Basil’s First Canon is one of the most direct patristic sources concerning the issue of how Orthodox and heretics relate ecclesiologically. Nevertheless, there is some uncertainty concerning the exact nature of Basil’s intention with this canon. There is as well much confusion as to how to correctly interpret and apply Basil’s principles when it comes to reflecting on current ecclesiology, especially when it is compared to the ecclesiology of Cyprian or Augustine and their modern interpretations.

The most extensive modern interpretation is that of Peter Moghila. Moghila took the tripartite construction of Basil and applied it to his own contemporary situation. In the category of heretical Moghila put all non-Christians and Anabaptists demanding that they be received into the Orthodox Church by catechumenate, profession of faith, baptism, chrismation, and communion. In the category of schismatic Moghila put all other Protestants and demanded only profession of faith, absolution, chrismation, and communion. In the category of parasynogogue Moghila put Catholics, Uniates, and apostates, demanding only a confession of faith, confession, and communion. To be sure there are various problems and oddities with what is listed above. Moghila seems to accept Protestant baptism, though by rejecting Anabaptist baptism it seems he only accepts Lutheran/Anglican/Reformed types of baptism, which still retained some aspect of sacramentality of the rite. Grouping Catholics and Uniates together with apostates seems strange, it suggests that he considers Catholics to be simply backslidden Orthodox, and ignores the question of their heretical beliefs and legitimacy.[1]

Comparing Moghila’s categories to Basil’s demonstrates how difficult such an “updating” of categories is. Basil’s use of these three categories looks quite different that Moghila’s, and causes some surprises.[2] Basil defines each of the three categories thus: heretics, those completely broken off and alienated from the faith; schismatics, those at ecclesiastical variance; and illegal congregations (parasynogogue), which are caused by insubordinate bishops and uneducated laymen, such as those who came under penance and decided to splinter rather than accept that penance.

Basil names those who fall into the category of heretics, being the Manicheans, Valentinians, Marcionites and Montanists. Being heretics, their baptism is not accepted at all. However, the baptism of the schismatics and parasynogogues are accepted, on the grounds that they are still “of the church” and can be rejoined to the church after they have repented and been “improved”. Basil names the Novatians as being a part of the schismatics, but notes that they come under the condemnation of Cyprian and Firmilian. Whether, then, the Novatians are heretical or schismatic is a question that is difficult to answer. We know, for example, that Cyprian used the terms haeresis and schisma interchangeably, and that the exact definition of these terms were still being settled.[3] While Basil himself places Novatians in the category of schismatic, it can be supposed that his explanation of the non-validity of the Novatian sacraments, putting the Novatians, for all intents and purposes, into the realm of the heretics without the grace of the Holy Spirit, stems from Cyprian’s own ambiguous classification.

Basil’s explanation of Cyprian’s and Firmilian’s condemnation of the Novatian sacraments is based on the simple point that while the first Novatian leaders received grace while they were in the church and could thus perform sacraments, the moment they left the church this grace of the Holy Spirit left them, leaving any sacraments they performed as Novatians invalid. Thus, Novatians who were baptized by Novatians should be considered among the unbaptized, and baptized when they came into the church. This is the classic view of Cyprian and Firmilian who saw the ecclesiological validity of the celebrant to be the main criterion of the validity of the sacrament itself rather than the person or sacrament itself. However, Basil is not strict on this issue, allowing them to be received without baptism, for the sake of oikonomia (discipline).

Another group Basil lists with the Novatians as being under condemnation is the Encratites. While scholarship has shown that the Encratites had many strange ideas about the body and marriage, Basil here rejects them solely based on the fact that they have changed the form of baptism. Not only have they separated themselves and thus become laymen unable to impart the Holy Spirit at baptism, but they have changed the baptismal ritual itself. Given other evidence that the Encratites had a penchant for changing the sacramental rituals, using milk instead of wine for the Eucharist for example, this accusation seems believable. It is evident, then, that Basil demands that not only a correct ecclesiastical celebrant who is in communion with the church be present to validate a sacrament, the sacrament must be performed rightly. Basil here again follows Cyprian, emphasizing proper ritual as the mark of a valid sacrament. However, yet again, Basil allows this rule to be relaxed based upon what will be best for the individual situation.

Here Basil can seem to be contradictory. First he accepts the baptism of schismatics and then rejects it in the case of the Novatians and Encratites. The difference of practice between the two situations seems to be two-fold. One, the Novatians are schismatics who have been separated continuously for many years, whereas for schismatics whose baptisms are valid the separation is instigated by a disciplinary matter rather than a deliberate ecclesiastical break. Two, the correct form of baptism must be followed by the schismatic for it to be accepted.

Basil, together with Cyprian and Firmilian, expounds a hard line concerning those who are in and outside of the church. To the question of whether grace can exist outside the church they give a firm negative. Even those who could impart the Holy Spirit lose this ability when they leave the church. When and where this magic line is drawn is blurry, but seems to be predicated upon the principles of separation and improper rites, even if there is still present many of the proper and essential beliefs and dogmas. This is in sharp contrast to later ecclesiologies such as Augustine’s, in which the Christian faith possessed by a person, as well as proper form and intention, is enough to make the sacraments valid.[4] Such an interpretation stands behind the reasoning of Moghila’s classification, Protestant baptism is accepted based upon the faith in which it was received, but because Protestants lack chrismation this must be done to complete the process. Catholics, on the other hand, have proper chrismation, so this does not need to be repeated.[5]

This then raises the question of whether there are, in fact, sacraments outside the church. While Basil seems to say no, his allowance for oikonomia tempers this insistent negative. Nonetheless, it should be noted that in this use of oikonomia Basil is not validating the position of the schismatic, but expressing how to bring them into the church for their salvation. This runs counter to the approach of Augustine that there are, in fact, sacraments outside the church, and this western adoption of the Augustinian approach has caused problems in East-West dialogue, with the West not understanding why the Orthodox will not accept their sacraments.[6] In the perspective presented by Basil the sacraments of, for example, the Anglican church, would only be valid if Anglicans fit into the category of schismatic or parasynogogue. Even then, the judgment on the sacrament would be made on the basis of the Anglicans returning to Orthodoxy, not as recognizing a continuing valid separate existence.

Given, though, Basil’s oikonomia in receiving heretics and his generous acceptance of the sacraments of schismatics and parasynogogues, calling them “still of the church”, Florovsky’s insistence that Basil’s canon means that any intercommunion is an impossibility because it breaks the principle of the Undivided Church seems odd.[7] For Basil the sacraments of the schismatics and the parasynogues are still whole and valid, because they are not completely disconnected from the church. This is why Basil was able to bring excommunicated semi-Arian groups into the church by having communion with them.[8]

It is difficult to, then, to apply Basil’s tripartite structure to the modern situation. The problems, categories, and histories have changed the whole construct drastically. Basil’s principle that a deliberate and continuous break in ecclesiastical structure and ritual form makes the sacraments of schismatics invalid because they now lack the power of the Holy Spirit must be kept in mind if one is to make an “updating” of his structure. What this then means is that, for Basilian ecclesiology, validity is not based upon a vague matter of degrees of separation, such as Moghila’s format suggests, but upon a principle of ecclesiastical and ritual exactness. While it is true to say the Holy Spirit can only work sacraments inside the church, Basil does not automatically put all schismatics and parasynogogues outside the church.

This does not mean, however, that Basil would recognize, for example, all Protestant groups to fall into the category of schismatics with proper sacraments. Especially for Protestants with low-church congregationalism, Basil would likely see their rejection of ecclesiastical structure and efficacious sacraments to be a deliberate and continuous break in ecclesiastical unity and ritual propriety, and thus like the Novatians and Encratites have moved from schismatic to heretics who can not have acceptable sacraments. For others, like the Catholics and the non-Chalcedonians, who have kept to a continued ecclesiastical structure and the efficacy of sacraments, Basil leaves room to say that they may have the power of the Holy Spirit to perform sacraments because they are, in an imperfect but not completely absent way, still a part of the Universal Church. It can be seen how the Orthodox church has recognized and followed Basil’s approach through the centuries, Canon 95 of Trullo, for example, says that non-Chalcedonians can be received merely by a confession of faith, which implies that non-Chalcedonian baptism, and hence their ecclesiastical structure, is sacramentally valid and full of the Holy Spirit.[9]

So while Basil closely follows Cyprian’s ecclesiology, it should be noted that Basil invites further reflection on who is inside or outside the church. For Cyprian the validity of sacraments solely revolves around episcopal unity with the Catholic bishop, but for Basil it is much more a matter of doctrinal clarity and ritual exactness. Basil, then, exemplifies the unity of the church called for by Cyprian, but tempers it with the principle that being out of communion does not mean one is outside the church. Therefore, in Basil the unity of the church is preserved while also recognizing that such unity can not be simply predicated upon human whims or mistakes. Thus, the problems of Cyprian and Augustine, making the sacraments dependent solely upon a bishop and making the sacraments disconnected from the ecclesial life of the church respectively, are side-stepped, offering a middle way in which the Holy Spirit is free to act within the church.


[1] Paul Meyendorff, “The Liturgical Reforms of Peter Moghila: A New Look,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 29.2 (1985): 112.

[2] All references to Basil are cited from Basil the Great, The Letters, R. Deferrari, trans., III (Loeb Classical Library 243, London 1930; reprinted by Harvard University Press), 7-21.

[3] Geoffrey D. Dunn, “Heresy and Schism According to Cyprian of Carthage,” The Journal of Theological Studies 55.2 (2004): 566-569.

[4] Georges Florovsky, “St. Cyprian and St. Augustine on Schism,” Ecumenism II: A Historical Approach, Richard S. Haugh, ed.  (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1989), 48-51.

[5] John H. Ericson, “Reception of Non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church,” Diakonia 19 (1984): 81-82.

[6] Andre de Halleux, “”Oikonomia” in the First Canon of Saint Basil,” The Patristic and Byzantine Review 6 (1987): 61.HH

[7] Georges Florovsky, “The Early, “Undivided” Church and Communion,” Ecumenism II: A Historical Approach, Richard S. Haugh, ed.  (Vaduz: Buchervertriebsanstalt, 1989), 27.

[8] Anton Kartashev, “Toward the Reunion of the Churches,” Tradition Alive, Michael Plekon, ed. (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003), 209.

[9] John H. Ericson, “Reception of Non-Orthodox into the Orthodox Church,” Diakonia 19 (1984): 80.