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Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Trinity and Revelation

Chapter Nine, “The Church and the Kingdom of God,” in Charles Norris Cochrane's classic study, Christianity and Classical Culture, contains a discussion of issues that hold great interest for us and that we have already touched upon..

Cochrane begins by observing that, for the fourth century Church, the vision of the Kingdom was of “a society regenerated by the acceptance of Christian truth.” (359) As we have seen—and this is a point that we will return to in greater detail--the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity was seen to solve many of the theoretical problems inherent not only in the more traditional expressions of the archaic ontology but also those problems that were raised by the Platonic elaboration of that ontology: “philosophy,” especially in its Neoplatonic form. (As we have already seen, the Arian heresy can be viewed as a Neoplatonizing version of Christianity, and so involves the same issues.) That being the case, the Christians considered that their faith held the key to all truth, and that those aspects of truth which they found in pagan thought could be “baptized,” subsumed under the superior theoretical insight of Trinitarian thought. It was thus true to say, from this standpoint, that “all truth is Christian truth” and that Christian truth is human truth--the truth of and for all men. As Cochrane states, the function of this Christian universalism was “to heal the wounds inflicted by man on himself in classical times and, by transcending while still doing justice to the elements of truth contained in philosophical paganism, to revive and give direction to the expiring spiritual ideals of classical antiquity.” (360)

Of course, Cochrane was expressly concerned with the encounter between Christianity and the Greco-Roman world. Our broader inquiry has stressed the essential unity of all human experience, deriving from what Eliade terms “archaic ontology.” Thus, Christianity was the answer not merely to the problems of Platonic or classical thought but—since those problems arise from attempted developments of archaic ontology—those of all human experience. Importantly, as we have previously discussed, the key Christian revelation involved the identity of God as Trinity, for almost (but not quite) paradoxically it was the Trinitarian revelation that made sense of God as One and as Creator.

Athanasius was the architect of the Trinitarian triumph that was embodied in the Nicene Creed, the first article of which addresses God as Creator. However, beyond the bare formulas of the Nicene Creed, Athanasius' advocacy of the Trinitarian position is contained in his controversial works, the Comments on the Decisions of the Nicene Synod, his four essays Against the Arians, and his work Against the Gentiles. (361) In these writings it is notable that Athanasius presents the Trinity as the archê, the principal, of reality. We have encountered this term in previous considerations of Greek thought, and it was a term that, in Cochrane's words, “was consecrated by immemorial usage” among the Greek thinkers. (362) By adopting this term Athanasius signals that he is associating himself with the spirit of Greek inquiry, and this means that Athanasius sees the doctrine of the Trinity as affording a way forward that will breathe a new life into religious and philosophical thought. The Trinity is not an end to inquiry, but a fresh start on the way to a true understanding of man and his place in reality (the allusion to Parmenides is deliberate). Moreover, Athanasius had a specific audience in view:

The audience to which Athanasius addressed himself was made up of men who found it difficult or impossible to emancipate themselves from classical ways of thought. Upon these men he was concerned to urge a view of ultimate reality which, as he insisted, so far from giving countenance to obscurantism, was the necessary presupposition to a wider intelligibility, if mot to all intelligibility whatsoever. In other words, what he offered them was an intellectual, no less than a moral and spiritual release. This release was from the perplexities involved in pagan scientia and from the backwash of pagan obscurantism to which it inevitably led. It represented the fourth century version of the promise: the truth shall make you free. (363)

The key difference that distinguished Athanasius' Christian (and Trinitarian) approach from the classical development of archaic ontology is that whereas the Greeks sought the archê--the principle of reality--within nature, within the cosmos, Athanasius—in line with the thought of the early Fathers that we have surveyed—insists that the archê does not stand in relation to nature but rather transcends it. Which is to say that the archê of Christianity, the Trinity, is creator—-the source of all that exists--and this is a point on which Athanasius is entirely explicit. Cochrane demonstrates this with two quotes, from Athanasius' Against the Gentiles and from his second oration Against the Arians

God [Athanasius declares] is not nature, all the constituents of which are mutually interdependent. Nor is He the totality of its parts; for He is not compounded of parts on which He depends, but is Himself the source of existence to all.
To think of God as composing and putting together the universe out of matter is a Greek notion, and it is to represent Him as a workman rather than as a creator. (364)

Athanasius' task, thus, was to wean his audience from the metaphors—and ultimately the anthropomorphisms—that lie at the heart of archaic ontology. Not that metaphor is improper in and of itself, but in this case it leads to habits of thought that work against a clear intellectual vision. In place of—or as a governing supplement to—such metaphors Athanasius presents the archê as principle or source of being, yet not an object of human knowledge as are the objects of our experience. Rather, as Paul stated in his letter to the Romans, our knowledge of this principle is derived from its effects: “by trying to show what the principle is not, he reveals by implication what it is.” This process works largely by way of negation. (364)

Thus, in his commentary on the Decrees of the Nicene Synod, Athanasius acknowledges that the word 'to create' is applied to men, and that men are said to 'exist,' just as these words and their attendant concepts are also applied to God. But, he adds, the words are used in different senses (Aquinas will later say, analogical senses). Athanasius' reasoning runs as follows. Men exist only as deriving their existence from the will of God as the principle of existence. Now “God creates by calling the non-existent into existence” as the source and principle in Himself of all existence, whereas men are said to “create” or to “bring into existence” only in the sense of re-forming what has derived its existence from God. Thus, “creation” and “existence” are  used analogically as applied to human activity. But this leads to Athanasius' main point. This view of God as the principle of existence leads to a view of God as both infinitely more transcendent and powerful than previously conceived yet at the same time infinitely closer and more immanent: “He is in everything by virtue of His goodness and power, but outside of everything by virtue of the being which is proper to Him.” (365)

Athanasius then draws out the important implications of this view of God in light of the revelation that God is community, a Trinity. The vision of God as creator--in the sense of the source and principle of existing--necessarily entails that God's creative activity is free and knowing. God is not compelled to create, and His creative activity—which sustains the being that we experience at every moment of its existence—is an expression of His creative and intelligible Word. Thus, Cochrane concludes, Athanasius' insight is that “from this point of view, the panorama of human history may be conceived as a record of the divine economy, the working of the Spirit in and through mankind, from the creation of the first conscious human being to its full and final revelation in the Incarnate Word.” (368)

Thus the Christian revelation—the revelation of God's identity in Jesus—leads definitively to the vision of a universal God and a universal humanity, struggling to attain to meaning in history. From the universalist Christian perspective of revelation as quintessentially the person and life of Jesus, there emerges the insight that all human history is a prelude to that revelation. There is, of course, a reason (a Spirit guided reason) that Jesus was born into Israel, but the early Christians—-as early as Paul's letter to the Romans--were not slow to recognize not merely the limitations of Greek thought but also the very real value that it held as, in its own way, also a preparation for the good news of Jesus. So, while the link of Christianity to Israel is organic and significant there is, in light of revelation, no reason to expect a complete agreement of Christian with Israelite thought any more than with Greek thought or the thought of any other society within the scope of the archaic ontology that Christianity replaces.  This universal perspective was sadly lost as one of the results of the Protestant Revolt. It is a hopeful sign for the renewed vigor of Christian thought that the Church is seeking to come to terms with the implications of that insight (as for example in Nostra Aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions of the Second Vatican Council).

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