February 07, 2013
This is Part 5 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here.
One of the things I tell my students is that unity among Christians—real unity, that is—cannot be forged. This usually comes as a surprise, because we often speak of trying to “be uniters” or to “forge unity” among competing parties or groups. But if we think about it, we recognize that “forge” can mean two things—either “manufacture” (as in forging a wheel out of iron) or “fake” (as in forging a painting). Almost by definition, if we fake unity by ignoring substantial differences between two or more Christian groups, what we wind up with is merely the semblance of unity, not the real thing. Likewise, we cannot manufacture unity. As hard as we may sometimes work toward unity, we cannot produce it out of nothing. If it isn’t already there, we can’t make it come about. In contrast to either manufacturing or faking unity, I tell my students that real unity has to be discovered.
To say this is to admit that many times, there is a real unity between different groups of Christians but that the unity is obscured, hidden in some way. In Christian history, what has sometimes obscured whatever unity may have been present was either ill will (refusal to believe that the other side had good intentions and even that that other side might agree with us) or terminological confusion (using the same words to mean different things, or using seemingly opposing words to mean the same thing, without realizing that this was happening). As I have studied the controversies of the early church, I have repeatedly been amazed by the way these two factors have conspired to obscure how much consensus was actually present on the great theological issues of the day.
One example on which I’ve written recently (in an article coming out this April in Journal of Theological Studies) has to do with the complicated interaction between two groups in the fourth century who were both trying to articulate the relation between God the Father and God the Son. We label these groups Homoousians and Homoiousians (notice the letter “i” that distinguishes those two words). The Homoousians affirmed that the Son is “of one substance” with the Father, using the Greek word homoousios which the Council of Nicaea had used in 325 and which would eventually be retained in the Nicene Creed in 381. The Homoiousians, in contrast, preferred to say that the Son was “like the Father in substance,” using the Greek word homoios (“like” or “similar”), and their phrase was not ultimately used by the church in its creedal statements.
It may look like these two groups did not share the same view of the Son. Indeed, the Homoiousians themselves did not think they were saying the same thing as the Homoousians, because at a synod in Ancyra (Ankara today, the capital of Turkey) in A.D. 358, they actually condemned anyone who used the word homoousios to describe the Son’s relation to the Father. Some of the Homoousians (like Epiphanius of Salamis) also thought that they were not saying the same thing, and they condemned the Homoiousians.
But I suggest that the two groups—who between them comprised most of the Christian church in the fourth century—were in fact saying the same thing about God the Son. After all, “of one substance” and “like in substance” could mean the same thing, if one takes “like” to mean “exactly like.” If I’m right about this, then the consensus in the fourth-century church about the Son’s relation to the Father was greater than we often think. There was more unity than we realize—or than they realized—but that unity was obscured and had to be discovered before a consensus articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity could be achieved.
Studying issues like this forces me to ask, How much more unity is there among us—between the fractured and sometimes fractious groups of the Christian church—than we realize? Do we allow terminological differences to obscure a consensus that is actually there? Do we not even try to look for any possible unity because of our ill will toward other groups of Christians? My research in the early church has led me to believe that back then, there was more of a consensus about the faith than our books normally tell us today, and even more of a consensus than people at the time realized. Might that also be the case today?
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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