Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies -- By: Graham Keith

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 12:1 (Winter 2003)
Article: Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies
Author: Graham Keith


Our Knowledge of God: Insights from the Fourth-Century Trinitarian Controversies

Graham Keith

The fourth century proved a period of great importance to the Church in its development of Trinitarian theology. Commonly this is called the Arian Controversy, though it has been increasingly recognized in recent years that Arius, whose deposition for heresy from the presbyterate at Alexandria signaled the start of intense disputes, did not have quite the prominence he was given at one time.1

To an outsider, the doctrinal disputes of this century can appear forbidding. For one thing they were protracted. If the dispute between Arius and his bishop started about 318, it was to rumble on in one form or another over the next seventy years. During that period it took many twists and turns, complicated by ecclesiastical politics that as often as not had little to do with Trinitarian doctrine. Some, following the historian Edward Gibbon who reputedly sneered at a Church which was split over the significance of a diphthong, have concluded that this is a prize example of a foolish obsession with the niceties of doctrine.2 What a pity that the Church did not use the new-found freedom it had under Constantine and his successors for something more positive!

Then, another deterrent to close study of this period may be the fear that the Church in this period uncritically swallowed aspects of Greek philosophy and so skewed its understanding

of the Scriptures. After all, this is the period which saw the emergence of such words or phrases as homoousios (of one substance) and one ousia in three hypostases as touchstones of orthodoxy. Since none of these expressions has an obviously scriptural ring, it might be tempting to conclude that here we have an undesirable philosophical borrowing. Yet it is as well to note that this charge against the orthodoxy of the fourth and fifth centuries originated with Friedrich Schleiermacher and received its most detailed scholarly treatment in the writings of Adolf von Hamack.3 Both Schleiermacher and Harnack were liberals who wished to downplay the dogmatic element in Christianity. They were effectively and perhaps deliberately conflating two quite different objections to Christian orthodoxy—first that the process of developing Christian dogma was fundamentally mistaken or at least highly overvalued, and then that this process historically had in fact been diverted from the proper track by pagan philosophy.

The relation between Greek philosophy and Christian doctrin...

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