Dichotomising the Fourth Century

There are two types of people in this world: those who dichotomise everything, and those that don’t.


Back when you took Church History 101 (You did take Church History 101??) you were told a story. It was a lying lie of a story in which the Orthodox were trundling along just fine until the Heretic Arius appeared out of nowhere, hoodwinked half the church, and the rest of the century was a battle between Athanasius (aka Gandalf) and the Arians (aka Hordes of Orcs) in which Orthodoxy prevailed. Or maybe you went to some new perspective college that taught you that Athanasius was the wicked witch of the West and suppressed all those vibrant diversities and is the source of Western Christendoms enduring penchant for violence and totalitarianism.

Either way, it’s a way of schematising the 4th century, and it flattens everything onto a single axis. Which is what we do, we carve up terrains and we tend to polarise theologians into opposites.

When I first read Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy it was a big bombshell, ‘There are no Arians!” Instead, there was a complexity to the period that required more (and more nuance). The problem with dichotomies is that they over-simplify, but the problem without dichotomies is that you can’t make sense of things. We want to categorise thinkers and groups of thinkers because it makes sense of them. So even as we realise that Arians vs. Orthodox is a defunct polarity, and so too is Eastern vs. Western (at least within the Greek-Roman context) as well as Antiochene vs Alexandrian, we keep coming up with other ways to try and categories the terrain of theology.

As far as my work goes, Khaled Anatolios has a pretty good summary of recent attempts in this area in his Retrieving Nicaea. He reviews Joseph Lienhard’s division between miahypostatic and dyohypostatic theologies. The problem with Lienhard’s dichotomy, apart from being a mouthful, is the weight it gives to hypostasis as the characterising distinction. The Ayres/Barnes approach, at least as Ayres works it out, is to talk about trends towards emphasising sameness and diversity between the Father and Son. This, of course, is problematically vague. Alternatively, in Nicaea Ayres works on a ‘Four Trajectories’ scheme which has the advantage of more complexity, but one of the great problems of complexity is that it reduces one’s ability to get a grasp on what’s going on.

(Of course, the “most” accurate mapping of the controvers(ies) would be to explore each individual author and their writings uniquely. But that is like having a map that is on a scale of 1:1, which is not a useful map at all! The whole point of having a map is to have something to navigate the actual terrain by, not to reproduce that terrain).

Anatolios’ own proposal is to situate the dichotomy as Unity of Being vs Unity of Will. Personally I think this is a persuasive schema for dichotomising all the theologies in play, though it’s not perfect.

In my own work I use the labels Pro-Nicene and Non-Nicene, generally. Pro-Nicene is helpful because, even though I recognise that certain theologians don’t necessarily depend nor derive their theology from/on Nicaea itself, they represent a trajectory that comes to be ‘pro’, i.e. favourably disposed to Nicaea as a solution and an expression of their broad theology that gets worked out, and from the post-Constantinopolitan perspective, such theologians get grouped together as ‘orthodox’ precisely in this element. Meanwhile, Non-Nicenes do not regard Nicaea so favourably, but neither are the defined by their opposition to Nicaea as a theological construct. At the same time, use of such labels to some extent sidesteps some of the questions that dichotomisation raises – ‘Pro-Nicenism’ is not, in this usage, a label for theological unity, but for ecclesio-political alignment.

When it comes down to it, the map of the theological terrain has to be more textured than a simple polarity. That’s the whole point of nuanced reading and research on these figures, to bring out their distinctives and show their differences instead of collapsing them into a single category. At the same time, dichotomisation, perhaps along several axes, helps to get one’s head around these groupings, their similarities and differences, which is just what the human mind does.