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).
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,
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?