The Way to Nicea

Written by Bernard Lonergan Reviewed By John Gerstner

This volume is important for what it unfolds of the Nicene trinitarian dialectical development and what it reveals of Lonergan himself. In a sense it is an autobiography written in terms of a historical process seventeen centuries earlier. If one understands Lonergan’s account of the christological syntheses of the first three centuries one understands the author’s own methodology. One reviewer has said of Perry Miller’s Edwardsthat it tells more about Miller than Edwards, but a parallel could never be drawn with Lonergan’s Nicea. It is a solid, meticulous, historical study, although Lonergan’s philosophic thinking is never absent.

In fact, Lonergan presents his theory of historic development before the development itself. There can be no doubt that the theory affects the account somewhat and that our writer sees motifs present in certain movements that only the eye of faith could detect. But this is surprisingly minimal in a thinker of such philosophical and theological powers.

What are the aspects of dogmatic development which our Jesuit theologian presents as part of his lectures on the Trinity at the Gregorian University in 1964 and which Conn O’Donovan has translated from the Latin and introduced so fully and informatively? He elucidates four: objective, subjective, evaluative and hermeneutic. The objective is the gospel data itself which is presented to the total man as an undifferentiated whole. When the theologian considers the intellectual or dogmatic part of this we have the subjective aspect. Lonergan evaluates this focusing positively, for dogmas ‘render differentiated consciousness religious’. The hermeneutic aspect is important because, it is admitted, the view one holds about development will influence the investigation itself, for one’s philosophy precedes his theology.

After this orientation lecture we find a fascinating, brief, comprehensive, incisive summary of the ante-Nicene and Nicene debates from the Judaeo-Christian, gnostic, Sabellian, subordinationist through various Nicene parties. These chapters show Lonergan to be as careful and erudite a scholar as he is profound thinker. Finding the ultimate post-Nicene development which tended to clarify and substantiate Athanasius’s rule that ‘what is said of the Father is also to be said of the Son, except that the Son is Son, and not Father’ to be true Catholic dogma, Lonergan rests his case. Incidentally he shows that though hellenistic thinking entered into the dogmatic discussion the end result was making explicit what was already implicit in the undifferentiated revelation of Scripture.

Our criticisms are few and utterly minor, such as questioning whether it is proven that Tertullian thought of emission of substance as somehow ‘material’, and not probing more deeply Origen’s referring to the Son as creature while maintaining other descriptions that would preclude that heresy. Furthermore, I do not think that the gospel is quite as implicit (merely) as Lonergan supposes.

John Gerstner

Pittsburg Theological Seminary, Pennsylvania