Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, II

[I haven't finished my promised post on language learning; I have outlined it, just need some time to fill in the details].

In Chapters 1-3 of his work, Ayres begins to offer 'Points of Departure' for entry into the 4th Century Debates. He is particularly concerned to avoid previous (mis)conceptions of the whole debate, and so regularly attacks the idea that there were 'Arians', the East/West split, and so on and so forth. What Ayres begins with is a consideration of 4 main points of departure before taking up the narrative. These are:

1. Events concerning Arius up to Nicaea in 325.
2. The theology and legacy of Origen.
3. Exegesis in the period between Origen and the late 4th C.
4. “the variety of theological trajectories existing in tension at the beginning of the fourth century.”

Ayres treats points 1-3 in Chapter 1. His treatment of point 1 consists of a short narrative account of Arius and his conflict with Alexander. He concludes by saying that attempts to read the rest of the period from the exile of Arius presume some kind of 'Arian conspiracy', which is difficult to substantiate, let alone believe.

He then treats Origen in some detail and nuance. He is careful to articulate that Origen influenced all sides of the debate, but no-one was really an 'Origenist'. He refutes the idea that Arius was subordinationist as a legacy of Origen.

3rdly, Ayres treats of Patristic exegesis in the period. He again cautions against judging it by modern standards and practices, particularly the post-reformation dichotomy between typology and allegory. Instead he points to the 'plain' sense of Scripture (not the literal though), as how the Scripture reads to a community; he points to Graeco-Roman educational practices as shaping Christian literary study, and the range of tools for 'figural' exegesis.

In treating the 4th point of Departure, Ayres takes a full two chapters to outline 4 "theological trajectories": groups of theologians who exhibit similar patterns of thought and work. he identifies these as:
1. Alexander/early Athanasius
2. The 'Eusebians' - those roughly in connection with either Eusebius of Nicomedia or of Caesarea
3. Marcellus of Ancyra and the like
4. Western Anti-Adoptionist theology

Throughout the discussion of various representatives of these trajectories, Ayres maintains his nuanced approach. I particularly valued the points at which he shows up apparently bizarre tendencies: eg., Western Anti-Adoptionist theology (Novatian, Lactantius, early Hilary), is part of an anti-adoptionist, anti-monarchian (cf. Tertullian) trajectory aimed at defending the divinity and distinction of Christ; it's this anti-monarchian trajectory that comes to be seen as the Latin West's 'beginning from the unity of God' approach! Or again, the background of Paul of Samosata's Christology, and debates over whether Christ had a human soul - that the position that he did have a soul was held to be semi-modalist at the beginning of the period (a position clearly reversed and elaborated by Chalcedon).

I like Ayres. His engagement with the period is very careful, revisionist, and deliberately upsetting. Sometimes he'll mention certain papers and authors (Rowan Williams, for example), in a way that sounds a bit text-book like, or merely to demonstrate engagement with the literature, in a kind of dissertation-manner. I'm not sure why, but I find this a little distracting and unnecessary.


Nick Norelli said...

If you have access then you might be interested in checking out the Harvard Theological Review 100/2 (20007). The entire issue was dedicated to discussing Ayres' book.

Seumas Macdonald said...

Thanks Nick, that whole journal is on my reading list.

On another note, I never get email notification when you comment. Every one else yes, but not you. Weird.

Nick Norelli said...

Seumas: To make things even weirder, the same thing happens when you comment on my blog! The comment pops up but the email notification always ends up in the spam filter and I don't see it until much later. Perhaps it's a conspiracy to keep two Trinitarians from different heispheres who are interested in patristics from talking to one another. Hmmm...

Nick Norelli said...


Seumas Macdonald said...

Seems quite likely.