Nicea and its Legacy (Ayres)

Ayres, Lewis.  Nicea and its Legacy.

For the most part Ayres gives us a magisterial survey and exposition of the Nicene era.  His goal is to identify and commend what he terms a “pro-Nicene” theology.  His second goal is to combat a problematic understanding of Trinitarian theology:  Eastern personalism vs. Western monism, also known as the “De Regnon” Thesis.  

He begins his narrative as most do—with a discussion of Origen.   Ayres helpfully notes that early Christian thinkers were reticent to use the term “homousios” since it implied a material division in God.   Also, “hypostasis” was seen as connoting a reality; therefore, thinkers were reluctant to confess multiple realities in God.  

Ayres then continues with a long discussion of Athanasios.  While he gives us much useful information and helpfully establishes the context, he really isn’t breaking any new ground.   Ayres’ key sections deal with explicating his “pro-Nicene” theology, particularly as the Cappadocians relate to Augustine.  He gives us very helpful analyses of the two Gregories and Hilary.

Of his erudition and scholarship there can be no doubt.  This will likely serve as a standard reference for doctoral students, and rightly so.  I do not think his analyses are wrong, just incomplete. I agree with Ayres that simplistic readings of “Greek vs. West” are wrong.  

De Regnon did not make up this “persons vs. essence” historiography.  St Hilary of Poitiers was acutely aware of it.  No one is claiming that the Evil Latins begin with the one essence while the Trinitarian Greeks begin with the Persons.  Rather, one is making the argument that formulating theology within a specific philosophical framework reduces the persons to the one essence (shades of Aquinas!).  St Hilary specifically identifies this problem in De Synodis 67-69.  He said if you start with the one essence (homousion) as a template for theology, you will end up with modalism.   

While I can agree with his arguments on what constitutes a pro-Nicene theology, I don’t see how this category is any more logically tight than de Regnon’s.  I suspect that Ayres commits the “Word = concept” fallacy in his chapter on divine simplicity.  He appears to work under the assumption that the “pro-Nicene” guys used the term “simplicity” (aplosis) univocally, notably Augustine.  I think one example will suffice.  In de Trinitate Book VII (and numerous other places) Augustine identifies person and essence, along with identifying within God all of God’s attributes.  If all of the attributes are identifiable with the divine essence, and the divine essence admits of no distinctions, then all of the attributes are identifiable (synonymous) with each other.  Interestingly, this is what Ayres’ student Andrew Radde-Galwitz calls the “Identity Thesis.” 

In Letter 234 St Basil specifically identifies the Identity Thesis and rejects it (along similar lines as recent analytical philosophers did).  Therefore, I don’t see how Ayres can claim that Augustine and the Cappadocians taught the same thing on simplicity.   

Conclusion

This book is outstanding on so many levels.  The student gets much information on key passages in Athanasios and the Cappadocians.   The book occasionally borders on overkill and Ayres’ constant raising and rebutting the “De Regnon” Thesis gets old very quickly.  

One thought on “Nicea and its Legacy (Ayres)

  1. Pingback: A Patristic Linkstorm | Har Mo'Ed

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