Your desire for theological knowledge, my beloved and respected brother, I highly commend, as well as your industrious energy in pursuing it. I’ve been extremely delighted to hear you express your opinion that every single term we use when speaking about God should be carefully examined.
You have turned to good account your reading of the Lord’s exhortation: “Everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds” (Lk 11:10). By your persistence in asking questions about theological matters, you stir even the most reluctant to give you a share of the knowledge they possess.
What I admire in you as well is this: You don’t, like most people in our day, propose your questions simply to test someone. Instead, you have the honest desire to arrive at the truth.
There’s no lack in these days of both listeners and questioners who seek only to entrap or confuse. But to find a character eager for information, and seeking the truth as a remedy for ignorance, is very difficult.
In the hunter’s snare, or in the soldier’s ambush, the trick is usually concealed ingeniously. It’s much the same way with the inquiries of the majority of questioners who advance theological arguments. Their intent is not to get any good out of them; instead, if they fail to elicit answers that chime in with their own desires, they just want to engage in controversy.
At how high a price must we value the wise listener who seeks knowledge about God? We should consider him worthy of all praise and urge him on to further progress, sharing his enthusiasm, and in all things working at his side as he presses on to perfection.
To count theological details as of primary importance, and to endeavor to trace out the hidden meaning in every phrase and in every little word, is a characteristic lacking in those who are idle in the pursuit of true religion. On the other hand, it’s the distinguishing mark of all who pursue “the prize of our calling in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14). For the prize set before us — so far as is possible with human nature — is to become like God.
Now we can’t become like what we don’t know; and to get knowledge, we need to be taught in lessons. The foundation of teaching is speech, and words are parts of speech. It follows, then, that to investigate words is not an idle activity; and just because the questions raised might seem to some people insignificant doesn’t mean that they are unworthy of study.
Truth is always a quarry that’s hard to hunt, so we must look everywhere for its tracks. Acquiring true religion is just like acquiring a craft. Both are gained little by little, and the apprentice must despise nothing in his training as too small. Whoever despises the elementary aspects of learning as small and insignificant will never reach the perfection of wisdom.
“Yes” and “no” are only two syllables. Yet there’s often involved in these two little words both the best of all good things — that is, truth — and also what wickedness cannot go beyond: a lie. If this is true, how much greater are the terms we use in theology! Using them rightly or wrongly can make a great difference.
Jesus said that “not the smallest letter or smallest part of a letter will pass from the law” (Mt 5:18). How, then, could it be safe for us to leave even the least of theological details unnoticed?
Some theological points may seem minor. But when we examine closely the force of their meaning, they are great. They are like the mustard plant: Though its seeds are the least of the shrubs, yet when they are properly cultivated, and the forces latent in them un-folded, it rises to a considerable height.
For that reason, I must not give in to the scorn of those who think theological discussion is unimportant. For I am convinced that such a discussion will prove profitable to myself and my hearers.
St. Basil of Caesaria (329-379) was an abbot, archbishop, theologian and Doctor of the Church. This excerpt is adapted from the beginning of his treatise “On the Holy Spirit” — the saint’s careful examination of theological language about the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity, which profoundly shaped Church teaching.