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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