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 …

Perichoresis: That word does not mean what you think it means

I am reading Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love right now, part of an attempt to make me a better reader, since I study and teach texts. What follows is perhaps not the hermeneutics of love, but I hope it is at least helpful? To soften it, I do think Jacobs has written an interesting, if at times challenging (I am more a philologist than literary critic) book. Sometimes I wonder why we need to work our way through Bakhtin to reach the end of the journey, but I imagine it is all worth it.

Anyway, in his discussion of Bakhtin, Jacobs mentions the Russian critic’s Orthodox background (even if Bakhtin was not himself particularly orthodox), and after a brief nod to theosis writes:

Moreover — and this is a still more important point for our purposes here — the God in whose image we were made and are being remade is a Trinity, that is, an intrinsically relational being. Here again we must invoke a doctrine that, although not unique to Orthodoxy, is characteristic of it: perichoresis, the eternal loving dance in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined. To become deified … is to learn to practice with our neighbors the perichoretic movements that are so awkward for fallen human beings. (63)

There are two weaknesses here, one which this section shares with the preceding paragraph about theosis, and which is entirely forgivable, since no one can read everything. I shall quickly dispense with the first weakness, which is a lack of deep engagement with Orthodox thought on these points. Jacobs is neither a professional theologian nor, indeed, Orthodox. His métier is English literature and literary criticism. And he knows that body of literature very well. To complain that he does not reference Zizioulas on the Trinity or any of the Russian spiritual masters or contemporaries of Bakhtin discussed in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers would verge on the petty. It would have been nice to see such engagement, nonetheless.

Then again, perhaps such engagement may have saved him from the other weakness, which is an error of fact.

Perichoresis is not about dancing, despite many westerners thinking so (most recently Richard Rohr).

The first place I learned that this word is not about dancing was Edith M. Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, her last book as an Anglican (she is now Orthodox). She phrased it very well, and if my notes were with me instead in a shipping container in the port of Vancouver, I’d share her thoughts with you. Alas.

Anyway, the O in perichoresis is long, not short (an omega, not an omicron). If this were about the ‘divine dance’ (into which we are allegedly invited in the minds of some), the O would be short. Instead, it is related to the verb choreo, translated by the big, fat Greek dictionary (affectionately known as LSJ) variously, depending on context. The most relevant of the brief definitions:

make room for another, give way, withdraw

after Homer, go forward, advance

to be in motion or flux

have room for a thing, hold, contain

The related verb perichoreo:

A.go round, “σὺ περιχώρει λαβὼν τὴν χέρνιβα”  Ar.Av.958π. τὴν Ἑλλάδα Thalesap. D.L.1.44.
II. rotateAnaxag.912.
2. to be transferred to, come to in succession, “ἡ βασιληΐη π. ἐς Δαρεῖον” Hdt. 1.210 ; “ἡ ὀργὴ π. ἐς τό τινων μίασμα” D.C.40.49.

The noun derived therefrom in Classical Greek is given by LSJ simply to mean ‘rotation’. This is obviously not exactly what Greek theology means while talking about the inner life of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. From what I can tell, when the word was used by St Gregory of Nazianzus (possibly the first to apply perichoresis to the Holy Trinity), it referred to mutual coinhering or mutual indwelling.

Thus, the choreo has to do with making room, and peri, literally ‘around’ as a prefix, has to do with the mutuality of the three. The point is not that the three divine Persons are dancing and making room in the divine dance for each, as cute and happy that image is. That is actually a very poor analogy, especially given the apophaticism of St Gregory in other places, that is, given his insistence on divine incomprehensibility and the utter unlikeness of God to us.

Rather, it has to do with the divine ousia, the essence of God Almighty, whereby that which the Father is, so also is the Son, and so also is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one does or is, so are the others. They have a single nature, substance, essence, and thus, although three persons, they mutually coinhere in perfect love. They do not ‘dance’ and let the other have room to dance. It is more intimate than that.

The Unknowability of the Trinity in Ps-Dionysius

Following on from yesterday’s post about the dangers of overreliance on logic and Aristotelian philosophy as we do theology, here is a quotation I’ve found in Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in his chapter about Pseudo-Dionysius (or ‘Denys’ as Louth calls him, flourished c. 500). ‘Cataphatic’ theology is when we make positive statements about God, the kind of theology we tend to do in academia, and ‘apophatic’ theology is the pathway of negation, where we assert that we can only explain God by negative comparison. That is to say, God is infinite, timelessimmortal, whereas we are finite, timebound, and mortal. In apophatic theology, you make the cataphatic assertions of Trinitarian dogma, and then realise that you are already entering into the cloud of unknowing, for who can truly express the homoousion of three persons?

The quotation is from Vladimir Lossky, and the internal quotation is Ps-D’s On the Divine Names:

This is why the revelation of the Holy Trinity, which is the summit of cataphatic theology, belongs also to apophatic theology, for ‘if we learn from the Scriptures that the Father is the source of divinity, and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the divine progeny, the divine seeds, so to say, and flowers and lights that transcend being, we can neither say nor understand what that is.’ (DN II. 7)

The passage is from Lossky’s article, ‘La notion des “analogies” chez le Pseudo‐Denys l’Aréopagite’, Archives d’histoire doctrinale et littéraire du Moyen Âge, 5 (1930), 279–309, at p. 283. Cited by Louth on page 161.


My Seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ & the Cappadocians

Trinity KnotLast Thursday, I gave a seminar on ‘Trinity and Mission’ at the Greek Evangelical Church. It began with a run-through of the history of Christology — this is something I blog about often, so I’m not going to repeat everything here; just follow the links around my blog. I started with Irenaeus’ Rule of Faith and recapitulation, moved on to Athanasius, then the Kappadokians, before sliding into Cyril and Chalcedon. I closed with the Trinitarian exegesis of Matthew 28, as found in the blog post Trinity and Mission.

Not really discussed here before, however, is the following that flows from the Cappadocians — this is consciously following Zizioulas’ reading of them in Being As Communion, which I have heard has some problems; I’ll have to read all of what they say as well as the criticisms some day. Until then, here we go.

The result of this Trinitarian theology, whether expressed by Greek theologians such as the Kappadokians or Latin theologians such as Ambrosios and Augustinos, or even the Syriac theologians Aphrahat and Ephraim, has important implications. As expressed classically by the Kappadokians, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three distinct prosopa or hypostaseis who are all homoousios — they share an ousia. And, following the logic of causation in classical philosophy, God is the principle at work behind all things and the Creator of all things, the unmoved mover — as in the magnificent image of Gregorios’, that Jesus is ‘the founder of the universe who steers its course’.

Therefore, this give-and-take of ousia in fullness of koinonia between the Persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lies at the heart of the created order. The universe is run by a koinonia. And here I mention our first ethical implication of classical Trinitarian doctrine — we are all made in the image of God (Gen 1:26). God is a Trinity of Persons in complete harmony, homonoia.

When we look at our fractured churches in Protestantism, churches that splinter every time you turn around, when we look at our families who sometimes never talk at all or are never willing to discuss things of substance, when we look at our broken relationships all around us, when we observe a fracturing world at our doorstep — Turks in the North, Israel vs. Palestine, internal unrest in Syria — we realise that we are not living as God, the Trinity who exists as self-giving love in perfect communion, intends us to.

If we are to live in accordance with the theology of ancient Christianity, we should be peacemakers, in our homes, our workplaces, our churches — even our nations if the possibility presents itself. All humans are made in God’s image, and all of us were meant to live in loving communion with one another. I imagine that this union of selfless love is what instilled God to inspire our Lord to pray for unity, St Paul to exhort the Corinthians to unity, and for the early Christian writers of the late first and early second centuries, such as Clement of Rome and Ignatios of Antioch, to strive for unity so forcefully in their letters.

Time and again, Ignatios, who was martyred by the Romans around 117, calls his readers to homonoia, to harmony, to a cessation of dissensions and loving accord. Koinonia is a divine attribute; let us live in it. As the Psalm says, ‘How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.’ (Ps 133:1)

As far as mission goes, the koinonia of the Trinity should encourage us to work together; Christians of different sorts who work together provide a united face for the Gospel to an unbelieving world. I have seen this in Lefkosia in the Nicosia Community Church using your building, in the Nicosia International Church using the Anglican church — and I understand that Rick at NIC works together with the pastor at NCC in preparing their sermons.

When I worked for IFES here, we ran the Place at the Anglican church hall jointly with the Anglicans, NIC, and New Life International Church, reaching out to the Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims who come to study in this beautiful city. This sort of gospel partnership should be the lifeblood of mission in post-Christian Europe.

The Trinity and Mission

These are musings brought upon me by my friend Rick (who blogs over here) in an e-mail today as I plan some seminars on the Fathers. One of the hard sells these days can be the deep theology of the Church Fathers. What does homoousios have to do with me? I already know why Jehovah’s Witnesses are wrong; why discuss the patristic discussions of Christology? Isn’t it more important just to accept Jesus in your heart? This is all so impractical.

But Rick just sent me an e-mail challenging all of that. Where do we evangelicals tend to get our vision of mission? The Great Commission. What do we see happening there?

Then the eleven disciples went away into Galilee, into a mountain where Jesus has appointed them. And when they saw him, they worshipped him: but some doubted. And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Mt. 28:16-20, KJV)

This should be one of our foundational texts for Christology and Trinitarian theology (as Rick said to me in his e-mail). I have usually seen it quoted only in part, ‘Go ye therefore … and of the Holy Ghost.’ But the beginning of the passage is of the utmost importance because we need to ask ourselves, ‘What is the therefore there for?’ Jesus says first, ‘All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.’

If you know the Christological debates of the fourth century, you will know that those words alone pose no problems for an Arian. This is an important point, if we want to encourage people to read Sts. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa and of Nazianzus (‘the Theologian’), Ambrose, and Augustine for their Christology. For us, in a post-Nicene, post-Reformation, post-Christendom world, it is ‘obvious’ to many a believer that when ‘all power is given unto [Christ] in heaven and in earth’ he is, therefore, fully God.

But an Arian would tell us that the authority was given to Him by the Father.

So we need to go farther up in the passage.

What did the Eleven do when the meet Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? ‘When they saw him, they worshipped him.’ True, ‘some doubted’. But the Evangelist here seems to me to be commending the worshipful action of the Eleven. When they worship Jesus, the word is proskunésan, from the verb proskuneo. It is a word for worship used throughout Christian literature to refer to that kind of reverence and honour given to God alone. When people in the Bible give proskunésis to someone other than God, it is condemned.

This is an argument normally used on Jehovah’s Witnesses; no doubt it can work with the sly neo-Arians in your midst.

If Jesus is God and — working from the logical context of the day — there is only one God, when Jesus comes to the discussion of baptism, how can it be that people baptise in the name of the Father and of the Son (let alone the Holy Spirit?).

Now we enter into the mystery of the Trinity. Here’s the usefulness of the Fathers.

When the fourth-century Fathers were confronted by the Arian complaint that Jesus cannot be entirely God because that makes us at least dyotheists if not polytheists, new ways of thinking about Jesus’ divinity and his relation to God the Father needed to be found. The earlier Fathers had all asserted Jesus to be divine (so did the Arians). They had said things such as the Son and the Spirit being the Father’s hands (so did the Arians). They had even used the word Trinitas (first attested in Tertullian). Some had said that the Father and Son were homoousios or consubstantialis (the Arians did not).

These last terms were taken by the Fathers of the fourth century and they built on the preceding tradition, using this theological framework as well as the internal arguments above to combat the Arian argument for the Son’s createdness. And when we decide that Father and Son are co-equal and co-eternal, why neglect the Holy Spirit? Is he not also one of those in whose name the disciples are called to baptise?

This brings us full circle to mission. Embedded in a passage used on a regular basis to assert the importance of mission and the call to preach to the nations is Trinitarian theology. It is explicated as being Three Persons who share a single Essence or Substance, and eternal communion of being.

Jesus tells His disciples to go forth and make more disciples. They are able to do this because Jesus is God. And they are to baptise people in the threefold Divine Name(s). Because of His Divine authority, we can feel confident telling people Jesus’ teachings, even the hard ones, knowing that He is with always, to the very end of the age.

And, having made disciples, they are to be baptised, to be washed clean of their old life through the symbol and sacrament of water, in the Name of these three Persons who are One God. They enter into the Divine Life, then. They enter as participants by grace (not nature, and not ontologically) into the everlasting communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And as we go forth, we are ourselves living as part of that communion, an everlasting love and joy that lies as the basis for all creation.

As a member of this Divine Communion, how will you live your life today? As a person called to teach all nations by God Himself, how will you relate to the world around you? These are the questions the Trinity poses us as we look at mission.

Don’t forget, I have a page (probably outdated by now) of Resources on the Holy Trinity.