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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