Nicaea: Pushing the Biblical Understanding of Divinity

I came across a blog article on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity with which I strongly disagree: “The Heart of Trinitarian Conflicts.” The author identifies two conflicting impulses at the heart of the fourth century trinitarian conflict—“faithfulness to the Scriptures and the life of piety and faithfulness itself.” On this reading the Arians and Neo-Arians were committed to fidelity to the witness of Holy Scripture, with all of its messiness, while the Nicenes and Pro-Nicenes were more interested in presenting their congregations with a simpler religion they could wholeheartedly practice.

If anything, the exact opposite is the case, with this qualification—all parties sought to ground their theological convictions in the biblical narrative and surely all parties desired their fellow Christians to commit themselves to God and the Church. But they did interpret the Scriptures differently. To suggest, as Dominic does, that the Nicenes were willing to sacrifice Scripture for the sake of cultivating the “wholehearted and undivided devotion” of their flocks is to misunderstand how the Bible was read, preached, and lived in the early centuries.

But rather than offering my own critique of the blog article, I thought I’d take this opportunity to provide a lengthy citation from an essay by Robert W. Jenson. Jenson accurately identifies, I believe, the critical issues that were debated, and finally dogmatically resolved, in the fourth century:

It was the center of the revelation to Israel that the Lord is a ferociously jealous God, that he brooks no almost-gods, no “next” powers “after” the Father of all. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God,” is the first creed of the church also. In the Bible there is the Lord, the Creator of all things, and there are his creatures, and there is nothing in between; there is no ontological overlap, no pantheon of not-quite-gods or divine creatures.

So which is the Logos, Creator or creature? For such Bible-readers as were the ancient churchmen, the question could not be ignored, but it could be long suppressed. Until finally poor Arius pressed it so urgently that it had to be faced, whereupon the church blew apart.

The outcome is familiar. A few thinkers took up Arius’s challenge and faced the church with the stark alternative: either stop worshiping the Son, because he is a creature and Christians do not worship creatures, or acknowledge that the Son is Creator, God Almighty. For a time such radicals were a minority, yet with this stern biblical reasoning they eventually bullied the church, kicking and screaming, into the confession of Nicaea and Constantinople, that the Son who is from God is nevertheless, or rather just so, himself true God, that in the case of this God, being from God is not incompatible with being 100 percent God.

The thought was achieved that has since enabled all specifically Christian thought on any given subject: that to be God the Father is first to be the Father of the Son, and just and only so to be God; that to be God the Son is first to be the Son of this Father, and just and only so to be God, and that to be God the Spirit is first to be the Spirit of this Father resting on this Son, and just and only so to be God; so that only in their mutuality is there God at all. God—if I may use my own jargon—is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.

So Jesus is the Son, who is of one being with the Father, either of whom can be called Lord and neither of whom can be called the Lord without the other. From A.D. 381 on that has been the dogma of the holy catholic church. (“With No Qualifications: The Christological Maximalism of the Christian East,” in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, pp. 16-17)

Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus and others in the Pro-Nicene party clearly understood that if the fundamental revelation of Old Testament Israel was to be respected and fully appropriated, namely, the distinction between the One God and all the creatures he has freely made, then it was necessary to dogmatically assert the full divinity of both the Savior Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, without qualification. To worship a creature, even an exalted creature, is nothing less than idolatry. And that is the biblical truth.

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5 Responses to Nicaea: Pushing the Biblical Understanding of Divinity

  1. whitefrozen says:

    I like seeing the somewhat more pronounced interaction with the Old Testament data.

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  2. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have corrected the text of the article and supplied a missing sentence from Jenson’s citation.

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  3. john burnett says:

    “God—if I may use my own jargon—is what happens between Jesus and the one he called Father, as they are freed for each other by their Spirit.”

    Can’t agree. “God” is what the Father always already is, as (i do not say when) he begets his Son and breathes forth his Spirit.

    Jenson’s language there seems to derive the One from the Three. It’s often been said that Western theology tends to derive the Three from the One, but this would be the opposite extreme.

    The Father himself is the ἀρχὴ θειότητος, the Source of their common Divinity.

    I find Jenson confusing, because he seems to say this, and then he says the line i quoted above.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      I agree that the last sentence of the fourth paragraph (which is the one that you quote) is confusing and perhaps problematic. It’s dependent on Jenson’s eschatological understanding of divine eternity–and for that I can only point you to his published works (specifically The Triune Identity and Systematic Theology, vol. 1).

      But the rest of the citation is fairly standard and uncontroversial, I would think.

      FYI: David Hart offers a brief introduction to and critique of Jenson in his article “The Lively God of Robert Jenson.”

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  4. Pingback: The Heart of Trinitarian Conflicts Substantiated: A Reply to Fr Aidan Kimel | Creakings of a Cog in God's Machine

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