Reading Charles Freeman’s no doubt partial account in of the development of Nicene orthodoxy makes you realize, nevertheless, just how entangled with the intellectual and political interests of Christendom the development of Trinitarian thought was.
I have argued that, historically speaking, the conversion of the Roman empire should be seen as the proper fulfilment of New Testament expectations regarding judgment of the pagan world, the confession of Christ as Lord, and the vindication of the persecuted churches. But this “coming” of the reign of YHWH over the nations led inevitably to a fundamental reorientation of the “Christian” mind. The church challenged the state over the question of who ultimately was in charge—God or the gods, Christ or Caesar. That’s the apocalyptic or political narrative. But the church was more than happy to collaborate with the Platonist tradition in Greek philosophy in the construction of a new Christendom worldview. That’s the ontological or cosmic narrative.
As a result, the central theological achievement of early Christendom—the precise identification of Father, Son and Spirit as co-equal, co-eternal persons sharing one divine substance, etc.—can be presented as a thoroughly problematic compromise between philosophical enquiry, political expedience, and biblical interpretation.
1. Theology at this time developed generally as an amalgamation of biblical narrative and speculative philosophy. Christopher Stead is quoted: “The reality of God, his creation and providence, the heavenly powers, the human soul, its training, survival and judgment, could all be upheld by the appropriate choice of Platonic texts” (144).
The language and conceptuality of the doctrine of the Trinity, in particular, appear to have been shaped to some considerable extent by neo-Platonism, though Freeman admits that this is a matter of scholarly dispute. In the early fourth century Plotinus had proposed a metaphysical system consisting of three entities: the One, the Intellect (which “presents the Platonic Forms to the material world”), and the World Soul. Each entity had a distinct hypostasis or personality but shared a likeness: “the ousia of the divine extends to the [three] hypostaseis, [namely] the supreme god, the nous, and the world soul”; and the word homoousios is used to describe the “relationship of identity between the three”. So here was “a vocabulary and a framework of ideas” (Henry Chadwick) that was deployed by the Cappadocian Fathers to “describe Jesus the Son as an integral part of a single Godhead but with a distinct personality, hypostasis, within it” (189).
2. Freeman’s narrative strongly suggests that Nicene orthodoxy finally won the day as much for political as for theological reasons; and the impression is given—no doubt this is also debatable—that the bishops were pressured into accepting it against their better judgment. Eusebius credits Constantine with having urged “all towards agreement, until he had brought them to be of one mind and one belief on all the matters in dispute” (169). Constantine’s need to determine the limits of tax exemptions for the clergy appears to have been a major factor (178). The suppression of Homoean Christianity, which rejected the word homoousios, and ratification of Nicene orthodoxy by Theodosius may be seen “in terms of the need to find symbols around which to define the unity of the empire and consolidate its counter-attack [against the Goths]” (195).
3. The difficulties of reconciling the formal metaphysical symmetries of Trinitarian doctrine with the complex, untidy narratives of scripture were—and remain—substantial.
The “startling innovations” proclaimed by Constantine at the council [of Nicaea], in particular the final declaration that Jesus was homoousios (of the same substance) as the Father, proved easy to attack on the grounds that they both offended the tradition of seeing Jesus in some way as subordinate to his Father and used terminology that was nowhere to be found in scripture. (179)
Freeman quotes the acerbic response of Palladius to Ambrose of Milan’s defence of Nicene doctrine in De Fide: “Search the divine Scriptures, which you have neglected, so that under their divine guidance you may avoid the Hell towards which you are heading on your own” (196-97). The triumph of Athanasius over Arius was arguably the triumph of rationalist theology over scripture—certainly as Freeman tells the story. The new orthodoxy was regarded both by its opponents and by its supporters (ironically) as an “improvement” on scripture (197). It also proved to be a major reason for the strengthening of ecclesial control over biblical interpretation:
It is certainly arguable that the declaration of the Nicene Creed forced the church into taking greater control over the interpretation of the scriptures and in doing so reinforced its authority over doctrine…. (198)
This was not all necessarily bad. I think that the political-religious-intellectual phenomenon that was western Christendom was inevitable and, for all its sins, probably defensible as an extension of the biblical narrative. But the question must now surely arise whether a doctrine—or the form of a doctrine—that is so closely associated with the intellectual and political interests of Christendom should not be allowed to collapse along with Christendom.
In order to give due weight to the apocalyptic character of the presentation of Jesus in the New Testament, I have sometimes suggested that the Trinity should be understood as essentially a narrative construct: Trinity is the story of God’s dealing with his people. But it might also be fruitful to retrace the path of intellectual development back through neo-Platonism and John’s intermediate logos theology to a practical and creational Jewish Wisdom theology.
Why not then develop a model of the transcendent relationship of the Father to the Son—that is the relationship that transcends or precedes the apocalyptic-political narrative about YHWH and the nations—around the dynamic, creation-oriented biblical notion of Wisdom, which is, after all, what the New Testament does?
This would have the effect of placing the apocalyptic story about Jesus within the bigger story of God and creation. But it may also give us a biblical language for God as Father, Son and Spirit that will address the enormous cultural-intellectual challenges that the church will face in the post-Christendom, post-modern era. Wisdom may have a transcendent character, but it also presupposes a very down-to-earth, Aristotelian engagement with the realities of life. A “Wisdom” Trinitarianism would find in the Jesus who always inaugurates a new world for his people the necessary resources of critical analysis, imagination and creativity not just to survive but to demonstrate the resilient potential of God’s new creation.
I guess that needs unpacking a bit….