Loving ++Rowan Williams on Arius: Heresy and Tradition. Shockingly Rowan the professor writing a standard academic tome is clear and concise with his sentences. What happened once he left the fourth century? An impression is forming in my mind that Rowan the Arian expert is feeling as Archbishop that he has seen the last decade before. It was pretty messy back in the fourth century with people in and out of favour with higher authorities, councils decreeing things via written agreements and prelates subsequently undermining them. Even the most orthodox of them all, Athanasius, suffered detraction and imprecation, slander and libel. The Anglican Covenant as an expression of orthodoxy is Nicean in flavour - it certainly has its anti-Nicene party counterpart at work in the blogosphere and elsewhere.
Arius pressed the point that the Son was not only subordinate to the Father (a prevalent notion in the Logos/Son christologies of the second and third centuries), he was also separate from the Father: there was a time when the Son was not. Nicea, the Council, pressed back, the Son was consubstantial with the Father, homoousios: there was not a time when the Son was not. The journey onwards, from Nicea 325 A.D. to Chalcedon 451 A.D., took longer than any one lifetime, but it reached a Trinitarian destination which defined orthodox Christianity for the remainder of time. There was not a time when the Trinity was not, but there was a time when the Trinity was not catholic - not understood and received by all as gospel truth.
Rowan Williams' fine study of Arius reminds us that the church in the case of christology and Trinitarian theology persisted in digging deeply into Scripture, sharpening their spades with the whetstone of reason. The Christ to whom Scripture witnessed, was he (say) adopted as God's Son (as some verses implied), or was he always God's Son? Influenced by or reacting to Hellenistic philosophy, gnosticism, Jewish philosophy (in its own reaction to Hellenism, cf. Philo of Alexandria), our fathers in the faith sought to understand the God of Jesus Christ and the Jesus Christ of God. The conclusion reached was as brilliant as it is paradoxical: God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Three-in-One, an eternal communion of love in which Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another in perfect unity.
Ever since this theological conclusion has shaped Christian understanding of Scripture: all texts illuminating the person and work of Jesus Christ are read in the light of the Trinity. The rejoinder to the Jehovah's Witness sitting in your lounge banging on about Jesus only being 'a god' does not lie in a battle of Greek wits over the finer points of grammar and syntax in John 1:1 but in confession of the hermeneutical principle: Christians read Scripture in the light of the Trinity (to which Scripture's whole confession of the God of Jesus Christ leads). The question I want to take up soon is whether a Trinitarian reading of Scripture illuminates contemporary challenges in the Communion. But before doing so there is a further piece of groundwork to attend to.
A commenter on my previous post has raised the question of the leading of the Spirit in relation to revelation. That is, God continues to reveal truth to us through the Spirit, beyond the pages of Holy Scripture. This question however involves another question, How would we know the leading of the Spirit? There can be no question here of theological controversy being resolved by such an appeal. Who is to say that you have the Spirit and I do not? How could the Spirit be invoked by one party of Christians proposing one thing and also by another proposing the opposite? In particular, if Holy Scripture has been received by the church as the written down revelation of God, how could the Spirit be claimed as leading us into any truth claims opposed to Scripture?
In any case, the great claim of Jesus himself concerning the Spirit's work in revelation beyond the earthly ministry of Jesus is that this revelation is ... about Jesus: 'When the Advocate comes, whom I will send you from the Father – the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father – he will testify about me' (John 15:26). The Spirit takes us deeper into the truth of and about Jesus. The fruition of this work is the outcome of the church's fullest exploration of the person and work of Jesus: orthodox christology and the doctrine of the Trinity.
If we want to work on issues such as contemporary issues in the life of the Anglican Communion we will waste time and energy seeking the Spirit's revelation of new truth beyond the pages of Scripture (unless we should find in a flash of illumination that we are all hearing the same truth). Rather we should work together on an enhanced understanding of what has been revealed to us (Scripture and tradition) with the aid of reason. In doing this we could heed the lessons of the early centuries: good Christians with sincere theological motivations can get things wrong (the Arians, who sought to glorify the transcendent God), God permits the church to engage in fierce and lengthy debate, and the truth on which we settle will be coherent with Scripture and better reasoned than its approximations voiced by heretics.