Stefana Laing on History, Being a Theological Librarian, and Kids at ETS

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Stefana Dan Laing of Beeson Divinity School. We discuss bringing your kids to ETS (2:28), becoming a scholar (6:40), how to understand Christian history (21:10), being a theological librarian (36:12), being a female scholar in evangelicalism (47:20), and more.

Church Grammar is presented by B&H Academic and the Christian Standard Bible. Intro music: Purple Dinosaur by nobigdyl.

*** This podcast is designed to discuss all sorts of topics from various points of view. Therefore, guests’ views do not always reflect the views of the host, his church, or his institution.


Chronological Theological Snobbery

This isn’t going to be a long post. I simply (again?) want to bring attention to the prevalence, in certain sectors of the evangelical academy, of a particular rhetorical tactic. This strategy of argumentation assumes that whatever insights they may be writing about have only been gained in the last hundred years or so. Before that, silly things like Christendom and Medieval monks and post-Reformation political disputes kept us all in intellectual and theological bondage and didn’t want us to know whatever Dr. Scholar wants us to know now. You’ll know this when you see it, and I’m not calling out anyone in particular here. In fact, this is so prevalent that I’ve probably offended quite a few people I’ve never read. But the truth is that this particular rhetorical tactic is far too common in evangelical academic circles and it’s also patently silly. Yes, the Reformation was needed, in part because of doctrinal error rooted in erroneous understandings of the relationship between Scripture and tradition. But that fact does not warrant the kind of attitude to which I’m referring. This stance towards the history of interpretation and doctrine is not reformational, it is chronological theological snobbery.

It is snobby because it assumes that the Church has not read or understood the Bible well in a given arena until we moderns came along. But it is also silly, because it usually rests on a fairly thin understanding of the history of interpretation and doctrine. So instead of saying something like, “here’s what the Bible has to say about [X text or doctrine], no one said it this way until [Y twentieth century event or person], and so this is a truly revolutionary model of [Z],” we might say, “here’s what the Bible has to say about [X]. While [Y developments in Christian thought] may have obscured this reading/understanding in some quarters, [Z figures throughout church history] evidenced a similar understanding of what I am arguing here.” That’s a more historically and theologically humble way to put it, at least from my point of view.

Origen: Athanasian or Arian?

It is obligatory to note upfront that Origen was and is a controversial figure. The debate over accepting his views as orthodox or useful is ongoing, including the veracity of the number of times he was anathematized, whether or not he actually taught some of the doctrines he was accused of teaching, the extent to which he influenced Arius, and whether one should be posthumously anathematized without the opportunity to recant. Some of these debates are discussed in following footnotes.

Despite this caveat, given his enormous (and positive) impact on early Trinitarianism, it is interesting to consider how his teachings influenced Trinitarian history. Most notably, he seemed to wrestle more fully than his predecessors with the ontological implications of the shared substance of the Father, Son, and Spirit that would later define the orthodox Trinitarian affirmations. This is not to say that Origen was ultimately as clear on ontology as the Nicenes or even in agreement with them—only that he wrestled with ontological implications more than his predecessors.

So, was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian?

Holmes asserts, “It is fair to say that, by the beginning of the fourth century, many or most theologians leaned to one or the other of Origen’s tendencies” in reference to Origen’s tendencies to discuss both the unity and difference between the Father and Son.[1] Anatolios notes similarly that Origen influenced the Alexandrians with his idea of eternal generation and the Arians with his idea of real distinctions within the Trinity.[2] Wellum says plainly, “in terms of Trinitarian and Christological thought, many later orthodox theologians were highly indebted to him, particularly Athanasius and the Cappadocians—Basil and the two Gregorys.”[3] Moreover, as Rebecca Lyman notes,

Origen’s attempt to explain the incarnation of the Logos in terms of a pre-existent human soul was one of the first constructive Christologies, and anticipated many problems in later theology regarding the proper union of divine and human nature.[4]

Ayres acknowledges this point, while contending: “Origen directly denies that that the Son can come from the Father’s ousia, as this would imply a material conception of the divine generation.”[5] However, Ayres also admits that Athanasius may have been influenced by Origen’s emphasis on “the closeness of Son to Father.”[6] Holmes agrees with the charge of subordinationism: “Origen … seemingly finds it impossible to speak of God’s activity in the creation without lapsing into subordinationist language.”[7]

Rutherford says that Origen believed Jesus was “begotten of the Father before all creatures” and “became incarnate while remaining God,” and that “the Holy Spirit is associated in dignity and honour with the Father and Son” and clearly not made or created.[8] For example, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, he considers the multitude titles given to Jesus. He challenges the idea that “Son of God” is special or unique in relation to all of Jesus’s biblical titles, and instead aims to consider how all of the biblical titles paint Jesus not merely as “an expression of the Father occurring in syllables” but in regard to “what manner he has essence.”[9] Though she appears to lean toward Origen believing that the Holy Spirit was divine in some sense, Rutherford is careful to show that there is a debate surrounding whether Origen thought the Spirit was actually a creature or, if not, whether he was subordinate to the Father. Holmes has been more forceful regarding the ambiguity: “[For Origen,] the theological question of the Trinity is not whether to worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but how to understand the triune life of God.”[10]

While it is fair to question whether his Trinitarian thought was a form of subordinationism, his wrestling with divine essence and hierarchy of origin and function was in many ways ahead of his predecessors, as well as a precursor for his contemporaries and successors. This does not mean that he was not engaged in language contemporary with his time, such as the use of angelomorphic Christology. However, Origen seemed able to distinguish between the various ways “angel” or “messenger” is used in the Bible as a title or designation and the idea of Christ having an angelic nature stricto sensu.[11] Gieschen notes that Origen sometimes refers to angels in the Bible as Christ or the Holy Spirit, but Gieschen’s point does not require of Origen a belief in “angel Christology.”[12]

Was Origen an Athanasian or an Arian? Since he predated them, technically neither. However, due to his proto-Trinitarian wrestling with ontology and economy, both sides of the Nicene debate found a resource in him.

[1] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 83.

[2] Anatolios, Retrieving Nicaea, 17.

[3] Wellum, God the Son Incarnate, 276.

[4]  Lyman, Christology and Cosmology, 69.

[5] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 24.

[6] Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, 47.

[7] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 80.

[8] Rutherford, “The Alexandrian Spirit: Clement and Origin in Context,” in The Holy Spirit in the Fathers of the Church, 41-43.

[9] Origen, Comm. Jn. 1.151.

[10] Holmes, The Quest for the Trinity, 75.

[11] Bucur, Angelomorphic Pneumatology, xxvi-xxvii.

[12] Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology, 195-96.

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.

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!

 

 

The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

I don’t think it’s any secret that I subscribe to an Augustinian understanding of how we approach and comprehend Holy Scripture’s message to God’s people. Commonly known as “faith seeking understanding” (from the Latin fides quarens intellectum), this view says that we come to the Bible and understand its message not as blank slates, without presuppositions and with complete objectivity, but in faith. Those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith in Christ Jesus most fully comprehend what it is saying. Or, to put a finer point on it, only those who read in faith can fully understand its message.

When I espouse this epistemological approach to comprehending Scripture, I am usually asked the same question: “But what about unbelieving biblical scholars/readers from whom I (or we in the discipline) gain knowledge about the Bible’s message?” While I understand the impetus behind that question, I also think it arises from a misunderstanding about the Bible’s ultimate purpose. The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information. But the Bible is not just for information; it is for transformation as well. Again, this aspect has an historical aspect to it, one that is particular to each book contained within the biblical canon, but the Bible’s ultimate transformative purpose, as a covenant document inspired by God the Holy Spirit, is to point to the consummate revelation of the Triune God, Jesus Christ, the incarnate person of God the Son, so that we might know him and be transformed into his image, and, through this transformative knowledge, know and love God the Father. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the one Bible, in all of its diverse parts, is to help us know God and love him. Only those who have confessed Christ as Lord by the power of his Spirit to the glory of his Father can do that.

Along these lines, I have just finished Matthew R. Crawford’s fine monograph, Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2015; I’d recommend that you drop what you’re doing and read it now – it’s brilliant). In it Crawford notes (see esp. pp. 184-205) that Cyril also held to this view of biblical interpretation, and dealt with the question of how both believers and unbelievers can in some sense understand the Bible. According to Crawford, Cyril used John 1 and John 9, both instances in which Jesus is referred to as light, to distinguish between two types of illumination. The first, what Crawford calls “creative illumination,” is given to all humanity and is a function of all of creation’s participation in God, and particularly in the Son’s wisdom. (“Participation” here is not salvific, but only intended to communicate that anything that exists only exists because it is created and therefore participating in the one life-giving essence, the Triune God.) The Son is Light, and all of creation as creation necessarily lives in that light. They may reject the light, but that does not vanquish, extinguish, or turn off the light. Crawford glosses Cyril’s thoughts on this type of illumination by referring to it as “generic rationality.” As image-bearing creatures, human beings are capable of basic reasoning, and therefore of understanding Scripture in its historical sense.  In other words, because human beings can reason logically and utilize the tools of historical research, the whole Bible is to one degree understandable to all people.

But there is another type of rationality according to Cyril, a pneumatic, or spiritual rationality, that is only afforded to those who have confessed Christ and been renewed by his Spirit. It is this “redemptive illumination” (Crawford’s term) that allows readers to not only comprehend the details of individual passages and books but to see read them in light of their divine intention. By the help of the inspiring and now illuminating Spirit the Scriptures show readers Christ, and thereby they transform them into his image and make known to them the Father. There is, in other words, a creative illumination that is common to all humanity by virtue of their participation in the Son’s Light, and there is a redemptive illumination that is only given to those who have confessed Christ and received his Spirit. When we read the Bible, therefore, those who read it with us, believing and unbelieving, can come alongside and assist us in our understanding of its historical sense. But only those who confess that Jesus is Lord and receive his Spirit through repentance and faith can see him, know him, be made like him, and through him know and love the Father, when reading his Spirit-inspired Word.

Holy War in the Bible


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I’m really excited that another resource has come out from my friend Heath Thomas. Heath is Associate Professor of Old Testament and PhD Director at Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC. His latest publication is an edited volume (along with Jeremy Evans of Southeastern and Paul Copan of Palm Beach Atlantic University) on Holy War in the Bible. I’m sure this will be a welcomed resource on an important theological and ethical topic. You can order the book here.

 

 

Read the Fathers: Beginning in Advent

 

I just came across this blog that is set up to as a reading guide for the Church Fathers.

By reading seven pages a day for seven years, you can study a vast library of theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion written in the first seven centuries of the Christian church.

The first reading begins on 2 December.