Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (played so well by Ralph Fiennes in the movie Quiz Show) argue in their very useful How to Read a Book that we ought to read above our present level of familiarity and understanding. We can say that we ought to challenge ourselves mentally. In my personal goal to shed excess weight I have taken up walking and working out at the gym. In both cases I need to push myself beyond my comfort level but I need to do it wisely and constructively. I need to take baby steps. After all, it has been 34 years since I did serious weight lifting. So slow and easy wins the race. I need to exert myself without injuring myself.
Let me give you an example of what I am talking about before we begin our study of pro-Nicene theology. Thirty years ago I purchased Carl F. H. Henry’s six-volume magnum opus God, Revelation, and Authority as originally published by Word. This challenging work on Christian epistemology is a classic in evangelical literature even though so-called post-conservative evangelicals have panned its emphasis on propositional revelation (Carl Trueman positively reviewed the Crossway republication of this set in Themelios I believe and Gregory Thornbury of the King’s College in NYC has written and is writing about Henry’s contribution to theology). I bought it in its original hardback format with each volume’s dust jacket being a different color (red, green, plum, brown, etc). I was certainly out of my depth as I read this set. I worked hard not to get too bogged down in minute details but to just read through to the end and go back when I had completed a volume unless I found myself completely flummoxed. In the end, I persevered but I did write to Dr. Henry and one of my many prized possessions is a hand-written note from him that I received back in 1986. He was kind and answered my queries with patience.
Now to the business at hand. I want us to read wisely and constructively through Lewis Ayres’s Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology. Ayres is a lay Catholic theologian who is professor of Catholic and historical theology at Durham University in the UK. Published in 2004 by Oxford University Press, this volume contains 16 chapters in three sections. Section one, “towards a controversy,” section two, “the emergence of pro-Nicene theology,” and section three, “understanding pro-Nicene theology.”
I think for us to be intelligent constructive, confessional Reformed Christians, we need to wrestle with the catholic heritage of the Reformed church that stands behind the Westminster Standards (and other Reformed symbols). We cannot offer constructive formulations of hallowed doctrines if we do not know the heritage well and reading Ayres will assist us as we seek to understand how the church wrestled with Scripture (with the doctrinal standard being at the time the “analogy of faith” that provided a concise summary of the Christian faith) as it came to grips with the implications and ramifications of the full divinity of the Son and the Spirit along with the Father. We will learn about the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus who always thought of the three when he thought of the one and the one when he thought of the three…) and about Augustine of Hippo. We will learn about the Arian controversy (there once was a time when the Son was not…) and how that nearly destroyed the church.
One thing I want to touch upon now is the fact that Ayres destroys the commonly accepted division between the eastern and western church in terms of its doctrinal development. The east is assumed, for instance to underplay the doctrine of divine simplicity. This is believed to be so because the east is considered the source of the so-called social model of Trinitarian theology. On the other hand, the west, dependent as it is upon Augustine’s psychological model of the Trinity, builds its Trinitarian theology upon a finely articulated doctrine of divine simplicity which some seem to think vitiates a true Trinitarianism. The social model, crassly formulated, treats the three persons of the Trinity as a committee of three who manifest harmony but not ontological unity. The psychological model tends toward Sabellianism/modalism because it treats the three persons of the Godhead as mind, intellect, and will and stresses the divine unity (or another of Augustine’s multiple analogies in his De Trinitate) and so the three are understood only as functions and not as real persons. Ayres points out that this is neither historically nor theologically true on either side of the aisle. The truth is both more complex and less divided.
Next week we will begin delving into section one, “towards a controversy,” with the first chapter, “points of departure.” I look forward to seeing you then.