Paradox in Christian Theology (2)

paradox.jpgAnderson, James.

Paradox in Christian Theology: An Analysis of Its Presence, Character, and Epistemic Status

Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007. Pp. xv + 328. Paper. $33.99.




With thanks to James Spinti at Eisenbrauns for this review copy!

Anderson continues his survey of the early formation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the 4th century by taking note of Athanasius and the Cappadocians (i.e., Gregory Nazianzen; Basil; Gregory of Nyssa) in the East, and Hillary of Poitiers and Augustine in the West.  I’ll make a few comments about the Eastern fathers in this post and the Western fathers in the next.

Anderson asserts that:

A distinct tendency toward a stronger, paradoxical understanding of the relationships within the Trinity can be clearly seen in the most prominant of the post-Nicene writers, beginning with the influential writings of Athanasius. [p. 21]

He goes on to quote Kelly (see Early Christian Doctrines, 243) to the effect that Athanasius was concerned with redemption over and above philosophical and cosmological considerations as opposed to the rationalists Arius or even Eusebius of Ceasarea who held these things as foundational via their “a priori ideas of divine trancendence and creation.” From this Anderson concludes:

Athanasius’s primary concern, then, was not to avoid any apparent logical difficulties in his theology but to be faithful to the theological constraints placed upon him by preceding Christian orthodoxy regarding the nature of God and Christ’s redemptive work. [p. 21]

But does it follow that because Athanasius’ primary concern was with regard to redemption as opposed to cosmology and philosophy that he tended toward a stronger paradoxical understanding of God, or that he was not concerned with avoiding logical difficulties?  Unfortunately, Anderson doesn’t go on to answer these questions; he merely asserts and then moves on to stating that Athanasius affirmed the consubstantiality of the Father and Son while repudiating Sabellianism and affirming a real distinction in the persons.  Apparently this is what constitutes the paradoxicality of the Trinity.

I very much appreciated what came next, and that was Anderson’s recognition that the Cappadocians have been abused in modern theology and credited with being “social trinitarians” based on a misreading of an a pre-existing analogy that Gregory of Nyssa used concerning ‘three men’ and a mistranslation of the word ‘koinonia’ as ‘community’ rather than ‘communion’ which was frequently used by the Cappadocians.  He’s largely dependent on Sarah Coakley’s wonderful essay “‘Persons’ in the ‘Social’ Doctrine of the Trinity: A Critique of Current Analytic Discussion” in The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity in this section.  I think that he’s quite right to represent the Cappadocians as:

firmly committed to the indivisibility and simplicity of God, a stance requiring a considerably stronger ontological union than that offered by mere commonality of nature (even when strengthened by emphasizing unity of purpose and activity). [p. 25]

In other words, contra modern “social trinitarians,” the Cappadocians cannot be understood to have affirmed a generic identity (which any Arian would be satisfied with) of the three persons, but rather they upheld a numerical identity as is necessitated by a belief in the consubstantiality of the Father and the Son (and also the Spirit).

To be continued…



2 thoughts on “Paradox in Christian Theology (2)

  1. It appears that this section is an improvement on the previous section but if he`s relying on Coakley he`s on solid ground. I wonder Nick on having a read of the book myself as it covers areas i am interested philosophical theology. In his work on the Cappadocians does he examine Zizioulas` work particularly around the notion of person in relation to the Trinity

  2. Andrew: Nothing from Zizoulas, but then again I wouldn’t really expect there to be. What Anderson is doing in this early section in the first chapter is recounting the trinitarian controversies of the fourth century. His purpose is to briefly sketch out what happened while showing the tendency toward viewing the Trinity as a paradox. His brief treatment of the Cappadocians and later Hillary of Poitier and Augustine is to show the direction that the post-Nicenes went.

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