"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, December 11, 2006

That homoousios again

One of the many things I dislike about Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code, which I tried but failed to finish, is that it gives development of doctrine a bad name. Its account of the Council of Nicaea's definition of Christ's divinity amounts to saying that, by a slim vote, the bishops of the Catholic Church decided that Jesus was and is divine, when that had not hitherto been the faith of Christians. That account, which Brown marketed as fiction yet really believes is true, really is fiction. Indeed it forms an easy target for Fr. Patrick Reardon, editor of Touchstone and a prominent Orthodox speaker—too easy, I'm afraid. In a brief and enjoyable screed, Reardon skillfully uses Brown as a foil against which to propound an equally simple, if not equally false, view of doctrinal development: basically, there ain't none. I don't think that will quite do either.

Here is the main part of Reardon's December 10 "Pastoral Ponderings", available only to subscribers:

What the Fathers of Nicaea voted on was not the divinity of Christ but the teaching of the priest Arius, who had recently promulgated the idea that God's Son, who assumed our humanity in Jesus, had not been God's Son from all eternity. There was God the Father before there was the Son, said Arius; the Father and the Son were two separate beings, the One prior to the Other.

The question before the council was whether or not this novel teaching of Arius was compatible with what the Apostles taught in their preaching and their Gospels and Epistles found in the New Testament. Jesus was not the matter of debate at Nicaea. Arius was.

The bishops at Nicaea looked carefully at what Arius had published and then asked themselves a simple question, "Are these ideas of Arius compatible with what we find in the tradition and writings of the Apostles?" And they answered, after some animated deliberation, "Well, actually, no. In fact, heck no, we'll be darned if they are."

The reasoning at Nicaea went like this: In Jesus of Nazareth we recognize God's Son. This is why we address God as Father, just as Jesus taught us. If, as Arius said, there was a time when God did not have a Son--some point after which God became the Father--one of two things had to happen. Either God was essentially, inwardly changed (which Nicaea recognized to be impossible), or the Father created the Son. If it was the latter case, then the Son is a created being, of a nature different from God, a being outside of God, a creature not essentially different from the rest of creation.

Now this was a very serious inference, the Nicene Fathers continued to reflect, because a great deal was at stake. If this Son is just another creature different from and outside of God, a creature pretty much like ourselves, then we human beings are still in our sins, because the death and resurrection of Jesus could not have saved us. According to the New Testament, after all, our redemption was “expiated,” was "purchased," by the blood of Jesus (Romans 3:25; 5:9; Ephesians 1:7; 2:13; Colossians 1:14,20; 1Peter 1:19; Revelation 5:9). Now, if our redemption was something purchased, surely no one but God could pay the price. The very name Jesus means "the Lord saves." The Nicene Fathers perceived, then, that the teaching of Arius touched on the matter of our redemption. This is why they made sure to say that God's Son "became man for us men and for our salvation."

God and Jesus, therefore, are distinct (since the Father sent the Son), but they are not separable. Since there was never God the Father without His Son, then the Son must be as eternal as the Father. Otherwise, the Son would essentially be a creature, someone who had not existed before God made him. That, said Nicaea, is what the Apostles taught, and that was the reason the priest Arius was dead wrong.

To express their condemnation of Arius on this point, the Fathers at Nicaea formulated a new expression, saying that the Father and the Son are not two different beings. They are not separable. They are "of the same being"--homoousios in the Greek language that they used at the council. There can be no God the Father, they declared, without God the Son; otherwise the Father is not really the Father.

It is important to observe that the use of the word homoousios did not “clarify” anything about God. It added no new light or intelligibility to what was already revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of dogmatic definitions is not to throw further light on what is, after all, the fullness of revealed truth. The purpose of dogmatic definitions is, rather, to confound heretics. Dogma serves to “focus” revelation in the sense of declaring what is “not in line” with revelation. Of itself, however, a dogma adds nothing new. Hence, it is wrong to imagine that Nicaea’s declaration clarified revealed truth. It did not. Nicaea told us absolutely nothing beyond what the Apostles had declared. Indeed, the Nicene Fathers went to some lengths to insist on this point.

So, nothing whatsoever was clarified by the introduction of the metaphysical formula: homoousios. (Many would agree; but not, I suspect, for Reardon's reasons.) All the fierce debate within the Church that had occasioned the Council, and all the fierce dissent from the Council that led, within less than a generation, to the majority of bishops being Arians—all of that was due just to the refusal of some to see and assent to what had been understood and taught throughout the Church from the start. The homoousios, that model of clarity and simplicity, pellucid to any believer, was just the thing needed to restate the obvious and thereby confound those willful heretics.

Fiddlesticks. I happily grant, as indeed I must grant, that the (true) assertion that the Son is homoousios with the Father added nothing to what had been revealed to the Apostles. That is not at issue. The question is whether the formula amplified the Church's collective understanding of what had been revealed to the Apostles. Of course it did. It does not merely tell us what is "not in line with revelation"; it gives a more formal, and thus clearer, meaning to what was always materially the faith of the Church. That is precisely what made it useful in defense of orthodoxy. It is not merely apophatic, either syntactically or semantically. It would have been neither necessary nor useful if it had been so intended.

But the anti-DD folks, who were once as common in Catholicism as they still are in Orthodoxy, will have none of that. Any suggestion that, in Vatican II's words, "there is growth in understanding" of revealed truth is—well, if not exactly anathema, then dangerously close to the Brown agenda. Since the fullness of revealed truth is possessed by the Church from the start, heresy must be due to bad faith, not to mere confusion.

Well, no doubt some heretics are in bad faith, just as some non-heretics are. But I must say that I do not understand the insistence that new doctrinal formulations, such as the homoousios, are nothing new, as if only bad faith could block assent to them. What they refer to is nothing new, to be sure; but their usefulness consists precisely in conveying truth more clearly in face of confusion. That's why I like them. If they didn't do that, they wouldn't even be useful to the orthodox.
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