Chesterton on Christmas

And another one, from Chesterton's excellent The Everlasting Man:
"No other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventourously to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can sometimes take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good. It is not made of what the world would call strong materials; or rather it is made of materials whose strength is in that winged levity with which they brush and pass. It is all that is in us but a brief tenderness that there made eternal; all that means no more than a momentary softening that is in some strange fashion become strengthening and a repose; it is the broken speech and the lost word that are made positive and suspended unbroken; as the strange kings fade into a far country and the mountains resound no more with the feet of the shepherds; and only the night and the cavern lie in fold upon fold over something more human than humanity."
(Hat tip to CDK.)

Lewis on Demons

From the Postscript of The Screwtape Letters:
"A belief in angels, whether good or evil, does not mean a belief in either as they are represented in art and literature. Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings not because anyone holds that moral deterioration would be likely to turn feathers into membrane, but because most men like birds better than bats. They are given wings at all in order to suggest the swiftness of unimpeded intellectual energy. They are given human form because man is the only rational creature we know. Creatures higher in the natural order than ourselves, either incorporeal or animating bodies of a sort we cannot experience, must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all....

In the plastic arts these symbols have steadily degenerated. Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Raphael; finally the soft, slim, girlish and consolatory angels of nineteenth-century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a tea-table paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying 'Fear not.' The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say 'There, there.'

The literary symbols are more dangerous because they are not so easily recognised as symbolical. Those of Dante are the best. Before his angels we sink in awe. His devils, as Ruskin rightly remarked, in their rage, spite and obscenity, are far more like what the reality must be than anything in Milton. Milton’s devils, by their grandeur and high poetry, have done great harm, and his angels owe too much to Homer and Raphael. But the really pernicious image is Goethe’s Mephistopheles. It is Faust, not he, who really exhibits the ruthless, sleepless, unsmiling concentration upon self which is the mark of hell. The humorous, civilized, sensible, adaptable Mephistopheles has helped to strengthen the illusion that evil is liberating.

A little man may sometimes avoid some single error made by a great one, and I was determined that my own symbolism should at least not err in Goethe’s way. For humour involves a sense of proportion and a power of seeing yourself from the outside. Whatever else we attribute to beings who sinned through pride, we must not attribute this. Satan, said Chesterton, fell through force of gravity. We must picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives in the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. This, to begin with. For the rest, my own choice of symbols depended, I suppose, on temperament and on the age.

I like bats much better than bureaucrats. I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of 'Admin'. The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern."
(Hat tip to this blog.)

Fish Tank Post: What Is the True Meaning of Christmas?


Fish Tank Post: Thoughts on Omnipotence

Here it is. Interested in what people have to say.


Λόγος Christology in John, Justin, and Origen

...and yet another. (I took it out of formatting because it was being weird.)

Λόγος Christology in John, Justin, and Origen

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”[1] So famously begins John’s Gospel, in which Jesus is identified as the λόγος (“Word”) incarnate, “who became flesh and dwelt among us.”[2] In the first eighteen verses of the Gospel alone,[3] we learn (among other things) that Jesus has existed from the beginning; indeed, “[a]ll things were made through him.”[4]

With these simple words, John outlined a Christological doctrine that would reverberate through subsequent Christian thought. The idea of Jesus as λόγος was hugely influential in later Christian theology:

The Prologue was so shocking, so divergent from what had gone before, so different from what the rest of the New Testament was saying about Jesus and the Word that it had an immense affect [sic] on what followed, whether that affect [sic] meant convergence with or divergence from Johannine teaching.[5]

Virtually everywhere else in the New Testament (including the Johannine corpus), the λόγος is simply the message or teaching of Christ, not Christ himself; John’s introductory proclamation to the contrary, then, is a powerful attestation to Jesus’ divinity which functions as a “signpost pointing to the incarnation and to Jesus” until Jesus himself enters the narrative.[6] (Importantly, John is not concerned with prolonged metaphysical discussions of the nature of the λόγος, as later Christians would be; John’s use of the λόγος lexeme is not primarily philosophical, but literary – “a clever ruse to grab the reader’s attention.”[7])

Of course, none of this theological reflection exists in a vacuum; long before the time of John or Jesus (in the flesh, at least), Judaism had evolved understandings of “subordinate agencies and powers” – such as God’s Spirit, Word, Wisdom, and Law – which served as intermediaries between God in Heaven (Who, it was thought, could not simply abandon His throne to address human affairs) and man on Earth.[8] (Most famously, the Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria – considered a forerunner of Christian thought – developed a Platonic theology of Judaism in which the λόγος was variously described as the only-begotten Son of God, man of God, and image of God.[9]) Thus, John, in equating Jesus with the λόγος, draws upon earlier Jewish concepts of divine revelation that are seen both in the ubiquitous Old Testament formula “the Word of the Lord” (suggestive of God’s power) and in the Jewish perception of Wisdom as the Word of God.[10]

As the faith spread beyond Jewish Palestine to the entire Roman Empire, this nascent Johannine Christology (along with the rest of Christian theology) was subsequently Hellenized by later Christians, who increasingly drew on Greek philosophical sources for their conceptualization of the λόγος.[11] (Greek philosophers had used “λόγος” as a technical term since the time of Heraclitus.[12]) Platonists had deemed the “transcendence of God [to be] such that it became more and more difficult to suppose that He exercised any action whatsoever upon the Cosmos.”[13] In contrast, Stoicism had thought of God as being in direct contact with the material world, operating through a divine λόγος that manifested itself in various forms (and was thus more often referred to in the plural as λόγοι – more specifically, λόγοι σπερματικοί[14]).[15] An “elegant blend” emerged as Platonists borrowed the Stoics’ λόγος to serve as an intermediary (or, in practice, as whatever they needed) between their transcendent God and His creation.[16] (One crucial consequence of this appropriation was that the λόγος was always “subordinate, in the second rank” – and indeed, for the first few centuries of Christian history, the Son was thought to be secondary to the Father.[17]) This syncretistic (and multifaceted) doctrine of the λόγος acted as the backdrop for ensuing Christian theologies, even when those theologies strayed significantly from the original meaning of the λόγος (a common occurrence; as de Faye observes, “[The] Logos, adopted by the early Christians, is not exactly the Logos of the philosophers”[18]).

One early example of a Christian thinker influenced by such Hellenistic thought was Justin Martyr (who, ironically, was unfamiliar with the Gospel of John),[19] a pagan philosopher who converted to Christianity in A.D. 132 and became the foremost Christian apologist of his time.[20] For Justin, Jesus is the incarnation of a “rational power [proceeding] from [God], who is called by the Holy Spirit, now the Glory of the Lord, now the Son, again Wisdom, again an Angel, then God, and then Lord and Logos.”[21] Christ can bear all these names because he was begotten by the Father in the same way in which we beget words; such begetting does not diminish the Father any more than the act of speech diminishes us.[22] (In this sense, Jesus is both λόγος as spoken word and λόγος as rational principle; as Stead puts it, “The Logos is pictured in two-fold form, as the Father’s immanent Reason and as his outgoing, active and creative Word.”)[23],[24]

Why did Justin posit such a transitional divine entity? What metaphysical purpose does the λόγος serve? According to Minns and Parvis,

Justin believed that the very possibility of divine revelation required the existence of such a distinct, subordinated, or second-order divinity, for the possibility of God directly and immediately communicating himself to anyone else was ruled out by God’s own transcendence. […] This idea that God deals with the created order by means of a ‘second God’ had contemporary parallels in Jewish exegesis and in Greek philosophy.[25]
(Is Justin’s Christology implicitly ditheistic? It is difficult to say; Justin does, after all, go as far as calling Jesus “another God and Lord.”[26] In fairness to Justin, his λόγος is conceived more as a power than as a persona – following Tertullian – or as an ὑπόστασις – following Origen. Nevertheless, though his Christ is still “subject to the Maker of all things … [announcing] to men whatsoever the Maker of all things … wishes to announce to them,” the problem certainly remains.[27])

It was through the λόγος, then, that the world was created; it was through the λόγος that God spoke by His prophets; and it was through the λόγος σπερματικός (“spermatic word”) – the seed of the λόγος, reason, implanted in all people – that mankind could partially perceive the Truth.[28],[29] (Justin appropriates the concept of a “spermatic” λόγος from Philo and Stoic philosophy. [30]) This seed had afforded the Greek philosophers of antiquity (to whom Justin is heavily indebted) an imperfect view of God; it was only afterwards, however, through Jesus – “in whom the Logos dwells fully” – that a full understanding of God became possible.[31]

Evidently, Justin’s λόγος Christology was deeply rooted in the unfolding revelation of God to man – in Old Testament theophanies, in the Old Testament itself, and ultimately (and most fully) in Jesus himself. Yet, in using a lexeme married to a rich tradition in classical Greek philosophy (as well as in the pagan philosophy of his own time), Justin also clearly sought to establish a common ground with his opponents.[32] In fact, Justin goes so far as to call certain pre-Christian philosophers who have followed the (thitherto un-incarnate) λόγος “Christians”:

We have been taught that Christ is the first-born of God, and we have declared above that He is the Word [λόγος] of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably [μετὰ λόγου] are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them.[33]

Thus, the λόγος operates not only as a mediator between God and man but also as a mediator between Justin and his interlocutors.

Justin’s λόγος Christology constitutes an unmistakable progression from that found in the Gospel of John. Justin unequivocally follows John in identifying Jesus as the λόγος, but then proceeds (as it were) to flesh out this identification; the λόγος becomes connected to classical philosophy, God’s rationality and revelation, and the faculty by which mankind discerns truth.

Origen’s λόγος Christology (aptly named, for “[t]he doctrine of the Logos … constitutes the very essence of [Origen’s] Christology”[34]) is not wholly dissimilar from Justin’s. Just as Justin sought to defend Christianity against its detractors by means of a λόγος Christology, “the whole of [the] Christology of Origen is nothing else than a learned justification of the Christian belief of his time.”[35] Finally, for both Origen and Justin, “God the Father delegates to his Logos tasks which it would be inappropriate for him to perform in his own Person. […] The Logos might therefore be described as the permanent agent of God’s self-limitation and condescension.”[36]

Yet Origen is innovative in speaking of the λόγος as a distinct ὑπόστασις (“hypostasis”),[37] and he is also the first to develop a concept of eternal generation.[38] Arguing that it would be absurd to suppose that there could have been a time at which God existed but His Wisdom (i.e., Christ) did not, Origen concludes that “we must believe that Wisdom was generated before any beginning that can be either comprehended or expressed.”[39] (This vital distinction, Trigg notes, “provided the theoretical foundation of Nicene orthodoxy. It allows the Father to be the cause of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s procession, but in such a way that, in distinction from all other created beings, they share in the Father’s eternal and incorporeal existence.”[40] Arius, in contrast, believed that “the Son came into being in time and out of non-existence.”[41])

Furthermore, Origen integrates into his sophisticated theology the belief that Christ has a divine and a human nature:

The divine nature, God’s Logos, fully shares … in the Father’s eternity and incorporeality. … [T]he Logos also shares our full human nature. […] This union is so intimate that Scripture habitually applies the properties of either nature to the other, so that the man Jesus Christ is called the Son of God and the Son of God is said to have died.[42]

This full human nature includes not only a human body, but also a human soul (which, according to Origen, the divine λόγος assumes before assuming the body itself);[43] in Origen’s words, “[T]his altogether surpasses human admiration … how that mighty power of divine majesty, that very Word [λόγος] of the Father … can be believed to have existed within the limits of that man who appeared in Judea.”[44]

At this point, it may be the case that Origen diverges slightly from John and Justin Martyr. Origen does not believe, as John and Justin did, that the λόγος became Jesus; instead, Origen believes that the λόγος “cohabits with Jesus and remains himself. So independent is he [the λόγος] that … it is permissible for him to leave the man he has chosen, to absent himself, to return and again take up his associate.”[45] In his own words,

[I]f in that man [Jesus] as He appeared among men there was something divine, namely the only-begotten Son of God, the first-born of all creation … of this Being and His nature we must judge and reason in a way quite different from that in which we judge of the man who was seen in Jesus Christ.[46]

Origen does, of course, affirm that Jesus and the λόγος are “one personality.”[47]

Nothing in Origen or Justin, fortunately, indicates any radical departure from the λόγος of John’s Gospel. The same dominant themes of incarnation, creation, rationality, revelation, and subordination to the Father reappear in all three Christologies (though some of these themes are inevitably only implicit in John, given the brevity with which he discusses the λόγος). Differences exist, obviously, mainly indicative of general trends in the evolution of a Christianity that was increasingly Hellenized and systematized; the λόγος of Light and Life in John gave way to the rational power of Justin and finally to the ὑπόστασις of Origen. Ultimately, however, the best summation of the λόγος doctrine remains the opening words of the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.[48]

[1] John i. 1. (Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references come from the English Standard Version.)

[2] John i. 14.

[3] The only other potential New Testament reference to Jesus as the λόγος occurs in Revelation xix. 13. Peter M. Phillips, The Prologue of the Fourth Gospel (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 88.

[4] John i. 2-3.

[5] Phillips, 90.

[6] Ibid., 140.

[7] Ibid., 140-141.

[8] Christopher Stead. Philosophy in Christian Antiquity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 148-149.

[9] “logos.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[10] “Philo Judaeus.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[11] “logos.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[12] John Mark Reynolds. When Athens Met Jerusalem (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 39.

[13] Eugène de Faye, Origen and His Work (New York: Columbia University Press, 1929), 100.

[14] Stead, 47.

[15] De Faye, 100.

[16] Ibid., 101.

[17] Ibid., 102.

[18] Ibid., 103.

[19] Helmut Köster, “Rome and Religious Sectarianism in the Second Century (From the Death of Paul to Irenaeus).” Andover Hall 102, Cambridge, MA. 24 Sept. 2009. Lecture.

[20] “Saint Justin Martyr.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[21] Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphoni, LXI.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Denis Minns and Paul Parvis, Justin, Philosopher and Martyr (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 61.

[24] Stead, 156.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Justin Martyr, Dialogus cum Tryphoni, LVI.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Helmut Köster, “Christianity and Philosophy.” Andover Hall 102, Cambridge, MA. 8 Oct. 2009. Lecture.

[29] It should be noted that Minns and Parvis argue that Justin – unlike Philo before him and the majority of Christians after him – does not “explicitly assign a mediatorial role to the Logos in the creation of the world. […] His remarkable coyness about ascribing a directly mediatorial role to the Logos or Son in the work of creation, especially when set beside the fact that it is from God as creator that Justin habitually distinguishes the Logos or Son, suggests that he was chary of the idea – perhaps suspecting that it would provide comfort for Gnostic heretics who sought to disparage creation and to deny that it was the work of God.” Minns and Parvis, 62-65.

[30] Minns and Parvis, 65.

[31] Helmut Köster, “Christianity and Philosophy.”

[32] Minns and Parvis, 65.

[33] Justin Martyr, Prima Apologia, XLVI.

[34] De Faye, 99.

[35] Ibid., 113.

[36] Stead, 156.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Joseph W. Trigg, Origen (London: Routledge, 1998), 24.

[39] Origen, De principiis, I.II.2.

[40] Trigg, 24.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid., 25.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Origen, De principiis, II.VI.2.

[45] De Faye, 105.

[46] Origen, Contra Celsum, VII.XVI.

[47] De Faye, 105-106.

[48] John i. 1-5.

Trinity and Controversy in the Third and Fourth Century

Another (slightly rushed and unformatted) paper related to the purpose of the blog...

Trinity and Controversy in the Third and Fourth Centuries

Today, of course, the doctrine of the Trinity is relatively uncontroversial among most Christians (with some notable exceptions).[1] For the first few centuries of Christianity’s history, however, the true nature of the Triune God was hotly contested; in fact, “[i]t was not until the 4th century that the distinctness of the three and their unity were brought together in a single orthodox doctrine of one essence and three persons.”[2] Though Trinitarian formulæ did exist in the New Testament,[3] their exact theological and metaphysical implications were left unexplored. This lack of fixity in apostolic doctrine concerning the Trinity – “the Church entered [the Trinitarian] dispute possessing no established doctrinal consensus concerning the understanding of God as Triad”[4] – provided the impetus for subsequent controversy: “The occurrence of a major debate in the Church concerning an understanding of God as Trinity was inevitable. The issue was too central and basic and too open to conflicting and contradictory positions to be avoided.”[5] Put simply, the need to reconcile the putative divinity of Christ and of the Spirit with the clear Old Testament proclamation of the one God (seen especially in the Shema) was pressing.[6]

What, specifically, was at stake? The broad question involved the entire Trinitarian conception of the Godhead; however, discussion about the exact role and status of the Holy Spirit often appeared peripheral in comparison to the analogous disputations over the Son.[7] Indeed, Novatian, in his third-century treatise De trinitate,[8] summarized the contemporary disagreement in the following manner: “Some heretics have thought [Jesus] to be God the Father, others that he was only God without the flesh.”[9] The former heresy was modalism (also known, in its various forms, as Monarchianism and Sabellianism, or Patripassianism[10]), the latter subordinationism, which developed into Arianism.[11] Both began with the principle of monotheism and concluded either (in the case of modalism) that there was only one person in God or (in the case of subordinationism) that Christ was necessarily inferior to the Father.[12]

The central idea of Sabellian modalism is this:

[A]n only God, Father and Legislator in the Old Testament … became flesh and Son in the New and sanctified the Church as Holy Spirit after Pentecost. […] God was one originally and eternally but … became trinity in time: Father at creation, Son at the time of the Incarnation and Sanctifier at the time of Pentecost. Thus the Three Persons were conceived as modes or functions of one really single Person, just as the same human person could be successively priest, doctor, and magistrate.[13]

For Sabellius and other modalists, the Trinitarianism of what would become Nicene Orthodoxy was, in fact, implicitly tritheistic.[14]

The obvious alternative, which denied the equality of the Son with the Father, was subordinationism. Importantly, subordinationism, though essentially anathematized in the Council of Nicæa,[15] was not terribly dissimilar to earlier theological beliefs that were (in their time) thoroughly orthodox; in fact, Lonergan implies that the ante-Nicene Fathers were, in certain respects, subordinationists.[16] (He cautions, however, against an anachronistic evaluation of “the doctrine of the ante-Nicene authors according to the criteria of a later theology.”[17] We should understand the alleged subordinationism of the ante-Nicene Fathers not as heresy, but simply as an indication that they “were not well up in the theology of a later age.”[18]) Nonetheless, more explicit strands of subordinationism were always rejected as heterodox.

One such strand was adoptionism, according to which “Jesus was a mere man, in whom God dwelt in a special way.”[19] “The son of Mary … was not the Son of God by nature but only by adoption.”[20] Some, such as Cerinthus, extended this notion and argued that Jesus, “superior to other men only in prudence, justice, and wisdom,” was conceived naturally by Mary and Joseph; God sent His Spirit (called Christ) upon Jesus during his ministry, but the Spirit abandoned Jesus before his death.[21]

Others – the Docetists – suggested instead that “Jesus of Nazareth was not really a human being at all. Jesus only seemed to be human; in reality, he was divine. His humanity was a phantasm, an illusion.”[22] Such ideas could be traced backward at least to the time during which the three Johannine epistles were written.[23] Docetism never emerged as an organized movement within non-Gnostic Christianity but enjoyed popularity among Gnostics such as Valentinus and Basilides.[24]

The most important branch of subordinationism, of course, was due to Arius, a presbyter in the church of Alexandria who publicly criticized the doctrine of the co-eternality of the Son and Father maintained by Alexander, his bishop.[25],[26] Arius’ objection to Alexander was simple: Scripture clearly taught that Christ was begotten,[27] yet Alexander contended that he was eternal. For Arius, such a conjunction was impossible: “[Christ] was either unbegotten and eternal, as the Father was, or he was begotten and had therefore come to be.”[28] Arius opted for the latter option:

God was not always a Father, but [that] there was a time when God was not a Father. The Word of God [Jesus] was not always, but originated from things that were not … wherefore there was a time when He was not; for the Son is a creature and a work. Neither is He like in essence [κατ' 'ουσίαν] Neither is He like in essence to the Father … but He is one of the things made and created, and is called the Word and Wisdom by an abuse of terms, since He Himself originated by the proper Word of God, and by the Wisdom that is in God.[29]

Though Jesus was a “very perfect creature … he did not really know the incomprehensible Father, for the finite cannot know the infinite.”[30] The line between God and creation was absolute; rather than reconcile the immutable, transcendent God with the mutable, earthly Christ, Arius chose instead a dissociation of the former from the latter.[31],[32]

Arius’ criticisms of Alexander eventually led to his excommunication in 318 by the Synod of Alexandria; nevertheless, “he continued to spread his own doctrine, and even managed to find favour with other bishops.”[33] Marsh writes,

Arius … did not accept his degradation easily. He already had … considerable support … in Alexandria, but he now sought support also from farther afield and in more powerful quarters. He pleaded his cause to bishops in the Greek East outside of Egypt…. Arius could not but have been gratified by the support he received, especially from the two Eusebiuses [of Nicomedia and of Cæsarea]. Any hope Alexander had of confining the dispute within his own jurisdiction … had now vanished. He too was now obliged to circulate his Episcopal colleagues in the East in order to discredit Arius and vindicate his own position. But the affair had now effectively passed outside his control and had become a public controversy involving and dividing the whole Church of the East.[34]

The repercussions of this parochial squabble were thus far-reaching.

In response, the Emperor Constantine convened a church-wide council to come to a resolution.[35] In Luibhéid’s words, “The bishops who assembled in 325 at the Council of Nicaea dealt with several matters, but the main reason for their gathering lay in [the controversy between Arius and Alexander] which had broken out in Alexandria.”[36] The significance of this first ecumenical council is unmistakable. Such an opportunity to formulate a single, universal proclamation of faith – to address the emerging theological fissures before they ruptured completely – was unprecedented.

The Council, of course, rejected the Arian tenets of the Son’s creaturehood, non-eternality, and mutability.[37] But its enterprise was not entirely negative; in what would become a pivotal moment in the Church’s history, the Council affirmed the ὁμοούσια (consubstantiality) of the Son and the Father, “[proclaiming] inseparably the dogma of the perfect divine unity and of the divinity of the Word, equal to the Father.”[38] Such terminology was not without its drawbacks – it ran the risk of a modalist interpretation – nor was it, strictly speaking, biblical.[39] Nonetheless, it determined the course of all further theologizing concerning the Trinity.

The bishops assembled at Nicæa subscribed to the proposed Creed with near unanimity. (Several bishops – among them Eusebius of Cæsarea, the famed church historian – chose not to endorse it out of concern over the exact meaning of ὁμοούσια.[40] Furthermore, Eusebius of Nicomedia and Theognis of Nicæa, both of whom had signed the Creed, soon thereafter “let it be known that they were now dissatisfied with the conciliar document.”[41]) The controversy, however, was far from over. Arius had been exiled by imperial decree following the Council, but Constantine subsequently decided to accept Arius’ return to the Empire.[42] It was this decision of Constantine’s that effectively “brought into existence two opposed parties and initiated the real controversy” in the East.[43]

Athanasius, an Alexandrian deacon and vigorous opponent of Arianism who had succeeded Alexander as Bishop of Alexandria in 328, was commanded to receive Arius back as a priest in the Alexandrian church; his subsequent refusal led to banishment for him and for other prominent anti-Arians.[44] The tide had turned. Arianism was far from dead; in fact, the controversy would persist for another sixty years (long after Arius’ death) until the Council of Constantinople in 381.[45]

How did Arianism persist for so long? Any sufficient answer must address the political dimensions of the controversy. As de Margerie argues,

The gravity of the Arian crisis, in the course of which, some thirty years after Nicaea, about half of the bishops abandoned the orthodox doctrine, becomes more comprehensible when we perceive that the divine unicity … appeared to offer a better justification for the existence of the monarchical Roman Empire. The eternal monarchy of God was the supreme exemplar of the Empire, a projection of the eternal in time. Such a mentality … inclined [the official theologians of the Empire toward the side of Arianism.[46]

Regardless of the truth of this (somewhat Freudian) claim, the political divisions which followed Constantine’s death in 337 must have exacerbated the theological divisions in the Church.[47] The emperor’s three sons (Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius) all adopted competing Trinitarian views; afterward, the co-emperors and brothers Valens and Valentinian would also espouse conflicting stances (Valens, in fact, went as far as to persecute non-Arian Christians in the eastern empire).[48] Only after Valens’ death in 378 did the Emperor Theodosius I succeed in establishing Nicene Christianity in the East as Damasus had already done in the West.[49] (The entire sequence of events, of course, was much more complicated. At one point, four distinct theological positions – the Nicene, Arian, pro-Arian Conservative, and anti-Arian conservative – coexisted in the East.[50])

The Trinitarian controversy, then, was an iconic moment in Christian history. It was during this time that orthodox conceptualization of the Trinity was solidified, and ecclesiastical precedents for settling doctrinal disputes among the different bishops and churches were set; however, it was also the time during which the heavy hand of the Roman State began to meddle in internal Christian affairs. The events of the fourth century involving Arius and Nicæa would thus set the stage for the next thousand years of Western history.

[1] Examples include Christian Unitarians and Oneness Pentecostals.

[2] “Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[3] cf. Matthew xxviii. 19, 2 Corinthians xiii. 14.

[4] Thomas Marsh, The Triune God (Blackrock: The Columbia Press, 1994), 97. Adds Luibhéid: “What has to be remembered here is that at the start of the Arian controversy the establishment of a consensus on such great problems as the nature of the Trinity … was still in the future.” Colm Luibhéid, The Council of Nicaea (Galway: Galway University Press, 1982), 3.

[5] Ibid., 95.

[6] “Trinity.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[7] Marsh, 96.

[8] “Novatian.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[9] Novatian, De trinitate, XXIII.

[10] Bernard Lonergan, C.C., S.J., The Way to Nicea (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1976), 36.

[11] Bertrand de Margerie, S.J., The Christian Trinity in History (Still River: St. Bede’s Publications, 1982), 72. It should be noted that different scholars use these labels in inconsistent ways.

[12] De Margerie, 73.

[13] Ibid.

[14] For example, Hippolytus quotes the modalist Callistus as saying the following: “I will not profess belief in two Gods, Father and Son, but in one. For the Father, who subsisted in the Son Himself, after He had taken unto Himself our flesh, raised it to the nature of Deity, by bringing it unto union with Himself, and made it one; so that Father and Son must be styled one God, and that this Person being one, cannot be two.” Hippolytus, Refutatio Omnium Hæresium, IX.VII.

[15] Maurice Wiles, “Attitudes to Arius in the Arian Controversy.” Michael R. Barnes and Daniel H. Williams, Arianism After Arius (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), 32.

[16] Lonergan, 41.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Lonergan, 36.

[20] “Adoptionism.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[21] De Margerie, 87. While adoptionism per se may not explicitly contradict the New Testament, a denial of the virgin birth clearly goes against the Gospel narratives.

[22] Alister McGrath, Heresy (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), 111.

[23] Ibid., 111. cf. 1 John iv. 1-3: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (Unless otherwise noted, all scriptural references come from the English Standard Version.)

[24] Ibid., 113-116.

[25] Luibhéid, 25.

[26] Such criticism, Luibhéid observes, should be understood in its historical context rather than in the context of “a later age when the major doctrinal issues had long been settled and bishops … had come to be regarded as the custodians of a received and unalterable tradition.” In this light, Arius’ actions do not seem quite as mutinous. Luibhéid, 3.

[27] On this point, Arius was in agreement with his opponents; the Nicene Creed itself states that Jesus is “begotten of the Father.”

[28] Luibhéid, 25.

[29] Athanasius, de Arii depositione, II.

[30] De Margerie, 88.

[31] McGrath, 144.

[32] Recent scholarship has proposed a slightly different interpretation of Arius’ theology, beginning not with a particular view of God’s transcendence but with “a particular view of redemption and the Redeemer-figure which this view entails. Arius saw redemption, according to this view, in moral terms, as a breaking out of the cycle of moral weakness and evil which envelops the human scene to union with God. […] The Redeemer was the one who achieved this union with God…. […] But since the Redeemer achieved this union with God, he could not have been one with God from the very beginning or in his essential being.” Marsh, 103.

[33] Lonergan, 69.

[34] Marsh, 99.

[35] “Council of Nicaea.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[36] Luibhéid, 1.

[37] De Margerie, 91.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid., 90-91.

[40] Lonergan, 73. Theodoret preserves a letter from Eusebius to Paulinus in which Eusebius writes, “[W]e affirm that the unbegotten is one and one also that which exists in truth by Him, yet was not made out of His substance, and does not at all participate in the nature or substance of the unbegotten, entirely distinct in nature and in power, and made after perfect likeness both of character and power to the maker. We believe that the mode of His beginning not only cannot be expressed by words but even in thought, and is incomprehensible not only to man, but also to all beings superior to man.” Theodoret, Historia ecclesiastica, I.V.

[41] Luibhéid, 126.

[42] Marsh, 101.

[43] Ibid., 101-102. Of the party opposed to the Nicene Creed, not all were necessarily Arians: “This latter body was … a heterogeneous group which included strict Arians, pro-Arians like Eusebius of Nicomedia and a large middle group which … were very uncomfortable with the statement of Nicaea.”

[44] Ibid., 102.

[45] Ibid., 117-118.

[46] De Margerie, 89.

[47] Marsh, 111.

[48] Ibid., 116.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid., 113.

Lonergan on Gnosticism

From The Way to Nicea, by Father Bernard Lonergan, C.C., S.J.:
"From the time of Harnack it has frequently been said that the Gnostics were the first Christian theologians, since it was they who first used the psychological analogy, and the notions of consubstantiality and of procession. What is one to make of such an assertion? In the first place, we must note that there is a great difference between the dramatico-practical pattern of experience, common to all men, and the intellectual, or theoretic, or scientific pattern of experience.... Further, the drive towards theory has first to develop and become manifest, before one can learn how to guide and control it by logic, by scientific method, and so on. So the cult of numbers preceded the science of mathematics, astrology preceded astronomy, alchemy preceded chemistry, legend preceded history and theogony precede theology. Viewed from this point of view, what happened when heretics borrowed some elements of the Christian faith should cause no great surprise, but one does not have to call the resulting speculation Christian theology."
It's an interesting thought; I'm not sure, however, how far it can be taken.


A Technical Note

I've started posting to the blog from a different profile that looks exactly like the old profile. There shouldn't be any real difference, however.

Communion: December 13, 2009

It was my honor today to provide the Communion message at church. Per the request of a friend, here is the written-down version of what I said:
"Hi. My name is Joseph Porter, and I am a sophomore at Harvard College. I’d like to share briefly about some of what the cross means to me.

How many of you guys are stressed out about finals right now? I know I am; I have three in the next week. It’s tough, isn’t it? When I’m studying for a final and I’m lonely and it’s three in the morning, it’s hard to
feel like God loves me. I’m literally too tired to feel loved by God.

Of course, finals aren’t the only thing that can make it hard for us to feel loved by God. There are times when we can be too hurt to feel loved by God, too depressed to feel loved by God, too
outraged to feel loved by God. There are times when we can want nothing more than to cry, to forget, to escape, to scream, Why? Why did my girlfriend break up with me? Why did I lose my job? Why did my husband die in Iraq? Why does my kid have cancer?

I think about some of the things I have seen happen to people around me. I remember when I was seven years old and I found out that I was leaving the United States and all of my friends and
everything I knew for a different country. I remember crying and asking my mom if I could hang out with my best friend one last time. I remember crying when I visited an orphanage for children with cerebral palsy. Their bodies were stunted and they were crying for their mothers, and I just couldn’t bear it. Why? Why should I trust You, God? How can this suffering all be worth it?

God could have just given us a point-by-point answer to these questions. He could have simply said, 'Trust me, it’s for the best. My ways are higher than your ways; it’ll all work out.' But He did something much, much better instead: He gave us His Son.

Why should we trust God that it will all be worth it? My answer is
the cross. The cross, to me, says this: 'I love you, and I know that you are suffering. So am I. I know that you are wounded. So am I. I know that you are broken-hearted. So am I. How do you know that I love you? This is how you know: Jesus Christ laid down his life for you.'

What’s crazy isn't that an all-powerful God would let mankind suffer. What’s crazy is that an all-powerful God would let Himself suffer. That is why the cross is the ultimate proof of God’s love; as John 3:16 famously says, 'For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son.'

As many of you know, Jon and Rachel were engaged yesterday, and Jay and Alex were engaged just a couple weeks ago. Because of all the recent engagements, I’ve been thinking about what it means for the Church to be the Bride of Christ.

Let’s fast forward to Jay and Alex’ wedding. (I’m going to pick on Jay since he’s my cousin.) It’s a beautiful day outside, Jay’s in a nice tux; Alex is wearing a beautiful white dress. Alex walks up to the altar and Jay begins his vow: 'I, James, take you, Alexandra, to be my lawfully wedded wife: to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, but not for worse; for richer, but not for poorer; not in sickness, only in health.' That’d be a pretty pathetic vow. (Hopefully Jay realizes this.)

We all know that that’s not how marriage
works. The beauty in a marriage vow doesn’t come from the commitment to someone for better; the beauty comes from the commitment to someone for worse, for poorer, in sickness. The beauty comes from the commitment of the lover to suffer for the beloved. And Jesus is the most reckless lover in history. Romeo doesn't have anything on Jesus. Because Jesus committed to his Bride when doing so meant dying on a cross for his Bride.

There will be times when life will seem hopeless and unfair, when the pain will feel unbearable, when we may want to hate God or to plead with Him: 'My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?' When those times come, remember that
Jesus was there, too. Jesus felt the same way. And he endured all that pain and all that God-forsakenness simply because he loved us.

On August 23, 2006, I was baptized into Christ in Davie, Florida. I became Christ’s bride, and this was the vow made to me:

'Your present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in you. I am for you; who can be against you? Who shall separate you from my love? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? No, in all these things you are more than a conqueror. For neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate you from my love.'

As we prepare for Communion, let us remember that vow and that love."


Fish Tank Post: How to Read the Bible


Fish Tank Post: Beyond the Sunday School God

Here it is.

Just a few of my thoughts on the "tone" of modern Christianity. They are, for now, incomplete thoughts.