Monday, July 14, 2014

Ehrman Chapter 9: The Council on the Trinity

Only the Epilog after this post, on chapter 9 of Bart Ehrman's, How Jesus Became God.

So far:
1. Divine Humans in Ancient Greece and Rome
2. Divine Humans in Ancient Judaism
3. Did Jesus Think He Was God?
4. The Resurrection of Jesus: What We Cannot Know
5. The Resurrection - What We Can Know
6. The Beginning of Christology
7. Jesus as God on Earth: Early Incarnation Christologies
8. After the New Testament (2nd and 3rd centuries)

And now chapter 9, "Paradoxes on the Road to Nicaea"...

Like the last chapter, I did not find a great deal in this chapter to disagree with. The bottom line, as it has been all along, is whether you believe God was leading the Church to Nicaea or whether you see the process as nothing more than the power plays and coincidences of history. It is of course possible that Ehrman is off on some details, but if so I am not expert enough to see it.

1. So it seems accurate to say that, with each decision Christians made to accept one alternative and reject another, they were on a path toward Nicaea. I have heard it said that Nicaea was the inevitable outcome if the church was to affirm everything it needed to affirm while denying everything it needed to deny.

This statement, it seems to me, is something similar to what Ehrman is saying when Trinity is a collection of "ortho-paradoxes." He grounds the Trinitarian paradoxes in two things.

First, there are the paradoxes of Scripture. The Gospel of John says that Jesus is God. But it also says that Jesus is human. Isaiah 45:21 says there is only one God. But Psalm 45:6 speaks to another God.

Second, Christians were navigating between extremes on both sides of issues. "But both of two opposing views cannot be completely wrong, or nothing is right, and so the orthodox--in attacking opposing views--had to affirm part of each view as being right and the rest as being wrong. the result was a paradox that each of the opposing sides was wrong in what it denied but right in what it affirmed" (327).

Here's another way of putting it: "If you put together all the orthodox affirmations, the result is the ortho-paradox: Christ is God; Christ is a man; but he is one being, not two" (328). "As time went on, heresies became increasingly detailed, and the orthodox affirmations became increasingly paradoxical."

I can't think of anything really to disagree with here.

2. In the lead up to Nicaea, Ehrman treats several individuals along the way who reflect the fluidity of faith in the centuries leading up to the great Council of Nicaea in AD325.

Justin Martyr
Justin lived in the mid-100s. Ehrman means to show that while Justin is movement toward orthodoxy, he is not there yet. I am not an expert on Justin, but it would certainly make sense if this were true.

I did wonder whether he had Justin quite right on Jesus being the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament. Given what Ehrman has said about Paul's Christology earlier in the book, it would be easy to read this section to say that Justin had the same view.

However, I have more thought that Justin saw the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament as a Christophany. A Christophany is when Jesus appears in the Old Testament in some form, such as in the form of the Angel of the Lord. This would be something quite different from Jesus being an angel who appeared. It would be Jesus appearing as an angel.

I have read a little of David Runia on the impact of Logos thinking on early Christianity. Runia does suggest that the Logos Christology we find in these early centuries (e.g., in Origin) would eventually prove inadequate in the light of full Trinitarian belief. The Logos emerges from God in relation to the creation, and this doesn't neatly fit "eternally begotten." So Runia argues, if I remember correctly, that the later church stopped using this imagery that had been used earlier, as the orthodox view became the norm.

Novatian was a problem in the church because of the schism he led in the 200s after the persecution of Decius in 250. I believe it was he who inspired Cyprian to say that long since famous quote, "There is no salvation outside the church."

Ehrman says that "his theology, however, was completely orthodox in its day" (335). Again, while not being an expert, I suspect Ehrman is correct (although remember the distinction I made in my last post between not violating an orthodoxy and it not yet being appropriate to speak of an orthodox position yet on a particular topic). Novatian disagreed with the modalists, on the one hand, and the adoptionists on the other. For him, Christ was divine but he was distinct from God the Father.

Where Ehrman argues the later church would consider him heretical is in the fact that he saw Christ as subordinate to God. Christ is Lord and God of everything except for God the Father, to whom he is subject. I believe Ehrman rightly sees this subordinationist understanding of Christ as a view that would later be deemed incorrect.

Dionysius of Rome
As Ehrman presents the situation, one Dionysius in Rome wrote to one Dionysius in Alexandria, to steer him toward unity in his conception of the Trinity. Dionysius of Alexandria, in combating modalism was coming to close to tri-theism, in D of R's view. In D of R's view, D of A is too close to affirming three Gods to combat those who see the three persons as three faces of the same God.

Dionysius of Rome insisted that the unity within threeness had to be maintained.

3. We thus arrive at the trigger for the Council of Nicaea. The emperor Constantine made Christianity a legal religion in AD313. Ehrman spends a little time discussing Constantine in this chapter. He takes the position that Constantine saw Christianity as a potential way of unifying the empire. Ehrman is also sympathetic to the view that Constantine truly believed it and thus that it would have been important for him to get the worship of Christ correct within his kingdom.

So Constantine writes the priests of Alexandria about their understanding of an Old Testament passage. Ehrman wonders if the passage was Proverbs 8, which is about wisdom as God's master craftsman in creation.

As an aside, I might say that this is a heavy role that theologians and scholars often play within a group. I sometimes get asked about various issues (I received a question via Facebook messaging just last night on the various Greek words for worship in the NT). Orthodoxy is stable. It isn't so hard to answer a question like, "What does orthodoxy teach about x," because there often are right and wrong answers. It is often possible to say, "The consensus of Christian history is this."

A question like, "What does the Bible teach," on the other hand, seems tougher to me, because the Bible is a flow of voices addressing a flow of situations. In my world, most of us who count as scholars are really scholars who try to connect specific theological traditions with other domains of scholarship. The more idiosyncratic the tradition, the more unstable the connection between scholars of that tradition and broader scholarship. As a Wesleyan, there are specific concerns that have to be kept in mind when answering a question, and from the vantage point of an outsider, these might appear to skew the answers. The same applies to other traditions.

All that is to say that I prefer to give options as answers, based on particular points of view, rather than to pretend to have the answers. I at least agree with Ehrman on this point. History is a science that arrives at greater and lesser probabilities given the evidence as we have it. The negotiation of history in relation to theology, on the other hand, is a much less straightforward dialog that has everything to do with what assumptions you start with. And that is why there are thousands upon thousands of divergent Christian opinions on things.

4. The answer to Constantine from one of the priests in Egypt, Arius, brought him into major conflict with his bishop, Alexander of Alexandria. Arius suggested that Jesus was indeed the "firstborn of all creation" (Col. 1:15). He was divine. He was Lord over all creation. We must worship him.

BUT, Arius taught that only God the Father was without beginning. There was a point when the Son did not exist. For Arius, it was before time, before creation, for Christ was God's agent in creation. So, like Origen before him, Arius saw Christ as superior to all of creation, just not as "of one substance" as the Father. For Arius, like others before him, Christ was only subordinate to God the Father. He was supreme over everything else that exists.

I would agree with Ehrman that Arius' position was not yet heretical at this time. The paint is not wet. I personally don't think we can speak of orthodoxy on this subject until the consensus was firm in the 400s. To me, orthodoxy is not as simple as a vote taken by some group of men at a council. That is because, to me, orthodoxy is a matter of Spirit consensus.

Arius would lose this vote. It would take decades for what would become orthodoxy to become what I am calling a consensus. But the current position of Christendom won the day in 325. Christ is "of one being" with the Father. He is "begotten, not made." Indeed, he is "eternally begotten."

So the Spirit consensus was beginning to congeal. Christ is not a distinct being from God the Father. He is not even "similar" in being to God the Father--the compromise position suggested by Eusebius. He was "of the same substance" and co-eternal, along with the Holy Spirit.


Nathaniel said...

Ehrman is right about Novatian. His theological works were well regarded in Rome both before and after his schism. One of them even survives.

Nathaniel said...

Regarding subordinationism, all scriptural theology, including the Nicene creed and Augustine's De Trinitate, is subordinationist. The question is not subordination but what is meant by that subordination. That is, there are orthodox and unorthodox models of subordination. The key heretical point of these earliest controversies is a temporal subordination.

Sam said...

I just want to say that Nathaniel's comments concerning the early church and subordinationism are right on the money. Therefore, to make it seem as if any and all types or forms of subordinationism would somehow be incompatible with Trinitarian theology is not necessarily correct, and exhibits a rather shallow understanding of the Trinitarianism held by the Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and most forms of Protestantism.