Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of the Trinitarian Doctrine by Khaled Anatolios (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) xviii + 322 pp.
Article first published online: 17 DEC 2012
© 2012 Blackwell Publishing Ltd
Volume 29, Issue 1, pages 179–181, January 2013
How to Cite
Smith, J. W. (2013), Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of the Trinitarian Doctrine by Khaled Anatolios (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011) xviii + 322 pp. Modern Theology, 29: 179–181. doi: 10.1111/moth.12008
- Issue published online: 17 DEC 2012
- Article first published online: 17 DEC 2012
The last ten to fifteen years have been challenging for teachers of the history of Christian doctrine—that is, for those who are not content to recycle lectures from 20 years ago but want to present the current state of scholarly opinion. For, over the last decade and a half scholars such as Rebecca Lyman, Joseph Lienhard, Lewis Ayres, John Behr, and Michel Barnes, have been rewriting and complicating the traditional narratives of the fourth- and fifth-century doctrinal controversies. One historian of patristic theology whose work on Athanasius has contributed to this process is Khaled Anatolios. His latest book, Retrieving Nicaea, integrates his considerable work on Athanasius into a study of the doctrine of the Trinity both leading up and subsequent to the Council of Nicaea in 325 (chapters 1 and 2). He also situates later figures, Gregory of Nyssa (chapter 4) and Augustine of Hippo (chapter 5), within the theological trajectory of Nicaea by showing how Nyssen and Augustine were driven by the same concern for the primacy of Christ that influenced the formation of Nicene Trinitarianism.
Ultimately, however, the primary audience for Retrieving Nicaea is not patrologists, but systematic theologians. Rejecting the polarization of historical and systematic theology (p.1), Anatolios argues that in order to avoid errors common to modern treatments of the Trinity, theologians need to retrieve the larger logic that guided the development of Nicene Trinitarianism. I say “larger” logic because, for Anatolios, the failing of many modern representations of the Trinity lies in their tendency to abstract the doctrine from the larger patristic understandings of theologia and oikonomia, reducing the Nicene doctrine to mere formulae, e.g. “three persons in one being”, or technical terminology, e.g. homoousios or hypostasis. In this abstract form, the Nicene doctrine of God is removed from Christological, soteriological, liturgical, and exegetical commitments that form the full matrix of patristic theology. Is it any wonder then that in its modern presentation the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity seems neither intelligible nor existentially meaningful? Retrieving Nicaea is both an invitation and guide to help constructive theologians concerned about the Trinity to engage the Nicene doctrine within its complex, but decipherable, fourth century theological context.
Anatolios begins with a lucid and nuanced assessment of what he deems to be the inadequacies of modern Trinitarian trajectories. The first is that reflected in the works of Catherine LaCugna and others who accept Kant's and Schleiermacher's assertion that the Trinity is not intelligible because it is not accessible through human experience; therefore, the Trinity does not describe who God is ontologically, but relationally. Consequently, LaCugna collapses the ontological into the relational, claiming that God's being is communion. The result is not the integration of ontology with rationality, but the dismissal of any ontological claims about God. Anatolios counters that if Christ is Immanuel, God with us, genuinely revealing God to us, then he discloses who is the God with whom we are in relation. Since, therefore, Christ reveals God to be Triune, Trinity is not simply an accommodation of the finite human intellect. It is who God is from eternity. Anatolios is more sympathetic with the second trajectory, represented by Rahner's identification of the ontological and the relational in his famous claim that the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity and the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity. Yet, this is problematic, he argues, because it leads to ontological subordination of the Son and Spirit to the Father. It risks transferring the attributes that the Son assumed economically (e.g. inferiority to the Father, mutability, passibility) to the Godhead in se. The third, all too common error, manifest in congregations around the world every year on Trinity Sunday, is that it presents the Trinity in stock analogies, e.g. a family or shamrock. This, Anatolios says, is merely another way of abstracting the Trinity from the Biblical witness and reducing it to a simplistic metaphor. While to many minds, lay and clerical, such analogies are more vivid than dogmatic formulae, they nevertheless render the Trinity in static terms divorced from the mystery and dynamism of the triune God revealed in Scripture.
Anatolios’ alternative is to present the doctrine of the Trinity as intelligible, not because of direct correspondence either to its objective referent or through subjective experience, but when we grasp development of the doctrine through “the dynamic and complex process of cumulative interpretation” (p. 33). In this sense the Trinity is a “meta-doctrine” that can be appropriated by seeing the triune God of Nicaea in the entirety of Christian experience. By focusing on the larger historical and theological context, his approach resembles George Lindbeck's “cultural-linguistic” view of doctrine in that he analyzes Nicaea as providing “idioms for the construction of reality” that established “communally authoritative rules of [Christian] discourse,” (p. 8). Rather than treating doctrine as mere second order reflection in contrast to immediate religious experience, Anatolios draws upon Gabriel Marcel's view of “secondary reflection” to conceive of Nicaea as the product of a rupture in the experience of the fourth-century Church. Whereas primary reflection entails “the objectification and fragmentation of experience” (p. 35), secondary reflection arises out of a break in the flow of experience that makes us call into question the givens of experience. The result is an appropriation and reintegration of the object of reflection into a new experience. Such breaks in the faith experience are inevitable inasmuch as the God of Scripture reveals himself in ways surpassing the adequacy of finite categories of human thought. In understanding breaks in the fourth-century experience of interpreting Scripture, we will be able to retrieve Nicaea's secondary reflection that holds together the vision of God with the plan of salvation revealed in the Incarnation.
According to Anatolios’ narrative, the break in the Catholic experience arose out of the impulse to systematize the confession of the primacy of Christ as the mediator between God the Father and humanity within a cosmology that held to a radical divide between the Creator and creatures. How should the Church describe the unity between Father and Son necessary for the Son to give his followers true knowledge of the Father? Although the systematizing impulse is obviously present in Justin, it was really Origen's On First Principles that posed the challenge both formally and substantially for his fourth-century heirs to account for the unity of the Godhead. Arius, Eusebius, Asterius, and Eunomius followed Origen in rejecting the language of an ontological unity, which allowed notions of matter (i.e. ousia) and passionate begetting to corrupt the religious imagination, in favor of speaking of a unity of will. Being begotten from the will of the Father, the Son was able, according to Eusebius, to be spoken of in the biblical language as the Father's image and radiance (pp. 63-64). Alexander, Marcellus, and Apollinaris subscribed to Origen's view that the Son or Logos is intrinsic to the Father's being, and therefore insisted upon the Son's ontological unity with the Father. Having laid out these conflicting trajectories in chapter two, Anatolios turns to Athanasius and Nyssen to illustrate how their secondary reflection on the person of Christ led to the triumph of Nicaea's account of the Father and Son's ontological unity.
In an extremely helpful, chronological presentation of Athanasius’ major writings, Anatolios presents Athanasius’ secondary reflection as a model for contemporary systematicians. Athanasius successfully argues for the consubstantially of the Father and Son by offering an account of an all-encompassing picture of the Gospel. Based on his analysis of the biblical names Father and Son as well as his view of the condescension of the Word and the work of divinization as an expression of the Father's philanthropia, he was able to argue for the ontological correlativity of the Father and Son. Thus Anatolios concludes that Athanasius’ account of the ontological theory of unity between the Father and Son provides the fullest account of the centrality of Christ for the coherence of the whole of the Christian faith (p. 156).
One important difference between Anatolios’ narrative of the fourth century and that of Ayres, Barnes, and Christopher Beeley is that the latter have challenged the traditional histories that placed the Cappadocians in the line of Athanasius as his theological heirs. Anatolios, however, offers a partial apology for the older view, at least in the case of Gregory of Nyssa. In an excellent discussion of Nyssen's account of the logic of divine condescension, he shows that Nyssen's explanation of the Word's kenosis as evidence, not of creaturely mutability, but of the philanthropia and power proper to the divine nature is his adaptation of a central element of Athanasius’ thought.
Those who have studied and written on Nicaea in all its complexity will appreciate Anatolios’ remarkable clarity that invites readers deeper into the logic of Nicaea. It is a work that should help bridge the lamentable gap between systematic and historical theologians.