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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Gems from Athanasius

I’m in the process of reading Athanasius’ Orations Against the Arians. I have been deeply moved by Athanasius’ strategy, which avoids proof-texting to focus instead on the greater context of creation, fall, and redemption. The Arian Christ corresponds neither to the Word’s exaltation in creation nor his accomplishment of salvation, for no creature, regardless of status, could bring us to God. Here are some gems from the Second Oration, where Athanasius explicitly develops his soteriological refutation of Arianism. Even where I might dispute a case of exegesis or a particular theological point, the brilliance of the method remains intact:

“It is much to be doubted, whether the Baptism administered by our adversaries is valid. There are, indeed, the names of the Father and the Son in it; but this is such a Father, as according to them is really no Father, as having no Son of His substance who is equal to Him in nature; and the Son they mean is really no Son, but only a mere creature made out of nothing. Can it be supposed that the Blessed Trinity should ratify such a Baptism as this, in which the Holy Name is not invoked, but mocked?” (42)

“This, then, was the reason why the Saviour came among men, to bear witness to the truth of God, to die upon the Cross for our redemption, to raise us up from the dead, and to defeat all the machinations of the devil. Had it not been for these ends, He had never assumed our flesh; had not the resurrection of His Body been necessary for ours He had not died; and He could not have died unless He had taken upon Himself a mortal body…. It was, then, entirely for our sake and advantage, and not at all for His own, that He came down from heaven. The purpose that brought Him here was that of destroying death, condemning sin, giving sight to the blind, and life to the dead.” (55)

“If He was not created [Athanasius means “incarnated”] for our sake, the consequence will be that we are not created in Him. And if we are not created in Him, then He is not in us, but wholly without us; that is to say, He leaves our nature as He found it, and has concerned Himself no more about us than as a teacher with his scholars. And if this is all He has done for us, then the dominion of sin is still in our flesh, and was never purged out of it.” (56)

“He is declared to be, and is, the First-born of us in this respect, because all men being lost by the sin of Adam, the human nature of Christ was first regenerated, redeemed, and sanctified, and so became the means of our regeneration, redemption, and sanctification, in consequence of the union between our nature and His.” (61)

“Had He been only one sort of creature at first, and was afterwards made another, our case had been hopeless; and we must have remained as much excluded, and at as great a distance, from the mercy of God as ever. One created being could not presume to exalt another into a state of union with God. All created beings are equally dependent and helpless, and no one is more capable of diverting the purposes of the Creator than another, and, therefore, the best of them cannot be serviceable to any other of them in this respect. It had not been possible for the Word or Son of God, had He been only a creature, to reverse the sentence of God, and to forgive sin.” (67)

“But here we shall be told, that whether our Saviour had been created or not, God, if He had pleased, might have pardoned us, as He inflicted our punishment, by only pronouncing the words. And to this I make reply, that although it were granted that God could do this without sending down His Son hither; yet we are not here considering what belongs to the power of God, but what is most suitable for mankind…. Suppose, then, that God could by His own immediate voice have uttered the declaration of pardon to mankind, even as He uttered the curse; yet it is certain that it was much more agreeable to His infinite purpose, that He should transact this affair by His Son. Had His Omnipotence spoken the word, and so the curse had been undone; this, no doubt, would have manifested His power, and had rendered our nature the same as it was before the fall; that is to say, we should have received grace from without, as Adam then did, but we should not have had it as we have now, within our hearts.” (68)

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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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