Review of The Nicene Faith

The Nicene Faith book cover

Continuing the project begun in The Way to Nicaea, John Behr’s The Nicene Faith surveys the key figures and works surrounding the council of Nicaea and the consolidation of pro-Nicene theology in the late 4th century. Part 1 sets the stage with a historical overview, a survey of Arius and Alexander of Alexandria, and then a detailed treatment of Athanasius. Part 2 focuses on the latter half of the century, specifically the three Cappadocians, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa. As in The Way to Nicaea, Behr’s grasp of the literature is fantastic; the reader will greatly benefit from broad exposure to recent 20th century and early 21st-century scholarship on the relevant figures.  However, as in the first volume, Behr’s tradition predominates in his interpretation of the events of the century.

Summary

As an Orthodox theologian, it is not surprising that Behr sees the epitome of clarity and Nicene orthodoxy in the Cappadocians. Indeed, his focus in all these volumes is Eastern theologians. A reader looking for insights into the development of Nicene Christianity in the Western, Latin speaking world will have to look elsewhere (Hanson and Ayres, for example). The hermeneutical approach he develops in the first volume is maintained here; accordingly, Behr identifies the Father’s spiritual exegesis as continuing in the spirit of the Apostles and the New Testament. Also, his reading of Athanasius emphasises de-historicising aspects of Orthodox and Cappadocian thought. I am naturally suspicious of such an interpretation but am insufficiently familiar with Athanasius’s works to evaluate Behr’s interpretation.1 His presentation of Apollinaris is helpful and even-handed. However, I do not think his evaluation of Apollinaris on page 400-401, that Christ ends up as not fully God nor fully man, is justified by what we can identify from the existing fragments: Apollinaris insists that “τὸν υἱὸν τοῦ θεοῦ υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου γεγενησθαι, οὐκ ὀνόματι ἀλλὰ ἀληθεία” ([we confess] that the son of God was born the son of man, not in name only but in truth) and “εἶναι τέλειον … αὐτόν υἱόν ἀνθρώπου” (that he is the perfect son of man) (The Faith in Detail, 27 in Loofs pg. 177). Whatever we may think of his solution, Apollinaris believed that his theology upheld the full humanity of Christ in a way that both overcame our sinful proclivities and allowed Him to be the true saviour of humanity. Behr is correct in observing that Apollinaris does not have the de-historicising soteriological focus on the “Passion” that Behr identifies it in the thought of Athanasius and Nyssa.

Evaluation of the Nicene Faith

Behr follows Rowan Williams in rejecting the modern “immanent” vs “economic” distinction in contemporary Trinitarian theology. Instead, he argues for a division between theology and economy, a distinction parallel to the “partitive exegesis” employed in 4th century Christology (“Partitive exegesis” distinguished between Christ acting according to His deity and acting according to His humanity [e.g. 477]). What Behr and Williams seem to be getting at is that we cannot treat “theology” and “economy” as different degrees of the same phenomenon; Jesus acting in history is not analogous to God’s timeless being. Following Williams, he decries the contemporary and 3rd-century belief in an inter-Trinitarian history—a life of God analogous to God’s life vis-à-vis creation—as a weird mix of mythology and metaphysics. In his essay the Nicene Heritage (cited favourably by Behr), Rowan Williams argues that the enduring contribution of Nicene Christianity is to establish this distinction; what we perceive of God through His revelation is not revelatory of who God is in Himself but gives us confidence that what we see is consistent with who God must be. This understanding of revelation reinforces the apophatic stream of thought, which reaches its Nicene crescendo in the Cappadocians:

[What’s said of God] is not in tension with the apophatic. Properly speaking, it reinforces the apophatic impulse, in confronting us simultaneously with the narrative of Israel, Jesus and the Church, and with an austerely formal structure for referring to the God who gives coherence to the narrative, and of whom nothing can be said substantively but that this God is such as to give coherence to this narrative, that we meet this God thus and are constrained to organise what we say thus.2

In addition to the problems I identified in my reviews of William’s Arius, and Behr’s The Way to Nicaea, with Behr’s understanding of the function of Scripture within the Bible and the Fathers, I believe this theological emphasis is problematic. As I am currently arguing in my PhD thesis, the view of God developed by apophaticism and the broader epistemology for knowing God presented by Behr and meditated upon by the 4th century Fathers presupposes a view of knowledge that is incompatible with the Bible and has, fortuitously, come under severe attack with the advent of Modernity and Postmodernity. That is, the general assumption of this period is that of Essentialism, that things are fully or truly known through their essence, which is the cause of all universal properties manifest in a thing (i.e. the properties proper to a dog are caused by the dog essence or dogness). The result of such a view is that all non-essential or particularising properties (such as time, place, action, and accidental detail [colour, shape, size]) are not true objects of knowledge. Furthermore, to have true knowledge is also to have exhaustive knowledge, for knowledge of an essence is simple knowledge while exhausting all that is truly knowable about a thing. This view of knowledge rules out what some contemporary philosophers have called “personal knowledge,” the knowledge of acting subjects over against knowledge of inanimate objects. This view of knowledge also leads to the de-historicising of the content of faith, for the particularity of events cannot lead to universal truth (as Lessing put it, the contingent truths of history cannot show us the universal truths of reason). Behr’s volume is replete with these assumptions; this is where his work is at its weakest.

However, for its in-depth survey of the thought and events of the 4th century, this second volume of his series Formation of Christian Theology” is an invaluable contribution to Patristic scholarship.


  1. His discussion here is consistent with the Cappadocian epistemology and his own evaluative comments. I do not have sufficient familiarity with Athanasius’s works to know if Athanasius would have adopted this approach. However, he does display the same ontological presuppositions as the Cappadocians, discussed below. []
  2. Rowan Williams, “The Nicene Heritage,” in The Christian Understanding of God Today: Theological Colloquium on the Occasion of the 400th Anniversary of the Foundation of Trinity College, Dublin, ed. James M. Byrne (Dublin: Columba Press, 1993), 47. []

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