The Pattern of Sound Words: Some Brief Thoughts on the Semantics of Orthodoxy

One of the reasons why I believe the consensual tradition of Christian orthodoxy deserves so much deference is that its theological language has been time-tested. It has been tested in the laboratory of Christian history and Christian experience. It has passed through the crucible of ecclesiastical conflict and has been vindicated by lay Christian consensus across time and space. The challenges of translation and contextualization still remain, but the semantic categories passed down to us have survived for a reason.

Calvin once mused about a scenario in which no extra-biblical language would be needed in order to communicate what Scripture clearly teaches about the nature and works of the Triune God. But, as Calvin rightly conceded, Christian theologians must employ extra-biblical terminology, not because the language of Scripture is insufficient, but because it is so often distorted.

This is also why I am so wary of newer categories that have little to no precedent in the Christian tradition. The historical categories of Trinitarian orthodoxy–hypostasis and ousia, procession and mission, inseparable operations and appropriation–have been tested and tried–biblically, theologically, philosophically, and pastorally.  They have, as a result, a kind of sturdiness and reliability that can’t be found in the newer categories of so many recent evangelical treatments of the Trinity–like the granite walls of Yosemite compared to loose shale. The newer terms–relationship, role, functional subordination, eternal relations of authority and submission–are, at best provisional, and must undergo a significant probationary period in order to test their biblical and theological utility. In some cases, their incommensurabilty and inconsistency with the traditional ways Christians have interpreted Scripture and the Triune mystery at its heart are more than apparent.

So for my part, its better to tread the old paths of orthodox terminology, with all of their careful and intricate beauty and rationality, than to begin afresh with newer and less tried alternatives.

David Foster Wallace on Turgidity

I was encouraged and exhorted yesterday by Fred Sander’s post on writing tips. Last night I also read a few essays in David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, including his review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think,” pp. 51-58 in CtL). The review is scathing, to say, the least, and full of detailed critiques of Updike’s writing that I don’t need to repeat here. But toward the end of the essay, Wallace gives a summary what he calls the “turgidity” of Updike’s prose (p. 57-58), a summary which I believe is applicable to any writer in any genre.

  1. “so many modifiers” – Wallace first critiques Updike for constantly modifying nouns and verbs. I see many younger writers (including myself) give in to this particular temptation by loading up sentences with adjectives and adverbs that we’d probably never use in real life. And I’d guess that many times we overload readers on Twitter or in articles and books to make what we’re saying sound more profound than it really is.
  2. “so much subordination” – Wallace’s point here is that Updike constantly subordinates clauses in the middle of sentences. Again, I see (and do) this frequently. Sentences don’t always have to be short, but they should be clearly follow-able. Subordinating clauses decreases the reader’s ability to follow the grain of a sentence.
  3. “so much alliteration” – According to Wallace, Updike gets too cute by half with alliteration. But trying to make all your modifiers start with the letter “p” or some such isn’t the only way we try to doll up our sentences: using weird sentence structures or formatting (as if we’re trying to be the next e e cummings), giving the reader a heavy dose of modifiers (see #1), using words that everyone knows we found in a thesaurus or a GRE Study Guide and not in our own vocabulary, and the like are all ways that writers (including me) try to make their sentences and paragraphs look better than they actually are. As we say in the Deep South, it’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

These were helpful to me to consider. Maybe they’ll benefit some of you as well.

Combating Creedal Amputations of the Descent Clause

Tomorrow is Holy Saturday, that liminal temporal space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. For many evangelicals, Holy Saturday has lost all meaning, while for others it is associated with Catholic and Orthodox notions of the Harrowing of Hell. Because of this latter association, where Christ goes into Hades (Hell) and brings out either virtuous Jews and pagans (Roman Catholic) or all humanity (Orthodox), some evangelical theologians have even argued that we should cut the line referencing it from the Apostles’ Creed (“he was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose…”).

Aside from the methodological problem that is one individual attempting to surgically dismember an ecumenical creedal clause, I want to suggest here four reasons why we should avoid cutting the descent clause from the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

1. It is historically important.

While I agree with evangelical theologians that a Roman Catholic or Orthodox understanding of the descent clause should be rejected, this has not been what the clause has always meant. The “Harrowing of Hell” view arose toward the middle of the Medieval period, but before that the early church simply affirmed ubiquitously that Christ descended to the dead – that is, in his human nature he experienced death as all humans do, his body in the grave and his soul in the place of the (righteous dead), and in doing so by virtue of the hypostatic union the God-man conquered death. He also announced (“preached”) his victory to all the dead – good news for the righteous, bad news for the unrighteous. In other words, Jesus in his humanity experiences human death, and by virtue of his divine nature he conquers it. He also lets all the dead know he’s the conqueror.

2. It is biblically important.

Of course, as a Protestant the key to affirming any doctrine is not ultimately its historicity, no matter how ancient, but its foundation in Scripture. And the understanding of the descent outlined above is thoroughly biblical (as the ancient Christians also understood it to be). Jesus is said to have experienced human death in both body and soul in e.g. Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24; Rom. 10:7, and, I’d say, Eph. 4:9-11. He also conquers death through this experience in Rev. 1:18, and I’d also say 1 Pet. 3:18-22 teaches the same thing. I realize Grudem’s exegesis of that latter passage is influential, as is Augustine’s, but as Augustine recognized, the doctrine of the descent does not rise or fall with the interpretation of 1 Pet. 3:18-22 (see on this Justin Bass, The Battle for the Keys, who presents the most compelling biblical and historical case for the descent from an evangelical in print).

3. It is theologically important.

The descent is not a minor doctrine. For the early church, it was one of the most important ones, in fact. This is because much hinges on it – our nature as human beings and Christ’s full redemption of it; the beginning of Christ’s exaltation as the Lord over all things, even the last enemy, Death; the communion of saints; and the nature of Paradise as dwelling in the presence of God in Christ. It impacts our understanding of doctrines like soul sleep (and whether its even a viable possibility), the Sabbath and Jesus’ fulfillment of Israel’s hope, ownership of the Promised Land, the millennium, and the extent of the atonement.

4. It is pastorally important.

My Aunt Jane passed away last month. At her funeral, my most comforting thought was that, because she trusted in Christ’s atoning work for forgiveness, I know that Christ is with and for her, and in more ways than one. First, yes, our deceased Christian loved ones are now in the presence of the risen Christ, and yes that is comforting. We should acknowledge that this soul-ish life in the presence of Christ is due in part to Christ’s own soul-ish descent, a descent that, while the end point of his suffering, is also the beginning of his exaltation in his resurrection and ascension. This is a pastoral implication of the descent, to be sure.

But another often overlooked pastoral implication is that Christ, too, experienced death as we do on Holy Saturday. His body lay in the grave, beginning to rot. He experienced the ultimate sting of death, the body’s failure and the soul’s departure from it. He experienced the liminal space between death and resurrection pro nobis – for us. We can thus tell those who have lost Christian loved ones not only that there is light at the end of the tunnel in the resurrection of the dead, and not only that they experience Christ’s presence now – both supremely comforting, to be sure! – but also that Christ himself experienced what they experienced now and conquered it. And they, too, will be conquerors one day with all of us who live by faith in the died-yet-risen Son of God.

A Biblical Theology of Resurrection in an early Christian Burial

My wife, Aubree, and I recently had a chance to get away for a few days to visit Rome—the Eternal City. It was a great visit and Rome truly is one of the greatest cities, if not the greatest. We spent a few days doing the normal tourist things like finding pizza and gelato.

One of our destinations—not too long after some gelato—was the Catacombs of Priscilla, “Regina Catacumbarum: The Queen of the Catacombs.” This catacomb, was used during the 2nd–5th centuries AD and houses some 40,000 Christian graves with a great number of Christian martyrs. The tour was an interesting experience and I marvelled that the tombs were used by rich and poor Roman Christians because they desired to be buried together so that they might all resurrect together.

A particular meaningful part of the tour was a room called the “Cubiculum of the Veiled Woman.” It is thought that these frescoes date somewhere to the second-half of the third century, but I think what is really interesting is that it has a biblical theology of resurrection of sorts represented through painted frescoes.

The centre of the room has a young woman praying with her arms extended, and directly on her left and right are other life scenes—possibly scenes from her life or the life of her family. And above her, in the centre of the ceiling is a painting of the Good Shepherd in Paradise surrounded by lambs, peacocks, and doves.

On the wall to the left is a painting of Abraham and Isaac. And on the wall to the right is a painting to the right is Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the midst of the fiery flames. And in the archway of the room is the Prophet Jonah being vomited from the fish.

Each of these scenes depict resurrection, but it is interesting there is no picture of the empty tomb. It is clear that they put hope in that event, but these early Christians drew upon the Old Testament Scriptures as a way of depicting their hope of the resurrection of the dead. It appears—and I’m no Robert Langdon—that early Roman Christians understood that these Old Testament images reveal the character of God and his providential patterning of the future. What God has done in the past, they trust he will do again in the future.

If you were a Greek preposition, which one would you be?

Here is announcement that on 30 June-1 July 2017, Tyndale House in Cambridge is hosting a workshop on Greek prepositions. This workshop follows the highly successful conference on the Greek verb which resulted in an impressive volume from Lexham Press. The workshop will in particular be drawing from the resources of cognitive linguistic approaches to lexicography. There is a host of great presenters from within biblical studies and general linguistics. So if you’re interested in more information check out my friend Will Ross’s announcement or if you need no other convincing sign up here.

Presenters include:

Dirk Geeraerts
Linguistics, University of Leuven

Richard A. Rhodes
Linguistics, U.C. Berkeley

Jonathan A. Pennington
New Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Patrick James
Classics, University of Cambridge

Steven Runge
Logos Bible Software

Randall Buth
Biblical Language Center

 

KLICE Celebrates 10 Years

At tea time at Tyndale House today, we celebrated 10 years of the Kirby Lang Institute of Christian Ethics here in Cambridge. The mission of KLICE is:

facilitating academic research and publication by Institute staff, associates and post-graduate students

financially supporting a limited number of doctoral students working on issues in Christian ethics

organising academic conferences, seminars and symposia, and wider public events

publishing six issues of Ethics in Brief per year

offering commentary on selected ethical issues through lectures and talks and through the media

developing website resources to assist reflection on relevant areas of Christian ethics

KLICE is a great resource for theological ethics. I want to draw everyone’s attention to the fourth point on Ethics in Brief. This is a wonderful resource and all Christians can benefit from these briefs. They are available in print and online.

Andrew Fuller on the Incomprehensible Trinity

A helpful reminder from 18th century Baptist pastor and theologian, Andrew Fuller:

A subject so great and so much above our comprehension as this is requires to be treated with trembling. Everything that we can think or say, concerning the ever blessed God, requires the greatest modesty, fear, and reverence. Were I to hear two persons engaged in a warm contest upon the subject, I should fear for them both. One might in the main be right, and the other in the wrong; but if many words were used, they might both be expected to incur the reproof of the Almighty: “Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?” (Letters on Systematic Divinity)

Eternal Generation and “Monogenēs”

The doctrine of eternal generation does not stand or fall with how one translates “monogenēs.” Although Lee Irons has helpfully argued that the term probably had the connotation of “only begotten” in the fourth century and in the NT, this only gets us so far regarding classic Trinitarianism. Evangelicals who previously cast doubts upon eternal generation now seem eager to affirm it based on Irons’ lexicographical argument. While I am glad to see this shift, there are still a number of problems with the rationale given for such a change.

  1. Shifting one’s belief in eternal generation based on the translation of one word and/or the exegesis of one passage betrays methodological issues. While we should be ready to affirm any doctrine that is clearly taught in a particular passage or even by a particular word, this is often not how dogmatics works. A good theological method does not merely compile verses isolated from their context or other theological affirmations in Scripture. For a doctrine to be biblical, a whole host of other considerations are required. These include the exegesis of particular passages, the canonical context of each verse identified, and logical and dogmatic considerations of possible theological conclusions.
  2. Arius also affirmed that “monogenēs” means “only begotten.” Simply affirming that “monogenēs” means “only begotten” is the baseline not for affirming classic Trinitiarianism for what gave rise to the Nicene controversy in the first place. The Nicene debates were in many ways about what “only begotten” means, not the definition of a particular Greek word. Further, “monogenēs” itself was not necessarily the center of the exegetical debates; Proverbs 8:22, 25 functions much more prominently in many cases.
  3. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stood or fell with the translation of “monogenēs,” or the exegesis of passages that contain it. Because of the diversity of passages that Arius, Eunomius, and others cited in support of their position, the pro-Nicene exegetical arguments also ranged widely throughout Scripture. There was certainly focus on a few passages – Proverbs 8, John 5:26, and 1 Cor. 15:26 come to mind – but “monogenēs” itself, and the passages where it is found, comes up infrequently by contrast. This is because, again, the doctrine of eternal generation is not simply an affirmation that “monogenēs” means “only begotten,” but rather an exploration of what Scripture means by “begotten.” “Monogenēs” cannot answer that question by itself. In other words, eternal generation is not a doctrine that is summed up by the translation “only begotten.”
  4. Eternal generation is not a doctrine that stands in isolation from classic Trinitarianism. To paraphrase Boromir, one does not simply affirm bits and pieces of classic Trinitarianism in isolation from consideration of the whole. Eternal generation is tied up with (of course) the broader articulation of the eternal relations of origin, but also with simplicity, aseity, appropriation, inseparable operations, and a whole host of other dogmatic affirmations. While some evangelicals may not have cast doubt upon these corollaries, there are those who have questioned eternal generation while also questioning other pieces of the fabric of classic Christian theism.
  5. Eternal generation does not fit with ERAS. This point is basically the negative side of the previous one. Some evangelicals appear to think they can have their ERAS cake and eat eternal generation, too. But this simply doesn’t work, not only for biblical reasons but also for dogmatic ones.

I am glad that there are evangelicals who want to shift on eternal generation. But for these reasons I think it will take a much more systematic reorientation of their doctrine of God to do so.

The Extra Cyrillicum: In the Bosom of the Virgin, Filling All Creation

The doctrine known as the extra Calvinisticum states that the Son of God is not limited to nor circumscribed by his human nature. Even “after” the incarnation, the eternal Son still continues to exist as God, upholding the universe by the Word of his power, along with the Father and the Spirit. The doctrine emerged out the Reformation controversies over the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. The Lutherans maintained that the Son’s human nature became ubiquitous by virtue of its union with the divine nature and could therefore be present “in, with, and under” the elements of the Eucharist (a misapplication of the ancient doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, or communication of attributes). The logic of the Lutherans seemed to be that wherever the divinity of Christ is, there also is the humanity of Christ. The Calvinists, on the other hand, maintained that the incarnation does not introduce a change or mutation to either the human or the divine nature of Christ; instead, since both natures retain their integrity, the Son must continue to exist in his divinity, even apart from his human nature. The Lutherans lampooned this view, labeling it Calvin’s extra, meaning, “outside of”–as if Christ’s divinity was sort of spilling out of him in a spatial sense (for more on the extra, see Paul Helm’s essay on it here).

But the Calvinists had the upper hand in this debate–in terms of both Scripture and the Christian tradition. On the latter, David Willis has argued convincingly that the Calvinist view is so well attested in the tradition that the doctrine is more properly termed the extra Catholicum or the extra Patristicum, rather than the extra Calvinisticum.

One of the most common objections to the extra is that it runs the risk of Nestorianism. If Christ has a divine life, so to speak, outside of his incarnate experience, then doesn’t this entail that he is functioning effectively as two persons, one divine and one human? Gerald Hawthorne, for example, argues that the early church fathers implicitly taught this view, namely, that Christ has a kind of “dual existence” as God and as man. According to Hawthorne, this view either risks Nestorianism or else a kind of “de facto Docet[ism], failing to estimate fully the humanity in which divinity made itself visible.”

cyril

Ironically, Hawthorne cites Cyril of Alexandria as an example of this view. I say “ironically,” because Cyril was, of course, the chief anti-Nestorian in the lead up to the Third Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus (431), which denounced the two-persons heresy. So if Cyril himself affirms the extra, then it seems highly unlikely that it actually risks the error of Nestorianism. Here is the relevant portion on the issue from Cyril’s Third Epistle to Nestorius:

And we do not say that the flesh was changed into the Godhead, or again that the ineffable nature of God the Word was perverted into that of the flesh, for He is immutable and unalterable, ever abiding the same, according to the Scriptures; but while visible as a babe in swaddling clothes and yet in the bosom of the Virgin who bare him, He was filling all creation as God, and was enthroned with Him who begat Him. For the divinity is immeasurable and without magnitude, nor does it admit of circumspection.

The Word is united to flesh and so Christ is one person, but this does not mean that his divinity is contracted, so to speak, to his human nature. He remains the Word even in his incarnate state. Thus, because he has two natures, there is nothing improper in ascribing to him, as a single person, attributes and activities distinctive of his two natures: nursing at Mary’s breast, while at the same time filling all creation. So perhaps we could, with some justification, even speak of the doctrine as the extra Cyrillicum.

O Radix

If you don’t know about Malcolm Guite’s excellent little book of sonnets on the church year, Sounding the Seasons, you should remedy that. Guite is an Anglican poet-priest who has a knack for making the sturdy, permanent truths of the Christian faith as lively and relevant as they really are.

Guite opens with an extended selection of sonnets on Advent, including seven that match the great “O Antiphons” of the final seven days of Advent. Here is today’s sonnet, “O Radix,” celebrating the Root of Jesse:

All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root,
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshipped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.