Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Nicaea and the Anglican Communion

Things weren't looking good for Nicene Christians in the 360s and 370s. Everything had come together so well only forty years before. The Emperor Constantine had legalized Christianity, encouraged its growth and had even convened the Council of Nicaea to settle the outstanding disputes in the Church, especially Arianism. Out of that council came the Nicene Creed which was supposed to settle the vexed question of Jesus' nature once and for all.

It didn't turn out that way. First, Constantine began to backpedal to keep Eastern bishops, who thought the Creed unscriptural and theologically unsound, happy. Then, his son, Constantius II began to try to impose a new creed on the Church and began to exile Nicene leaders. Worse still, the Nicene movement was splintering; the West, dominated by Nicene Christians, quarrelling with Eastern Nicene leaders over who the proper Nicene leader in Antioch was, Meletius or Paulinus. Amid all this, relentless imperial pressure from the Eastern Emperor, Valens, especially, was grinding the Nicene supporters.

From this unpromising situation, three friends ( St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa) from the remote province of Cappadocia emerged to give the Nicene movement a new boost. These Neo-Nicenes supported the Nicene view that Jesus Christ was consubstantial with God the Father, but equally firmly supported the view that the three persons of the Trinity were also separate persons which was at the centre of their moderate opponents' concerns about the Nicene Creed. Ultimately, they managed to win enough support that, at the Council of Constantinople, their Neo-Nicene view carried the day and the Nicene Creed was reiterated as the official creed of the Church.

So, I'm sure you're asking that this history lesson is all very interesting, but what is my point? What I find interesting about these events is how the Nicene orthodoxy emerged. A lot of people merely assume that the Nicene Creed was accepted without difficulty or challenge right at the Council of Nicaea. Not so. It took almost sixty years of ecclesiastical conflict to establish that creed as authoritative. Indeed, for much of this time, it looked like the supporters of Nicene orthodoxy might well lose. Indeed, it wasn't until moderates (the Cappadocian fathers) emerged who would firmly defend the authority of the Nicene creed, but would interpret it in a way that was widely acceptable to even their moderate opponents, that the Nicene orthodoxy became well-established. The brilliance of the Cappadocian solution was that it navigated between the extremes of Arianism and modalism to emerge at the head of a new coalition which would affirm what would become the orthodox Christology. Orthodoxy, as the Cappodocian Fathers well knew, is rarely found in the extremes, but rather navigates between the extremes of theological thought.

It is this recognition which set me to thinking about the current controversies in the Anglican Communion. In the past few years, the theological realm of the Anglican Communion has become very polarized. You can tell that both in the interactions of Church leaders and in Anglican blogosphere where extreme liberals and extreme conservatives only agree on one thing: they are sick and tired of each other and they see no other option but to separate. Conservatives are splintering on the issue of when or if to leave. Ecclesially, it seems like the 360s and 370s all over again.

Still, just as in the 360s and 370s, there are signs of hope. For one, there is the Windsor Report which, for all of its flaws, has attempted to give an even-handed attempt to map out the conditions needed to work out the current chaos. There is the Covenant ideas of the Archbishop of Canterbury who, even if the devil in the details, is trying to find a way to ease the tensions. Furthermore, there are the voices of Windsor conservatives, Bishop Tom Wright, the Anglican Communion Institute, who, while retaining a vigorous defence of the traditional views on homosexuality, are refusing to leave without making their case and listening to liberals do the same. All of these give me hope that we can find our way through this crisis with a renewed sense of our mission and our faith.

Of course, there are profound differences between the struggles today over homosexuality today and Christology then. For one thing, the latter struggle was more fundamental. For another, a change of emperors opened the opportunity to consolidate the Nicene position at the Council of Constantinople in 381 AD. Yet, that earlier crisis has taught us that extremes don't work in theology and that a real solution must navigate between not one heresy, but two. May God be with us as we navigate between the Scylla of permissiveness and the Charybdis of judgementalism.

Peace,
Phil

9 comments:

dj said...

Hi Phil,

Without commenting on the situation within the Anglican Communion (about which, as you know, I am far more pessimistic than you), I do believe that you have (unintentionally, I presume) mis-stated both the Nicean text and the Cappadocian synthesis. You say:

"These Neo-Nicenes supported the Nicene view that Jesus Christ was of like substance with God the Father, but equally firmly supported the view that the three persons of the Trinity were also separate persons."

What I take issue with is the phrase "like substance".

I would argue that your phrasing could be (comfortably, perhaps even naturally) interpreted in an Arian way, and must be stretched to be interpreted in an orthodox way. In the West, the phrase in the actual text has usually been translated as "consubstantial" while the east translates it as "of one essence".

The actual text (the one that the Cappadocian Fathers defended) simply isn't ambiguous. Neither an Arian nor a modalist, would be at all comfortable with the creed--as actually written.

The underlying (and, I hope unintentional) message that you convey is that if you obfuscate matters sufficiently you can make things ambiguous enough that anyone can sign on without even having to cross their fingers (ala Spong). That **will not** yield anything like an orthodox solution.

In the final analysis, the Cappadocian solution "won the day", not because it was ambiguous (as is the phrase "like substance), nor because it was a (good or otherwise) compromise, but because it was the truth... and one that pointed directly to the Truth. And in the final analysis, a lot of people who held Arian views discovered themselves to be outside the Church.

Cheers,
dj

Peter Brown said...

A couple of points to take issue with:

1. "Extremes don't work in theology." Depends on the situation, I suspect. Witness to the point of shedding blood is pretty extreme (and *is* a theological statement).

2. The biggest difference I see between the Nicene/Arian situation and that in the Anglican Communion was that the Nicene/Arian controversy was within an undivided Church. The Anglican Communion, whatever it is, is certainly not coextensive with Christ's one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

3. The controversy in the Anglican Communion goes a whole lot deeper than homosexuality--deeper even than the authority of Scripture or the interpretation thereof. At its root, it is a fight over Christology, just as the Nicene/Arian controversy was. (If you don't believe me, see Bp. Schori's comments on the uniqueness of Christ's salvation. Or Bp. Griswold's embrace of pluriform truth. Or Bp. Swing's confusion of universalism with catholicity. Or practically anything Bp. Spong has said in the last twenty years.) Homosexuality is just the presenting issue, not the root of things by any means.

Hope this is helpful, anyway.

Peace,
--Peter

Phil S. said...

dj and Peter;

I had a sneaking suspicion that something wasn't quite right with this post of mine, so thank you for pointing out some of the more glaring problems. I'm afraid I was being a little fuzzy.

First, dj is absolutely right about my gaff around 'like substance'. I should know better and had debated about using consubstantial here, but had decided on simplifying the language. Unfortunately, that simplification created a distortion which I hadn't intended. So, please read consubtantial where you see 'of like substance'.

Second, I recognize that, given that I'm an Anglican, I opened myself up to the charge that I'm arguing that, if we are ambiguous enough, we can manage a solution. I should have emphasized that I don't mean that either in my characterization of the Cappadocian solution or any possible solution in the Anglican world. In fact, I would agree that the reason that the Cappadocian solution worked was that it gave increased clarity, not increased obfuscation, in that it dealt with the criticisms of the Nicene Creed as permitting a Sabellian reading without losing sight of the original condemnation of Arianism. Instead of allowing people to cross their fingers, the Cappadocian solution took away the criticisms by clearly answering them once and for all. This kind of clarity is precisely the solution that we need in the Anglican world.

Third, to Peter, I think I have to back off of the comment about extremes and theology. There are points where Christians need to be extreme (or, at least, seem to be), so point taken.

Fourth, I agree that the current problems in Anglican world is really about authority and truth because what the Bible says about homosexuality is really quite clear and simple. It is, in fact, this area which needs the clarity that the Cappadocians managed in the Arian controversy. How do we deal with the post-modern challenges of Bishops Griswold or Swing (I set aside Bishop Spong because he really is rather more of a modernist)? Where do we achieve clarity?

Anyways, thanks for the criticisms and, of course, keep them coming, if you still think I'm off base.

dj said...

Hi Phil,

You say:
"[G]iven that I'm an Anglican, I opened myself up to the charge that I'm arguing that, if we are ambiguous enough, we can manage a solution."

Honest, Phil, what I said about obfuscation and ambiguity had nothing to do with your Anglican-ness, but only with the inherent ambiguity in the phrase "like substance", and specifically with the word "like" which is ambiguous in just about any context.

For example: A pear is like an apple (they are both tree-grown, firm-meated, thin-skinned fruit. And an apple is like a potato... and a potato is "like" a rock (they are both "in the ground")... and a rock is like a mountain... and a mountain is (not very much) like a pear, though that word could be used to make a "valid" comparison.

I'm pretty sure that you "got" that, even before my little chain... I just couldn't let pass your idea that the comments about ambiguity were somehow driven by the present unpleasantness in the AC. I was actually thinking (well, at least as much) about the semi-nicean and semi-arian parties at I Nicea who almost pushed through a very ambiguous semi-arian formula.

Cheers,
dj

Danny Garland Jr. said...

I think the Anglicans have already lost the battle when they broke away and kept the Nicene Creed. How can you break away from the One True Church and still profess a belief in "One" Church.
That was one of the reasons for my conversion to the Catholic Church. As an Anglican I would say the Creed and when it came to the "One Holy Catholic and Apostolic" part I would just gloss over it without giving it any thought. This is something most Anglicans do. If they thought about it they would have no choice but to convert!

As for the comment:
"Of course, there are profound differences between the struggles today over homosexuality today and Christology then"

In the Episcopal Church (and the wider Anglican Communion) homosexuality is just the tip of the iceberg. If you look deeper you will see grave errors about the nature of Christ as well.
The proof for that is that Bishop Spong, who denies the divinty of Christ and also His resurrection, is still in good standing with the Episcopal Church. The whole liberal view of Christ is very skewed!
The parallels with Nicea are greater than meets the eye!

Danny Garland Jr. said...

Hmm...after reading Peter's comments I see he already made the same argument I did.

Phil S. said...

As a quick clarification, I've edited out the 'of like substance' from my original post because I realized last night I had mixed up the translations of homoousios and homoiousios. Really, my Greek is better than that, although clearly my brains wasn't when I was writing the post in the first place.

dj: Thanks for the clarification, although, had you been making the point, I think I would have agreed with you. Incidently, I also suspect there is a parallel between the obfuscation of semi-arians from Constantius II onwards and the obfuscation of Via Media groups today. That is why I think that a true solution to this mess isn't in making the edges of the argument fuzzier, but, as the Cappadocians did, in making them more clear.

danny; I take your point, although I really must note that, at the time that the Anglicans split, the Church wasn't unified either. Orthodoxy, for instance, had been effectively split for almost five hundred years. That would suggest to me that all Christians churches since them have to cross their fingers a bit to say the Nicene Creed because it is patently clear that we are not united.

Now, don't get me wrong. Our lack of unity is a scandal and a bad witness to the gospel. They also, as Ephraim Radner has argued, explain some of our problems about just what authority is in our churches. Still, we all suffer from this malady to some extent, whether we are Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant.

Peace,
Phil

Peter Brown said...

I think you're onto something with respect to the clarity of the Cappadocians. Is it possible—here the weakness of my patristic knowledge shows—that their contribution was primarily in clarifying what the Nicene approach did not entail, thereby assuaging the ungrounded fears of their moderate opponents (to use your phrase)? (Parallel, perhaps, to the unsuccessful attempts of today's Anglican reasserters to point out that a Scriptural view of sexual morality does not entail hating homosexuals—except, of course, that the Cappadocians were successful.) Or would it be truer to suggest that the Cappadocians' contribution was in pointing out the linkages between Nicene theology and other things their moderate opponents did believe, like soteriology? (Parallel, perhaps, to the largely successful attempt to suggest that traditional sexual morality flows from Scriptural authority—which has failed as an argument because it turns out that the Episcopalian allergy to anything that could be called fundamentalism in practice outweighs the Episcopalian commitment to Scripture.) Either way, there might (perhaps) be some lessons to be drawn for those who are trying to hold the AC together.

A further note: another difference between the current controversy and the Nicene/Arian controversy is that, in today's Anglicanism, there is no authoritative, living interpretative tradition within which we understand Scripture and Tradition. In the fourth century, there was: living bishops functioned as authoritative interpreters. While they obviously disagreed mightily, everybody pretty much accepted that authoritative interpretation was part of their job. (Hence the controversy!)

As we have seen all too painfully, in a post-modern context (or even a modern one, as witness Spong), we can interpret Scripture to sanctify almost any desire of our sinful hearts. This, I fear, is the weakness of the proposed Anglican Covenant—it will be another text, and smart sinners like us will eventually figure out clever but sinful ways to read it.

Of course, my arguments above are as vulnerable to being off-base as yours—if you find blunders I've missed, please don't hesitate to set me straight!

Hope this helps, anyway.

Peace,
--Peter

Phil S. said...

Peter;

I think you're, on the whole, right in your attempt to link the Cappadocian experience to the Anglican crisis. I do think that the two-pronged approach of stating what Nicaea did not entail and linking what Nicaea did entail to what the moderate opponents did believe. I particularly like the connection you made to the analagous positions on the same-sex issue in Anglicanism. In many ways, the best responses I've seen to this issue are the ones which use this approach. Unfortunately, the shouting has been so loud and the polarization so wide that this voice simply hasn't been listened to as much as it deserves.

I also concede the crisis of authority which is making this situation worse. If individuals can interpret, without reference to tradition or even Scripture, how are we ever supposed to agree on a sound reading. I note, in passing, this is why I think reading the Fathers is so important because, even if imperfectly, we can link to this authoritative body of thought. Not that the Fathers are infallable, but they are worthy of considerable notice.

As for the Covenant proposals, I agree that there is a danger that they'll be just another piece of paper and will solve little. I think there is some promise in the process that we may get a chance to reassert Scripture and tradition as authorities, but that will be tricky for the North American churches to swallow. We'll just have to see.

Peace,
Phil