“The Emperor summoned Nicaea; the Fathers got to work”

Less than fifty years after Origen’s death there were born in Africa two great opponents, Arius and Athanasius. The followers of both claimed Origen as their own doctor. This curious double claim arose from an illumination which has perhaps in itself a slightly different value. The doctrine of the Trinity had been, by Origen’s day, more or less established. The Father was Creator of all; the Son was God and Man; the Holy Ghost was—the Holy Ghost. Origen held to this; he said of the Divine Son: “Non est quando non fuerit”—“there is not when he was not”—never have two tenses so sublimely illuminated glory. But he did more. He strongly maintained, if indeed he did not discover, the voluntary Subordination of the Son; he contemplated in Deity Itself the joy of obedience—obedience which is a particular means of joy and the only means of that particular joy. The Son is co-equal with the Father (as Origen held, and as was afterwards defined), yet the Son is obedient to the Father. A thing so sweetly known in many relations of human love is, beyond imagination, present in the midmost secrets of heaven. For the Son in his eternal Now desires subordination, and it is his. He wills to be so; he co-inheres obediently and filially in the Father, as the Father authoritatively and paternally co-inheres in him. And the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together—and coequal. The Arians later denied it, but in the last struggle Athanasius and the representatives of humane culture won. It is true that the opposition is still maintained by the Unitarian bodies to-day—that deny love to God except by means of his creation. But the Church has not believed that there lack in Him any of love’s experiences (analogically understood): of all Loves holiest loves, non est quando non fuerit. . . .

Christendom had set out to re-generate the world. The unregenerate Roman world was now handed over to it. No extreme difficulties were any longer to be put in its way, except under the noble but ill-fated effort of the Emperor Julian to restore the past. The old pagan rituals were not finally prohibited until the year 392, by Theodosius, and there was still a good deal of rhetorical and sincere opposition. But the no-man’s land of religion, all the casual and fashionable sections of the Empire, became more or less formally Christian. All insincerity became Christian; neither Constantine nor the Church was to blame. Time had been a problem, and the Church had organized to deal with it; now space and numbers had become a similar problem. Christendom had been expanding within the Empire, and the acceleration had already become greater than the morality of Christendom could quite control. The acceleration and the corresponding loss of morality were highly increased.

Unfortunately they were so increased at the very moment when one of the profoundest divisions broke out—one can hardly say (by definition) within the Church, but within the apparent Church. The division had begun before Constantine; it was, in fact, the ostensible cause for the calling of Nicaea. Such divisions in the past had given opportunity for the activity of the worst emotions, even of sincere converts. The emotions of only half-sincere converts were even more damaging, and human destructiveness was loosed on a greater scale than ever before within the suddenly enlarged boundaries of Christendom. The grand Arian controversy had opened.

That this should have been possible at all, three centuries after Christ, shows how slow the Church had been towards exact dogmatic definition; it had been, and always has been, engaged on something else. Christ was the Redeemer, that was certain; and he was also, in some real sense, God; and, at least since the Montanists and Origen, there was a formal Trinity of Godhead. But in what sense was he God? in the same sense as the Father (allowing for the Persons)? or only in a similar sense to the Father? Was he co-eternal and co-equal? The alternative proposition was set forth by the persuasive, virtuous and ingenious deacon of Alexandria, Arius: “There was when He was not.” If the Father was truly Father and Source, and the Son truly Son and Result, there must have been when he had not been. He was “of God,” and the rest followed. It was as logical and simple as that. …

The Emperor summoned Nicaea; the Fathers got to work. The result is known. The question there asked was capable of translation into all categories, including the category of exchange. Was there, in the most Secret, in the only Adored—was there that which can be described only by such infelicitous mortal words as an equal relation, an equal goodwill, an equal love? was this in its very essence? was the Son co-eternal with the Father? If there had been no creation, would Love have practised love? and would Love have had an adequate object to love? Nicaea answered yes. It confirmed, beyond all creation, in the incomprehensible Alone, the cry of Felicitas: “Another is in Me.” The Godhead itself was in Co-inherence. The doctrine of Arius had denied the possibility of equal exchange to God—outside creation. It is true that Arius, as well as Athanasius, held the other doctrine of free-will, and that in that sense every soul has it at choice to make exchange with God. But Nicaea went farther. Fourteen hundred years later, the doctrine was epigrammatized by an Anglican doctor when Dr. Hawarden, before the Queen of George II, asked Dr. Clarke: “Can God the Father annihilate God the Son?” That the question is, so to speak, meaningless is precisely the definition of orthodoxy. The Divine Son is not only “of God”; he is “God of God.”

Nicaea then was a double climax. The spectacle of magnificence was accompanied by an intellectual ostentation of dogma. “The great and sacred Synod” exhibited itself in the two worlds. Christ was throned in heaven and in Constantinople. Yet at times, as the jewels seem only jewels, so the words seem only words. “Father,” “Son,” “Holy Spirit,” “Person,” “essence and nature,” “like and unlike”—what has such a pattern of definition to do with a Being that must exist always in its own incomprehensibility? It is not surprising that the human mind should revolt against the jewels and words. It is, of course, a revolt of immature sensibility, an ignorant, a young-romantic revolt, but it is natural. “The great and sacred Synod” looms sublimely anti-pathetic. From such revolts there have sprung the equally immature and romantic devotions to the simple Jesus, the spiritual genius, the broad-minded international Jewish working-man, the falling-sparrow and grass-of-the-field Jesus. They will not serve. The Christian idea from the beginning had believed that his Nature reconciled earth and heaven, and all things met in him, God and Man. A Confucian Wordsworth does not help there. Jewels and words are but images, but then so are grass and sparrows. And jewels and words are no less and no more necessary than cotton and silence.

Charles Williams

This entry was posted in Inklings & Company. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to “The Emperor summoned Nicaea; the Fathers got to work”

  1. Young and Rested says:

    As confusing as the doctrine of the Trinity can be, I’m beginning to see why it is indispensable to a proper understanding of the Godhead. It seems to me that if the Father were to have “existed on his own” until he created the Son then prior to creation Love would not have been fully Love, as the post alludes to. Thus, God would not be the fullness of Love in Himself and creation would become a necessity and not a gift. This may be a confused way of putting it, but it seems to me that this all would make God less than God and creation more than creation. Dropping the notion of the Trinity seems to swap mystery for incoherence.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Patrick Halferty says:

    I appreciate the Charles Williams posts. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.