It’s a common complaint that patristic Trinitarian theology obscured the gospel by relying on the premises and categories of Greek thought. Though rarely as extreme as Adolf von Harnack, who claimed that the Nicene Creed was a symptom of an “acute Hellenization” of the Church, theologians today can put off a recognizably Harnackian scent.
The reality is nearly the opposite. In the process of applying philosophical categories to the God of the gospel, the Church Fathers stretched Hellenism to the breaking point. It was the heretics, not the orthodox, who cowered in the safe haven of settled opinion.
As Rowan Williams pointed out in his classic study of Arius, Greek metaphysics assumed that the Absolute must be free of relations. Un-relatedness was the very definition of Absoluteness, because a being in a necessary relation must be defined in relation to that to which he is related. The Absolute can only be truly absolute if it exists on its own, in isolated Oriental splendor.
Athanasius knew what he was about when he charged that Arius was a “Greek.” Working from common notions of the Absolute, Arius naturally concluded that the Father was a lone God, without relation, until he created the Son. Later anti-Nicene theologians went so far as to abandon the title “Father” once they recognized that “Father” is a relational term that implies the existence of a Son. Eunomius preferred the chilly title “the Unbegotten”—an austere being into whose lap one would not wish to climb.
Orthodoxy, by contrast, shattered the Greek Absolute. Tracing out the import of biblical descriptions of the Son as the Father’s “radiance,” “word,” and “wisdom,” Athanasius insisted that the Son must be co-eternal with the Father. No light can be without radiance, and if the Son is radiance he must have shone from the Father from eternity. No God worthy of worship can be without Word and Wisdom, so if the Son is Word he must have always been in the Father’s mouth. By denying the eternity of the Son, Arius insulted the Father too: If there was when the Son was not, then there was a “time” when the Father was a light without radiance, a God without word, an Absolute fool. Perhaps without fully realizing the havoc he was wreaking on Greek thought, Athanasius put forward a strange new being, the related Absolute.
Robert Jenson has spent his long career pointing out that the common sense of Mediterranean antiquity assumed that gods were timeless. Time brings change, decay, and death. Immunity to time’s ravages was the main perk of being divine, and it was a perk that ancient worshipers hoped their gods would share. No story can be really true of God. God is too pure to stick his toe into the defilements of history.
Jenson’s observations expose another of the philosophical motivations behind Arianism. Since the high God has to be protected from contact with time, the one who appears as Jesus must be something less than the high God. It was the orthodox who once again proved adventurous, with their claim that “one of the Trinity became flesh” and their confidence that the story of Israel and Jesus is God’s own history with his people.
A generation ago, R.P.C. Hanson argued that Arians were theologians of the cross. At the heart of their faith was the proclamation of the crucified God. Redemption, they insisted, required a more-than-human death, but since the high God can’t come into contact with death, that thorn-crowned sufferer on the cross must be a lesser someone. He cannot be merely human—a human death cannot redeem; but he also cannot be God either—God can’t suffer like that. He’s got to be something in between.
Hanson thought that Arians understood the “scandal of the cross” better than the orthodox, but where’s the scandal in God sending a flunky to bear the sins of humanity? That’s safely Hellenic, and the only scandal is that God would rely on someone else to do the dirty work. To say, as the orthodox did, that the Son of God suffered in the flesh is to present a genuine scandal undreamt of in philosophy. It is to say that God does his own dirty work, confronting death in person so as to swallow it up in life.
The big story of early Trinitarian theology was not an “acute” or even a “mild” case of Hellenization, but rather what Jenson calls the “evangelization of metaphysics.” As the Church carried out her mission, the gospel invariably confronted Mediterranean theology, which usually went by the name of “philosophy.” At some points, the Fathers found they could agree with that pre-existing theology, but at many points, Christian theologians could remain faithful to the gospel only by revising much of what they thought they knew. Chesterton could have told us: Orthodoxy is precisely the audacity to abandon safe havens to follow one who suffered outside the gate.
Which means that, whether or not their specific proposals are defensible, contemporary theologians who want to revise metaphysics Trinitarianly continue a project begun by the Church Fathers they too quickly dismiss. Radicalism and orthodoxy embrace, revision and tradition kiss one another.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here. Image via Wikimedia Commons.