Monday, May 20, 2013

Who's homoousion now?

In my reading for the doctorate lately I've been enjoying both CL Beckwith's monograph on Hilary, and articles by Mark DelCogliano. The combination of the two lines of argument are bad news for Athanasius' legacy.

See, on the very traditional history of the period, Athanasius is the pro-Nicene par excellence. Not only does he emerge in the aftermath of Nicaea as the defender of Homoousios, he lays the foundation for the later pro-Nicenes to argue their way towards the solution of Constantinople.

But this is increasingly unlikely.


1. There exists a fairly naive pro-Nicene party in the West, among the Latins, who don't really read or understand Athanasius. They just know that Nicaea dealt with Arius, that the Easterns are all turning Arians, and that the Eastern polemic is directed variously against Marcellus of Ancyra, Athanasius, and Photinus of Sirmium. Now, the West doesn't have much love for Photinus either, but they are not big fans of being called Sabellian modalists, and so like to stick to their guns and back Athanasius and Nicaea. But this is more political than theological, and in the 50s and 60s when the Emperors are pressing for consensus, more than a few begin to tow the party line.

2. Hilary goes into exile, and all the exegetical and theological tips he gets after from the Homoiousians, like Basil of Ancyra. There's not that much of a trace of Athanasius in his writings at all. The (good) thing is that by this stage the emergence of the Homoian party is showing more moderate Homoiousians just what the legacy of the two Eusebius' will be. So Homoian theology and Sirmium 357 actually pushes moderates more towards Nicaea, even though they don't realise it. Hilary's legacy is brilliantly picking up Homoiousian exegetical practices and theological manouevres, and utilising them to push even further - back towards a pro-Nicene stance and ultimately homoousios.

3. By the time Basil of Caesarea starts making waves, the emergence of radical Anomoians shows the ultimate extreme of non-Nicene thinking. Basil, like Hilary, doesn't show a lot of influence from Athanasius, as DelCogliano keeps showing us. Instead he has traces of Eusebius as well as the more moderate Homoiousians. But, again, part of his distinct contribution is to transform that legacy, and the terminological move to distinguish between ousia and hypostasis is not only what enables a non-modalist understanding of ousia, but allows the Cappadocians to push the homoiousian centre further towards Nicaea.

4. In several ways then, the triumph of 381 is not the victory of Athanasian trinitarianism, but a brilliantly co-opted homoiousianism that has been transformed back into homoousianism.

5. But, lest we be too harsh of Athanasius, let's remember thirdly things. Firstly, this would not have been possible without him. Athanasius' writings and activity keep Nicaea alive, they keep the debate going, and they force the other parties to keep writing. Without Athanasius, Arianism would never have ceased, and a Eusebius-style subordinationism would have won the day. Secondly, Athanasius' politics and alignment with the West created a political/polemic context that made later pro-Nicene theology possible.

And thirdly, Athanasius' theological writings are a tour de force in themselves. Even if we find that they were not as influential in his own time period as we might have previously thought, they are a profound defence of orthodox trinitarian theology at a time when it was both deeply under attack, and still being formulated into new categories.

* in an earlier version of this blog post I very foolishly mixed up Eusebius (both of them) with Eunomius. I have fixed that

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