Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there were quite a few major movements in twentieth century theology, from a variety of theological streams, that concerned themselves with overturning or significantly revising classical Christian theism (CCT). Influences as varied as biblical theology, apologetics, philosophy, church history, and the history of interpretation have contributed to the suspicion, revision, and rejection of CCT. These rejections, revisions, and suspicions have resulted in everything from process theism to denials or thorough revisions of, for example, simplicity and impassibility. The basic gist of objections to these and other CCT-related doctrines is that they are unbiblical and philosophically untenable. And, at bottom, that basic objection rests on the assumption that CCT developed via reflection on God through the lens of Greek philosophy rather than through the lenses God’s Word or his actions in history.

This kind of gross mis-characterization needs to stop. The early Christian theologians were just as concerned as, say, 21st century conservative evangelicals, with demonstrating that their doctrinal formulations were thoroughly biblical. The distinction between pre-modern and modern exegesis and theology is not that the former is philosophical and the latter is biblical, but between what counts as “biblical” in either period. For pre-modern interpreters, “biblical” meant considering passages in their original historical and literary context, but it also meant considering those passages in their canonical, narratival, and metaphysical context.

One example of this kind of holistic theological method is found in Maximus’ Ambiguum 7:

For it belongs to God alone to be the end and the completion and the impassible.

Maximus in this section is discussing God’s impassibility, and his foundational metaphysical principle is that, on the one hand, “Nothing that came into being is perfect in itself and complete,” and, on the other hand, “That which is perfect is uncaused . . . [and therefore] free of passions.” In the immediately prior paragraph he says this slightly differently:

. . . nothing that comes into being is its own end, since it is not self-caused. For if it were, it would be unbegotten, without beginning and unmoved since it has nothing toward which it can be moved in any way. For what is self-caused transcends what has come into being, because it exists for the sake of nothing [other than itself].

The logic here is simple – Anything that has a prior cause (namely creation) has a purpose – “an end” or “telos” to use Maximus’ language. And because it has an end, which it has not already reached, it moves, or is passible, until it reaches that end. That which is unmade (namely God) is necessarily immovable since it is the end in itself. To put it simply, God has no greater end to move toward. This is why Augustine can famously say, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee” – he’s drawing on impassibility. God is immovable because he is uncaused and therefore the true end, or goal, toward which all creatures are designed to move. There is no greater goal toward which he moves. Impassibility is thus directly related to telos – God is already complete, has no telos (movement towards completion), and therefore is without movement (passions).

All that may not sound very “biblical” since I have yet to provide a prooftext or even a citation. But Maximus’ logic here is filled with biblical quotations, citations, and allusions. After the second block quote above, Maximus goes on to quote, cite, or allude to Gen. 2:9, 17; Deut. 12:9; Ps. 16:15; Ps. 42:2; Phil. 3:11; Heb. 4:10; and Heb. 11:39. The point in all of these texts is that human beings are created to move toward their rest, namely rest in God. And then the kicker passage comes with his citation of Matt 11:28 – “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Christ himself, as God incarnate, is the telos, the goal, the rest toward which all creatures move. And while Jesus in his human nature experiences sleep, hunger, temptation, and death, Maximus here draws on the classic hermeneutical move of early Christian writers, partitive exegesis. (Augustine calls this the “form of a servant” / “form of God” distinction.)

We could also go on to talk about how, for Maximus, Jesus is not only the center of Scripture but also the center of the universe (again, he backs this up repeatedly with biblical citations). It’s an important point in understanding why Maximus ends with Matt. 11:28 and not, say, OT texts that talk about YHWH as Israel’s rest. Nevertheless, the point here is merely that before evangelicals (including myself) knock the Great Tradition, either hermeneutically or theologically, we should recognize that in the last half century or so our own tradition is largely untrained in the history of interpretation and historical theology. There is a thoroughly biblical, metaphysical logic behind classical Christian theism and pre-Enlightenment Christian interpretation that should be understood on its own terms before we consider rejecting it. That means returning ad fontes, reading primary sources in full and not just proof-texting them, and doing the hard work of understanding how our own hermeneutical assumptions differ from theirs.


6 thoughts on “Early Christian Interpretation and Classical Christian Theism

  1. Pingback: Reading God: Retrieving Classical Theism as orthodoxy, and The Role of Theologia Naturalis – The Evangelical Calvinist

  2. Great post. By the way, have you ever read Edward Leigh’s Body of Divinity? He takes a chapter in it to recommend the best commentaries on each book of the Bible. You should check it out some time (it’s available on prdl.org).

  3. I agree. We should do the hard work to understand any historical Christian interpretation on its own terms before we can begin to criticize it. Maybe you have specific people in mind with regard to this post. But do you think it is too strong Matt to say only those who have been trained in the history of interpretation, historical theology, have thoroughly read the primary source material in full, can deviate from CCT…?

  4. Clearly. But the point of your article here, If I am understanding you correctly, is there is a need for intellectual due diligence when criticizing CCT, That before anyone considers rejecting it, we have an academic responsibility to do x,y,z. And so what I guess I’m asking is what conditions would someone have to fulfill for them -at the end of the day- to deviate from CCT, and still be intellectually responsible in your mind?

    It seemed like you were suggesting that only trained scholars with expertise in the specific fields of Historical Theology, History of Interpretation, and who have effectively navigated all the primary texts “in full” are the only ones with the option to consider deviating from CCT. And I just got the sense there are probably only a couple hundred people in the world who would have those qualifications to then even consider an alternative view and still be intellectually responsible in your mind. I just wondered if that was too strong.

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