The Spirit, Place of the Sanctified Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto and Messalianism




In the study made by Mary Ann Donovan entitled The Spirit, Place of the Sanctified: Basil’s De Spiritu Santo and Messalianism she synthesized the positions of the developed Messalians condemned at Side and at the council of Ephesus namely:

  • The HUMAN SOUL is inhabited by the demon
  • BAPTISM and the SACRAMENTS are inefficacious to purify the soul of the diabolic presence.
  • PRAYER is the only remedy to purify the soul.
  • The EFFECT OF PRAYER is twofold: a) Exclusion of passions and b) The coming of the Holy Spirit.

These positions are trying to make prayer very important and at the center while neglecting the efficacy and dethroning Baptism and the Sacraments from their proper positions. This may also be the reason why those who believed in these positions are called Messalians which the term’s etymology is from Greek which means “to pray”.

She also pointed out the characteristics of the developed Messalianism and how it shares its forms with the early Messalianism which stressed on revelation received by the individual, consequent on the experienced presence of the Spirit.

But the main point of this study by Donovan is to prove whether St. Basil’s work De Spiritu Sancto especially in chapter 26 is characterized by the doctrine of the Messalians which the Church condemned. Or she may prove in a more wide scope whether the positions of the Messalians had entered the Christian Tradition of the Church through the work of St. Basil, the De Spiritu Sancto.

I was asking and looking for the significance and importance of this study. Why do I need to read this article? Or just have to read it for the sake of its being a requirement? What do I care if the doctrines of the Messalians, which were condemned, entered into the work of St. Basil? If it ever entered in Chapter 26 of De Spiritu Sancto, so what then? There are other fathers of the Church like Origen who did not present orthodoxy in some of their works.

This work is useful in the sense that, if the author proves the compatibility or incorporation of the positions and doctrines of the Messalians in the Tradition through De Spiritu Sancto, this will render a seismic change that would trigger the collapse of the Christian faith.

We can ask and ask and ask so many questions here. But raising the right question is very crucial because it will lead us to the solution we are looking for. Sometimes we even have to answer the question with another question so as to make some things clear.

The first question is: How will the incorporation of Messalian doctrine trigger the collapse of the Christian faith? This is a complicated question because this presupposes the vulnerability of the faith founded by Jesus Christ, the stone rejected by the builder which became the corner stone of the Christian faith. This presupposes the weakness of the foundation of the Church which is founded upon the Rock and further more this question belittles the strength of the structure of the Church which is made of living stones. Can the faith founded by Jesus Christ really collapse? I will undoubtedly believe that it cannot collapse but it can be triggered.

As to the how of the first question, it is quite clear if we answer it with another question. How can the Church condemn the Messalians in one of its councils and then consider the work of Basil De Spiritu Sancto as orthodox if it happens that the latter incorporated the doctrines of the condemned? How shall I hold on to the deposits of Faith which Tradition belongs and then eventually be condemned from the same deposit I am holding to? What will happen if the faithful are not holding on to the deposits of Faith because of fear of being condemned? Or what will happen if the faithful keep on holding to the faith from the deposit which contains errors? I really cannot imagine the abominable consequence if Tradition has incorporated the erroneous doctrines of the Messalians through St. Basil.

The second question is: What beliefs will the incorporation of the Messalian doctrine destroy in the Christian faith? It will destroy everything! Yes! Everything!

Then we will ask, Why? How? What? And all the other questions that the Christian believer can think of. Even I myself would ask out of my rage and pity because I was made to believe of something unfounded, false and lie.

Going back to the second question: What beliefs will the incorporation destroy? I will try to answer this by going back to the main issue why both the Councils of Side and Ephesus condemned the Messalians. Well, the primary reason was stressed on revelation received by the individual, consequent on the experienced presence of the Spirit. What does this imply? What is the problem if they stressed on revelation? St. Gregory identifies the Messalians as considering themselves inspired, considering their dreams more inspired of belief than the gospels and calling their phantasies revelations (St. Gregory De Virginitate 23.3.4-23.4.1). This is the problem, their too much emphasis on revelation even to the point of exaggerating and taking their dreams and phantasies as revelations and inspired. And according to their position, the only efficacious in purifying the soul is through prayer. And prayer for them is very important because through this process it can produce a determined psychological state which is capable of forcing the coming of the Holy Spirit. Prayer then drives out the demon to give place to the Spirit and to grace and according to the Messalians only after this Holy Spirit had come to the soul can the individual have a true baptism. And if you are baptized by the Holy Spirit through prayer then the spiritual individual can now have the other revelations coming from God.

If this doctrine entered the Tradition of the Church, then, we can opine that there are still further revelations from God after the Incarnate Word had been revealed in history.

But according to Karl-Heinz Weger “God has revealed himself to man, and he has completed and perfected his salutary self-disclosure in the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, so that no new revelation of God to man is possible till the parousia.”[1]

From here, the claim of the Messalian is logically taken as the complete opposite of what the Church is teaching about revelation. There is no more revelation until the parousia. The definitive revelation by Christ which the individual must encounter for his supernatural salvation must reach to him fully, incorrupt and unmixed with error. Weger asks the question, How does the fullness of God’s revelation reach the individual incorrupt and unmixed with error so that the individual knows that he is really addressed and challenged by the word of God and not by any other men?[2]

The answer to this question is through the Tradition of the Church. The word of God reaches man through the preaching handed down in the Church. “The mystery of Christ remains present in history because there is a fellowship of believers which in the vital process of life, doctrine and worship preserves the word of God, through the assistance of the Holy Spirit, through all the changes of history, and thus hands it on safely to all generations till the Lord comes in glory.”[3]

If ever the Messalians got their ideas and doctrines in the Tradition, then even the revelation made by Christ will be of no avail. This will make every tenet, doctrine, dogma and the very faith of Christians doubtful since it will render the revelation of Christ as incomplete, not definitive and not universal.

If ever Messalianism got its way in the Tradition through St. Basil, how could the faithful attain his supernatural salvation through the word of God which reaches to him through Tradition which is the vital source of life, doctrine and worship but which does not preserve the word of God?

I said Messalianism will trigger the collapse of everything in the Christian faith – morals, dogma, and worship i.e. the very vital source of life of faith. Even the Sacred Scripture and everything contained in it will be questioned. The very foundation and the very core of the bible is the Paschal Mystery. It is the passion, death and in Christ’s resurrection that the incarnate Word was revealed to man once and for all. And if the Messalians were able to penetrate its doctrine into the sacred Tradition of the Church then even this Paschal Mystery and needless to say – the sacred Scripture will be triggered.

And the third and final question I wish to raise in this reflection paper is this: Was there any semblance of incorporation and sharing in the Messalianism in the chapter 26 of St. Basil’s De Spiritu Sancto?

Donovan denied any semblance and incorporation of Messalianism even to the slightest detail into the work of St. Basil. Aware of the influences and the doctrine of the Messalians, St. Basil was not influenced by the Messalians.

So what now is the stand of the St. Basil regarding the presence of the Spirit in the soul of the individual? Can the Spirit not reveal something divine in the soul of the individual? Well, according to St. Basil and affirming it strongly that the Holy Spirit works in the soul of the individual. St. Basil said that the Holy Spirit’s role may be identified analogously as power, thought, form, habit and bond of unity. Under the first to methapors, power and thought, the Spirit may be said to exercise quasi-revelatory activities in the soul of the individual. Here we take note of the term quasi be cautioned not to take this kind of activity as to what the idea of the Messalians have about the revelatory activity of the Spirit in the soul of the individual. The Spirit’s role in the soul as a power may be likened to the power of the eye to see. The Spirit as a power in the soul means that the individual has the power live a Christian and holy life. Rendering the role of the Holy Spirit as thought seems to give us an impression of the revelatory act of the Spirit in the soul. But according to St. Basil, Spirit as thought means that the Holy Spirit is moving like thought which articulates faith in the believer or impels him to announce that faith externally and that it (the Spirit) reveals in the soul divine things.

More clearly and manifestly did St. Basil reject and deny the revelatory activity of the Holy Spirit in his work when he identified, though analogously, the role of the Holy Spirit as the principle of unity. For him, the Holy Spirit is the principle of unity of the individual believer to the body Jesus Christ and this principle is the mark of being a believer. And so it is important that the individual be a part of the believing community – the body of Christ. From this role of the Holy Spirit as identified by Basil, makes the community as the important witness of revelation and not just the individual. Individualism and relativism have no place in this point.

To cap it all, the roles which St. Basil analogously identified serve as evidence that his work and the spirituality of his chapter 26 in De Spiritu Sancto have no tinge or any slightest semblance of Messalianism in fact Messalians and St. Basil are much much more different from each other. The former 1) associates the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul with revelatory experiences 2) it also associates repugnance for work and looseness in sexual matters. In their contrast is St. Basil who insists 1) that the Spirit is in the Christian as a form, power, habit, though and bond of unity 2) the Christian is in the Spirit during the process of sanctification to the extent that the Spirit is the place of the sanctified in contemplation and worship and in the daily struggle.

[1] Karl-Heinz Weger (Tradition), Sacramentum Mundi: Concise Edition, ed. Karl Rahner. (Mumbai, India: St. Pauls, 2004), 1728-1729.

[2] Karl-Heinz Weger, Tradition, 1729.

[3] Karl-Heinz Weger, Tradition, 1729.


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