I’m teaching a course about Nicaea

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

I am teaching this term — “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy.” It’s an online course with the Davenant Institute, and you can read the official description here. When I approached this course, I did not want it to be simply the fourth century, nor simply, “How did the Arian/Nicene controversy get resolved?”

As a scholar who has spent a lot of time working with the Council of Chalcedon, I wanted this course to demonstrate how the questions being debated from the time of Nestorius’ episcopate to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were questions embedded in the thought of earlier thinkers, so I wanted to see the course reach a terminus of at least 451.

I also did not want anyone to get the idea that in 381 everything was settled. So extending to 451 helps finish off the Nicene narrative and push us onwards. Of course, the Council of Chalcedon opens up new cans of worms and results, ultimately, in new schisms and all sorts of things going a bit belly-up. There are no living ecclesiastical bodies directly descended from the Council of Ariminum or from Eunomius of Cyzicus, but the opponents of Chalcedon have a strong presence in the Middle East and count themselves part of apostolic succession.

And they all accept the Council of Nicaea.

Anyway, this, perhaps, wider temporal boundary than usual meant that some authors you might expect — Sts Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, for example — are not covered in depth. Alas, such decisions must be made in a ten-week course.

I also wanted to assign entire works of substance, if possible, and not just excerpts or bits of sermons. I want my students to grapple with the tedious parts of ancient theological works as well as the parts of longer treatises that are interesting but may never make an anthology of texts on the Trinitarian or Christological debates. So they are reading all of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, all of St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, all five “Theological Orations” of St Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Theologian”), etc.

Another thing that I thought was important in approaching this period in theological history, and this is up to me in the lectures and discussions, was to avoid making conclusions into premisses — a perspective gained from Father John Behr here as well as in his book The Nicene Faith. Two examples: It is not straightforward that confessing the God Word as being homoousios (consubstantial/of one substance) with God the Father would obviously be orthodox. Nor is it straightforward that the Trinity is “three hypostaseis in one ousia“. Depending on how you define these words, both of these hallmarks of contemporary orthodoxy were susceptible to unorthodox understandings back then.

A final grand, structural thought was similar to the first. The ecumenical councils move from debating the Trinity to Christology, but the questions of both were abroad at the same time. Moreover, there is more afoot than either of these debates. That is one reason I wanted to include entire works. I also chose to include St Ephrem the Syrian because he represents a very different world than the Greek theologians, both because he is writing poetry and because he is writing in Syriac.

I do not know how lectures on these topics go with different professors. My educational background is in both theology and classics, so the world of Late Antiquity comes forth in my lectures not a little. I have no difficulty keeping the various members of the Constantinian dynasty clear in my mind. I know the political culture and political history of the period. I know the Latin poetry and even some of the Greek philosophy — besides, of course, all the Classical era classics! I love teaching this period and not losing sight of the wider political and cultural environment.

And I love not hiding the fact that I am an Anglican by conviction who has tendencies towards Eastern Orthodoxy.

After two initial weeks of covering the Council of Nicaea and then a blitz through history to 381, we have been and will be looking at Athanasius, Ephrem, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary and Augustine in one week, Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, and Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon. Hilary and Augustine are unfairly lumped together because I did not want to cut either of them, but I have trouble envisioning a course that devotes attention to Athanasius but excludes Cyril, and I think Augustine On the Trinity is just too large to grapple with here. That’s for next term, when I get to teach St Augustine. 🙂

I have taken great delight in teaching this class so far. I enjoy preparing the lectures, and the students have good energy, come prepared, and have important things to say as well as good questions. We are almost halfway through. I’ll miss my Monday nights with them when it’s done.

But then, soon enough, I’ll be teaching my next course for Davenant. But more on that anon …

Saint of the Week: St. Hilary of Poitiers

Among western theologians of the patristic era, St. Hilary of Poitiers (300-368) is one of the important/major theologians of the Trinity, although his name does not ‘rank’ amongst the Famous Four (Doctors) — Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great — and he is less likely to be referenced than North Africans like Tertullian or Cyprian. Nevertheless, his work was read by Augustine as well as by Leo the Great who cites passages from St. Hilary’s De Trinitate in the patristic testimonia on two-nature Christology that he appended to Ep. 165 to Emperor Leo I (the ‘Second Tome’).

Hilary was born to well-to-do pagan parents and studied the Greek and Latin classics (as so many great men in history have done!), a study which in its breadth brought him to the Greek Old and New Testaments. It was the reading of the Scriptures themselves that converted St. Hilary, a testament to the power of God’s word written, enlivened by the Power of God’s Living Word to save.

He, his wife, and his daughter were baptised into the Catholic Church.

In the year 353, although his wife was still living, the people of Poitiers unanimously elected him bishop, demonstrating the quality of life exhibited by this saintly man. He immediately joined the controversy between Nicene and Arian theologians which was afoot at the time by excommunicating Saturninus, Bishop of the eminent see of Arles, with the aid of his fellow Gallic bishops.

Around 355, he wrote Ad Constantium Augustum liber primus, pleading the case of the Nicenes against their Arian opponents who were persecuting the Pro-Nicenes. This letter was so unsuccessful that Constantius convened a synod in 356 that resulted in four years’ exile in Phrygia for Hilary.

Nevertheless, Hilary continued his anti-Arian work at breakneck pace, producing De fide orientalium in 358, a work addressed to the semi-Arians of Gaul that made clear the work of the Nicene theologians of the Greek East, seeking to bring about understanding in the minds of his theological opponents. In 359-360, he published his great work De Trinitate which brought to Latin theology many of the subtleties of Greek theological thought and laid the work for the great works of Latin theology to come in the later fourth and fifth centuries.

He made it home in 361, and spent a few years occupied with the Arians of his own diocese. Then in 364, he took on Auxentius of Milan, accusing him of being an Arian heretic. However, when face-to-face with Auxentius in Milan itself, he found that Auxentius answered all of his provocative questions adequately. He was kicked out of the city.

Around 365 he wrote a book denouncing Constantius, the emperor who exiled him and now dead, as a heretic and the Antichrist.

In his later years, he produced commentaries on the Psalms and on Matthew.

He also helped found a monastery in his diocese, giving assistance to the new ascetic movement as it grew in the West.

He died in 368.

St. Hilary of Poitiers is one of the many ancient theologians who serves as a reminder of the endless pursuit of holiness and truth. We must never give up. We must always seek to help others find the truth, even if the truth is inconvenient for them and this action on our part brings about much inconvenience for us. The truth is out there, and it matters, even if it brings us into controversy and conflict with the prevailing opinions of our times. Even if it leads us into exile.