I had to read Justin again, who is sometimes interesting but mostly tedious and at times too nearly farsical. Justin Martyr shines in his own dialogue, with Trypho in tow, nodding comically and putting up easy token objections. I had to read him for the history of interpretation too, and this time for what he has toward the doctrine of the Trinity. He was trying to demonstrate from the Old Testament to Trypho the Jew that there is numerical plurality in the God there revealed. There isn’t that much of Justin to read to get to know him, so I’m guided by Chadwick who said Justin really thought all it took was a plausible explanation. It makes sense; Justin tends to be . . . not deep.
I also had to read Irenaeus, and I really find him absolutely an absolute bore. Now, he did a great service to the church at a crucial moment against Gnosticism, but I’m glad I didn’t have to deal with it myself with the aid of his works. Of course, in the thick of it, I’d have been glad to pore over the copious detail, the point by point, blow by blow, item by item refutation of absolutely everything Irenaeus ever came across that had been said, written by or reported of any Gnostic. I’d have been glad for it and I get that. But 1850 years or whatever it is later, I’m not a fan of the bishop of Lyons, though I am a fan of the Rule of Faith.
Then came Tertullian, with whom I can relate. He’s the soundbite man (What has Jerusalem to do with Athens? Or, They drive out the Paraclete and crucify the Father). I think his rhetorical flair sometimes got away from him. He was a lawyer, and the public presentation of the case, I gather, was all—kind of the way William Jennings Bryan thought it ought to be. You make a grand, energetic speech, you roast the other side, you gesticulate with scientific precision, you rest your case. I had to read Against Praxeas (and I have the second sound bite in Latin, but I left it at school) and I’ve read other things. He has moments in his treatise On Patience that are splendid, but his personality, his rigorism and his sometimes losing of the object in the interests of rhetoric (I told you I could relate) mars his work. And my spirit only grudgingly admits that the crucial Trinitarian terminology was of his coinage. Before anybody spoke in terms of person, persons or personality, he came along and got the word we use to this day for the concepts attached. He gave us access to that reality, and he was a guy who just tossed off things from time to time because (though not entirely because) they sounded good. He did (for the Latin West, no the Greek East) what profounder minds than his struggled for enormously and without success.
Such an one was Origen. Origen, my Origen! When I read Origen now, I am in a world I recognize. I know why he’s saying it that way, I know where he’s coming from, I understand his language and I love, I love my Origen. Origen, however, did not have the word ‘person.’ He had the Greek word that would eventually become its equivalent: hypostasis, but in his time and for another hundred years at least the word was too close to the Greek word for essence, ousia. I think the best equivalent in English of hypostasis before it was wrested for Trinitarian uses that I have found is the word entity. Is entity substance or essence? Yeah. It is also individuality, which is what Origen and others groped around trying to say, but they did not have a way of setting that individuality apart as personal individuality, and as a result there were confusions. Let me put it this way, in his day, any tritheist could have used hypostasis without qualms. Even in Athanasius’ day the small, dark bishop of Alexandria told people not to argue about the word used, but examine more carefully, because the vocabulary was simply not stable enough to convey the precise meaning. If your word is so close to essence that people can take it for essence, then when you say God is of one essence but has three essences you aren’t making a whole lot of progress when it comes to doctrine. What Origen did get right is the eternal generation of the Son. He said there was no time when Christ was not, and that was, in a way, what the whole thing was about. Before anything could proceed, they had to determine what the relationship was of Christ to the unmistakable monotheism of Scripture.
Historical theology teaches us that there is an order to the problems we can deal with. Jaroslav Pelikan points this out: before you can deal with the relationship of the deity and humanity of Christ, you first have to deal with the relationship of Christ to the divine. You have to get the distinction between being and person in the Godhead right before you can answer the question of Christ’s two natures. And if you look at it from the other side, before you answer the question of the one and the three, the following questions of Christology do not even arise. That last is the really difficult one to get, but there are questions that only arise when you solve prior ones, and before that, they do not exist in any human being’s mind. They can’t.
When you think how complex theology is, how sophisticated Christian theology is required to be given the kind of revelation it has to explain, harmonize, organize and systematically present, you will see one of the chief difficulties of Church History. Besides that, the system of a coherent theology has its own internal requirements, complicating the thing further. I have come to realize that my theological acumen is not that which is required of a good theologian. But if you are going to do Church History you have to be able to handle the sequence of the logic of theology. The nice thing is you don’t do it speculatively, you do it descriptively. You relive the problem as the chaps were seeing it, and get the logic as the solution emerged. But still, it is a bit on the difficult end of things.
That’s why I like to know the chaps and their situations. In our days, people have become fanatical about primary sources. I understand the importance. I acknowledge that nobody is going to say anything legitimate without consulting primary sources. I have read ghastly pronouncements about things that must have come from an exclusive interaction with secondary and not primary sources. But I am not convinced the primary sources are the place to begin. I have wasted time even in secondary sources because I don’t understand what is going on. That is why I personally would rather start getting oriented to the situation in introductions and secondary sources. Take Plotinus, for instance: you can’t just pick up Plotinus and start reading him with any comprehension unless you have an extensive background in ancient philosophy or a good, clear, thorough introduction. He is just too different and difficult. I think Origen suffers from the same.
But I’ve got Origen, whatever else, and I love Origen, and when I read Origen I know I’m usually on the inside of what is going on, where he’s coming from, all that. He did very well with a lot of things people don’t realize. He was to theology what Plato was to philosophy. “Theology is just a series of footnotes to Origen.” Well, that’s a bit exaggerated, but not as much as people think.He was Platonist in search of the form of Scripture, the principle of intelligible coherence. This resulted, in his case, in a distortion: he used the Bible as if it were all written in one day, with no sense of historical development or the progress of revelation. But he set the foundation for the heroic Trinitarian struggles, informing by his writings all the major orthodox players, shaping the conversation. It was on Origen’s approach to Scripture (maligned and misunderstood, and unfortunately treated as a byword rather than examined) that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity was defended. And I love Origen’s luminous, speculative, pious mind.
And for all that he did not formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, I do wish I could have met him and studied in his school.