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’.

Christianity and Eastern Religions

I just read an essay by the late Michael Spencer (the Internet Monk) about Thomas Merton and why Merton appeals to iMonk so much. Thomas Merton is one of the 20th century’s most popular spiritual/religious authors, a fact that probably immediately draws the ire and fire of fundamentalists and other likeminded folks (not to mention his being a Roman Catholic!).

One of the aspects of Merton’s writing that seems to draw a lot of fire, however, is neither his popularity nor his Roman Catholicism, but his interest in Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism (see here). Thomas Merton is not the only Christian writer to get in trouble for learning of and drawing from Eastern religions — CS Lewis has been accused of being a Taoist and a heretic here! I have no doubt others have suffered similar fates (Anthony de Mello would have if he were popular enough).

This branding of Christian thinkers who have an interest in Eastern religions and who are able to draw ideas from them as heretics or false Christians troubles me. It troubles me because Christians are bound to the Bible as the full revelation of God as far as we need to know, containing nothing superfluous and lacking nothing necessary (see Rick Dugan’s brief but illuminating post to that effect).

Yet to say that the Bible is all true is not to say that there is no true outside the Bible. What it means is that if we find truth elsewhere, it will not run counter to Scripture, nor will it be necessary for human salvation. It will not complete the picture of God we can find by faithfully searching the Scriptures. But Christians must surely be able to learn from Eastern religions.

We certainly learn from pagan Greeks — we are all fans of pagan logic-chopping. We tend to be pleased with readers of Plato’s Republic. I once saw a quotation from Marcus Aurelius — Stoic philosopher and Christian persecutor — in a calendar full of Christian quotations! It was there because it was wise. We like a certain type of pagan Stoic ethics, or a certain type of seeking happiness put forward by the likes of Aristotle.

It’s true that we spent a good long time after dear Origen delineating how closely we should dance with Neo-Platonism, and that aspects of mediaeval philosophy were hopelessly pagan and Platonic, while aspects of late mediaeval theology are heavily Aristotelian. And we have had to disentangle Christian truth from those pagan elements since then.

But what about the paganism of “Enlightenment” thought? Or the paganism of capitalism? Or the paganism of the Renaissance? Or the paganism of secularism? These are ways of thinking that are so bred into our culture that Christians often operate by their assumptions while claiming to be spiritual beings who are inseparably tied to the immortal God who transcends the rational world!

Let us return, then, to Eastern religions, to Taoism and Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

Is it necessarily wrong to read their writings and find wisdom there? I sure hope not! In The Inner Experience, his final work, Merton paints an expressly Christian mysticism, one rooted in the reality of the Incarnation, the Scriptures, and the tradition. He also mentions Zen Buddhism, but under the belief that Zen meditation is a form of psychological action that alone does not guarantee contact with God — yet it can help calm the mind and help the mind focus.

Is this so bad? I mean, this is what Christian mystics, Orthodox and Catholic, call for — the dispassionate focussing and, to a certain extent, emptying of the soul/nous/mind to be able to focus on the tangible Presence of God. If a Buddhist practice that is decidedly psychological can help us without denying the Scriptures or the tradition, is that so wrong?

If we are set free by the Scriptures and enlivened by the Holy Spirit, we can read any pagan — ancient or modern, Greek or Indian — and be able to find the wisdom of God himself dwelling there. And we should expect this, actually. Justin Martyr discusses the fact that the Word (that Person of the Godhead who became incarnate as Christ) is the underlying principle of the cosmos, that he orders all things and is present to some extent in all human beings.

All human beings can catch a glimpse of God, of how to reach Him, of what His way of life is to be.

This practice is called spoiling the Egyptians. We read the unbelievers* and, using the twin lens of Scripture and Tradition, we can safely find the wisdom of God residing there. The practice is an ancient Christian practice certainly consciously practised by Origen and St. Clement of Alexandria; St. Justin Martyr became a Christian from having been a Platonist and considered himself a Christian philosopher. Its more recent pedigree includes Erasmus’  Handbook of the Militant Christian (where I first encountered it, though not under this name, if I remember aright).

The idea is set out in St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses (I was going to quote for you, but I left my copy in Canada). Basically, if you’ll recall the Exodus story, when the Israelites go out of Egypt, the Egyptians give them a vast amount of wealth — gold, silver, jewels. The allegorical or spiritual reading of this passage is the teaching that, because of the general grace of God there is wisdom in the writings of pagans. This wisdom is their wealth, and it is open to spoliation by Christians — ie. any wisdom in the pagans may be taken by the Christian reader and applied to his’er own life and beliefs.

Such beliefs are never to be binding unless corroborated by Scripture,** but they can help make our lives fuller and richer. If you have a terrible job, the Stoic idea that freedom resides within you and you can be truly free whilst a slave can be liberating. Or if you have, say, anger problems, breathing practices from Eastern religions can help calm and focus your mind.

So, if you’re halfway through the Bhagavad Gita, keep reading. Just don’t forget to read the Bible while you’re at it!

*The secularists, atheists, agnostics, Greeks, Egyptians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, Confucians, Native North Americans, Maori, Aborigines, African animists, Zoroastrians, Sumerians ……

**When we try to make them binding, we end up with embarrassing things like vociferous religious opposition to Copernicus and Galileo (although Galileo got into trouble because, even though correct, he had insufficient evidence and kept on teaching his ideas after promising not to until he had more evidence).