Review – Arius: Heresy & Tradition

Arius: Heresy & Tradition by Rowan Williams is an exploration not only of the person and theology of Arius but also of the way in which theological conflict involves questions of authority and tradition. One of Williams’ primary concerns is to display Arius’ self-understanding, that he saw himself as a Christian theologian working to clarify the dogmatic disputes of his day within the vocabulary and traditions available to him.

The book opens with an introductory survey of scholarship on Arius and the Arian crisis. Williams does not detail the entirety of earlier analyses, but instead focuses on how most of them have started from the image of Arius as heresiarch and worked backward to offer explanations for his heresy. According to Williams, these analyses misrepresent Arius because they portray him as Other, someone outside the Catholic church working to change, confuse, or dismantle it. Rather, Williams emphasizes that Arius and the Arian churches did not see themselves as reactionary or schismatic; they viewed themselves as keepers of the apostolic doctrine and doing their best to articulate it in a time of confusion.

Part 1, the first body segment, examines “Arius before Arianism.” Here Williams outlines both the background and the chronology of the Arian crisis. He examines and dismisses as later inventions some stories of why Arius became a heretic, such as the one in which he turns to heresy because of losing an episcopal election. Williams suggests some modifications to Hans-George Opitz’s chronology of Arius’ life and writings, but the new chronology seems to affect interpretation meagerly. Williams draws a distinction between two concepts of authority in Arius’ Christendom. The “Catholic” model distributes authority through the hierarchy of the church so that the bishop is authoritative due to his rank and subject to critique from his peers or superiors only. The second is the “school” model exemplified by Origen, in which a charismatic teacher models exegesis and holiness to his students and may contradict the bishop if the bishop teaches wrongly. One of the reasons for Arius’ condemnation is that he offered a “school” critique of a bishop in a Christendom which was increasingly embracing the “Catholic” model.

Part 2 is an examination of Arius’ theology in the light of his inherited Alexandrian tradition and the contemporary theology outside Egypt. Arius was concerned to offer an account of the Trinity that  avoided the implication of two archai (beginning principles) in the universe yet positively asserted a substantial existence to the Logos.  Philo and Clement appear as two of Arius’ sources, providing him with his apophatic thrust and concept of the Logos as a principle of multiplicity in contrast to God’s simplicity. Arius’ inheritance from Origen is more complex. On the one hand, he adopts the strong emphasis on three hypostases and the necessity for a single arche; on the other, he rejects Origen’s proto-Nicene insight that that since God’s Fatherhood is essential to his nature, there can never be a time (or even logical moment?) in which God is not the Father to the Son. On the contrary, Arius seems to connect the Son’s generation to his instrumentality in creation. After Origen, Alexandrian theology evolved both with and against the current set by Alexandrian, such that most theologians (Arius and Alexander included) revolted against at least some of Origen’s ideas while also appropriating the vocabulary and categories set by him.  Theological strains outside Alexandria also impinged on the brewing Arian crisis. Lucian was a significant figure, in that later “Arians” would generally prefer Lucian’s doctrine that the Son possessed full knowledge of the Father to Arius’ teaching that the Father was incomprehensible even to the Son. Methodius and Eusebius offer contributions as well.

The third and final part of the book’s body examines Arius’ philosophy. Williams traces out developments made by Philo and Methodius on the relationship of time and creation. Much of the chapter is an exposition of the various forms of Neo-Platonism current in the intellectual community of Arius’ day and how these different forms bear on the debates concerning the Son’s knowledge of the Father or the nature of participation in God. These pages are quite dense and only marginally useful to someone grounded in the topic.

Concerning Arianism, Williams is adamant that Arius himself was an eccentric figure in the Arian controversy. The non-Nicenes did not claim him as their leader and in fact looked more to Lucius for theological inspiration. The common notion of Arius as heresiarch, then, is “a fantasy based on the polemic of Nicene writers, above all Athanasius” (82), who made the brilliant tactical and rhetorical decision to sway the wavering homoiousan middle toward the Nicene position by broad-brushing the opposition with the already unpopular name of Arius. As for Arius himself, Williams concludes he “requires a metaphysic both monist (in the sense of deriving the being of everything from primal unity) and absolutist (placing the essence of this primal unity beyond all relation)…. What finally sets him apart as a theologian is the attempt to incorporate such a metaphysic within an account of God’s creating and revealing work drawn largely  from Scripture and retaining a strong personalist element in its view of God. Post-Plotinian cosmology and logic are what make Arius an ‘heresiarch’” (231).

I discern both great potential benefit and danger in Williams’ approach to Arius. On the one hand, it is refreshing to see someone work so hard to present a historical figure as he was in the moment, before the judgment of history colored every mention of his name. Reading Williams’ account, I can imagine a time in which good Christians smiled at Arius as he walked down the street instead of gasping and quickly shuffling to the opposite sidewalk. Sunday school pictures of Judas Iscariot with shifty eyes and a dark countenance contribute to the mistaken idea that evil and error are obvious and ugly. Such pictures can lull us into a false sense of security — as long as I’m sincere and not malicious, I must be okay. Williams explodes that notion, showing what a fine line divides orthodoxy and heresy, and that generally moral, upstanding, educated, passionate people can nevertheless be fatally wrong about crucial doctrines.

On the other hand, the utter lack of moral outrage in Williams’ work is disturbing. Arius’ positions are described as having difficulties or as providing less satisfactory answers to certain concerns. Williams’ repeated assertions that Arius is a theological conservative, simply picking up the strings of his tradition and using them to tie the wrong knot, seem to lean toward exonerating Arius or at least suggesting that his heresy is historically overblown. His denial of Christ’s divinity is not represented as a big deal, a dangerous moral failure imperiling the souls of thousands; it is rather the unfortunate result of having chosen a post-Plotinian philosophy and unpopular emphases. Perhaps some of the explanation for this lack of passion is that the book is designed as an academic work. I suspect that a good portion of it also arises out of Williams’ Newman-esque concept of the development of doctrine: “Orthodoxy continues to be made” (25). It is a product of the future, and as such, it’s hard to blame Arius for not being able to see the problems in his doctrine that would become apparent later. In my opinion, Christian theologians cannot take such a dispassionate stance toward heresy. Orthodoxy, like the canon, is not something the Church declares; it is something the Church receives, reverently and humbly. It is something the Church defends, zealously and justly.

On the whole, Williams’ writing style is engaging. He organizes his material well, offering useful summaries of key points. He significantly and honestly engages with both primary and secondary sources. I would recommend this book to someone already deeply interested in the subject, but not to someone without some prior exposure to Patristics and ancient philosophy.

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Published in: on April 14, 2010 at 11:03 pm  Comments (8)  
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  1. Charlie,

    Interesting review. I don’t see your point about moral outrage, however; such a tone is inappropriate in a work of historical scholarship, and it’s precisely the attitude and disposition that results in so much of the biased historical work that has only recently, thanks to Williams among others, been corrected.

    Indeed, I think your desire for such a response combined with your appreciation of Williams’ historical sensitivity reveals significant incoherence in your view of history and theology; you seem not to realize that the former property of Williams work, viz. its historical even-handedness, is logically related to the latter property, viz. its lack of outrage or moralizing. Indeed, it is in part what prevents a kind of outrage and moralizing.

    Williams does, in fact, state his own views, and the last chapter of the work is properly theological and not merely historical.

    In a history paper I wrote on orthodoxy and heresy in the Arian controversy, I noted that both Williams’ in Heresy and Tradition, Hanson in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (which is essential reading), Maurice Wiles, in his book on Arianism, and, most recently, Lewis Ayres in The Legacy of Nicaea, all end by offering theological reflections on the historical work they have done and its relation to questions of orthodoxy and development; in fact, they actually end up reflecting on each other’s work.

    All of them wrestle with the issue of development, and I think you are simply wrong about this point – it’s an unavoidable issue. Once you understand it, you can’t not “believe” in it. You will either become convinced of the necessity of the idea of development in your reading or you won’t; all the good scholars you are reading and will read, like Hanson and Williams, for example, are indebted to the idea. No good patristic theological scholar since Newman can fail to grasp its import.

    Moralizing and anachronism go hand in hand; historical objectivity and sensitivity and a kind of historicized idea of truth also go hand in hand. Those are not accidental corollaries.

    I’ve put it this way to people in a slightly different context (dealing with relativism): there are two kinds of relativists and two kinds of people who reject relativism. On the on hand, there is the relativist who does not actually understand relativism and is thus committed to some sloppy and incoherent idea that does not correspond to any depth of awareness on the person’s part. On the other hand there is the person who actually can’t fail to understand relativism, can’t seem to find a way around it, and thus may, usually begrudgingly, end up affirming some form of relativism for lack of an alternative.

    Among the rejecting you have the same division: those who reject relativism but have never actually understood it, i.e., they have never genuinely seen how it could be, in some sense, true, and thus they have never been existentially threatened by it, had their consciousness penetrated by its plausibility, even seeming inevitability. On the other hand you have those who have and do see why relativism is a specter for some people, who have experienced it as a subjective threat, but reject because it can’t be the final word, etc.

    The same kind of scheme applies to lots of issues that rely on qualitative distinctions in consciousness, like that of doctrinal development.

    The uncomprehending relativist and the uncomprehending rejector are more similar, in certain profound respects, than the comprehending persons on opposite sides of the issue and this is because these latter both have seen a problem, have recognized it, and thus have their approach to reality altered by it.

    Both groups will, as a consequence, see different problems, adopt different emphases, etc. But you can’t do a certain kind of historical work without actually seeing the threat. Until then a form of anachronism will be one’s constant companion.

    For myself I regard this kind of distinction as usually more relevant, at least in academic contexts, than any particular label, like conservative or liberal. I’m closer in my sensibility to B.A. Gerrish than I am to some orthodox theologians with whom I agree on every doctrinal particular but totally disagree with respect their view of history, etc.

    Anyway, a long response, but to a good review that raises a fundamental issue.

    • Thanks, Joseph. I appreciate your coherent response to my incoherence. In fact, I have no intention of even denying incoherence at this point; I feel the tension in my worldview rising quite uncomfortably. I would have engaged you more substantively on an earlier occasion, but I was afraid that other people would sidetrack the conversation, which is exactly what happened. Right now I stand in an awkward position, where I can “see” development in the historians I read, but still not for myself. I have a number of sticking points. First, my understanding of the Christian faith is that one’s doctrine is not simply an intellectual, but a moral issue. There is a Holy Spirit that creates correct doctrine, at least in essential points, in all his children. Heresy, then, is not just a matter of incorrect reasoning or defective starting points, but also an indication of an unregenerate mind. I am aware that this position makes life difficult in modern academic scholarship, which seems to be premised on the idea that all the scholars are really engaging in the same activity with the same goal and that some people are just better at it than others. But I think you understand how orthodoxy and heresy as moving targets creates some serious tensions for a moral/spiritual perspective.

      Second, I need an explanation for why controversies were such a big deal when they happened. Why did at least the Nicenes and the Anomoeans both act as if something significant was at stake, and that this something significant (the apostolic deposit) already existed and in some ways could be demonstrated? If I accept the current attitude toward development, do I have to give up entirely the idea of an apostolic deposit entrusted to the church? As a corollary, would people who embrace ideas of doctrinal development behave differently if a fundamental controversy were to arise today?

      Third, I am uncomfortable with the idea that seems to arise from this – the Church makes orthodoxy. I see how easily compatible this is with the Catholic (Newman) and Anglican (Williams) positions, but Reformed/Lutheran Protestantism almost depends on the idea of a primitive, static truth that the Church receives. All the early Reformers pretty much asserted their position not as a development of but as a radical rejection of medievalism. The idea of a “development of doctrine” seems to me to imply a level of continuity in dogma that doesn’t exist, especially on the Protestant side.

      So, I’m beginning to frame the issues for myself, but I’m unsure about where these differing historical stances will lead me.

  2. Charlie,

    I don’t think committment to some idea of the development of doctrine need lead to some of the things you mention; many of the greatest historians of our time have been emphatically orthodox, like Jaroslav Pelikan, or, say, Robert Louis Wilken.

    I have to read some stuff on Eckhart for a class, but I will respond in more detail later – it’s a good conversation and I’m glad to be having it.

  3. Also, I meant to mention a quote that sums up my view of everything important (just about). It’s from Goethe’s Faust:

    Was du ererbt von deinen Vaetern hast,

    Erwirb es, um es zu besitzen.

    He’s two translation, the first literal, the latter liberal (actually by Pelikan):

    What you have inherited from you fathers,
    Earn it anew, in order to possess it.

    What you have as heritage, take now as task,
    For only thus will you possess it.

    I view my work as a Christian and theologian as earning anew the faith of my fathers so that I can make it my own. My whole life could be spent joyfully trying to make the Nicene creed truly mine, for example. That would be a career well spent.

  4. P.S.

    The second line of the Pelikan translation should be:

    “For only thus can you make it your own.”

  5. In response to your three points.

    1. This notion of heresy sounds odd, even by orthodox standards. There is a common and I think important and valid distinction that your position seems to efface, viz. between holding a heretical position and being a heretic. So I would simply disagree that holding with the idea that holding a heretical position shows that someone is unregenerate. Moreover, sesides my general (I think biblcially and theologically grounded) discomfort with people “knowing” someone is not a Christian merely in virtue of a position she holds, it’s not clear how thinking the Holy Spirit is involved in Christian confession or that such confession is more than intellectaal (who in the church has ever said it was just intellectual? No one to my knowledge) justifies thinking that believing heresy shows on is unregenerate.

    I not only fail to see any biblical support for that notion, I can think of many instances that, depending on how loosely one uses the term “heresy,” would count against it. Paul to the Galations would be one prominent example.

    2. I don’t see how this could count in any way against a view of development. Are you suggesting all the historians who write about these issues fail to show why things matter when they occured? I think Hanson and others are some of the best people to read to understand why the issues mattered in the first place. Perhaps you could further clarify your concern here.

    3. First, the issue of what it means to say the “Church makes orthodoxy” would need to be clarified before a) it’s clear whether it’s logically implied by a view of development and b) whether it’s itself problematic.

    Second, I find the following dubious, and I add numbers to clarify what I’m addressing: “but (1)Reformed/Lutheran Protestantism almost depends on the idea of a primitive, static truth that the Church receives. (2) All the early Reformers pretty much asserted their position not as a development of but as a radical rejection of medievalism.

    Even if (2) were true – and I have serious doubts as to a) whether it’s true and, if so, whether it’s true in any sense relevant to this discussion and b) whether it would not be a form of begging the question to suggest that becomes the Reformers thought something any change is inconsistent with their position – it’s not clear that it could possibly justify much less entail (1) by itself.

    (1) is a clear instance of begging the question because it’s simply false that all Lutheran and Reformed folks would interpret their traditions in that way. Thus what (1) is really asserting is something closer to this: “One interpretation of the Lutheran and Reformed makes them logically dependent upon an idea of static, undeveloping doctrine, the denail of which destroys those distinctive (Lutheran and Reformed) identities. And I am sympathetic to this interpretation.”

    It should be easy to see how assering that is close to if not an instance of question-begging. It is the case that if I and many others are right in our outlook on doctrine then the above (we’ll call it) static interpretation is false.

    Part of what convinced me that any static view is false is that it simply cannot acccount for the historical record; it makes nonsense of church history and the history of theology. And it’s quite clear to me many Reformed folks do just that, in fact. Moreover, the static interpretation also cannot account for its own existence, its being part of, say, a “Reformed tradition.” “Tradition” just becomes a code work for “believing and saying exactly what X confession said four-hundred years ago.”

    But the same problem with making sense of real and undeniable change in the church’s broader history plagues this narrower sense of tradition as well.

    To end on a polemical note, I regard the static-interpretation as involving a fundamental denial of history, regardless of how much history it may appeal to in support of itself.

    History, thinking historically, historical consciousness: this is an achievement. Part of its achievement is precisely to recognize that it itself has not been the universal way of thinking and experiencing time. This is what allows the increasing appreciation of anachronism and thus a continued and deepening attempt to mitigate its occurence. It’s precisely in acknowleding that our time is genuinely different from the past that allows us to do justice to the past and live faithfully in the present.

  6. I obviously failed to make myself very clear. Regarding heretical positions and heretics, while I acknowledge that the two can be distinguished, I don’t see how it’s relevant in the Arian crisis, to which I was referring. Athanasius’ Orations Against the Arians open with the assertion that Arians are not Christians. Why? Because of the positions they hold. The book of 2 John (among others) gave them this conviction. To Williams, Arius was a theological conservative who fell on the rocks of post-Plotinian philosophy and a rising “catholic” understanding of church authority structure. To Athanasius, he was a viper deceiving the souls of many into turning away from the apostolic faith. Whence the difference in portrayal?

    I’ll skip the other points to try to clarify one central concept. It is my understanding that just about all Protestant theology pre-18th century or so understood itself as an attempt to repristinate the original apostolic teaching. To use a silly metaphor, it’s almost as if the apostles had in their brains the perfect systematic theology, and the job of the theologian was to reproduce that as exactly as possible. That’s why Zwingli was prepared to say in Of Baptism, “In this matter of baptism … I can only conclude that all the doctors have been in error from the time of the apostles.” Now, he’s reluctant to do this, but you can see the idea of repristinating the apostolic doctrine. Luther utters a similar sentiment in his 1524 address to the German cities: “We have the gospel just as pure and undefiled as the apostles had it, that it has been wholly restored to its original purity, far beyond what it was in the days of St. Jerome and St. Augustine.” Zwingli and Luther both saw their theology not as building on medieval foundations, but as overturning them and jumping back to the primitive church.

    Whether or not that is true is not my point. That is their self-understanding and it seems to me the understanding that Protestant orthodoxy embraced through the 17th century. They would have embraced a doctrine of development only in the sense that a previous writer helps me understand something about the apostolic doctrine that I might not have realized on my own.

    So, my single question is, What theological ramifications flow from adopting a historical stance other than the one adopted by Protestant orthodoxy?

  7. Charlie,

    Your single question is not one to which I have a direct answer. All kinds of ramifications, no doubt; but with a question framed at that level of generality, no very determinate answer is possible.

    Again, I can’t say whether or not all the people you mention held the view you describe, although it would not surprise me all (the opposite, in fact, would). As I mentioned, the Medievals lacked historical consciousness; they did not, in our modern sense, recognize history, and thus they did not have the notion of anachronistim, and thus they were incredibly anachronistic in the way the read texts.

    So, how long and to what extent this ahistorical mindset persisted into the Reformation is not something on which I am speak with surety; I’m going to get a relevant book, though, and glance at it tonight to see if talks about the Reformers on this issue. As I say, though; I would not be surprised, but I don’t think that means much, unless one holds the Reformers to be infallible or thinks they could not have been wrong, non-culpably in this case, for holding a position in a certain way which we now see was inaccurate.

    I don’t why, though, the Reformers would be any different from their contemporaries. Historically consciousness did not really emerge fully until the 19th century.


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