stipends from Bishops. He actively discouraged the teaching of the Bible in public schools, which in turn hit the Churches hard financially, as teaching was a profitable business. If this sounds somewhat familiar to us in the present day with the government seemingly so keen to remove Biblical Christianity from the public sphere under the guise of “equality”, the parallels are certainly clear. Teachers are being fired for refusing to deny God defined genders, bakeries are being sued for refusing to support same-sex marriage, and opposition to the latter is being painted as extreme. Basil therefore gives us a very clear example of how to respond, with clear force, but with grace as well. I will go through the letter verse by verse, so be prepared for the long haul.
Basil begins: “The heroic deeds of your present splendour are small, and your grand attack against me, or rather against yourself, is paltry.”
Indeed, the government’s actions in the face of God are paltry. God is not hurt by such actions, neither is Christianity. But furthermore, when the state attacks Christians, it is ultimately attacking itself. For as God’s law is good, to deny such good is to deny good itself. Thus, denying God’s goodness does not hurt God, but simply hurts the one who denies.
“When I think of you robed in Purple, a crown upon your dishonoured head, which, so long as true religion is absent, rather disgraces than graces your empire, I tremble.”
We should tremble when we hear of our government going against the true God. Ultimately, they bring the wrath of God upon themselves (Romans 1) and it is a worse wrath due to their God given responsibility (Romans 13). We should tremble because being given ungodly rulers is a sign of judgement upon our nation (Romans 1) not simply because Christians may begin to be persecuted for holding our beliefs.
“And you yourself who have risen to be so high and great, now that vile and honour-hating demons have brought you to this pass, have begun not only to exalt yourself above all human nature, but even to uplift yourself against God, and insult His Church, mother and nurse of all, by sending to me, most insignificant of men, orders to forward you a thousand pounds of gold”
Ultimately going against the Church of God is an arrogant act. To quote Romans 9:21 “Has not the potter power over the clay, to make one unto honour and another unto dishonour?” Denying God, either by attacking the Church over its belief in God, is an attempt to place yourself as God instead of He who created you. It is even against human nature to do this, as humans are meant to obey our creator, but due to original sin and our own personal pride and arrogance, do not. Furthermore, we see the nature of Julian’s offence to Basil here, in that he is demanding gold off a monk who by all accounts lived in voluntary poverty. Basil gave this money to the poor when given it, and thus Julian actually shows his greed by demanding such gold. He damages the very poor he claims to help by treating Basil’s voluntary charity in this way.
“I am not so much astonished at the weight of the gold, although it is very serious; but it has made me shed bitter tears over your so rapid ruin. I bethink me how you and I have learned together the lessons of the best and holiest books. Each of us went through the sacred and God-inspired Scriptures. Then nothing was hid from you. Nowadays you have become lost to proper feeling, beleaguered as you are with pride.”
Julian was taught in the Christian scriptures and still rejected it due to his pride. But more to the point, Basil does another thing we as Christians are to do: We are to weep over the ungodliness and sinfulness of our governments. Often, they profess to be Christians whilst doing the exact opposite of what Christians should be doing. Note that, much like Julian, they have had training the scriptures but are so prideful that they reject God’s law in favor of their own understanding. We should call them to repentance, and call for them to govern responsibly and in accordance with God’s law. They are lost to proper feeling, and need to be shown the truth of God to be restored to better judgement.
“Your serene Highness did not find out for the first time yesterday that I do not live in the midst of superabundant wealth. To-day you have demanded a thousand pounds of gold of me. I hope your serenity will deign to spare me. My property amounts to so much, that I really shall not have enough to eat as much as I shall like to-day. Under my roof the art of cookery is dead. My servants’ knife never touches blood. The most important viands, in which lies our abundance, are leaves of herbs with very coarse bread and sour wine, so that our senses are not dulled by gluttony, and do not indulge in excess.”
Here it is shown that Julian has lost all sense of logic in demanding gold from Basil. As said before, through the voluntary poverty that Basil takes up, he is unable to fulfil Julian’s demands. Such loss of logic in government is not all too uncommon, from the declaration that someone’s self-identity changes the reality of their existence, to the suggestion that expressing the truth of God contra prevailing wisdom is hate speech. Further still, Basil makes it emphatically clear that he is not going to change how he worships God through Julian’s demands. Similarly, we are not to stop worshipping God simply because it offends the government. We are to stand firm in our faith and heed the warning that “anyone who denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 10:33)
“Your excellent tribune Lausus, trusty minister of your orders, has also reported to me that a certain woman came as a suppliant to your serenity on the occasion of the death of her son by poison; that it has been judged by you that poisoners are not allowed to exist; if any there be, that they are to be destroyed, or, only those are reserved, who are to fight with beasts. And, this rightly decided by you, seems strange to me, for your efforts to cure the pain of great wounds by petty remedies are to the last degree ridiculous. After insulting God, it is useless for you to give heed to widows and orphans. The former is mad and dangerous; the latter the part of a merciful and kindly man.”
Basil goes further still, not only are Julian’s bad actions clearly a result of pride, but even his right actions are polluted by his bad actions. On a side note, Basil clearly doesn’t see the death penalty for murderers to be a wrong thing to do. The state in Basil’s eyes it is legitimate for the state to take a life, should they see it as correct. This is in keeping with both Mosaic law and with Romans 13. The point is, that Julian’s good deeds do not make up for his sins against God, and thus count against him due to hypocrisy. Similarly, our government could enact some good-hearted policies such as a welfare system, but it is altogether useless for them to do this when at the same time they support the ending of unborn life and the sacrilege of God’s institution of marriage, for example. This is a stark warning also for any Christian in governmental office also, do not expect your good works in office to outweigh your wrongdoing if you act against God’s law. The Bible is clear on that in Matthew 10:33, and Basil simply takes this to its logical conclusion. Basil eventually finishes letter with a beautifully vicious rhetorical flourish:
“It is a serious thing for a private individual like myself to speak to an emperor; it will be more serious for you to speak to God. No one will appear to mediate between God and man. What you read you did not understand. If you had understood, you would not have condemned”
Though we may be afraid of the authority’s treatment of us, and it is a serious thing for an ordinary Christian to stand up to a governing authority for God’s sake. However, we must always take the view that it would be more serious to anger God with our actions. Whatever the government may do to us, if they don’t repent, the eternal consequences are severe. Basil also uses the fact that Julian used a tribune to his advantage “No-one will appear to mediate between God and man”. Basil does not deny the trinity here, while Christ does intercede for us, as Christ is God, no-one will appear to between Him and man. We will be judged according to whether we are in Christ or not. We will be in the presence of God when judged, and will be subject to his full glory, unlike Basil who is merely subject to the relayed messages of Julian’s tribune. Once again, Julian condemns the scriptures of Christianity, and Basil is emphatic that Julian’s understanding of Christianity is faulty, not Christianity itself. Likewise, any government that attacks Christianity and its scriptures has a fault in its understanding of God.
Well, that was quite the ride, wasn’t it? Basil is a great example of what to do when faced with an ungodly emperor that is not actively persecuting the Church, but is attempting to undermine God’s Church in more subtle ways. His courage in facing down Julian and being exceedingly direct is not just a great example, but a testament to his character. In a similar fashion, we must always be motivated to call the government to repentance, not because we as Christians want special treatment, but rather to lovingly warn them of the wrath they incur for not following God’s law.
All Basil quotes are from letter 41 “Basil to Julian” Nicene and Post Nicene fathers, Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace, Christian literature publishing Co. 1895. Published in the Christian Classics Ethereal Library <https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf208.ix.xlii.html>