Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Three approaches to the Fourth Century

John Behr, “Formation of Christian Theology, vol 2: The Nicene Faith”

There are lots of things to appreciate about Behr’s approach. One of his distinct emphases is that he really articulates that the Fourth century debates are about exegesis, how to read scripture. He rejects approaches that falsely dichotomise the immanent/economic trinity, approaches that schematise Antiochene vs. Alexandrian types of exegesis, approaches that drive a wedge between NT faith and (reading) practices, Patristic exegesis, and contemporary exegesis, and approaches that treat pithy Trinitarian dogmatic formulae as truths waiting to be uncovered in the Fourth century and then we can just move on from there.
If I wanted to sum up Behr’s approach succinctly, I would say that he wants us to do our best to read 4th century figures on their own terms, and to pay careful attention to how Scripture is utilised, and what the overarching paradigm of those readings are.

Lewis Ayres, “Nicaea and its Legacy”

Ayres’ book dropped a bombshell, I think, in the state of over-arching 4th century narratives (even though everyone keeps denying that they are providing a comprehensive narrative (referring instead to Hanson and Simonetti, though everyone critiques Hanson). They key thesis of Ayres is that the those questions about overarching paradigms can be read as ‘cultures’ and ‘grammars’ – ways of being and ways of thinking, and the clash in the 4th is between different understandings of ‘how to do theology’. What kinds of things can we say and not say about God, Jesus, the Bible? He also does a neat job of turning a binary approach (orthodox vs. Arian) into a 4-foldish schema (Alexandrian/Athanasian, Eusebian, Marcellan, and Western Anti-Adoptionist) of positions (trajectories).

Probably a key take-home point from Ayres is this: Nicenes have a bunch of tricks (techniques) up their sleeve, and you can look for them and understand what they’re doing with their theologising and exegesis.

Khaled Anatolios

Like Behr and Ayres, Anatolios wants us to work hard at understanding the 4th century contextually. He outlines three trajectories in modern Trinitarian doctrine (Schleiermacher’s, Rahner-Barth-Jenson, and analogical) any pretty much says they are all wrongheaded.

Instead, in the C4th he sees two big issues: two competing narratives of what the primacy of Christ looks like, and how we know and relate to God.

He gives a narrative of the 4th century, and then some categorisations; he thinks Lienhard’s miahypostatic vs. dyohypostatic overemphasises the importance of hypostasis language. He thinks that the Ayres-Barnes dichotomy of emphasis on sameness vs. diversity is too vague. Anatolios configures the central dichotomy around theologies that speak of unity of will vs. unity of being.

I find this quite helpful, it certainly matches the contours of the debate as I have read the texts.
He also borrows a model of development from Gabriel Marcel, that gives him a starting set of questions: the common elements of C4th thinking coupled with the elements that created disruption that required reflection and re-integration to arrive at the ‘Nicene’ ‘solution’.

Anatolios gives less-in-depth treatments of Arius, Asterius, Eusebius of Caesarea, Eunomius of Cyzicus, Alexander, Marcellus, and Apollinaris. He then gives lengthy chapter treatments of Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. (cf. Ayres, who focuses on Basil, G.de Nyssa, and Augustine).
I haven’t quite finished with Anatolios, but the depth of his work on Athanasius (reflecting his other volume) is excellent. He does a great job at showing the scriptural contours of Athanasius’ reflection, of how Athanasius both critiques and co-opts opponents’’ theology, of the question of “locating the pro nobis Christ” – wherein and in what does Christ’s being “for us” consist?

I could add a lot more on Anatolios, since he is the most recent in my mind, but I think that's enough for today.

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