Monday, July 19, 2004

My Two Cents on the Baptisms of Arians

Random Catholic, in comment to my blog on baptism immediately below, asks as follows:
Wurt? Arian baptisms were valid? From New Advent:
"Using Greek terms, (Arianism) denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial (homoousios) with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity."
How is baptizing in the name of such a god not a defect of intent? Watchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?
I think Pope St. Siricius' decision should be set in its proper context. First, while modern writers have concise summaries of Arianism, and while we can easily compare the fruits of that scholarship with the equally-concise definitive teaching of the Church, things at the time could be rather less clear. This is a case in which we must "rewind" our understanding and put ourselves in the shoes of an ordinary Christian living without the benefit of Catechisms, the fully-developed Magisterium which produces them -- or even (perhaps) the Council of Nicea itself, the magisterial act by which pure Arianism was declared heresy in such a way as to bind all Christian consciences.

I say "pure" Arianism because it was a slippery doctrine, its tendrils variously rooted in the subtleties of Platonic and Aristotelian metaphysics as well as equally-subtle misunderstandings of those metaphysics. It can be very difficult to pin down all those variations, quasi-departures, and sub-deviations. Even the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia article you quote from NewAdvent is forced to hedge his evaulations with words that indicate he’s summarizing, construing, and placing various perspectives on Arian theology as necessary to define its error. For example, the sentence you quote is preceded by a summary in which the author accounts for the "drift" and tenor of Arian ideas, qualifying his analysis with the statement that the sentence is the "genuine" doctrine of Arius. Even then, he must conclude by saying these heretical tenets were held by the "Arian sectaries who reasoned logically." In short, the author’s summary is limited by the fact that Arians made up their theology as they went along, modifying and altering it frequently to suit challenges of opponents and the perceived necessities of its own terms. In so doing, Arianism developed any number of distinguishable sub-schools and movements whose ideas may or may not have directly mimicked the proposition so bluntly summarized and put into the mouths of the "Arian sectaries who reasoned logically." If there were Arians who reasoned logically, surely there were Arians who reasoned illogically, nonsensically maintaining divnity in Jesus despite the logical consequences of their initial views which are so readily and easily identified after the time. Cardinal Newman notes that this is the way of all development of doctrine -- true and false doctrine. He does not say that doctrine can be known to be true or false depending simply on whether it develops -- heresy and orthodoxy both develop themselves according to the typical and universal conditions of debate, discussion, uncertainty, deduction, and induction which are involved in human activity. Newman resorts to other criteria than the fact of "development" to prove that one or another strain of Christian thinking is inauthentic, a "false" development as opposed to a true development. Consequently, the Pope’s ruling on the validity of Arian baptism cannot be read as a straightforward answer to the question: "Can a valid baptism deny the binding teaching of the Church on the godhood of Jesus Christ." The state of Arian and orthodoxy thinking was much more nuanced, complicated, and diverse for that to stand as a summary of the issue the Pope faced.

The author whose article you quoted goes on, almost immediately, to distinguish the bulk of what can be called "Arianism" from the stark tenet he derives for the "sectaries who reasoned logically."
But a view so unlike tradition found little favour; it required softening or palliation, even at the cost of logic; and the school which supplanted Arianism form an early date affirmed the likeness, either without adjunct, or in all things, or in substance, of the Son to the Father, while denying His co-equal dignity and co-eternal existence. . . . They approached, in strict argument, to the heretical extreme; but many of them held the orthodox faith, however inconsistently; their difficulties turned upon language or local prejudice, and no small number submitted at length to Catholic teaching. The[y] attempted for years to invent a compromise between irreconcilable views, and their shifting creeds, tumultuous councils, and worldly devices tell us how mixed and motley a crowd was collected under their banner. The point to be kept in remembrance is that, while they affirmed the Word of God to be everlasting, they imagined Him as having become the Son to create the worlds and redeem mankind. Among the ante-Nicene writers, a certain ambiguity of expression may be detected, outside the school of Alexandria, touching this last head of doctrine.
Pope St. Siricius wrote his decree in 385 A.D., some sixty years after the Council of Nicea. Even the author of the Catholic Encyclopedia allows that Arianism became watered down considerably almost immediately after its "founding." After Nicea, when the divinity of Jesus Christ was infallibly proclaimed, Arianism had taken the form described by the second quotation -- a motley collection of fuddle-headed thinkers who insisted on the divinity of Jesus Christ but who disputed the full measure of Christian orthodoxy either because of subtle differences in theological/philosophical terminology or local prejudices, men and women who both maintained and denied the teaching of Nicea simultaneously via confused lines of thought and self-contradictory formulae. Even orthodox Christians continued to be plagued by difficulties in Christological theology. Nicea did not end dispute about what it means to say that Jesus Christ was God and man; several more bitter and vituperative controversies ocurred before councils at Ephesus and Chalcedon the main outlines of our Christology were settled.

The situation Pope Siricius faced, therefore, was not a pat, cut-and-dried question well and easily settled by more than a thousand years of research and magisterial development. It was a fluid and confused situation populated by all the kinds of error one sees in the Church today on other issues. I know of Catholics who are baptized and confirmed in RCIA who believe, quite wrongly, that contraception is a matter of personal choice. Yet they profess, as part of the rite, that they hold and believe everything the Church teaches and believes. Do they have a defect of intent, or a defect in understanding about what that intention requires? They sincerely and genuinely believe that Jesus Christ established and founded the Roman Catholic Church and made the Bishop of Rome the visible head of that Church on earth. They sincerely and genuinely believe that they must believe what the Roman Catholic Church teaches and believes. But they have been betrayed by false or stupid teachers into not realizing that their intention -- to believe in communion with the Pope -- requires them to condemn and eschew contraception. Their baptisms are valid, even though their faith is materially heretical. So, I think, with the Arians living sixty years after Nicea. Few, if any, of them were hard, "logically-reasoning" Arians who flatly and completely denied the redeeming divinity of our Lord. They had been betrayed by false or stupid teachers into not realizing that their belief in that divinity demanded and required other beliefs about Him as well.

In this regard it’s worth noting that baptism, like all the sacraments, is less of a reward than an act of condescending mercy -- we do not receive communion or baptism because we are right-acting, decent, and doctrinally-sound folks. Even if we are all those things, and we should strive to be so, we’re still unworthy of the divine communion that occurs in the Mass, of the absolving mercy that is expressed in Baptism. We have all those wonderful things not because we’re "ready" to have them, but because God gives them to us despite our unreadiness. God absolves me today in the confessional, even though He knows I will sin next week. He grants me a proleptic share in the life of the Trinity this Sunday even though He knows that I have very sloppy, stupid and incorrect beliefs about this or that subject of dogmatic theology. This isn’t an argument for valuing indifferentism or sloth of conscience; it’s meant to point out that all Christian life is essentially a witness to God’s sovereignty and our enduring need for His undeserved mercy. Even the Incarnation whose nature was disputed by the Arians and the others was an act of undeserved condescencion by God. As He reaches out to us in our sins, overcoming them, undoing their presence in our souls, so He also reaches out to us in our foibles, stupidies, and obstinacies, undoing their presence in our minds. In His time, of course, which is oddly incongruent with our expectations. We cannot grant baptism in the name of the Trinity to someone who doesn’t believe the fullness of the Gospel teaching on the Trinity. We cannot grant it even if we know that baptism in the name of that same Trinity will be efficiacious despite his positive ignorance. But this is as much a part of our own conscientious duty to honor God as we know Him as it is a part of the candidate’s formation and eligibility for the sacrament. If God has suffered some of His children to be claimed for the Trinity by heretical ministers (Arian baptisms followed the Trinitarian formula), our duty to approve or disapprove of the act has been vacated by circumstances not of our making. It only remains for us to follow the commandment that baptism, however stupid or ill-formed a recipient may be as regarding the more advanced realms of human theological knowledge about the Nicene meaning of homoousion, admits him into membership in the Church. Pope St. Siricius was doing no more than following this law, recapitulated some 900 years later by St. Thomas: "[R]ight faith is not necessary in the one baptized any more than in the one who baptizes: provided the other conditions are fulfilled which are essential to the sacrament. For the sacrament is not perfected by the righteousness of the minister or of the recipient of Baptism, but by the power of God." Summa, III, a. 68, q. 8.

Homoousion was the word chosen by the Nicene fathers to express the unity of Son and Father. A further glimpse of the theological quagmire of orthodoxy’s relationship with Arians and Semi-Arians can be gained by looking up the word in the Catholic Encyclopedia:
(Gr. homoousion - from homos, same, and ousia, essence; Lat. consubstantialem, of one essence or substance), the word used by the Council of Nicaea (325) to express the Divinity of Christ. Arius had taught that the Son, being, in the language of Philo, the Intermediator between God and the world, was not eternal, and therefore not of the Divine substance, but a creature brought forth by the free will of God. (See ARIANISM) Homoousion was indeed used by philosophical writers to signify "of the same or similar substance"; but as the unity of the Divine nature wasn't questioned, the word carried the fuller meaning: "of one and the same substance". However, not only is homos ambiguous; the word ousia itself was often taken as equivalent to hypostasis (person), as apparently is the case in the anathema attached to the Nicene Symbol. And therefore the affirmation of the identity of nature might be taken in the heretical sense of the Sabellians, who denied the distinction of person. It was only after many years of controversy that the two words acquired their distinct meanings, and the orthodox were able to describe the Trinity as one in ousia and three in hypostasis or persona. Previously to the Council of Nicaea, Tertullian had already used the Latin equivalent of Homoousion, conceding to Praxeas the Sabellian that the Father and the Son were unius substantiae, of one substance, but adding duarum personarum, of two persons (Adv. Prax., xiii). And Dionysius of Alexandria used the actual word in a letter to Dionysius of Rome (Athan., "De dec. Syn. Nic.", xxv, 26) and again in his letter to Paul of Samosata. On the other hand, Origen, who is, however, inconsistent in his vocabulary, expressed the anti-Sabellian sense of Dionysius of Alexandria by calling the Son "Heteroousion". The question was brought into discussion by the Council of Antioch (264-272); and the Fathers seem to have rejected Homoousion, even going so far as to propose the phrase heteras ousias, that is, Heteroousion, "of other or different ousia". Athanasius and Basil give as the reason for this rejection of Homoousion the fact that the Sabellian Paul of Samosata took it to mean "of the same of similar substance". But Hilary says that Paul himself admitted it in the Sabellian sense "of the same substance or person", and thus compelled the council to allow him the prescriptive right to the expression. Now, if we may take Hilary's explanation, it is obvious that when, half a century afterwards, Arius denied the Son to be of the Divine ousia or substance, the situation was exactly reversed. Homoousion directly contradicted the heretic. In the conflicts which ensued, the extreme Arians persisted in the Heteroousion Symbol. But the Semi-Arians were more moderate, and consequently more plausible, in their Homoiousion (of like substance). When one considers how the four creeds formulated at Antioch (341) by the Semi-Arians approached the Nicene Creed as nearly as possible without the actual word Homoousion, there may be a temptation to think that the question was one of words only; and the Councils of Rimini and Seleucia (359) may seem to have been well advised in their conciliatory formula "that the Son was like the Father in all things, according to the Holy Writ". But this very formula was forced from the Fathers by the Emperor Constantius; and the force and fraud which the Semi-Arians used throughout the greater part of the fourth century, are proof sufficient that the dispute was not merely verbal. The dogma of the Trinity was at stake, and Homoousion proved itself to be in the words of Epiphanius "the bond of faith", or, according to the expression of Marius Victorinus, "the rampart and wall of orthodoxy." (See ARIANISM; TRINITY.)
Got that? Jesus is either homoousion with the Father or not, depending on the metaphysical context one brings to the words homos and ousia -- some of those contexts and interpretations are heretical, some of them are orthodox. Now we can say, rightly I think, that it would be a very cruel God who would give us a faith to which questions like this is very important without giving us a Church who could answer them infallibly. But we can also say, with equal rightness, that God would be very cruel to give us a faith which depended on our ability to answer all these questions correctly on our own. That’s part of the mercy of Catholicism’s teaching on the sacraments; they operate by their own working, both de jure and de facto, without our having to become dogmatically perfect.

This permissible difference between orthodoxy and an imperfect conception of it is implied by the very teaching that, in order to be valid, the minister of the sacrament must have the intention of doing what the Church does. Christ is the final minister of all the sacraments to everyone; His priests and (in the case of Baptism) lay disciples minister these sacraments as His servants. (See, e.g. Summa, III, a. 64, q. 1). Now, consider the servant whose master tells him to store hay in a loft against the coming winter. If the servant were better educated, more quick of wit, he would know that his master does not wish him to pick up each straw individually and carry it to the loft. Nor would the servant entertain all sorts of silly ideas given to him by equally uneducated (or even wicked) fellow-workers about how each straw must, upon arriving in the loft, be sorted and stacked with other straws according to length. And he would not have listened to their silly or malicious stories about how the hay will be used in the winter time to make gold cloth. But the servant doesn’t know all this -- he’s ignorant, misinformed, and not particularly acute to begin with -- and so he spends the next fifty days carrying straws up into the loft and sorting them by length. Yet with all this stupidity, error, and departure from the truth, the servant still intends to do what his master is doing -- getting the hay into the loft to be used in the coming winter. So with the sacrament of baptism (or all the sacraments, in their various ways); if the minister knows that he is to baptize with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, in order to bring a child into unity with God and His Church, then he has the intention of doing what the Church does even if he has really bad ideas about some of the particulars which follow the event.

If orthodoxy were required, then the formula would be quite different. It would be said that in order for a sacrament to be valid, the minister must act in unity of belief and doctrine with the Church, and that would be Donatism by another name with all its attendant difficulties. There was a time when Dominicans hotly disagreed with the idea of Mary’s Immaculate Conception -- how could their baptisms have been valid, if the constant and orthodox faith of Christ’s bride, expressed in Ineffabilis Deus, was otherwise? They couldn’t have been, unless we adopted a definition of "unity with the Church’s doctrine" that very closely mirrored the actual requirement and its ability to tolerate some ministerial deviation from doctrinal purity. So I don’t think Pope St. Siricius dropped the ball on this one. I think he ended up saying what St. Thomas said 900 years later. And who can be a heretic if he says what St. Thomas says? :))

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