Category Archives: Patristics

Lenten War

I think it’s a fair assessment to say that many Christians play defense when it comes to their spiritual life. They wait for problems to arise and then pray or fast in order to combat them. I believe that Lent is a season that puts us on offense. The spiritual disciplines practiced during this season enable us to wage war on the enemy, namely Satan, but also our own flesh.

In one of his sermons on Lent, Leo the Great said, “For what is more accepted than this time, what more suitable to salvation than these days, in which war is proclaimed against vices and progress is made in all virtues?”  (Sermon 40.2). Leo continued in this sermon to say that fasting is not enough. To that we add works of piety. He’s talking about going on offense.

If we were to stick with the three basic disciplines, fasting, giving, and prayer then we’d have all that we need to combat “all that is in the world” (1 John 2:16). Jesus succeeded where Adam and Israel failed. Through the power of his resurrection we have the ability to succeed in these areas as well.

 Adam (Loss)Israel (Loss)Jesus (Win)
Lust of the FleshGen 3:6Num 11:1–9, 31–35Matt 4:2–4
Lust of the EyeGen 3:6Deut 6:13–15; 1 Cor 10:7–8Matt 4:8–10
Pride of LifeGen 3:6Deut 6:16; 1 Cor 10:9–10Matt 4:5–7

Fasting combats the lust of the flesh. The lust of the flesh is our baser desires. It’s what drives us to do the things that feel good even when they’re not pleasing to God. When we fast, we deny our physical desires to keep our appetites under control. We control our desires rather than allowing our desires to control us.

Giving combats the lust of the eye. The lust of the eye is at the root of jealousy, envy, and covetousness. It’s inherently selfish. Giving, with the right heart, is selfless. It focuses our attention on helping those in need rather than on fulfilling our wants.

Prayer combats the pride of life. The pride of life is thinking more of ourselves than we ought to. It’s exalting ourselves above God and pretending that we are in control. Prayer is a recognition that we aren’t in control. It’s turning to the one who stands above us and can make a real difference in our lives and the lives of others.

These three basic disciplines are all that we need to emerge victorious in the spiritual war against our enemy, but we can add many other works of piety into the mix. Leo speaks of clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and showing our humaneness to the sick, exiled, and orphaned.

Whatever disciplines we choose to practice during the Lenten season, let us practice them with an eye on the victory of Christ in his resurrection. It is in the resurrection that he defeated the final enemy, death itself!



Ad Fontes

I recently purchased Brian E. Daley’s God Visible: Patristic Christology Reconsidered and while awaiting the physical copy have begun reading the early parts of the book in Kindle. Early on Daley mentions how he “critically edited, as [his] doctoral thesis ,the works of the sixth-century apologist for the Christology of Chalcedon, Leontius of Byzantium.” I have Daley’s critical edition of the Complete Works of Leontius of Byzantium in the Oxford Early Christian Texts series, which contains a Greek text, critical apparatus, translation on facing page, and an in-depth introduction not to mention some helpful back matter.

What strikes me is that this immensely helpful volume began as a doctoral thesis. It makes me wonder why there aren’t more doctoral theses being produced in this vein. I’m well aware that Daley’s work wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, but how many more people need to do a doctorate on the most minute matters of Pauline theology when there remains so many untranslated texts from antiquity? We need more critical editions and translations of primary source material. Period. And while we’re at it, we need all of the ones we have available in Accordance, Logos, and whatever other Bible software is available.

Ad fontes people, ad fontes.


Gregory the Theologian on Athanasius

“He was the first and only one, or with the concurrence of but a few, to venture to confess in writing and with entire clearness and distinctness the unity of Godhead and essence of the three Persons and thus to attain in later days, under the influence of inspiration, to the same faith in regard to the Holy Spirit as had been bestowed at an earlier time on most of the Fathers in regard to the Son.”

Oration 21.33 as quoted in Athanasius (The Early Church Fathers), 24.



Gregory the Theologian on the Divine Monarchy

29.2. The three most ancient opinions concerning God are Anarchia, Polyarchia, and Monarchia. The first two are the playthings of the children of Hellas, and may they continue to be so. For Anarchy is a thing without order; and the Rule of Many is factious, and thus anarchical, and thus disorderly. For both these theological positions tend to the same thing, namely disorder; and thus to dissolution, for disorder is the first step to dissolution. But Monarchy is that axiom which we hold in honor. It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one person, for it is possible for unity, if at variance with itself, to come into a condition of plurality; but we hold it to be made out of an equality of nature and a union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a consilience of its elements to unity (a thing which is impossible for created natures) so that though it is numerically distinct there is no severance of essence involved. Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; though without passion, of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Spirit the Emission; (I say this since I do not know how else this can be expressed in terms that wholly exclude material conceptions). But we shall not venture to speak of “An overspill of goodness,” as one of the Greek Philosophers dared to say, as if God were like a wine-bowl filled to overflowing, saying this in plain words in his oration on the First and Second Causes. Let us never look on this matter of divine generation as being involuntary, like some natural overflow, hard to be retained, for it is by no means fitting to our conception of the Godhead. Therefore let us confine ourselves within our proper limits, and speak of the “Unbegotten” and the “Begotten” and that which “Proceeds from the Father,” as in one place God the Word himself expressed it.

Oration 29 as reproduced in The Encyclopedia of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, 699.


Home Library/Office Tour

I wanted to do this for a while. I had some time today. One day I’ll get a good camera and give this thing some real production value.



Very Early Trinitarian Expressions

Jeff “The Data Miner” Downs alerted me to a recent article by Stuart E. Parsons in the Tyndale Bulletin called “Very Early Trinitarian Expressions.” Here’s the abstract:

While older scholarship identified the earliest use of Trinitarian terminology near the end of the second century in the work of Theophilus of Antioch, some recent studies have challenged this view. However, while affirming certain insights of these newer studies, it is necessary to revisit them in light of the historical setting of the second-century apologists. In reality, Theophilus and other early apologists evidenced a certain implicit Trinitarianism by affirming unity, distinction, eternal pre-existence and economic subordination in the Godhead. Studies of early Trinitarian terminology must look beyond explicit descriptions of the Godhead. They must consider also broad patterns of implicit Trinitarianism.

Here’s the PDF. I plan to give it a look while at work today.


Quote of the Day

Origen quoting Celcus:

If these people worshipped no other god but one, perhaps they would have a valid argument against the others. But in fact they worship to an extravagant degree this man who appeared recently, and yet think it is not inconsistent with monotheism if they also worship his servant.

Contra Celsus 8.12.


The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity

OHT.pngEmery, Gilles and Matthew Levering, eds.

The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xvi + 632. Hardcover. $150.00.

Amazon | CBD



With thanks to Oxford University Press for this review copy!

It’s quite common to talk about the rise, fall, and resurgence of Trinitarian theology. One is hard pressed to open up any of the dozens of recent books on file and not find a reference to the role that Friedrich Schleiermacher played in its demise or the role that Karl Barth and Karl Rahner played in its renewal. But for as ubiquitous as this claim is, it is equally wrong, or at least in need of nuancing as editors Matthew Levering (Professor of Theology at the University of Dayton, Ohio) and Gilles Emery (Professor of Theology at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland) point out in the introduction to The Oxford Handbook of the Trinity. They rightly note that “in reality reflection on the Trinity has never ceased to be fruitful and give rise to new approaches” (1).

There was never a dark age of theology where the Trinity was forgotten and in need of rescuing and this volume helps to bring this to light. It does so by gathering essays from an interdisciplinary and ecumenical (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant) group of scholars, which include some of the best in the fields of biblical studies, historical, and systematic theology. While not slavishly tracing the development of Trinitarian theology throughout the ages, they helpfully show that it has always been a topic of conversation from the time of the Scriptures to the present day. A summary of each of the 43 essays in this massive tome would be cumbersome, and the editors have done a much better job of that than I could anyway, so I will offer a brief overview and some reflective comments on the overall usefulness of this resource.

The volume is divided into seven disproportionate parts. Part 1 contains six chapters on “The Trinity in Scripture” although only four of them are properly devoted to Scripture (Seitz on the OT; Rowe on Paul & Hebrews; Gathercole on the Synoptics & Acts; and Ben Witherington on the Johannine Literature). Khaled Anatolios’ chapter discusses “The Canonization of Scripture,” which isn’t so much about the process of canonization as it is about how the canon determined the contours by which the Church Fathers, namely Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, and Augustine formed their theology/apologetic. Mark Edwards’ contribution is geared more toward patristic exegesis but serves to segue into the next section. Part 2 contains four chapters on the “Patristic Witness to the Trinitarian Faith” and spans the Ante-Nicene Fathers to the “Late Patristic Developments in the East,” notably concluding with the Trinity’s relation to the rise of Islam, a subject that deserved treatment in part 7 of the book but unfortunately received none.

Part 3 contains five chapters covering “Medieval Appropriations of the Trinitarian Faith” and offers a nice array of essays that span the particular to the general. For example, Lauge O. Nielsen treats the Trinitarian theology of four theologians in particular: Alcuin, Gottschalk, John Scotus Eriugena, and Anselm of Canterbury, while Russell Friedman more generally treats 13th to 15th century Trinitarian theology. Karl Christian Felmy comprises a nice middle ground between general and particular in discussing the controversies, theology, and major players in “The Development of the Trinity Doctrine in Byzantium.” Part 4 contains nine chapters spanning “The Reformation to the Twentieth Century.” There’s considerable diversity in this section as it covers both Catholic and Protestant Trinitarian theology in the 19th century as well as modern Orthodox thinking; the contributions of major figures like the magisterial Reformers and the top theologians of the last generation (Barth, Rahner, and von Balthasar); and there’s even a foray into the discussions taking place among contemporary analytic philosophers.

Part 5 contains eight chapters on “Trinitarian Dogmatics” that are smartly arranged according to most of the major loci of systematic theology. Kathryn Tanner’s article on “The Trinity as Christian Teaching” serves as something of a prolegomena, while the following four essays comprise the theology proper, dealing with the divine Persons and their names (Te Velde), Patrology (Durand), Christology (Weinandy), and Pneumatology (Marshall), respectively. The remaining essays can be categorized according to theological anthropology (Saarinen), ecclesiology/sacramentology (Morerod), and soteriology (Keating). Part 6 contains seven chapters on a variety of issues pertaining to “The Trinity and Christian Life.” One expects articles on liturgy & preaching (Wainwright), morality (Cessario; Hall), and prayer (Murphy), but chapters on art (Bœspflug), feminism (Harrison), and politics (Bauerschmidt) were surprising though they shouldn’t have been—the conciliar debates have shown us how the Trinity and politics impact each other and art is an integral part of all life. Treating feminism seems dated but Harrison, in usual fashion, offers helpful correctives to extremes on both sides of the debate.

Part 7 contains four chapters of “Dialogues.” In two of those chapters (Fergusson and D’Costa respectively) the doctrine of the Trinity is set as the point of reference for ecumenical dialogue and advancement among the major branches of the Christian church, as well as the guiding principle, along with the mysteries of the Church and kingdom, for our engagement with and understanding of non-Christian religions. Charry discusses the respective Jewish and Christian doctrines of God through examples of Jewish-Christian dialogues throughout history, being careful not to frame the issue so as to give preference to the Trinity an thus eliminate true dialogue. I have to admit confusion over exactly what Rowland contributed; I simply couldn’t understand it. This volume is rounded out with a concluding chapter from the editors on the prospects of Trinitarian theology followed by a general index that combines cited authors and subjects.

Not since the 1999 volume The Trinity: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on the Trinity have I seen such a diverse collection of essays from such an esteemed group of contributors. But in addition to having a stellar lineup, this volumeis surprisingly accessible, and geared toward those eager to learn (as evidenced in the suggested reading lists and bibliographies at the end of each chapter). I expected quite a bit of technical discussion, and it’s there to be sure, but I’d have no problem directing beginning students to parts 1 & 2 of this volume in order to get their bearings in the field. Now I will admit that as one advances through the chapters they’ll notice that the reading gets tougher, but I think that’s reflective of the shifts in Trinitarian theology from the Bible to the modern age, with the biblical faith and witness veering more toward lucidity and modern reflections being somewhat muddled (as seen, e.g., in my utter confusion over what exactly Rowland was saying).

There were a number of standout essays, notably Christopher Seitz on “The Trinity in the Old Testament” in which he persuasively argues that the “literal sense” of the Old Testament points to the Trinity more than simply mining for “threesomes” in the text ever could. He also helpfully (and rightfully) highlights the rigorous exegesis of the Church Fathers in their debates and doctrinal formulations. Had the Trinity not been in the Old Testament then one wonders how patristic exegesis yielded so robust a doctrine. It’s unfortunate that Seitz’s was the lone essay on this topic. George Hunsinger’s “Karl Barth’s Doctrine of the Trinity, and Some Protestant Doctrines After Barth” is about as good of an introduction to Barth’s Trinitarianism as one could hope for in less than twenty pages. I only wish he had more space to expand his appropriately critical comments on Moltmann, Pannenberg, and Jüngel, all of whom he finds at odds with both Barth and Rahner in some form or other.

But for as satisfied as I am with this volume I will admit to being a bit greedy. I would have liked to have seen the “Dialogues” section beefed up with a chapter on the Trinity and Islam (as we find in the recently published Cambridge Companion to the Trinity with David B. Burrell’s chapter “Trinity in Judaism and Islam”). I also found myself wishing that there was a standalone chapter on the filioque, one that addressed its history and theology. As it stands, Bruce Marshall devoted a few pages (405-10) to it in his chapter on “Trinitatian Pneumatology,” and David Fergusson gives it just over a page (550-51) in his chapter on “Ecumenism and the Doctrine of the Trinity Today,” but there’s no real sustained engagement with the doctrine. And while I’m wishing for more (in a massive 600+ page volume mind you!), I would have appreciated a bit more with regard to the Trinity in analytic philosophy. There’s a lot going on in that field and one short essay doesn’t quite capture the gist of it.

While I’m nitpicking allow me to lodge an aesthetic complaint or two. I was irked by the inconsistent use of transliterated and untransliterated Greek throughout the volume. Surely this is something that should have been caught in the editorial process and given some kind of uniformity before it went to publication. And the recommended reading at the end of each chapter lacks uniformity as well. Under the heading of “Suggested Reading” in many chapters we read, “The following are recommended,” followed by the authors’ names and the year of publication in parentheses (see, e.g., 26, 67, 265). Then we find those recommended volumes in the subsequent bibliography. Some chapters omit the “The following are recommended” introduction to the list (see, e.g., 413, 470). Other chapters simply have a bibliography under the heading “Suggested Reading” (see, e.g., 279) while others annotate their “Suggested Reading” (see, e.g., 122, 136). As silly as it sounds, things like this actually hinder the reading process, at least for readers such as me.

These wishes and aesthetic gripes aside, I’d heartily recommend this volume to anyone who can get past the prohibitive price tag and procure a copy. In a perfect world it would be re-released as an affordable paperback and put into the hands of every student of Trinitarian theology.


Some Comments on Christology

There have been a couple of posts over the last two days pertaining to Christology over at Triablogue. Yesterday Steve Hays linked to some stuff about Reformed Christology (which I’ve yet to check out) and said:

The Orthodox routinely accuse Calvinists of being Nestorians. Now, our primary concern ought to be with NT Christology, not patristic or concililar Christology. But for those who take a keen interest in historical theology, here are some useful discussions regarding traditional Reformed Christology:

Two comments:

  1. Lutherans accuse Calvinists of being Nestorians as well, so the Orthodox are in Protestant company on that one.
  2. But more to the point, patristic and conciliar Christology’s primary concern was with biblical (OT & NT) Christology. The debates that took place in the 3rd to 5th centuries were exegetical debates.

Today, another Triblogue contributor, John Bugay, linked to some posts on another blog about Christology. He also agreed with Hays that NT Christology should be our primary concern, but again, it was the primary concern of the Fathers and the Councils. We’re not doing anything differently than they were in exegeting the texts. But one of the posts Bugay links to says:

Charges of Nestorianism are floating about with rather alarming looseness.

Folks, one isn’t Nestorian unless one believes in Christ having two separate persons. And it isn’t Nestorian to say that something can happen to one nature and not the other, any more than it is Nestorian to say that Jesus sometimes acts according to one nature, and sometimes acts according to the other nature. What is true for the activities of Jesus is also true of the passivities, especially since Jesus actively took upon Himself the suffering.

One must make a distinction, if you will pardon the pun, between the distinction of Christ’s two natures (which is Chalcedonian!), as opposed to the separation of the two natures (which is Nestorian). But again, here we must say that just because something happens to one nature and not the other does not mean that we are separating the two natures. That is a definite confusion I am seeing in some of the comments. Just because one does not scrape one’s violin bow across the tuning pegs of a violin does not mean that one has separated the violin strings from the tuning pegs. Now, every analogy will break down, of course. My only point here is that positing suffering of only the human nature of Christ does not constitute Nestorianism in any way, shape, or form.

I’ve not read the 150 (!) comments on the post, so I’m probably repeating something that has been said, but the issue is this: One needn’t say that Christ is two persons outright for that to be the logical conclusion of what they do say. When people relegate Christ’s activities to this or that nature then they treat the natures as personal. The logical conclusion is that there are two persons in Christ. Whether we say that one nature does something and another nature does something else, or something happens to one nature while nothing happens to the other, the conclusion is still the same, there’s a fundamental separation, contrary to the protestations of this author (who’s name I don’t see attached to the post). Whatever happens to Christ happens to Christ. Not to one nature or the other. Christ suffered and died on the cross, was buried, and three days later rose from the dead. This happened to Christ, not one of his natures, which are inseparable from his person.

And the issue of Nestorianism is often misunderstood anyway. Forget about the language of “two persons” for a moment and consider Nestorius’ fundamental issue, which was the language of Mary as theotokos (Mother of God). Many Protestants would agree with Nestorius’ main point, which was that Mary couldn’t be said to be the mother of God since God preexisted Mary, but rather she was the christotokos, the mother of Christ’s human nature. But therein lies the problem; God became incarnate in the womb of a virgin. That virgin carried the incarnate God to term and delivered him into the world as an infant. Unless one separates the natures of the incarnate God, as Nestorius’ Christology logically forced him to do (and keep in mind that from what we know, Nestorius never actually affirmed that there were two persons in Christ, this was the polemical description of the logical outcome of his position) then they should have no problems with calling Mary the mother of God or saying that God was crucified and resurrected.

Alright, so that’s that. To recap: Patristic and Conciliar Christology is primarily exegetically driven biblical (OT & NT) Christology, and if it looks like a Nestorian, walks like a Nestorian, and quacks like a Nestorian, then it’s a duck.