The Theology of Gender – 9. St. Basil the Great

7 April 2017

The whole series can be read here: The Theology of Gender

St. Basil the Great was indeed a great figure in the history of Christianity, a charismatic hierarch with significant contribution in various areas. With concern to our topic, we will examine the pastoral and canonical aspects of his multifarious work. The most important characteristic of his personality is that he had a tremendous education, rare for his time, and was an eloquent speaker. He was a master of oratory and law. His broad education makes his views on issues of law authoritative. Given, however, that St. Basil never wrote in order to satisfy his personal needs[1] or to express abstract theories, but to offer pastoral guidance to his Christian flock and help it progress spiritually, his canons should not be evaluated apart from the rest of his work.

vasile cel mare, psaltire bizantina, s11 IN

Basil the Great, byzantine Psalter, 11th Century

Throughout his writings it is clear that St. Basil does not support the devaluation of women. He does not exclude women from chanting or from full participation in the liturgical life of the Church[2], and stresses the women’s gift for fasting which he considers to be as natural to them as breathing.[3] He also teaches that obedience to the commandments is an obligation for all Christians.[4] According to St. Basil, the Creator balanced the physical weakness of female nature with the sexual power women have over men.[5] This anthropological observation is the key to understanding St. Basil’s views on issues of ethical misdemeanors of women. Since women have a greater influence on men in physical relationships, they are more accountable for their sexual transgressions. Thus, although St. Basil praises the virtues of women as being the same as those of men, on the issue of sexual transgression he is harsher toward females, possibly because the immorality of women can push men to carnal sin.[6]

On the issue of marriage, St. Basil believes that it is honorable and was given to humans in the act of creation as a way for achieving immortality through their offspring, as well as for companionship and for assisting each other in spiritual growth.[7] Therefore, he condemns any irrational passion that destroys the matrimonial union and is contrary to the purpose of marriage. St. Basil is very negative about divorce[8] and believes that the man who divorces his wife should not be allowed to marry again, just as any woman divorced by her husband should remain single.[9] This ascetic approach to marriage is characteristic of St. Basil’s views on Christian life. His great asceticism permeates all his work, as he tries to inspire Christians to adopt higher standards of life. In view of that, second marriage is seen by St. Basil only as a medication for human weakness, and not as a means for sensual pleasures.[10] Nevertheless, he does not disregard the physical satisfaction of matrimonial life and acknowledges that a good wife is a great blessing for a man.[11] The pastoral care for his flock is obvious in all his writings, including his exegetical work on creation, where he mentions the devastating consequences that a second marriage has on children.[12]

St. Basil’s canonical letters, like all his writings, express his pastoral care, and convey the ethos of asceticism for the spiritual advancement of all Christians. At the same time, however, they are significant legal documents with a lasting influence on the Church throughout her history. These letters became the basis for many canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, where St. Basil’s legislation attained canonical authority for the Church.

[1] E. Moutsoulas, “Ο Μέγας Βασίλειος ως Παιδαγωγός”, Μυριόβιβλος, (accessed February 10, 2010).

[2] P. Christou, Ο Μέγας Βασίλειος-Βίος και Πολιτεία, Συγγράμματα, Θεολογική Σκέψις, (Θεσσαλονίκη, 1978), 82.

[3] «Γυναιξί ὣσπερ τό ἀναπνεῖν, οὓτω καί τό νηστεύειν οἰκεῖον ἐστι καί κατά φύσιν», “Περί νηστείας Β΄,” PG 31, 188B.

[4] «Πάντες ἂνθρωποι ἀπαιτηθησόμεθα τήν πρός τό Εὐαγγέλιον ὑπακοήν, μοναχοί τε καί οἱ ἐν συζυγίαις» PG 31, 628A.

[5] «…διά τῆς μίξεως τό οἰκεῖον μέλος άναλαμβάνειν ταῖς τῆς φύσεως ἀνάγκαις μηχανησάμενος·τοῦτον δέ τόν τρόπον, ἐξ ἑνός δύο, καί ἐκ δύο πάλιν ἓν, τό τε ἂῤῥεν καί τό θῆλυ σαφῶς ἀναδείξας· καί οὐ τήν πρός ἂλληλα συμπλοκήν μόνον, διά τῶν προειρημένων τρόπων, ἡδεῖαν τοῖς σώμασιν αὐτῶν ἐργασάμενος, ἀλλά καί πρός τό ἐκ τῆς συμπλοκῆς ταῖς τοῦ ἒρωτος λαμπάσι διαδουχούμενον γένος, πολύ τό φίλτρον ἐγκατασπείρας…ἡδονῆς ὃλον φάρμακον τῷ ἂῤῥενι τό θῆλυ κατασκευάσας, βιαίοις ὀλκαῖς, καί ἐπί τήν καταβολήν τῆς γονῆς, πρός αὐτό ἂγει τό ἂῤῥεν· οὐχί πρός τό ἂῤῥεν ἂγει τό θῆλυ, ἀλλά τῇ τοῦ θήλεως ἡδονῇ τό ἂῤῥεν πρός αὐτό αἰχμάλωτον ἂγων…Οὓτω τῷ ἀσθενεστέρω ζῲῳ τοῦ Δημιουργοῦ βοηθῆσαι θελήσαντος, ἳνα τῇ ένούσῃ αὐτῷ ἡδονῇ, μαγγανεῦσαι τό ἂῤῥεν, οὐ διά τήν παιδοποιΐαν μόνον, ἀλλά καί δι’ αὐτόν τόν τῆς μίξεως οἶστον, ὑπερμαχοῦν αὐτῷ ἒχῃ τό ἂῤῥεν», “Περί τῆς ἐν παρθενίᾳ ἀληθοῦς ἀφθορίας,” PG 30,676A-C.

[6] «…καί ὣσπερ τά φάρμακα τά διδόμενα πρός ἀναίρεσιν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις, σκοτοῖ τήν σύνεσιν καί ὃλον τόν ἂνθρωπον εἰς ἀναισθησίαν παρασύρει τῇ τοῦ δηλητηρίου ἀποτομία, τῷ αὐτῷ λόγω καί ἡ γυνή διά τοῦ φιλήματος καταβλάπτει τόν λογικόν ἂνθρωπον ἀλόγω ὁρμῇ ὑπαχθέντα…καί…ὣσπερ τι ἂψυχον ὂργανον τῇδε κἀκεῖσε ὃπου βούλεται περιφέρει καί ὣσπερ θάλασσα κυμαίνουσα, ὃλον τό σῶμα ταῖς αὑτῆς ὁρμαῖς παρασύρει. Καί ἒστιν ἰδεῖν…τόν παντοίων ἒμπειρον γραμμάτων ἢ καί τῶν θείων λόγων άναγνώσει ἑαυτόν ἐπιδεδωκότα καί τόν μονήρη βίον πολλάκις ἐπανελόμενον καί Ἐκκλησίας προὒχοντα, ὣσπερ τι ζῷον εὐτελές σχοινίω δεδεμένον, καί ὧδε κἀκεῖ ῥιπιζόμενον…», PG 30,817A-C.

[7] «Καί γάρ καί ὁ γάμος αὐτός τοῦ ἀποθνᾐσκειν ἐστίν παραμυθία» PG 32, 1049A, and «…τοῖς δέ ἐξ ἀθανάτων θνητοῖς γενομένοις τήν διαδοχήν τοῦ γένους ἐπισκευάσας, τήν ὡς εἲρηταί που ἀθανασίαν εὑράμενος, καί διά τοῦτο “Αὐξάνεσθε καί πληθύνεσθε” εἰρηκώς…», “Περί τῆς ἐν παρθενίᾳ ἀληθοῦς ἀφθορίας,” PG 30, 780A, and «Τότε γάρ νόμιμος καί κατά τάς θείας Γραφάς συνίσταται γάμος, ὃταν μή πάθος ἡδονῆς προκαταλάβῃ τοῦ νόμου τήν χρείαν, λογισμός δέ τοῦ τε εἰς βοήθειαν ἀναγκαίου καί τῆς τῶν παίδων διαδοχῆς τοῦ γάμου προσθείς τόν σκοπόν, τίμιον ὂντως μνηστεύῃ τόν γάμον», “Περί τῆς ἐν παρθενίᾳ ἀληθοῦς ἀφθορίας,” PG 30, 745C, and «Τί ἐστι τό ἐν Κυρίῳ τόν γάμον συστῆναι;Τό μή προϋποσυρῆναι ὑπό τῶν σαρκός ἡδονῶν πρός τήν μίξιν, ἀλλά κρίσει τοῦ λυσιτελοῦντος πρός τόν βίον, ἑλέσθαι τόν γάμον. Διό καί τό ἀναγκαῖον τοῦ γάμου ὁ Ποιητής έν τῇ φύσει διετάξατο», “Περί τῆς ἐν παρθενίᾳ ἀληθοῦς ἀφθορίας,” PG 30, 748Α.

[8] «…Γυνή συνεκληρώθει σοι κατά τήν κοινωνίαν τοῦ βίου,…ἀναρπασθεῖσα οἲχεται…Μή ἐκπέσης τῶν ὃρων τῆς εὐσεβείας…Εὐγνώμονος οὖν διανοίας οὐκ έπί τῷ χωρισμῷ δυσφόρως ἒχειν, άλλ’ ἐπί τῇ έξ ἀρχῆς συναφεία χάριν τῷ συγκληρώσαντι…» PG 31, 248C-252A.

[9] «Οὐκ ἒξεστι τῷ ἀπολύσαντι τήν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα γαμεῖν ἂλλην, οὒτε τήν ἀπολελυμένην ἀπό ἀνδρός ἑτέρω γαμεῖσθαι», “Ἠθικά,PG 31,852B.

[10] «Πορνείας παραμυθία ὁ δεύτερος γάμος, οὐχί ἐφόδιον εἰς ἀσέλγειαν», “Ἐπιστ. 160, Διοδώρω,” PG 32, 628.

[11] «Γυνή συνεκληρώθη σοι κατά τήν κοινωνίαν τοῦ βίου, πᾶσαν ἡδονήν σοι κατά τόν βίον παρεχομένη, εὐθυμίας δημιουργός, θυμηδιῶν πρόξενος, τά χρηστά συναύξουσα, ἐν ταῖς λύπαις τό πλεῖστον μέρος τῶν ἀνιαρῶν ἀφαιρουμένη», “Εἰς τήν μάρτυρα Ἰουλίτταν,” PG 31,248.

[12] «Εἰ ἡ λέαινα στέργει τά ἐξ αὐτῆς, καί λύκος ὑπέρ σκυλάκων μάχεται, τί εἲπῃ ἂνθρωπος καί τῆς ἐντολῆς παρακούων καί τήν φύσιν παραχαράσσων, ὃταν ἢ παῖς ἀτιμάζῃ γῆρας πατρός, ἢ πατήρ διά δευτέρων γάμων τῶν προτέρων παίδων ἐπιλανθάνηται;», “Εἰς Ἑξαήμερον, ὁμιλ. Θ’,” PG 29,196-197.

The whole series can be read here: The Theology of Gender