Here’s a YouTube video I made a while back about the fourth century. I’ll be teaching fourth-century ecclesiastical history for Davenant Hall this January in my course called “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy (325-407).” You can sign up for it here! And if you’re not sold that the fourth century is a wild time worth studying, here’s the video:
We’ve just missed the feast day of St. Gregory of Nazianzus (or “the Theologian”, a title he shares only with St. John the Evangelist — although a case may also be made for St. Symeon the New Theologian), but he is a saint worth looking at.
St. Gregory (329-390) is one of the famous Cappadocian Fathers, a trio of theologians from Cappadocia in modern Turkey who were an important influence upon the development of Trinitarian theology in the last stages of the Arian Controversy. The other members of this trio are the brothers St. Basil of Caesarea (Saint of the Week here) — a good friend of St. Gregory’s — and St. Gregory of Nyssa (Saint of the Week here).
St. Gregory’s father, a convert from paganism, was bishop of Nazianzus. He and Gregory’s mother had an impact upon the young Gregory, some of which psychoanalysts would probably love to get their hands on. Following the path of the Late Antique man of letters, Gregory went to school in Caesarea, Palestine (not the Caesarea of Basil which is Cappadocia), with Basil, for education. He and Basil met up again in Alexandria.
Gregory was headed on his “worldly” career path when he went from Egypt to Athens. When his ship was struck by a storm on the way, he chose to devote his life to the Gospel and the work of the Church. In Gregory’s case, this meant a life of quiet retirement and ascetic rigour back home in Cappadocia.
However, back in Cappadocia, he found himself being lassoed into a more active role in Church service by Basil. He rose to challenge, finding himself unwillingly bishop of what amounted to no more than a service station on the highway.
Yet from there his fortunes were truly to rise, as he was translated to the see of Constantinople, where he presided over the Second “Ecumenical” Council in 381 which produced this creed, commonly called “Nicene” and recited in churches around the world today.
Most Nicenes consider Constantinople I a great victory for the orthodox position. Gregory did not. He resigned partway through the event and went home to Cappadocia in disgust at Church politics, for that famous creed does not explicitly affirm the full deity of the Holy Spirit, one of the important dogmas that he and his fellow Cappadocians had fought for in the last stages of the Nicene controversy.
Not that his time in Constantinople was a total bust. It produced a good number of excellent sermons, including the Five Theological Orations that, besides simple statements like the Athanasian Creed, were my introduction to Trinitarian Theology and which Christopher A. Hall used as the basis for his discussion of the Trinity in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (reviewed here, with a discussion of Greg Naz here).
He spent his last years in quiet retirement writing poetry and refining his Orations. His poetry, when read in conjunction with his dogmatic theology, escorts us into the world of the mystical theology of the Eastern Church (to borrow the title from Vladimir Lossky).
In St. Gregory, we Western Christians have the opportunity to see the happy union of the apophatic — we can only speak of God by uttering what He is not — and the cataphatic — through revelation we are able to speak truths about God. We see that theology is a task that is not to be taken up lightly but soberly, that it is the ascent of the soul to the living God, into Whose hands it is a fearful thing to fall.
With Gregory, we see clearly the divinity of all three Persons of the Trinity, we see some of their attributes, then we ascend the Mount and enter into the Cloud of Unknowing where we fall down to worship the Triune God in the beauty of holiness.
And it is worship that binds all Christians together, for worship is our purpose. As John Piper says, mission exists because worship does not. So take some time to worship God with thrice-holy cry like the Seraphim; spend some time thinking on things heavenly; spend some time with the Fathers.
And then write about it in dactylic hexameter — or whatever your creative outlet is. Just like St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory the Theologian.
I have been reading Origen’s On First Principles recently, and a thought came to me which had come to me before (you can thank me for being suitably vague later). This newly-recurring thought is that Origen and “Origenism” are the formative source and root for Christian controversy and Orthodoxy.
Now, you’re probably going to tell me that it’s actually biblical interpretation, such as the interrelation of Proverbs 8:22 with John 1. And you’d be right. But whose biblical interpretation do you think everyone was arguing about?
Case One: Arianism. Origen’s Christology, as represented both in On First Principles and his Commentary on John is subordinationist, and, although he does not believe, “There was when he was not,” he at times calls Christ “created” and could be read through an Arian viewpoint, especially given the lack of homoousios theology. However, in On First Principles, Origen is also fond of the image of the Son being like the rays of light from the sun — this is an image favoured by Athanasius, the great opponent of Arianism. Hm…
Case Two: Pneumatomachianism (aka Macedonianism, literally “Spirit-fighter-ism“). Origen’s theology of the Holy Spirit is relatively undeveloped, in my opinion. When, in On First Principles, he comes to discussing the Spirit, he gets himself sidetracked with a discussion about spirit more broadly. He once again has a subordinationist view, saying that the Father’s being overflows into the Son who overflows into the Spirit. The Spirit at times feels more like a personification of spirit, not necessarily a self-subsisting person or hypostasis.
This ambiguity of the treatment of the Third Person of the Holy Trinity ended up with Origenists such as the Pneumatomachians arguing against the Spirit’s divinity and other Origenists such as Didymus the Blind in On the Holy Spirit arguing for the Spirit’s divinity.
Case Three: The First Origenist Controversy. This controversy was specifically about Origen and some of his less … mainline … teachings and his approach to Sacred Scripture; some people (Epiphanius of Salamis, Jerome) were certain that he was an out-and-out heretic and deserved condemnation, and that his allegorical interpretations went too far. Others (John Chrysostom, John Cassian, Rufinus of Aquileia) argued that Origen was largely orthodox. In the heat of it all, Chrysostom ended up dead, Rufinus and Jerome ruined their friendship, and the golden age of Egyptian monasticism was gone forever.
His defenders found precisely where he was worth fighting for, and his opponents found the places where he was worth attacking. What constitutes orthodoxy was, as a result, more clearly defined, but, thanks, in the West at least, largely to Rufinus’ translations of Origen and John Cassian’s work in Gaul, allegorical readings of Scripture were never fully lost.
Case Four: The Cappadocian Fathers. Gregory Thaumaturgus was a student of Origen, and the Cappadocians (Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa) were students of Thaumaturgus. They were also involved in the later stages of both the Arian and Pneumatomachian Controversies. Gregory of Nyssa was able to produce theological writings after the triumph of Nicene Orthodoxy in 381.
Within the bounds of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan understanding of the Trinity, these three Orthodox Fathers par excellence produced Trinitarian theology that follows the trajectory set out by Origen. Origen, unlike his Platonist predecessors, rooted the being of God (His ontology) in being a Father, not in being a Creator. This meant that there never was a time when the Father lacked the Son. It also meant that the Godhead is a distinct being from creation who depends not at all upon the created order. It also means that the very root and source of the universe is rooted in communion (see John Zizioulas, Being As Communion to have your mind blown on this count). These were points taken up by Athanasius, but their nuances were really explored and set forth for us by the Cappadocians.
Case Five: The Second Origenist Controversy. This was a controversy about a number of Origen’s cosmological statements that were being espoused by a group of “fanatical” Palestinian monks. In 553, in meetings before the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople II), Justinian and the Fathers determined that certain Origenist statements were outside the bounds of orthodoxy, and in the Acts of the Council itself, Origen and Evagrius are condemned outright as heretics.
This meant that such teachings as celestial bodies having souls or apocatastasis (seriously, get into Patristics for the awesome terminology) which teaches that at the end of all things God will reconcile all rational beings to Himself (presumably the Devil as well — Evagrius certainly thinks so) — such teachings are officially outside of orthodoxy. It also means that very few of Origen’s writings survive, and far fewer of Evagrius Ponticus’ — although one of his writings survived under St. Basil the Great’s name, another under Nilus. People will circulate what they wish, no matter how many books you burn.
In the end, so many of the big controversies of the early centuries of Christianity revolved around Origen, his understanding of Scripture and of God, and the Church’s understanding of Origen. He’s not exactly one of the early Christian theologians for one to start with, but he’s definitely worth reading, and certainly important.
Today in the West is the feast of St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 331-395), the younger brother of St. Basil the Great (Saint of the Week here) and the youngest of the Cappadocian Fathers (brief blurb here), the others being his brother Basil and Basil’s university buddy Gregory of Nazianzus. One could also include the holy women of Sts. Gregory and Basil’s family, the Sts. Macrina, their grandmother and sister, the former who helped raise them, the latter who helped raise them up to holiness.
St. Gregory was not originally destined for an ecclesiastical career. He originally pursued law, but the bidding of his mother Emily, was drawn to the holy life. According to abbamoses.com (see January 10), she had him come to a service in honour of the 40 Martyrs. Tired from his journey and not especially zealous, he fell asleep. Whilst asleep, the 40 Martyrs came to him in a dream, rebuking him for his sloth. Overcome by penitence, he decided that he would thenceforth lead a holy, righteous, and sober life.
In 372 he became bishop of Nyssa in Asia Minor, but was exiled by the Semi-Arian Emperor Valens in 374. In 378, the Nicene Emperor Gratian recalled St. Gregory to his bishopric. He was present in 381 at the Council of Constantinople, which produced the form of the “Nicene” Creed in use to this day. In 395 he fell asleep, having left behind a large body of writings.
One of the blessings that comes from reading the Cappadocian Fathers, especially this youngest of the three, is their bridging of the gap into an age where Nicene Orthodoxy was the accepted norm for theological discourse. This gives their writings a different tone from those of St. Athanasius, who spends great energy and passion in polemic against Arianism, or in later ages when new controversies arise, producing the polemic of St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Augustine of Hippo. This must be qualified, of course, because there are always various smaller controversies, or certain local ones, that give flavour to theological writings.
Be that as it may, St. Gregory of Nyssa is able to produce works of theology that are not always on the defense but are often simply the proclamation of Orthodoxy. It is a position of security rare in the world of theology and one not to be missed.
The only work of his which I have read in full is his Life of Moses. I recommend it highly. It is a guide to the virtuous life, using a “spiritual” rather than literal approach to Scripture, basing the steps of the virtuous life upon that of Moses. Although it takes a bit of getting used to, many good ideas and truths are found in this book. It is a great introduction to how the Fathers read Scripture as well as providing much food for thought and consideration of how we live our lives.
How to honour St. Gregory of Nyssa? Do not simply read his works, but praise, worship, honour, and glorify the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit whom he adored. Live a virtuous life. The Fathers seek no higher honour than this. Although, if you really like a guy, an icon wouldn’t hurt ;).
Last night was the second meeting of the small group. We discussed the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds. Some good thoughts were shared and expressed, which I hope to give you along the way this week. But to keep things short, I’ll just start with my notes in this post and move on to the fruit of the night later.
As I worked through my notes, we discussed various questions pertaining to church history and Arianism and why Arius was a heretic — that sort of thing. Things that came up along the way were baptism, the Donation of Constantine, the Resurrection of the Dead, Mozilla being a charity, etc. Being here in person is clearly the preferable way to encounter this stuff.
The Nicene Creed
The origins of the Nicene Creed lie in the early fourth century. An Alexandrian priest named Arius said, responding to his bishop Alexander who saw Jesus as having being begotten of the Father before all ages, “En pote hote ouk en.” “There was when he was not.” This became the slogan of his party who were termed “Arians.” (Since he was only a priest, some of the Arian bishops didn’t like this, but when you’re a heretic, you don’t choose your label.)
Arianism is not traditional Christology, whatever certain Archbishops of Canterbury might tell you.* In Arianism, Jesus, the Word, was considered to be other than the Father and lesser than the Father for a few reasons, including the verse in Proverbs in which Divine Wisdom says that it was created by Father first. Many ancient theologians interpreted “Divine Wisdom” to be the same as “the Word” of John 1. Therefore, by Arius’ reckoning, Jesus was a created being, as in Colossians he is called, “the firstborn of all creation.” Besides this, Arianism tried to follow a certain amount of Aristotelian logic. Jesus is called the Son or the Word, whereas the Father is called the Father or God. A difference in name, as with apple and tree, necessitates a difference in essence or nature. Therefore, Jesus’ essence is not the same as that of God the Father. They do not share a “substance” but are two entirely different beings. Jesus the Word, because he is always following the Father’s will, is allowed to be called “divine” and “God”.
One of the major problems with Arianism is the fact that every Sunday, they, along with everyone else, would worship Jesus. If Jesus is not God, you cannot worship him. As well, Arianism runs counter to the plain sense of John 1. If “the Word was God,” the Word wasn’t other than God. The Word wasn’t a lesser being. The Word was God. This is what it means. Nicene orthodoxy takes that verse at its face value and uses it to interpret Proverbs, not the other way around. The Proverbs verses aren’t necessarily about Jesus in a prophetic sense anyway. Wisdom may simply be a type of the Word. Typology is important to keep in mind.
To have Arius running around saying all that stuff would not do. A council was called in Antioch which condemned him. This wasn’t quite enough — Arius kept at it, so a general council, a council of the whole inhabited world was called. The word for this is “ecumenical”; thus you will hear church historians and the Eastern Orthodox talking about the “ecumenical councils,” of which there were eight. This council met in Nicaea, which is in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) near the Bosporus, opening on June 19, 325. The Emperor Constantine convened the council, believing that it was important for the security and fabric of his newly united Empire that the Church also be united. Bishops came from all over the East, from Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia, Persia, Libya, Greece, Armenia, Cyprus. From the West, Orosius of Cordoba, Spain, came as did delegates from Silvester, Bishop of Rome.
The bishops met for several days, arguing about the doctrines professed by Arius and believing that a document should be produced to which bishops would have to subscribe if they were to avoid excommunication and anathematisation. They also discussed various other matters, from how to consecrate bishops to ordaining castrated men. The creed to which all had to subscribe was based upon the baptismal formula of Caesaria with a few alterations and was as we have it, with the following differences. It ends with, “And the Holy Spirit,” then launches into:
And those that say ‘There was when he was not,’ and, ‘Before he was begotten he was not,’ and that, ‘He came into being from what-is-not,’ or those that allege, that the Son of God is ‘Of another substance or essence’ or ‘created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable,’ these the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes.
The specifically anti-Arian statements are bundled together:
Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God, of God; Light, of Light; Very God, of very God; Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father;
Since the Arians called Jesus “God” without believing him to actually be God, the most important statements are the first and last. Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all worlds,” as opposed to the Arian assertion that he was created within time. And he is “of one substance with the Father,” as opposed to the Arian idea that Jesus is a different, lesser being than God the Father. The Greek word is, “homoousios”, the Latin, “consubstantialis.” (I object to the modern translation that says, “of one being with the Father,” because it obscures the theological debates of the creed’s origin and does not make it very clear in what way Jesus and the Father are one, whereas “of one substance” is a proper translation of the theological idea that Jesus and the Father share an essence; furthermore, “of one being” allows for the ancient heresy of Sabellianism.)
The bits about the Holy Spirit come from at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381 to combat people who say that the Holy Spirit isn’t God but is something like an angel or who say that he isn’t his own person. From that point forward, the creed was only ever affirmed at Church Councils and no ecumenical council has meddled with it.
At a synod in Spain, to battle a heresy which I believe was called Priscillianism, they added one little Latin word to the creed, filioque. Thus, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Charlemagne liked the Spanish usage and sought to unify the liturgy of the whole Frankish Empire, so they used filioque although the Pope was not in favour. He believed in dual procession of the Holy Spirit; but you don’t mess with the creed without asking. Eventually, later popes got on board with this idea, and it is in the Nicene Creed as said in the Church of Rome to this day.
The Eastern Orthodox don’t like this (see T. Ware, The Orthodox Church, 1st ed., pp. 218-223). In part, they don’t like it because no ecumenical council agreed to it. In part, they don’t like it because most of them don’t believe in a dual procession of the Holy Spirit. In part, they don’t like it because it was done in the West (OK, that last one may be harsh, but I’m always amazed at the strongly eastern flavour of so-called “ecumenical” councils, esp. the last one which dealt with a specifically eastern issue, and at which no western bishops were present).
The Apostles’ Creed
The Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal formula of the Church of Rome. The legend, however, is that the 12 Apostles were all sitting around one day and thinking, “What do we believe? What should the new disciples agree to at baptism?” Each of them contributed a different bit and, hey, presto! The Apostles’ Creed! This creed is the basis for the Anglican baptismal rites; modern ones work it into a series of questions, whereas the BCP (1962)** has the parents or one to be baptised recite it in full. You can see its basis in the baptismal rite found in the 3rd-century Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus as well.
When we see these two creeds side by side, we see why I prefer the Nicene. It is fuller, more complete. Part of this fullness comes from its origins in the Arian controversy, but not all, such as the statement that God is the creator of the visible and the invisible.
*See Robert W. Jenson, “With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity. He doesn’t deal with Williams but he does deal with Arius. The whole essay is available on google books.
**1662 the priest recites it and they agree to believe it.