WHAT ARIUS KNEW (AND THE CHRISTIAN WEST STILL DOES NOT): FR. JOHN ROMANIDES ON THE FIRST ECUMENICAL COUNCIL

©James L. Kelley 2017

According to Fr. John Romanides, the First Ecumenical Council was not a convocation of textual critics and careerist ecclesiastics who hoped to use scholarly methods or up-to-date philosophy to understand Church teachings. In other words, they did not have a World Council of Churches Consultation at Nicea. Rather, the question at Nicea concerned the Lord of Glory (Christ) seen by the saints before and after the Incarnation: Was he created or uncreated? The Arians and the Orthodox agreed that the Old Testament “Angel of the Lord” (Exodus 3.6) was Jesus Christ before He became Incarnate. Thus, they did not differ about who the Angel-Logos was and is; the question was what exactly is the origin, and thus the status and nature of the disincarnate Angel-Logos who later “became” Jesus Christ Incarnate?[1] The heretics and the Orthodox, in Fr. John’s words, “were not arguing speculatively over an abstract Second Person of the Holy Trinity whose identity and nature one allegedly deciphered by mulling over biblical passages with the help of Hellenistic philosophy and the Holy Spirit. What they were discussing was the spiritual experience of the prophets and apostles; specifically whether it is a created or uncreated logos who appears in glory to them and reveals in Himself as Image God the Father…”.[2] To put it simply, there was no such thing as speculative theology at the Ecumenical Councils; even the Arian heretics brought to the table the presupposition that correct theology is empirical. However, Augustine and those following in his train will later (unknowingly) build upon the style of speculative metaphysics combated at the Second Ecumenical Council. But, to return to Nicea…

For the Arians, the Lord of Glory was brought into existence at the beginning of the ages by God the Father; thus, for them the vision of the Lord of Glory is of an aeonic creature. The Orthodox had no need to collaborate with Arians to arrive at a correct answer to the question at hand, but rather wasted no time demonstrating to the Arians through Holy Scripture what they already knew from their own spiritual experience, that (1) the Lord of Glory has every energy that the Father has, and (2) being God’s “Angel,” He takes His being from the Father. Thus, Christ is fully God and vision of Him is not of a creation, but of the uncreated (this is where the Arians, with their created Logos as a product of the Father’s uncreated energy, go astray). Interestingly, neither Arians nor Orthodox were ever misled into thinking that the saints’ vision of the Lord of Glory gave them access to the divine essence. Also, note that the Arians understood that there is a distinction between essence and energy in God. Everyone at Nicea, it follows, believed that only God knows his own essence. Finally, both Arians and Orthodox agreed that “the Hypostases and names of God and Father in relation to the Logos and Son were not interchangeable, but rather permanent hypostatic properties and individualities and numerically distinct.”[3]

Because this notion of a shared Orthodox-Arian set of presuppositions about experience of Trinitarian revelation in Christ the Lord of Glory is so crucial to Fr. John’s presentation of Orthodoxy (and to his critique of the Augustinian West), we reproduce his listing of these from his article “Christological Teaching of St. John of Damascus”:

[The] Orthodox and Arians agreed on the following items:
a) That in God energy and will are distinct from the divine essence.
b) That God created by will and by energy and not by nature.
c) That only God knows His own essence.
d) That there is no similarity between God and the created.
e) That only God can possess by nature the divine will, power and energy.
f) That creatures may participate in the divine will, power, and energy only by grace, never by nature.[4]

To this, we could add

g) That the hypostases, hypostatic properties, and names of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are permanent and non-interchangable.

What is remarkable is that Augustine disagrees with every single one of these precepts. In other words, Augustine and Western Christians use the same terminology recognized by the First Ecumenical Council by Orthodox and Arians, but they no longer understand the meaning of these Christological and Trinitarian terms. Being ignorant of the realities to which these terms point, Augustinian Christians have no inkling about what constitutes the Fall of man. Consequently, they are clueless as to what salvation in Christ could possibly be about. (In another post we will discuss the Orthodox teachings about the sickness of the noetic energy in man and the salvation of man as the purification, illumination, and glorification of the whole man in Christ.)[5]

Fr. John presents the problem in the following terms: The Nicean and post-Nicean Conciliar terminology, totally misunderstood by Augustine, was nonetheless retained by the Western Church, where it was reinterpreted as a system of knowledge accessible through human reason, but only to individuals who have “faith” in the authority of the Church. This is Augustine’s famous credo ut intelligam, which is so paradigmatic for the Christian West that it continues to define not only Roman Catholic theology (where we still today witness the corollary teachings “development of doctrine” and beatific vision), but also all Protestant theologies (which hold to either sola scriptura, salvation by “faith,” social progressivism based on God’s will evinced in nature, or some combination thereof).

So, what is the point here? Western Christianity follows Augustine in its theology, especially the Bishop of Hippo’s ideas about Christ’s theophanies as created angelophanies. Shockingly enough, Augustine did not understand that no one, not even angels, will ever know anything about the essence of God. Who knew this? Even the Arians understood this, and thus they agreed with the Orthodox and disagreed with Augustine (who of course was born too late to experience Nicea and who did not make it to the 2nd Great Council). Arius and his followers knew that no one will ever know the essence of God; they only erred in thinking that the Son of God received His being energetically from the Father. Augustine did not understand what every Orthodox saint knows by experience: that we can participate in God’s energies by means of those selfsame energies, but we cannot participate in God’s essence, which is absolutely unlike anything else and is absolutely incomparable to any created essence. This is the crux of the ongoing division between the Orthodox Church and the Western Churches, though the latter continue to believe that they follow Nicea.

NOTES

[1] Fr. John S. Romanides, “Jesus Christ, the Life of the World,” Xenia Oecumenica 39 (1983), pp. 232-275, at p. 233.

[2] Ibid., p. 234.

[3] Fr. John S. Romanides, “The Christological Teaching of John of Damascus,” Ekklesiastikos Pharos 58 (1976), pp. 232-269, at p. 235.

[4] Ibid. Fr. John notes that St. Gregory Palamas “observ[ed] that Barlaam should have accepted [the distinction between divine essence and divine energies], since even Arius himself had accepted it” (Fr. John Romanides, An Outline of Orthodox Patristic Dogmatics, trans. G.D. Dragas [Rollinsford, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2004], p. 5).

[5] This situation has led to pervasive confusions among non-Orthodox Christians and even some Orthodox about basic questions such as “What is the purpose and meaning of religious terms such as ‘Holy Trinity,’ ‘Body of Christ,’ and ‘Two Natures and Wills of Christ’?,” “What is Unity in Christ?” and “What is the meaning of the Fall of Man?” Today we even have groups of non-Orthodox Christians who go to councils with Orthodox and do nothing but try to produce “Agreed Statements” with Christological and Trinitarian terminology adjusted to make it acceptable to all involved. This could all be dismissed with a toss of the head as a mere waste of time, were it not evidence that even the Orthodox at these convocations either do not know about glorification, or are too timid to broach the subject, being outnumbered by their counterparts from so-called “divided” Churches. But the World Council of Churches is “Christian democracy in action,” and who would admit to being anti-democratic? In one of my books I showed how the German Lutheran philosopher and irenicist G.W. Leibniz hatched a plan to cajole the hardline Protestants and hidebound Roman Catholics of his time into accepting Church union because to do otherwise would be intolerant and thus a contradiction in reason-based morals. Is the “Pan-Orthodox” council in Crete and other similar ventures an “Eastern” version of Leibniz’s and the World Council of Churches’ efforts to base Church union, not on the identity of the members of the Body of Christ’s experience of glorification, but rather on a supposedly tolerant social activism that is a great grandchild of Augustine’s credo ut intelligam and that is, in any case, a flagrant case of “men-pleasing”?

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