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Criterion 4: The Traditional Well-Worn Path

Lewis Ayres begins his consideration of the four points of departure in his Nicaea and Its Legacy by looking at the circumstances which obtained in the church from the time of Arius until the Council of Nicaea in 325 (15-20). To recap, Ayres will proceed through a consideration of the standard treatment of the fourth century Trinitarian controversy (repeat after me, “conTROversy” not “controVERsy”) which ties the whole brouhaha to the fully-formed theology of the Alexandrian presbyter Arius and his followers. This will be followed by a look at the theology of the church father Origen, an examination of the exegesis developing between the time of Origen and late fourth century, and finally Ayres will develop themes from the first three points of departure demonstrating the “variety of theological trajectories existing in tension at the beginning of the fourth century” (15).

Traditionally, it has been understood that Arius took umbrage with the teaching of his bishop, Alexander. Alexander taught that the Father and the Son always existed from eternity, suggesting the eternal generation of the Son. Arius is said to have objected to this teaching since it implied two foundational principles of the universe rather than one. Arius is said to hold that the Son was inferior to the Father, being as Ayres notes, a created “derivative copy of some of the Father’s attributes” (16). Whatever we ultimately make of the historical accuracy of this all-too-brief description, it remains true that as explicated here, Alexander is sound and Arius is defective. Whether this summary is adequate will become clear as we move along. Typically, in summaries of church history this is the picture we get. Ayres is trying to overturn this facile reading with a thicker contextually sensitive, historically accurate, and theologically nuanced consideration of matters.

This begs the question of how much distortion occurs when we seek to simplify inherently complex matters? Is it possible to bring clarity without distortion? All thinking involves a certain level of selectivity and abstraction. If it didn’t we would be faced with a blooming, buzzing chaos or with bare chronologies which are about as exciting as reams and reams of statistics (with all due respect to all you statisticians out there). In philosophical terms I am talking about the one and many problem. We work hard to wrestle the facts of history into a coherent plan. The voluminous events, persons, and circumstances are the many and our attempted explanation is the one. This is not in itself problematic as this is how God has made us to think. There is a unified plan according to God and his Word. The question is whether we treat the facts of history as bits of silly putty malleable to our template (read procrustean bed) or, to use another metaphor, do we try to shoehorn historical data? Our explanation should arise from the facts of history. Of course this is talking in general terms and I have not considered the sovereignty of God over the whole process and his speaking into our world and into our historiographical method. Huh? God who created the world in which we live and who has created us in his image and who has sent his Son into the world to save us and sent his Spirit to apply the Son’s redemption to us and spoken into this world has something to say about history and truth-telling, etc. Christian historiography at the very least ought to be concerned to uphold the ninth commandment. It is possible to break the ninth commandment with how we do history. We ought to aim for truth.

All of this is to remind us that we should allow the evidence left from the past to speak on its own terms within the context of a biblical and Reformed world and life view (ooh, did I use that nasty Kantian word “worldview”?). Our commitment to orthodoxy does not per se determine what in fact various historical individuals said or did. That is a matter of historical investigation and making sense of what is left to us to conclude from the evidence. Our Reformed Christian theological commitment (er, …worldview) provides biblical parameters (for instance, there is such a thing as the supernatural) but it is possible that things get mixed up or misunderstood or simplified or distorted over time.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch Ayres points out that there were other issues that may have been at play beyond the purely Trinitarian. Among these was the rise of monarchical episcopacy. That is, the church in Alexandria was moving from the bishop as primus inter pares among a college of presbyters to being sole absolute authority within a diocese (15). The conflict between Arius and Alexander may betray elements of this movement. We need not fear the reality of politics within the church as if this is something new. Politics played its role in the OT church as well and this fact does not undermine the sovereignty of God, nor does it necessarily sully theological formulations. It can, but does not necessarily do so. Politics has been defined as the organization of our common life. That is, any group of people will have to organize themselves around certain agreed-upon principles. So all groups involve politics in this general sense. The question is, is the politics seen in the history of the church godly or corrupt?

Ayres highlights the complexity of the situation in the early church.

Alexander and the Alexandrian clergy condemned Arius after he refused to sign a confession of faith presented by Alexander. Over the next few years Arius gained support from some bishops in Palestine, Syria, and North Africa, especially Eusebius of Caesarea in Palestine and Eusebius of Nicomedia, near Constantinople. Many of his supporters appear to have greatly valued the teaching of Lucian of Antioch, a priest and teacher in Antioch martyred in 312 and some were Lucian’s students. Although these supporters may have been wary of some aspects of Arius’ theology—especially his insistence on the unknowability of the Father—they joined in opposition to Alexander. For all of them Alexander’s theology seemed to compromise the unity of God and the unique status of the Father. Two small councils, one in Bithynia, the other in Palestine, vindicated Arius, and Alexander may have refused a conciliatory approach from Arius as involving insufficient concession. For some of this period Arius seems to have left (or been expelled from) Alexandria and travelled to seek support; eventually he returned and openly opposed Alexander (17).

There is such a thing as oversimplification and over-complication. These are two extremes to avoid. As we work through theological controversies we need to learn to live with complexity whether we personally like it or not. We might like things to be neat and tidy and wrapped with pretty paper and tied up with a nice bow. But that is rarely how God works. Maturity involves learning to live with our heroes, warts and all, as the Bible does. The Bible presents the saints in all their colorful glory. Only Jesus was sinless.

Emperor Constantine even got in on the action, writing to Alexander and Arius, telling them to cease and desist doctrinal bickering (18). After a series of meetings and communications, a council met at Nicaea in 325 which produced a statement

asserting that the Son is generated from the Father himself in an ineffable manner and that the transcendence and ineffability of this generation forbid us from speaking of the Son as in any way like the creation. The text distinguishes the language of the Son’s ‘generation’ from language used about the ‘creation’ of the cosmos (18).

The so-called Nicene Creed that was produced stated the following

We believe in one God, Father Almighty Maker of all things, seen and unseen; and in one Lord Jesus Christ the Son of God, begotten as only begotten of the Father, that is of the being of the Father (ἐκ τῆς οὐσίας τοῦ Πατρός), God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, consubstantial (ὁμοούσιον) with the Father, through whom all things came into existence, both things in heaven and things on earth; who for us men and for our salvation came down and was incarnate and became man, suffered and rose again the third day, ascended into the heavens, and is coming to judge the living and the dead…But those who say ‘there was a time when he did not exist’, and ‘before being begotten he did not exist’, and that he came into being from non-existence, or who allege that the Son of God is from another hypostasis or ousia (ἐξ ἑτέρας ὑποστάσεως ἢ οὐσίας), or is alterable or changeable, these the Catholic and Apostolic Church condemns (19).

As Ayres points out, this formulation, later modified at Constantinople, did not end the theological controversy swirling around Arius. Arius was a problem, but his teaching did not arise de novo. Arius claimed that Alexander had distorted the theology taught in the catechesis of the Alexandrian church (20). There may be more than a scintilla of truth about this.

Those who assume that this narrative of Arius and his conflict with Alexander is the most important point of departure for the fourth-century controversies interpret the events after Nicaea by narrating the emergence of an Arian conspiracy to keep alive his theology, to oppose Athanasius, and to contend against Nicaea and its theology. In fact, little evidence for any Arian conspiracy can be found. In these confusing events around and after Nicaea, we see the need to consider not simply Arius and his fortunes but the wider context within which that particular controversy occurred. If we are to make useful judgements about Nicaea’s creed and about how the Christian community viewed the conflict over Arius, we need to understand the theological options available in the 300–25 period. For example, the initial opponents of Arius present him as distorting the Church’s traditional faith; Arius argues, however, that Alexander’s theology changes and distorts the traditional catechetical teaching in Alexandria. We can only assess these claims by understanding the wider context within which those claims were made. Indeed, through exploring this context we will find pre-existing deep theological tensions at the beginning of the fourth century. Controversy over Arius was the spark that ignited a fire waiting to happen, and the origins of the dispute do not lie simply in the beliefs of one thinker, but in existing tensions that formed his background (20, emphasis mine).

As far as I can tell, the orthodoxy of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is not being called into question. It just turns out that the path to its formulation was more convoluted than we have traditionally thought. That’s OK. God is sovereign over the meandering historical process. One does not have to choose between a cardboard version of events on the one hand and the Dan Brown Da Vinci Code-like conniving on the other. What Ayres is attempting to get at is a more adequate and hopefully more accurate description of the path the church took to get at the truth of orthodox Trinitarian theology. I am not saying that Ayres would agree with my assessment here. He is a Roman Catholic lay theologian and church historian and has to come to grips with how this topsy-turvy pathway squares with his church’s view of the relationship of Scripture and tradition and how tradition unfolds in history (we touched on this in an earlier post and will come back to this later on).

God does not need us sprucing up the messiness of church history. If church history is convoluted and complex, so be it. Redemptive history as revealed in Scripture was not exactly a straight-line development from Genesis to Revelation. If biblical history was filled with twists and turns and our heroes were not typically flawless, why do we think our heroes of church history would be? Does not that expectation fail to square with the grace of the gospel and our own experience of the faith? Another way of putting this is to say that the church is being sanctified in the process of theological development as are the individual heroes of the faith. Richard Muller has argued (in his co-authored book with James Bradley on church history methodology) that our theology does not determine whether someone somewhere at some time in the past said such and such. Our theology can provide, as I have already intimated in this post, parameters or guiderails for historical research, but it cannot determine in advance or a priori the historical particulars as such. That requires historical investigation.

History is in God’s hands and we can be sure he is guiding his church through the travails of wrestling with Scripture and the ups and downs of theological development. Scripture is infallible and inerrant. Theological development is not necessarily either. To use the language of the Reformed Scholastics, our theology is ectypal, not archetypal. Our theology is also in via. We are pilgrims on the way to the eternal city. By God’s grace we will arrive at the new heavens and new earth to dwell eternally with the Triune God and the saints and angels. Between our Lord’s ascension and our eternal felicity there have been and will no doubt continue to be a few bumps in the theological road.


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