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.

To Reading and Reviews

Published in: on March 8, 2011 at 9:23 am  Comments (5)  
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Discovering the Trinity, Part 1

Developed Trinitarian doctrine, as we recognize it in Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, or the Nicene-Constantinopolitan creed, was discovered. It was not invented, for it is not the product of its creators. On the other hand, it was not immediately recognized by the first-century Christians and handed down pristinely despite heretical attacks. It was discovered, implying both that it existed before it was found and that its discovery was the result of a search. Trinitarian doctrine was the result of centuries of questing after God.

In much contemporary theology, Trinitarian doctrine is a subset of the doctrine of God. In ancient Christianity, the Trinity comprehended all doctrine. The Nicene Creed, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Athanasian Creed all deliver the Christian faith as the faith of the Trinity. Thus the opening lines of the Athanasian Creed:

Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally. And the Catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.

Trinitarian doctrine derived from multiple sources. The principle source, of course, was Scripture. All the theologians of the early Church, no matter how much they might interweave their treatises with Greek philosophical or Roman juridical terms, took the explication of Scripture as both ground and goal. Perhaps above all, the book of John stimulated controversy. Its opening statements about the Logos and its resounding report that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30) provided resources for imagining Deity incarnate, the boundary lines of creator and creation. Yet, many other statements seemed to distinguish between the one true God and the Word. So, John’s writings proffered the bulk of exegetical data for the Trinitarian controversies.

Many of the Fathers were well-educated elites, so the Greek and Roman intellectual milieu shaped their vocabulary, methods, and general outlook. Sophisticated reasoning about the nature of God existed outside Christian circles, and educated Christians naturally joined that conversation. From the beginning, though, Christian theologians operated with a near-arrogant confidence in the superiority of Christianity over philosophy. Inattentive scholars have gloated about the Neoplatonist takeover of Christianity, evident in Augustine and the Cappadocians. Rather, the Fathers show us how much Christianity can enter into a culture and transform it (incarnationally?), reshaping it to meet Christian needs and accomplish Christian goals. Perhaps the Fathers can inspire contemporary Protestants to a new path, neither the Liberal captivity to modern philosophy nor the Fundamentalist refusal to interact.

Another source of Trinitarian doctrine was the liturgical practice of the Church. Early Christians sang psalms to Christ. They prayed in Trinitarian formulas. They baptized in the three-fold name. They confessed Jesus as Lord and Savior. Given this context, reflection on the meaning of worship was inevitable. The relationship between theory and praxis was reciprocal, passionate worship enabling deeper theological perception, and vice versa.

Scripture, worship, and intellectual culture combined to create a fertile soil for theological discovery. Yet, the actual articulation of the Trinity was anything but an easy task. Fecund as the soil may be, significant obstacles to full flowering remained. Some of the obstacles concerned the incomprehensibility of God, others the inadequacy of human language, others perplexing passages of Scripture. I hope to explore some of these challenges in future installments.

[Note: This was written under the influence of the flu and medication. If it doesn’t make sense, let me know.]

Published in: on March 4, 2011 at 5:12 pm  Comments (1)  
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Book Review – Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Manlio Simonetti

Biblical Interpretation in the Early Church by Manlio Simonetti presents an introduction to patristic exegesis. At only ix+154 pages, it is an exemplar of concise scholarship. Bypassing minutiae and picayune tangents, Simonetti excels at sketching the main currents of exegetical development.

The first chapter examines Jewish and Greek hermeneutical traditions that influenced early Christians. Simonetti avoids a simplistic Jew/Greek dichotomy, noting that both groups embraced various approaches to sacred literature. Issues regarding “literal” and “allegorical” readings, though not as sharply defined as in modern hermeneutics, occupied the attention of interpreters even before Christianity. Thus, the Christians inherited eclectic and sometimes contradictory attitudes toward the text.

The rest of the book details chronologically the development of exegesis. Often, the urgency of polemics drove hermeneutical creativity. Catholic exegesis was shaped by the Scriptural claims of rival groups, particularly Gnostics, Manichaeans, and Arians. Here Simonetti is especially helpful, for he demonstrates that the Catholics were not always hermeneutically distinguishable from their opponents. Neither the Nicene/Arian nor the Alexandrian/Antiochene controversies can be reduced simply to allegorical vs. literal exegesis. At several points, Simonetti exposes inconsistencies between an author’s stated hermeneutical positions and his actual practice. Even where distinct schools are visible, patristic exegesis tended to be eclectic and messy. Early church interpreters were working their way toward hermeneutical rules, not from them.

A relevant but stand-alone appendix offers “Some Observations on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture in the Patristic Period.” In it, Simonetti calls attention to the role of external forces in shaping exegesis. Certain passages called upon to buttress one doctrine in the Trinitarian controversies suddenly find their meaning shifting as the Christological controversies or other opponents come to the fore. The specific examples are enlightening, the larger point vital.

Biblical Interpretation is exceptionally useful for a student seeking an entry point into deeper study. Simonetti provides copious primary source references and a select bibliography of the best works in English, French, German, and Italian. The only negative aspect of the book comes from its brevity. Simonetti uses few lengthy examples, preferring instead to cite references. Of course, readers can always look them up, but they may not always be easily accessible. In any case, doing so detracts from the narrative and blunts the argumentative punch a bit. That notwithstanding, Biblical Interpretation has secured a permanent spot in my library. I expect to return to it frequently.

To Reading and Reviews


Published in: on March 1, 2011 at 6:52 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Review – The Spirit of Early Christian Thought by Robert Wilken

Robert Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought is not a book about doctrine or philosophy. It is much more original than that. He addresses ideas and arguments, but the burden of the book deals with the people, context, sources, and challenges of patristic thinking. Four authors – Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, and Maximus the Confessor – are the primary conversation partners, but Wilken includes many others.

In the early chapters, Wilken stresses that Christian doctrine formed in response to both internal and external pressures. Christianity was a minority sect in a sometimes hostile Roman empire; thus, they always constructed their writings with an eye toward apology and persuasion. On the other hand, Christianity developed by reflecting both on the Scriptures and the experience of worship. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, was shaped not only by appeals to particular texts, but also by the church’s practice of baptizing in and singing the Triune formula. Worship and doctrine reciprocally shape each other.

Christian thinking was and is inescapably historical. Christian doctrine was an outgrowth of the Christian narrative. The history of the Jews anchors apologetic argument against both pagans and Gnostics. The incarnation provided the foundation for Christian epistemology, the descent of God preceding an ascent of the mind. Jesus’ temptation in the garden inspired Maximus the Confessor’s articulation of two wills in Christ. All Christian doctrine orbited the cross and resurrection, where God’s most profound lessons are taught.

Christian thinking is, of course, done by Christians. Christians exist in the context of the Church. The Fathers were not academics, who sat isolated from the world and flung thoughts from afar. They were men who prayed, who went to or oversaw churches, who participated in the life of the Church. Thus, knowing the particularities of church life is essential for understanding the task of Christian thinking. Like Augustine’s depiction of the church in the City of God, Wilken portrays  “a community that occupies space and exists in time, an ordered, purposeful gathering of human beings with a distinctive way of life, institutions, laws, beliefs, memory, and form of worship. The most characteristic feature of the city of God is that it worships the one true God” (191).

Several chapters explore areas that receive scant attention in handbooks of doctrine. Wilken examines how the Fathers related reason and faith in their defenses of Christianity, how the pursuit of theological precision was a process of discipleship and moral formation, how Christians began creating a literary culture of their own, and how the Fathers inherited and transformed the vocabulary of ancient virtue ethics.

The book’s subtitle, “Seeking the Face of God,” crystallizes Wilken’s primary theme. Thought or doctrine in the patristic period was never an end in itself. Christian thinking was subordinated to the Church’s task of clinging in love to God. One of the best sections is Wilken’s exposition of Gregory of Nyssa’s contemplation on love. The soul, bound in love to God, becomes ever more thirsty for God, yet ever more capacious for receiving him. Love, fitting us to God, makes us like him. So, love never ends.

Despite its (refreshingly) popular tone, Spirit overflows with knowledge and insight. I, as a well-read amateur, was surprised by the amount of fresh ideas and penetrating analysis. Furthermore, it is one of the few truly enjoyable academic books. The reader will enjoy his time reading, groan that it ends, and be encouraged to drink from the Fathers themselves.

To Reading and Reviews

(A lecture by Robert Wilken is available through ITunes U. Search for “Following the Holy Fathers” from Duke Divinity School.)

Published in: on January 21, 2011 at 11:42 am  Comments (1)  

Irony in Irenaeus

Irenaeus’ Against Heresies is one of the treasures of the early Church, but there are some things in it which will strike the modern reader as a bit odd or even ironic. One of Irenaeus’ major lines of argumentation is that the heretics slink around in obscurity, playing word games with parables or employing bizarre numerology to prove their Aeons and Pleroma and such, or simply wresting Scripture out of context. Irenaeus, however, takes his stand upon the plain and well-known Apostolic Tradition, derived from the clear meaning of Scripture. In fact, according  to Irenaeus, it is obvious that the four Gospels are authoritative and in line with the rest of the teaching of Scripture. He proceeds to defend them thus:

“For it is impossible that the Gospels should be in number either more or fewer than these. For since there are four regions of the world wherein we are, and four principal winds, and the Church is as seed sown in the whole earth, and the Gospel is the Church’s pillar and ground, and the breath of life: it is natural that it should have four pillars, from all quarters breathing incorruption, and kindling men into life. Whereby it is evident, that the Artificer of all things, the Word, Who sitteth upon the Cherubims, and keepeth all together, when He was made manifest unto men, gave us His Gospel in four forms, kept together by one SPIRIT. As David, imploring His Presence, saith, Thou that sittest upon the Cherubims, shew Thyself. For indeed the Cherubim had four faces, and their faces are images of the dispensation of the Son of God. For the first living creature, it saith, was like a Lion, denoting His real efficiency, His guiding power, His royalty: and the second like a Calf, signifying His station as a Sacrificer and Priest: and the third having the face of a man, most evidently depicting His Presence as Man: and the fourth like an eagle in flight, declaring the gift of the Spirit flying down upon the Church.

Now then the Gospels are in unison with these, upon which Christ sitteth. For first, that according to John relates His princely and efficacious, and glorious birth from the Father…. On this account this Gospel is also full of all confidence; for that is his Character.

But the Gospel of Luke, as being of a priestly stamp, began from Zacharias the priest burning incense unto God. For now the fatted Calf was a preparing, about to be sacrificed for the finding of the younger Son.

Matthew, for his part proclaims His Birth as a Man, saying, The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…as it is written in the Prophet Esaias: implying the winged image of the Gospel. And for this cause he hath also made his narrative concise and rapid: for this is the stamp of Prophecy….

Such, then, as were the dealings of the Son of God, such also is the form of the Living Creatures; and such as is the form of the Living creatures, such also is the stamp of the Gospel. For the living creatures are of four forms, of four forms also is the Gospel, and the dealing of the Lord. And therefore four general covenants were given unto mankind: the first, of Noe’s deluge, on occasion of the Bow: and the second, Abraham’s, with the sign of Circumcision: and the third, the giving of the Law under Moses: and the fourth that of the Gospels, by our Lord Jesus Christ.

Now such being the case, they are all vain and ignorant, and daring withal, who set at nought the true notion of the Gospel, and privily bring in either more or fewer individual Gospels, than have been mentioned.”

If only Gleason Archer had thought of that argument, how much shorter would have been his NTI! It’s interesting to see how long some of this sticks around. I remember in high school hearing about how the Gospels corresponded to certain animals and perhaps even the four faces of the cherubim. The details were a little different, though.

Well, I don’t want to throw stones at Irenaeus. He did Christianity a great service by refuting the heretics. It’s worth considering, though, whether our beliefs are the clear teaching of Scripture, or whether we think something is the clear teaching of Scripture because that’s what we believe. Also, our methods may not always be so far removed from those we seek to refute.

Published in: on March 2, 2010 at 8:04 pm  Leave a Comment  
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