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’.

Faith, truth, and discovery

Very often, the Internet demonstrates to us that Christians/believers and those who do not ‘believe’ are speaking at cross-purposes, especially when it comes to the word Faith. Many on the side of ‘unbelief’ imagine that faith is a blind following of what we have always been told, of believing the things you accepted on authority as a child and never maturing in your intellectual capacity as far as the content of religious/spiritual/metaphysical belief is concerned.

Christians/believers, on the other hand, try very hard to explain what faith is to us in different terms. I, personally, take a philological root for the discussion. Faith comes from Latin fides, which is used to translate the Greek pistis. Pistis has to do with trust, and can be used not only regarding belief, the Divine, philosophy, etc., but also of your neighbour, a business transaction, the sturdiness of a boat — I pisteuo that which is trustworthy.

This leads to the English word trust and its cognates — trustworthy, true, tree, tryst. Things that are (or are meant to be!) sturdy, reliable. The element here is not blindness but trusting that which you believe to be reliable. The Christian argument, then, is that faith, fides, pistis, trust is about relying upon things that you have considered and tested and found to be worthy of your faith, fides, pistis, trust. You have faith in a chair that it won’t collapse; you have faith in gravity that as you sleep you won’t float off into the heavens; you have faith in your bank that they will give your money when asked; you have faith in your spouse not to commit adultery.

Obviously faith in humans and human institutions — banks and spouses in the above — can prove false.

I am reading Metropolitan Anthony Bloom of Sourozh (1914-2003), God and Man (2nd ed, 1974).* In chapter 2, ‘Doubt and Disclosure’, he re-examines the way we approach faith and doubt. And truth. He writes:

Truth is something which is an expression of reality, and an expression means two things: first, that the reality which surrounds us is perceived (obviously incompletely); secondly, that it is expressed (also incompletely, because of our inability to express reality in exact words and expressions). (44)

Due to the limitations of perception and expression, truth as we set it out will always need to be checked and revised. This is part of a large analogy with the activity of the scientist. Before becoming a monk, Met. Anthony had a science background and was, I believe, a medical doctor. He explains that for the scientist, truth is not a static thing; truth is expressed better, in this case, by the term model. A scientist gathers knowledge, information, data from observation, reason, experimentation; this is assessed, evaluated, and the pieces are put together to form hypotheses, theories, and a working model.

But the scientist does not stop there. The scientist eagerly seeks to push the model to its boundaries. Reality itself does not change, but the model can. Therefore, the scientist first looks for any flaws in the model. Then the scientist looks for new information to incorporate or falsify the model. This is how progress is made, how we move from the scientific models of Newton to those of Einstein.

Faith should be dynamic as well. Our expressions of it are, by the nature of language, static. They are like a snapshot of someone giving a lecture, with his or her mouth open ‘like a hippopotamus’. However, we know that the reality of the lecture was a moving, dynamic event, and that open mouth, frozen in time for eternity, was but a moment.

When we come up against realities and knowledge and arguments and ideas that cause us to question our model of reality, the truth of metaphysical/spiritual things as we have expressed it, the first step is not to say, ‘Alas, Christianity is false! There must be no God!’ Instead, it is to provoke inquiry into our expression of reality, truth, as we have expressed it; where are its weaknesses? What other arguments, data, knowledge can be used to shift it, change it, modify it?

Moving back to the analogy I began with, the more relational analogy, this would mean asking, ‘What sort of Person(s) is God? What is wrong with my arguments for God’s character/existence/behaviour? What are the reliable sources for such knowledge? What would be the reliable sources? How do I approach these sources? How do I incorporate such knowledge into my understanding of the reality of God?’

These are the questions of a dynamic faith that has moved beyond mere acceptance of authority, as we do as children, to living in a complex world that will inevitably bring with it questions and doubts.

*Eastern Orthodox books from the ’70s are awesome.

Belief and understanding: Anselm, Augustine, William of St Thierry — and YOU

St Anselm of Canterbury’s famous dictum, ‘Credo ut intelligam’ — I believe so that I may understand — appears at the end of chapter 1 of the Proslogion. The context looks like this:

I confess, Lord, and give you thanks, because you created you created this your image in me, so that, mindful of you, I might contemplate you, I might love you. But it [the image] is so decayed by the wearing down of vices, so darkened by the smoke of sins, that it cannot be of service for that which it was made for, unless you renew and reshape it. I do not attempt, Lord, to penetrate your height, because in no way do I compare my understanding to it; but I desire in some way to understand your turth, which my heart believes and loves. For I do not seek to understand so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. For I also believe this, that “Unless I shall believe, I may not understand.” (my trans.)

Throughout Proslogion 1, St Anselm is setting the groundwork for how we are to approach the unapproachable light, to contemplate the invisible, transcendant God. How can we, sinful humans with clouded sight, draw near to God and see Him? Then comes this paragraph. Thus the context for the famous dictum.

St. Augustine's pears, St. Sabas' apples & genreSchmitt’s edition gives us St Augustine as the inspiration:

For we believe in order that we may know (cognoscamus), we do not know in order that we may believe. (Tract. in Joh. XL, n. 9 [PL 35.1690])

Believe so that you may understand [plural you]. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. CCXII, n. 1 [PL 38.1059])

But so that we may understand, first let us believe. For “unless you believe, you will not understand” (Is. 7:9, Vulgate). (Serm. LXXXIX, n. 4 [PL 38.556])

Therefore since we wish to understand the eternity of the Trinity, we must believe before we may understand. (De Trin. l. VIII, c. V, n. 8 [PL 42.952])

I have not checked the contexts of all of these, but the last is pretty clear — trying to understand the Most Holy Trinity.

Anselm lived 1033-1109, before some of the unfortunate incidents in mediaeval theology that started the now-accepted separation between intellect and belief. A few decades later, this marriage of faith and reason — of faith seeking reason — would still be visible in William of St Thierry (1085-1148), who turned up in my Lenten reading this year (The Cistercian World: Monastic Writings of the Twelfth Century, ed. and trans. P. Matarasso):

It is not reason … that leads faith to understanding; rather, through faith it looks for understanding from above, even from you, the Father of lights from whom comes every good and perfect gift. This is not that understanding which is acquired by the exercise of reason, or results from intellectual processes: it is drawn in response to faith from the throne of your greatness and formed by your wisdom. In all things like its source, on entering the mind of the believer it embraces reason and conforms it to itself, while faith is quickened and enlightened by it. (Meditation II, p. 113 in English)

William’s context is also the apprehension of God. He is discussing contemplation and the feeble attempts of his own mind in seeking the face of God — how dark it seems, how far he feels from God, how much like a beginner at all times, how difficult the ascent, how quickly any illumination seems to fade away. How like the experience of us all.

Reason is all well and good.

But how can we attain to understanding of the Divine Person(s) with our frail, human reason — itself clouded by sins and weaknesses and mistakes?

Credo ut intelligam is not a rejection of reason. It is not an abandonment of all rational attempts to consider the Triune God. It is, rather, an admission that rational intellect alone cannot attain to the understanding of Someone Who is simultaneously beyond all of this and nearer to us than our own breath — the Creator of quarks and quasars and the cosmos, the One Who Is Three but One (William in particular admits to his difficulties with properly thinking about the Trinity), the God Who became a Man.

How could understanding God ever precede believing in Him?

Indeed, what these three men — mystics and theologians, all — demonstrate to us is that, even once we believe, still do we struggle to understand.

Let us be of good cheer, then, as we trust in our God Who loves us and made us and remakes us.

The Untame Faith of Aphrahat and Chrysostom

Ephrem the Syrian, Isaac the Syrian, Aphrahat the Persian

If terms like aphthartodocetism don’t make you interested in Patristics, hopefully names like Aphrahat (called ‘the Persian’) and Chrysostom (means ‘Goldenmouth’) will. I blogged here recently about how the Fathers can help us untame the paltry god of our own making; the faith — trust, reliance — of the Fathers is also untame, as we see below.

First, a beautiful, lyrical passage from the Syriac Father Aphrahat the Persian (fl. 336-345):

Faith causes the barren to sprout forth. It delivers from the sword. It raises up from the pit. It enriches the poor. It releases the captives. It delivers the persecuted. It brings down the fire. It divides the sea. It cleaves the rock, and gives to the thirsty water to drink. It satisfies the hungry. It raises the dead, and brings them up from Sheol. It stills the billows. It heals the sick. It conquers hosts. It overthrows walls. It stops the mouths of lions and quenches the flames of fire. It humiliates the proud and brings the humble to honor. All these mighty works are wrought by faith. (Demonstration 4.17-18, from Ancient Christian Devotional, Year B, p. 160)

Imagine such a wild, untame faith taking a hold of your life! And it can, right down to those pesky passions:

By ‘his darts’ Paul means both temptations and perverse desires. He calls them fiery because that is the nature of the appetite. Faith is capable of commanding hosts of demons. How much more is faith capable of ordering the passions of the soul? (John Chrysostom, Homily on Ephesians 24.6.14-17, from Ancient Christian Devotional, Year B, p. 199)

Faith, the attitude of trust and reliance, of repose and assurance, in the All-mighty, Untame God can transform us and the world. We just need to actually have it — actually trust in what God can do in our lives by His good grace.

To close, Brennan Manning (paraphrased/half-remembered):

The difference between faith as believing in a God who may or may not exist and faith as trusting in God is enormous; the one can leave you unchanged; the other intrinsically brings change. (Somewhere in The Ragamuffin Gospel)

Happy Reformation Day!

“Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that the believer would stake his life on it a thousand times.  This knowledge of and confidence in God’s grace makes men glad and bold and happy in dealing with God and with all creatures.  And this is the work which the Holy Spirit performs in faith.  Because of it, without compulsion, a person is ready and glad to good to everyone, to serve everyone, to suffer everything, out of love and praise to God, who has shown him this grace.  Thus it is impossible to separate works from faith, quite as impossible as to separate heat and light from fire.  Beware, therefore, of your own false notions and of the idle talkers who imagine themselves wise enough to make decisions about faith and good works, and yet are the greatest fools.  Pray God that He may work faith in you.  Otherwise you will surely remain forever without faith, regardless of what you may think or do.”

-Martin Luther, from “Preface to the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Faith and Freedom: An Invitation to the Writings of Martin Luther, John F. Thornton and Susan B. Varenne, eds.