Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at ccel.org.
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.

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.

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.

Gregory of Nyssa and a “Community of Wills”?

In Against Eunomius I.1.34 (NPNF 5), Gregory says this regarding the Father and Son sharing in one nature:

So also the Father and Son are one, the community of nature and the community of will running, in them, into one. But if the Son had been joined in wish only to the Father, and divided from Him in His nature, how is it that we find Him testifying to His oneness with the Father, when all the time He was sundered from Him in the point most proper to Him of all?

At first glance this sounds problematic from the standpoint of proponents of dyothelite Christology and, correspondingly, one will in the Godhead. A phrase like “community of wills,” along with the analogy Gregory uses right before this of two men agreeing with one another, could be taken to mean that Nyssen is here implicitly affirming multiple divine wills. This is, in fact, just the kind of passage that twentieth-century social Trinitarians might point to in favor of their understanding of “person,” and in fact the Cappadocians are employed frequently in support of their position. But there are clear reasons to reject a “social Trinitarian” reading of Gregory, at least in this particular passage.

1. Elsewhere in Nyssen, as well as in other pro-Nicenes, God is one in every way. The *only* distinction that exists in the Godhead is the means of subsistence in the essence, i.e. the eternal relations of origin that distinguish the persons. Nyssen previously in “Against Eunomius” has spoken repeatedly of the fact that God is one in every conceivable way – power, authority, command, goodness, justice, glory, etc. The only way that the persons are distinguished is via eternal relations of origin (see e.g. I.1.22).

2. The context clearly affirms one will. Nyssen speaks immediately prior to this passage about God’s will in the singular. Again, this is in accord with the way Nyssen speaks elsewhere about God’s simple unity.

3. The analogy with the two men agreeing is not intended to be one to one correspondence. Nyssen makes this quite clear throughout his works on the Trinity, including “Against Eunomius.” We should not take his analogy here as anything more than that – analogous. Nyssen consistently affirms a healthy dose of apophaticism and the analogical nature of language elsewhere.

4. The syntax of the sentence makes clear that Gregory does not mean multiple wills in the Godhead. Here it is in Greek:

καὶ ὁ πατὴρ καὶ ὁ υἱὸς ἕν εἰσι, τῆς κατὰ τὴν φύσιν καὶ τὴν προαίρεσιν κοινωνίας εἰς τὸ ἓν συνδραμούσης

Note both clauses. The first clause has two singular nouns (“father” and “son”) taking a plural verb to describe them (“are”), but the predicate noun is singular. The plural persons of Father and Son are one. Of course, this is no different than Jesus’ affirmation in John 17. What about the second clause, the more troubling one for our purposes? To begin with, this is an explanatory clause about how Father and Son are one, as indicated by the κατὰ preposition. So Nyssen is at the very least not contradicting his previous statement, but expanding on it. When we look at this expansion of his explanation about God’s oneness, we find two singular nouns – “nature” and “will” – in the middle of a genitive absolute clause – τῆς … κοινωνίας. In other words, whatever “community” means here, it is defined according to (κατὰ) both nature and will. (I am dependent on Seumas Macdonald for insights into the syntax of this sentence). Nyssen is certainly not positing a “community of natures” in the way a “community of wills” would have to be taken for trithelitism. In fact, all that Nyssen really seems to mean here is that, while distinct in their personhood, Father and Son are one in essence and volition.

This, by the way, is the problem with “proof-texting” the Fathers. If one simply presses CTRL-F for “will,” several passages like this will pop up. If we read them cursorily and out of context, they seem to support a social Trinitarian view of the divine persons. But on further inspection, that could not be further from the truth.

HT: Seumas Macdonald and Ryan Clevenger for help with accessing the Greek of this passage.

Historical Theology and Biblical Evidence in the Trinity Debate

I don’t intend for this post to be long, just want to make a quick point about the relationship between historical theology and biblical evidence when we talk about the differing views of the Trinity.

I’ve seen some comments on social media and blogs that go something like this: “While I can appreciate historical points of view, what I really care about is what the Bible says.” In this scenario, historical theology is placed second to our own biblical exegesis. As a Protestant evangelical, I certainly understand and agree with the sola scriptura emphasis that lies behind these kinds of comments, but I think this is a false dichotomy.

It is a false dichotomy not because historical theology or historic interpretation is equal to Scripture – it’s not! – but because the hermeneutical warrants given by the 4th century pro-Nicenes for not only homoousion but also for eternal generation and eternal procession are absolutely crucial for our confession that YHWH is one God in three persons. In other words, you cannot get to Nicene Trinitarianism as expressed in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed and further clarified at Chalcedon without the biblical interpretations given by the 4th and 5th century pro-Nicnene theologians. And, again, you cannot get to Trinitarianism per se, i.e. the confession of homoousion, of one God in three persons, without eternal generation and procession, and you cannot get to those lynchpins of Nicene Trinitarianism without the historical interpretive warrants given by Athanasius, Hilary, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, etc.

So when we talk about Basil’s or Augustine’s or Cyril’s or Nazianzen‘s view of a particular text, it is not merely an historical exercise that has little to do with biblical warrant. Rather, we are attempting to show that the biblical warrant given in the 4th and 5th centuries for Nicene Trinitarianism is crucial to the confession of Nicene Trinitarianism.