Thursday, 12 July 2012


Arianism is the most famous and seems to have been the most resilient of the Christological heresies. One of the reasons for its resilience seems to have been the way in which political figures became directly involved in managing it, in the first place the Emperor Constantine who summoned the Council of Nicea but also his successors throughout the fourth century, not all of them on the same side of the argument. You will recall Germain Grisez’s comment that moral theology must now face its fourth century and this aspect of it is certainly true: political leaders nowadays will not become excited about differences in Christology or sacramental theology where they will become very exercised about issues like abortion and homosexuality. These have a real political edge that many other matters no longer have although they did in earlier times.

Another reason for the resilience of Arianism, however, must be its reasonableness. Can we say that heresies will be more reasonable than orthodoxy? At least at a superficial level they seem to be. They are easier to present and understand because by definition they exclude some of the story, reducing the mystery of the faith to something that seems more coherent and acceptable by the standards of human thinking. Not that orthodox faith is irrational – that’s a very common and persistent modern error – but that the truths to which faith introduces us are beyond the capacity of the unaided human mind to understand.

Arius’s difficulty was in seeing how you could at the same time speak of a difference between the Father and the Son while saying that they were ‘consubstantial’ or ‘of one being’ which he understood to mean ‘they are one and the same being’, they are ‘the same thing’. It seemed to him like a form of Sabellianism where there is just one God who presents himself at different times in different forms. He was right to recognize this as incompatible with what the Christian faith teaches and there are scriptural texts that seemed to support his view that the Son is not therefore equal to the Father. Only the Father is unbegotten. This is a quality that is not shared in by the Son, and so they cannot be absolutely equal. And because ‘unbegottenness’ is a divine characteristic, it seemed as a consequence that the Son could not then be God, at least not in the same sense in which the Father is God.  The Son had a beginning whereas the Father did not. The Son is the first of creatures, perhaps a special kind of creature, the one on whom all other creatures depend. Again there are scriptural texts, in the wisdom literature for example, that seemed to support this.

This is not the place for a lecture in Christology however brief. What I’m doing is recalling these heresies to see if there are analogous ways in which we might be erring in understanding and living our Christian, Dominican life. Of course none of us is claiming to have a human nature hypostatically united with the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, so what we are about is very clearly at the level of analogy: how are we to live our Christian, Dominican life in a way that is true to the divine and human vocation that it is?

For Arianism, Christ is neither truly divine nor is he truly human. He becomes a third reality, between the uncreated and the created, a human God and a divine Man, something in between true God and true humanity. It was a kind of rational compromise that, instead of struggling with what the faith required, resolved tensions by coming up with a new category. This is something we might be tempted to do, to live a style of life that will be ‘in between’ rather than being fully one and fully the other, fully focused on humanity and its needs and at the same time fully focused on God and His demands.

We might wonder how we can be fully focussed on two things and the fact that we are seeing them as two things is precisely the problem. This is the form the mystery of faith takes in regard to our living a life that is simultaneously human and divine. We tend to think that the divine and the human must be rivals to each other, that they are natures sharing the same world or field of forces, so that to allow more say to one must imply allowing less say to the other. And this is, of course, quite wrong.

Much contemporary new age spirituality seems to work with a kind of Arianism in the sense that it prefers to speak about ‘the divine’ than to speak about God, as if ‘divinity’ were a kind of in-between category, a nature that can be parcelled out to different degrees among different levels of being. It might even regard this nature as dwelling in us as some kind of spark of the great divine. This takes us a long way from the radical distinction between the uncreated and the creature, a distinction that is crucial if there is to be love between them.

We can compromise in all sorts of ways, some of them obvious and some of them not so obvious. Sometimes the compromise is at the expense of our humanity and sometimes it is at the expense of our divine calling. What I am thinking of are those ways in which we might feel we need to justify ourselves to the world, either in how we speak or in how we live, but which have the effect of turning us into something ‘in between’ our twofold focus, neither fully one nor fully the other. Our celibacy, for example, cannot be explained simply in terms of our human experience. We may try to do that, to say how it gives us freedom for the mission, mobility, readiness to be available, and so on. But we know in our hearts that this cannot be the full motivation for religious celibacy, that it has something to do also with our love for Christ a well as our understanding of how His kingdom is being realised in our lives and of our place within that realisation in the lives of others. Of course that can be difficult to explain, not only to people who do not share our faith. A more easily understood explanation, something more accessible rationally speaking, might seem more sensible but will not do justice to how we truly understand things.

The alternative is to head off into a pious or spiritualistic understanding of celibacy (to stay with that example), one that loses contact with human experience and begins to feel unreal even to ourselves. We might do the same for poverty or obedience or other aspects of our lives. It is difficult to say all that needs to be said, whether in words or in how we live, in order to do justice to the human and divine character of the life we are living.

Let me quote two Dominicans in support of what I am trying to say. Jordan of Saxony speaks very well about it in his encyclical letter to the Order of 1233, speaking about the humanity of our lives but also the way in which that humanity ought to be being transformed by divine grace, by charity in other words. Let me quote from him [Tugwell, Early Dominicans, page 124].

"How often do the sordid, aimless meanderings of our affections lead us along crooked paths, not directed in the way of truth and with no eye on our proper goal. We say a lot, we do a lot, we endure a tremendous lot, which would make us so much richer in virtue, so much more fruitful in merit, if only charity abounded in our hearts, directing and ordering everything towards our proper goal, which is God. But as it is, our minds are too often occupied with futile thoughts, our feelings drawn by futile desires; we do not carry through to its end the sifting and purging of our hearts' purposes, so it is hardly surprising that we are so slow to accomplish anything, so sluggish is our ascent towards perfection."

The other witness I want to call is Herbert McCabe. In a wonderful essay simply entitled ‘God’ he distils the fruits of his lifetime’s contemplation of the mystery of God. Most striking – to return to Arianism – is the conviction he expresses there that to say ‘God is love’ is another way of saying ‘God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit’. This is the crucial concrete significance of the victory of the Nicene faith over Arianism. The way of Trinitarian faith is the only way of taking absolutely seriously the statement in the first letter of Saint John that ‘God is love’. If the Father has no equal to love, and to return his love, then what the Father shows cannot be love in the full sense of the word. It might be compassion and kindness but it is not love. Out of many things Herbert says there I quote just one – [God Still Matters, page 7].

"To say that Jesus is divine and to say that God is capable of love is to proclaim one and the same doctrine. Any unitarian view of God, or Arian view of Christ, immediately destroys the possibility of divine love - I mean divine love in the serious adult sense. ... It is only the doctrine of the divinity of Christ (and thus the doctrine of the Trinity) that makes possible the astounding and daring idea that God can after all genuinely love. He is in love with the Son, and the exchange of divine love between them is the Holy Spirit."

The implication is that if we are Arians then we do not really believe that God can share His own life of love with us. Of course we recite the Nicene Creed every Sunday, but that does not mean that our words are always borne out by our actions, by the ways in which we actually live out the faith we profess.

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