Review – Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres

Over the last few decades,  revisionary accounts of fourth-century trinitarian theology have been forming gradually. According to new readings, the “Arian” controversy was not a well-defined struggle between Nicene defenders of inherited orthodoxy and a cabal of insurgents grouped around Arius. Rather, Arius’ and Alexander’s conflict ignited a battle between existing theological trajectories. The standard packaging of this period as “Arian” was a clever rhetorical move by Athanasius. “We should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’. They focus, first, on debates about the generation of the Word or Son from the Father. Second, the controversies involve debates about the ‘grammar’ of human speech about the divine” (3).

Furthermore, the revisionists insist that the defenders of Nicaea were not uniform in their theology, nor did those present at Nicaea hold the developed theology that would characterize pro-Nicene faith half a century later. Trinitarian theology cannot be divided into Eastern and Western, nor can the “pluralist” Cappadocians be set against against an Augustinian preference for “unity.” Another area of revision calls for an understanding of the Fathers as scriptural exegetes whose concerns about the status of the Word intertwine with their articulation of redemption. They were not captured by Hellenistic philosophy, nor do their differences stem primarily from adopting different philosophical starting points. Rather, almost all the participants employed philosophical ideas piecemeal in the service of a larger Christian consciousness.

Nicaea and its Legacy by Lewis Ayres is the first work to gather these revisionary accounts and advance them in a holistic narrative. Here we have the single-volume revisionary text for fourth-century trinitarian theology. Ayres does not claim to be exhaustive in this book. He refers to the existing comprehensive studies by Richard Hanson and Manlio Simonetti. Using those as a substratum, he constructs a leaner account that emphasizes the novel features of his approach. Nicaea and its Legacy serves well enough as a stand-alone text, but readers familiar with Hanson and Simonetti will appreciate its distinctiveness the most.

Ayres identifies four theological trajectories around the time of Nicaea, whose permutations formed the shifting alliances of the fourth century:

1) Alexander, Athanasius, and Friends: Theologians of true wisdom

2) The “Eusebians”: Theologians of the “One Unbegotten”

3) “Marcellan Theology”: Theologians of the undivided monad

4) Western Anti-Adoptionism: A Son born without division

Regarding Nicaea and its aftermath, Ayres argues that Nicaea was not at first intended to be “a precise marker of Christian faith” (85). In fact, the creed was capable of several interpretations, since the terminology it employed had not yet come to technical definition. Homoousios was not nearly as important as it would be later. The trinitarian controversies did not end at Nicaea, or even at Constantinople in 381. They continue into the fifth century, although pro-Nicene theology (Ayres’ term for the theology of those who defended Nicaea) by then gained the upper hand.

In explicating pro-Nicene theology, Ayres calls on Athanasius, Hilary, Basil of Caesarea, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory Nazianzen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Though pro-Nicenes vary in their articulations of theology, they share a common “culture.” Each understands the Trinity as a mystery. God, as perfectly simple, is incomprehensible to our finite minds. Meditation on the inseparability of operations as evidenced in the Incarnation draws us into the paradox of the one divine power and three irreducible persons. Further, all creation participates in the mystery inasmuch as it exists “in” the Word, whom it reflects in a finite way. The Word as a purifying fire cleanses the mind and affections of Christians, so that they can gaze ever more perceptively into the divine mystery. Close readings of Nyssa and Augustine illustrate his arguments.

In the last chapter, Ayres undertakes a bold task. Having given an account of pro-Nicene theology, he asks what it means for contemporary theologians to appropriate or seek continuity with this creedal faith. He highlights the inconsistency of receiving creedal formulations while rejecting the exegetical and theological methods used to reach them. Modern trinitarian theology, with its post-Enlightenment and Hegelian assumptions, with its disdain for theological and mystical readings of Scripture, receives quite the tongue-lashing. Whether Ayres has found a legitimate way forward, though, is unclear.

Nicaea and its Legacy is a scholarly masterpiece, the best book I’ve read on the Trinity, the best book I’ve read so far this year. Ayres writes with an energy that radiates even in the densest portions. The narrative moments provide just enough air to dive back into the dense documents. He employs prodigious secondary literature to clarify, not obscure. His close readings of primary sources are indispensable. He is interdisciplinary in the best way. For those intimidated by the complexity of the subject matter, the epilogue summarizes the narrative in six pages. No church historian or theologian has any excuse not to read this book.

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Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (5)  
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  1. Charlie,

    Thanks for the review. If you don’t mind me asking, you state it is the best book you have read on the Trinity. What are the books you have read that you are comparing this one to?

    I’m trying to slowly work through NT passages that present the Trinity, but I hope to eventually incorporate theological treatments of the subject.


    • I should clarify to say that it’s the most illuminating historical treatment I’ve read. The standard is The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God by R. P. C. Hanson. It’s more complete than Ayres’, but I don’t think the narrative is as coherent, and I am mostly persuaded of Ayres’ corrections. From Nicaea to Chalcedon, 2nd edition, by Frances Young is another, and it’s probably the better book for a true introduction to the material. It doesn’t have the same depth or inter-disciplinary appeal, though. The Holy Trinity by Robert Letham is a solid all-around treatment by an evangelical, but as a historical survey it’s much more abbreviated. Manlio Simonetti has an important work that I haven’t read, but as far as I know hasn’t been translated out of Italian. There are also a number of good books discussing more narrow sections, such as Arius or the Cappadocians or Augustine.

      Khaled Anatolios is publishing a book, Retrieving Nicaea, this year. I expect it will be quite good and cover much the same material as Ayres’.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I have heard plenty about Letham’s book and keep hearing things about Fred Sanders’ new one, so I thought I would see if those were in your deliberations.

  2. Hi Charlie – first a quick but warm THANKS for sharing. I’m halfway through Ayres book and find it heavy – but worthwhile.

    I’m using it for an assignment on Gregory of Nyssa’s Christology, (perhaps in comparrison to but just wanted to get a wider scope before focusing in on the specific topic. This book gave me just that. (at least so far)

    I would love to discuss the topic, but here and now, I would like to ask a far more profane question – actually a WP-related question. I have just been married, and my wife and I are starting a blog to stay in contact with our family – we need a way for people to be able to sign up for new posts via mail – and I haven’t figuered out how to do it – but it seems you have…
    Can you help?

    • Sure, Simon. In your dashboard, under the Appearance button, there is a “widgets” menu. There is a widget titled, I believe, “Email subscription.” You just need to add the widget. You can also customize how it appears on your blog.

      I love Gregory of Nyssa. I think that a comparison would be fascinating.

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