Inheriting the Nicene Revolution, Holy Saturday 2022

Photo by Egor Myznik on Unsplash

I think that we are, reasonably clearly, living through revolutionary times. In a lot of ways, the 1960’s in the United States played at revolution, but like the European revolutions of 1848, it was more play than real. My best guess is that the revolutions of my daughter’s lifetime will be real ones, not pretend. So I think it is urgently important to try to understand revolutions, for the kids and for us.

Here, I would like to point out some similarities between the French Revolution and the Nicene Revolution, which was the revolution that brought us the Nicene Creed. Today it is considered the normal and orthodox Christian creed. In time, it leads into the view that Father, Son and Spirit are all fully equal and all fully God. We tend to see the Nicene Creed as traditional, inevitable and boring in retrospect. In this, it is typical of revolutions, and plenty of us today tend to see the French Revolution in similar ways as well. The more that things change, the more urgently we try to anchor on something, anything, that has stayed the same.

When thinking about ruptures and Christian tradition, biological metaphors are inevitable. And so we might ask, “What is continuous between a seed, broken, and the mustard tree that grows from it?” Only an invisible structure that can’t be discerned, except from the standpoint of the consummating end. We can know the course of seeds and plants, and seeds and people, because we’ve observed so many of them over the course of their reproductive cycle. But whatever process of growth and change encompasses all of history … that is only knowable if, somehow, someone has been able to watch a cosmos or a planet unfold completely over the billions of years it takes. No one should be surprised if the next rupture gives rise to forms unrecognizable, continuous in ways that seem utterly alien to the previous generation. They are connected, but by an invisible thread of continuity that works at scales too small to fall from our naked eyes. Is the destruction of the seed wall a catastrophe leading to death, or is it the only way that can lead to life? We only realize it is the way of life in the wake of the seed’s complete failure to physically contain it.

So we can’t really discern what comes next from without, or from within, but only in the fullness of time.

Still, a comparison between Paris and Nicaea can help us notice a few important and counterintuitive patterns that might characterize developmental rupture more generally. We might not know where the next rupture might lead, or if it is life or death or both at work, but we can know what ruptures sometimes look like as they unfold. The points of comparison are this: both revolutions truly overturned a great deal of what came before, both revolutions were radically egalitarian in their thrust, both revolutions turned and ate their own and had surprisingly authoritarian downstream consequences, and both revolutions came, generations later, to be seen as the bearers of a far more general egalitarian set of norms. The process of getting there, though, was incredibly messy and costly and often violent, because of the degree of rupture and scarring involved. The old regime consistently has more going for it than the revolutionaries imagine. Nonetheless, the revolutionaries move fast, break things, and a new normal is born far down the line. Marked by the scars of a violent transition and broken intergenerational relations, it takes a very long time to peek beneath the defensive narratives that develop all around, to begin to understand what really happened there.

Is it possible for intergenerational change to become peaceful? I hope so, but then again, yesterday was Good Friday. They can be peaceful on one side, as with Christ, but that still doesn’t mean they’ll be peaceful on the other. In fact, I would say with some confidence that revolutions are only very rarely peaceful on all sides. The old regime always has powerful drives, psychological and spiritual and social, toward slandering and stabbing and slaughtering its way down to death. It doesn’t always happen, but it always wants to go down clutching its scepter like a Skeksi from the Dark Crystal, groaning: “I am still Emperor!” And then, down the line, plenty of the revolutionaries become mock conservatives of the non-conserving sort, forgetting so much of what and how and why they fought.

David Bentley Hart lays out the theological core of the Nicene Revolution below, and he aptly captures how revolutionary it really was. It was led by a surprisingly small faction of Christians, with Gregory of Nyssa in the intellectual center articulating a shocking theological egalitarianism. And Nyssa’s egalitarianism wasn’t only theological: he was a universalist, an anti-slavery activist, the student of his sister. Others who embraced his theological agenda were less practically radical, but it seems that Nyssa understood the direction in which this theological revolution led from the start.

The Trinitarian theology that grew into and out of Nicaea reflected the ethical core of Christian egalitarian practice much more than it reflected Scripture itself on the topic of God, in any necessary way. Interestingly, the Nicene party gained ground for their ideas in the wake of Constantine’s successful war on those egalitarian practices. At the Synod of Arles Constantine appears to have gotten the Bishops to compel Christians to take up weaponry, and through the gifts of imperial travel and patronage he enriched the bishops and drew them into his orbit. At the Councils, the form and pageantry of the events showed how the bishops accepted Constantine as their “first among equals,” even though he wasn’t even baptized. This relationship drew on old imperial senate relations, and reflected the fact that Constantine saw in the bishops the potential for a new Senatorial class to replace the old one that Caesar had hollowed out. He also hoped to have their help in judicial reforms, an opportunity to help administer justice at socially relevant scale that the bishops generally eschewed. (See Constantine and the Bishops for more on this.) Nonetheless, in the moment of the bishops’ practical transformation from non-violent egalitarians to violent and well-dressed tools of Empire, the Nicaean Revolution carried the old norms inward, into an intellectual and theological revolution.

Nicaea was, then, part of a two-part revolution: a practical abdication of egalitarianism, paired with its theological radicalization. In many ways, the pattern is also reflected in our own universities today. As the 60’s generation of scholars were ripped from their practical egalitarian aspirations, they also stepped back and regrouped in the intellectual sphere. Nonetheless, back in the third century monasticism flourished as a more immediate and practical kind of egalitarian revolution, marked (as they often are) by authoritarianism, which often turned toward violence and abuse. Monastic gangs would become a commonplace in imperial politics soon enough, the fruit of Arles as well. This is why, in time, the Nicene Revolution resembles the French Revolution more than the 60’s cultural revolution in the US: real political violence was soon normalized in a way that ultimately shored up, institutionalized and secured imperial support for the Nicene position. Even today a real fear settles on any Christian at the suggestion that they may have wandered beyond the pale of Nicaea. We can agree on surprisingly little, but Nicaea still has the power to coercively differentiate an overwhelming majority of Christians from the most miniscule rump of the old order. Importantly, it even (and especially) has this power over people who don’t understand what it is or was. Violence can sometimes win the hollow and blind assent of the uncomprehending, and in those forced nods (and bored and nodding heads) we have a lot of the tragedy of Christian theology.

Against this stultified assent, it needs to be understood that in their day, the Nicene faction was an aggressive, obnoxious, activist minority(?) that was trampling on long-established norms and strong Scriptural precedent in favor of a truly shocking and bewildering egalitarianism. Still, their position was coherent and well-argued, often with elegant points like this: how can there be an eternal Father without an eternal Son? The Father-Son relation arises simultaneously, outside of time in an aidios way. In that frame of reference our temporal inferences fail completely. What must be said, instead, is that no one is a Father unless (not until) he has a Son: though seemingly inegalitarian on its face, the aidios Father-Son relation is in fact a fully mutually constituting one. The position nonetheless seemed contradictory to many because it showed old priors, illicit temporal inferences, to be faulty rather than essential. What was contradicted was not internal to the language of Father and Son. Instead the language of Father and Son, on closer inspection, contradicted an older, utterly subordinationist metaphysics and replaced it with an egalitarian one.

So it is fitting for Trinitarians to also be radical social reformers and egalitarians, even if we often fail to follow through on the implications of the revolution we’ve inherited. It makes sense that the arch-Nicene, Saint Gregory of Nyssa himself, would become one of the first people in history to call for the abolition of slavery at large social scale. (He did this, also fittingly, in an Easter homily.) His cry would soon be drowned out by smoother operators like Augustine and a host of others like him.

Still, it is worth understanding how nicely Nyssa’s theological and social egalitarianism fit together. In spite of all the ways their theological gains were clawed back on the ground, the Nicene revolutionaries would impress an egalitarian transformation into Christian history, in the form of the now-traditional doctrine of the Trinity. They would also come to move in coercive ways (in response to Donatist and Arian attempts at coercion) that normalized later coercion in the church. This would, in time, give birth to what is sometimes called the persecuting society. Nonetheless, the revolution enduringly established a strange and radical transformation in how people understood the relationship between Father, Son and Spirit, which is to say, how they understood the very deepest wells of reality itself. To impress egalitarianism into that doctrine was to express it in the most truly fundamental way that it can conceivably be expressed. So Nicene egalitarianism was not merely egalitarianism but…


The heart of the debate was really this: they saw Father, Son and Spirit as equal, or from the standpoint of time aionically equalizing on the basis of their aidios equality. Still, they had to contend with Greek and Hebrew and Greco-Hebrew traditions (like those of Philo and perhaps Paul) that had seen a far greater gulf between THE God, ELOHIM who was named THE Father, and the Son, who was merely God, one of the elohim (spiritual beings) who preceded time as given in Creation. We might say that it was often felt at the fine edge of the developed debates that Son and Father were in fact aidios (outside of created time), but distinct in their aidios dignity. Still the Son, or Logos, was also more strictly associated with the aion, the lifetime of the created cosmos, while the Father was distant and intermediated only by the Son and Spirit. John’s Gospel arguably preserves this distinction between God and THE God, although we don’t pick up on it in English translation: Jesus, the Logos or Word, is called God, but is not described as THE God. This argument isn’t definitive, but in John’s philosophical context an eminently natural inference to draw was that the Logos was the Demiurge, a kind of secondary God. The Nicene party represented a radically egalitarian push away from this earlier Greco-Hebrew synthesis, which was arguably the far more natural way to read Scripture in its original context.

But after the Revolution the next generation of Trinitarians, especially men like Augustine, would turn on it its own egalitarian impulses. But they continued to move fast and break things. In our own technological revolutionaries, who were egalitarian and utopian before becoming our billionaire rulers, we see a similar pattern: collaborative egalitarians often create startlingly effective innovations, which yield enormous success, which creates the opportunity for corruption. An opportunity often taken. While affirming and entrenching the abstract gains of the revolution, Augustine would brilliantly argue for more slavery, more torture, more violence, and for an image of God who would endlessly torture people in a way that made a Christian judge’s use of torture a mere shadow in comparison. If that was our god, then our own depravity was easily justified. From Augustine, especially, there would grow the class of men who could look on the Shoah and grimly say: yes, those who escaped Hitler for a moment, as ashes, are on their way to a far worse fate at the hands of God, who will now torment them forever. It isn’t a coincidence that Luther, an Augustinian monk, would write On the Jews and their Lies and therefore become one of the “great” inspirers and in fact commanders of the Holocaust. He was following in his father Augustine’s footsteps. Similarly, Augustine was the father of the US Confederacy: his paternalistic subversion of Christian fraternalism was directly cited by slave-makers, and we still hear its echoes constantly in our neo-Confederates today.

This is a painful place to come to, but I’ve come here because it is time to do it in so many ways. Most proximately, I’m here because it was Good Friday, and because tomorrow is Easter. There is a sad and horrible history of pogroms erupting from passion plays and from the celebration of Easter, and I believe that this kind of penitent remembrance must (after the Holocaust) become part of our Good Friday rhythms. And this, in turn, is part of the long shadow of the Nicene Revolution, its founders betrayed (as violent revolutions so often are) by the younger cohort.

As for me, I affirm Nicaea. But not because of the dubious Constantinian process that produced it, and not because people threaten me with exclusion if I don’t. These are scars from the flawed process of those councils, already flawed from the fateful Synod of Arles where it seems that a coterie of Bishops fatefully gave up their weaponlessness. I affirm it because I embrace its theological radicalism, and its deep coherence on close inspection even as it was, to be very clear, not simply reinscribing the tradition it inherited. It sprouted from the seed that came before it, continuous and discontinuous like truly living things. I see it as history’s greatest Hail Mary pass: an attempt to lock in, philosophically, what was crumbling on the ground in the wake of Constantine’s successful spiritual imperial incursions into the ekklesia. I affirm its deeply immanent engagement with a tradition, even as it cracked open what came before: it relates to Scripture as the New Testament always related to Torah. In the ferment of Nicaea, a seed cracked open. If only it had done it with more water and less swords, I believe we would be living in a much better timeline. But here we are in a much dimmer and more frightful parallel universe, one where the time is more than a little out of joint.

Still, this Easter, I hope that the Spirit who still breathed on Nicaea will carry us back, through repentance and grief and plank removal, through all of the pogroms and all of the slander and all of the evil that we the church have been sucked into by our own grievous faults, and then up through the systems of body and family and nation and seconds and months and eons, to the aion of the Son held in the aidios of the Father, as are we all. As it was and is and shall be, world without end…

Ah, I do hope that all of that is right.

And here, below, is the work from David Bentley Hart that inspired my own Holy Saturday reflection. It comes from his “Tradition & Apocalypse”. I recommend it highly, as an engaging and worthwhile conversation partner, even though I disagree at various points.

For example, he’s wrong about how Constantine related to this process, but right on the theology. Constantine wasn’t demanding theological conformity. He would have been happy if the Bishops would have shut up and settled down about all this theology stuff, and he told them as much. In the end, he would be baptized by an Arian Bishop anyway. It’s been a source of division between Catholics and Orthodox ever since: Catholics don’t see it as a real baptism, but the Orthodox do. I think there’s something to the Catholic side of this. But what needs to be understood about that is that the Catholics, contrary to general impressions today, were and are the revolutionaries, warts and all.

He’s also half-wrong about the value of biological analogies. But that is to his credit. If you read the book, which I hope you will, you’ll see that Hart’s dialectic picks up in the gap between what is right and wrong with biological analogies.

Consider, for instance, the first and — at least, as the grand governing paradigm for all that followed in dogmatic history — most significant doctrinal definitions of Christian tradition: those of the first two councils, Nicaea and Constantinople.

The “Arian controversy” constitutes, for all Christian memory, that crucial moment when the institutional orthodoxy of the politically enfranchised and publicly supported church for the first time legislated (for want of a better word) the proper form for faithful confession, and in so doing demoted all seemingly incompatible forms of confession (however ancient, devout, or intellectually sincere) to damnable expressions of faithlessness. Whenever Christians recite the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Symbol, and most especially when they confess (in whichever translation they use) that the eternal divine Son is ὁμοούσιος with God the Father, they are supposedly reciting a digest of the faith that has been recognized “everywhere, at all times, and by all” as the one true orthodoxy. Moreover, it has been the fate of Arius to be remembered not merely as a heretic, but as the heretic, the very archetype of all heretics — the man who, out of sheer perversity or malice, supposedly broke from the common belief of all good baptized Christians in what was still the faith’s golden dawn, the wanton innovator who defied the word of scripture and the teachings of the apostles by rejecting what the church had always unequivocally taught regarding the Son’s full Godhead and coequality with the Father. All of this is, of course, utter nonsense.

In Arius’s own time, it would have been absurd to regard him as either a reactionary or a rebel (in part, because the testimony of neither scripture nor tradition was anywhere near so clear and homogeneous as later Christians have been taught to believe). In point of fact, he was in many respects a profoundly and inflexibly conservative theologian, and in the context of Alexandrian theology was almost without question a much more faithful representative of the oldest and most respectable school of Trinitarian speculation than were the partisans of the eventual Nicene settlement. Admittedly, his appears to have been an especially austere and unimaginative expression of the tradition in which he had been formed; but that is rather the point: if his teachings have been accurately reported (which cannot be assumed), it would seem that it was precisely because he was such a fierce traditionalist that he was unable to grasp the demands of tradition.

Still, one can understand what motivated him. He was attempting to preserve a long-established and extremely plausible “subordinationist” metaphysics, one that seemed successfully to unite the divine and created realms in a continuous hierarchy of powers while still nevertheless affirming the absolute transcendence of God the Father. He even, as far as he and his contemporaries might judge, had scripture on his side. The first verse of John’s Gospel seems to honor the traditional distinction between God Most High — God as identified in Greek by the definite article: “the God,” ὁ θεός — and “God” (or “god”) in a secondary, subordinate, and perhaps only honorific sense: θεός sans article. And certainly there are verses in the New Testament that seem to suggest that the Son of God is, in a sense, an adoptee, or appointed heir: Acts 2: 36; 5: 31; 13: 33; Romans 1: 1–3; 1 Corinthians 8: 6; Philippians 2: 9; Hebrews 5: 5. In much of the Eastern intellectual world of the Roman Empire during the first three centuries, in fact, and in Alexandria especially, what we might call a “subordinationist” metaphysics had long been the common property of pagans, Jews, and Christians. It was generally assumed that the highest divine principle, in its full transcendence, never came into direct contact with the world of finite and mutable things, but rather has since the beginning expressed itself in some economically “reduced” form through which it creates and governs the world. There had long been Platonists, like Plotinus and Porphyry, who had believed that the transcendent One was mediated to the lower world only through an order of progressively more derivative divine principles. There had been Jewish thinkers, such as Philo (c. 20 BCE–c. 50 CE), who believed that God was mediated to his creation by a viceroy or “first-born Son” or “Logos” holding all things together, a “secondary divinity” who had been the subject of all the divine theophanies of Hebrew scripture; and this “Son,” according to Philo, was also the eldest and highest among the angels of the Lord, the Great Angel who is the one in whom the Father’s name dwells, and who is the Father’s priest and prophet, mediating between creatures and the Father. Many Christians too had long shared such views.

All parties to this vision had, with varying degrees of complexity or mythic richness, imagined the interval between God (or the uniquely transcendent Father, or the One, or what have you) and this world as being populated by a hierarchy of greater and lesser powers: gods, daemons, angels, or whatever else, as one’s religious idiom determined. And all parties had also shared the conviction that the second “moment” of reality — the Logos or nous that most immediately proceeds from the supreme principle of all things — was a kind of economic limitation of its source, one that through itself directly or through some yet more subordinate principle constituted a kind of deferred contact between the highest divinity and the realm of discrete beings. And thus the whole of reality — terrestrial, celestial, and even divine — subsisted in a single continuum; but the Father or the One or God (in the proper “articular” sense), situated at the inaccessible pinnacle of that continuum, was entirely transcendent of everything else.

For Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215 CE), for instance, the Logos is truly the divine Son and is unique — in fact is the divine “monad” — but the Father alone is God in the absolutely proper and transcendent sense, incomprehensible, a unity beyond the mere singularity of any monad, ineffable and inaccessible and yet embracing the whole of reality. Thus the Father is known to creation only through his Logos, who is his inseparable image, his mind or reason, his power and counsel and activity, at once containing the divine ideas or thoughts in himself and animating creation with them; the Logos is the teacher of wisdom to creatures and the high priest of creation; he is the governor and origin of all subordinate realities. Origen (c. 184–c. 253 CE), too, accorded to the Father alone a fully transcendent divine unity, and the status of being “God in himself” (αὐτόθεος), and that of being alone “ingenerate” (ἀγέννητος).

Between the transcendent oneness of the Father and the diversity of created things, the Logos stands as a mediator, the Father’s express image, and indeed a δεύτερος θεός. The Son and the Spirit (the latter being the greatest of those beings that have their existence through the Son) transcend all inferior realities; but the Father in turn transcends them to at least as great a degree. Hence, while the Son may be called θεός, he is not properly called ὁ θεός, and is necessarily accorded lesser honor than is the Father. Clement and Origen both, as it happens, spoke of the Son’s generation from the Father as an eternal act; but both maintained an emphasis upon the difference of eminence between the “ingenerate” or “anarchic” Father and the Logos who is begotten. Far from being an exotic exception to the general rule, this was nothing but common piety and theological orthodoxy. A very clear summary of the distinction between, on the one hand, the ἄναρχος καὶ ἀγέννητος Father and, on the other, all other beings, the Son and Spirit included, as widely presumed before the first two ecumenical councils, can be found in Eusebius of Caesarea’s (c. 260–c. 340 CE) ante-Nicene Demonstration of the Gospel. There Eusebius states as the plainest and most uncontroversial Trinitarian orthodoxy that the Father alone is the transcendent, imparticipable, and indivisible divine monad who is forever “beyond the whole of things,” ἐπέκεινα τῶν ὅλων, and that the Logos was begotten before all the aeons in order to be the Father’s intermediary in creating and governing the universe, since creation could never come into direct contact with the Father. Indeed, the Son’s existence depends upon an act of the Father’s will.

Thus, though the Son differs immeasurably from all creatures insofar as he is the express image of God the Father, and though he is so exalted over all other beings that he may be called “God” (in the anarthrous or inarticular form of the word), an untraversable gulf separates him from the unoriginate Father. Though the Son was begotten before all aeons and all “aeonian times,” he does not share in the Father’s own and exalted eternity. In any event, it was a deeply attractive picture of things, this great terrestrial, celestial, and supercelestial continuum, and in its Christian version it seemed to make complete sense of the language of scripture. The theology of Arius was a perfectly plausible, if stark, specimen of this metaphysics. For him, it was simply the purest Christian piety to insist that the Father was utterly hidden from and inaccessible to all beings, even the heavenly powers, and that it was only through his Logos that anything was known about him. Even the claim that the divine Son was in fact a creature, one who at one time had not existed, was not an especially exotic supposition. In fact, the imperative of maintaining a strict conceptual distinction between “generation” and “making” as regarded the relationship of the Father to the Son was a matter of considerably smaller importance for many than was the far more significant imperative of maintaining the highest possible conception of the Father’s uniqueness and inviolably absolute transcendence. The great Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213–270 CE) had not scrupled occasionally to speak of the divine Son as a κτίσμα or a ποίημα (a “creature” or “artifact”); the saintly bishop Dionysius of Alexandria (d. 264 CE), the “orthodox” hammer of the Sabellians, called the Son both a ποίημα and a γενητόν (note the single “ν,” a form that signifies “something fashioned” rather than someone generated), differing from the Father as a ship might differ from a shipbuilder. And, right up until the time of the first Nicene council, the terminological boundaries between speaking of the Son as something generated and speaking of him instead as something made remained rather fluid.

The chief requisite of all true piety, as far as most were concerned, was the preservation of a firm sense of the Father’s absolute uniqueness as God in the most proper sense; and this entailed, by that very token, an affirmation of the subordinate, inferior, and mediatorial status of the Son and the Spirit. This same piety dictated not only that, as already noted, the Father alone could be understood as “unoriginate” or “ingenerate” in any meaningful sense, but also that it is the Son’s very begottenness, whether regarded as a temporal or an eternal condition, that assures us of his secondary and (literally) derivative nature. Many Christian thinkers of the second century, certainly, had believed that the Logos had been generated only a little while before the making of the world, so that he could effect the work of creation; and this may or may not — the evidence is uncertain — have been Arius’s view as well. And, again, many Christians, no less than Philo, had long identified the Logos with the greatest angel of the celestial court, the Great Angel or Angel of Mighty Counsel, the heavenly high priest who served the inaccessible Father as his representative to all other beings, both in the heavens above and on earth here below. As a traditional Alexandrian believer, then, Arius was clearly operating within the ambit of the faith as he had received it from a long Christian past. And, frankly, it is little more than a ridiculous accident of history that his rather ordinary theological career should have become the occasion for resolving a crisis. That crisis, after all, was not primarily one of creed and confession, since Christianity had long accommodated a vast variety of beliefs regarding the nature of the divine Son. Diversity of belief was the common state of things, so long as theology had not been made subject to dogma.

Rather, the crisis was one of imperial policy: Constantine, the new Augustus in both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire, had adopted the Christian faith as his own cultus, and now he required a single visible structure of power and a single audible voice of doctrinal authority if the newly enfranchised institution of the church was to serve his ends and prove docile to his will. Arius was the victim in part of his own lack of imagination, but in larger part of the new political circumstances of his age.”



Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.

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Daniel Heck

Community Organizer. Enemy Lover. Pastor. Practices honest, serious, loving and fun discourse. (Yes, still just practicing.) Author of According to Folly, etc.