Gregory W. Lee on Khaled Anatolios’ Retrieving Nicaea
Debates regarding the doctrine of the Trinity are often presented as a classic example of the divorce between the academic study of theology and the concrete practice of Christian faith. The intellectually curious new convert eager to learn more of the God of love is often dismayed to learn that God’s identity has been the subject of considerable debate and controversy, that whole traditions of faith have divided over conceptual distinctions unintelligible to the common worshipper, and that massive intellectual superstructures have been considered necessary to explain how God relates to humanity.
According to critical arguments the student may soon discover, the trinitarian formulations of early Christianity arose not through sustained attention to the Bible but through imperial fiat. Constantine imposed his Christian “peace” (read: tyranny) upon a once religiously pluralist empire, determining for keeps what would now count as “orthodoxy” and “heresy,” and alternately bestowing political patronage or persecution upon those who did or did not adhere to these newly demarcated boundaries. Indeed, according to this perspective, trinitarian dogma ultimately represents the bastardization of the simplicity of Jesus’ teachings and the disciples’ childlike trust by the impurities of Hellenistic philosophy, obsessed as it was with static categories of being.
Some of these judgments, pressed in their most influential form by Adolf von Harnack, have now enjoyed a century-long pedigree and continue to haunt the study of early Christian doctrine. Yet a number of difficulties challenge the wholesale rejection of trinitarian theology, convenient though this option may initially appear. For the Trinity is not only Christianity’s most distinctive doctrine, but also its most widely shared. Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox believers of quite disparate varieties can legitimately label themselves Nicene, and even the non-Chalcedonian traditions would so self-identify. Participants in the fourth-century debates about the Trinity certainly did not consider themselves to be engaged in a meaningless exercise in abstract speculation. Though their fortunes depended crucially on the theological mood of the reigning emperor, many chose exile or other harsh penalties instead of abandoning their considered convictions when the political winds shifted against them.
If modern students find it incredible that theological parties divided over a single letter — quite literally, a Greek iota separated the homoousians (who believed the Father and Son are of the same substance) from the homoiousians (who believed the Father and Son are of similar substance) — it is nevertheless the case that the fourth century has long been considered a font almost sui generis of contemporary spiritual renewal. Here was an era when theologians also administered the sacraments, when the foremost students of rhetoric and philosophy also devoted themselves to personal piety and the ascetic life. Several centuries later, in the midst of the Second World War, Henri de Lubac and his colleagues would establish Sources chrétiennes, a monumental series of volumes featuring critical editions and translations of early Christian texts, as an effort to reinvigorate interest in classical humanism and thus bring restoration to the shambles of European intellectual culture. This initiative and others would eventually play a vital role in Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church’s most consequential moment of renewal in the modern era. Could the church fathers continue to serve as a source of Christian instruction today, even and especially in their energetic interest in trinitarian doctrine?
A host of contemporary scholars have said yes, and the recent publication of Khaled Anatolios’ Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine adds another authoritative voice to the chorus. Known to this point primarily for his work on Athanasius, a key fourth-century advocate of trinitarian orthodoxy, Anatolios now extends his gaze, joining the ranks of Lewis Ayres, Michel Barnes, John Behr, and Joseph Lienhard as one of the most erudite interpreters of the period. Anatolios’ work is aptly named: by “retrieving” the Nicene legacy, Anatolios seeks to blur the commonly presumed (but not traditional) distinction between historical and systematic theology, attending both to the original “development” of trinitarian doctrine and to its “meaning” today, with an interest in their implications for lived faith. Anatolios’ choice to merge historical analysis and theological reflection, concerning both the implications of trinitarian dogma and theological methodology as such, is not accidental to his object of study. As Rowan Williams has argued, the fourth-century debates marked a pivotal process in the church’s becoming “intellectually self-aware” and acknowledging “theology [as] not only legitimate but necessary” (Arius: Heresy and Tradition, italics his). From this point forward, the faithful appropriation of Scripture, tradition, and liturgical practices would be recognized to demand creative synthesis and not just the repetition of standard formulae. Or, as Anatolios suggests, the Council of Constantinople determined that trinitarian doctrine could no longer escape conceptual controversies under the cover of Scriptural ambiguities. Logical coherence would now be required.
“Coherence” plays an important role in Anatolios’ narration of Nicaea and its developments. Drawing upon Gabriel Marcel’s distinction between primary and secondary reflection, Anatolios depicts the trinitarian debates as a series of conflicting efforts to reunify common elements of Christian experience in the wake of destabilizing theological “breaks.” The participants shared considerable common ground: general affirmations of trinitarian worship, the creation of the world ex nihilo, and the primacy and lordship of Christ, as well as suspicion of certain trajectories like Manichaean dualism, or a kind of gnostic emanationism according to which the divinity of one being might bleed into another. The dividing question, especially in the wake of Origen’s systematizing legacy and the newly legitimized church’s need for an intelligible expression of faith, was how to integrate these disparate elements into a cogent account of theistic and Christological primacy. Understood on these terms, Athanasius’ enemy, Arius, represents less a departure from unanimous tradition than a salient if problematic effort to reconstruct the Christian faith in a new theological and political environment.
In one of his most illuminating innovations, Anatolios categorizes competing efforts according to two broad trajectories, which he calls “unity of will” and “unity of being.” In brief, the first trajectory associates the Son with the will of the Father, treating Christ as an effect of the Father’s activity outside the divine being. Theologians of the second trajectory locate the Son within the divine being itself, without necessarily presuming a disjunction between divine being and divine will. (Athanasius, for instance, affirmed a unity of being and will between the Father and the Son.) The protagonists of each group do not divide neatly between heterodox and orthodox, nor do they speak univocally as a bloc. Asterius and Eusebius of Caesarea soften Arius’ more provocative claims by affirming that the Son is in some way Image of the Father, while Eunomius of Cyzicus represents a reversion to the earlier theology in his reduction of any likeness between the Father and the Son to the level of activity. On the other hand, Marcellus of Ancyra, a unity-of-being theologian, also rejects the language of Image in his quasi-modalist denial that the Son is other than the Father, and somewhat resembles the unity-of-will theologians in his emphasis on divine singularity and his dissociation of God’s activity in creation from God’s being. To complicate matters further, Apollinaris of Laodicea develops his proposal that the divine Logos replaced Jesus’ human soul in large measure against Marcellus, a fellow supporter of the Nicene formulations.
This last position indicates a tension at the heart of the controversy. In their assertion of the full divinity of Christ, the unity-of-being theologians tended to depict the incarnation as a moment of disruption in the divine being. It was precisely to mitigate this disturbance that Apollinaris compromised the integrity of Christ’s humanity. Yet the unity-of-will theologians’ efforts to present the incarnation as an extenuation of the Son’s attenuated divinity compromised the lordship of Christ. If Christ himself were created, he would not be able to serve as mediator between God and humanity. But the problem of mediation cannot be deferred forever; at some point, God himself must make contact with the world. As Anatolios argues, it thus became critical to furnish a new Christological explication of transcendence that could account for both God’s distinction from creation and his condescension toward humanity. This is the accomplishment Anatolios details in the heart of his book, his expositions of Athanasius of Alexandria and Gregory of Nyssa, before he considers, as a final piece to the puzzle, the trinitarian shape of Augustine’s theological epistemology.
Against the unity-of-will theologians, Athanasius refuses to identify transcendence with the Father and immanence with the Son, respectively. The Son does not mediate contact between God and creation by virtue of some inferior divinity; he condescends to us because philanthropia, God’s love for humanity, is integral to the divine being which the Son shares fully in common with the Father. Divine transcendence does not entail the impropriety of contact between God and creation. Rather, as Gregory of Nyssa argues, the supreme display of God’s power is the weakness of the cross, as God bursts “beyond the limits of [the divine] nature.” The philanthropia of the immanent Trinity thus grounds God’s creation of the world as well as the climactic kenosis of Christ’s death. And the pro-Nicenes’ core concern is not to define the dialectic between unity and distinction, still less to establish the terminological distinction between ousia (being) and hypostasis (person), but to provide an account for how the one true God accomplished humanity’s salvation.
Two corollaries of Anatolios’ interpretation of the fourth-century debates follow. The first concerns the systemic entailments of the positions adopted. As Anatolios repeats often, the cluster of theological judgments that Nicaea represents bear on the “entirety” of Christian faith and practice; the breadth of implications is “global.” The concluding chapter surveys this range through a précis of themes for constructive reflection, ranging from Scripture and revelation to worship and the human being as imago Dei. This chapter is the least developed of Anatolios’ book and does not venture far from his descriptive work. But more stimulating observations arise earlier in Anatolios’ text. Examples in this regard, which could easily be multiplied, concern the relation between the eternal generation of the Son and divine fecundity, a point that reveals the doctrine of creation to bear a deeply trinitarian form; Christ, in his divinity and humanity respectively, as both giver and recipient of the Spirit and thus the one who sanctifies himself; baptism’s revelation of the triune God as both the single agent of our salvation and its ultimate destination. The picture of God that emerges from these considerations bears little resemblance to some distant monad of Greek metaphysics; the triune God is outwardly dynamic, ever animated by an “active potency” toward humanity’s creation and salvation.
The second corollary concerns the propriety of putting earlier historical figures in dialogue with those of a different geographical or historical context, a methodological move that succeeds only if, as Anatolios asserts, these individuals shared the same basic subject matter and theological concerns. For example, Athanasius’ insistence on the terminological relevance of the baptismal formula anticipates Basil’s expansion on this theme. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa’s ascription of the twofold Christological narrative to a single agent is substantially identical to what Chalcedon would later define. And Gregory’s characterization of hypostasis as integral to divine perfection jives well with Thomas Aquinas’ affirmation of the same. Like Ayres and Barnes, Anatolios rejects a stark differentiation between Eastern and Western reflection on the Trinity. According to one oft-repeated claim, for example, the East stresses the distinction of the persons over and against the unity of the divine essence, and the West stresses the unity of the divine essence over and against the distinction of the persons. As Anatolios responds, a strictly literary analysis reveals Gregory to begin with the divine nature in To Ablabius, and Augustine to begin with the activity of the divine persons in De Trinitate. It is Augustine who will supply the answer to Athanasius’ failure to explain the distinction of the Spirit from the Father and Son without appeal to creation. And perhaps most provocatively, Gregory may not affirm the filioque per se, but he does seem to attribute some sort of causal role to the Son in the Spirit’s procession.
Modern theologians like Barth, Balthasar, Pannenberg, and Moltmann also receive mention, while Anatolios gestures toward his own judgment on contemporary matters of controversy. Concerning impassibility, Anatolios takes seriously Eunomius’ argument that the attribution of suffering only to Christ’s humanity seems to evacuate Christ’s self-emptying of meaning by positing two subjects in the incarnate Word. As Anatolios clarifies, Gregory of Nyssa refuses to re-construe the divine nature to allow for God’s suffering, but this is a “seeming inconsistency of patristic Christology” that “falls short of the crucial move.” In ambiguous conclusion, “the question of divine suffering and its attribution to the divinity and humanity of Christ is a complex one and perhaps finally inscrutable; at least, we cannot claim to have resolved it in our own time.” But surely a scholar of Anatolios’ expertise could have provided the reader more guidance on appropriate boundaries for discussion. Might the passion of Christ implicate the divine being in suffering, or would this unravel the very coherence Anatolios so prizes in the early church?
The question of social trinitarianism — whether, roughly, the divine persons comprise a community similar to human communities — recurs throughout the work. In general, Anatolios rejects a simplistic comparison between human individuals and the divine persons, but he affirms more resonances between modern and the pro-Nicenes’ notions of personhood than some interpreters might acknowledge. On Anatolios’ interpretation, Athanasius treats the divine persons as subjects of conscious intentionality, drawing on Johannine depictions of the mutual love between the Father and the Son. So also, Gregory of Nyssa presents trinitarian activity as a single movement of will, but he affirms the appropriation of this motion “by all three hypostaseis such that each becomes the subject of the divine will, agency, and power. This might not amount to ‘modern conceptions of personhood,’ but neither does it utterly exclude some of these conceptions.” For Anatolios, wisdom dictates not the rejection of continuity between divine personhood and contemporary notions of human personhood but the restoration of the latter in light of the former. “Following Athanasius and, to an even greater extent, Gregory of Nyssa, we should not be afraid to say that the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit is willed by each of them and is thus a genuine interpersonal communion.”
This basic openness toward positive (if qualified) affirmations about the Trinity funds a final theme in Anatolios’ work: the dialectic between divine mystery and human confession. As the pro-Nicenes argued, God’s being is ultimately incomprehensible; there exists no other instance of the unity that the divine persons share. Yet the early controversialists clearly saw themselves as disagreeing about something and must thus have affirmed the possibility of true and false predications about God. Anatolios’ modern solution to this perplexity is the cultural-linguistic approach of George Lindbeck, who located the purpose of doctrinal propositions in their regulation of Christian speech and practice and not in their direct correspondences with the realities they name. Anatolios’ appropriation illustrates the fecundity of Lindbeck’s proposal, especially given Anatolios’ careful qualification that Lindbeck’s approach does not dissolve the relation between doctrine and truth. Anatolios’ chief ancient resource is a neglected cataphatic strain in Gregory of Nyssa that permits a wider range of discourse about God than simply asserting what God is not. Against Eunomius’ reduction of God’s essence to a single concept, Gregory insists that we cannot define any essence, whether God’s or our own. For knowledge does not consist of enclosing some passive object in our observation but of a journey or “approaching” characterized by receptivity and wonder. Gregory’s dismissal of divine definition is not a quantitative statement about the reach of our minds in relation to God’s infinite being, but a qualitative judgment about the divine initiative that must precede our efforts to extend ourselves toward divine glory. This vision also shapes Anatolios’ reading of Augustine’s theological epistemology. The similitudes of human consciousness bear some likeness to God’s being — again, Anatolios rejects pure apophaticism — but the focus of Augustine’s exposition is less on these images per se than on a quest of purification by which the Christian learns to “refer” herself to God.
The most stratified reflections on God’s triunity thus return to the more familiar dynamics of sin and redemption, exile and restoration, love’s proper order. What presents the most plausible account of divine unity and distinction is what most satisfactorily secures the common experiences of Christian faith and practice. In this light, the more apparently pedestrian features of Christian life become “saturated phenomena,” to adopt a phenomenological term, suffused with such excess of the divine presence that the believer cannot grasp his object of faith but finds himself grasped and overwhelmed. The path toward this knowledge begins with Jesus, who directs the Christian’s gaze from the lowliness of his humanity to the divinity he shares with the Father. Along the way, as Anatolios directs, the reader proceeds beyond the coherence of Nicaea to its beauty and truth. In this refusal to separate doctrine and spirituality, action and reflection, Retrieving Nicaea provides a lasting contribution to both church and academy.