Ayres and “Pro-Nicene”

A major component of Lewis Ayres’ Nicea and its Legacy is the specific historical narrative that it presents. The protagonists are called “Pro-Nicenes,” and Ayres identifies a Pro-Nicene as possessing three distinctives:

1. a clear version of the person and nature distinction, entailing the principle that whatever is predicated of the divine nature is predicated of the three persons equally and understood to be one (this distinction may or may not be articulated via a consistent technical terminology);

2. clear expression that the eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;

3. clear expression of the doctrine that the persons work inseparably.

Ayres further explains:

The first and second of these points represent two of the fundamental themes whose development enabled the emergence of pro-Nicene theology. The unity of nature was understood to imply that the three persons were of equal ontological standing– all possessed the fullness of what it was to be God. It was also assumed by pro-Nicenes that the particular characteristics of the three persons still enabled us to speak of a certain order of progression within the Godhead. At the same time, new clarity about the simplicity and immateriality of the Godhead enabled a clear insistence that the generation of the Son (and the ‘spiration’ of the Spirit) did not involve a dividing of the divine being. Michel Barnes helpfully distinguishes between earlier fourth-century usage in which the Father/Son relationship is used to show continuity of nature and fully pro-Nicene usage in which the Father/Son relationship is used only to show that the persons are distinct because now the eternal generation occurs a priori within the unitary and simple Godhead.

My use of the term pro-Nicene is initially defined against those accounts that present the fourth-century Trinitarian controversies as having one solution: the clearer restatement of an original Nicene theology. This theology is understood as defended (if not defined) by Athanasius, taken up and given more precision by the Cappadocians, and passed to a naturally well-disposed west in transition and with inevitable misunderstanding. The main problem with such accounts is that the evidence for the crucial shifts in and assumptions of this narrative is weak. There is no one original Nicene theology that continues unchanged through the century. Extensive influence of Athanasius’ theology on the Cappadocians is difficult to prove. Western accounts are not simply dependent on eastern translations and there was a significant and persistent non-Nicene presence in parts of the west. The theologies that constitute pro-Nicene orthodoxy are not reducible to one point of original or to one form of expression.

The other significant way of considering the solution to the fourth-century controversies has been to suggest the Trinitarian theologies of the Cappadocians represent a retreat from the Nicene theology of Athanasius. This thesis was advocated by the German Protestant scholars Theodor Zahn and Friedrich Loofs in the late nineteenth century and taken up strongly by Adolf von Harnack (and henceforth I will refer to it as the ‘Harnack thesis’). For Harnack ‘Cappadocian’ theology, which he treats as a unity, is just an adapted Homoiousian theology. Whereas Athanasius argued that homoousios meant unity of substance, ‘Cappadocian’ theology focuses on the three beings who share a common substance, rather than on the divine unity which is mysteriously threefold. Because the Cappadocians also insist on the Father’s person as the source of the Trinity, Harnack sees them as offering a modified version of Origen’s Trinitarian theology, not Athanasius’ original ‘Nicene’ theology. (236-237)

Ayres elsewhere notes that if forced to use the older paradigm, one would find himself in the uncomfortable position of putting Athanasius in the “Western” category.  The homoians would be closer to “social Trinitarians,” with their aversion to all that ousia language.