In order to grasp the epistemological significance of the homoousion and its continuing importance for theological statement, we must examine carefully two lines of thought which we have in the fathers – and here I am thinking particularly of Athanasius and Basil, although one could follow through the thought of others at this point in the same way, such as that of Hilary of Poitiers.
(a) The epistemological significance of the homoousion becomes clear when we see it against the background of the radical disjunction between the kosmos aisthetos and the kosmos noetos which in different ways lay behind Origenism and Gnosticism, and gave rise to the problem of mythology. Once this junction is posited, as it was quite axiomatically in the secular culture of the second and third centuries, the following questions must be asked. How are we to understand the biblical statement about the acts of the eternal God within the history of Israel, that is, within the kosmos aisthetos? And, how are we to regard the Logos: does he belong to the eternal side of that disjunction, the kosmos noetos, or is he to be regarded as a creature and therefore belonging to the kosmos aisthetos? Then in answer to the first question, it would have to be said that biblical statements about the acts of God himself within space and time can only be interpreted as mythological ways of speaking of something that is eternal and timeless. This is a world of change and decay, of shadow and unreality, but it is the other world, that of the noumenal, that is real and changeless. How can God who is impassible and changeless be thought of as entering into our changing world, and living within contingent and temporal existence? It is unthinkable. Yet, if we remember, so the Greeks tended to think, that this world partakes of reality in so far as it is a passing reflection of the eternal, then we may interpret the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation or of the crucifixion of the Son of God as a passing image of some timeless truth of God.
Then, too, in answer to the second question, it would have to be said that the Logos belongs to the creaturely side of the disjunction – even if he be regarded as an angelic being and the highest of all angelic or spiritual powers, he is nevertheless a created power. In his own being he belongs to this side of the radical disjunction (chorismos), to the world of changing, contingent actuality. The Logos is thus to be regarded as detached from the being of God (diaretos, choristos), and as changeable (alloimenos, treptos) But if we remember, so the Greeks tended to think, that there is a mimetic relation between true thought and speech and the eternal forms of the real world, then we would have to interpret the Logos or the Son as somehow imaging, albeit in a passing and changeable way, the nature of the eternal Deity. But since (on this assumption) he belongs ultimately to the side of the creature, rather than the side of the Creator, and is not therefore identical in his being with eternal God, he could only provide us with one of many logoi or eikones (images) of God – there must in fact be myriads of them, as Arius affirmed. This in the last resort Jesus Christ cannot be regarded as the eternal Logos inherent in the being of God become Man, and as providing us with the one and only and exclusive Image of God, who is at the same time his Reality, but only as a form of man’s imaging of God, one of the conceptions he forms in his own mind as he tries to think of God.
Two things may be said in reply to these answers, and here we are still following the great Athanasius. First, this Arian or semi-Arian way of thinking converts statements about God into statements of human concern; that is, converts statements that derive from God and really refer to him for they have God himself as their object, into statements that have only this-worldly reference, and so in the last analysis have only human or earthly meaning. As such they could be given some kind of religious meaning if they are treated as mythological speculations about God or made to yield ‘spiritual meaning’ by allegorical interpretation. Secondly, this way of thinking is an objectifying way of thinking, not an objective way of thinking, to use modern terminology; but to use the old patristic terminology, it is a way of thinking kat’ epinoian in which our thoughts and statements are related to God only thesei, by convention, and not in a way of thinking kata dianoian in which our thoughts and statements are related to God kata physin and alethos. What happens here is that we obtrude ourselves in the place of God and never rise above ourselves, for we only continue to imprison our thoughts with ourselves. This way of thinking has an element of madness (mania) about it, for it means that we are so engrossed with ourselves that we are unable to distinguish objective realities for our own subjective states, or to distinguish God from ourselves.
However, the proper line to take in answer to this whole way of thinking is to call in question its initial assumption of a radical dichotomy between the kosmos noetos and the kosmos aisthetos. It is significant that although Athanasius was brought up within the Alexandrian tradition he rejected from the very start this assumption although it was held so strongly by both Clement and Origen who contributed so much to that tradition. This did not mean that the distinction between God and the creature was abolished, far from it, but that it was regarded, as it is in the biblical witness, as a distinction between the Creator and the creature to whom the Creator gives reality in relation to himself. This reality of the creaturely world was affirmed by the Incarnation and further established by the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Thus while maintaining the distance between the Creator and the creature, the Christian faith taught that God in his own divine being, God the Word, God the Son, became flesh, and entered into creaturely being for our sakes, without ceasing to be God. The doctrine of the Incarnation thus both maintained the distinction between God the Creator and the creature, and taught that God is yet active within our creaturely existence in space and time in Jesus Christ, revealing himself to us, and reconciling us to himself.
That is the fundamental essence of the Christian Gospel to which the fathers penetrated in their exegetical and theological activity at Nicaea when the fathers formulated the homoousion, the doctrine of the consubstantiality of the Incarnate Word and Son of God. The epistemological significance of that lies in the rejection of Valentinian and Arian dichotomy that made the Logos in the last resort a creature of God and so recast theological statements with only this-worldly reference, and lies in the insistence that in Jesus Christ we have a Logos that is of man’s devising but One who goes back into the eternal being of God for he proceeded from the Being of God. The Incarnation means that God has really given himself and communicated himself in his eternal Word to man. It is out of that Word and in in accordance with the way which that Word has taken in the Incarnation that genuine theological statements are made. They are genuine statements in so far as they derive from that Word and refer back to it: that is their essential ana-logic. Theological thinking is thinking of and on the ground of a given Reality, hard objective thinking kata dianoian, thinking that must be rigorously tested along the line of the twofold reference which we have already discussed. What God is to us in Jesus Christ he really is antecedently and eternally in himself – that is the ana-logical reference. But if in Jesus Christ and only in Jesus Christ do we have the one Logos of God, his one self-revelation, so that Jesus Christ is the Way and the Truth and the Life. without there being any other way to the Father, then all true theological statements will be consistent with one another in so far as they have this Logos as their centre of reference, and through this Logos speak of all of God’s acts in creation and redemption, in recreation and sanctification, and therefore not only in the Son but in the Spirit.
The importance of this can be seen in the rise of the doctrine of the Spirit and in the way that it arose. As Athanasius insisted (and the Cappadocians no less than he), it is from our knowledge of the Son that we must take our knowledge of the Spirit (Ad Serapionem 1.1-3). If the Incarnation of the Son is the one point where the Logos of God has come through to us, then it is the point too that we establish true knowledge of the Holy Spirit. Hence Athanasius built up his doctrine of the relation of the Spirit for the foundation laid in the doctrine of the relation between the Father and the Son and the Son and the Father. The Holy Spirit is not independently cognoscible – he is very God in all his unapproachable majesty and glory, and is only known on the ground of the Incarnation of the Logos, but then really known, and known in himself, although of course inseparably from knowledge of the Son and of the Father. Thus from the homoousion of the Son the Greek fathers went on to affirm the homoousion of the Spirit, and because they rejected the radical chorismos of the Valentinians, Origenists and Arians, they rejected also the impious doctrine that the Spirit is a creature and affirmed the doctrine of the Spirit as homotimos, he who is to be worshipped equally with the Father and the Son as himself very God.
(b) The other line of thought regarding the homoousion we must now examine is that which inquires into the actual way that the grace of God took in incarnating his Word for us in Jesus Christ, and in raising us up to the knowledge and communion with himself through Jesus Christ – this is a line of thought we find in Irenaeus and Hippolytus before Athanasius, but we shall follow the form it takes in the De Spiritu Sancto of Basil the Great, in which he relates together the economic condescension of the Son of God to be one with us and his growth and advance in our human nature whereby he provides for us in himself a way up to God (8.18f).
In himself God is incomprehensible to us, and unapproachable in thought, but he has condescended to come down to our weakness to reveal himself to us and to redeem us in and through the humble ministry of Christ. This is the patristic doctrine of the economy (oikonomia) which refers to the self-humbling of God the Son in becoming man and made a servant for our sakes. It is important to note that the Greek fathers understood this realistically. Later on the term ‘economical’ came to be used in a different sense, as when an act of God spoken of as ‘only economical’ – oikonomia then has the sense of reserve also, on the part of man’s understanding of the act of God, for he is not to understand it strictly the way it appears. Unfortunately this later notion is very often read into the earlier patristic teaching (e.g. by J. H. Newman), but that amounts to a serious falsification of their thought. In Irenaeus, for example, economy is understood strictly in the Pauline sense of Ephesians, and in Athanasius kat’ oikonomian may be used as the equivalent for alethos and even sometimes for kata physin. It is in that sense that we are to take it here in St Basil’s account of the action of God which he speaks of the ‘economy through the Son.’ In this economic condescension God really imparts to us knowledge of himself as he is, for he is antecedently and eternally in his own Being what he reveals of himself in his Incarnation and humiliation in Christ. The economic condescension means, then, that the Eternal Logos, without ceasing to be Logos, has adapted himself to us in our weakness and lack of ability in order to effect real communication with us.
But this economic condescension has its counterpart in a movement of prokope. The fathers have in mind here is the Lukan account of the obedience and development of the child Jesus who ‘cut his way forward’ (proekopte) as he grew in wisdom and favour with God and with man (Luke 2 .52). In other words Jesus’ growth in wisdom was regarded as opening up a way for man to rise to true knowledge of the Father. Jesus Christ is not only the Truth who has accommodated himself in order to reveal himself, not only the Word become flesh, but he is also Man hearing and obeying that Word, apprehending that Truth throughout his life on earth, so that he provides in his own obedient Sonship with our human nature the Way whereby we are carried up to knowledge of God the Father. ‘We understand by the Way that prokope to perfection which is made stage by stage, and in regular order, through the works of righteousness and the illumination of knowledge, ever longing after what is before, and reaching forth unto those things which remain, until we shall have reached the blessed end, the knowledge of God, which the Lord through himself bestows in them that trusted in him. For our Lord is an essentially good Way, where erring and straying are unknown. to that which is essentially good, to the Father. For no one, he says, come to the Father but through me. Such is our way up to God through the Son’ (De Spiritu Sancto 8:18).
Along with this Basil combines another line of thought. Christ became incarnate through the operation of the Holy Spirit, and it was through the power of the Spirit that he made that advance or prokope, as it was through the power of the Spirit that he wrought miracles, and was raised from the dead. This he speaks of as ‘the economy of the Spirit,’ for every operation of God in the economy of our salvation was wrought with the co-operation of the Spirit (De Spiritu Sancto 16.39). The operation of the Spirit is spoken of here as ‘the perfecting cause,’ which brings creatures to their fulfilment in God and so consummates their creation (De Spiritu Sancto 16.38). That operation of the Spirit is what we see taking place in the prokope of Jesus Christ, for since he came to share our human nature and we are united to him through the Spirit that we participate in prokope, and rise through the Son to true knowledge of, and communion with, God the Father. Moreover this is a movement that continues to take place in the power of the Spirit from our creation to final judgment and renewal, when God’s works of creation and redemption will be brought to their ultimate completion. (16.39).
Now we are able to see what the nature of theological activity, as the fathers engage in it, really is. In theological activity we do not only engage in exegesis, interpreting biblical statements, but we penetrate behind the statements themselves (ta grammena) to the actions (ta genomena). of God, and in the light of what they are, we articulate our understanding and formulate our statements of the Truth of God as it is in Jesus Christ. Theological activity is one in which, by the power and communion of the Spirit, we know God through conformity to the economic condescension of his Word and through following the Incarnate Word in his advance up to the Father. In this way theology not only operates with a divinely given Truth, but apprehends it in accordance with its own mode of activity in condescension and ascension, and articulates it in accordance with its own interior and active logic, the movement from grace to glory. The hinge of that movement, and therefore the actual hinge of meaning and apprehension, is the Incarnation and in the Incarnation the identity between the Being of Christ and the Being of God – that is, the homoousion. Apart from the homoousion there is no real objective connection between our human knowing and speaking of God, and God himself in his own reality and nature. Hence in formulating the homoousion the fathers were penetrating down into the depth of divine logic of grace, and tracing its reference or ana-logic back to the source in the eternal Logos in the Being of God.
We must now return to the fact that the homoousion was gained through hard exegetical activity. It is not itself a biblical term, but it is by no means a speculative construction, an interpretation put upon the facts by the fathers of Nicaea; rather it is a truth that was forced upon the understanding of the Church as it allowed the biblical witness to imprint its own patterns upon its mind. We can see the same thing happening in the formulation of the doctrine of the Spirit. The biblical writers nowhere provide us with clear-cut propositions as the Deity of the Spirit but acknowledgment of the Deity of the Spirit and his inseparable connection with the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity is forced upon the Church as it penetrates into the interior logic of the biblical witness and through it allows the inherent order and pattern of the divine Reality to impose themselves upon its mind. Theological activity, then, is not concerned merely with biblical exegesis or with a biblical theology that builds up what this or that author in the New Testament taught about the Faith; it is concerned with the Truth at a deeper level, in the necessary and coherent thinking of the Apostles as they mediated the divine revelation in Jesus Christ to the world of historical understanding and communication. Thus in formulating the homoousion the Fathers of Nicaea were penetrating into the interior logic of the apostolic witness, and allowing the truth that was embedded there to come to view in an orderly and articulate way. They allowed the fundamental nature of the subject-matter to shine through to them and take, in their thought and speech, a form through which its truth could be accurately and clearly and unambiguously acknowledged. The homoousion is thus an articulation of what the Fathers of Nicaea had to think and say when they set themselves to a disciplined and objective inquiry into the biblical witness to Christ, for its basic formulation had already been given by the Apostles themselves. Hence true theological thinking is basically and inescapably apostolic, for its is determined by the form in which the Apostles handed on the Word which they themselves had received.
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