Review: Arius: Heresy and Tradition

by Rowan Williams

Date: January 2014

Being faithful to church teachings does not mean merely chanting former slogans, but critically receiving the church’s witness and faithfully putting it into a new context in response to a new crisis.  Rowan Williams has cogently suggested that we saw such a handling of philosophical issues in the Nicene crisis (Williams 2002). According to Williams’ reading, Arius conservatively employed a number of respected (if pagan) philosophical traditions which compromised the biblical narrative of the Son‟s being with the Father.

Williams begins his narrative with a review of earlier treatments of Arius, most notably that of John Henry Cardinal Newman.  Newman plays off the Alexandria vs. Antioch thesis, putting Arius in the latter camp (along with anyone who champions secular power and literalistic exegesis).  Newman’s move, Williams tell us, is actually a parable of his own day in the Oxford controversy.  While Newman’s own conclusions were painfully mistaken, he does illustrate a tendency in all church historians of this controversy:   reading Nicea as a template for our times.  Williams himself acknowledges that he will do the same thing (Barth/Bonhoeffer = Athanasius; Hitler = Arius, LOL)..

Williams has a very interesting suggestion that there were two models of “communal theology” (my phrase) in Alexandria and Egypt around the time of Arius.  There was the model of students gathering around a venerated teacher (Origen is a good example; Williams calls this the Academic model) and the rising church-centered episcopacy model.  Williams places Arius in the former, and notes that part of Arius’ failure is that he tried to maintain the former model when both his friends and enemies had switched to the latter model.

From this Williams has a number of illuminating suggestions about church unity, boundaries, and identity.  After surveying history, he notes that the “church around Alexander in 313 was not a harmonious body” (41). He notes elsewhere concerning such a pluralism that “the church before Constantine was simply not in an institutional position to make binding pronouncements” (90). While we may certainly say that there was a proto-Nicene theology in embryonic form in the early church, it’s harder to make the claim that “the boundaries of Catholic identity were firmly and clearly drawn in advance…[T]he whole history of Arius and Arianism reminds us that this is not so” (83).

Alexandrian Theology

It is tempting to conclude since Athanasius was an Alexandrian, that Alexandrian theology was always pro-Nicene, and, conversely, that Antiochean theology is Arian.  Williams provides a brilliant summary of Philo, Clement, and Origen to demonstrate that both Nicene and Arian conclusions were found in earlier Nicene models.  We first see this in Philo.  As Williams notes, “Philo is clearly concerned to deny that there is anything outside God that has a part in creation, and so it is necessary for him to insist upon the dependence of the world of ideas on God” (118).  This leads us to the discussion of the Logos.  Is the Logos God, part of God, Demiurge, or creature?   Philo is surprisingly conservative on this (from our standpoint).   He sees the Logos as the arche of existing things…”God himself turned towards what is not God” (119).  Indeed, this sounds a lot like Justin Martyr’s teaching.  

Yet Philo’s theology is inadequate from a Christian perspective.   The Logos functions more like  a mediator between Creator/creation, neither begotten or unbegotten. Williams anticipates later discussion with the insightful comment that “What is metaphor for Philo is literal for Arius” (122).  Philo’s importance, however, and Williams demonstrates this clearly, is he “mapped out the ground for the Alexandrian tradition to build on,” and Arius is firmly in that tradition (123).  

As Christianity became more prominent in Alexandria, Christian thinkers began to take up Philo’s mantle.  Foremost of these is Clement.  Clement adopts Philo’s scheme but is bolder with his language.  While preserving the transcendence of God Clement can say that God descended to us (126).  Clement’s problematic focuses on the knowability of God:  “How can the essence of God be partly knowable as Logos and partly unknowable” (130)?  

Discussion of Clement leads us to the undisputed master of antiquity, Origen.  In Origen, among other things, we see the ambiguity of terms like ousia and hypostasis.  Origen loosely employs both as “real individual subsistence” (132).  This point is key for it illustrates why many semi-Arians and homoiosians were reluctant to embrace Nicene language:  ousia was seen as indivisible and positing another hypostasis in God seemed to divide the essence or create two gods.  

Most importantly for our discussion of Origen is his treatment of the Son’s relationship to the transcendence of the Father.  The Father is supremely transcendent because he has no “defining coordinates” (137).  He is not a member of any class but above all classes.  Origen actually makes several advances in noting that the Son participates in the Father’s glory and is more than simply an instrument connecting God and the world.   However, Origen was still an Alexandrian:  God-Father is completely unknowable and the source of all. The Logos is the source of the world of ideas.  “God is simple and the Son is multiple” (139).  To put it another way, “The Father is the arche of the Logos and the Logos is the arche of everything else” (142).  

Did Origen cause Arius?  It’s hard to say.  Arius certainly took key moves from Origen but not the whole package.  Origen’s “Logos” is eternal.  Arius’s is not.  However, Origen left too many loose ends to prevent something like Arianism from happening.

The Neo-Platonist Philosophers

Understanding the philosophical worldview of Neo-Platonism is key for this discussion.  

Plato:  distinguishes between what always exists and what comes into existence.  He envisions something like a process leading up to the creation of time (183).  This problem is bound up with the issue of form and matter.  Aristotelians deny that there can be form without matter; hence, eternal creation.  Origen, Plotinus, and the Neo-Platonists did not have this problem because they posited an eternally active Form-er in the ideal world.  There is an object to the Forming, but it is an ideal object(s).  This makes sense of Origen’s positing a dual-creation:  the intelligible world precedes the material world.  

Paradoxically, this pre-temporal activity raises the strange question of whether the Father-One-The Beyond can even know anything.  The “One” (for lack of a better term) is utterly simple.  Williams captures the problem perfectly:  “Thinking and understanding, even the perfect understanding of simple nous, involves duplication and distancing” (201, emphasis added).  He goes on to say, “The paradox of understanding is that, as pure need or openness, nous is truly in contact with the One; but in its seeking to realize itself actively as understanding, it produces the multiplicity of the world of ideas, which separates itself from the One” (ibid).  

As bizarre as this sounds, it is not too far removed from some Christian formulations.   Certainly, Christianity can see “echoes” in Neo-Platonism (One-Nous/Logos-World Soul).  Another problem is raised:  as noted above in the Alexandrian milieu thinking and knowing involves duplication and distance.  Yet who is going to say that there is “distance” between Father and Son?  The only apparent alternative is to identify subject and object within the divine mind, which raises the question of how one can distinguish the persons of the Trinity.  

This perhaps allows us to view Origen in a more sympathetic manner.  As Wiliams’ remarks, “Origen’s Logos contemplates the father, and finds in that contemplation the whole world of rational beings coming into existence in its (his) own life…He sees the Father’s simplicity in the only way he can see it, as the wellspring of an infinite (or potentially infinite) variety and so gives multiple and determinate reality to the limitless life flowing into him in his contemplation” (205).  As beautiful as it is, Origen still has a huge epistemological problem:  he has a gulf between the simple Father and the multiple Logos (207).  

The above paragraphs simply put Arius’s (and his opponents’) issues into context.  Arius didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’ a-gonna hate me some God today.”  No,

Conclusion:

As relates to Williams handling of philosophical texts and their conclusions, this book is nothing short of brilliant. Further, Wiliams’ thesis is basically sound:  Arius received a number of conservative philosophical traditions which made it difficult to affirm the biblical narrative.   However, one cannot help but wonder if Williams has a deeper project.  Is this book not also a commentary upon his own reign as Archbishop of Canterbury, particularly in light of the Anglican communion’s problem with modernism? If Arius is in the “conservative” camp and Athanasius combated him by deconstructing Arius’ philosophical premises, then we cannot help but ask, “Who is the conservative in today’s controversy?”  

While Williams himself is not a liberal, one cannot help but suspect his own reign has been disastrous for the Anglican church’s continuing self-identity.  With gay bishops and female priestesses on the rise, one cannot help but ask what is Williams really trying to say?  Is he not trying to give a justification of his own ambiguous handling of the sexuality question?  

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Athanasius, Orations Against the Arians

This work is a step up from Athanasius’s smaller treaty on the Incarnation.  Here we begin to see a fully worked-out theological ontology.  This review, however, will not deal with the controversies concerning Proverbs 8 in the Nicene world.  That would take up too much space.Saint-Athanasius-life-4

One needs to see Arius’s thought in context before one can appreciate how Athanasius fundamentally destroyed the Hellenistic mindset.  It’s not simply that Arius thought Jesus was created.  He did, but Arius also thought he was being faithful to the conservative philosophical tradition in Alexandria.  That tradition is best seen as the shadow of Neo-Platonism.  It’s not a pure Neo-Platonism (if such a monster even exists), but it’s close enough on issues like simplicity.

Disclosure: I relied heavily on Joseph Farrell’s (D.Phil Oxford, Patristic Theology)  analysis of the Athanasian crisis, as well as conversations with several of his students.  Any faults are entirely my own.

Establishing the Dialectic

Short answer: Arius defined the deity in terms of a specific property of the Father (unbegottenness), but behind this definition was embedded a philosophical dialectic, which, if left unchecked, would control orthodox categoreis. The Arians saw divine simplicity unicity of a nontransferable monadic state, to use John McGuckin’s fine phrase. If the Father is simple essence, and the Son is not the Father, then the Son is of a different essence.  The problem is that the Hellenistic/Arian mind identified God’s essence with a particular property (unbegottenness). It was Athanasius’s genius to break the back of this system by noting that essence isn’t the same as person or property.

Arius shows what Origenism looks like if taken to its Neo-Platonic conclusion.  The One is utterly simple and beyond.  It is beyond subject and object, yet if the One “thinks” (or makes any kind of distinction, be it the idea to create the world or the decision to beget the Son), and given that person-will-essence are identical, and that ideas/operations are now simply effluences of the essence, Arius is forced to one of several conclusions:

  1. a) The ideas produced by the one are also identical to the one
  2. b) It is completely separate from the one by means of duplication and distance.
  3. c) If the Son is eternal, then Creation, being an object of willing, is also eternal, since the act of will is equal to the eternal essence per Arian simplicity.  Simply put, for this tradition, there can’t be distinctions between operation and essence, because the essence itself does not allow for any distinctions!

Why does (c) follow? If God has the property of being-Creator as well as the property of being-Father, and the essence is eternal, and the essence is identical to the act of will/property, then he must be eternally creator, which draws out another inference

cc) Creation is eternal

Smashing the Dialectic

d) The generation of the Son is according to the essence, since the being is from the Father, while the creation of the world is according to the divine will.  

As James Kelley notes, for “Arius the category of what God is (nature) is the same as what God does (operation).”

Now for the actual text….

Discourse I

* The Father and Son were not generated from some pre-existing origin….but the Father is the Origin of the Son and begat him (I.5).

*The Difference between Work and Begetting: “The work is external to the nature, but a son is the proper offspring of the essence” (I.8.29).

Discourse II

* The Word must be the living Will of the Father, and an essential energy (enousion energia), and a real Word” (II.14.2). Athanasius’s point is that the Word can’t be a product of the Father’s will since he is the Father’s will.  

That blunts Arius on one point but it raises another problem: isn’t making the Word the Father’s will confusing person with nature, which is what Arius did?  One could say that Athanasius isn’t defining the Deity of the Son in terms of a specific divine property.  

Elsewhere Athanasius notes that the Son is in the Father and the Son’s being is proper to the Father.  And given that Athanasius follows the Patristic ordo in reasoning from Person to Operation to Essence, then the Son’s being the living will points to a unity of operation.  Hence, we now see that the Son reveals the common operation and energy, and so reveals the common essence.

Discourse III

* The Son doesn’t “participate” in God.  This is a break with Platonism (III.23.1).

* The Son is in the Father….because the whole Being of the Son is proper to the Father’s essence….For whereas the Form and Godhead of the Father is the Being of the Son, it follows that the Son is in the Father and the Father in the Son” (III.23.4).

Christ’s being in the flesh deifies the flesh, and only God can properly deify (III.27.38).

Nota Bene:

Athanasius has a robust angelology

  1. Angels are not the same as the Thrones, nor the Thrones the same as the Authorities (II.16.19).

 

Union and Distinction in Maximus (Review)

Melchisidec Toronen gives us a useful snapshot and handbook for Maximus the Confessor. While the back has some drawbacks, it is clear and to the point (almost to a fault). Toronen gives a lucid summary of his own argument: “The greatness of the notion of ‘union without confusion’ lies in the fact that it can accommodate at once both unity and differentiation within one being. ‘No’ to confusion means ‘yes’ to difference, and hence to natural integrity; ‘yes’ to union means ‘no’ to separation, and hence also ‘yes’ to personal integrity” (Toronen 120).

He begins surveying the literature and notes several problems with von Balthasar’s account and those following in his footsteps: Toronen acknowledges, with von Balthasar and Thunberg, that Maximus was a Chalcedonian. He simply denies that Chalcedon was the frame for everything Maximus said. “Yes to Chalcedon, no to pan-Chalcedonianism.”

Toronen nicely suggests that Maximus used Porphryry’s Tree as a conceptual model to discuss created reality (not uncreated, though!). This, among other things, allows Maximus to speak of “difference,” not division relative to Christ.

We get a decent discussion of hypostasis, logos, and tropos. One’s “logos” is its principle of essence (Maximus, Ep. 15). Toronen explains that “The principle of essence is what is common to all the particulars but the particulars have some characteristic features of their own which individuate them in relation to one another” (Toronen 53). Further, he nicely distances Maximus’s use of “person” from modern personalism, both in theology and philosophy. The latter two relegate the actions of person to the hypostasis, not the nature.

He gives a good, if frustratingly short account of Monad and Triad. Monad and Triad are both on the side of the uncreated. Going back to the Porphyryan tree, accidents do not apply on the side of the uncreated. And the “generic” is something substantial in God, not abstracted from particulars (64). The Triad is a Monad by virtue of the logos of its essence, and the Monad is a Triad according to the logos of its existence.

Some Criticisms

At times it appears Toronen merely lists arguments from Maximus without actually analyzing them or taking them beyond surface level (see his talk on Circle and Radii, pp. 39). Further, his section “Today” begins by explaining differences between the Fathers and modern personalist theologians, but then just stops (66-68). I grant that “union and distinction” are important for Maximus. I’m just not sure they carry all the weight Toronen wants them to. Nonetheless, this is a fine book and can serve as a good introduction to Maximus.

Chain of Being (Review)

Arthur Lovejoy analyzes a powerful if flawed concept’s “control” over Western mind since Plato. The chain of being is the continuum of “substance/essence/stuff” beginning with God (or Plato’s Good) and ending with either inorganic life or nothingness itself. The chain of being hinges around three concepts: plenitude, continuity, and gradation.

chain-of-being-multicolor
(photo courtesy of Christianciv.com)

Summary of the Idea

At the top of the chain is pure Being. At the bottom is pure nothingness. Further, Good is coterminous with Being. Thirdly, good is self-diffusive. So far this isn’t too bad. It becomes tricky when it becomes “ontologized.” a) the line between Creator and creature is fuzzy; b) if something is lower on the chain, is it less good? What’s the difference between less good and bad?

If there is an infinite distance between God and not-God, and all of this is placed on a “scale” or chain, then is there not an infinite distance between each link in the scale? This was Dr Samuel Johnson’s critique, and it highlighted the problem of the chain of being: reality had to be static and exist all at once. This called creation into question, since if the Good is necessarily self-diffusive, then it had to diffuse into creation. God had no freedom to do otherwise. Ironically, this Idea also called evolution into question: if there is an infinite distance between the links, then there is no changing from one link to another.

Analysis

This book’s value lies in its being a prime example of clear, penetrating thinking. In each chapter Lovejoy presents a new difficulty with the idea of a chain of being and the force is cumulative. The chain functions as a snapshot of the God-world relationship. Since God is perfect, and the chain is a diffusion of his goodness, and since God is eternally perfect, then we must see this eternal perfection. If not, we have to find “the missing link” (and is not evolution a mere temporalizing of the chain?)

Self-Love and Augustine: Analytical Outline

This is an outline of Oliver O’Donovan’s The Problem of Self-Love in St Augustine.
Thomas Aquinas identified three different froms of self-love: friendly, hostile, neutral.

      1. Augustine’s own use of it identifies with the eudaimonist tradition (O’Donovan 2).
    1. Four Aspects of Love
      1. Dilectio and caritas are words better-suited than amor.
        1. There is no caritas about evil things; only cupiditas.
      2. The loving subject stands in a complex relation to the reality he confronts.
        1. “Order” is a teleological notion.
        2. The subject discovers this order.
      3. The final good.
        1. Augustine initially thought this meant happiness.
        2. The supreme Good can’t be below or equal to man; it is above him.
        3. Using language like finis bonum introduces a positivist note (17).
      4. Cosmic love
        1. Metaphysical/ethical realism.
        2. The love of God is a metaphysical movement of the human will towards its final cause.
          1. But this doesn’t really account for deviations.
          2. Augustine then said that the movement of each thing is “proper” in that it occurs without any exterior force as an intervening cause.
        3. Augustine’s “Neo-Platonism.”
          1. The good of each degree is identified with the degree above it.
          2. Yet Augustine the metaphysician had to admit that only one object of love was permissible.
      5. Positive Love
        1. For the early Augustine “use” was opposite of love.
        2. Distinction between things and signs
          1. Things are subdivided
            1. Objects of enjoyment: you cleave to something for its own sake.
            2. Objects of use: not all use of temporal things is love.
        3. This is classical eudaimonism: the end is something one posits (28).
      6. Rational Love
        1. Love is estimation, appreciation, approval, not appetite or movement.
        2. The lover’s response to the object of his admiration is dilectatio.
          1. The basis of this delight is rational.
          2. Love’s order is given by its comprehending conformity to the order of reality.

 

  • Self-Love and the Love of God

 

      1. The pyramidal ordo amoris supposes that every subordinate good derives its value from its final orientation to God.
      2. Knowledge: We require God’s merciful self-communication
        1. The human mind
          1. We also need subjective criteria: the mind loves itself.

 

  • Self-Love and Self-Knowledge

 

      1. Love follows knowledge.
      2. Matter and Mind
        1. To be in matter is to be in space.
        2. The intelligible realm is “in itself.”
      3. Soul and Presence
        1. Self-presence: the soul detached from the world of matter
        2. Distance-from-self: the soul in matter.
        3. Augustine identifies the inner self with conscience (71).
      4. There is a gulf between self-knowledge and knowledge of God.
      5. Commentary on De Trinitate
        1. First three-fold division
        2. Amans, amata, amor
          1. This was the Trinity of external love.
          2. The subject-object-copula only yielded two terms.
          3. New triad can yield three: mens, notitia, amor.
        3. Memoria, intelligentia, voluntas

 

  • The Primal Destruction

 

      1. Self-love is to reject the good common to all, God himself, in favor of some limited personal good.
      2. Platonic echoes: Augustine sees the soul of man occupied in the middle place of the universe.
        1. We must view the soul as expanding (reaching towards God) and contracting (sin).
      3. Your private interests should not clash with another’s, for the only true interests have to be communal because the only true goodness was God, who gives himself freely to all (103).
        1. Neglecting the common good is neglecting the transcendent good common to all.

 

  • Suum has become an ontological category (104).

 

Thesis: Self-love is notorious to define, be it pagan or Christian.  And it isn’t always clear what Augustine means by it.  O’Donovan, however, does point the way through the morass and gives us something like the following: Augustine takes classical eudaimonianism and gives a “communal” and eschatological cast to it:  self-love finds its true expression in love to God, which orders my love to others (138).

O’Donovan ends with an outstanding presentation of Christian Eudaimonism.  Such a view will have to take a positivist view of the finis bonum.

But in some ways more important than the above is O’Donovan’s wise, judicious handling of the history of ethics in the ancient world.  Among other things, he gives us an outstanding commentary on the latter half of De Trinitate.

Call him not Pseudo-Dionysius

In terms of the developing Christian-Platonic tradition, this book is Plato at his near-finest. It marks a watershed in Christian reflection and will dominate Christian metaphysics for the next thousand years. In terms of authorship, it is certainly not Paul’s traveling companion, given that he quotes Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote after the turn of the century. Further, his discussion of monasticism reflects a reality that wouldn’t have been established until much later.

pseudo dionysius

Argument of book: whatever transcends being must transcend knowledge (593A).

The whole is reflected in the part: “Within its total unity it contains part and whole, and it transcends these too and is antecedent to them” (648C). Every part of the universe reflects God’s oneness. He is replicated and differentiated in the energies (is this the same as saying the Logos is replicated in the logoi?).

The Good shows forth the processions of God (680B). If we say the processions “go out” from God, we are speaking analogically, for the Trinity isn’t in a place, per se. The Good isn’t a being but excess of being. The Good returns (reditus) all things to itself (700A). All things desire it.

The source of every duality is a monad (721D). Every number preexists in the monad (821A). Every number is differentiated as it goes forth from the Monad. Every being derives from the Pre-existent. Being precedes the entities which participate in it. God is not a facet of being, but being is a facet of him (824A). The exemplars of everything pre-exist as a transcendent unity within God.

Mystical Theology

A negation is not simply the opposite of an affirmation, but that which is prior to affirmation (1000B).

Hierarchy = sacred order, activity or understanding (164D). Because the divine realities are invisible, they must be communicated and mediated through symbols.

Conclusion:

As is usually the case with Platonic and Neo-Platonic literature, it is often soaring in terms of beauty. Ps. Dionysius’s discussion of the priest-as-hierarch needs to be seen as hyperbole. Few people are at that level of Being.

Further, his discussion of monks, not only reflecting situation that wouldn’t have arisen some centuries later than 70 AD, places the monk at the highest level of being.  But when you read Paul’s comments on the equality of believers and table fellowship, it’s hard to square the two.