Idealist History versus Actual History
I hesitated to reply because I am not exactly confident in my command of Nicene church history or theology to engage Fr Kimel who clearly is more learned and familiar in this field. I admit that what I am essentially doing is a little bit of “idealist” history, of attempting to read historical events in terms of the logical outworking of ideas rather than based on the actual texts and writings of the period itself. (Although I did cite various ecclesiastical texts to support part of my thesis.) I am personally myself often suspicious of overarching theories or narratives about historical events and there is not a bit of irony about me indulging in the same based not upon the primary texts but upon secondary sources.
Nevertheless, I read Fr Kimel’s response and believe that, even if I cannot claim an exhaustive or in depth command of church history or Nicene theology, I can respond at least to the contents of that particular post itself, with the qualification and proviso that this is a “meta” or “idealist” reading of historical events which is open to refutation by textual evidence from the period should anyone care to bring it to my attention.
Robert Jenson’s Reply
Fr Kimel response consists essentially in a quote from the Lutheran theologian Robert W. Jenson which seeks to demonstrate that the concerns of Nicene Orthodoxy were thoroughly Scriptural and if I may cite the relevant sections:
It was the center of the revelation to Israel that the Lord is a ferociously jealous God, that he brooks no almost-gods, no “next” powers “after” the Father of all. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God,” is the first creed of the church also. In the Bible there is the Lord, the Creator of all things, and there are his creatures, and there is nothing in between; there is no ontological overlap, no pantheon of not-quite-gods or divine creatures.
So which is the Logos, Creator or creature? For such Bible-readers as were the ancient churchmen, the question could not be ignored, but it could be long suppressed. Until finally poor Arius pressed it so urgently that it had to be faced, whereupon the church blew apart.
The outcome is familiar. A few thinkers took up Arius’s challenge and faced the church with the stark alternative: either stop worshiping the Son, because he is a creature and Christians do not worship creatures, or acknowledge that the Son is Creator, God Almighty. For a time such radicals were a minority, yet with this stern biblical reasoning they eventually bullied the church, kicking and screaming, into the confession of Nicaea and Constantinople, that the Son who is from God is nevertheless, or rather just so, himself true God, that in the case of this God, being from God is not incompatible with being 100 percent God.
I understand that Fr Kimel is arguing that the concerns of Nicene Orthodoxy is about ensuring faithfulness to the one exclusive divinity of God and this faithfulness is a thoroughly biblical concern.
Maximal Worship or Nothing
However, the very structure and form of the argumentation adopted by the Nicene Orthodox in their reading of the Scripture actually substantiates and not refute my main thesis.
It is important that we observe very carefully the argumentation presented here.
In the Bible there is the Lord, the Creator of all things, and there are his creatures, and there is nothing in between; there is no ontological overlap, no pantheon of not-quite-gods or divine creatures.
A few thinkers took up Arius’s challenge and faced the church with the stark alternative: either stop worshiping the Son, because he is a creature and Christians do not worship creatures, or acknowledge that the Son is Creator, God Almighty.
The very binary dialectic of worship, either something is God and therefore deserves maximal worship and devotion, or it is a mere creature and therefore deserves no worship, honour or whatever, is precisely what I have argued lay at the heart of those “right” of Nicene Orthodoxy. The life of devotion, piety and worship permits of no degrees, qualification, ifs or buts, either Christ is God, and therefore all glory to him, or he is not and therefore all worship of him is idolatry. If I may quote myself:
It is intrinsic to the experience and life of piety that devotion be wholehearted and unqualified. Therefore to “limit” or qualify the glory of the Son or the Holy Spirit renders wholehearted and undivided devotion difficult, is not impossible. Unity and simplicity lies at the heart of humble piety, and it is simpler to the minds of the masses to simply declare that “Christ is God, worship and magnify him” without conditions, qualifications or ifs and buts, than to define and qualify in exactly what sense and in what way Christ is God and divine and in what manner and form is honour, glory and worship to the paid to Christ. Particularisation and the “messiness” of Scriptural facts divides the wholehearted worship and does violence towards the life of piety, systematisation towards all encompassing theories and simple formulas which “smoothes over” the rough edges of difficult Bible verses is key towards facilitating wholehearted piety. Thus, the instinct and impulse of those towards the “right” of Nicene Orthodoxy is towards the maximal identification of the Son with the Father, that devotion, worship and adoration towards the Son maybe wholehearted and undivided.
Thus if Jenson’s reading of the structure of the argumentation of the Nicene Fathers is correct, far from refuting my thesis, it actually strengthens it, that is, the Nicene Fathers did “smooth” over degrees and types of worship and honour by posing this either or of either undivided devotion and worship to the Son or none at all. There can be nothing in between or in the middle.
Worship Comes in Degrees
It is instructive to note that the English term “worship” didn’t always possess the sense of an honour paid solely to a deity or divine figure. The marital rites of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer to this day still contains the formula:
With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
In Britain, it is also customary also to address certain important persons as “Your Worship”, etc.
Thus, there isn’t a single unified practice of honouring and even worship fixed to a single object, i.e. worship is only for God, etc, but rather the practice of honouring and “worship” exists on a continuum and comes in degrees. The degrees of honouring and the shape it takes is contingent upon the object honoured, kings, spouses, elders, ministers, the Son of God, God the Father, etc. What is “worship” after all but simply ascribing the proper and right worth to the object according to its particular character?
Thus, hypothetically, even if the Christ is not God (and I am not saying He isn’t), it does not follow that all honouring or even worship of him is idolatry, anymore than honour of our parents or praise of worthy rulers or “worship” of our spouses is considered “idolatry”.
To reiterate parts of my thesis, it seems that the objectors of Nicene Orthodoxy, or at least those hesitant to adopt leveling formulas, wanted to preserve the particularity and diversity of the Scriptural testimony concerning the Son and the Holy Spirit, and believed that we should honour and worship them according to their particular characters, not according to simple uniform identification of the Son with the Father or divinity. While those who were on the side of Nicene Orthodoxy are exactly precisely concerned with preserving the integrity and simplicity of undivided and wholehearted devotion “worship” or “honouring” of the Son with no if, buts, qualifications or conditions, identification of the Son with divinity is the fastest way to achieve this unqualified wholehearted worship, while the rhetorical strategy to is eliminate any notion of degrees of honouring and worship contingent upon the particular object worshiped and simply pose a simple either-or, either Christ is God and rightly receives maximal worship or he is not therefore to receive any is idolatry.