G L Prestige Fathers and Heretics pp. 87-93

Fathers and Heretics

. . . . Even in the attempt to vindicate divine unity, a great deal of attention had been paid to the reasons why God is said to be three than the reasons why He is said to be one. The balance needed redressing.

This task fell into the hands of Athanasius. Nobody did more than he to defend the definition of “the Great Council”, as he called it, of Nicaea, which laid down the thesis that whatever be the divine stuff of which the Father consists, God the Son consists of the same stuff. He defended the crucial word homoousion, which expressed the Son’s equality with the Father as touching His godhead, with all the resources of His nature—with tongue and pen, brain and body, at home or in exile, before emperor, bishop, monk or peasant. In the same way, as soon as the question began to be seriously raised, it was Athanasius who insisted that the Holy Spirit, if He is God at all, must be God in just the same sense asn the Father and the Son; the cult of demi-gods is a pagan, not a Christian diversion. Athanasius accordingly wrote a thorough and considered treatment of the deity of God the Holy Ghost and of the reasons for believing it, which was the first of its kind, if we except Origen’s sketch in “First Principles,” that any one had set on paper; he was the first to devote so much attention to this article of the creed since the fanatical Montanist revivalists has made it the pivot of their enthusiasm in the second century. Nevertheless, to assert the equality of the three Persons is a very different thing, as history had proved, from showing in what sense Christianity can interpret the affirmation, to which it is absolutely bound, that the three are one God. The theological greatness of Athanasius is revealed, more that by anything else, by the fact that he understood the need to find a direct and inclusive explanation of Christian monotheism, and that he not only grasped the necessity, but fulfilled the obligation.

He set out with two premises, the acknowledgment that every Person by Himself is a distinct objective being, and the assertion of the Nicene Creed that the Son is of one substance with the Father. The introduction of the term ‘substance’ into the creed almost certainly suggested by the Latin members if the Council. Now in Greek, both the word hypostasis, which a strict expression for a distinct ‘object,’ and the word ousia or ‘substance’, mean very much the same etymologically, the Latin substantia is an exact translation of the Greek hypostasis. But though so close in meaning, the terms are not identical, and this was recognised when it came to setting out the Latin faith in the Greek language; ‘unius substantiae’ was translated by ‘homoousion.’ The reason is important. “Substance’ means on object consisting of some particular stuff; it has an inward reference to the nature of the thing in itself, expressing what logicians call a connotation. ‘Object’ means substance marked off as an individual specimen by reason of its distinction from all other objects; it bears an outward reference to a reality independent of other individuals, and expresses what logicians call a denotation.

The fact of the different shades of meaning attaching to the words object and substance is so crucial, and supplies so absolutely the key to what the theologians of the fourth and fifth centuries meant by their doctrine of the Trinity, that every effort is demanded in order to make it clear. How exactly can you answer the question, ‘What is a thing?’ In principle, there are two possible answers. Take as an instance the building in which we are at present assembled, and ask yourselves what is it. One answer is as follows: It is St Mary’s Church, an edifice situated in Oxford High Street, and easily recognisable by its external features; it is not All Souls’, nor is it Brasenose, nor is it the Radcliffe Camera, but it lies between them and arrests attention by rather stubbornly obstructing wheeled traffic in that neighbourhood; here it stands out, a distinct and concrete fact. That sort of answer tells  you how to recognise St. Mary’s if you are looking for it. But it does not suggest any king of reason why you should want to look for it. It gives you the distinct and concrete fact, but not the distinctive and significant fact. You may enquire still further, What is St. Mary’s Church? Then you man get an answer of the second type: It is a building of ecclesiastical design, with great tower and lofty windows, with an altar and a pulpit and seats for the Vice-chancellor and proctors; it is not a shop, nor a lodging house, but a place consecrated for the worship of Almighty God and specially appropriated to the religious use of the University. It is still a ‘thing,’ still the same unique thing; but your two kinds of answer to the question, what is it, have produced two very different kinds of explanation. The first defines it from the standpoint of its ‘otherness,’ with an outward reference to the church as what the Greek theologians called and ‘object’ or objective thing, showing that it must not be confused with other objects. The second defines it by its own particular character and function, with an outward reference to the church as being what the Greek theologians called a ‘substance’ or significant thing.

Now when the council of Nicaea wanted to assert the equality of the divine Persons, it used the term that bore the inward reference. Though Father and Son are not one but two objects as seen in relation to each other—the names denote distinct presentations of the divine being—yet their ‘substance’ is identical; if you analyse the meaning connoted by the word God, in whatever connection, you arrive in every case at exactly the same result, whether you are thinking of the Father or of the Son or of the Spirit. That is the point at which the creed was directed: the word God connotes precisely the same truth when you speak of God the Father as it does when you speak of God the Son.

It connotes the same truth. So much the Council affirmed. But Athanasius went farther. It must imply, he perceived, not only the same truth about God, but the same actual God, the same being. If you contemplate the Father, who is one distinct presentation of the deity, you obtain mental view of the one true God. If you contemplate the Son or the Spirit, you obtain a view of the same God; though the presentation is different, the reality is identical. “God,” said Athanasius, “is not synthetic;” hence it is untrue to say that the Son ‘resembles’ the Father; the Son is identical with the Father, “pertaining to and identical with the being of God” (ad Afr. 8). Thus though there are in God three Objects to be recognised, there is but one simple Being to be apprehended. Christians stoutly deny that they believe in three Gods. But they no less definitely affirm both that the infinite God is in a true sense three, and that in another true sense He is one. This the great doctrine of the Identity of Substance, which Athanasius first developed and his successor elaborated.

Two criticisms can be made with a certain justice on all such efforts to give intellectual expressions to the infinite and inexpressible. The first is that both the method and the result are, and must be, paradoxical. How can the finite human mind sum up and describe the nature of the personal being of Almighty God? It cannot, and no reasonable theologian suppose that it can. The utmost that it can achieve in this direction is to sketch out a picture in earthly metaphors and phrases, in the hope that they may convey some sort of parabolic representation consistent with the information which mankind possesses. For be it remembered that their is a certain stock of information available, if there be any truth in the Christian religion. We know something about human personality; we have seen it raised to the highest degree of perfection in Jesus Christ; and we have good reason for thinking this the point at which creation approaches nearest to the image of God. In trying to picture the personality of God we cannot be working on wrong lines, as we grope towards our object, in thinking of Him as a being in whom all the highest qualities of human personality are infinitely enhanced and magnified. Again, if we are right in our conviction of the possibility of knowing God and holding communion with Him, it would be strange indeed of we were wrong in claiming some knowledge, not only of Him, but about Him. In as far as He reveals Himself to intuition He reveals Himself also to understanding.

In both cases the knowledge is manifestly incomplete. But in both cases God reveals enough for the practical purposes of Christian life on earth. We do not know as we are known, but we know with sufficient fullness and sufficient certainty to assure us with whom we are dealing and how we are meant to respond. So, paradoxical as the attempt to delineate Him may be, it is not presumptuous; God gives us brains to use. And further, be it admitted that the conclusion to which theology has been led is enigmatical, nevertheless the enigma is neither pure contradiction nor pure perplexity. When we say that God is one and that God is also three, much is gained by the realisation that the unity and triplicity are statements of different aspects of the infinite depth of the truth; the theological definition helps towards the dim beginning of a definite perception that the Eternal, who is far greater than the measure of man’s mind, possesses positive characteristics which can be glimpsed even though they cannot be calculated. The tentative and fumbling human definition calls attention to something which, thought strictly indefinable, is a true fact.

The second criticism is that all such higher flights of Christian speculation conduct to regions far remote from the simple consciousness of common people. The same may be said of any philosophical construction, yet philosophy is not thereby condemned, but there is a deeper answer. Can it be maintained that sophisticated opinion has no influence on general conduct, when Europe is at war and the world in arms by force of ideologies? Animated by theory, men are killing and being killed, and the practical details of daily life are being transformed for millions of mankind. It is true that the theological doctrines for which Athanasius contended have not the same immediate bearing on behaviour of the mass of men as the political doctrines of Communism or of Blood and Soil. But they control religious thinking, and so involve indirect consequences of vital importance to practical religion; for if Christian teachers fail to keep a true balance and sane judgment in the instruction which they impart, the religion of the common people is apt to take, sooner or later, some very undesirable turns.

Consider in this light the histrionic hypothesis of the Sabellians and the materialistic mythology of the Subordinationists like Arius.  They both sought, consciously or unconsciously, to establish pagan ideas under a Christian guise. When the former denied the distinct reality of Jesus Christ, it ripped up the solid platform of the New Testament history. Such a course lends a direct encouragement to credulity. It suggests that apparent facts are not really facts. It exalts spiritual apparitions and religious hallucinations above sober experience  of plain events. It forms part of the recurrent tendency to identify the supernatural with the irrational and to seek religious consolation in the easy lap of superstition. When the latter drove a wedge between the Father and the Son, and reduced Christ to the level of a creature, it both separated the world we live in from the world in which God dwells and reigns, and also taught mankind to look for salvation to sources other than the Lord of heaven and earth. This line of thought drives people to rely on human and earth-bound expedients and to minimise the need of divine grace. It fosters the idolatrous worship of creatures, by which men substitute the merits of imaginary saints and the efficacy of fictitious relics for access to the ordinances of the love of God and direct communion with Him. And it is akin to every form of polytheism that plays off divine justice against divine mercy. If doctrines like these had triumphed, Christianity would have been left without any regulated theological compass, to indicate its true course and to recall it from the recurrent aberrations of the tides of intellectual fashion. Athanasius did not merely save the Nicene Creed. He saved Christianity.

There is a certain amount to be learned form Sabellianism and Subordinationism. The Sabellians had a right instinct behind their refusal to place the God of redemption any lower in the scale than the God of creation, or to separate them into different Gods. They were wrong in making the distinction between them into a transient illusion; illusion and transience and are not the attributes of God. The Subordinationists again were so far right when they maintained that the being of the Spirit and the Son must be derived form the sole ultimate being of the Father. They erred in representing derivation as equivalent to derogation. They assumed, like the pagan Greeks, that the further the substance of deity was transmitted, the less completely it retained the qualities of its source; in this their rectilinear conception of derivation and their quantitative notion of the divine being led them astray. In truth, the process has to be imagined not as the transmission of disintegrating stuff away from a fixed point, but as the timeless and unceasing passage of a personal being through a circular course which ends where it began and begins again where it ended. Some such ideas had already occurred in a rudimentary form to Latin thinkers, but it was unfamiliar in the East; it is probable that the exile of Athanasius in the West was providential in uniting valuable strains of thought which had been geographically divorced, as was, indisputably the exile of Hilary to Asia Minor. There is another point of interest in the displacement of the ‘rectilinear’ by the ‘circular’ conception. The former suggests no sort of reason why the number of the divine Persons should conclude at three, or indeed at any other terminus; the process of emanation might go on to thirty places as with Valentine, or  forever. The ‘circular’ conception is more congruous with the assertion of finality.

As against the Sabellians, Athanasius insisted that the personal distinctions in the Godhead, which have been revealed in temporal history, are permanent and authentic features of the personality of God who has revealed them. As against Arius, he maintained that howsoever God reveals Himself, is the self-same God who is revealed. Hence comes the two sides of the Catholic doctrine. Each Person is a genuine hypostasis. This term, owing to the derivation of Western theological language from the Latin, is commonly translated Person, but it does not mean an individual person in the ordinary sense. Its real purport is to describe that which ‘stands up to’ pressure, that which possesses a firm crust, and so an object in the concrete, something which is not a mere attribute or abstraction, but has a being of its own, and can jostle other objects without losing its identity. Applied to God, it expresses the idea of a solid and self-supported presentation of a divine reality. All the qualities which modern speech associates with personality, however, such as consciousness and will, are attributed to Greek theology to the complementary term of the definition; they belong to divine substance, the single being of God, and to the several ‘Persons’ only by virtue of their embodiment and presentation of that unique being. The entire difference between the Persons is one not of content but of manner. Nothing whatsoever exists to differentiate between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit except the difference of aspect with which each presents the whole reality of God. God exists Fatherwise, Sonwise, and Spiritwise; this illustrates the truth that personality can live and act only in social relationship. But He is always God; and this confirms Him as the ultimate ground of all existence and the sole object of legitimate allegiance and worship. To Him, one God in three Persons, be all might and majesty, all worship and adoration, now and for evermore.