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Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology

Lewis Ayres
Print publication date: 2004 Print ISBN-13: 9780198755067 Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: Jul-05 DOI: 10.1093/0198755066.001.0001

Introduction
Lewis Ayres (Contributor Webpage)

DOI: 10.1093/0198755066.003.0001

The fourth century of the Christian era witnessed a controversy that produced some of the basic principles of classical Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, the most important creed in the history of Christianity, and theological texts that have remained points of departure for Christian theology in every subsequent generation. This book explores that controversy and is aimed at a variety of readers. To students of early Christianity and late antiquity, I offer a new narrative of the Trinitarian and Christological disputes that takes further the attempts of recent scholarship to move beyond ancient heresiological categories. 1 The aim and core of my argument is a paradigm that I offer for exploring the theologies that came to be counted as orthodox at the end of the century. This paradigm attempts to move beyond simplistic east/west divisions and to respect the diversity of proNicene theologies better than available accounts. The paradigm also tries to show the interweaving of pro Nicene Trinitarian theologies with discussions of cosmology, epistemology, anthropology andimportantlywith conceptions of how to read Scripture. For proNicenes, theological accounts of Scriptureand of human speech about Godprovided the contexts for accounts of the Trinity itself. Eventually I will suggest that proNicene theology should be considered as a theological culture. My second intended audience is modern Christian theologians. 2 To these readers I suggest that recent Trinitarian theology has engaged the legacy of Nicaea at a fairly shallow level, frequently relying on assumptions about
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Nicene theology that are historically indefensible and overlooking the wider theological matrices within which particular theological terminologies were situated. Chapters 1114 (p. 2 ) attempt to demonstrate the need for a more detailed account of Nicene Trinitarian theology by theologians wishing to appropriate its dynamics. In the last chapter I argue that proNicene theologies offer accounts of theological language, of the reading of Scripture, of analogical reasoning, and of the doctrine of God itself that challenge modern Trinitarian theologians to rethink some of their most cherished assumptions. While a vast amount of scholarship over the past thirty years has offered revisionist accounts of themes and figures from the fourth century, few clear summary narratives built on this scholarship have appeared. Accordingly, Parts I and II of the book, Chapters 110 , offer a narrative of Trinitarian and Christological thought between approximately ad 300 and 383. In part, my aim has been to construct a narrative that will be useful for readers without much familiarity with this field. In these chapters I have tried, where possible, to refer to existing English translations and to point to English language scholarship that offers further useful discussion. The fundamental problem in understanding the course of these controversies stems from the nature of our sources. Above and beyond the usual difficulties in constructing any narrative of intellectual argument and development, the documentary evidence from this period is, in many cases, fragmentary. For some important historical events (such as the Council of Constantinople itself) we lack any detailed primary account and the writings of some leading figures (such as Arius and Marcellus of Ancyra) survive only in fragments. Even surviving accounts that seem less fragmentary are deeply shaped by heresiological categories honed during the controversiesArian, semiArian, and neoArian being good examples. Such heresiological labels enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute. Most famously some participants in the debate described loosely related but clearly distinct thinkers as Arians. In fact, it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius' specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius' writing. Arius was part of a wider theological trajectory; many of his ideas were opposed by others in this trajectory: he neither originated the trajectory nor uniquely exemplified it. One further result of this polemical move was
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to hide the ways in which the theologies typified as Arian draw on a variety of theological trajectories and cannot be understood as springing from one source. The heresiological label thus covers up the complexity of theological development. Given the (p. 3 ) increasing clarity with which we can trace the history of these heresiological terms, recent writers on the fourth century have tried to narrate the period with greater sensitivity to the continuities and divisions that these labels seek to hide. Throughout the book I will argue that 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. Before explaining these two points in a little more detail, I need to note that two common ways of presenting the controversies are simply misleading. One often finds accounts of fourthcentury theology arguing that these disputes are not simply Christological or simply Trinitarian, but it would be far better simply to avoid the categories. The writers considered in these pages see questions about Christ's ability to reveal and act salvifically to be closely related to his status as the Word of God. Indeed, the questions are so interrelated because the controversies originally focused on the nature and consequences of the Word's generation. For fourthcentury theologians, understanding how one should read scriptural discussion of the Word of God or the Son of God was at the heart of understanding the Christian gospel itself. Only in the context of an account of the Word's relationship to God did these theologians articulate an account of redemption. Thus, behind the original controversy lie conflicting approaches to the Word's generation: to what extent can we think of it as the emergence of one distinct thing from another? How does one understand the distinction between God and Word, Father and Son: is this the distinction of two separate beings? Are the two distinct in a way parallel to the seemingly necessary hierarchy of source and product that we see in the creation? Or is this distinction analogous to that of a person who speaks his or her word (the word being here only a dependent and temporary product of the speaker)? These questions about the generation of the Son or Wordand consequently about the ontological status of the generated Sonthen have immediate repercussions for how one understands incarnation and redemption. Should we understand the Incarnate Christ's revelation of God by thinking of the Word as an intermediary being, able to communicate something
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of the divine character because of an inherent mutability that makes communication possible? Even if we reject the Word's mutability and insist on its inseparability from God, how far can the Word reveal the immutable source of all? In what ways can a Son generated as inferior to the Father act to effect closeness to the Father of all? Different accounts (p. 4 ) of the Son's generation (in modern terms a Trinitarian question) were taken to have implications for accounts of the incarnate Word (in modern terms questions of soteriology and Christology). Such questions were central, in part, because fourthcentury theologians read Scripture differently from modern theologians. On the one hand, fourth century assumptions about the Old Testament as Scripture provided points of departure for reflection on the Word's generation that many modern theologians treat with suspicion. Thus fourthcentury writers treated texts such as Proverbs 8: 22, Wisdom 7: 256 and 8: 1, Isaiah 53: 8, Exodus 33: 1823, Malachi 3: 6, James 1: 17 as fundamental points of reference and departure for discussing the divine being. On the other hand, fourth century theologians made assumptions about the analogical and imaginative resources provided by the language of Scripture that, to many modern readers, seem only to rip terms or verses out of context. To appreciate fourthcentury theology and controversy we need to appreciate better how such reading attended to the imaginative resources of Scripture. Before we assess the value of this reading practice against the standards of modern exegetical techniques, we need to understand how early Christian exegetical practice functioned as a key cultural context for the fourthcentury disputes. A second approach that we need to reject treats the fourthcentury debates as focusing on the question of whether to place the Son on either side of a clear God/creation boundary. The ease with which this distinction can be made by modern theological readers is itself an achievement of the fourth century. Many fourthcentury theologians (including some who were in no way antiNicene) made distinctions between being God and being true God that belie any simple account of the controversy in these terms. One of the key factors that enabled the achievement of a clear distinction between God and creation (such that true God is synonymous with God) was the increasing subtlety and clarity with which late fourthcentury theologians shaped their basic rules or grammar for all language about the divine life and action. As part of this grammar proNicene theologians articulate a clear principle that whatever is God is necessarily at one with the simplicity of divinity and admits of no degrees: at this point true God is a phrase that cannot be taken to imply the existence of lesser Gods.
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Seeing how fourthcentury questions initially concern the Word's generation from the Father also helps us to consider whether and how we may speak of continuity in fourthcentury accounts of God. I argue that one link between many participants supposedly on different sides was an insistence that one must speak of the Son's incomprehensible generation from the Father as a sharing of the (p. 5 ) Father's very being. Expressions of this position were initially varied, seemingly contradictory, and often highly metaphorical. For some the position entailed recognizing the coeternity of the Son, for many it did not. Nevertheless, because of this continuity, and over the course of the controversies, an account that was both more precise and which could draw together many who had thought themselves opposed gradually emerged. These narrative chapters are not intended to replace the standard large surveys by Richard Hanson and Manlio Simonetti. My intention is to offer a narrative framework for the controversies that in some measure advances on their texts, and which can form the basis for the consideration of pro Nicene theology that occupies Parts II and III of my text. This means that a number of figures who most certainly deserve treatment have not been accorded individual treatment in the interests of space: I have in mind Marius Victorinus, Eusebius of Emesa, Epiphanius of Salamis, and Didymus the Blind. Some, however, who do not usually receive sufficient consideration in the story of the fourth century have been considered, Ephrem the Syrian being a good example. The English reader also lacks an extended introduction to Basil of Caesarea's Trinitarian thought, and I have accordingly devoted considerable space to him. It is also important to note that my intention has not been to offer complete portraits of the figures I discuss, but to trace the story of the fourthcentury controversies. In some cases major texts by authors are not extensively considered where their influence is hard to trace. Thus the reader will look in vain for any extended treatment of Athanasius' On the Incarnation: but the same reader will also look in vain for any substantive evidence that this treatise had any effect on the later fourth century readers I discuss. The type of historical theology represented by this book has been somewhat displaced by scholarly styles that frequently locate doctrinal development as an epiphenomenon of political, cultural, and social contexts. Indeed, it is important to recognize that placing doctrinal history against such background has been one of the central achievements of scholarship on early Christianity in the last few decades. Nevertheless, unless one has an entirely materialist understanding of intellectual development, this should not be taken to mean that the sort of theological history offered here is
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no longer of importance. The practitioner of this style has, however, to bear in mind that his or her account is always open to supplementation from other styles of investigation in the field. Questions of causation will remain particularly contentious, implying as they do not merely decisions about causal factors in any given case but wider debates about intellectual development as such. I have indicated places (p. 6 ) where the development of doctrine during the fourth century seems to have been driven by political events in the empire: further study (and more space) would enable the indication of more points at which political and economic contexts had important influence. The argument of this book is thus intended to be porous to other styles of study. This is perhaps particularly the case with reference to material that would relate the theological shifts of the fourth century to shifts in the intellectual life of the empire during the period. I have been able to undertake little of such study here: such investigation will have to await future opportunity. Chapters 1115 turn to the shared contours of proNicene Trinitarianism. By proNicene I mean those theologies, appearing from the 360s to the 380s, consisting of a set of arguments about the nature of the Trinity and about the enterprise of Trinitarian theology, and forming the basis of Nicene Christian belief in the 380s. Intrinsic to these theologies were compatible (but not identical) accounts of how the Nicene creed should be understood. These accounts constituted a set of arguments for Nicaeahence proNicene. 3 All of these theologies build closely on and adapt themes found earlier in the century, but none is identical with any original Nicene theology apparent in the 320s or 330s. Further, proNicene theology was itself constituted by a collection of overlapping yet distinct theologies. ProNicene theologies share assumptions and practices that provided the context for the terminologies so frequently treated as the single legacy of proNicene theology. Throughout this part of the book I also argue that the East/West or Greek/Latin division which is often used as a primary dividing marker between varieties of fourth and fifthcentury Trinitarian theology is of far less significance than is usually thought. Chapters 14 and 15 look in detail at probably the two most contested and frequently discussed proNicene theologians: Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine. I postpone these treatments until this point in the hope that the previous summary chapters allow for fresh narrations of these figures. Chapter 16 is a theological conclusion in which I explore ways in which modern theological cultures have failed to engage proNicene theology. Even modern theologies wishing to uphold a Nicene faith have frequently
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failed to sustain the theological practices that shaped and made possible that faith. At the very end of Chapter 16 I consider briefly the nature of doctrinal development. I do not offer here a model that allows one to assert a continuity discernible or verifiable (p. 7 ) to any objective historical observer (as has been the function of many theories of doctrinal development in the past two centuries). Instead I set out some perspectives within which the narration of continuity is possible and necessary for Christian theologians even though that continuity eludes our full comprehensionand in which the process of historical investigation is ongoing and continually demanded of theologians and historians of theology. In many ways the argument of my last chapter is not that modern Trinitarianism has engaged with proNicene theology badly, but that it has barely engaged with it at all. As a result the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast. (p. 8 )

Notes:
(1) The focus of the book is the Trinitarian and Christological disputes, which means that a number of other controversies between Christians during this century are not covered. For example, I do not discuss the Donatist, Melitian, or Origenist controversies. I also do not discuss in any detail controversies between Christians and nonChristians. (2) Of course, here I speak mainly of theologians who consider detailed engagement with Nicaea to be a necessary part of good Trinitarian theology a set that should include all Catholic and Orthodox theologians, and those of many other communions. I hope that my arguments will also be of interest to theologians not so bound, in particular by showing how the complex theologies of proNicenes involve an attention to Scripture that should claim the attention of all who define their faith as scriptural. (3) I take up the question of terminology, with reference to scholarly debates about Nicene, neoNicene, and proNicene in Ch. 9 .

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