RPC Hanson – A lecture on the Arian Controversy

A lecture delivered at the Colloquium in commemoration of the’ Nicene Creed at New College, University of Edinburgh, 2nd May 1981.

Dr. Hart, lecturer in Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen, wrote that nothing exists in the English language, treating the so-called “Arian Controversy” which dominated the fourth-century theological agenda, that is comparable to RPC Hanson’s book – The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God – in either scale or erudition (See Hart).

This article is a lecture by RPC Hanson which I found at Doctrine of Trinity. I post it here in order to preserve it for public use. I corrected spelling errors, added headings, bolded main thoughts and divided the text into more readable paragraphs, but I did not alter the text in any way. Let us listen to Hanson:

Purpose of this paper

WHEN we read the Creed of Constantinople of the year 381, which is generally called the Nicene Creed, we gain the unmistakable impression that we have travelled a long way from the opening verses of St. Mark’s Gospel. This paper will consist of an attempt to answer the question, Was this journey really necessary?

A number of negatives have been given to this question:

It has been asserted that the doctrine of this creed was reached because the spirit of useless intellectual curiosity and of metaphysical speculation had gripped the theologians of the Church, so that the creed became only a stage towards ‘the bankruptcy of Patristic theology’ which was to be reached by the middle of the next century.

It has been suggested, perhaps as a variant of the same argument, that this creed represents the capture of the original Judaeo-Christian message or gospel of primitive Christianity by a process of Hellenisation, a gradual approximation to late Greek, mainly Platonic, philosophy.

The theory has even been put forward with a wholly misplaced confidence that the doctrine of the Trinity was produced in order to guarantee a celestial order and security corresponding to and supporting the order and security represented by the Christian Emperor himself.

These are all explanations of the doctrinal journey which in one way or another see it as a superfluity or a deviation.

The Conventional Account

This doctrine and the creed which represents the official and dogmatic justification for the doctrine were achieved, as is well known, as the result of a controversy known conventionally but not quite accurately as the Arian Controversy. The version of events connected with this controversy, which lasted from 318 to 381, to be found till very recently in virtually all the text-books runs something like this:

In the year 318 a presbyter called Arius was rebuked by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria for teaching erroneous doctrine concerning the divinity of Christ, to the effect that Christ was a created and inferior god.

When the controversy spread because Arius was supported by wicked and designing bishops such as Eusebius of Nicomedia and his namesake of Caesarea, the Emperor Constantine called a general Council at Nicaea which drew up a creed intended to suppress Arianism and finish the controversy.

But owing to the crafty political and ecclesiastical engineering of the Arians, this pious design was frustrated.

Supporters of the orthodox point of view such as Athanasius of Alexandria, Eustathius of Antioch and later Paul of Constantinople, were deposed from their sees on trumped-up charges and sent into exile. Orthodoxy was everywhere attacked and, as later in the controversy succeeding Emperors joined the heretical side, almost completely eclipsed.

But Athanasius resolutely and courageously sustained the battle for orthodoxy, almost alone, until in the later stages of the controversy he was joined by other standard-bearers of orthodoxy such as Hilary of Poitiers, Pope Damasus, and the three Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Ultimately by the aid of the Emperor Theodosius right prevailed, the forces of error and wickedness represented by the Arians were defeated and crushed, and the formulation at Constantinople in 381 of the revised Nicene Creed crowned the triumph of the true faith.

A Complete Travesty

This conventional account of the Controversy, which stems originally from the version given of it by the victorious party, is now recognised by a large number of scholars to be a complete travesty. To see this it is only necessary to read that weighty and magisterial recent work upon the subject, Ia Crisi Ariana del Qarto Secolo by M. Siinonetti, a Roman Catholic scholar whose integrity is as unexceptionable as his orthodoxy.

The Beginning of the Controversy

At the beginning of the controversy nobody knew the right answer. There was no ‘orthodoxy’ on the subject of ‘how divine is Jesus Christ?’, certainly not in the form which was later to be enshrined in the Creed of Constantinople.

It is a priori implausible to suggest that a controversy raged for no less than sixty years in the Church, so that every single one of the original contestants was dead by the time the controversy was settled, over a doctrine whose orthodox form was perfectly well known to everybody concerned and had been well known for centuries past.

Arius’ particular doctrines, as far as we can reconstruct them, seem to have been almost uniquely calculated to arouse both agreement and dissension without giving any serious prospect of providing ground for a solution of the dispute. That is his main claim to fame.

The Creed of 325

The Creed of Nicaea of 325, produced in order to end the controversy, signally failed to do so. Indeed, it ultimately confounded the confusion because its use of the words ousia and hypostasis was so ambiguous as to suggest that the Fathers of Nicaea had fallen into Sibellianism, a view recognized as a heresy even at that period.

Two Points of View

What is conventionally regarded as the key-word in the Creed homoousion, falls completely out of the controversy very shortly after the Council of Nicaea and is not heard of for over twenty years.

To regard the bishops and theologians taking part in the controversy as falling simply into two groups, ‘orthodox’ and’ Arian’, immediately after the Council of Nicaea of 325, and to interpret the course of that Controversy as a straightforward struggle between these two points view, with sub-groups forming themselves from time to time within the two clearly-defined camps, is a grave misunderstanding and a serious misrepresentation of the true state of affairs.

Mistakes and Serious Faults

The dispute was indeed aggravated and clouded by a number of extraneous factors and a number of dangerous mistakes and serious faults committed by those who were parties to it. But these mistakes and faults were not confined to the upholders of any one particular doctrine, and cannot all be grouped under the heading of a wicked Arian conspiracy.

The most serious initial fault was the misbehavior of Athanasius in his see of Alexandria. Evidence which has turned up in the sands of Egypt in the form of letters written on papyrus has now made it impossible to doubt that Athanasius displayed a violence and unscrupulousness towards his opponents in Egypt which justly earned the disgust and dislike of the majority of Eastern bishops for at least the first twenty years of his long episcopate.

It is of course true that Eusebius of Nicomedia, who had supported Arius, displayed ambition and craft in forwarding the interests of his own party and in his relations with Western bishops, but the depositions of his opponents cannot all be attributed to an Arian plot.

It seems highly likely that Eustathius of Antioch was guilty of some misconduct, because it is only long after his deposition, and perhaps after his death, that he begins to rank as a martyr in the cause of orthodoxy. The Westerners at Sardica in 343 significantly fail to mention him in their roll-call of the innocent injured.

Paul of Byzantium/Constantinople appears to have become embroiled in a domestic quarrel unconnected with the Arian Controversy and, like Eustathius, to have been the subject of pro-Nicene hagiography only at a comparatively late date.

Julius of Rome I was in Eastern eyes irresponsible to the point of mischievousness in championing the deposed Eastern bishops, Athanasius, Marcellus and Asclepas, in assuming that they must have been the victims of injustice and in branding as’ Arian all those who disagreed with them; and we can sympathize with the Easterners’ resentment here.

The views of Marcellus of Ancyra were eccentric by any standards of orthodoxy recognized in the fourth century. Marcellus in some respects displayed a discernment in interpreting Scripture which others lacked, but he cannot be acquitted of Sabellianism. The fact that he could sign the baptismal creed of Rome was no proof at all of his orthodoxy, because it constituted no sort of test of Trinitarian doctrine.

That Julius and later the Westerners at Sardica should have declared him orthodox was bound to appear to the Eastern theologians to be a condoning of Sabellianism, a doctrine which the anathema of Nicaea against those who maintain that the Son is of a different hypostasis or ousia from those of the Father and the emphatic identification of the ousia and hypostasis of the Father and the Son in the Western statement after the Council of Sardica only seemed to support.

Confused Terminology

The repeated confusion caused by the use of the same terms by different writers in different senses, right up to the very end, well after the Council of Alexandria of 362 which on the conventional view is supposed to have cleared up the confusion, added its own exasperation to the whole dispute.

Up to the year 357 the East could label the West as Sabellian and the West could label the East as Arian with equal lack of discrimination and accuracy. In the year 357, Arianism as a relatively clearly thought out doctrinal position emerged for the first time, and for the first time those Eastern theologians who were not Arian were in a position to distinguish their own views and confess them. This is the point at which the solution to the controversy begins very faintly to dawn, though its full realisation was delayed for twenty-four years.

End of the Controversy

The end was at last gained when an Emperor had secured a genuine consensus for one point of view and was able to enforce it.

Throughout the controversy everybody with rare and occasional exceptions assumed that the final authority in bringing about a decision in matters doctrinal was not a council nor the Pope, but the Emperor. Several Emperors had attempted to fulfil this role, Constantine, Constans, Constantius, and Valens when in intervals of fussing ineffectively about administrative affairs he began fussing about ecclesiastical matters. All had failed because though the measures which they took might for a time appear to have been successful they in fact were not supported by a consensus in the Church at large.

Theodosius succeeded because, at the time he came to Imperial power the point of view which he supported was backed by a consensus in the Church. In the past Imperial coercion had been freely applied but had failed. Now it succeeded, not because it was coercion but because it was coercion backed by general assent.

Cappadocian Fathers

But even here we must dissent from the conventional account of the end of the Arian Controversy.

The solution did not emanate directly either from Rome or from Alexandria.

On the contrary: the opening of the year 375 saw the ironical situation in which the Pope, Damasus, and the archbishop of Alexandria, Peter, were supporting Paulinus of Antioch, a Sabellian heretic, and Vitalis, an Apollinarian heretic, against Basil of Caesarea, the champion of Nicene orthodoxy in the East, later to be acknowledged universally as a great Doctor of the Church, who never during a single minute of his existence was formally in communion with the see of Rome!

The direct source of the solution of the Arian Controversy, and the great articulators of the doctrine of the Trinity, were the three Cappadocian fathers whose origins were undoubtedly from that Homoeousian party whom Epiphanius, that unsubtle but useful preserver of the views of others, had the impudence to call ‘Semi-Arians’.

II The Need to Formulate Doctrine

Doctrine of God in the Bible

But we must delve deeper than this if we are to understand the reasons for the formation of the doctrine of the Trinity. We must ask, not what was the immediate occasion of its development, but what was the original urge or need or dynamic which made it seem necessary to those who formed it?

The answer lies in the necessity for finding a specifically Christian doctrine of God. The Bible does not give us a specifically Christian doctrine of God, though it gives us the raw material for this. When the NT was canonized, in effect by the middle of the third century, even those parts of it which were devoted to a consideration of the person rather than of the function of Christ, such as the first chapters of the Gospel according to St. John and the Epistle to the Colossians and the Epistle to the Hebrews, did not supply anything more than some hints towards the formation of a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Jewish dominated church

Before the writing of the NT, the church professed to all appearances the monotheism of late Judaism with the story of an eschatological Messiah as an addendum. To say that Christians believed in one sole God and in addition that Jesus Christ was a very important person was not to state a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

I may perhaps illustrate the point by relating an experience which I had recently. I was invited to a lunch in Manchester along with the representatives of several other religions and after lunch our genial host required of us to state our religious views in two sentences. The Sikh representative (who I do not for a moment believe was capable of giving us the authentic doctrine of Sikhism) said that his fellow-worshipers believed in one God and that Sikhs should not be required to wear helmets when they rode motorcycles. The doctrine of primitive Christians would have appeared, at least to the non-Jew, not much less disproportionate in its parts than that. The NT made some closer approach to an integrated doctrine of God, but was still far from achieving anything more than a sub-variant of the Jewish doctrine of God.

There certainly were forces within Christianity even before it emerged from its Jewish milieu or matrix moving towards an integrated doctrine of God:

There was the fundamental Jewish urge towards monotheism, its rejection of lesser deities or any qualification or diminution of the concept of God.

There was the doctrine of the pre-existence of Christ which can be traced back to a very early period.

There was the practice of praying to Jesus Christ as well as praying through him.

There were the theological trajectories (to use current theological jargon) pointing to a doctrine of incarnation, in Matthew, in Paul, in Hebrews and above all in John.

There was, in fine, the ineradicably Christocentric nature of Christianity, the concept of Christ as the Last Act of God, the eschatological pressure, so to speak, that his figure exerted on Christian thought.

But as long as Christianity remained in a Jewish environment none of these factors was strong enough to constitute on its own a movement towards the development of a specifically Christian doctrine of God, the enterprise of determining what difference the career of Jesus Christ must have in forming the Church’s thought, not just about what God had done, but what God is.

Gentile Gentile dominated church

It was when Christianity emerged during the second century into a non-Jewish, largely Gentile milieu that the pressure to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God became unavoidable.

The intellectual world of the Late Roman Empire, enjoying under a series of enlightened Emperors chosen on an adoptive rather than hereditary principle its last St. Luke’s summer of peace and prosperity before the storms and disasters of the next three centuries, was dominated by the inheritance and the practice of Greek philosophy.

The Greek intellectual tradition had of course altered since its great days in the fifth and fourth centuries before Christ. Its Platonism was not exactly the Platonism of Plato; Stoicism had arisen as a distinct and attractive alternative; Aristotelianism, though studied by some, was under eclipse. Greek philosophy had become more eclectic than in Plato’s day, and also much more religious and theistic. What J.B. Bury in all the confidence of Victorian rationalism has called a ‘loss of nerve’ had taken place.

But philosophy was still full of vitality and was actively studied or at least acquired in a general way by the great majority of those who called themselves intellectuals or who had received a higher education in that age.

And Greek philosophy required of any religion which aspired to be a universal religion, as Christianity did, that it should give a rational account of itself. If it had a teaching about God, the intellectual tradition of the Late Roman Empire insisted that that teaching should be rational (not necessarily rationalist), consistent, defensible, intellectually acceptable. If Christianity was to be more than an enthusiastic or moralizing sect making no pretensions to intellectual respectability, more than just an ethnic religion, more than a barbaric cult or a sub-variety of Judaism, in short, if it was to capture the mind as well as the heart of the society in which it existed, it was bound to produce a specifically Christian doctrine of God.

This was not an unreasonable demand, not the requirement of a futile speculative Greek curiosity, but a plain necessity if Christianity was to be a genuinely missionary religion, a religion capable of sustaining the daring claim that it was a faith for all races and all classes and all minds, a religion for the whole world.

The Apologists

The first attempt at this task was made by the group of writers whom we call the Apologists, and it was made, significantly enough, to a large degree in independence of the thought of the Fourth Gospel.

This group had nothing in common, if we except the connection between Justin Martyr and Tatian, apart from a common purpose and a common pattern of thought. They did not all live in the same place or at the same time. But their common aim resulted in a common pattern of theology.

They used to great effect several features of contemporary Greek philosophy to enable them to construct their doctrines of God. They identified the pre-existent Christ, thought of as manifesting himself on critical occasions throughout the history of the Jewish people, with the nous or Second Hypostasis of contemporary Middle Platonist philosophy, and also borrowed some traits from the divine Logos of Stoicism (including its name).

They thereby solved for those who accepted their doctrine a difficult contemporary philosophical problem: how was the supreme being, whether conceived as to on or to agathon impersonally or as a personal mind ordeity, to communicate in his immutable, abstract, immaterial condition with our world of change and decay, transitoriness and matter? The answer was, the divine Logos or nous identified with Christ both pre-existent and incarnate in his earthly ministry. He was the agent for creating the world of the supreme Divinity and also the means of the Divinity revealing himself in the world, both in the history of the Jews and in the earthly career of Jesus.

No Trinity

They felt some obligation to fit the Holy Spirit into this scheme, but were less successful here. They could hardly be said to have developed a recognisably Trinitarian scheme, but they certainly had produced the first specifically Christian doctrine of God.

Not Bible-based

They were writing mostly for non-Jews and non-Christians. Such a public demanded philosophical consistency but no very great attention to historical detail nor to the witness of the Bible.

Lasted into the Fourth Century

The theological structure provided by the Apologists lasted as the main, widely-accepted, one might almost say traditional framework for a Christian doctrine of God well into the fourth century, and was, in differing form, the basic picture of God with which the great majority of those who were first involved in the Arian Controversy were familiar and which they accepted.

Irenaeus and Tertullian

The doctrine was given a better balance and proportion by both Iranaeus and Tertullian. They redressed the tendency of the Apologists to fall into Gnostic doctrine of an unknown, inaccessible High God whom the lesser god, the Logos, brings communications. They paid much more attention to Scripture, and especially to the Fourth Gospel. They made more room for the Holy Spirit in their doctrine of God, and brought out the significance of the earthly career of Jesus, which all the Apologists apart from Justin had ignored. But their fundamental theological structure was the same as that of the Apologists. The Logos was begotten or produced or put forward by the Father as his instrument or tool for communicating with the world, a subordinate though essential divine agent.

Origen

Origen produced something like a theological revolution without completely demolishing this theological structure. He extended it and diversified it, but he did not alter most of its main features. In his brilliant search for common ground between Christianity and the kind of philosophy which appealed to him, late Middle Platonism laced with some Stoicism, he introduced some new and enduring features and made some daring speculations. He launched the doctrine of the eternal, not merely economic, Trinity; he produced a neat and ingenious account of how the Son/Logos could be, as incarnate, both divine and human. He taught the eternal pre-existence of souls, and a pre-mundane fall, and he demythologized eschatology as radically as ever Bultmann did. But, he still envisaged the Son as a subordinate agent of the Father and still treated him as an ingenious philosophical device, indeed he enhanced this feature in his Trinitarian doctrine.

How divine is Christ?

Even when greatly altered and given a much more sophisticated appearance by Origen, this form of the Christian doctrine of God had serious flaws. The chief flaw was that which the Apologists had regarded as its greatest merit. It made Christ into a convenient philosophical device. He was the means whereby the supreme God, the Father, was protected from embarrassingly close relation to the world. He was, not by reason of his incarnation but by reason of his very nature apart from the incarnation, a defused, depotentiated version of God suitable for encounter with such compromising things as history and humanity and transitoriness. He was the safeguard against a too close acquaintance with our existence on the part of the supreme God.

This Logos-doctrine was not the Logos-doctrine of the Fourth Gospel, where the incarnate Logos is the guarantee that the supreme God has in fact communicated himself to and in our world, where the fact that the Son is accessible in the flesh means that the Father is accessible to us too, where the veil or restriction imposed on himself by God is not his Son but the Son’s humanity, where the contrast is between sight and faith, not between incorruptibility and the corruptible. Whatever the theological or philosophical effect of the conventional Trinitarian doctrine with which Christianity entered the fourth century may have been, its religious effect, once granted the worship of Christ, was to make the Son into a demi-god.

This can be observed by looking at the second-rate or third-rate writers of the period, not at the successors of Origen, Theognostus, Methodius, Eusebius of Caesarea, but at Lactantius, Arnobius, Victorinus of Pettau, Dionsysius of Alexandria. They present us unashamedly with a second, created god lower than the High God and capable of incarnation.

Continued into Arianism

When Gwatkin nearly a century ago in the last full-scale book written in English on the Arian Controversy branded Arianism as ‘heathen to the core’ and as a watered-down version of Christianity suitable for imperfectly converted pagan polytheists, he was writing vague imperfectly substantiated rhetoric, based on an inadequate examination of Arius’ background, but he was not talking complete nonsense. The Arianism of Ulfilas, of Palladius at the Council of Aquileia of 381, of Eunomius, does present the Son as in effect a demi-god, even though the antecedents of this doctrine are not to be found in pagan religion nor directly in Greek philosophy but in various theological strands to be detected in Christian theology before the fourth century.

Theos and Deus

The ancient world did not disdain demi-gods. The word theos or deus, for the first four centuries of the existence of Christianity had a wide variety of meanings. There were many different types and grades of deity in popular thought and religion and even in philosophical thought.

This is a fact which is often forgotten by those who are anxious to read the later doctrine of Christ’s divinity incontinently into the NT. This is why Christians found it quite possible to hold the kind of conception of Christ’s divinity which was widespread in Christian thought as the third century gave way to the fourth. Of course Christ was divine. But how divine, and what exactly did ‘divine’ mean in that context? It was with this question that the Arian Controversy started and it found nobody in a position to give an immediately satisfying answer.

The Answer in the Creed

But once the question was raised – and Arius’ teaching had raised it in such a way that it could not now be ignored – it could only be answered by the formulation of a more detailed and thorough Christian doctrine of God.

The Church of the fourth century, after much travail answered this question. The answer was only reached after long controversy, heart- searching, confusion and vicissitude in a manner which can best be described as a process of trial-and-error in which the error was by no means confined to the so-called heretics.

Its results in the Nicene Creed was to reduce the meanings of the word “God” from a very large selection of alternatives to one only, so that today it is part of the bloodstream of European culture. When Western man today says ‘God’ he means the one, sole exclusive God and nothing else. Even when he denies the existence of God he does not even pause to disbelieve in gods. Even when he blasphemes, he swears profanely by the sole God. This is why the theologians of the Eastern Orthodox Church who use the word ‘god’ to describe the divinized human nature of Christ and the final state of man in glory can only cause bewilderment and dissent in the minds of Westerners.

Destroyed the Tradition.

What the fourth-century development did was to destroy the tradition of Christ as a convenient philosophical device, of Christ, as the Cappadocian fathers put it, existing for the sake of us instead of our existing for his sake. The Cappadocians, following in the footsteps of Athanasius, put a firm ‘No Thoroughfare’ notice in front of this theological track, a track which must have seemed to many a hopeful and useful one.

In this respect at least they fought an example of the Hellenisation of the gospel, they rejected the allurements of Greek philosophy.

Indeed if we want a beautiful example of Hellenisation of Christianity we can turn to the most extreme of the Arians, Eunomius, who would have agreed heartily with the title of Toland’s famous book, Christianity not Mysterious, and who had an unbounded confidence in the capacity of Greek metaphysics to solve all theological problems and to scale all the heights of knowledge of the divine. In the course of refuting his teaching Gregory of Nyssa has quite often to pause and protest against his indiscriminate use of philosophical jargon.

In the place of this old but inadequate Trinitarian tradition the champions of the Nicene faith substituted another which was more in accordance with the pressure towards monotheism that is part of the inner nature of Christianity and that also did justice to the ancient practice of worshipping Christ. They were forced through the exigencies of controversy to realize that Christ is either ultimately irrelevant to Christianity, a paradigm, an example, a supremely obedient and godly man, but no more; or he must be a mediator, and therefore authentically God and not a second-class deity. The dispute was about the necessity, the centrality, the indispensability of Christ.

They developed a doctrine of God as a Trinity, as one substance or ousia who existed as three hypostases, three distinct realities or entities (I refrain from using the misleading word’ Person’), three ways of being or modes of existing as God. This doctrine which finally emerged with the result of assimilating the indispensability of Christ to the monotheism which Christianity inherited from Judaism and which it would not abandon.

The Holy Spirit

Of course the theologians of the side which was ultimately victorious included the Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In a sense this was an afterthought, because the theme of the Son occupied the screen, so to speak, right up to the year to the year 360. It was only when the battle for the recognition of the Son’s full divinity was in a fair way to being won that the Spirit moved to the centre of the stage.

It has been suggested that this pneumatological development was a kind of lame epilogue or un-happy corollary to the development concerning the Son. Napoleon Bonaparte was Emperor of the French, Emperor in fact and in form. His brother Joseph was for a period by a kind of creaking imperial logic King of Spain, in form if not in fact. Was this the kind of process by which the Holy Spirit became deified?

It is certainly true that until the middle of the fourth century very little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit by the theologians. I do not believe those historians of doctrine who tell us that people like Novatian and Victorinus of Pettau were really Binitarians, but certainly nobody for the first four centuries had seen the necessity of working out a theology of the Spirit and when Athanasius in his Letters to Serapion set out to do so he was not wholly successful.

Further, two of the Cappadocians, Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus, admit silently that the Scriptural evidence for the Spirit as a distinct hypostasis within the Godhead is inadequate. Basil in his De Spirilu Sancto tries to take refuge in a most unsatisfactory doctrine of secret, unscriptural tradition on the subject. Gregory, though he tacitly rejects Basil’s device, in effect appeals to the experience and practice of the Church to supplement Scripture at this point. It was not that the Scriptures did not declare the Spirit to be divine, but in the matter of their witnessing to his existence as an hypostasis, a distinctly recognizable reality, within the Godhead, they were not contradictory, but insufficient.

Certain points can, however, help us to understand the Cappadocians’ decision that the Holy Spirit must be included in the Trinity and why they wrote of him as they did.

In the first place, Christians have always found it difficult to write about the Holy Spirit, just because he is God as we encounter him. It is always difficult to write about our own religious experience, to stand outside ourselves sufficiently to convey what we know to be true in ourselves.

In the second place the Spirit is God sovereign over time, God overcoming the limits of history and space and time. He is in the NT an eschatological figure. He is Lord of history and his appearance heralds of the ages. It is therefore improper or inconsistent to expect the historical witness which we have in the Bible to his advent to be entirely adequate. Historical documents cannot adequately witness to him who is beyond history as well as in it, who makes past history present for us, who has not yet finished unfolding the history of salvation.

Finally when the Cappadocians decided that having been committed to drastic theological decisions about the Spirit they were being true to the NT. The Holy Spirit is bound up with, inseparable from, Jesus Christ, and if we decided that Christ is divine we cannot in the end withhold divinity from the Spirit. The Cappadocians therefore boldly included the Spirit in their Trinitarian theology.

They resisted a formidable movement to reject the Spirit’s divinity, led not by the shadowy Macedonius, but by that extraordinary and unpredictable character Eustathius of Sebaste. They formulated a full-blooded Trinitarian doctrine and went some distance towards defining the relations of the Persons within the Trinity. The revised Nicene creed of 381 enshrined the conclusions to which they had come without canonizing any one Trinitarian formula.

III Greek Vocabulary and Thought

The last section of this paper must be devoted to comment upon the achievement of the fourth-century theologians. It must be noted that the development of the doctrine of the Trinity was carried out in terms which were almost wholly borrowed from the vocabulary of late Greek: hypostasis, ousia, homoeousious, tautousios, heterousios, hyparxis, prosopon, perichoresis, and so on.

In this matter the ancient theologians had in fact no choice. Once the theologians of the early period had, under the influence of the Christian Platonists of Alexandria, abandoned the illusion that Christianity was itself a philosophy rivalling the others, and had realised that their faith needed the aid of philosophy in order to express itself in contemporary and comprehensible terms, then the Church was committed to the necessity of explaining its beliefs in the terminology of Greek philosophy.

One of the lessons learnt by the bitter experience of the Arian Controversy was that you cannot interpret the Bible simply in biblical terms. If your intention is to explain the Bible’s meaning, then on crucial points you must draw your explanation from some other vocabulary apart from that of the Bible. Otherwise you will be left with the old question in another form still unanswered.

The only alternative language available for interpreting the Bible was that of Greek philosophy. Roman philosophy was no more than a pale imitation of Greek. There was no philosophical language available in the tradition of Syriac-speaking Christianity, even had it been comprehensible to the majority of ancient theologians. Indian philosophy, though not wholly unknown, was too remote and too strange to serve their purpose. No other intellectual tools were at their disposal.

This borrowing from Greek philosophy, like all borrowing, exacted a price. The case was not merely that the theologians of the fourth century used Greek words. They thought Greek thoughts. Many of the fundamental assumptions which they made in all their theological writing were those of Greek philosophy, not those of the Old and New Testaments.

Psychology

Their psychology and anthropology were, with few exceptions, largely Stoic or (less frequently) Platonist.

Ethics

Their ethics were for the most part not the ethics of the Bible, involved as these are in particular situations and rule-of-thumb of expressions, not easily detected or identified. The Stoics had developed a consistent and attractive ethical system, and the Christian theologians found it impossible to resist the temptation (if temptation it was) to read this system into the biblical text.

Ontological Immutability

More important was their unanimous assumption that ontological immutability is an essential attribute of God, that under no circumstances could God ever be thought of as coming in contact with the transitory and corruptible or mortal; a concept which is quite alien to the conception of God to be found in the Old and New Testaments.

This axiom had far-reaching effects on their theology. It troubled Athanasius when he had to face the undeniable fact that the Bible represents God as acting in history. He had to fall back on the lame explanation that all the events of salvation history had been eternally predestined by God before the foundation of the world.

The same axiom produced extraordinary results when the pro-Nicene theologians came to envisage the earthly life of Jesus. Almost all the orthodox theologians say that while the Word of course took human flesh, it was not human flesh like ours, but a different sort of purer, sanctified human flesh.

Hilary of Poitiers plunges wildly into Docetism at this point: Christ felt the effect of the blow when he was struck, but not its pain, and so on.

Another consequence of this axiom is that very few theologians of the fourth century appreciate the full force of the dynamic, eschatological language which the NT uses of Christ and of the Holy Spirit. They flatten and blunt this language, transposing it into ontological categories. For Athanasius, as has frequently been observed, the divinity of Christ means his ontological stability.

Inconsistent use – Variety of meanings

But though the fourth-century Fathers thought almost wholly in the vocabulary and thought-forms of Greek philosophy, they were by no means consistent in using them. The study of ousia by G.C. Stead in his book Divine Substance has shown how large was the variety of meanings which the Fathers attached to that word, and E.P. Meijering has demonstrated that even in so apparently precise a term as ‘beyond being’, epekeina tes ousias, different writers could attach different meanings to it.

Tension between Philosophy and the Bible

In such obviously unplatonic subjects as the resurrection of the body, the creation of matter out of nothing, and the possibility of an incarnation of God, the Fathers recognized clearly that Christianity manifestly diverged from philosophy and said so. Perhaps the best way to express the situation would be to say that in all their theology there is a tension between the ideas of Greek philosophy and those of the tradition of Christian truth which they inherited, a tension sometimes explicitly realized but more often not, and that in none of them is this tension completely resolved.

While, for instance, they believe that Christ’s humanity could not have been exactly like ours because he was born of a virgin without male human parentage, they also reject the Arian doctrine that incarnation necessarily implies inferiority in the God who is incarnate. Here the tension becomes very visible.

Two Natures Theory

It is perhaps worth noting incidentally, on the subject of consistency, that the Nicene dogma does not entail the Chalcedonian dogma with an iron necessity. On the contrary, the two-nature scheme of Chalcedon might be regarded as drawing back from the full drastic consequences of the Nicene Creed under the influence of a Greek fear of compromising God with human experiences.

Faithfulness to Scripture

How much of faithfulness to Scripture did the Fathers of the fourth century sacrifice? Maurice Wiles has suggested that as far as grotesque misunderstanding of the truth of the Bible goes the pro-Nicenes were as distant from accurate interpretation as the Arians.

Certainly all exegetes of whatever color in that period shared common ideas about the Bible which are impossible for us,

Julian the Arian on Job as well as

Didymus the Blind on Zechariah;

For them most of the Psalms were tape-recordings made by David of conversations held between God the Father, God the Son and the Church.

Very large numbers of passages in the OT spoke to them directly of Christian doctrine which to us are wholly devoid of such reference, e.g. Provo 8:22 which might be called the key-text of the Arian Controversy, and Amos 4:13 which was much adduced by the Macedonians.

The Antiochene preference for eschewing allegory in handling Scripture had scarcely yet appeared in the fourth century; the irresponsible use of allegory abounded, perhaps more among the pro-Nicenes than among the Arians. Julian in his Commentary on Job uses it very little.

But though in detail Patristic interpretation of the Bible can be utterly different from ours today, in several of the points where what one might call the weight or what Athanasius calls the skopos, the main burden or message of Scripture, is concerned they discern clearly enough the true facts.

They recognise at least in theory, as an intellectual proposition, the humanity of Christ, they resist Apollinarianism.

They know that the OT witnesses to God revealing himself in history.

They acknowledge consistently that God can only be known in faith.

They do some justice to the thought of St. Paul, to Augustine almost full justice.

John’s Gospel

Above all, they are deeply influenced by the Fourth Gospel, whereas the Arians are not. This is the crucial point of interpretation where Athanasius has a deeper appreciation of the thought of the NT than his opponents. 

For the Arians, God cannot communicate himself to man, he can only send a well-accredited messenger, because incarnation is a reduction, a diminution of Godhead.

Athanasius accepts the full significance of the doctrine of that Gospel, though he expresses it in terms of Greek ontological thought and though, like all the pro-Nicene theologians, he assumes erroneously that St. John is laying out pre-fabricated Trinitarian doctrine in his pages. But here he shows a vitally important insight into the significance of the NT which the Arians, preoccupied as they were with the incomparability of God, failed to see.

Not Precise

We must also realize that when the Cappadocian Fathers presented the Church with the doctrine of the Trinity they did not present it with a formula designed to express that doctrine permanently. There is no universally recognised formula expressing the doctrine of the Trinity, for the Athanasian Creed, which has such a formula, is not an ecumenical creed.

The theologians of the fourth century, though they were quite ready to countenance creeds, did not have the same intense addiction to precise formulae as later ages had, nor the same insistence on precise accuracy as we have.

Auxentius of Milan could say that the creed which he had probably met for the first time when he became bishop of Milan was what he had learnt from his youth up; he was referring to the content, not to the words.

The fact that the members of the council of Constantinople of 381 could regard themselves as reproducing in the creed which they adopted the original formula of 325, which we would regard as a very different document, speaks for itself.

At one point Gregory of Nazianzus, in a letter defending Basil against the charge of refusing to acknowledge openly the divinity of the Holy Spirit, states explicitly that it is not the words that count but the meaning which they convey.

The Cappadocians cannot be accused of spinning theological formulations simply for the sake of creating ever new Greek metaphysical instructions. They were very well aware, as was Athanasius, of the inadequacy of language to express thought about God. It was one of the lessons learnt during the course of the controversy. What the Cappadocians contended for was the shape of Trinitarian doctrine, not for a particular formulation of it. They were emphatically not fighting for a creed, but for a doctrine. That doctrine has since been expressed in different ways by later theologians, by, for instance, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Gregory Palamas, John Calvin, and Karl Barth, but it remains the same doctrine.

Interpretation of Development?

Last of all, we must ask whether this doctrine of the Holy Trinity, achieved after so long and trying an experience of controversy, heart-searching and vicissitude, was an interpretation of the Bible, or whether it should rather be regarded as a development.

If, as I think, we can answer the question originally asked in this paper by saying that the journey was necessary, we must decide what sort of a journey it was.

Of course the doctrine of the Trinity was in a sense an interpretation of the Bible. It began as an attempt to answer the question, how divine is Jesus Christ?, and went on to decide whether God has communicated himself or not. Neither of these questions lie directly on the surface of the Bible, though they are both raised if the Bible’s contents are studied with care and in depth; the Bible does not directly answer either.

The question we deal with here is ultimately that which Newman raised, but did not find an answer, in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. I think that a consideration of the whole history of the gradual formation of this doctrine must convince students of the subject that the doctrine of the Trinity is a development, and a development which in its shape, is true and authentic. Christians can honestly worship Jesus Christ and also honestly declare that they are monotheists, but only if they adopt a concept of God which has a Trinitarian shape.

When they profess this doctrine they are not saying precisely what Mark in his first chapter and Paul in the first of Romans were saying, though in different words, just that and nothing more. Time and trial and long thought and ventures into speculation and even into error, both aided and hindered by non-biblical thought, have taught the Church something about the implications of its faith, have assisted towards the gradual unfolding and uncovering of the basic drive and genius and spirit of Christianity here. Development has meant discovery.

R. P. C. HANSON
University of Manchester

Articles in this Series
Historical Development of the Trinity Doctrine

First 300 years (The persecuted church)

Fourth Century (State Church)

Fifth & Sixth Centuries

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