Lewis Ayres on the Meaning of Nicene Orthodoxy

Here is a guest post from Prof. Lewis Ayres, Durham University, on meaning of Nicene Orthodoxy in light of evangelical debates about eternal functional subordination.

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After conversations on facebook and email about the on-going controversy over “eternal subordination” among evangelicals I said to Michael Bird that I had two more things to say (in addition to the facebook posts that Michel and I wrote a week or two ago). These two things relate to wider and foundational issues at stake in this debate.

The first concerns questions of authority and interpretation. I might begin by asking a particular question: how do you know what the “Nicene” creed means, or what counts as an “acceptable” Nicene theology? I think it fair to say that in the late fourth century (let alone in later centuries) thinkers of any great sophistication recognized that a creed needs to be interpreted in the context of other broader texts and interpretative matrices. There were a variety of Nicene theologies in the late fourth century, some local in nature, some dependent on the legacies of particular figures, and these overlapped in complex ways, but together and individually they were taken to provide the necessary context for understanding the creed. 

We all know this, if somewhat implicitly. I have seen a number of people in this debate carefully assert their belief in the equality of three equal divine “persons”, a position that is implicit in the creed certainly, but expressly stated only in para-credal texts. Moreover, these texts are farily late in the fourth century and reflect the significant development of pro-Nicene theologies that occurred between c. 360 and 390. Thus, for example, some participants in the current debate like to demonstrate their orthodoxy by asserting their belief in three persons who are homoousios. But this way of putting the matter comes only well into fourth century debates – it is for instance rather different from the more conservative statement that never gets beyond the Son being homoousios with the Father. So pointing to the term in the creed only begs questions about how one understands it (let alone the question Michel raised about the status of that particular term in fourth century debate). The same point bites even harder when we consider the unity of will shared between the persons. Interestingly, at the time participants in the debate recognized the need for such extra-credal resources – a fact evidenced both by Theodosius initially indicating with whom one had to be in communion to count as Nicene, and by the post conciliar (post 381) identification of recognized experts in orthodoxy to mediate disputes about who represented the Nicene party.

It is then a little odd to see people claiming the “authority” of Nicaea for their belief in three persons, and yet denying (to take an example whose relevance people who know this debate will recognize) the eternal generation of the Son from the Father, when such a belief is treated as simply intrinsic to the structure of Nicene faith. It would be nice, then, for someone like me, who is over-hearing this debate as an outsider, to hear how the participants think the meaning of such a creed is to be discerned (Catholic theologians must also, of course, face questions about changes and continuities in the interpretation of the creed over the centuries. I have ways of talking about this, but I won’t start down that path in just a short comment).

These questions of course might easily lead to broader questions about the authority of the Church’s creedal tradition over against the text of scripture, and questions about what it means to treat a creed as authoritative within Protestant ecclesiologies…. But I’ll leave those alone! Thus, I’ll restrict myself to noting that without some articulation of how one treats the Nicene creed as authoritative, merely claiming that it is so can easily seem only a useful polemical rhetoric, with more overt hermeneutical reflection.

My second observation concerns the character of exegesis. I suspect that many of those involved in this debate assume a distinction between literal and allegorical/figurative/symbolic exegesis, but I think they may think the category “literal” far more obvious than it actually is. It is important to recognize that reading “the letter” of the text for early Christian interpreters frequently, and perhaps essentially when discussing texts which describe the character of divine existence, is accompanied with frequent exhortation to recognize the limits of human knowledge. In such contexts, Patristic interpreters frequently call on their readers to reflect constantly upon the consequences of the condescension into human speech that is involved in God speaking to us of the divine life. As one reads these texts “literally,” “according to the letter” one recognizes that they speak to us of that which is revealed as mystery. “The letter” of the text thus does not always sit at the same point on the axis that runs between clarity and obscurity. I have not seen these questions reflected on in any great detail in the small sample of pieces from this debate that I have seen. This is not to say that they are not reflected on in detail in places that have escaped my attention – but it is to say that it seems odd that these issues are not constantly recognized. Is this because of particular dynamics in the ways that evangelicals talk about Scriptural authority?

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