Review of Nicaea and Its Legacy

Nicaea and It's Legacy Book Cover

Lewis Ayres’ Nicaea and Its Legacy is a valuable contribution to the field of Patristic scholarship. Published in 2004, Ayres has attempted to provide a new narrative for the development of theology in the 4th century. Ayres does not try to re-write the contributions of Hanson and Simonetti or Behr’s relatively contemporaneous work. Instead, Ayres attempts to consolidate the insights of previous scholarship into a revised narrative for this period. His approach is confessedly theological history, so he eschews the various tools of sociology that could be used to analyse this period. Against the older narrative that sees a conflict between orthodoxy and heresy at Nicaea and throughout the 4th century, Ayres argues that there were competing theological trajectories that led to the emergence of pro-Nicene theology in the late 4th century. Pro-Nicene theology, according to Ayres, is characterised not by uniform theology but a by shared “life of the mind.”

Summary of Nicaea and Its Legacy

For Ayres, the debates at this time involved two points, “the generation of the Son or Word” and the “grammar” of human speech concerning God (3). For Ayres, a “grammar” is “a set of rules or principles intrinsic to theological discourse, whether or not they are formally articulated” (14). After discussing three points of departure for Nicaea and 4th-century theology in Chapter 1, He identifies four trajectories surrounding these points in Chapters 2 and 3.  None of these trajectories was “orthodox” over against the others in their time; they existed in tension as orthodoxy was worked out (78ff). The first two trajectories were two trends concerning the “generation of the Son.” On the one hand, Athanasius and Alexander stressed the eternal “correlative status of the Father and Son” and the others the volition of God in the generative act (43). On the other hand, there was a shared emphasis among the loose alliance of “Eusebians,” including Arius, Eusebius of Caesarea, and Eusebius of Nicomedia, whom Ayres groups according to their supposed association with Lucian of Antioch (55). Their theological emphases are varied but generally emphasise the difference between the Father and Son, at times stressing the volition of God in the generation of Christ and the Father’s eternality over against the son.  The third trajectory, associated mainly with Marcellus of Ancyra, was theological stress on the indivisibility or unity of God. Finally, there was a tendency in Western theology to oppose Adoptionism; these emphases eventually conflicted with non-Nicene theology.

Chapters 4 – 10 take up the task of narrating the theological development of this century more directly. The heresiological categories of “Arianism” are abandoned for terminology more generally employed in this period and suiting the parties involved, such as Eusebians, Homoousians (those who claim the Father and Son are of the same substance), Homoians (those who say the Father and Son are alike), Homoiousians (those who say the Father and Son are of similar substances), Heterousians (those who say they are of other substance), etc. In Chapters 11-13, Ayres moves to describe the share pro-Nicene “life of the mind.” By “life of the mind,” Ayres adapts sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept habitus for a more flexible disposition that evolves and takes different forms in different contexts. The “life of the mind” he intends is essentially an enduring yet adaptable “disposition” that functions as “principles which generate and organise practices and representations” (275). Studying the pro-Nicene theology of this time, “we are watching literate Christians articulate the ideas and practices that they think together shape and constitute an appropriate Christian habitus” (275).

Ayres identifies three themes shaping this pro-Nicene life of the mind, strategies for thinking about Christ and the Trinity. First, they spoke of unity and diversity in the Trinity: “The pro-Nicene life of the mind finds its core in attention, on the one hand, to the dynamics not simply of ‘revelation’, but of the divine economy that condescends to our categories but does so only to draw us slowly towards a contemplation of the divine realities of which they speak” (300). Second, they employed two related themes of Christology, manifesting in a Christologically determined notion of spiritual determination, and Cosmology, involving ontological speculation. By the former, he means “that pro-Nicenes take the soul’s formation to be shaped by the action of Christ as incarnate” (304). Regarding the latter, they did not undertake the task of creating a uniquely Christian ontology but negotiated different theological and philosophical traditions (312). They employed two broad strategies in this regard: 1) to interweave an understanding of the structure of the created order with their theology (“Trinitarian doctrine”) and soteriology (314) and 2) to pay attention to the manner the created order leads to the contemplation of God (semiotics) (314). Third, they had a shared strategy of considering their understanding of God and their theological grammar in terms of anthropology, epistemology, and the reading of Scripture. What united them was not their conclusions but their shared strategy in this regard.

The final chapter considers what it means to hold to Nicaea as an authority for modern Christian thought. He proposes that theology be thought of as the contemplation of Scripture grounded in the creeds. The plain sense of Scripture should govern philosophical appropriation, but the latter is necessary for trinitarian doctrines (419). He interprets the Creeds and articles of faith as guides to the plain sense (420). But moving towards theology, the plain sense of Scripture is penultimate; it moves us towards but is not the goal of theology. It is the “ultimate point of reference in the human task of shaping imagination and intellect towards the vision of and life within the Triune God that constitutes the end of the Christian life” (417).

Evaluation of Nicaea and Its Legacy

Overall, Ayres’ book is a valuable contribution. His incorporation of the West is a helpful supplement to the Eastern-focused work of John Behr (see my reviews here and here). Ayres’ constructive proposal deserves some thoughts, for it offers an interesting convergence between recent Evangelical theology and Ayres’ Catholicism. Ayres suggests that the Creeds provide the authoritative context in which we contemplate the plain sense of Scripture towards the ultimate goal of understanding “the principles of science identical with God’s self-knowledge” (416). Scripture, on this account, is thus “penultimate,” a step towards theology and not the goal in itself. This emphasis on theology as a science concerning universal, interrelated principles identified with the mind of God is explicit in Aquinas, Barth, Torrance, and Webster. This view also seems to be the implicit schema behind more traditionally Evangelical approaches to theology. These are views which see theology as the goal of organising something behind the text of Scripture, such as its propositional content (e.g. Hodge), or beyond Scripture, such as the framework of theology that leads to its expressions (e.g. Putman). Ayres approach to the creeds—seeing them as organised and summarised accounts of the plain sense and their function as leading us in the right reading of Scripture—echoes recent Evangelical accounts of the Bible’s function and authority (cf. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel). However, the view of theology presented in this book, which coheres with the approach of the Neo-Barthians and some Reformed approaches, is a dangerous one. Showing this is part of my current PhD research and my series “God’s Gifts for the Christian Life.” This review is not the place to unpack this, but in brief, this view offers an untenable view of the Bible, epistemology, and theology.

That is, the Bible is viewed exactly as Ayres puts it, “penultimate.” Instead of being sufficient for the Christian life and knowledge of God (e.g. 2 Tim 3:16-17), Scripture is the starting point for the heaving lifting of theological labour. Knowledge of God and right understanding comes from reading through Scripture, using “abduction” to offer a possible hypothesis explaining the statements of the text. This gap between Scripture and theology is devastating for the Christian life and ministry (see here and my series “God’s Gifts”). Epistemologically, this presupposes that knowledge is properly concerned with abstract, universal truths; however, the history of philosophy has repeatedly shown us how unattainable such lofty principles are. Furthermore, the Bible presents a different view of knowledge, deeply entwined with the contingencies of life and personhood (the topic of my thesis). Lastly, theology becomes an academic discipline divorced from the practical matters of Scripture and its intended audience, the people of God (cf. The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God by John Frame). Ayres has contributed to our understanding of Nicaea and 4th-century theology and the history of its development, but his constructive proposal resonates with the most unhealthy trends within Protestant and Catholic theology.

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