Last night on twitter, I posted the following pair of tweets about Nicaea. This topic requires more space than Twitter can provide, so I want to try and build them out here.
Khaled Anatolios, in his book Retrieving Nicaea (future page numbers refer to this work), models this hermeneutic and doctrinal foundation. I want to use just a bit of his work to give some insight into what that looks like and what it might mean for doing theology.
Anatolios says that for the church fathers, and for Athanasius in particular, patterns of scriptural divine naming must correspond to the pattern of divine being. For Athanasius, divine names were paradeigmata, symbols by which to understand God’s uncreated being. By arguing from divine naming, Athanasius is demonstrating “a correlation between, on the one hand, the scriptural intertextuality involved in the naming of God and Christ and, on the other hand, the ontological correlativity of Father and Son” (111). In other words: hermeneutics, then theology.
The argument from divine naming goes like this:
A. Certain phrases and title are ascribed to God such as speaker of the Word, possessor of Wisdom, one who brings Light, etc.
B. These same terms and titles are applied to Christ. Chris is the logos, the Word from the beginning. Christ is Wisdom. Christ is the true Light, etc.
C. God is the one to whom these attributes are titles are inherent to his being.
For Athansius, this argument is crucial to force back the Arians, who said that ‘there was a time when the Son was not.” Because of divine names, it denigrates the essence of the Father to say there there was a time when he was without Wisdom, Word, Light, etc. (115). To deny that the Son is the Word is to deny that God is the Creator. If the Son is external to God, then Creation through the Son1 means that God may have willed creation, but the act itself is external to him. Likewise, when Scripture gives any divine title to Jesus, such as Wisdom, then “anything predicated of Wisdom anywhere in Scripture is predicated of Christ” (122). Intertextual reading is essential to maintaining a) Christ’s shared divinity with the Father and b) God as Creator.
So what does this have to do with the tweets? What you see here from Athanasius (recounted by Anatolios) is a thoroughgoing Trinitarian hermeneutic that reads Scripture through the lens of God’s being and actions as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The guardrail is a distinction between divine attributes ascribed to the Father and thereby shared with the Son, and those actions with are proper to Jesus in his incarnation. So Christ as Wisdom has divinity as its referent, but Jesus being tired after a long day does not compromise the almightiness of God.
It is often said that Scripture interprets Scripture, but what does that mean? For Athanasius, intertextuality also comes with a core commitment that the telos (the purpose) of the Scripture is the revelation of God. This is not merely what he has done in securing our salvation, but also who he is. Who God is revealed to be in Scripture will then inform our understanding of what he has done. When we read intertextually, we are reading in such a manner that we connect related language from different parts of Scripture intentionally revealing who God is attributionally, and thereby who God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the intentional pattern of the New Testament authors, who identify the Son using the divine names of the God of Israel to show that the two share in the same nature, though distinct persons.
There are those in modern Evangelical theology who advocate a rigidly biblicist approach to theology that is more concerned with prooftexts than this kind of Trinitarian theological method. Biblical reasoning takes a backseat to linguistic, ANE context, and talk of authorial intent (with nearly all of the emphasis on the human author). These things are not unimportant, but if divorced from the trinitarian reading enumerated earlier, this method is utterly inconsistent with that which produced Nicene orthodoxy. Alexander said this about the Arians:
“Recalling all the words about the salvific suffering, humiliation, self-emptying, poverty, and other attributes that the Savior took on for our sake, they pile these up to impugn the supreme deity that was his from the start.”
“Piling up” is not a substitute for the Trinitarian theological method that produced Nicaea. Now, I am not inferring that these contemporary theologians are Arians3. Far from it. But I am saying that we all would do well not to imitate their method and call it “biblical”. Refusing to acknowledge a doctrine due to an insufficient pile of prooftexts is not the way to do theology. Rather, we should ask ourselves if our theological method is capable of producing Nicaea in such a manner that it is not given to the objections of the literalist Arians, nor insufficient to the task of grounding Nicene orthodoxy both hermeneutically and doctrinally in the way of the church fathers.
Nicaea was not ultimately a set of doctrines to check the box on before rejecting its foundations, implications, and related doctrines. Nicaea is founded upon Trinitarian hermeneutics and trinitarian doctrines. Were Nicaea a house, the eternal generation of the Son would be considered a load-bearing wall. If you remove it, the house falls. It is important then, if we are to be consistently and thoroughly Nicene2, to have a consistent hermeneutic and a consistent doctrinal foundation with those who produced it.
When it comes to the importance of Nicene methodology, a little wisdom from the American South may help: “Dance with the one who brought you.”
1. Colossians 1:16
2. Which I’m assuming here is something we would like to be.
3. Who complained the homoousios should be rejected as unbiblical since the term couldn’t be found in Scripture.