Review: Arius: Heresy and Tradition

by Rowan Williams

Date: January 2014

Being faithful to church teachings does not mean merely chanting former slogans, but critically receiving the church’s witness and faithfully putting it into a new context in response to a new crisis.  Rowan Williams has cogently suggested that we saw such a handling of philosophical issues in the Nicene crisis (Williams 2002). According to Williams’ reading, Arius conservatively employed a number of respected (if pagan) philosophical traditions which compromised the biblical narrative of the Son‟s being with the Father.

Williams begins his narrative with a review of earlier treatments of Arius, most notably that of John Henry Cardinal Newman.  Newman plays off the Alexandria vs. Antioch thesis, putting Arius in the latter camp (along with anyone who champions secular power and literalistic exegesis).  Newman’s move, Williams tell us, is actually a parable of his own day in the Oxford controversy.  While Newman’s own conclusions were painfully mistaken, he does illustrate a tendency in all church historians of this controversy:   reading Nicea as a template for our times.  Williams himself acknowledges that he will do the same thing (Barth/Bonhoeffer = Athanasius; Hitler = Arius, LOL)..

Williams has a very interesting suggestion that there were two models of “communal theology” (my phrase) in Alexandria and Egypt around the time of Arius.  There was the model of students gathering around a venerated teacher (Origen is a good example; Williams calls this the Academic model) and the rising church-centered episcopacy model.  Williams places Arius in the former, and notes that part of Arius’ failure is that he tried to maintain the former model when both his friends and enemies had switched to the latter model.

From this Williams has a number of illuminating suggestions about church unity, boundaries, and identity.  After surveying history, he notes that the “church around Alexander in 313 was not a harmonious body” (41). He notes elsewhere concerning such a pluralism that “the church before Constantine was simply not in an institutional position to make binding pronouncements” (90). While we may certainly say that there was a proto-Nicene theology in embryonic form in the early church, it’s harder to make the claim that “the boundaries of Catholic identity were firmly and clearly drawn in advance…[T]he whole history of Arius and Arianism reminds us that this is not so” (83).

Alexandrian Theology

It is tempting to conclude since Athanasius was an Alexandrian, that Alexandrian theology was always pro-Nicene, and, conversely, that Antiochean theology is Arian.  Williams provides a brilliant summary of Philo, Clement, and Origen to demonstrate that both Nicene and Arian conclusions were found in earlier Nicene models.  We first see this in Philo.  As Williams notes, “Philo is clearly concerned to deny that there is anything outside God that has a part in creation, and so it is necessary for him to insist upon the dependence of the world of ideas on God” (118).  This leads us to the discussion of the Logos.  Is the Logos God, part of God, Demiurge, or creature?   Philo is surprisingly conservative on this (from our standpoint).   He sees the Logos as the arche of existing things…”God himself turned towards what is not God” (119).  Indeed, this sounds a lot like Justin Martyr’s teaching.  

Yet Philo’s theology is inadequate from a Christian perspective.   The Logos functions more like  a mediator between Creator/creation, neither begotten or unbegotten. Williams anticipates later discussion with the insightful comment that “What is metaphor for Philo is literal for Arius” (122).  Philo’s importance, however, and Williams demonstrates this clearly, is he “mapped out the ground for the Alexandrian tradition to build on,” and Arius is firmly in that tradition (123).  

As Christianity became more prominent in Alexandria, Christian thinkers began to take up Philo’s mantle.  Foremost of these is Clement.  Clement adopts Philo’s scheme but is bolder with his language.  While preserving the transcendence of God Clement can say that God descended to us (126).  Clement’s problematic focuses on the knowability of God:  “How can the essence of God be partly knowable as Logos and partly unknowable” (130)?  

Discussion of Clement leads us to the undisputed master of antiquity, Origen.  In Origen, among other things, we see the ambiguity of terms like ousia and hypostasis.  Origen loosely employs both as “real individual subsistence” (132).  This point is key for it illustrates why many semi-Arians and homoiosians were reluctant to embrace Nicene language:  ousia was seen as indivisible and positing another hypostasis in God seemed to divide the essence or create two gods.  

Most importantly for our discussion of Origen is his treatment of the Son’s relationship to the transcendence of the Father.  The Father is supremely transcendent because he has no “defining coordinates” (137).  He is not a member of any class but above all classes.  Origen actually makes several advances in noting that the Son participates in the Father’s glory and is more than simply an instrument connecting God and the world.   However, Origen was still an Alexandrian:  God-Father is completely unknowable and the source of all. The Logos is the source of the world of ideas.  “God is simple and the Son is multiple” (139).  To put it another way, “The Father is the arche of the Logos and the Logos is the arche of everything else” (142).  

Did Origen cause Arius?  It’s hard to say.  Arius certainly took key moves from Origen but not the whole package.  Origen’s “Logos” is eternal.  Arius’s is not.  However, Origen left too many loose ends to prevent something like Arianism from happening.

The Neo-Platonist Philosophers

Understanding the philosophical worldview of Neo-Platonism is key for this discussion.  

Plato:  distinguishes between what always exists and what comes into existence.  He envisions something like a process leading up to the creation of time (183).  This problem is bound up with the issue of form and matter.  Aristotelians deny that there can be form without matter; hence, eternal creation.  Origen, Plotinus, and the Neo-Platonists did not have this problem because they posited an eternally active Form-er in the ideal world.  There is an object to the Forming, but it is an ideal object(s).  This makes sense of Origen’s positing a dual-creation:  the intelligible world precedes the material world.  

Paradoxically, this pre-temporal activity raises the strange question of whether the Father-One-The Beyond can even know anything.  The “One” (for lack of a better term) is utterly simple.  Williams captures the problem perfectly:  “Thinking and understanding, even the perfect understanding of simple nous, involves duplication and distancing” (201, emphasis added).  He goes on to say, “The paradox of understanding is that, as pure need or openness, nous is truly in contact with the One; but in its seeking to realize itself actively as understanding, it produces the multiplicity of the world of ideas, which separates itself from the One” (ibid).  

As bizarre as this sounds, it is not too far removed from some Christian formulations.   Certainly, Christianity can see “echoes” in Neo-Platonism (One-Nous/Logos-World Soul).  Another problem is raised:  as noted above in the Alexandrian milieu thinking and knowing involves duplication and distance.  Yet who is going to say that there is “distance” between Father and Son?  The only apparent alternative is to identify subject and object within the divine mind, which raises the question of how one can distinguish the persons of the Trinity.  

This perhaps allows us to view Origen in a more sympathetic manner.  As Wiliams’ remarks, “Origen’s Logos contemplates the father, and finds in that contemplation the whole world of rational beings coming into existence in its (his) own life…He sees the Father’s simplicity in the only way he can see it, as the wellspring of an infinite (or potentially infinite) variety and so gives multiple and determinate reality to the limitless life flowing into him in his contemplation” (205).  As beautiful as it is, Origen still has a huge epistemological problem:  he has a gulf between the simple Father and the multiple Logos (207).  

The above paragraphs simply put Arius’s (and his opponents’) issues into context.  Arius didn’t wake up one day and say, “I’ a-gonna hate me some God today.”  No,

Conclusion:

As relates to Williams handling of philosophical texts and their conclusions, this book is nothing short of brilliant. Further, Wiliams’ thesis is basically sound:  Arius received a number of conservative philosophical traditions which made it difficult to affirm the biblical narrative.   However, one cannot help but wonder if Williams has a deeper project.  Is this book not also a commentary upon his own reign as Archbishop of Canterbury, particularly in light of the Anglican communion’s problem with modernism? If Arius is in the “conservative” camp and Athanasius combated him by deconstructing Arius’ philosophical premises, then we cannot help but ask, “Who is the conservative in today’s controversy?”  

While Williams himself is not a liberal, one cannot help but suspect his own reign has been disastrous for the Anglican church’s continuing self-identity.  With gay bishops and female priestesses on the rise, one cannot help but ask what is Williams really trying to say?  Is he not trying to give a justification of his own ambiguous handling of the sexuality question?  

Origen and the Life of the Stars

Alan Scott sheds light on key problems in Hellenism by focusing on Origen’s view of the stars’ souls.  Ancient Greece certainly discussed the possibility that the stars are alive (and we will use the phrase” alive,” “intelligence,” and “souls” interchangeably in this review) but there was no consensus.

Plato

The presence of intelligence is the presence of a soul (Scott 9, cf. Soph. 249a4) and a mind must exist in the soul.  The universe, accordingly, must be ensouled since “mind was present in it.” aether: the body in which the soul operates.  The astral soul and aether co-operate.

A problem for later Platonists: if the “divine” is incorporeal, and if stars are divine, how can we see them in the heavens?  Jewish and Christian thinkers exploited this weak point.  The only way to respond to this criticism was to weaken the “divine claim” and see them rather as intermediate beings.

Origen

Scott argues against reading too much of any single school into Origen’s thought.  While he is close to Middle Platonism, for example, he was also very familiar with Jewish Apocalypticism and Gnosticism (54).

Philo

Philo’s sometimes wooden borrowing of philosophy allows us a “snapshot” of the Hellenistic classroom (63-64).

  • Earth is centre of cosmos
  • Yet Philo rejects the somewhat Stoic claim that the mind is material. The mind is neither pneuma nor matter.  
  • Stars are definitely living beings.
    • Ontologically superior to angels.
    • Not surprisingly, Philo was tolerant of those who worshipped heaven (something no biblical writer could say!), but elsewhere says it is wrong to do so (74).

“Philo is too good a Jew and too good a Platonist to take these arguments to their logical conclusions” (74).  Origen advances beyond Philo in seeing the possibility of evil in heaven.  

Heavenly Powers

Problem: how does the soul enter into the generative powers of the world?  Phaedrus said because of evil, whereas Timeaus said because of a good demiurge.  “The belief began to slowly evolve that the soul was joined to the body through the medium of an ‘astral body’” (77).  This became a major theme in Platonism after Iamblichus (79).

At this time Oriental sources entered Hellenistic thought, notably Mithraism, which taught that a gate corresponded to a planet (82).

However, once the idea of fate was firmly attached to the stars, and given that people have “bad luck,” many began to question whether the stars were truly benign.  This meant, among other things, that the neutral “daimons” in the heavenly realms could now be seen as demons in the traditional understanding (90-93).

Toll Houses (!)

A common theme in later Platonic and Gnostic thought is the soul’s traveling through planets after death.  The Apocalypse of Paul (Nag Hammadi Library) has Paul passing through toll collectors (98).  Granted, there are huge differences between this and the later Russian Orthodox teaching of toll houses.

Clement

Clement believes there are angels who oversee the souls’ ascent (106). Clement holds that stars are governed by their appointed angels (55.1; cf. p. 108).

Origen and the Stars

Origen divides the soul with a highest sense–mind (nous).  This is fallen and capable of sin.  There is an unfallen portion called “spirit” (pneuma).  Origen is aware that many of his views are speculative, and he is not setting them forth as doctrine (122). He is “thinking out loud” in the face of very difficult problems.  And compared to the current Alexandrian cosmology, Origen’s is quite restrained (124).

Are the stars alive?

Origen tentatively answered “maybe.”  But before we judge him, we must see that his answers are based on terminology that both Christians and pagans accepted.  For example, only rational agents are self-moving.  This would appear that the stars are in some sense rational agents.  But Origen was also aware of Jewish Apocalyptic and he would have been on better ground had he said that “angels move the stars.”

This really isn’t that problematic.  Scientifically wrong, to be sure, but that’s all.  The problem came when Origen had to account for why some stars are greater than others.  And is answer, of course, was of some pre-temporal fall.  And that is problematic.

The Stars and the resurrection body

Origen is actually very careful on this point.  He affirms the resurrection body, but he knows, as does Paul in 1 Cor. 15, that it isn’t the same type of body we have today.  But perhaps he gets in trouble with his discussions of the “astral body.”  All Christians have to believe in the post-mortem existence of the soul.  This is a mode of existence that isn’t bodily yet which the soul is in one place at one time.  

Given both Scriptural teachings, logic, and the experiences of wise saints, we posit that the soul has an existence after death.  But how does it exist?  Does it recognize other souls?  Surely it does.  Is it omnipresent in the spiritual world?  Certainly not, for not even angels (who are bodiless) are omnipresent.  Therefore, there must be some sort of identifiable mode of existing that is bodiless.  Origen called this an “astral body.”  

Conclusion

Does Scott fully vindicate Origen?  Not quite, but he does alleviate a lot of problems.  Origen was very reticent about using philosophy.  He didn’t innovate but rather held to established, conservative opinions in the intellectual world (even if they were wrong in hindsight).