Terminology, Definition and Development of Dogma

Proper hermeneutics are important for sound interpretation. From where should the standard be derived? Scriptural definition for terminology is also a prerequisite. Should the rules of interpretation and terminology used be taken from anywhere other than the document one wishes to understand? Neither of these can happen outside of the world to which they naturally belong, i.e. the world of the Hebrews. How can writing and interpretation be given meaning from another worldview that had no resemblance to it? Much of what is accepted as authoritative scriptural derived doctrine often has its fountainhead not in the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus and the apostles, but later Greco-Roman philosophy and concepts of emperor veneration to status of demigod, coupled with a touch of Hebraic Messianism found in Jesus.

Historian Charles Freeman in his book A.D. 381, Heretics, Pagans, and the Dawn of the Monotheistic State details the story behind the players of credal Christianity and how it evolved. For example, in the years of developing dogma, post-biblical terminology was needed in order to more clearly define the increasingly complex theological creations of numerous groups, imperial coercion and Greek philosophers turned “Christian” etc. Amidst the rhetoric, one such story involved a group called the Eunomians who argued that

“scripture should be interpreted in its plain sense, without the use of allegory. If the Old Testament talked of a piece of wood, that was what it meant, not necessarily a symbol prefiguring the cross. Similarly, one could not use the word ‘begotten’ and then expect it to be used in a completely different way when talking of God. The Nicenes, the Eunomians argued, were being disingenuous of, when presented with objections to their use of terminology, they avoided the issue by claiming that the words they used had a different meaning in a theological context. In other words, they could not use ‘begotten’ in a sense where it was clearly inappropriate and then claim a special meaning for it when challenged. If there was not a definable act of ‘begetting’ in the normal sense of the word, then surely the world should not be used at all.” Pg. 84-85

This is a problem for some interpreters, as it has to be concluded that “death” does not really mean death, “one” does not mean one, “begotten” does not mean begotten, and firmly established rules of grammar and mathematics have no place, nor can they be trusted. If the plain and intelligible words in the Scripture are to be discarded (notwithstanding translation bias that exists) what is the point? Can it still be claimed that the “faith” is derived from Jesus and the Apostles who where Jews worshipping and obeying the God of the Hebrews in the way which he had commanded them?

Such was the case with the Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus. During this period of theological unrest and downright violence and hostility, Christian intellectuals

“had shown themselves to be well read and highly sophisticated and ingenious in argument. It is true that some participants, such as Athanasius, used invective rather than reason in their dealing with rivals, and both sides felt able to threaten their opponents with the certainty of hell fire. However, this was not the first, or certainly the last, academic debate in history where personal emotions have transcended reflective argument.” Pg 74

It appears that some things never change. Gregory fought against the subordinationalist views of his opponents in favor of the Nicene theology. They argued against him that the

“act of begetting must have involved the will of the Father and the formulation of that will must have preceded the act itself…the pre-existence of the Father to the Son must be assumed.” Pg. 84

Gregory tried to combat it, but had to accept that it was a mystery, and thus questions were raised. During his final oration he tackled the nature and purpose of the Holy Spirit. There was opposition from "Macedonians" who were in favor of keeping the original Nicene Creed of 325 where the Holy Spirit was given special status. However, Gregory had to accept that

“among our own [Christian] experts, some took the Holy Spirit as an active process, some as a creature, some as God. Others were agnostic on this point.” Gregory accepted that the theologian Origen believed the Holy Spirit to be limited in power. This made his task of proving the Spirit to be not only fully divine but also consubstantial all the more difficult. “At this point a number of objections were raised…what is the biblical evidence for the divinity of the Spirit? Where is the evidence that it has been worshiped as divine in the past? Does divinity automatically imply consubstantiality? If God the Father is ‘unbegotten’ and Jesus is his ‘begotten’ Son, then how does the Holy Spirit relate to them both? In answer to the last question, Gregory introduces the idea of ‘procession’, as in John 15:26, ‘the Holy Spirit which proceeds from the Father’. Irritated by an interaction from the congregation enquiring how he can explain ‘procession’, he retorts: ‘You explain the unbegotten nature of the Father and I will give you a biological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding – and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets.’ In effect, he was opting out of the argument. Dealing with another objection - that if one adds the Spirit to the Father and Son, then one risks having three gods – he became entangled in explaining why mathematics is not an appropriate way of dealing with the Trinity.” Pg. 87

Quite unnaturally then, in order to explain Jesus’ relationship to the Father, the word homoousios (of the same substance) was suggested, which was not overly popular.

“Homoousios was a term taken from Greek philosophy, not from scripture. It had been used by pagan writers such as Plotinus to describe the relationship between the soul and the divine. Even the most ingenious biblical scholars combing their way through the Old and New Testaments could find no Christian equivalent. Quite apart from this the word had actually been condemned by a council of bishops meeting in Antioch in 268 on the grounds that it failed to provide sufficient distinction between Father and Son, and users of the term risked being associated with a view that had already been condemned in the third century, Sabellianism...the word homoousios was a clear embarrassment and was to be condemned for years to come.” Pg. 55-56

So then, the Eunomians (among others) rejected homoousios because

“God the Father was ‘unbegotten’ – he had existed without cause from the beginning of time – while Jesus the Son was ‘begotten’…the distinction between an ‘unbegotten and a ‘begotten’ being is such that one cannot possibly argue that the two are of the same substance.” Pg. 64

This part was particularly interesting, because it’s not unlike the attitude commonly observed in Christian circles today:

“Fundamental to Gregory’s preaching was the belief that only a few, very committed, thinkers were able to tackle theological issues, and that they alone could discern and preach what was the unassailable truth (which Gregory believed, of course, was the Nicene faith). Here were shades of his mentor Plato: the select few ascend to a deeper understanding of the immaterial world, whose ‘reality’ they alone have the right to interpret for others.” Pg. 80

When faced with the argumentation of his challengers, Gregory challenged the view that 

“through the application of rational thought to the scriptures it is possible to know God…by believing that they could understand God...his opponents would invariably get a false and limited perception of the Almighty, and it was not surprising, therefore, that they came up with false doctrines – such as that Jesus is not fully God but a later creation.” pg. 83, 84

Again, this accusation is one that has found its place in the pages of history. What he espoused were ideas and rhetoric that would be repeated ad infinitum. Pertaining to the same difficulties, he addressed the question as to why the Spirit was not seen or recognized as God in the Gospels:

“His answer was that the doctrine of the Trinity has been subject to progressive revelation. First, God the Father has to be revealed, in the Old Testament; then, through the gospels, Jesus the Son; and finally the Holy Spirit, who appears to enthuse the disciples after the Passion and though the fiery tongues at Pentecost. ‘God meant it to be by piecemeal additions…by progress and advance from glory to glory, that the light of the Trinity should shine upon more illustrious souls’. During Jesus’ time on earth there had simply been too much for the disciples to take in, and the Godhead of the Spirit was retained until they were able to absorb it.” Pg. 87

What about the Hebrews through whom God declared he would show his glory, and subsequently be a “light for the Gentiles”? What about the prophets of old to whom God revealed himself? Is it to be believed that the very people with whom God made a covenant did not even know who their God was, and he instead waited 350 years after Jesus’ death to “shine upon more illustrious souls” the beauty of the Trinity? That is utter nonsense. The simple fact of the matter is that the Scripture’s revelation (progressive though it was) was abandoned in favor of terminology developed through many phases and was foreign to the Hebraic concept of God and his Jewish Messiah. Whether or not theological views of Trinitarianism, high Christology or otherwise are maintained is not the point. What’s astounding is that some who adhere to traditional orthodoxy are under the erroneous impression that it comes directly and explicitly out of the Scripture. One only needs a small amount of ecclesiastical history to see the numerous factions and opinions at war, which over time developed into what is now accepted as “orthodox”. To claim there was always a clear distinction of orthodox belief (taken from the Scripture) against the nasty heretics (no matter who they were, Ebionites, Marcionites, Arians, Gnostics, Docetists, Eunomians etc.) is to misunderstand (or ignore) what actually happened.

This is clearly seen in the work of Thomas Torrance, who on the sixteen hundredth anniversary of the council of Constantinople of 381 gave lectures at the Princeton Theological Seminary which were then written up and published in 1988 as The Trinitarian Faith.

“Torrance's thesis is that the relationship between Father and Son as expounded at Nicaea, 'is the supreme truth upon which everything else in the Gospel depends...It is on the ground of what God has actually revealed of his own nature in him [Jesus Christ] as his only begotten Son that everything else to be known of God and of his relation to the world and to human beings is to be understood.' The bishops meeting at Nicaea confirmed a doctrine that had always been inherent in the Church's teaching.

Torrance is therefore one of those theologians who sees the Nicene Trinity not as a new concept hammered out in the specific context of the fourth century, but as an eternally living truth that needed defending from those who tried to subvert it. In the debates that raged during the fourth century, Torrance's hero is Athanasius...Even if Athanasius was let down by his successors, Torrance argues that enough of his teaching persisted, mediated in some of its aspects through Epiphanius, for it to triumph at the Council of Constantinople. Despite the attempts by Arians and others to destroy God's revelation of himself through Christ, the bishops, meeting first at Nicaea and then, after much more thought on the Holy Spirit, at Constantinople, safeguard what God the Father has revealed through the Son and Holy Spirit. Torrance's argument is presented with coherence and eloquence and gains further strength from the personal faith that underpins it. Yet it leaves a serious question. What has happened to the historical events of the fourth century

In the 340 pages of a book centered on the council of 381, there is not a single reference to Theodosius, or even, in the discussions of Nicaea, to Constantine. Although Torrance decries dualism, there is a sense that the revelation of God through Jesus Christ hovers at a different level, above the actual nitty-gritty of the imperial politics that pervaded the councils and the arguments of the Church fathers. For the historian fortunate enough to have a great deal of evidence from the period, it is hard to see how the Council of Constantinople can be seen as providing a harmonious reassertion of the Nicene truth. Even its own leading participants saw it as a shambles. 

The case of Torrance highlights how an alternative theological tradition has come to supplant the historical reality. Augustine, the founder of this tradition, did not write about the Council of Constantinople because he simply did not know about it. Nor does Augustine say much more about Theodosius...When [Gregory the Great] became pope, he proclaimed that 'all the four holy synods of the holy universal church [i.e. Nicaea, 325, Constantinople, 381, Ephesus, 431, Chalcedon, 451] we receive as we do the four books of the holy Gospels'. He added to the authority of the councils his own as the successor of Peter. 'Without the authority and consent of the apostolic see [Rome] none of the matters transacted [by a council] have any binding force. This imprinted in the western church the belief that the bishops meeting in the councils had themselves resolved the doctrinal issue although the papacy should have ultimate authority over what was to be believed...

With memories of imperial rule fading in the west, there was no reason for any theologian or historian to challenge Gregory's version of events. Thus the 'theological' account of the fourth century became ever more remote from the historical reality. It affects the presentation of the subject in that histories of the Church still accord the Council of Constantinople responsibility for proclaiming the Nicene faith, rather than the imperial laws that accompanied it and that provided the framework without which it would never have been enforced. In short, there are two different approaches to AD 381. The first is theological, rooted in the fifth and sixth centuries, articulated in the works of Augustine and preserved in the theology of both the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions: that what happened at Nicaea and Constantinople was no less than a revelation of God and as such totally independent of any historical process. This approach is strengthened by the assertions that the bishops were in consensus and that there was no possible theological alternative to Nicaea as it was developed in 381. It is to be found in most standard introductions to theology and omits any reference to the role of Theodosius. 

The second is that this is a historical issue like any other, in which the evidence, from the contemporary accounts of the council and the lawmaking of the emperor, and its interpretation must take central place. It is not clear from Torrance's approach how one should actually deal with this evidence: The Trinitarian Faith seems to suggest that it should be ignored altogether. Yet can one obliterate the historical factors that shaped the making of Christian doctrine, in favor of doctrine being 'revealed' by God? Torrance's approach appears to create a philosophical impasse...it is impossible to believe that the Church would itself have come to an enforceable consensus on the Trinity if an emperor had not provided the legal framework within which the Nicenes could be privileged over the various groups of 'heretics' who opposed them.

Theodosius' role was crucial. His powers and status as a quasi-divine figure transcended those of his rivals in any case, but the Church was beset by its own, internal tensions, which would have precluded consensus. What Theodosius achieved was the championing of one Christian faction over another and the strengthening of its position by ostracizing its rivals, both Christian and pagan. He was helped by the disunity of those who opposed the resurgent Nicenes and the immense patronage he could divert to those Nicenes who took over the bishoprics after the expulsion of the 'Arians'...Personal and political antagonisms intruded all too easily. Inevitably there were some, such as Athanasius and Ambrose, who used bullying tactics, which included the denigration of their opponents. The bitter nature of the debate overshadows the intellectual qualities of many of the participants, such as the Cappadocian Fathers and the Eunomians. In short, the consensus over the Trinity assumed by most Church historians to have been achieved would have been impossible.” Pg. 197-201

I reviewed this book on Amazon with an abridged form of this post. It was shortly after that I received a message of thanks from the author:

"Hi Shaun. Thank you so much for this very thoughtful review. It remains astonishing to me that even today theologians fail to realise the artificiality of the fourth century creed. Best wishes, Charles F."

No comments: