January 2, 2018

Berkeley and Toland on the Homoousion

EUPHRANOR. There is, if I mistake not, a practical faith, or assent, which sheweth itself in the will and actions of a man, although his understanding may not be furnished with those abstract, precise, distinct ideas, which, whatever a philosopher may pretend, are acknowledged to be above the talents of common men; among whom, nevertheless, may be found, even according to your own concession, many instances of such practical faith, in other matters which do not concern religion. What should hinder, therefore, but that doctrines relating to heavenly mysteries might be taught, in this saving sense, to vulgar minds, which you may well think incapable of all teaching and faith, in the sense you suppose?

Which mistaken sense, said Crito, has given occasion to much profane and misapplied raillery. But all this may very justly be retorted on the minute philosophers themselves, who confound Scholasticism with Christianity, and impute to other men those perplexities, chimeras, and inconsistent ideas which are often the workmanship of their own brains, and proceed from their own wrong way of thinking. Who doth not see that such an ideal abstracted faith is never thought of by the bulk of Christians, husbandmen, for instance, artisans, or servants? Or what footsteps are there in the Holy Scripture to make us think that the wiredrawing of abstract ideas was a task enjoined either Jews or Christians? Is there any thing in the law or the prophets, the evangelists or apostles, that looks like it? Every one whose understanding is not perverted by science falsely so called may see the saving faith of Christians is quite of another kind, a vital operative principle, productive of charity and obedience.

ALCIPHRON. What are we to think then of the disputes and decisions of the famous Council of Nice, and so many subsequent Councils? What was the intention of those venerable Fathers, the Homoousians and the Homoiousians? Why did they disturb themselves and the world with hard words, and subtle controversies?

CRITO. Whatever their intention was, it could not be to beget nice abstracted ideas of mysteries in the minds of common Christians, this being evidently impossible. Nor doth it appear that the bulk of Christian men did in those days think it any part of their duty to lay aside the words, shut their eyes, and frame those abstract ideas; any more than men now do of force, time, number, or several other things, about which they nevertheless believe, know, argue, and dispute. To me it seems that, whatever was the source of those controversies, and howsoever they were managed, wherein human infirmity must be supposed to have had its share, the main end was not, on either side, to convey precise positive ideas to the minds of men by the use of those contested terms, but rather a negative sense, tending to exclude Polytheism on the one hand, and Sabellianism on the other.

ALCIPHRON. But what shall we say of so many learned and ingenious divines, who from time to time have obliged the world with new explications of mysteries, who, having themselves professedly laboured to acquire accurate ideas, would recommend their discoveries and speculations to others for articles of faith?

CRITO. To all such innovators in religion I would say with Jerome, "Why after so many centuries do you pretend to teach us what was untaught before? Why explain what neither Peter nor Paul thought necessary to be explained?" And it must be owned that the explication of mysteries in divinity, allowing the attempt as fruitless as the pursuit of the philosopher's stone in chemistry or the perpetual motion in mechanics, is no more than they chargeable on the profession itself, but only on the wrongheaded professors of it.

George Berkeley, Alciphron: Or, the Minute Philosopher (1732), sect. 7.12

The Council of Nicea (AD 325) was quite literally a dispute over an iota. The Council was called to resolve a dispute between the followers of Arius and the church authorities in Alexandria. As with many heresiarchs, it is difficult to say what Arius actually taught because the victors write the history. We can say, at least, that the controversy arose from a tension: Christians purport to be monotheists, believing in just one eternal, immaterial, invisible God, yet from a very early date it is reported that Christians attributed divine honors and prerogatives to the Christ, and Christians of course believe that the Christ is the historical human being Jesus of Nazareth. Arius and his followers thought to resolve this tension by holding that, since there is only one God, Christ must be a creature and not strictly speaking God. Divine honors and prerogatives are therefore attributed to him only in a secondary or derivative sense.

At the Council, the opponents of Arius proposed for inclusion in the Creed the claim that Christ is homoousion (consubstantial, or of one substance or essence) with God the Father. This formulation is usually understood as claiming (at least) that Christ is God in precisely the same sense of the word 'God' as the Father. Now this raises further problems, for the Christian, as we have said, is supposed to be a monotheist. If Christ is really literally God (and not merely called 'divine' in some derivative or honorific sense, as Arius apparently taught), then either Christ is numerically identical with the Father, or there are (at least) two gods. The first view is known as Sabellianism after another heresiarch, Sabellius. (It is also called 'modalism', since as usually understood it sees the three Persons of the Christian Trinity as three 'modes' in which the divine is manifested to us.) The second view would be a form of polytheism. The homoousion was intended to avoid all of these problematic views (somehow) by holding that Christ is identical in substance, essence, or being with the Father and yet is (somehow) not the same person as the Father.

Arius and his followers (understandably) thought this was all a lot of metaphysical gobbledygook not to be found anywhere in the Christian Bible or in the authentic teachings of Jesus or the Apostles. They therefore proposed the addition of a single iota to the formulation to form the word homoiousion: Christ is of a similar (not identical) nature/being/essence to the Father. This fit their view of Christ as the most Godlike of all creatures (yet still ultimately a creature).

The proponents of the homoousion carried the day at the Council in 325, and again at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 (which revised the Creed into its now-standard form, with the exception of one disputed word which need not concern us at present). In between, however, a battle raged between Arian and Nicene (as it came to be known) Christianity. Each side sought support from the Roman government and worked to depose and exile the clergy of the opposing faction. There was a great deal of violence—both state-sanctioned violence and mob violence—all of it over that blasted iota.

In the deist controversy of the 18th century, this history is weaponized against the religious establishment by writers like John Toland (see yesterday's post) and Anthony Collins (pp. 61ff.). The aim is to show that faction, dissension, corruption, and desire for political power among the clergy can be traced back all the way to the fourth century and that these failings pollute even the most basic and most broadly Ecumenical standards of Christian orthodoxy. The only solution, according to the deists, is to strip the clergy of both political and epistemic authority and allow the laity to think for themselves.

In his references to the Arian controversy, Toland is concerned to distinguish himself from Socinians and Unitarians who wish to revive something like the Arian position. In Christianity Not Mysterious, Toland writes: "tho the Socinians disown this Practice [of believing mysteries], I am mistaken if either they or the Arians can make their Notions of a dignifi'd and Creature-God capable of Divine Worship, appear a whit more reasonable than the Extravagancies of other Sects touching the Article of the Trinity" (p. 27). In Hypatia he writes: "with me the Homoiousion and the Homoousion are of no Account, in Comparison of the Bible, where neither of them are to be found" (ch. 21). Toland's view, then, is that the Arian position is metaphysical gobbledygook just as much as the Nicene position.

It is in the context of this attack that Berkeley writes the section of Alciphron quoted above. In the preceding sections of dialogue 7, Alciphron has presented Toland's argument against religious mysteries from Christianity Not Mysterious and Euphranor, speaking for Berkeley, has rebutted that argument using considerations in the philosophy of mind and language to show that, in a certain sense, we may truly be said to "believe where we do not understand" (as the matter is summarized later, in sect. 7.19).

Euphranor's defense of this claim relies on a broadly pragmatist account of religious language (and, on my own controversial interpretation, language in general): the utterances in question are meaningful because of the difference they make in the life of the believer. Alciphron, therefore, is right on target in responding, "What was the intention of those venerable Fathers, the Homoousians and the Homoiousians? Why did they disturb themselves and the world with hard words, and subtle controversies?" The sarcastic use of the phrase "those venerable fathers" evokes the aspersions cast on the (allegedly saintly) Nicene fathers by the deists and freethinkers, but the meat of the objection is just this: surely this difference doesn't make a difference to the life of the ordinary believer. It is far too subtle and abstruse. Further (as Toland had forcefully insisted at the end of Hypatia), the difference these doctrines made to the clergy who (allegedly) understood them was negative. Therefore, even if Euphranor's argument shows that the words are meaningful, by Euphranor's own (pragmatist) lights they should be rejected.

The response to this question is put in the mouth of Crito, not Euphranor. Throughout the book, Crito shows considerably more knowledge of the history of theology and the major disputes among Christians than Euphranor. Crito is also more informed about recent thought in England, including freethinking. Euphranor, who usually gives voice to Berkeley's distinctive views, is less partisan in his Protestantism than Crito, and is a gentleman farmer in Connecticut who sits in his isolated farmhouse reading Plato, Aristotle, and the Bible, in blessed ignorance of contemporary European thought. (This, apparently, is the way to become a Berkeleian.) Crito, though, is always happy to find that Euphranor's (sometimes unusual) thoughts happen to be useful to the defense of the established church. But according to Crito, the established church (and Christianity more broadly) is "an institution fitted to ordinary minds, rather than to the nicer talent, whether improved or puzzled, of speculative men" (sect. 7.13). Christian doctrine, according to Euphranor and Crito (and therefore Berkeley) must be the sort of thing that belongs to the ordinary faith of ordinary folks. What, then, of the much-disputed homoousion? Crito responds:


Whatever their intention was, it could not be to beget nice abstracted ideas of mysteries in the minds of common Christians, this being evidently impossible. Nor doth it appear that the bulk of Christian men did in those days think it any part of their duty to lay aside the words, shut their eyes, and frame those abstract ideas ... To me it seems that, whatever was the source of those controversies, and howsoever they were managed, wherein human infirmity must be supposed to have had its share, the main end was not, on either side, to convey precise positive ideas to the minds of men by the use of those contested terms, but rather a negative sense, tending to exclude Polytheism on the one hand, and Sabellianism on the other.

Berkeley refuses to fall into Toland's trap. Instead, he admits (in a halfway, "mistakes were made" kind of non-apology) that Christians involved in the dispute over the iota did not behave in the most Christian fashion. But in refusing to fall into Toland's trap, Berkeley offers at best a half-hearted defense of the homoousion, for Berkeley says that the point of that word was "to exclude Polytheism on the one hand, and Sabellianism on the other" and he attributes this aim to "either side." In other words, the Arians too were just trying to avoid these two extremes, and thus in a sense may be regarded as good Christians. Insofar as the homoousion may (perhaps?) be better doctrine than the homoiousion it is only because it (perhaps?) more effectively excludes both of these false doctrines.

(Cross-posted at The Mod Squad.)

Posted by Kenny at January 2, 2018 1:39 PM
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