Why it’s important to understand theological controversies well

The whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios, which was sovereignly proclaimed at the Council of [Nicaea], because this word stands for both a real unity and a real distinction. It is impossible to mention without reverent fear and holy trepidation that moment – infinitely significant and unique in its philosophical and dogmatic importance – when the thunder of Homoousios first roared over the city of Victory.

So writes Pavel Florensky in his book The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Florensky’s vivid language aside, this is a common understanding of Nicaea. But, argues Lewis Ayres, in his book, Nicaea and its Legacy, it is a misunderstanding. There is no doubt, Ayres writes, that ‘the fourth century…witnessed a controversy that produced some of the basic principles of classic Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, the most important creed in the history of Christianity, and theological texts that have remained points of departure for Christian theology in every subsequent generation’ (1). Yet much of what happened at Nicaea is not so cut-and-dried as it is often made out to be.

It is commonly held that the Nicene controversy was fundamentally between Arius and his followers, and orthodox theologians, and focused entirely on the question of whether or not Christ was divine. This is problematic, argues Ayres, because ‘it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius’ writing’ (2). In reducing the controversy to this, it covers up the complexity of the theological issues and tensions of the time. And so,

we should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’. They focus, first, on debates about the generation of the Word or Son from the Father. Second, the controversies involve debates about the ‘grammar’ of human speech about the divine.

The rest of Ayres book is given over to a thorough unpacking on those two debates in order to help provide a much more rounded picture of what actually went on at Nicaea, and how that should shape our theology today.

Christians have a tendency to downplay the complexity of such theological controversies, for a number of reasons. To be sure, as Ayres 475-page book demonstrates, it can take a substantial amount of effort and research to understand such a key historical event properly. However, we are also people who like clearly defined boundaries. Ayres notes how quickly the term ‘Arian’ began to be thrown around, because this heresiological label ‘enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute’ (2). This is a long-standing problem: much popular Reformation history pits Luther against the Roman Catholics, while today we toss around labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’. But labels only cover up the complexities, and in doing so, fail to help us deal more robustly with the actual theological issues and tensions.

As someone who is heavily invested in Trinitarian theology – indeed, he has weighed in on some of the most recent Trinitarian debates – Ayres is concerned that we understand Nicaea well. And that is because relying on shallow accounts of Nicaea has meant that ‘modern Trinitarianism has [not just] engaged with pro-Nicene theology badly, but… it has barely engaged with it at all. As a result the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast’ (7).

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Gregory of Nazianzus on the limits of knowing God

Gregory of Nazianzus is best known for his five theological orations (collected in On God and Christ in the Popular Patristics Series), one of the defining patristic texts on the doctrine of God. The orations are primarily a rebuttal of some of the major Trinitarian heresies plaguing the early Church, and Gregory spends the majority of his time untangling the arguments of his opponents, before ending each oration with a string of references to what Scripture says about God.

There are two main points to Gregory’s argument. The first is very simply that God cannot be comprehended. ‘To know God is hard’, he writes, and ‘to describe him impossible’ (39; references here are to the page numbers in the PPS book). He continually returns to this point, criticising his opponents for attempting to rationally work out God’s nature and essence. ‘What can your conception of the divine be,’ he asks, ‘if you rely on all the methods of deductive argument’ (41)? You will have a God who is bounded by the limits of your mind, and the product of your own preconceptions. No, Gregory says, in the midst of a discussion on what it means for the Son to be begotten of the Father, ‘we count it a high thing that we may perhaps learn what it is in the time to come, when we are free of this dense gloom’ (79). For now, we simply accept what God says of himself.

And that leads to the second point in Gregory’s argument – that the attempt of his opponents to use logic to make sense of God belies a deeper desire, namely, to undermine the God of Scripture. Gregory will have none of it, and states that the twists and turns of their logic are not an effort to truly know God; they merely ‘mean to fight foul’ (84). If his opponents really want to mount a challenge against Gregory’s theology, ‘let us see what strength you can muster from Holy Scriptures’ (84). Indeed, he says, ‘it is not a hard task to clear away the stumbling block that the literal text of Scripture contains – that is, if your stumbling is real and not just wilful malice’ (86). What is to be done instead? We are to ‘let the Spirit aid us, and the Word will have its course and God be glorified’ (118). For Gregory, this is about humility: probing into the nature of God can only be an enquiry that has ‘yielded to faith’. In the end, ‘it is better to have a meagre idea…than to venture on total blasphemy’ (126). A God who makes sense is a God made in our own image.

Gregory’s point is simple: Only a very little can be known of God. But we get nowhere near that knowledge if we rely solely on our own speculations. Faith must be given priority. What we know of God we know from Scripture, and while at times we might not be able to make sense of everything revealed to us, faith calls us to accept it. Why? Because even though ‘the knowledge we shall have in this life will be little, soon after it will perhaps be more perfect, in the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (34).

 

Secularism as heresy

Alexander Schmemann, in his book, For the Life of the World, makes some fascinating comments about the relationship of secularism and Christianity, noting particularly that secularism ought to be understood as a heresy, rather than something entirely distinct from Christianity:

[There is] a very real connection between secularism – its origin and development – and Christianity. Secularism – we must again and again stress this – is a ‘stepchild’ of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world – not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. Heresy, however, is always the distortion, exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one ‘choice’, one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth (127).

As a result, Schmemann suggests that instead of seeing secularism as something we simply need to repudiate or condemn, we ought to recognise the opportunity it presents to the Church to witness to the truth:

But then heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself… If secularism is, as I am convinced, the great heresy of our own time, it requires from the Church not mere anathemas, and certainly not compromises, but above all an effort of understanding so it may ultimately be overcome by truth (127-128).

Schmemann remarks further that whilst heresies in the early church were a result of Christianity’s encounter with Hellenism, the heresy of secularism is a result of the breakdown within Christianity itself in the modern age. That is quite an interesting observation, and perhaps evidenced in part by the fact that secularism primarily exists in the Western world, in cultures with a Judeo-Christian foundation. Still, whether or not you find Schmemann’s suggestion that secularism is a heresy compelling, he is certainly correct to note that if we are to minister effectively in a secular context, we must first understand secularism. Only then can the gospel challenge it at its most salient points.

On a different note, someone suggested to me that much of what Schmemann says here captures something of the nature and the spirit of Anglicanism. But that is perhaps for another time.

Ordination and the preservation of the faith

One of the purposes of ordination, Andrew Davison writes in his book, Why Sacraments?, is to preserve the faith that has been handed down to us:

The Church has an ordered ministry for several reasons. One is to teach and preserve the faith. Timothy, a young elder or bishop, could trust the Christian faith he had received because he knew those from whom he learned it, namely Paul and perhaps other apostles and their delegates: ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it’ (2 Tim. 3:14). Timothy then faced the task of entrusting the faith to others in turn: ‘what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well (2 Tim. 2:2). Teaching is a vital part of the ministry of the Church. Since the ordained minister takes a place in the wider whole, this ministry is exercised with accountability, so that the faith can not only be propagated but be propagated faithfully, and therefore preserved.

In the early Church, the teaching role of the bishop developed in clear contrast to the Gnostic cults that were also taking form. While the Gnostics taught secret, esoteric knowledge to the enlightened few (the root is in gnōsis, Greek for ‘knowledge’), the Christian bishop taught in public, seated where all could see him in the cathedral (from cathedra, Latin for ‘seat’). To this day a list of the succession of bishops is displayed in a cathedral to show that we know ‘those from whom [we] learned’ the faith (83-84).

Now, of course, it is important to recognise that ordination does not guarantee that the faith is preserved at is handed down. Only the Spirit of God can do this. But the structures of the Church are there to maintain order and provide accountability, particularly as authority is only granted to its ministers following a time of preparation and examination. And because of that, ordination certainly helps to ensure that the faith is preserved.

Hooker on the edifying power of liturgy and symbol

What was the key concern of the English Reformation? Different people will give different answers, of course, but Bradford W. Littlejohn, in his recent companion to Richard Hooker, argues that ‘the root concern…was edification’ (35, emphasis his). He continues:

The dissenters in the…1560s were not just being stubbornly nitpicky. They knew that the Reformation in England was an exceedingly fragile thing, having nearly been extinguished by the five-year reign of Mary, and in danger of withering again should the political climate again become unfavourable. If it was to take deep root, the mass of the people must be truly converted and trained in the new faith (35).

One of the most divisive debates in this period was the question of how the people of England would be edified. From the point of view of the shape of corporate worship, many Puritans would argue that to grow in this new faith required nothing less than a complete break with the old ways of doing things.

Given that these masses were liable to be influenced as much by visual symbolism as by explicit teaching, a truly reformed church must work to root out the visual markers of continuity with the Roman church, which might continue to lead the ignorant astray. If the priest still wore more or less the same garments, and followed much the same order of service, and still used the sign of the cross, etc., many churchgoers would assume that not much of great significance had changed. This was all the more so given that good Protestant preaching was hard to come by; most ministers were uneducated, and often had to serve multiple parishes, overseen by bishops with overwhelming administrative responsibilities (35-36).

In this context, many Puritans turned to Scripture in the belief that it contained ‘the details of worship and church order’ (36). For those who used Scripture in this way, ‘it was no longer a matter of merely requesting the freedom for the minister to omit unedifying ceremonies as he sees fit, but insisting on his obligation to resist any unbiblical ceremonies’ (36-37). At its most extreme, Littlejohn notes that it ‘threatened to impose…a new legalistic burden: instead of “nothing but what is in Scripture may be required for belief” it was now “nothing but what is in Scripture may be used or believed”’ (37, emphasis his).

This was one of the concerns Hooker directly addressed in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity; his work was not merely about demonstrating the legitimacy of the structure and worship of the English church, ‘but that it is actively edifying to the spiritual health of the people’ (39). Littlejohn points to Hooker’s doctrine of correspondences, which helps to illuminate the point. One of the basic principles underlying Hooker’s defence of the liturgy and worship of the church was that, being ‘creatures of sense, we need sensible aids to help our souls rise to the contemplation of divine things’ (169). Outward signs, insofar as they resembled and corresponded to their inward realities, would guide and direct worshippers, deepening their faith in Christ and belief in the gospel. Hooker writes,

If we affect him not far above and before all things, our religion hath not that inward perfection which it should have, neither do we indeed worship him as our God. That which inwardly each man should be, the Church outwardly ought to testify. And therefore the duties of our religion which are seen must be such as that affection which is unseen ought to be. Signs must resemble the things they signify. If religion bear the greatest sway in our hearts, our outward religious duties must show it, as far as the Church hath outward ability. Duties of religion performed by the whole societies of men, ought to have in them according to our power a sensible excellency, correspondent to the majesty of him whom we worship. Yea then are the public duties of religion best ordered, when the militant Church doth resemble by sensible means, as it may in such chases, the hidden dignity and glory wherewith the Church triumphant in heaven is beautified (Laws, V.6.2, quoted in Littlejohn, 169-170).

Yet Hooker was clear that symbol and ritual were not themselves a means of sanctification and edification. Certainly, ‘in the act of public worship, the visible church symbolically enacts the believer’s inward worship of God, and indeed aids it’, but ‘outward worship in itself, without the active participation of a conscience yearning after God, does no good’ (170). Hooker would be as critical of those who merely go through the motions of the liturgy as the Puritans were, but unlike them, recognised that the abuse of the liturgy and symbolism in worship did not require these things to be done away with. The issues with the medieval Church were not fundamentally liturgical, but theological.

Thomas Cranmer, in crafting the Book of Common Prayer, recognised the wisdom of the Church’s tradition in the forms of worship the English Reformers inherited. That is why he did not do away with them, but instead reformed their content so that the liturgy would communicate the truth of Scripture. And Hooker would staunchly defend this reformed liturgy. Far from leading people astray, the worship of the church, proclaiming the gospel through its words, and giving substance to its hope through its symbolism and sacramentality, was necessary for the edification of its members and their formation as disciples of Christ.

For Anglicans following in the footsteps of Cranmer and Hooker, this continues to be true today.

Christians are not called to fill their time with church activities

Bruce Reed’s The Dynamics of Religion is a fascinating psycho-social study of the role of religion in enabling people to live in and face the realities of the world and contribute in meaningful ways to society. Reed draws heavily on a psychological model of oscillation, a theory positing that humans regularly cycle between stages of extra-dependence and intra-dependence, and argues that the liturgy and collective worship of the Church function as a stage of extra-dependence for Christians who are out living and working in the world each week. Their ability to contribute to the flourishing of the worlds they inhabit depends on whether corporate worship meets the needs of the extra-dependence stage.

Proper worship – and Reed rather unapologetically considers the 1662 Book of Common Prayer Communion service to meet the criteria for ‘proper’ worship – is essential if Christians are to face the world of their experience and live faithfully within it. For Reed, whether or not an act of worship meets the needs of the worshipper in extra-dependence is

manifested in its results – in the welfare of the social system in which it is practised, and in the development of that social system in response to the challenge of new conditions, its enrichment, its enlightenment and its enjoyment… Our conclusions must always submit to the test of what happens outside the church… Members of the local church…had better concentrate on worshipping God in church and on the priestly and pastoral work which promotes this, so that outside they will be prepared to become wholly absorbed in being occupied with the affairs of humanity (112-113).

If the purpose of worship, then, is to meet the needs of believers in extra-dependence and equip them for the stage of intra-dependence, why is so much of the Church’s life taken up with extra activities, Reed asks? From social events to Bible studies to institutional boards and programmes, ‘we need to ask why the churches in our time sprouted these multifarious activities when compared with churches from past centuries’ (114). Reed theorises that in a post-Christendom age, the Church demands more of its members as it becomes one institution among many others competing for people’s loyalties. Thus this proliferation of groups and activities serves both a manifest and a latent function:

The manifest function of the activities of the local church apart from those devoted to worship, the preaching of the Word and the ministry of the sacraments, and pastoral care in times of transition or crisis, is to edify and maintain the members of the church, but their latent function may be to preserve it against assaults and erosions caused by forces originating from the environment (115).

But this attempt to protect the members of the Church, Reed notes, prevents a church from fulfilling its proper function, ‘to facilitate the oscillation process in order that the social environment might exhibit the marks of well-being and development’ (115). He concludes that

the function of the local church which facilitates interaction with the environment is of more importance than the function which turns the church members in on themselves, however spiritual and worthy those activities may be. In this light, the present day activist church programmes are more like reactions to contemporary pluralistic sub-cultures than the growth of new insights into the mission of the people of God (115).

I have been in – and, I must not fail to add, benefited in many ways from – contexts where the activities of a particular parish or local church can easily absorb a person’s non-working life. Even in those times free from organised activities, parishioners are often encouraged to be in each other’s homes, continuing to deepen their fellowship. On the one hand, I understand the concern many churches have that life spent outside the body of believers, with the exception of that given over to evangelism, can have a corrosive effect. But at the same time, I think what Reed says has much to commend; to borrow from Alexander Schmemann, the Church exists for the life of the world, not for itself.

The key then, for Reed, is the liturgy. His argument is not that we abandon all the activities of church life, only that we reassess the demands our churches place on parishioners’ lives and whether those are detrimental to their calling to make known the presence of the kingdom of God in all their spheres of life. What is most important is that the content of our worship be carefully examined. If we are going to pray at the end of each service, ‘Send us out in the power of your Spirit to live and work to your praise and glory’, then the Church needs to work to ensure its worship adequately equips believers to do just that. In this way, we can be confident that what we receive in the stage of extra-dependence will form us and sustain us for the stage of intra-dependence.

There is much more to say here; I would be particularly interested, for example, to know what Reed would think of what Rod Dreher has termed the ‘Benedict Option‘. But the point is simply that churches must release Christians to fulfil their calling to make known the kingdom. And if we truly believe that God is at work through the means of grace, we should be willing to let them go, confident that the Spirit that has worked in them will also work through them.

On not calling people ‘nominal’ Christians

Richard Hooker, like most of his fellow reformers, upheld the classic Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible church. However, as Bradford W. Littlejohn notes in his recent book, where Hooker differed from some of his contemporaries was in his unwillingness to sharply define the boundaries of the visible church. Reacting to the tendency of the Puritans to define the visible church so narrowly as to exclude all the unregenerate, Hooker instead opted for what might be called a ‘charitable assumption’. He writes,

Who be inwardly in heart the lively members of this body, and the polished stones of this building, coupled and joined to Christ, as flesh of his flesh and bone of his bones but he mutual bond of his unspeakable love towards them, and their unfeigned faith in him, thus linked and fastened each to other by a spiritual, sincere, and hearty affection of love without any manner of simulation, who be Jews within, and what their names be, none can tell, save he whose eyes do behold the secret disposition of all men’s hearts. We whose eyes are too dim to behold the inward man, must leave the secret judgement of every servant to his own Lord, accounting and using all men as brethren both near and dear unto us, supposing Christ to love them tenderly, so as they keep the profession of the Gospel and join in the outward communion of saints (Works, 5:25-26, quoted in Littlejohn, 154).

This is quite a challenge, especially to those of us from more evangelical backgrounds. It is remarkably easy to pass judgement on those who gather for worship each week, annoyed at their seemingly half-hearted participation, silently questioning their motives, wondering if anything in the liturgy or the sermon is sinking in. The word ‘nominal’ quickly begins to pass our lips when these kinds of thoughts are entertained.

It is not hard to see where this tendency comes from, however. Like the Puritans of Hooker’s day, it is often begins borne out of good will and a desire to ensure that people are not trusting in their attendance at the Sunday service for their salvation, but on the work of Christ. But these good intentions rapidly turn to judgement and condemnation, and before long a culture is cultivated in which the majority of those attending a church are considered nominal Christians, suspect of being unconverted unless they sign up to extensive doctrinal statements and outwardly demonstrate a level of piety that rivals Timothy’s grandmother and mother. This is why Hooker adamantly refused to police the boundaries of the visible church, and rightly so; as a friend once remarked to me, pinning the label ‘nominal’ on other believers comes off as elitist slander, and simply cannot be legitimised.

This has profound implications for pastoral ministry. If a minister constantly suspects their parishioners are either unregenerate or nominal believers, they will be unable to love them and to offer the spiritual care they need if they are to grow and flourish in faith. Leander Harding, the rector of an Episcopal church in New York, makes this point in a very convicting way in a lovely piece written on Ash Wednesday several years ago. Harding challenges us to look at the gathered believers entirely differently:

I have become more and more suspicious of the concept of the nominal Christian. Our parish churches are supposed to be full of nominal Christians who are just going through the motions, of half-believers who are relying on their good works and who have not really surrendered to Christ and accepted the Gospel. In any parish church there are a few real apostates, and a few real scoffers and perhaps a few who genuinely hate God. Their numbers are routinely exaggerated. Most of the people who come to the church Sunday by Sunday know they are dying and are placing their hope in Christ. It may be an inarticulate hope, it may be a confused hope. Often there are huge brambles of misunderstanding that must be cleared away before the whole power of the good news can come in upon them. Often there is real darkness into which the light of Christ has not yet come and which cries out for a light-bearer. Yet, they come. When Jesus saw such as these gathered in their multitudes on the hill side, the sight provoked in him not contempt for the nominal but compassion, ‘for they were like sheep without a shepherd.’

What Harding beautifully articulates here would, I suspect, resonate very deeply with Hooker. Ministers are called to treat their parishioners with love and compassion no matter where they are on the road of faith. To be sure, some will be near the starting line of that journey, seemingly unwilling to move. And some genuinely might not have faith. But that is not our business. If they profess faith and commit themselves to the ministry of the church, labelling them ‘nominal’ not only wrongfully passes judgement on them, but effectively asserts that they are beyond the transforming work of the Spirit.

If we want to establish boundaries for the visible church, we can do no better than what the apostle Paul suggests in his letter to the Romans: ‘If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved’ (10:9). Taking anyone who makes this confession seriously is where Hooker would have us start. A fruitful ministry of making disciples will never begin with assuming the worst about our parishioners. It must instead begin by seeking their flourishing in faith regardless of where they currently stand, walking with them in such a way that ‘the whole power of the good news can come in upon them’.