Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category

Athanasius Explains Christmas

Because it is actually still Christmas—for seven more days.

It’s all here, in this quote. This is Christianity in a nutshell. Athanasius should’ve had an altar call when he finished this passage.

“All this He [God]  saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man. He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire” (On the Incarnation 2.8).


Dear Shane Claiborne, Thank You For Saving Us from Ourselves!

Shane Claiborne has a letter to nonbelievers in Esquire, in which he reinvents the liberal Protestant wheel, heroically distancing himself from street preachers, televangelists, and all other Christian meanies and then articulating a gospel of love and social justice to replace it.

Now I’m not trying to provide a rebuttal to his message by showing how classically “liberal” it is—that he’s unwilling to speak clearly about judgment or hell (though he is) and that he puts social justice at the heart of the gospel (though he does)—but rather that his letter deploys a certain cultural strategy of Christian engagement with the world. First, he shows an astonishing willingness to throw all of Christian history—and many of his contemporary brothers and sisters in Christ, while he’s at it—under the bus, in order to prove his own authenticity. (It’s amazing that after all these years, Shane Claiborne is the only one who’s gotten it!) And second, he interprets, and presents, the gospel in such a way that his unbelieving, secular readers will find nothing scandalous about Christianity. In other words, he wants to make Christianity relevant, a word he probably thinks is pretty good, and I think is very bad.

Take this for instance:

I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

This echoes Donald Miller’s now somewhat-famous stunt he pulled on a secular college campus, where he set up a confessional and, to the students’ surprise, the Christians confessed the sins of the church to their non-Christian peers.

Oh, but he’s reaching the heart of secular America! Maybe. I don’t think this is a strategy that’s going to stand the test of time, however, or even win Christians any long-term intellectual respect, which seems to be his primary goal to begin with. I don’t mean all this as a complete defense of the status quo. I don’t have much patience for televangelists or belligerent street preachers either, but could you choose a much easier target? Who, especially among the readership of Esquire, likes these people?! There should be a Christian equivalent to Godwin’s law of Nazi analogies (whoever draws a comparison to Hitler first loses the argument), except that in the place of Hitler you put televangelists. Also, and more importantly, the idea that religion-qua-Christianity is historically at the heart of the world’s ills, and consequently that we need to apologize for adhering to any form of historically grounded Christianity, is a pretty significantly flawed thesis, one generated from the heart of Modernity, and there are writers out there combating it. (For a relatively short and extremely clear treatment of this, see this article, by William Cavanaugh.) Furthermore, Claiborne often takes a lot of his cultural cues from the likes of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder (generally, Christendom bad, alternative pacifist ecclesial enclaves good) but seems to have missed the fact that these thinkers offer trenchant and inextricable critiques of modern liberal democracies in general, not just of American Christianity’s capitulation to it. In other words, the people Claiborne’s appealing to in Esquire are just the other side of the same coin. A more consistent critique for Claiborne to make would not be that Christians in America have corrupted the gospel and that he’s found the answer by being the first person to read the parable of the Good Samaritan but that Christians in America are actually unwittingly in league with the very people he’s trying to get to take him seriously. Because in the end, his message sounds like a public service announcement. Be loving! Be Nice to poor people! Be tolerant! In the end, Claiborne’s critique is not radical enough. It sounds like civil religion.

The whole thing comes off, on one hand, as a smug dismissal of his own tribe and, on the other, as a plea for religion’s cultured despisers to take Christianity seriously. The nerdy kid on the playground disavowing all of his nerdy friends in order to hang out with the popular kids.

Five Essential Books for Christians?

I’m trying to get some thoughts going for a little thingy I’m working on, and it involves this question: What five books, besides the Bible, do you think every Christian ought to have on his or her bookshelf (and to have read, not just to look smart). I have my starting points, but I want to know what others think they should be. Naturally, it could be anything, but try to be realistic, so try to choose books that are comprehensible to the ordinary layperson (which isn’t to say they can’t be challenging).

So. Five essential books for the Christian. Go.

Reflections on Robert Louis Wilken at Wheaton

This past weekend, I took a quick jaunt up to Chicagoland to hear Robert Louis Wilken give the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College. As I’ve written before, I’m a fan of Wilken’s work. A friend of mine is a grad student in biblical exegesis at Wheaton, and we often spar over various “methods” of scriptural interpretation, that is, “critical exegesis” vs. “theological interpretation” (both of which travel under myriad other names), which I’ve also written about before. To top it off, the title of Wilken’s lecture was “Going Deeper into the Bible: The Church Fathers as Interpreters.” My friend had invited me to stay with him and his wife, so I thought it would be fun to drive up there and have a full-out theological smackdown weekend, and it did not disappoint (except that the weekend was too short). The lecture was great (though, disappointingly, no Q&A session), we had lots of good conversation, and I got to visit IVP and see our old stomping grounds of, well, two months ago.

But this is not just a “newsy” post (the kind my mom covets so much). I want to write about a dynamic I perceived that I think is emblematic of the American theological/Christian scene and evangelicals’ place in it. A bit of biography on Wilken is in order here. While not quite in his winter years, Wilken is at the tail end of a prolific and accomplished career. He is a former president of the American Academy of Religion, an institution not historically amenable to traditional and confessional forms of Christianity, and until recently even somewhat hostile to them. One of his earliest books, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (now a classic), aims pretty hard at debunking idealized notions of the early church by sympathetically exploring the logic of Roman criticisms of Christianity. He’s taught at both Notre Dame and Fordham, both Catholic institutions, but not ones where faculty necessarily have to adhere to the strictest forms of orthodoxy. He’s spent the better part of his late career at the University of Virginia. All this is to say, as you’ve probably guessed, that Wilken has always had at least one foot firmly planted in the secular academic world. One could interpret his career in one of two ways, I think. Either, you could say, he intentionally built his intellectual and academic reputation on works that would gain respect not just in seminaries but in the secular academic realm of religious studies in order to later articulate a more positive and robust faith in works like The Spirit of Early Christian Thought, a wonderful exploration of the patristic theological heritage. Or, you could say, he actually did shift throughout his career from a more liberal to a more conservative position, marked in the middle by his conversion from his Lutheran faith to Roman Catholicism. This latter scenario is what I think is more likely.

Okay. If you’re still with me, I applaud you. For here finally is my observation. Wilken’s lecture at Wheaton consisted basically of the lineaments of patristic scriptural interpretation, buttressed by weighty examples from the likes of Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine. Now for those familiar with these kinds of discussions, there was nothing surprising; it was pretty basic, full of all the classic mistakes that my Bible professors warned me that the church fathers make. Prooftexting! Eisegesis! Allegory! Platonism! (Though it takes some fancy interpretive footwork for them to legitimate the fact that the authors of the New Testament are guilty of all the same “heresies.”) My friend had pointed out to me beforehand his biblical exegesis professors sitting in the audience, who evidently spend a good deal of time meticulously constructing these patristic straw men in order to knock them down with a wave of their historical-critical finger. But here is where the night came to its full ironic climax, and where I realized yet again why—as caustic, dismissive, and cynical as I have often been—I so often prefer the semi-educated, nonacademic “exegesis” in the local evangelical churches I have attended over the years. Here I am, sitting at Wheaton College, a school dripping with evangelical heritage—Billy Graham was president here for goodness’ sake—arguably the center of “thinking” evangelicalism, a school that supposedly defines itself by its fidelity to a broadly confessional evangelical milieu, and I can almost hear the pedantically dismissive demurrals from the exegesis professors when Wilken tells us that Scripture is alive, and that when we read it we encounter God in the words, and that proper interpretation of Scripture is intimately connected to doctrine and to the individual’s spiritual comportment. I can almost hear them say, “But what does that have to do with the ancient Near Eastern background!” And the kicker was when Wilken said, referring to our interpretation of Scripture—and he repeated it two or three times—”It’s not in the head, it’s in the heart.” At this point, though, the biblical exegesis professors had probably already stopped listening.

Evangelicalism in the academy is in such a weird place right now. Does it really take somebody from entirely outside the scope of evangelicalism, and a papist for that matter, to tell us that our Bibles can teach us something useful for our lives? That we don’t have to have a Ph.D. in ancient Semitic languages, or even a preacher who does, to understand the text? The Bible belongs to the church, not the professors.

Two things. First, Wilken knew what he was doing. He knew his audience, and while it was a thoroughly academic delivery, not short on the language of the church fathers, when it came down to it, he could have dwelled at length on phrases such as fides quaerens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”), but he didn’t. He said, “it’s not in the head, it’s in the heart,” a distinctly evangelical locution.

Second, it didn’t fall entirely on deaf ears, as I have made it appear. This was, after all, the inaugural lecture for the Center for Early Christian Studies, whose mere existence is a late indicator of a shift in the world of evangelicals’ relationship to Scripture and their opening up to the intellectual and cultural ferment of the first six or seven centuries of the church (though I would like to see us open up to the tradition as a whole; there’s still about, oh, a thousand years we all skip between the end of the patristic age and the Reformation). I slaved over the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture at InterVarsity Press for the last two and a half years, for pete’s sake. But I was there with my modern biblical exegete friend (who, I must say, is not entirely unsympathetic to my views), and taking it all in through his eyes and the eyes of his professors, one of whom we overheard after the lecture declaiming in smug tones to a gaggle of students that if Wilken wanted to go on speculating about whatever he thought the text meant, why then, by all means, it’s a free country (or some such dreck). I don’t think the biblical exegesis profs at Wheaton are talking much to their historical and systematic theology colleagues, the latter of whom are even writing books about this stuff. Which is a shame really. My friend put a few questions to Wilken after the lecture, some about what biblical exegesis profs think about this kind of stuff, and Wilken was a tad prickly about the whole thing, and even tersely advised my friend to stay away from biblical studies! I would say Wilken was dismissive, but I got the impression that he had tried many times to have discussions with those ensconced in the world of biblical studies, and had finally decided to wash his hands of them. And while I used to say that there was an equal amount of mud slinging from one side to the other, I have come to think that it tends to be a bit one sided, especially among evangelical academics. Theologians who want to interpret Scripture “theologically” generally don’t dismiss historical-critical endeavors but try to put it in its place, while those in biblical studies tend to dismiss theological interpretation as wrongheaded.

And here at the end I reiterate the weird thing about the academic evangelical moment. While more and more evangelical biblical scholars are embracing the spiraled heights of critical exegesis, theological interpretation, that is, interpretation according to the church’s tradition, is all the rage in the larger academy. And then these evangelical scholars accuse them of faulty interpretation! Pot, meet kettle.

Lewis Ayres Summarizes Pro-Nicene Theology in Two Sentences

Wrap your mind around this, or rather let this wrap itself around your mind.

Learning to speak of Father, Son, and Spirit as inseparably operating while still affirming that any one of the divine persons is not the other two, and that each possesses the fullness of the Godhead, does not so much lead us to an easy imagining of their diversity and unity as it defers our comprehension and draws our minds to the constantly failing (even as constantly growing) character of our interpretation of what is held in faith. The development of such attention to the mysteries of divine triunity is, ideally, the shaping of an ongoing process of analogical judgement, a process in which we learn to display a balance between admitting human inability to comprehend the divine and appropriately exploring the providentially ordered resources of the language of faith (Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy [Oxford, 2004], 297).

Now that’s theology!

The Historical Jesus: Eschatological, Apocalyptic Prophet. Or Not.

I’m proofing a book on the historical Jesus, and in the following two quotes cited in the introduction, the volume editors point out that consensus is often in the eye of the beholder:

One of the strongest consensuses in New Testament research is that Jesus’
mission was to proclaim the dawning of God’s Rule, the Kingdom of
God. Research on Mark 9:1 has convinced virtually every specialist that
Jesus’ teaching was emphatically apocalyptic and eschatological. (J. H. Charlesworth, 1994)

The old consensus that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who proclaimed the imminent end of the world has disappeared . . . [and] is no longer held by the majority of North American scholars actively engaged in Jesus research. (Marcus Borg, 1988)

John Calvin Is 500 Years Old Today

Like many people, I used to assume Calvin was as dusty, dry, and doctrinaire as he was made out to be by his detractors and supporters alike. That is until, you know, I actually read him. I was instead delighted to find his mind afire with the love of God, his prose lively, his theology dynamic and stimulating, and his spirituality marvelously devotional. (Indeed he never would have separated the latter two.) After Karl Barth read John Calvin, he described him this way:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalayas, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately…. I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

A demonic power. In a good way.

A lot of people lay much of the responsibility for the Enlightenment at the feet of the Reformers, especially Calvin and Luther (and this is not a compliment). I think, rather, that there is a better case to be made for them as the last medievals (and that is a compliment). Happy five hundredth, Old Master.


I like this portrait of Calvin because it displays his humanity better than many of the other portraits out there, which instead portray a dark arch-predestinarian looking sternly but glumly out on the world. IVP recently published a pretty decent, and extremely readable, biography of Calvin that attempts to depict him not as the fiery, despotic Genevan theocrat handing down death sentences from on high but as a human being, fiery and controversial, yes, but also thoughtful, vulnerable, and sometimes even fragile, an exile in almost constant forced peregrination, a pilgrim in complete submission to God’s will, and I think it largely succeeds. Check it out.

And check out this clever Wattersonian drawing of Calvin and Hobbes’s actual namesakes (John and Thomas, respectively) that I found here. I love it!


What’s Wrong with Theology: A Short Case Study

Earlier today, browsing the Amazon page for Augustine’s Essential Sermons, I came across this passage from the “Product Description”:

The eleven volumes of Augustine’s popular sermons (Sermones ad populum) . . . showcase Augustine the brilliant speaker and engaging preacher of the Word and have proven an indispensable resource for contemporary scholarship. . . . [Edmund] Hill’s translation and extensive notes have received many accolades by scholars, but professors have clamored for a one-volume anthology in paperback form that would be affordable to students and that could be used as required texts in teaching undergraduates, graduate students and seminarians. . . . Students and preachers alike will discover Augustine’s masterful interpretation of the Word of God and creative skills in engaging the people of God.

What’s wrong with this description? More importantly, who is missing? These sermons are “an indispensable resource for contemporary scholarship,” and the translations have received “many accolades by scholars,” and this one-volume anthology will be useful for “undergraduates, graduate students and seminarians.” But where is the layperson? There’s a reason they ain’t titled Sermones ad professorum. They were preached in a church to laypeople, and now they are tragically of interest primarily to scholars and students training to become scholars. The devoted layperson has been left out of the picture altogether. Language like this is a symptom of a disease — the co-opting of theology by the academy from its place in service to the church.

Augustine himself would have been unhappy with our bifurcation of theology and spirituality, or their institutional parallels, academy and church. Consider:

Factum audivimus: mysterium requiramus.
(We have heard the fact, let us seek the mystery.)

One of the maddening things about my “Christian spirituality” classes in grad school was the constant separation students fretted over between “head” and “heart.” This may have been a legitimate problem, but the way they articulated it made it sound like the problem was somehow too much theology. Wrong! A bifurcation of “head” and “heart” is the result of faulty theology, not too much. Something we could learn by reading more Augustine.

(A bracing post-Enlightenment tonic for this ailment is Andrew Louth’s marvelous book Discerning the Mystery: An Essay on the Nature of Theology, which Eighth Day Books has put back in print.)

(crossposted at Nonnus.)

Hello, My Lovelies


Thes first two volumes—We Believe in One God and We Believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, edited by Gerald Bray and John McGuckin respectively—of the Ancient Christian Doctrine series (five volumes total) just landed on my desk, fresh from the printer.

Here’s copy from the website, explaining the series:

This exciting five-volume series follows up on the acclaimed Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture to provide patristic commentary on the Nicene Creed. The series renders primary Greek, Latin, Coptic and Syriac source material from the church fathers in lucid English translation (some here for the first time) and gives readers unparalleled insight into the history and substance of what the early church believed. Including biographical sketches, a timeline of ancient Christian sources, indexes, bibliographies and keys to original language sources as well as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in Greek, Latin and English (ICET version), this series illuminates key theological essentials in the light of classic and consensual Christian faith and makes an excellent resource for preaching and teaching.

The first volume of another exciting series, Ancient Christian Texts, also recently arrived from the printer: Gerald Bray’s translation of Ambrosiaster’s commentaries on Romans and First and Second Corinthians.


Soon to follow are translations of Origen’s homilies on Numbers, and Cyril of Alexandria’s massive commentary on the Gospel of John. These are just the highlights of around thirteen volumes (you can read the whole list at the link to the series page above), many of which are appearing in English for the first time.

The Torn Curtain in Matthew 27

This morning in our adult education hour we were discussing the resurrection narrative in Matthew. Naturally to discuss resurrection it’s important to go back over the crucifixion narrative. We were specifically talking about Matthew 27:51, the moment just after Jesus dies: “At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” Our teacher (a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) said that although this is usually taken as implying that people now have direct access to God, he didn’t think so. Rather, he said, the torn curtain indicated that God’s presence had left the temple. We pushed him on this, and he gave three reasons why he thinks this is the case (with some of my extrapolations along the way).

First, the former reading (that the torn curtain represents unmediated access to God), is anti-Jewish in a way that is otherwise foreign to Matthew’s Gosepl. In other words, it implies that God wasn’t active in Jewish religion prior to Christ. Christ fulfilled Israel’s hopes as the Messiah; he didn’t introduce something totally new. It still represents judgment (see third point below) but not in a way that wouldn’t have made sense to Jews, for whom Matthew was writing. Furthermore, mediation is always necessary on some level—even if all you mean by that is that now Christ is our mediator. This would have represented a reinterpretation of the role of Israel’s messiah, but not a clean break. I would add that this makes sense in that the action of Yahweh is now associated with Christ and his people (i.e., the church) and not with temple ritual.

Second, the idea doesn’t fit with Christ’s directionality in the Synoptic tradition (i.e., Matthew, Mark, and Luke). That is, Jesus is presented as coming out or coming into—he comes into the world; he comes out of the tomb. The former reading presents God as passive, but the Synoptics present God as active. Even if you give it a trinitarian gloss, Jesus comes from the Father. He is eternally begotten of the Father.

Third, In the Old Testament and other Jewish literature, murder and sin typically result in God’s abondonment of the temple. Two examples: the exilic literature presents the destruction of the temple as a result of God’s abandonment of his people due to their recalcitrant idolatry. The temple was destroyed in the sixth century B.C. because God had withdrawan his presence from the temple in judgment. Josephus does the same thing when the Romans destroy the temple again in A.D. 70. According to him the zealots had acted wrongly, and God had withdrawn his presence from the temple, allowing it to be destroyed. The  highly apocalyptic imagery of Matthew 27:51-53 (earthquakes, the torn curtain, Old Testament saints rising from the dead and walking around) seems to reinforce this as a passage of judgment rather than of God’s opening up to his people. Of course, it still represents an opening up, just in a different way.