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Nicene Theology as Paganization

In his discussion of the controversy between Athanasius and Arius over the nature of God, Arthur McGill makes a rather delightful observation:

“[For Arius], to apply the notion of ‘begetting’ to God’s own substance is to take a notion from Greek mythology and apply it illegitimately to the Biblical God. According to the entire Hebrew tradition, and therefore also according to the New Testament, the model for understanding God in his activity is not the model of generation and sexual reproduction, so dear to Greek mythology, but the model of the artisan who makes and the king who governs. The Arian party therefore looked upon this theological use of the model of begetting by Athanasius and his supporters as one of the most corrupt paganizations of Christianity.” (Suffering, p. 71)

We are generally trained to view Arius as the one who was assimilating Christian theology to the metaphysical millieu of antiquity. He is case as a sort of revisionist Hellenizer of the Christian faith. However, as McGill points out, Arius thought he was doing exactly the opposite. He was protesting against what he thought of as a mythologization of God which entangled God’s otherness in the categories of a non-Christian metaphysic.

Thus, Athanasius is actually the Hellenist and Arius is the Hebraist (albeit, perhaps one of the exteremely Philonic variety). If anything this shows that the revelation of God as Triune is just as subversive of an allegedly pure “Hebraic” notion of God’s being as it is of the “Hellenic” theology that is so often decried. It is, in the parlance of Scripture, both a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.


  1. Hill wrote:

    This is pretty cool stuff. I think Joseph Ratzinger in Introduction to Christianity makes very similar points about the relationship of the revelation of God in Christ to both Hebraic and Hellenic concepts of God and how it is in some sense subversive of both, but perhaps more essentially a truth that captures the insights of both in a way that resists characterization as a kind of middle way or “synthesis” but as a fulfillment or illumination of insights that, while true, are doomed to inadequacy in the absence of the revelation of God in Christ.

    Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Craig Carter wrote:

    It should be pointed out that Athanasius did not invent the metaphor of begetting – he got it from the NT. It is the NT that insists on calling Jesus “Son of God.” So I wonder, Halden, if you think it would be appropriate to extend your charge of “paganization” to the NT? A lot of people would. Would you?

    Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 1:48 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Craig, it’s not “my charge”, I was noting that it was Arius’ charge against the Nicene party. Of course I don’t really think that this constitutes a “paganization” any more than Christianity really constiutes an “atheism” as the early Christians were accused of. My point is about the way in which Trinitarian doctrine is such a thoroughgoing subversion of metaphysics.

    Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  4. Craig. Well, the metaphor of son of God and begetting is in the NT for sure, but in the same way as in the later creeds? I doubt this. I have begotten you “today” is a recurring phrase in the NT, picking up the language from Psalms, Isaiah and the texts about Salomon. This, to me, seems to be mainly kingly language, suggesting the special relationship that God´s anointed (man) has with God Godself. But the phrase “today”, doesn´t this suggest that the son(s) of God come into being on a special occasion? The metaphor changes drastically or might even leave the sphere of metaphor completely, I think, when, as in the later creeds, applied as something that happened in Gods eternal being “before time”.

    Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 2:19 pm | Permalink
  5. Evan Kuehn wrote:

    Might I ask what the basis is of McGill’s views on Arius? Does he cite any sources where one might go to find the opposition to “begetting” language as hellenistic?(I’m at home and don’t own the book, and googlebooks restricts p.71!)

    I think your points about the break from both Hebraic and Hellenistic sources is a good one, balanced by Hill’s talk of “synthesis”.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 4:43 am | Permalink
  6. dcrowe wrote:

    Let’s not forget that “Son of God” meant less an actual parent-son relationship, and more of a royal connotation, in its original context. There’s a good chance that we read into “Son of God” the meaning we’ve inherited from tradition that may or may not actually fit with what it meant to the first-century audience. Thanks for posting this.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 7:27 am | Permalink
  7. vassilip wrote:

    very nice all that, but as far as i know the term Son of God speaks about the common nature of Jesus and God-Father, that is the divinity of Christ–what exactly Arius denied.
    if that is ‘paganization’, then the whole Revelation is paganistic and Jews were right when accused Christ for blasphemy…

    Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 9:29 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Vassilip, sorry if this post was unclear, but my point was not that Nicene theology actually is a paganization of Scripture, but rather that for Arius, given his philosophical concept of divinity as that which is purely ungenerate, the Christian interruption and revision of classical concepts of divinity could not appear to him as anything other than a paganization.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 11:23 am | Permalink
  9. Halden, I read McGill’s book on suffering earlier this summer after your posts a while back on it, and enjoyed it greatly. His writing style is so clear while also being full of insights. If only more theologians could write like he did.

    Sunday, August 31, 2008 at 8:30 pm | Permalink

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