Trinity and Philosophy in ancient Christianity

St Thomas Aquinas by Fra Angelico, San Marco Priory, Florence

One of the great difficulties facing Christians as we seek to think properly about God’s self-revelation to us through Scripture, the Incarnation, and the ongoing life of the church at prayer and worship is how to think rationally, clearly, and intelligently about the things of God. Sometimes our attempts to provide possible solutions to problems, solutions that seem to be philosophically coherent, bring us into some trouble — thus, pitfalls such as Apollinarianism and Nestorianism; these are ways of thinking about Jesus Christ, the God-Man, the Second Person of the Trinity Incarnate that, in some way, do violence to either the Scriptural narrative or the reasoning mind. Orthodoxy is the attempt to avoid such violence in how we think about God.

One of the great dangers facing Christians as we seek to think properly about God is to imagine that human reason is a flawless tool that cannot err. Ancient and early mediaeval Christians, Platonists though often they were, had a somewhat different relationship to reason and philosophy. We often read anti-philosophy statements, such as the famous Tertullian dictum, ‘What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?’ The medieval monks were constantly back and forth on the subject of philosophy, as to whether it was good or bad — indeed, the same monk may take up either side of said cause at different times. But what those who stayed the course and found themselves within the bounds of orthodoxy found was that the revelation in sacred Scripture had to be upheld, as understood by both reason and tradition. This is, indeed, how the doctrine of the Trinity was put together — prayerful, reasoned reflection on Scripture in light of the worshipping tradition of the gathered Christian community.

In the fifth century, a fellow named Socrates (obvs not the pagan philosopher) wrote about a particular heretic of the second half of the 300s, Aetius, in his Ecclesiastical History as follows, saying that Aetius

began to astonish those who conversed with him by the singularity of his discourses. And this he did in dependence on the precepts of Aristotle’s Categories; there is a book of that name, the scope of which he neither himself perceived, nor had been enlightened on by intercourse with learned persons: so that he was little aware that he was framing fallacious arguments to perplex and deceive himself. For Aristotle had composed this work to exercise the ingenuity of his young disciples, and to confound by subtle arguments the sophists who affected to deride philosophy. Wherefore the Ephectic academicians, who expound the writings of Plato and Plotinus, censure the vain subtlety which Aristotle has displayed in that book: but Aëtius, who never had the advantage of an academical preceptor, adhered to the sophisms of the Categories. For this reason he was unable to comprehend how there could be generation without a beginning, and how that which was begotten can be co-eternal with him who begat. In fact, Aëtius was a man of so superficial attainments, and so little acquainted with the sacred Scriptures, and so extremely fond of caviling, a thing which any clown might do, that he had never carefully studied those ancient writers who have interpreted the Christian oracles; wholly rejecting Clemens and Africanus and Origen, men eminent for their information in every department of literature and science. But he composed epistles both to the emperor Constantius, and to some other persons, wherein he interwove tedious disputes for the purpose of displaying his sophisms. He has therefore been surnamed Atheus. But although his doctrinal statements were similar to those of the Arians, yet from the abstruse nature of his syllogisms, which they were unable to comprehend, his associates in Arianism pronounced him a heretic. Being for that reason expelled from their church, he pretended to have separated himself from their communion. Even in the present day there are to be found some who from him were formerly named Aëtians, but now Eunomians. For some time later Eunomius, who had been his amanuensis, having been instructed by his master in this heretical mode of reasoning, afterwards became the head of that sect. But of Eunomius we shall speak more fully in the proper place. (trans. NPNF2, vol. 2)

Aetius is thus said to be the teacher of Eunomius, who is accused by the famous Cappadocian Fathers (Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa) of being a logic-chopper. Eunomius is one of the most purely logical and reason-driven of the various persons called ‘Arian’. Here we see the concern that many ancient Christians had with pure reason. Aetius’ chief problem, from the way Socrates describes him, is his dependence upon Aristotle. He has treated the Categories almost as a divine book of truth to which all ways of thinking should be subsumed.

To cherry pick simply to demonstrate the point:

Vainly then do they run about with the pretext that they have demanded Councils for the faith’s sake; for divine Scripture is sufficient above all things; but if a Council be needed on the point, there are the proceedings of the Fathers, for the Nicene Bishops did not neglect this matter, but stated the doctrine so exactly, that persons reading their words honestly, cannot but be reminded by them of the religion towards Christ announced in divine Scripture. -Athanasius, De Synodis, 6.

But in learning the Faith and in professing it, acquire and keep that only, which is now delivered to thee by the Church, and which has been built up strongly out of all the Scriptures . . . Take heed then, brethren, and hold fast the traditions which ye now receive, and write them and the table of your heart. -Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 5:12.

The other ‘Arians’ or ‘Semi-Arians’ or ‘Homoians’ were themselves conservative in this respect — in the creed of Rimini, their main case against consubstantial or homoousion is that it is unscriptural (see Socrates, Ecclesiastical History 2.37). The supreme authority in the Christian faith is not, was not, shall not be, human reason. Reason alone cannot impose any belief on the Christian. And if you believe that reason has brought you to a conclusion that runs counter to Scripture and Tradition, then what you believe is not Christian. But if it is true, then perhaps Christianity is not.

As John Anthony McGuckin says in the introduction to his new volume on first-millennium church history, The Path of Christianity, Christianity itself is a strangely conservative institution, even when it is radical and disruptive. Ancient and medieval Christians were always looking back, back to Scripture and to the long line of living tradition that brought them to where they were. Or they were looking around themselves at the worship offered to the Father through the Son in the Spirit and meditating on that in light of Scripture.

People like to imagine where ‘western Christianity went wrong’ — the Orthodox imagine it one way, Protestants in others, Mormons in a new way yet again. Sometimes I wonder if the symptoms are not present already in St Anselm (whom I love). He makes clear, articulate use of Aristotle, including The Categories. However, rather than arguing that the Trinity cannot be deducted by reason, he seeks to prove with pure logic not only that there the Supreme Good is Trinity, but that it is and must be Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Now, he does not slide into falsehood. And a great many of the Scholastics who follow him, such as Sts Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Great, do not fall into falsehood.

But High and Late Medieval logic-chopping gets underway, alas, leading to a rejection of analogical language for God, thus producing ideas such as ‘being’ for God is the same as ‘being’ for my chair. In some respects, this adulation of Aristotle is part of the problem that we western Christians need to shake. Anselm has it, ‘I believe in order that I may understand,’ but today many think they understand but have no faith. The life of faith will ever be a matter of tension, I think, and one of those tensions lies in accepting revelation and thinking articulately with logic.

For other musings on Eunomius, see Fr Aidan’s recent post at Eclectic Orthodoxy, ‘The Curious Trinity of Dale Tuggy’.

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