The Holy Spirit as Love and Gift

In his fantastic new book, Engaging the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Matthew Levering argues that “the Holy Spirit should be praised and contemplated under proper names ‘Love’ and ‘Gift,’ with respect both to his intra-trinitarian identity and to his historical work in Jesus Christ and the church” (2). This idea is nothing new, as Levering reminds us — these names are used by Hilary of Poitiers and Augustine.

While there is much to be said about his argument — and he acknowledges and engages some pushbacks that I would have about the mystery of trinitarian naming and the elevation of certain aspects over others — I found interesting Levering’s assertion that Thomas Aquinas’s definitions and explanations of trinitarian processions and missions help his case:

What Aquinas provides is a unified and profound arrangement of trinitarian processions and missions, the virtues and gifts of the Spirit, habitual grace and the gratuitous graces, and Jesus’s sinless humanity and supreme charity on the cross. In Aquinas, Jesus’s intimate knowledge of the Father, his miracle working, and his prophetic wisdom are bound together with his supreme charity through the invisible mission of the Holy Spirit, who is Love and Gift in person. … To look upon Christ and the Spirit in this way, of course, requires attending to the Spirit’s upbuilding of the “body of Christ” (1 Cor. 12:27), the church, which occurs preeminently in “the higher gifts” and in the “still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31) that is love. (207-08)

Space precludes me from explaining his entire argument (get the book and read it for yourself), but regardless of how one views trinitarian naming, Levering’s assertion that “The Spirit’s mission is always ordered to those whom Jesus came to redeem, and thus to the kingdom of God” (198) pushes us to think about the fittedness for elevating these aspects of the Spirit’s role and mission.

A Primer on Arius and His Heresy

Arius is a major figure in church history, and rightfully so—it was his theology that led to one of the most defining moments in the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. Largely thanks to Arius, the First Council of Nicaea in AD 325 was called to clarify his error about the divinity of the Son of God. This landmark council led to the rejection of Arianism and the first step toward solidifying the Trinitarian doctrine all orthodox Christians now affirm.

In David Wilhite’s new book, The Gospel According to the Heretics, he lays out the major views and situations surrounding the major heretics/heresies of the early church. In regards to Arius, we actually know very little. Most of our information about him and his theology is found in the works of his opponents. Wilhite’s chapter on Arius (pp. 105-128) helpfully distills what we know about him and his teaching:

Biography and Background

  • He was reportedly a tall man.
  • His teachings were often delivered in song, using plain language to convert commoners to his views. This does not mean, however, that his theology was not philosophically rigorous. Indeed, it was.
  • His teachings had spread far and wide, especially in the East.
  • In AD 318, an old man to this point, he heard Alexander describe the Trinity in a sermon, and took exception to both the content of his teachings and the language he deemed as “too philosophical.” This launched his public dispute with the proto-orthodox leaders.
  • Word of his dispute spread to Emperor Constantine, who called together the meeting in Nicaea to hash out the debate and come to a consensus.
  • He was supposedly slapped across the face by Saint Nicholas at the council meeting, but this is largely considered dubious by historians. This should not stop us from sharing this awesome meme.

Theology

Arius’s views were rather straightforward:

  • Jesus preexisted as the Son of God, but was subordinate to the Father, as any son is to his father.
  • The Son must have been created at some point (since he was begotten), and therefore lesser than the uncreated and eternal Father.
  • In trying to hold to monotheism without denying the Son’s divinity, he argued that Jesus is either sort of God or a second God. This led to the Nicaean distinction between homoiousios (the Father and Son share a similar substance—Arius) and homoousios (they share the same substance—orthodox Trinitarians).
  • He argued that the Trinitarians dabbled in modalism, because that was the only logical explanation for their insistence that there is one God, and yet the Son can be equal with him.
  • He also charged Trinitarians with overly allegorizing the Scriptures, instead of taking the “plain meaning” of the texts, which make clear that the Son is subordinate to the Father.

The Trinity is a mystery to us in many ways, but Scripture and tradition give us language and concepts that allow us to affirm the doctrine. Though Arius was (rightly) condemned as a heretic at Nicaea, we should take our cue from him in working diligently to understand and clarify the doctrine of God. If our doctrine of God falters, everything else begins to falter with it. We saw that with Arius, and we see it still today.

Where Are All the Patristics Scholars in Evangelicalism?

During my graduate work at Criswell College, I was fortunate to have a systematic theology professor who had studied patristic theology in his doctoral work, and a patristic theology professor who majored in the discipline and wrote his (now published) dissertation on early Christian exegesis and Irenaeus. I was more spoiled at the time than I realized.

As a Ph.D. student in theology, I’m spending more time than ever reading the patristics, and I’ve begun to realize how little definitive work on patristic theology has been done by evangelicals. Aside from a few notable contributions by evangelicals, the field is mostly dominated by Catholic theologians and the occasional non-evangelical Protestant. (I do think, however, that this is going to change. Evangelical theologians and pastors in my generation seem to care more than ever about patristic retrieval.)

On Twitter last year, Seumas Macdonald tweeted a short thread with some thoughts on why there’s been a dearth of evangelicals working in patristics. That thread is now no longer available, but he wrote a blogpost outlining many of the same thoughts. To summarize the five-tweet thread, Macdonald made the following points:

  1. Some evangelicals act as though church history started with the Reformation.
  2. As such, evangelicals short-sightedly read earlier church history through a Reformation lens.
  3. Most evangelical seminary tracks contain only one early church history course, and there’s likely not a patristic specialist there to teach it.
  4. Evangelicalism, thus, is caught in a vicious cycle of marginalizing patristic theology and thus marginalizes those who specialize in the field.
  5. In worst cases, evangelicals who focus on or fall in love with patristic theology end up leaving evangelicalism for more (perceived) friendly denominational/theological/ecclesiological pastures.

There’s so much more to be said, for sure, but Macdonald is onto something here. I remember during my graduate program, many of the undergrads moved from Baptist or other evangelical churches to Catholic or non-evangelical high church traditions. They did this, largely, because they felt as though evangelicalism isn’t tied to the tradition of the church, and so they were unable to connect with Christians of the past through evangelical ecclesial structures (or lack thereof).

I can’t say I blame them. I was tempted at times myself. But—sorry for the shameless plug—but this is precisely why we founded the Center for Baptist Renewal. The Baptist tradition and other similar evangelical groups are not—or at least should not be—disconnected from the great Christian tradition. I’m thankful, however, that some Baptists are trying to retrieve the Tradition. And personally, I’d rather be a catalyst from within than a critic from without.

The “allegorical” readings of the Patristic Fathers, the Catholic flavor of the first thousand or so years of church history, etc. are not reasons to abandon pre-Reformation theology. And yet, so many evangelicals immediately bristle at this notion on the principle that we should care more about the five solae of the Reformation. These five truths recovered the gospel in many minds. I recently wrote a study on the five solae, so I understand this sentiment and greatly appreciate the correctives that came with it. The Reformation was an act of God—I truly believe that—but we should consider two things.

1. Primarily, we should be willing to learn from those in the midst of the expansion, canonization, and creedal development of Christian orthodoxy. If we’re truly orthodox Christians, then we affirm major creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. The affirmations forged and fought for in these creeds are essential to Christian faith and practice, and yet we take for granted the time and context in which these theological foundations were laid. We act as though we can take the creeds and leave everything else; however, the creeds didn’t happen in a vacuum.

2. Further, we shouldn’t forget that the Reformers relied heavily on the early church, especially the work of Augustine. Not even the Reformers cut themselves off from the great tradition. It’s a common joke to say that all of Western theology is a footnote to Augustine, but it’s especially true of the Reformation.

Denominations are fine, even important at times. They help us build accountability, missional partnerships, and communal identity. But we can’t become so polarized and dichotomized within our denominations that we fence ourselves off from the bloodline of Christianity—the theological heritage of two millennia of Christian thought. Timothy George said it well:

I believe in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do not advance the cause of Christian unity by abandoning our biblical understanding of the church. But how do we hold these together? Three things: First, recognize the centrality of Jesus Christ. The closer we come to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another as brothers and sisters in him. Second, study the Bible together. The Bible belongs to the whole people of God, not just to one denomination or church tradition. We can clarify differences and find a deeper unity by going deeper into the Scriptures. Third, prayer. Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father (John 17:21) that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. We can join our prayer to the prayer of Jesus and in so doing become a part of its fulfillment.

May we continue to recover and retrieve pre-Reformation theology and tradition, keeping our denominational distinctiveness without sacrificing our Christian theological heritage.


Note: If this post looks familiar, it’s because a version of it originally appeared at my old Patheos blog.

When God the Son Became Like Us

Perhaps the most beautiful hymn in Scripture is not found in the Psalms, but in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Adopt the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus,

who, existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited. Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross. For this reason God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow — in heaven and on earth and under the earth — and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
(Phil. 2:5-11, CSB)

This Christmas, we will sing hymns about Immanuel, “God with us.” We will sing of the virgin birth, the nativity scene, and the wise men. We will remember his perfect life and praise him for his sacrificial death. We know that his becoming a man was crucial for our salvation, and we’ll rightly worship him for the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. But the passage above—commonly called the “Christ hymn”—gives us a look at what it really means for God to be with us.

As Christians, we affirm the Trinity, and thus we affirm the divinity of God the Son. Jesus was no mere man, we know that. But Paul explains the depths of this truth to the Philippians. He tells them that Christ existed “in the form of God” and yet “did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited.” Instead, “he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity.” As the God-man, he didn’t take advantage of his God-ness; rather, “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death — even to death on a cross.”

In short, God the Son became a Son of Adam. Christ becoming obedient in the incarnation is crucial because God became man, a New Adam, to undo the curse of Adam that we all inherit (Rom. 5:12:-21). Adam’s sin touches every atom of creation and poisons us in a way that would make cyanide blush. We’re not obedient, no matter how hard we try. But the Son of God’s fleshly subjection and obedience to God the Father in the incarnation secures for us the subjection and obedience we reject in our flesh. The Son was not already in subjection to the Father, but rather became a servant in love.

The incarnation itself was a loving sacrifice—not merely because Christ died for us, but because he put himself in the position to die in the first place. As Hebrews 12 tells us, he went to the cross with joy. He could’ve called “twelve legions of angels” to help him escape arrest or to pull him down off the cross (Matt. 26:53), but he didn’t. As God, he has the power to still the waves and cast out demons—no piece of Roman tree could stop him. He doesn’t lay down his life when a Roman executor tells him to—he does so when he wants to (John 10:18). And he did just that, with joy.

God the Son didn’t simply carry eternal obedience with him into the world. He is an eternal Son, but he was not an eternal servant. He holds the same authority and power as the Father, because both are eternally God. He was sent into the world not because he’s been God’s servant for eternity, but because the triune God is not at odds with himself. The Father, Son, and Spirit are always in one accord. And their inseparable will is simple: to make all things new and to unbreak what Adam and Eve broke. So, in love, he became obedient to the Father, doing nothing apart from him (John 5:19-24).

Praise Jesus, Immanuel, for his truly indescribable grace. Lift your eyes to his throne. But remember that Christ left that throne to become something he’d never been, an obedient and perfect flesh-and-blood human being, because you and I are disobedient and imperfect people. God the Son for the first time experienced his own Father’s wrath, felt the excruciating pain of nails driven into his hands and feet, and even spent three days in a grave—not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-17).

Stages of Development in Early Trinitarian Theology

The first chapter of my dissertation deals with the usefulness of Revelation for Trinitarian theology, with some of the major Church Fathers as part of my justification. So, over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading the early church’s use of the Book of Revelation in their discussions on the divinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As I’ve been working through the development of early Trinitarianism, I’ve identified what I consider three stages of development:

1. Incipient Trinitarianism (ca. AD 30-96)

This stage of Trinitarianism is the most infantile, basic, and messy. This stage happened between the resurrection of Jesus and the end of the writings of the biblical canon. In the case of John or Paul, for example, the language for the Trinitarian persons is not systematized or always terminologically consistent. However, the biblical writers clearly understood that their view of monotheism needed to be reimagined in light of Jesus’s resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit. This can be seen in biblical authors’ tying Jesus and the Spirit to the identity of YHWH in the OT through titles, exegesis of passages, doxologies, and logical explanations. See, for example, John 1:1-14; 1 Cor 8:6; 1 Pet 1:2; Rev 1:4-18.

2. Proto-Trinitarianism (ca. AD 96-325)

This stage of Trinitarianism refers to the post-biblical era which stood as a precursor to the Nicene/Nicene-Constantinopolitan creeds. This type of Trinitarianism begins to deal with the ingredients provided by biblical-canonical data. Similar to Incipient Trinitarianism, this is not a fully systematized doctrine of the Trinity, but it is more advanced because writers in the period began to grapple with the ideas of ontology and economy in God’s being. For example, Irenaeus and Origen’s theologies have hints of Trinitarianism, but they’re especially not precise in how God is both one in essence and three in personhood.

3. Nicene-Constantinopolitan Trinitarianism (ca. AD 325-381)

This stage of Trinitarianism is the fully systematized, orthodox version that we confess today. Given the development and diversity of early Christian theologies of the Father, Son, and Spirit, these councils/creeds gave precise language to the biblical data in a way that preserved orthodoxy for the future of the church and weeded out the philosophical hoop-jumping of early heretics.

In an article I published with the Criswell Theological Review, I conflated the terms “incipient” and “proto-” (among other things I’d like to change, but such is publishing life). I like this taxonomy better, given the standard definitions of the terms. This could change one day, too, but this type of framing seems to be a helpful way to categorize the stages of early Trinitarianism.[1]

[1] Michael Bird uses a similar taxonomy, though he applies both the “incipient” and “proto-“ categories to biblical texts in order to demonstrate a level of diversity within the biblical data itself; Cf. Michael F. Bird, Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2015), 106-13.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2017​

It’s become a somewhat annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. But people love books lists as they consider last-second Christmas gifts or are looking for ways to spend their Amazon gift cards.

There are a few reasons why I’ve compiled this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good.

In no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2017. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog.

Hengel Son of GodThe Son of God by Martin Hengel

Published in 1975, this book was one of many in which Hengel dismantled and reconstructed Christological debates in the mid-20th century, arguing that Christians believed in the divinity of Christ very early on. In this book, Hengel explains the role the title “Son of God” played in that early development of divine Christology. Only coming in at around 100 pages, Hengel still does some significant Christological heavy lifting.

Way of the Dragon StrobelThe Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel

Of all the books I read this year, this one was the most impactful on me personally. It proved to be the final straw that broke my social media camel’s back. I deleted all my social media accounts soon after finishing it.

Through biblical exegesis, personal reflections, and interviews with men like J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson, Goggin and Strobel lay out the case for a view of ministry and leadership (and indeed, life) that resembles the way of the Lamb—generosity, self-sacrifice, wisdom in speaking truth, love, etc. Too often, we fall into the way of the dragon (Satan himself)—selfishness, pride, vitriol, hate, etc. And where I saw myself falling into the way of the dragon the most was on social media and the struggle of “platform.”

On God and Christ NazianzusOn God and Christ by St. Gregory of Nazianzus

I’ve read this book several times, and reading it again in 2017 reminded me of its beauty. Simply put, it is one of the most important books (originally a set of sermons) in the history of the Christian church due to its formative impact on Trinitarian theology and Christology. If the Trinity debate made you scratch your head or piqued your interest in the subject, this is a must-read. We’d all do well, actually, to read the Fathers on the Trinity before we get too far down the Trinitarian road.

Sojourners and Strangers AllisonSojourners and Strangers by Gregg Allison

Over the past year, I’ve been in the eldership process at my local church. Since it’s been nearly two years since I served in a church staff position and about five years since I was a pastor, I decided to read this book over the summer to brush up on my ecclesiology and to solidify (or challenge) some of my core beliefs. I was not disappointed. Allison masterfully deals with every topic in ecclesiology—from how theology proper trickles down, to the qualifications of elders and deacons, to the sacraments/ordinances, and much more—without avoiding thorny issues or over-simplifying complex matters. And though it is an ecclesiological tour de force, it’s written accessibly and from a pastoral heart.

Tyndale House Greek NTThe Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House

I received a copy of this only a few weeks ago, but I love it more than I thought I would. Obviously, I’ve not read the entire NT in Greek in the past few weeks, but I’ve found this edition to be my go-to for casual reading or reference since the day I cracked it open.

It’s simplified—almost like a Greek “reader’s Bible”—but still contains basic textual notes. It’s not something I’m using in my doctoral work (it’s not built for that level of analysis), but it’s a perfect on-the-go Greek NT for someone like me, who needs as many practice reps in Greek as he can get!

 

 

Racism Is Hell on Earth

The recent scenes in Charlottesville, Shelbyville, and my hometown of Murfreesboro were examples of real-life, in-your-face hell on earth. As white supremacists marched down the streets with Confederate and Nazi flags, screaming racial slurs and hailing Hitler, we saw the antithesis of heaven’s demography:

You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slaughtered,
and you purchased people
for God by your blood
from every tribe and language
and people and nation.
You made them a kingdom
and priests to our God,
and they will reign on the earth. (Rev. 5:9-10)

The tree of life was on each side of the river, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree are for healing the nations, and there will no longer be any curse. (Rev. 22:2-3)

This gathering of nations—from the Greek root word ἔθνος, where we get the word “ethnicity”—is what heaven looks like now, and gives a glimpse New Jerusalem’s eternal population. Eternity will not be white faces marching to destroy colors through the Nazi flag of death. Instead, it will be faces from every single hue being healed by the tree of life. Jesus’s blood has redeemed people from every ethnicity, and every ethnicity is and will be represented in God’s kingdom. In terms of race and culture and nationality, diversity is heavenly; uniformity is hellish.

But this raises the most important question: what should we do about it?

On the one hand, the most important thing has already been done. Ephesians 2 says that God is right now destroying racial and ethnic division through the cross. White supremacists are not original. We’ve seen this sort of evil and hatred throughout American history and the histories of nations throughout the world. They fancy themselves as revolutionaries and heroes, but they are stale, generic villains. The arc of history bends away from them. Their legacy will be summed up in one word: defeat.

On the other hand, this has massive implications for Christians. Matthew 28:18-20 says that we’re called to make disciples of all nations. I used to think of this as merely a call to “evangelism”—telling lost people about Jesus. However, it has become more and more clear to me that this also must be paired with 2 Corinthians 5:11-21: Christians are ministers of reconciliation. This ministry has countless implications, but a clear implication is that making disciples of all nations means breaking down walls of racial and cultural divisions.

As new creations, we are called to mirror eternity in this life. One foundational way to preview eternity is to intentionally seek justice and equality for people of every nation, tribe, and tongue. If there are no walls in eternity, there should be no walls right now.

First, then, we should admit our biases and blindness. As Christians, we are fundamentally called to be humble, teachable, peacemaking, wall-smashing, ministers of reconciliation. So our first instinct should be to listen, not to shut our ears and throw out insults and dismissive platitudes. I can only imagine how much Satan grins at Christians on Twitter shouting “Marxist!” — as though that’s some silver bullet to end all debate — instead of asking questions. If we can’t recognize that systemic issues in our land — a land whose unifying moments (Emancipation Proclamation, desegregation, voting rights, and Affirmative Action) were merely legal concessions and not intrinsically built into our foundation — then we’re just not ready to listen to those who feel the most hurt by it. We don’t have to agree on every nuance or policy or logical conclusion, but there should be a baseline recognition of the obvious historical and ongoing separation in our country. The Christian call to pursue unity isn’t optional. Don’t point the finger; lend an ear.

Second and relatedly, we should put this into action by not huddling up with people like us, waiting on God to sort it out later. That would be easy. Instead, we should fight tooth-and-nail against the temptation to be comfortable and monolithic. The cross of Christ demands that we press on to the point of shed blood to love our brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities. Our churches should be as diverse or even more diverse than our neighborhoods (imagine Sunday morning at your church being the most diverse gathering in your neighborhood each week!). Our dinner tables should likewise have regular seats filled with those who don’t look like us. As Russell Moore so aptly puts it, in the fight for racial reconciliation, “We’re not getting anywhere if we gather in church with people we’d gather with if Jesus were still dead.” The death and resurrection of Jesus mean that sin and death are dead—taking hatred and division to hell with them.

To my white brothers and sisters: don’t merely post on social media about your frustration about race relations in our country. Don’t let your actions be relegated to hashtags and retweets. True reconciliation happens around dinner tables and in marching lines. True empathy comes not only from watching another iPhone video, but from putting your arms around someone whose skin doesn’t match yours. True friendship comes not from a Twitter follow or a Sunday morning sentiment, but from a lifelong commitment to co-suffering and co-laboring. True love doesn’t happen with a half-hearted apology, but with an open mind to be an active part of the solution.

Though personal relationships are the most important, it would also help to read some books on race by black authors. Let their perspective help shape the narrative for you. For example, read Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Douglass and United: Captured by God’s Vision for Diversity by Newbell.

Racism is hell on earth. But we as Christians are called to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. You may feel like only one friendship or one conversation is a waste, but it isn’t. Nothing you do in this life is inconsequential. God works through even the smallest steps, however awkward and heavy they may seem. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Make your anywhere count.

The Boundaries of ETS and the Task of Christian Scholarship

As this year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) approaches, I want to return to an open letter to the members of ETS written by Stanley Gundry. In this letter, he expressed concern about the ramifications of a recent resolution affirming traditional marriage and the sexual binary of men and women. Commenting on the dangers he sees in defining ETS’s boundaries beyond its current parameters (affirmation of the Trinity and the Bible’s inerrancy), Gundry asks:

What better forum is there for collegial discussion and debate of complementarianism and egalitarianism, open theism and classical theism and all points in between, eschatology, the “new perspective” on Paul, and yes, even the question of whether same-sex “marriages” can be defended biblically, than a forum where we have agreed to appeal to the sole source of authority for Christian faith and practice, the Bible, God’s Word written?

Gundry raises a question that will likely remain ongoing in Christian academia: What are acceptable boundaries for Christian academic societies? Some say ETS is already too narrow, while others say groups like the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are too inclusive. I am not sure what the answer is, because all answers are somewhat subjective. But it leads to a broader question worth commenting on here: How should Christian scholars approach the task of biblical-theological inquiry?

Again, I am not making assertions one way or another about a specific society’s guardrails—after all, I am just a lowly student member of the ETS and SBL. Further, this is not an affirmation or denial of the resolution Gundry is addressing. However, we can learn a few things from the early Christians’ attempts at theological purity and from our own age of theological novelty. After a brief sketch there, I will offer some suggestions and reflections that I am chewing on as I seek my own career in Christian scholarship.

Early Christianity and Heresy

In his punchy little book, Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, Alister McGrath considers a number of reasons why heresies popped up in the first centuries of Christianity. One interesting reason he points out was the desire or even pressure for theologians to make Christianity appear respectable among the non-Christian thinkers of the day. He notes,

As Christianity became more deeply embedded in the late classical culture, it was subjected to increased criticism by its intellectual and cultural opponents. [Leading critics such as Celsus and Galen of Pergamum] argued that its leading doctrines could not be taken seriously by cultured people. (86)

McGrath goes on to use Arius as an example. “Arius offered an understanding of the relationship between God and creation that was regarded as philosophically rigorous by the standards of the time,” but that his heresy ultimately “introduced radical inconsistency into the Christian understanding of its core identity.” Arius offered an intellectually and culturally acceptable proposal, but orthodoxy and orthopraxy won out in the end. “The vision of faith offered by Arianism was quite different from that offered by orthodox writers such as Athanasius of Alexandria.”

While heresy is heresy for a reason, it is often assumed that heretics were bent on destroying the Church. But as McGrath notes throughout, it seems that heretics were more often confessing Christians whose innovations were out of step with the core orthodoxy passed down from the apostolic period. Some heretics such as Arius or Marcion, for example, thought they were purifying Christian doctrine, not destroying it. The question is not about intention, though, so much as it is about doctrinal integrity.

Christian academia contains a hodgepodge of opposing views still today. There are well-meaning Christian scholars who seek to “recover” or “rediscover” certain aspects of Christian belief—for better or worse. Sometimes Christian scholars offer helpful considerations that cannot be ignored even in disagreement (e.g., the New Perspective on Paul), and sometimes they offer revisionist accounts that do not square with historic Christianity (e.g., approval of same-sex sexual practice). Other times, scholars who do not even claim to be Christians dedicate their work to undermining or discrediting Christian beliefs (e.g., Bart Ehrman). In other words, Christian scholarship (or scholarship about Christianity) comes in many forms and with mixed results. But we have to be careful to distinguish between the Arius, the Athanasius, and even the Celsus among us.

The Task of Christian Scholarship

I recently signed a contract with B&H Academic to write a book on the Trinity in the Book of Revelation (based on my PhD thesis), and the pull toward trying to be novel or unique is already threatening to take me off balance. In Christian scholarship, the idol of novelty is a real struggle. We are blinded by our own ambitions or by the expectations of our peers. We know “nothing is new under the sun,” but we do not always want to believe it.Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

Of course, there is nothing wrong with being unique or trying to find an unexplored angle, but it should not come at the expense of orthodoxy or even theological precision. So, what should Christian scholars do? How can we approach scholarship with rigor that any field of scholarship can respect (Christian and otherwise), while being careful not to become sellouts, heterodox, or even heretics? Here are two thoughts:

1. Be faithful to God’s Word.

If only this were obvious. Christian scholars have a tendency, if we are not careful, to dance around biblical texts without actually dealing with them. Thousands upon thousands of words will be presented at Christian academic societies this year, with biblical texts only making brief appearances in between parentheses. I have sat in a few presentations where I have thought, “This passage either disagrees with him, or he needs to deal with it directly.” I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

I am not calling for naïve biblicism (“it’s just me and my Bible and nothing else matters”), but it is reasonable for Christian scholars to interact intentionally with biblical data. When the temptation to compromise or bend biblical truth to make a point arises, allowing Scripture to be our first-order consideration is an easy safeguard. We do not have to become Arius or a shadow of him, developing a logically impressive theology that ultimately flies in the face of historic Christian belief. The Bible is rich with enough raw materials and intriguing insights to give us a thousand lifetimes of academic inquiry. With this in place, the following point can be done well.

2. Do fair, rigorous, and honest research.

This point is two-fold.

First, there is nothing worse than a scholar who blindly and unfairly derides positions in opposition to his or her own. I recently saw a Reformed scholar rail against the New Perspective on Paul with platitudes and overstatements, but without truly engaging the best arguments that school of thought has to offer. If our viewpoint makes the best conclusion of the biblical data, it can stand on its own and it can stand against its best challengers. Christian scholarship should exhibit rigorous considerations of varying viewpoints with no stone unturned, allowing the rigor of our work to make the case.

Second, Christians should be leaders in academic integrity. Expanding a bit on the previous paragraph, we should be fair to other viewpoints simply for the sake of being fair. It is not morally upright to trash an opposing view, even if you are right about its merits. Also, plagiarism is on everyone’s radar once again. This is not surprising—again, the pressure to produce something “new” is real. But Christian scholars especially should “do all things for God’s glory” (1 Cor. 10:31), which includes the process by which they conduct and explain their research. We do not need to play dirty or cut corners; we have all we need in God’s Word through God’s Spirit to make compelling truth claims.

Scholarship that Is Always Christian

Now, back to Gundry’s point. On the one hand, he is right that Christians can pursue the truth together. We should not be afraid of dissension or critique, and we should keep the tent broad as we seek to develop doctrine in our own age. I cannot agree more with Gundry here.But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society is always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

But on the other hand, we should remain Christian in our scholarship. This means we should at least consider whether or not we should allow a theological belief system into a Christian society. It is not enough to baptize it under the guise of “scholarship” and give it a free pass. There are many places we can debate heterodoxy or heresy, but perhaps a Christian theological society isn’t always the best place. At minimum, a society should always be clear about what it does and does not tolerate theologically. This does not mean that Gundry is right (or wrong) about his concerns, but it does mean that we should be careful what we label as “Christian” scholarship, and be clear about our standards.

In any event, let us strive not to get too cute with our research, lest we become functional Arians or worse. Orthodoxy does not automatically equal empty-headedness. Heretics are often well-meaning people with big brains, but their doctrinal innovations are weeds in the otherwise beautiful garden of orthodoxy. Each one of us, in the end, is capable of giving into the pressure of unnecessary innovation or compromise. The desire to be accepted and respected by our peers looms over us. It is tempting to fudge a little or give a little rather than be labeled a fundamentalist or worse. But we can and must do better.

May our Christian scholarship go the way of the Bereans, who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).

Wesley Hill on Paul, the Trinity, and Theological Method

I interviewed Wesley Hill awhile back about his fantastic book, Paul and the Trinity. Hill’s book is one of the best books I have read in years, and was the catalyst for my current Ph.D. dissertation. I posted it on my old blog, and am reposting the interview here because I think the Biblical Reasoning crowd will find it interesting and helpful. Hopefully, this interview will encourage you to buy it and read for yourself!

Brandon: How does Paul and the Trinity seek to correct misconceptions about Paul’s theology, particularly in regard to the Trinity?

Wesley: One influential misconception about Paul is that he doesn’t have anything distinctive to say about God. As the great Pauline scholar E. P. Sanders once said, “From [Paul] we learn nothing new or remarkable about God… it is clear that Paul did not spend his time reflecting on the nature of the deity.” Paul’s distinctiveness is thought to lie, rather, in his Christology. But my book tries to make an argument that Paul’s Christology is inseparable from his view of God, so that the relationship between God and Jesus is mutually constitutive for the identities of both. You can’t say Paul has a distinctive Christology without also saying Paul has a distinctive understanding of God.

Brandon: While he’s obviously not working with precise Nicene language or concepts, you argue that exegesis of Paul does not reach its full potential without Trinitarian theology. Can you explain that more fully?

Wesley: Trinitarian theology says that God is fundamentally and eternally relational. The Father would not be Father without the Son. The Son would not be Son without the Father. The Spirit would not be the love and gift that he is without the Father and Son who together give and receive him. My book is trying to make the case that that Triune relational “grammar” is a deep insight into Paul’s theology. Paul, too, well before the Council of Nicaea, understood what Kavin Rowe has called the “relational determination” of the divine identity.

Brandon: Do you believe that Paul’s understanding of the Trinity is more fully developed or unique than that of other biblical writers?

Wesley: I don’t think it is more fully developed than, say, the Fourth Gospel’s. Borrowing terminology from my colleague David Yeago, I would say that Paul has a unique conceptual apparatus for talking about God, Jesus, and the Spirit. He uses the reverential substitute “Lord” for the divine name YHWH, and he applies that title to God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Spirit. But Paul thereby arrives at the same theological judgment as John, the author of Hebrews, and even the Synoptic Gospels, in my interpretation. There is clearly a wide variety of theological vocabularies in play in the New Testament, but in my view there is deep continuity among the various writers at the level of Trinitarian theological judgments.

Brandon: Which thinkers set the foundation for Paul and the Trinity?

Wesley: Kavin Rowe’s book Early Narrative Christology was very important for my work. It made the argument that Trinitarian concepts of “persons” and “relations” were the outgrowth of New Testament texts. The Gospel of Luke, in Rowe’s reading, portrays the “Lord” of the Old Testament and Jesus the “Lord” as “overlapping.” And yet Rowe also emphasized the irreducible distinction of the two in Luke’s narrative: Jesus carries out the mission given him by Israel’s God. This “doubling,” in which both profound identity and distinction are held together, is what later Nicene theology expressed with the language of one ousia (“essence”) and three hypostases (“persons”).

Brandon: There’s been a divide between systematic theology and biblical studies for centuries (insert Gabler joke here), yet Paul and the Trinity is a rich combination of the two. How can this integration move Pauline studies forward?

Wesley: Although it seems counterintuitive to many biblical scholars, reading the creedal, confessional, doctrinal texts of Christian history is, or should be, an exegetical enterprise, precisely because doctrines are exegetically derived. If doctrines came from Scripture, they should lead back to Scripture. In this way, we might say that Christian doctrines like the Trinity are retrospective: they are oriented toward the reading of Scripture; they are meant to take us back to reread the text. They are hermeneutical aids, if you like. Doctrines are not free-floating entities that improve upon the messiness of Scripture by replacing Scripture’s loose ends with a more straightforward, easy-to-follow summary. Rather, they are meant to prompt and enable deeper wrestling with biblical texts, including, as I argue, Paul’s letters.

The Trinity Debate: A Year of Reflections

Last summer, the evangelical Internet was ablaze with debates over the Trinity. The question at hand was, basically, whether or not the Son was subordinate or somehow under the Father’s authority before the Incarnation. No one denies that Jesus submitted to the Father’s will after the Incarnation, as biblical texts are rather clear on this (Matt. 26:39; John 6:38, 14:31; et al.). But the question comes down to how we handle the texts that refer to Jesus before the Incarnation (such as John 1:1ff; Phil. 2:6-11; et al.), and how to mesh all of this with the early Church’s foundational creeds, confessions, and writings.

Instead of rehashing everything here, I have pulled together a brief reading list to refresh your memory or help you catch up for the first time:

  • This article by Liam Goligher started it all (here)
  • Bruce Ware’s response to Goligher (here)
  • Michael Bird’s overview of the concerns (here)
  • Fred Sanders’s outline of foundational Trinitarian affirmations (here)
  • Matt Emerson’s overview of exegesis and history (here)
  • The late Michael Ovey’s rejoinder to the claims (here)
  • Luke Stamps’s survey of the underlying issue in the debate (here) and thoughts on the EFS position (here)

From senior professors to PhD students to undergrads, everyone jumped into the fray, offering their opinions, rebukes, and (thankfully) simply asking questions. The result of this debate was two-fold: (1) professors were forced to tighten up their language about the Trinity, with several scholars doubling back or modifying their positions; and (2) students were forced to make sure they care about the nuances moving forward that some of these professors had overlooked.

We should all be encouraged that this debate happened in public and right in front of us, because it taught us a few good lessons. As a PhD student writing on the Trinity, I have reflected extensively on the debate over the past year. I have learned two lessons in particular that could benefit scholars and students alike:

1. It Is Virtuous to Be Humble and Speak Slowly

The temptation for all of us, especially in the digital age, is to give our opinions. For example, this debate saw undergrads and seminarians calling out theologians like Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware before either man had time to respond to the articles aimed at him. Conversely, many decided to take on Liam Goligher and Carl Trueman in defense of Grudem and Ware, as though their multi-decade careers of studying and writing on the subject didn’t prepare them to defend themselves.

This is not to say that undergrads and seminarians can’t speak into the conversation. In fact, no one is barred from speaking into it and you’re not inferior to any of the scholars in the debate. But it’s an interesting phenomenon that Ware and Grudem didn’t have 48 hours to respond before half of the Internet was trying to speak on their behalf or against them. They’re big boys, they can handle it. And as seasoned laborers in this debate, it doesn’t hurt to let them have the first word out of sheer respect for their sacrifice and dedication. I was impressed that here at Biblical Reasoning, Matt and Luke posted an open letter by Ware, even though they ultimately disagreed with his conclusions. This was a good example of humility and respect toward a senior scholar in the midst of a tense discussion.

Seminarian — maybe you do have something to say. Maybe you’ve read several books on the Trinity, including some of the primary sources from the 4th century patristic foundations of the debate. Maybe you already know how to parse generation and subordination, how to exegete the difficult texts, and what Gregory of Nyssa thinks about the subject. That’s great! But let me encourage you to practice being slow to speak, even if it’s not a sin to speak. As I mentioned above, there were Trinitarian scholars having to rethink a decade of work when this conversation arose! So there’s nothing wrong with sitting back and trying to learn even more before you attempt to school everyone else online. Patience and humility are always virtuous.

2. It Is Crucial to Do the Quiet Work of Study

Semi-related, this debate shows us that doing the quiet work of deep study — that work that no one sees but you and the Lord — is extremely important. While some seminarians were moderately able to chime into the debate, the truth is, there was a lot of pontification with little substance. There were seminarians online who hadn’t read a single book on the topic, had no idea the difference between the Nicene Creed of 325 and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, didn’t know basic terminology at hand, and didn’t even understand “what the big deal is.”

Worse, there were scholars in the field taking the microphone and singing way out of tune, as though they’d never exercised their Trinitarian vocal chords before they stepped on stage at the Grand Old Nicene Opry. Some were ignorant of historical sources, others simply defiant toward what it means to converse intelligently and winsomely in academia. If anyone should be modeling the work of deep theological study, it’s our professors, right? Don’t be the person who “fakes it ’til you make it,” getting by on talent and even character without doing the work needed to genuinely contribute to the Church the way your career calls you to.

Seminarian — maybe you’re the smartest student on campus. Maybe you can riff on theology, wowing freshmen and first-year seminarians with your megabrain. Maybe you can write like a world-class poet. That’s great! Use it to encourage and educate when you can. But don’t forget to read, read, and read some more. Dig into primary sources. Read an occasional obscure article. Read biblical commentaries. And please, for the love of Tertullian, read your Bible. Don’t copycat your favorite theologian while not reading the stuff he read to get there.

In all things, we can all remember that doctrine matters because speaking about God rightly matters. We shouldn’t take it lightly. May we all be humble, study hard, and do our work to the glory of God.