Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine
by Khaled Anatolios
Baker Academic, 400 pages, $39.99
Around 318, Arius, a popular pastor in Alexandria, Egypt, clashed with his bishop, Alexander. The point of contention touched—and continues to touch—the very heart of the Christian faith: Is Christ God, or not? The problem was this: How could Christians call Christ “God” and call the Father “God” and still claim to believe in one God? To ancient pagans, early Christians sounded as though they believed in two gods.
Arius feared that Christian monotheism had become a muddle. The Father alone, he insisted, is God. He thus denied that Christ could be spoken of as “God” in the richest, truest, fullest sense of the term. In the skirmish that ensued, Alexander insisted Arius recant. He refused.
And so began one of the great theological debates in the history of Christianity, arguably the greatest. It prompted the first Christian emperor, Constantine, to call the first ecumenical council, that of Nicaea, which in 325 crafted a creed proclaiming Christ “true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father,” words many Christians still recite every Sunday.
Khaled Anatolios, professor of historical theology at Boston College’s School of Theology and Ministry, offers a brilliant remapping of this central debate. Older textbook accounts often cast the story of the fourth-century doctrinal debates far too simplistically, speaking of a grand “Arian Controversy,” a pitched battle between well-demarcated sides, between orthodox “Nicenes” and heretical “Arians.” Over the last few decades, scholars have dismantled this narrative. R. P. C. Hanson’s massive The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, published in 1988, rethought every step in the story, presenting it not as a clash of two parties but as a meandering and many-sided search in which the orthodox consensus emerged only gradually. But as the Catholic scholar Joseph Lienhard has remarked, “Hanson’s work is a milestone, not the goal post.”
A steady stream of further revisions and reconfigurations has followed: Lienhard’s Contra Marcellum, Michel Barnes’ The Power of God, Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and Its Legacy, John Behr’s The Nicene Faith, Sara Parvis’ Marcellus of Ancyra and the Lost Years of the Arian Controversy, David Morton Gwynn’s The Eusebians, Christopher A. Beeley’s Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God, and Ayres’ Augustine and the Trinity. Anatolios’ study is part of this broader renaissance, which he draws on and consolidates in helpful, important ways.
One of the great strengths of Anatolios’ work as a historian of early Christian thought rests in his ability to bring an acute theological sensitivity to the thinkers he studies. Early on, he explores an array of lesser-knowns—Arius, of course, but also Asterius, Marcellus of Ancyra, Eunomius of Cyzicus, and Apollinarius of Laodicea. All would later be counted among the heterodox, but their positions, many of which have only recently been reconstructed, proved pivotal in the century-long debate.
Anatolios is attuned to theological coherences—evident in both the substance and the title of his first book, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought. Here the organic coherence of each thinker is brought to the fore. Heresy is shown to be both more subtle and less implausible. Again and again, the reader comes away savoring the shrewd insights and biblical sensitivities of an Asterius or a Marcellus whom orthodoxy would reject. Even more, one savors the robust genius of those who defined orthodoxy itself.
There are breakthrough moments in the book. In one pivotal passage, Anatolios shows that all theologians in the debate, despite their antagonisms, held much in common. All accepted the biblical canon and its authorship by the Holy Spirit; all acknowledged the primacy of faith and the necessity of bringing reason to faith (even if one combatant might, as a ploy, call his opponent a “logic-chopping philosopher”); all accepted the Trinity as an object of Christian faith and worship (even if they differed markedly on the ontological standing of each of the Three); all affirmed the primacy of Christ (though in widely divergent ways); all thought of Christ as creator (thus none held a “low Christology”—a useless category for patristic thought, as Anatolios notes); all thought of Christ as both divine and human (though in varied understandings of what constitutes “divine” and “human”).
This listing—and I have given only a small portion—is striking. It helpfully debunks those who see patristic trinitarian debates as inspired by Greek philosophy and refutes Harnack’s old saw about the Church Fathers “hellenizing the Gospel.” It also undercuts modern critics’ claims that patristic debates were neither sufficiently attuned to the God of the Bible nor sufficiently attentive to the centrality of the Christ event. As Anatolios shows, Arius, no less than Athanasius, insisted on the primacy of Christ.
The bulk of Retrieving Nicaea focuses on three theologians whose work would come to define the classical doctrine of the Trinity: Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. We watch here orthodoxy in the making, thinkers bringing a deep and learned sensitivity to an array of biblical texts, to liturgical gestures and prayers (and their implications), to conciliar decisions (in all their ambiguities), probed by acute intellect and sometimes fierce argument.
Anatolios gives Gregory, in particular, expansive treatment, highlighting his little-appreciated Against Eunomius. Gregory stressed the ungraspable infinity of the divine essence and thus the limits of human knowledge of God. Yet Gregory’s vision of divine transcendence is balanced, as Anatolios demonstrates, by a no-less-vibrant emphasis on God as “philanthropist”—literally, “lover of humanity.” Gregory’s infinite God is simultaneously a God whose radical generosity spills out into self-emptying Incarnation.
Anatolios shows too how, for Athanasius, any Christian theology worthy of the name must savor the Godhead’s constant, eternal generativity, with the Father constantly, eternally begetting the Son. This inner generativity is the theological foundation of God’s creativity, so that for Athanasius “to deny the Son a place within the divine essence is effectively to deny that God is Creator.” As Anatolios shows, Athanasius’ Christ-centered thinking required a radical reconceiving of divine perfection.
This web of affirmations—a God infinitely transcendent yet boundlessly creative, a God so overspilling in creativity and in love for humanity that as Son he enfleshes himself and makes our condition his own so as to remake our condition as his—this is what lies at the heart of ancient debates about the Trinity. The debates, as Anatolios demonstrates, were not about Greek categories—contrary to what older critics have claimed. They were about taking seriously the Bible, the liturgy, the tradition, the Incarnation. The making of orthodox theology did give rise to abstract categories and careful distinctions, but it was never speculation for speculation’s sake. It was an extraordinarily ambitious effort to navigate a vast ocean of biblical and liturgical truth, all the while keeping the Christ-event, in all its scandalous specificity, front and center.
One can’t ask one book to do it all. There are important things that Anatolios doesn’t do. He sidesteps the intricacies of personality and politics, which the research of the last century has shown to be pivotal to any balanced theological history. There are figures left out. He admits at the outset that he lacked space to grapple with important thinkers such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Hilary of Poitiers, and Ephrem the Syrian. He also leaves untouched a host of little-known figures (for example, Potamius of Lisbon and Phoebadius of Agen) whose idiosyncrasies and more pedestrian works are often deeply revealing of how the pro-Nicene position unfolded. That said, his account brilliantly counters the tendency of some recent scholarship to ignore the meat of the matter, namely, the theology itself—and theology in the full sense of the word, that complex nexus of biblical, Christological, liturgical, philosophical, and ecclesiological concerns.
On the far side of Anatolios’ nuanced, detailed account of the development of the Nicene consensus, future systematicians will have to grapple with a rather differently configured patristic inheritance: one focused not on Greek categories but on the primacy of Christ and on the Christian experience of God, an inheritance that balances Bible, liturgy, and a faith-imbued mode of thinking.
This, I should add, is what good historical theology is all about. Historical theologians are in the retrieval business, remembering for a church too busy with the present era to remember rightly. They are much more than salvagers of ancient memories. Their task is to retrieve a hard-won wisdom, to help us savor a patrimony that, over the centuries, has become lost or muddled or reduced to bloodless slogans. If we as Christians are to know who we are and what we believe and why, we need such sustained efforts at retrieving this hard-won wisdom. It is all the more urgent when the stakes are so great, when the matter lies so close to the heart of Christianity—namely, who we say God is.
William Harmless, S.J., is professor of historical theology at Creighton University and author of Augustine in His Own Words.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?