What value does the early church hold for contemporary evangelicalism? How can the life and work of the early church fathers inform our theology today? The Early Christian Fathers series by Christian Focus Publications hopes to fill this gap by connecting ancient Christianity to evangelicals today. The latest offering highlights the life and theological contribution of Basil of Caesarea. Marvin Jones, Assistant Professor of Church History and Theology at Louisiana College, gives us an accessible introduction to this pivotal fourth century church father. Basil’s contribution has remained in obscurity for evangelicals and Jones does well to remove him from the woodwork. Leaning on key primary and secondary works, Jones filters solid academic content in order to provide a succinct apologetic for why evangelicals today need to know Basil.
Recognizing the underlying threat of Arianism, Jones does well to focus much attention on this issue as the background for so much theological work in the fourth century. At stake was the essence of orthodox Christianity–a trinitarian God who offers salvation to man. Jones notes, “Arius introduced a half-god, half-man, so that, through Arius’ [sic] preaching, the Christian church was worshipping a demigod” (Loc. 247-248). The theological echo of Arius resounded throughout the fourth century. Jones promotes this as one of the factors in the rise of monasticism. Jones asserts, “[S]ince Arianism had engulfed the teaching of the church, the viable response was to separate from the unorthodox teaching, retreat to a place for solitude, and engage the Lord in order to conduct a ministry to the church” (Loc. 584-585). Certainly other factors influenced the rise of monastacism, but Jones helps readers make yet another connection, especially as it intersects with the life of Basil.
Jones also highlights the theological journey of Basil. He observes, “Against Eunomius revealed Basil as a ‘budding theologian’ beginning to emerge as a theological force within the fourth-century ecclesiastical debates” (Loc. 720-721). Jones helps us understand the trinitarian heritage afforded to us by Basil. One of the greatest contributions in this text is highlighting Basil’s pastoral theology and practice. Basil shined a light on Christ in both in preaching and outreach. Jones notes, “Although Basil was practical in his preaching, he did not neglect the sole purpose of preaching (i.e., the gospel message)” (Loc. 990-991). Also, “Thus, his passion for the pulpit included the spiritual development of the body of Christ” (Loc. 996-997). Basil’s spirituality included a focus on liturgy in forming the believer around doctrine and doxology “imbedded with the truth of God” (Loc. 1026-1028). Evangelicals would do well to consider this aspect of Basil’s pastoral theology and practice!
Though the content is refreshing and helpful, Jones’s writing style is a tad sluggish. In quoting sources, Jones oddly uses the past tense (“stated”, “noted”, etc.). This tends to stunt the narrative and hurt the flow of the overall text. Additionally, the text seems to lack a coherent connection. Though the topic is clear, the narrative could have been more taut in order to aid in reader engagement. As single chapters, they stand well on their own but the arc of the text feels inhibited. Jones’s first chapter on Basil’s life ends rather abruptly with the death of Gregory of Nyssa. Jones’s chapter on conversion and theology ends with an exhortation which seems more appropriate as a conclusion to the entire text. Each chapter feels more like individual treatises rather than pieces of an organic narrative. Jones would also do well to refer to more contemporary introductory church history texts. While Philip Schaff is generally helpful, the age of the text shows and demands that researchers look towards more recent church history introductions.
As an introductory text on Basil, Marvin Jones has certainly helped the church here. He introduces the life and theology of this fourth-century pastor and theologian in a way evangelicals should appreciate. Though some of the literary idiosyncrasies inhibit the full impact of this text, this book is worth owning for the quality of content and the strong evangelical appeal. Readers of all sorts will learn something from this book. Other similar texts on Basil might probe deeper into the theological nuances of Basil (see Hildebrand’s latest offering), but Jones finds a sweet spot by handing evangelical readers an approachable text in order to learn from this wise sage of fourth-century church history.
Thanks for Christian Focus for providing a free review copy in exchange for an honest review!