Saturday, April 28, 2012


Khaled Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea: the Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011. Pp. xviii, 322. ISBN 9780801031328. $39.99.

Reviewed by Benjamin de Lee, University of California, Los Angeles (

Version at BMCR home site


Khaled Anatolios's historical study of Nicaea is a thorough overview of Trinitarian debates from the fourth to fifth centuries. Anatolios considers Augustine alongside two major Greek thinkers, Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa, as well as providing a thorough background to the theological controversy which supposedly began with Arius and Alexander of Alexandria. With its careful and clear explanations, helpful chapter divisions and headings, and detailed footnotes, Retrieving Nicaea is a historical overview, an erudite scholarly study, and a useful work for both students and advanced scholars.

In the foreword, Brian Daley, after briefly surveying Trinitarian theology of the past few decades, somewhat misleadingly declares Anatolios's work to be not mere "intellectual history," but "a work of profound theology." However, theology was the intellectual history of this period, so such a statement sets up a false dichotomy. Anatolios himself in his Preface states that his aim is "to engage both historical and systematic theologians in a conversation about the enduring value of the historical development of trinitarian doctrine for its systematic exposition." In his helpful introduction he gives a detailed plan of the book with a criticism of modern "trajectories" (conveniently reduced to three) in Trinitarian theology. Anatolios finds all three lacking, and aims to understand Christian Trinitarian doctrine in the sense that the original proponents understood it. With this approach, he follows similar recent works, like that of John Behr and Lewis Ayres, both of whom he mentions in footnotes and regards as having complementary approaches. Anatolios's apology that the book is not a history is somewhat over-stated: while he does not carefully trace and analyze political and historical events in the vein of David Brakke's or Harold Drake's work, he does provide an intellectual history of the foundational doctrine of the Trinity.

The first chapter is a short background to "fourth-century Trinitarian Theology, History and Interpretation," where he explains how he will analyze these theologians who are so far from us in time and thought: "My proposal is to distinguish between theologies that spoke of the unity of the Trinity as a unity of being and those that spoke of a unity of will." (p. 30) This chapter is really a preface to chapter two, "Development of Trinitarian Doctrine," which can become somewhat abstruse, if for no other reason than the topic itself. It is a thorough description of the immediate background to and the early stages of the Arian controversy. Those who have not read the major works on the subject may find themselves a bit lost, since Anatolios does not give a great deal of attention to figures like Origen or Theodore of Mopsuestia. He does to Asterius, a figure who is not usually given such a prominent position by other scholars, mainly because his work survives only in fragments.

The third chapter is devoted exclusively to Athanasius. While the chapter is at times repetitive, Athanasius is Anatolios's particular strength.1 The development of Athanasius's thought is clearly presented in stages, so the repetitions are inevitable for the sake of clarity. Those interested can follow Anatolios's summaries without reading Athanasius's laborious prose. Still, at this stage, one wonders if anything new can be said about Athanasius, although Anatolios is not afraid to critique Athanasius's own reasoning and to attempt a fresh analysis that allows Athanasius to speak for himself. Anatolios provides more detailed studies of Athanasius in his earlier works.

The fourth chapter is devoted to Gregory of Nyssa. In many ways, this chapter is the most satisfying, perhaps because as Anatolios points out, Gregory of Nyssa has such an appeal to the modern/post-modern mindset. Anatolios's treatment of Against Eunomius is thorough (perhaps too thorough). Although Retrieving Nicaea is a solid introduction to a difficult subject, the frequent references to Basil of Caesarea in this chapter may leave the beginner who is not familiar with Basil somewhat at a loss and demonstrate the difficulty of analyzing any of the Cappadocians in isolation. Anatolios's description of Gregory's doctrine of God, as "Three-personed Goodness" is especially clear. It is at this stage that Nicene Trinitarian theology comes together, and Anatolios's work reflects this synthesis.

Still, Gregory cannot be entirely saved by Anatolios's study. At times, Anatolios's efforts to rescue Gregory from being a Christian Platonist are not entirely convincing, and the defense that three persons in one nature (three hypostases sharing one ousia) remains open to criticism from strict monotheists (and needs a clear explanation in inter-faith dialogue, a contemporary context where this topic could arise). To the outsider or non- believer, Gregory's theology does appear as three gods, and complaining that "the dialectic of apophatic and cataphatic elements . . . is so easy to distort, partly because the modern reception of them has been bedeviled by imprecise and sometimes misleading interpretive categories" (p. 229) gives the impression that Anatolios is floating up into the philosophical ether of abstraction, like Gregory himself. Gregory was and remains the philosopher's theologian. I am not convinced Anatolios has saved him from that fate.

It is an interesting juxtaposition that the next chapter is on Augustine, who happily embraced the concreteness of his native Latin after rejecting neo-Platonism with its difficult Greek abstractions. Augustine does not usually get serious consideration in studies of Nicaea. Anatolios makes a convincing case that one should consider Augustine in this context, as he made a real effort to consider Nicene Trinitarian theology in a Latin context and with somewhat different concerns, in particular, the practical implications for the believer. This chapter stands as a particularly nice essay, and anyone teaching De Trinitate will be tempted to mine it for lecture notes or to have students read it.

The conclusion comes back to the title: retrieving Nicaea. Here Anatolios offers his vision of every aspect of modern theology which Nicaea should touch today, and it is here that he seems to most approach theology and to offer a case of relevance in modern theology for his study.

Anatolios's presentation is unusual, as most scholars would consider all the Cappadocians, not just Gregory of Nyssa (although Basil of Caesarea is frequently mentioned in the chapters on Athanasius and Gregory). The major figures are covered in detail while much of the intervening narrative of Trinitarian theology is not included. This method creates a paradoxical problem: it is a great introduction for the student new to the topic, since major figures, many of whose works are available in recent English translations, are adequately covered. At the same time, one must have sufficient knowledge to fill in all the gaps, because the more minor figures and the historical narrative are not thoroughly covered. It is tempting for the historian to find Anatolios's study not sufficiently historical, but Anatolios warns in his introduction that he will not be offering a detailed historical background. Anatolios's approach, despite its shortcomings, is a way to condense a very difficult and broad topic. Anatolios's clear and systematic presentation does so admirably well.


1.   Cf. Anatolios's earlier publications Athanasius, Routledge, 2004, and Athanasius: The Coherence of his Thought, Routledge, 2008

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