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Patrick Henry Reardon on the Dynamics of Dogmas & Anathemas
Although the popularity of The Da Vinci Code has recently made the Council of Nicaea familiar to a greater number of people, it has also caused that ancient council to be more generally misunderstood. Indeed, many folks nowadays seem to have accepted at face value the notion that the bishops at Nicaea in 325 actually debated and “voted on” the divinity of Jesus and that the “ayes” carried the day by only a slim majority. Until that point, The Da Vinci Code would have us believe, the Church did not believe in the divinity of Christ, or it was at least a disputed question. Nicaea, we are told, settled the matter, giving Christianity a new direction in history.
In fact, nothing of the sort happened at Nicaea. There was no debate about—or vote on—the divinity of Christ at that council, because the conciliar fathers recognized that the divinity of Christ was already established in the common teaching of the Church and recorded in the pages of the New Testament.
Arius in the Dock
What the fathers of Nicaea voted on was not the divinity of Christ but the teaching of the priest Arius, who had recently promulgated the idea that God’s Son, who assumed our humanity in Jesus, had not been God’s Son from all eternity. There was God the Father before there was the Son, said Arius; the Father and the Son were two separate beings, the One prior to the Other.
The question before the council was whether or not this novel teaching of Arius was compatible with what the apostles taught in their preaching and their Gospels and epistles found in the New Testament. Jesus was not the matter of debate at Nicaea. Arius was.
The bishops at Nicaea looked carefully at what Arius had published and then asked themselves a simple question, “Are these ideas of Arius compatible with what we find in the tradition and writings of the apostles?” And they answered, after some animated deliberation, “Well, actually, no. In fact, heck no, we’ll be darned if they are.”
The reasoning at Nicaea went like this: In Jesus of Nazareth we recognize God’s Son. This is why we address God as Father, just as Jesus taught us. If, as Arius said, there was a time when God did not have a Son—some point after which God became the Father—one of two things had to happen. Either God was essentially, inwardly changed (which Nicaea recognized to be impossible), or the Father created the Son. If it was the latter case, then the Son is a created being, of a nature different from God, a being outside of God, a creature not essentially different from the rest of creation.
Now this was a very serious inference, the Nicene fathers continued to reflect, because a great deal was at stake. If this Son is just another creature, different from and outside of God, a creature pretty much like ourselves, then we human beings are still in our sins, because the death and resurrection of Jesus could not have saved us. According to the New Testament, after all, our redemption was “expiated,” was “purchased,” by the blood of Jesus (Rom. 3:25; 5:9; Eph. 1:7; 2:13; Col. 1:14,20; 1 Peter 1:19; Rev. 5:9). Now, if our redemption was something purchased, surely no one but God could pay the price. The very name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” The Nicene fathers perceived, then, that the teaching of Arius touched on the matter of our redemption. This is why they made sure to say that God’s Son “became man for us men and for our salvation.”
God and Jesus, therefore, are distinct (since the Father sent the Son), but they are not separable. Since there was never God the Father without his Son, then the Son must be as eternal as the Father. Otherwise, the Son would essentially be a creature, someone who had not existed before God made him. That, said Nicaea, is what the apostles taught, and that was the reason the priest Arius was dead wrong.
Although what happened at Nicaea remained very controversial for several decades, the work of the council ultimately prevailed in the determination of Christian dogma. After Nicaea’s proclamation was reaffirmed at the Council of Constantinople in 381, this prevalence established the standard of “orthodoxy” in the Christian faith.
In recent centuries, nonetheless, there has been a resurgence of opposition to the Council of Nicaea. Most obvious, of course, are the criticisms from those who dispute the doctrine that Nicaea had in mind to affirm—namely, the full divinity of Jesus Christ. However, the Unitarians have not been Nicaea’s only critics. Even some Christians who affirm the divinity of Christ have expressed complaints, or at least strong reservations, about what was done at that council. These objections have been twofold.
First, some Christians, simply as a matter of principle, are uncomfortable with the very notion of the dogmatic definition of doctrine. All Christian believers, after all, recognize that biblical revelation is inseparable from biblical history. This is why careful believers correctly resist any essential distinction between the truth of the Bible and the historicity of the Bible. Thus, recognizing that the biblical God inserted his revelation into the process of history, some Christians are disposed to leave that revelation, once delivered to the saints, to continue unhindered as an active yeast in history, setting its mark on the direction and even the structure of history, and adapting itself to the further currents of history, all the while producing new and helpful insights into the mystery of human existence.
Consequently, they believe that Christian doctrine, in order that it may develop along new lines required by changing historical circumstances, should remain somewhat fluid, even as history does. Hence, to those who see things this way, the dogmatic “defining” of revealed truth appears to be a rebellion against the historical nature of revelation. Dogma seems to be, at best, a flight from history, an unwarranted appeal to a permanent transcendence, an attempt to gain a “fix” on the biblical God.
Second, to some modern Christians, the Council of Nicaea, by interjecting abstract, philosophical, non--biblical language into theology in order to condemn Arius, introduced into the Church an alien element not consonant with the Semitic patterns of language and thought in which the biblical revelation was originally given. For those concerned with the preservation of these patterns, which are inseparable from divine revelation itself, Nicaea’s recourse to Greek philosophical language appears to be simply the first step to what they call the corruption of the gospel by Hellenic philosophy.
Before addressing these two concerns, it may beuseful to note that the fathers at Nicaea were already aware of and sensitive to them. Indeed, Athanasius of Alexandria, a young deacon present at that council, who as a bishop soon became its earliest and most effective proponent, elaborated his Christology over the next several decades with those very concerns in mind. Our own answer to these two concerns, therefore, will rely very much on the thought of Athanasius.
History & Dogma
What should we say about the first objection, the rejection of the very idea of dogmatic definitions? We should start, I suppose, by conceding the majorpremise—namely, the thesis that biblical revelation is inseparable from biblical history. Indeed, let me suggest that we go even further. In a certain sense, divine revelation is identical with biblical history, if we understand “biblical history” to include, not only what the Bible records, but also what the Bible creates.
First, the Bible’s very composition required a historical process that is integral to biblical history. Next, the canonizing of the Bible also came about through a historical process. Furthermore, in the course of these developments, the Bible went on to create future history. In fact, it continues to do so. By this I mean that the Bible, as written down, read, and proclaimed in the ongoing community of faith (the Church of both Testaments), directs and gives shape to the course of history. We ourselves are part of the history created by Holy Scripture.
Biblical history, that is to say, is “now,” an unbroken perpetuation that unites what the Bible records and what the Bible creates into a single, living, ongoing reality, a dynamic continuity that embraces both the words of Holy Scripture and the Church’s understanding of those words. If there were to be a break between the Bible and its correct interpretation, that continuity would be lost. There would be a disruption in salvation history. This is the tragedy known as “heresy,” and Nicaea recognized it in the case of Arius.
To safeguard that continuity between the Bible and the Church’s understanding of the Bible, an understanding that is essential to the continuity of “biblical history,” Nicaea prescribed a “dogma.” Far from being an abstraction from history, the proclamation of that dogma was a fact of history. History, after all, is not to be described solely as fluid. It is obvious, rather, that a great deal of history—the past!—is absolutely settled and fixed. There is no history without continuity, and dogma is the guarantor of continuity. In this sense, dogma is essential to history. Dogmas are fixed and unchanging, but they are not timeless. They are doctrinal standards, because they are authoritative historical witnesses. They keep biblical history going along the biblical path.
The continuity thus preserved by dogma is called Tradition, which embraces, as a single reality, the history narrated in the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Scriptures themselves, and the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church that reads these Scriptures in her worship, understands them in her teaching, and proclaims them in her ministry to the world. Understood in this sense, Tradition is the servant of biblical history. The documented history narrated in the Church by the reading and proclamation of the Scriptures is the early part of the Church’s own history. It is our history, and we in the Church understand it as our history. Nicaea perceived very well that our assurance on this subject is maintained by dogma.
Dogma & Language
What, then, should we say of the second objection raised against Nicaea, the complaint that the council introduced non-biblical, philosophical terms to refute Arius?
First, it is a fact that Nicaea’s condemnation of Arius formulated a new expression, by which the council insisted that the Father and the Son are not two different beings. They are not separable, said Nicaea. The Father and the Son are “of the same essence”— homoousios in the Greek language that they used at the council. There can be no God the Father, they further declared, without God the Son; otherwise the Father is not really the Father.
Nicaea, in adopting this term, had no intention of replacing the Semitic patterns of language and thought that are inseparable from biblical revelation itself. In “translating” the gospel into a dogmatic formula by recourse to a new, apparently “philosophical” term, Nicaea had in mind to accomplish only one thing—to refute a false teaching. True, homoousios was a new term. Thefathers at the council, nonetheless, saw no reason why a new heresy could not be refuted by the adoption of a new term. It added no alloy to the gospel itself. It was a historical marker, serving only to distinguish the true path of the gospel from a dead-end street.
In this respect it is important to observe that the use of the word homoousios did not “clarify” anything about God. It supplied no new light or intelligibility to what was already revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of dogmatic definitions is not to throw further light on what is, after all, the fullness of revealed truth. The purpose of dogmatic definitions is, rather, to confound heretics. Dogma serves to “focus” revelation in the sense of declaring what is “not in line” with revelation. Of itself, however, a dogma adds nothing new, and it is certain that homoousios added nothing to the gospel. Hence, it is wrong to imagine that Nicaea’s declaration clarified revealed truth. It did not. Nicaea told us absolutely nothing beyond what the apostles had declared. Indeed, the Nicene fathers went to some lengths to insist on this point.
After all, what is this “essence”—this ousia—of God, this “divinity” common to the Father and the Son? Or, to phrase the question differently, in what sense is the Son “begotten” of the Father? The fathers of Nicaea had no more idea on this matter than we do. Nor did the apostles. No amount of thinking can “clarify” these things. This is why the conciliar declaration against Arius was an apophatic or negative assertion. The council could not elucidate the “being” of God or the “generation” of the Son, beyond what Jesus himself had declared: “I and the Father are one.”
The council fathers could, however, condemn that devilish Arius as a heretic, and this they gladly did with that smack of gusto called an “anathema.”
Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois. He is the author of Christ in the Psalms, Christ in His Saints, and The Trial of Job (all from Conciliar Press). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.