Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Road to Nicaea

John Anthony McGuckin is an Orthodox priest and the Ane Marie and Bent Emil Nielsen Professor in Late Antique and Byzantine Christian History at Union Theological Seminary. He's written a very interesting essay for Christianity Today entitled "The Road to Nicaea." Here's the opening:

Graffiti emblazoned on walls, a vicious war of pamphlets, riots in the streets, lawsuits, catchy songs of ridicule … It's hard for modern Christians to imagine how such public turmoil could be created by an argument between theologians—or how God could work through the messiness of human conflict to bring the church to an understanding of truth.

To us, in retrospect, the Council of Nicaea is a veritable mountain in the landscape of the early church. For the protagonists themselves, it was more in the nature of an emergency meeting forced on hostile parties by imperial power and designed to stop an internal row. After the council, many of the same bishops who had signed its creed appeared at other councils, often reversing their previous decisions according to the way the winds of preferment were blowing. They found themselves less in a domain of monumental clarity and more in a swamp of confusing arguments and controversies that at times seemed to threaten the very continuity of the Christian church. To understand the significance of the Council of Nicaea, we need to enter into the minds of the disputants and ask why so much bitterness and confusion had been caused by one apparently simple question: in what way is Jesus divine?

Of course, like many "simple" questions, this was a highly complex and provocative issue. Theologians of that era were almost beside themselves when they found that Scripture often gave very different-sounding notes when they applied to it for guidance. The disagreements this "simple" question provoked made many of the greatest minds of the era wonder to what extent the Christian doctrines of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit were coherent, and even to what extent Christians could trust in the canon of sacred text (which had hitherto seemed to them sufficient as an exposition of the faith).

In many ways, therefore, Nicaea reminds us of the present era. Rather than being a symbol of clarity, peace, and order, it was a call to a difficult focusing of mind across a church that was often as muddled and confused as ours seems still to be.

Read it all here.

I think that Fr. McGuckin does a nice job of suggesting how the confusion and turmoil of the 4th Century Church mirrors much of what's afoot in our own time. We aren't unique. The issues may have been different back then (or even the same, depending on your perspective), but in terms of conflict, we've been here before. We, too, engage in "a vicious war" - not with pamphlets - but most definitely via the Internet, special interest groups, and the establishment of alternative "instruments of communion." And answers to seemingly "simple" questions coupled with appeals to the "plain meaning" of scripture don't seem to be solving much of anything today anymore than they did back then. In our tendency to want a quick fix to what ails us, perhaps we could learn a thing or two about perseverance, patience, and humility from the 4th Century.


joseph said...

Thanks for pointing to this article. A bit of history is always helpful. And it is so true that in an instant age we tend to want clarity to emerge quickly. We are unaware that we too live through history, and the movements of both the institution of the church and of God can seem frustratingly slow.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Joseph. I appreciate your comments, and I think you're quite right about our need for instant gratification. Given the way that Anglican politics have played out - and in spite of otherwise great cultural differences - that "need" seems to unite an otherwise very diverse number of Anglicans across the theological and cultural spectrum.

Perhaps we would do well to cultivate "Athanasian patience."

I'm reminded that St. Athanasius - one of the preeminent defenders of Nicene orthodoxy against the Arians - was exiled five times during his liftetime.