Advanced Historical Theology - Athanasius, The Cappadocians, and Trinitarian Doctrine - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 8 – Advanced Historical Theology – Athanasius, The Cappadocians, and Trinitarian Doctrine

The Theology of Athanasius

Athanasius was the most remarkable bishop ever to occupy the ancient office in Alexandria, and was the greatest theologian of his day. In his writings he is constantly seeking the religious significance in every doctrinal issue. This religious significance is to be found in the implications that each doctrine has for certain basic principles that are at the heart of Christianity. The two doctrines that were most important to him were surrounding Theology Proper (monotheism) and the Christian doctrine of salvation.

Christ alone was the redeemer of men. In order to redeem men He must have been God, for only God can save. There was no alternative left but to affirm that the Word was God in the strictest sense. Only this Christ, this Word, can save fallen men who introduced sin into the world and that can only be expelled through a new work of creation in Christ. In opposition to what Athanasius taught on these issues, Arianism taught the opposite. Arianism taught that the Son is mutable, not God, and a created being. Athanasius rebutted this with Scripture. Athanasius could not believe that salvation comes from a creature (which would be the created being of the Arians). Instead, the Triune God of the Universe, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, were all divine and all worked in part of the salvation process by way of their varied economies. Likewise, Athanasius emphasizes the unity between the divine and the human in Christ in a fashion that is characteristic of Alexandrine Christology. Athanasius affirms that the two natures interact, but do not mix. This is the communicatio idiomatum (the communication of attributes) where the divine nature will inform the human nature of things that the human nature could not necessarily have known (like seeing Phillip under the tree, or knowing what was in the hearts of men). Also, Athanasius affirms that Mary is the God-bearer (theotokos). Mary gave birth to the humanity of Christ, but Christ was also God. So in this sense the theotokos or God-bearer was a suitable term.

Overall, Athanasius takes Scripture and works his doctrines from the Bible. He is free from the excessive speculation that is often accompanying the Alexandrian theologians of the day. Because Athanasius, though, believed he needed to champion monotheism and Christology in the senses previously described, he did not formulate a full Trinitarian creed, though he was orthodox on the descriptions he did use around the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To see formulations around Trinitarian doctrine, the Cappadocian theologians must be consulted.


The Cappadocians

The name given to the three bishops and theologians during the second half of the fourth century are “The Great Cappadocians.” They are Basil (300-379 A.D.), bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, his younger brother Gregory (329-389 A.D.), who was bishop of Nyssa, and their friend Gregory of Nazianzus (335-394 A.D.), who for a brief time, occupied the Constantinople See.

Basil did not write to reflect on the Christian life, but to take up his pen against heretical doctrines surrounding the Trinity. His two most important works are Against Eunomius and On the Holy Spirit. Eunomius believed that the Son was a created being because he did not like the idea of being begotten. Basil refuted him in demonstrating that his essence (ousia) is God’s being itself. The divine nature is immutable, and therefore “impassible, without parts, nor division, nor time.” Here he made a distinction between the unbegotten Father (a mere negation of terms) and the begotten Son. Eunomius said that the Son cannot have exited when the Father begat him, for that which already exists does not need to be begotten. Basil, though, points out that Eunomius confesses eternity with being unbegotten. Basil also spent far more time speaking about the Holy Spirit than any other theologian of the day. Here he turned the Arian question of the Son into a Trinitarian question of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Basil then used the terms one ousia and three hypostases. Gregory would later pick this term up and champion the truth with it against the Trinitarian heretics.

Gregory of Nazianzus was the orator or poet of the three Cappadocians. His principles of Theological Orations demonstrated his keen ability to do theological research and discussion. Here he refutes Eunomius using the Nicene doctrine of the Son, as well as setting forth an orthodox theology of the Holy Spirit. Gregory, though, went far beyond Basil in explaining the relationship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. According to Gregory, the only distinctions that can be established between the three persons of the Trinity are those which refer to their origins. The Father is unbegotten, the Son begotten or generated from the father and the Spirit is spirated or proceeding from the Father and the Son. Here is set down the terms as concrete – one ousia and three hypostases. He especially took time to defeat the writings of the Apollinarianism heresy that confounded the nature of the Son.

Gregory of Nyssa was a profound theologian of mystical experience. He interpreted the bible allegorically, to his own demise, which enabled him to be so “successful” as a mystic writer (in the Neoplatonic fashion). However, even in such works, Gregory never forgets the historical nature of the narrative or passage he is exegeting. He was an avid follower of Origen, but knew that Origen had fumbled doctrine on many points and was careful to try and avoid them. His writings on Trinitarian doctrine were On the Holy Trinity and On Not Three Gods. He specifically drew attention to the inner working of the Trinity and their relationship to each other in economy of function.

These three men were instrumental in defining the Trinity and defeating Arianism as well as the Pneumatomachians (who had heretical views on the Holy Spirit). They were alike in their method of expounding the doctrine, and aided Athanasius in content of doctrine, though they had a different theological method in arriving at a particular idea.

Trinitarian Doctrine in the West

Arianism was not as influential in the West as it was in the East. The West, through Tertullian, had already formulated orthodox thoughts about Trinitarian dogma. Earlier, in the second half of the fourth century, Hilary of Poitiers wrote twelve books On the Trinity as well. Later, Augustine’s On the Trinity was an important theological work of the West on this issue. It is here that Trinitarian theology took form for both the East and West through Augustine.

Augustine makes it clear that the distinction between persons of the Trinity is not due to their external actions but to their inner relationship. Because our vocabulary limits the way we understand the Trinity, it is impossible for us to comprehend in its entirety the manner in which the Trinity works. Only God can rightly interpret Himself completely. Augustine used the terms substantia (substance) and persona (person) to refer to the manner in which they related: three personas and one substantia.

Augustine believed that the Trinity was best compared analogically to the memory, understanding and will – three aspects of the same function of the same life. He used the deep psychologic sensibilities that he thought through in order to come up with the best fit for comparing the Trinity. However, he knew, since God can only be compared to Himself correctly, that this illustration ultimately fails. Analogy is the only way by which Augustine believed men could understand, or rather, apprehend a part of the Trinitarian doctrine.

Bible Verse:

“Peace to you all who are in Christ Jesus,” (1 Peter 5:14).

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