“Words are Hard” – St. Basil

St. Basil actually coined the phrase “words are hard.” Well not really, however he did think that some people are not too talented in the way they use their words and in the way they understand words. This is especially evident in his book On the Holy Spirit. In the first part of the book (and the last) he writes on prepositions. Those tricky little parts of speech that trip us up so often. Basil argues against the heretics interpretation of scripture that makes heavy use of prepositions. He accuses them of reading prepositions in the way pagan philosophers use them (it mostly has to do with prepositions being associated with causes.” All to say, St. Basil thinks that “words” are hard for these heretics because they don’t know how to use prepositions. The other thing we learn is that words really do matter and that semantics/philosophy of language are two fields that are actually important to theology….

Here is St. Basil the Great on the use of words (it almost feels like philosophy of language to me):

Likeness to God however cannot be had without knowledge, and knowledge comes from teaching. Speech, thought is the beginning of teaching, and the parts of speech are syllables and words. So, the investigation of syllables does not fall outside the goal of our calling.

Indeed it is not the case that because questions seem insignificant they should be overlooked. Rather, because the truth is hard to grasp, we must search for it in every way. For if the acquisition of piety grows gradually just like the arts, those progressing toward knowledge must overlook nothing. So, if someone should overlook the first elements because they are small, he will never reach perfect wisdom…..

For if one iota or a single tittle of the Law will not pass away, how safe is it for us to pass over even the smallest matters?

What you want us to examine is both little and great, little in the brevity of its utterance (an on account that it is likewise easily neglected), and great in the power of its meaning. It is like the mustard tree, which, although it is the smallest of shrub seeds, rises to its own proper height when it is suitably cultivated and the power within it unfolds.

I see then that the prize in small words is the greatest, and for the hope of the reward I do not shrink from labor, because I know that the investigation will be fruitful and that lasting good will come to those who listen. (On the Holy Spirit 1,2)

As you can see for St. Basil, words are hard but words matter a lot.

St. Basil the Great
St. Basil the Great

Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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