Of the dogmas and proclamations that are guarded in the Church, we hold some from the teaching of the Scriptures, and others we have received in mystery as the teachings of the tradition of the apostles. Both hold the same power with respect to true religion. No one would deny these points, at least no one who has even a little experience of ecclesiastical institutions. For if we attempt to reject non-scriptural [agraphos] customs as insignificant, we would, unaware, lose the very vital parts of the Gospel, and even more, we would establish the proclamation merely in name. (section 27)So far that seems clear enough. Basil is arguing for a unwritten, or at least non-scriptural, tradition from the apostles to validate the faith. And I think Hildebrand is onto something by translating agraphos as non-scriptural because Basil is not referring to an oral tradition, but what is practiced in the churches. He's not documenting an oral tradition, though he does emphasize silence. We'll come back to that point more, but he is contrasting Scriptures as such with an Apostolic tradition. Basil then goes on to list a variety of practices that fall under this "non-scriptural" tradition (e.g. sign of the cross, triple immersion in baptism, epiclesis, praying eastwards, etc.). However, at one point, Basil goes on to explain more specifically about the reason for this tradition:
This is the reason for non-scriptural traditions, that knowledge of dogmas not be neglected or despised by the many because of familiarity. For doctrine is one thing, and proclamation is another. One is kept in silence, but proclamations are made public. Now, obscurity is a form of silence used in Scripture, which makes the meaning of dogmas difficult to see for the benefit of the readers. Because of this we all look to the East for prayers, but few of us know that our ancient fatherland, the paradise that God planted in Eden, was in the East. We say our prayers standing on the first day of the week, but not all know the reason why. By standing for prayer we remind ourselves of the grace given to us on the day of the resurrection, as if we are rising to stand with Christ and being bound to seek what is above.Basil goes on to explain additional significance to worshiping on Sunday, and why standing is a necessary tradition. Finally, summing up his points to his would-be interlocutors, who reject the Holy Spirit's divinity due to an appeal to scripture. Basil says:
by what Scriptures do we hold the very confession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? If from the tradition of baptism we make a confession similar to baptism (according to the logic of piety, as we baptize, so we ought to believe), then let them grant to us from this same logic to give glory in a way similar to our confession. But if we reject this way of giving glory as non-scriptural, let them give to us the scriptural proof of the confession of faith and the other points that we listed.What's interesting here and above is how Basil makes his argument. He's not saying, like Irenaeus' Valentinian opponents, that he has access to a secret, esoteric, tradition from the apostles in contrast to what has been written. It's possible to see that in how Basil mentions silence, but that's not feasible if one takes the whole section in view. Basil's argument seems to revolve on a distinction between clarity from scripture and a set of practices (presumably derived from the apostles) that then informs one about a broader significance in scripture. In other words, the non-scriptural tradition is what is not explicitly stated in scripture, not simply things not included within it. The scriptures provide clear things and unclear things. The former are accessible enough, and make up the content of what is preached (presumably something like "believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved"). The latter are cloaked in mystery and silence, not for its own sake but to drive the worshiper to realize one is participating in God's work, to not treat it as a trifle. But these mysteries are not things alien to scripture, but rooted in it, only visible and explicated on account of the Apostles.
In a lot of ways, this account draws to mind Irenaeus and Tertullian's discussion of the rule of faith. There's an extra-scriptural witness, found in something like a baptismal formula, which is the faith, even if that formula is not itself something in scripture. Hence Basil's comment that without the tradition, the faith becomes nominal. It's not simply enough to find the passage of scripture that says to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or baptizing in the name of Jesus) because it's not clear what that exactly means. Of course, one would naturally explicate a thicker description, elaborating the content of faith. But that seems to be Basil's point about apostolic tradition. It's not enough to cite words (Basil argues in previous sections about people who logic-chop, making the use of 'in' or 'with' as signifying ontological status of Christ). It's what those words mean, and the meaning of these words are derived from the practices of the churches, given to them by the Apostles. After citing various fathers who taught divinity of Holy Spirit, he cites Origen who did not "have perfectly sound notions in all respects about the Spirit", yet still recognized the divinity of the Spirit. Basil concludes, "Thus, I think, the strength of tradition often leads men to contradict their own teachings." Origen was a good enough churchman to be "constrained by the force of custom and put forth orthodox words about the Spirit."
The takeaway, I think, is rather difficult. His use of tradition appeals most explicitly to the Apostles to justify things like standing during worship on Sundays, renunciation of Satan in baptism, triple immersion, the sign of the cross, etc. All of these things can be derived from a context of truth given in scripture, though they are not explicitly stated. That's the distinction, I think, between scripture and unscriptural tradition. And he's of course correct that it's not enough to baldly quote words of scripture, give simple philological dictationary accounts of this word or that phrase, and then build a doctrinal edifice upon it. There's a clear history of this sort of thing found in the annals of English Protestantism, driving things like the the rise of Deism, with Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696), or the Bangorian Controversy (1717). In today's ecclesiastical controversies, it's this "simply scripture" approach that has fueled revisionist attempts to justify monogamous homosexual partnerships, as well as subordinationism within certain Reformed complementarians. Basil scoffs at these people, these logic-choppers: "we say that the freedom of the Spirit is in noway enslaved to the trivialities of the Pagans. Rather, it changes its expressions to suit its needs for the moment." The context here is an emphasis on the phrase "from whom", which for Aetius (a neo-Arian) meant Christ was not God. The truth of faith was not in bondage to little twists and turns of words.
This might wrinkle some noses, who might point to St. Paul's very precise notation that Abraham didn't have "seeds" but "seed", pointing to the Christ. But it's also clear, from cross-referencing, that the Apostles were not drawing from a single source of scripture. A lot of citations come from the Septuagint, but not all. This might mean that they were quoting from some other Greek translation, or translating it themselves from one in Aramaic or Hebrew. But if that's so (and that's a highly tendentious speculation), it's been lost to us. But Basil's approach eschews this search because his understanding of scripture, accessible to the churches, is grounded in the very life of the churches as they worship, day-in and day-out. The church has the deposit of the Apostles, and it continues, despite the misunderstanding or idiosyncrasies of particular geniuses (Basil was an admirer of Origen's work). Basil claims a continuity that then is accessible, even if its meaning isn't always clearly available. The faith remains the same, even if we are given the freedom to adjust our words to more properly articulate it. But we should be careful, and prefer silence, lest we lead others into error or throw the churches into schism.
In someways, I don't know how Basil's conclusions aren't inevitable. One must draw upon creedal symbols (derived from within the life of the Church, not invented in the academy) and practices to ground one's theology. Tradition seems a safeguard to prevent sliding into foolish debates and speculations about the law, endless genealogies, and myths (c.f. 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus). But then, of course, it's not clear what Basil is actually talking about. Is his Cappadocian church simply the handed-down reality of the Apostles, or did things change? How much freedom with words is possible? I'm sure Basil would've found the splits in Orthodoxy between the Old and New Calendarists, and the number of fingers used in crossing oneself that split the Russian church in the 18th century to be obscene. But where do you draw the line? How does one know which practices are apostolic and which are not? How much change makes it something else altogether? Basil was not unaware about the use of art in churches, though he seems to have tolerated it, rather than endorse it. But when does that become something else? The use of icons is not simply a means to draw one's mind to heavenly things, but marks out ontological claims.
And then what does one do if changes are introduced? I think it's a sound conclusion that Basil would've found the whole papal church on the eve of the Reformation as totally alien to him, and would've scoffed at claims of unchanged non-scriptural apostolic tradition. But what hope does that leave the Latin West? I know some Orthodox would say none, and they should return to the true churches. But as per my point about icons above, does anyone actually fit Basil's criterion? Now, someone might take up his point, and introduce all the things he says, but that's missing the point. And yet Basil does not simply allow churches the freedom to pillage the scripture and construct a variety of practices, all under the auspices that they are from scripture, even if not explicitly stated. Basil sees clearly that there's an apostolic faith handed down from the apostles, found in a set of practices. The end result is madness, loss of faith, or self-deception.
And yet there's hope. Writing to the bishop of Rome, amid a controversy about the date of Easter, Irenaeus councils peaceableness. Some worship on 14 of Nissan, whatever day that may fall on the Julian calendar, others link it to Sunday worship, and others don't count the day, either celebrating Easter every Sunday or never (it's not clear what Irenaeus means). Some practice Easter with a 24 hour fast, some with a three day fast, and others with a 40 hour fast. All of these practices are linked to notions of worship and an interpretation of scripture. Irenaeus, not a stranger to controversy and debate, argues that none of these should splinter the church. For, as he argues, it is their differences that confirm them all in the same faith. The focus was that all worshiped the same risen Lord, celebrating His passion and glorious triumph over death. The differences of practices confirmed this single fact.
I think the conclusion from this ought to run with Basil's point about freedom of words. There's an apostolic tradition rooted in, but distinct from, an explicit scriptural testimony. But this tradition is possessed of a seeming pluriform nature, than ought to confirm a unity-in-difference through a shared faith. Irenaeus' counter-attack upon the gnostics was a counter against those who claimed some extra-scriptural revelation, something outside of the apostles. Perhaps it's this point that excludes Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons, perhaps even certain ultramontane charismatic Romanists who see the Pope as capable of ex cathedra new revelations viz. dogmatic pronouncements. I don't know. But it does shift the burden onto scripture, and an attention to a history of reception, though understood broadly and charitably.