John Behr on Nicaea, Trinitarian Language, and Vintage Bicycles

This episode is a conversation with Dr. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Seminary. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:59), the beginning of the patristic tradition (8:30), Nicaea and Trinitarian language (13:22), John’s prologue (46:45), SVS Press (51:00), vintage bicycles (57:30), and more. Buy John’s books.

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.


Craig Carter on the Church Fathers, Premodern Exegesis, and Platonism

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Craig Carter of Tyndale University College and Seminary. We discuss becoming a scholar (2:35), coming to a new understanding of classical Christian theism (7:00), theological growth throughout the years (12:30), interpreting Scripture with the church fathers (15:55), Trinitarian theology from the Bible to the early church (29:27), Christian Platonism (38:15), and more. Buy Craig’s books.

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.


Glenn Butner on the Trinity Debate and Theological Method

This episode is a conversation with Dr. Glenn Butner of Sterling College. We discuss entering the 2016 Trinity debate (3:30), Trinitarian theological method (7:00), his new book on the obedience of the Son (16:05), why Jesus’s human submission to the Father matters (26:30), and more. Buy Glenn’s books.

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.

Introducing: Church Grammar

In this short introduction we discuss the purpose and hopes for the Church Grammar podcast, and look forward to some forthcoming guests and topics.

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


My 5 Favorite Books of 2018

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 continue to compile 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. Fourth, I’m increasingly asked by folks what books I’m reading or “what’s a good book to read for X topic?” I think this is primarily because I share a lot of book photos on Facebook.

Anyway, in no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2018. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog, and my 2017 list posted here at Biblical Reasoning.

Hope and Suffering by Desmond Tutu

This collection of sermons and speeches give an inspiring glimpse into the mind of one of history’s most important civil rights activists. For a comfortable white evangelical American like me, Tutu’s theology and exposition challenged and sharpened my views on suffering and human dignity.

 

All That’s Good by Hannah Anderson

Hannah is one of the most clear and humble writers out there. Her previous book, Humble Roots, is a beautifully-written exposition of why humility matters. In All That’s Good, she is at it again. I’m not sure I’ve read a better book on discernment and wisdom. And it’s no surprise to me that Hannah’s the one who wrote it.

 

The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God by R. P. C. Hanson

Hanson’s book was recommended to me by my doctoral supervisor as the best treatment of the Arian Controversy and the development of Nicene-Constantinopolitan Christianity. I’ve read several others that are fantastic — Nicaea and Its LegacyThe Quest for the Trinity, and The Way to Nicaea chief among them — but none are as painstakingly thorough as this one.

Dying and the Virtues by Matthew Levering

I reviewed this book as a judge for the Theology/Ethics category of the Christianity Today 2018 Book Awards and was taken aback by how much I ended up enjoying it. On my ballot it was virtually tied with the eventual winner, Seeing God by Hans Boersma, but Levering’s work (as usual) paired theological acumen with pastoral reflection uniquely and powerfully.


The Apostles’ Creed by Ben Myers

A few good books have been written about The Apostles’ Creed, including a helpful one by my Doktorvater, What Christians Ought to Believe. Myers’s is unique because it is super compact — 168 pages but 5×7 inches — and reads like a catechetical devotional more than a theological textbook. We have our elders and staff reading through it right now as we prepare to preach a series on the Creed in 2019.

What Kind of Book Is Revelation? Bauckham on Common Misconceptions

In his fantastic little theological commentary on Revelation, Richard Bauckham notes that “Misconceptions of Revelation often begin by misconceiving the kind of book it is” (1). No doubt Bauckham is right: many people think Revelation is a doomsday account of the last days of our planet. Revelation’s confusing symbols, strange characters, and rash of plagues also lead people to stay away from it altogether. This is understandable.

However, we should actually read Revelation as a hopeful book—one that centers on the triune God’s redemption of all things. Revelation 21-22 are some of the most encouraging and inspiring chapters in the Bible because they tell us that one day God will make all things new, eradicating sin and death once and for all.

Bauckham tries to help us understand that there’s much more to Revelation and its place in the Bible’s storyline, noting that it is a book that fits under multiple genres and serves multiple purposes.

1. Revelation Is a Christian Prophecy

John wrote Revelation with a clear self-indentification as a prophet in the line of other biblical prophets. Bauckham points out that John uses OT allusions and language similar to other prophets like Amos and Ezekiel. Also,

“John’s great oracle against Babylon (18:1-19:8) echoes every one of the oracles against Babylon in the Old Testament prophets, as well as the two major oracles against Tyre. It seems that John not only writes in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, but understands himself to be writing at the climax of the tradition, when all the eschatological oracles of the prophets are about to be finally fulfilled, and so he interprets and gathers them up in his own prophetic revelation.” (5)

So Revelation is not just a prophecy book about “end times,” but a book about God’s promises in the past being fulfilled in Christ now and into eternity. This is not dreadful news, but immensely good news, because we know that God has kept his promises.

2. Revelation Is an Apocalypse

When we hear the word “apocalypse,” many of us automatically think of meteors falling from the sky and entire cities being destroyed. Judgment of this sort is certainly a piece of ancient apocalyptic works, but it’s not all they represent. Quoting J.J. Collins, Bauckham says that apocalypses primarily act as disclosure of “a transcendent reality which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation, and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world” (6).

In other words, apocalypses are a glimpse not simply into divine judgment, but also a look at final salvation. Yes, Revelation shows that Satan and his followers will be thrown into the “lake of fire” because of their evil. There’s no denying this aspect of the book. But it ultimately shows that good will conquer evil, and that those who follow Christ will be spared from this judgment.

Bauckham also reminds us that Revelation is slightly different than other apocalypses of its day, because it deals with the future and deals with the contemporary issues of its first audience. This makes sense, of course, given that Gods eschatological salvation and victory apply to us now, though they will be fully realized in the future at Christ’s return.

3. Revelation Is a Circular Letter

Flowing from the last point about the setting of the first audience of Revelation, Bauckham rightly says, “Many misreadings of Revelation, especially those which assume that much of the book was not addressed to its first-century readers and could only be understood by later generations, have resulted from neglecting the fact that it is a letter” (12).

When we overlook the fact that this book was written to seven churches in first-century Asia, we miss the situatedness of the letter. This is not to say that Revelation has no meaning for us today—Bauckham makes a good case that the number seven (completion) means that this letter is for all churches in Asia and in every age afterward. However, we cannot see symbols and numbers like 666, for example, and believe they’re only codes to be cracked in some future time. John even says that the original readers can understand some of these symbols in their day.

Revelation, then, isn’t a book about distant events that we can take or leave—it’s actually a book written to Christians in the first century and every other age, encouraging us to fight for right doctrine, stand firm against persecution, and look to the triune God’s mission to redeem all things. Revelation is more than a book about divine judgment and end-times destruction—it’s a book about eternal hope in Christ.

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.

The Trinity Debate (2016-2017): A Selected Bibliography

The-Holy-Trinity-in-Stained-GlassThe 2016-2017 Trinity debate over the eternal submission of the Son was covered thoroughly by this blog, other blogs, Christianity Today, podcasts, a panel at ETS, and most certainly in every theological group text in evangelicalism. In an attempt to try and boil the debate down for those who want to read up, reflect, or reference the debate, I created a bibliography on all of the published material I could find based on a list I’ve been accruing since late 2016.

That bibliography was 42 pages. Forty-two. 42.

Frankly, many of those sources were unhelpful, repetitive, and/or broken links. So I decided to whittle it down to the bare essentials — posts that defined the debate or appeared to be shared extensively — and it became an 11-page bibliography. That’ll have to do.

Download the bibliography here.*

 

*A reader brought to my attention the monster list over at Books at a Glance. This list has been updated with additions from their list and a few others I originally did not include from my own notes.

20th Century Theology and Classical Christian Theism

About eighteen months ago, in the summer of 2016, Wayne Grudem and others were put on trial via blog about their views on the Trinity. Grudem holds to ERAS, or Eternal Relations of Authority and Submission, wherein God the Son eternally, functionally (not ontologically) submits to the Father. This submission in the Godhead, for him and other ERAS proponents, grounds a complementarian view of gender roles. One of the primary accusations leveled at Grudem et al. is that they did not clearly and unequivocally hold to (at least) one aspect of classical Christian theism, the eternal relations of origin – and specifically ,the eternal generation of the Son – opting instead for ERAS to explain the distinctions between the Persons in the Godhead. (Grudem, as well as Bruce Ware, have since publicly affirmed the eternal relations of origin).

While I strongly disagree with  Grudem’s articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity, what puzzled me at the time and still does is why Grudem and Bruce Ware particularly were singled out for questioning and/or revising Christian theism in some way. If you read twentieth century theology, much of it consists precisely of that kind of move, and via a similar theological method as e.g. Grudem’s. For instance, a year before the Trinity debate, Scot McKnight posted Roger Olson’s blogged critique of divine timelessness, presumably in support of the latter’s comments. The quoted portion of Olson’s post begin by questioning “classical theism” in general and its (according to him) over-speculative nature, but the key paragraph begins like this:

And yet…

Nowhere does the biblical story of God, the biblical narrative that identifies God for us, and upon which classical Christian theology claims to be based, say or even hint that God is “outside of time” or “timeless” or that all times are “simultaneously before the eyes of God.”

A year later McKnight was a vocal opponent of ERAS on Twitter and his blog, on the grounds that it departed from the traditional doctrine of the Trinity. (Now, perhaps in that year plus, McKnight came to appreciate the tradition more; I don’t know, that’s certainly possible. In any case I find the Olson post and the ERAS comments interesting in relation to one another.) Another example, this time in classical Christology: Nick Batzig recently posted about William Lane Craig’s attempt to argue that Christ did not possess a human soul but instead only a human body and a divine soul, even referring to his position as “Neo-Apollinarianism.” We could also mention Moltmann’s Trinitarian rupture at the cross, or Pinnock’s open theism, or, relatedly, process theology, or Balthasar’s view of the descent as it relates to (departs from?) inseparable operations, the extra Calvinisticum, and other important pieces of classical Christian theism more broadly and classical Trinitarianism and Christology more particularly.

The point is that Grudem and others are not and never have been the only twentieth century theologians to question or to attempt a revision of aspects of classical Christian theism. Much of twentieth century theology consists of just such questions and attempts. And they do so on the same kinds of methodological grounds. Notice again the Olson quote above. To paraphrase, “I personally cannot find a text in the biblical narrative that speaks of God’s timelessness.” This sounds like the same kind of biblicist argument used by e.g. Grudem, in an appendix of his Systematic Theology, where he says of eternal generation that he cannot find a text in support of the doctrine.

Again, we could multiply examples here of similar methodology in twentieth century theology, wherein a theologian’s own reading of the Bible, perhaps in conjunction with philosophical categories and methods (e.g. Craig on Christology), trumps the traditional understanding of an aspect of the doctrine of God or of Christology. James Dolelzal’s recent work, All That Is In God, does some of that work, but even he limits his analysis to what he calls “Reformed evangelicals,” which for him is mostly a euphemism for Bruce Ware. This doesn’t tell the whole story, just like the Trinity debate didn’t tell the whole story. Classical Christian theism was, to use Dolezal’s paradigm, rejected, revised, or ignored by much of twentieth century theology, not only in Reformed evangelicalism but in mainline Protestantism, other parts of evangelicalism, Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy….you name the tradition and I’ll name you a major theologian who went the same route albeit on a different vehicle. (That includes confessional Reformed traditions).

All this is to say that I think evangelicals in particular could do with a revision of their understanding of tradition in general and of classical Christian theism in particular. It is my belief that many rejections of CCT arise from misunderstanding both the role of tradition within the evangelical commitment to sola Scriptura and of the biblical-theological and historical warrrant for holding CCT. We need to go back to the drawing board in evangelicalism in the way we teach theological method and how we relate our right and good commitment to the Bible’s ultimate authority to the faith once delivered to the saints, i.e. the Christian Tradition. To begin, we need to recognize that classical Christian theism, and the recovery of it and other traditional theological categories today, is not some supra-biblical scheme that we place onto the Bible, but rather is a way of talking about God that arises from the Bible in conjunction with dogmatic and philosophical reflection. Theological retrieval is not repristinizing the past or muting the Bible with theological jargon; instead, it’s a demonstration of the inherently biblical support for dogmatic terminology and categories. In other words, “going back to the drawing board” consists firstly of a shift in how we think about theological method, and particularly what makes a doctrine “biblical.”

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.