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The Patrologist

Conference on Chrysostom, and a paper by myself

On the just passed Friday and Saturday I was delighted to attend the Seventh Saint Andrew’s Patristic Symposium at St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College, Sydney. The topic was Chrysostom, and the keynote speakers were Wendy Mayer and Pauline Allen. Top class speakers!


Anyway, I have uploaded a recording of my own presentation, “Chrysostom: Proof Texts and Problem Texts” which you may listen to at your leisure. I think with a bit more work it will turn into a nice article of its own.


A thesis snapshot

This is my introductory paragraph and my written description of contents:

The following study compares the exegetical practices of two authors, Basil of Caesarea and Hilary of Poitiers, in two of their most significant works, Contra Eunomium and De Trinitate, in order to demonstrate that one of the features of fourth century theologians that are traditionally identified as ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Pro-Nicene’ is their common exegetical practice. It thereby explores the larger question, of whether pro-Nicene exegesis is a consistent phenomenon, in light of a small question, of the extent of similarity between Basil and Hilary writing in the early 360s.

The study proceeds in two sections. In the first, I survey recent revisionism around the concept of pro-Nicenism and the general historiography of the fourth century theological debates, examine the work of Hanson, Behr, Ayres, and Anatolios, and move towards a synthesis of this recent revisionism. This provides the basis for the construction of the idea of pro-Nicenism and the context in which pro-Nicene exegesis may be configured. In the following chapter, I provide a historical contextualisation of the fourth century debates leading up to the writing of the two focus texts, a survey of approaches to Basil and Hilary, in these two texts and in relation to exegetical practice and Trinitarian doctrine, and lastly a brief synopsis of the argument structures of the two texts.

In the second part, we turn to a series of analyses of primary themes, practices and texts in the two authors, placing their treatment of Scriptural passages in comparison to each other, as well as situating them in relation to other key authors of both pro-Nicene and non-Nicene theologies. These analyses focus on key texts and themes, including Partitive Exegesis (chapter three), the Johannine prologue (chapter four), the language of ‘made’ applied to the Son and its associated texts (chapters five and six), the relationship between power and nature and ‘equality’-texts (chapter seven), and John 14:28 as a problem text (chapter eight).

Thesis: table of contents

I’m trying to wrap up chapter 8 right now. Here’s what’s in my thesis (more or less…)

an overly long and complicated title: “An analysis and comparison of the exegetical practices of Basil of Caesarea in his Contra Eunomium, and Hilary of Poitiers in his De Trinitate, in relation to their doctrine of the Trinity”.

1. Introduction: Pro-Nicenism in the light of recent scholarship

2. Hilary and Basil in their historical context and recent scholarship

3. Economy and Theology: Partitive Exegesis in Practice

4. John 1: A theology of the eternal Son

5. The ‘made’ Son (1): Approaches to Proverbs 8 among fourth century authors

6. The ‘made’ Son (2): Basil and Hilary on Proverbs 8 and Acts 2

7. Names, Nature, Nativitas: John 5 and 10

8. Causality and Economy: John 14

9. Conclusion: Basil, Hilary, something something pro-nicenism something something.

Reading S. Elm’s “Sons of Hellenism…” (1)

On the continual raving of my friend Ryan, I picked up Susanna Elm’s book, “Sons of Hellenism, Fathers of the Church: Emperor Julian, Gregory of Nazianzus, and the Vision of Rome”, and I thought I’d offer my thoughts as I read through it.

The introduction opens with this:

This is a book about two powerful, enduring, and competing visions of universalism in the fourth century: Christianity and the Roman Empire. Yet, I will argue that these visions were in fact one, since Christianity was essentially Roman. Christianity’s universalism lasted because it was, from the beginning, deeply enmeshed in the foundational ideologies granting Rome’s supremacy.

This is an intriguing thesis, and one I’m inclined to agree with and interested to see it argued-out in the course of the book. It also contains a fundamental flaw in the way it’s constituted. “Christianity was essentially Roman” is a false statement. While I’m very invested in understanding and articulating the Christianity that was mostly co-terminous with the Roman Empire, I’m very aware and sensitive that this was not all Christianity, and that Christianity spread earlywidely, and successfully beyond the bounds of that empire. Most notably, Christianity made its way, and its home, into the Syriac sphere very early, and thus into the Sasanian Empire, and the Church of the East existed as a successful, autonomous, and missionary enterprise from very early on. The integration of Christianity into Roman identity had, on the whole, a negative effect on Christianity outwith the Empire, because by tying Christian-identity to Roman Imperialism, it became more difficult for Christians outside the Empire to protest their non-allegiance to the ‘Roman’ religio. That is a big caveat that I would stamp on the introductory and dominant thesis of Elm’s work.

Nonetheless, insofar as Roman (in the Imperial, not the Papal sense) Christianity goes, it did indeed come to consitute its self-awareness of universalism in terms of that Imperium, thus giving rise to a very Greco-Roman ideal of Christianitas as Romanitas.

Elm’s method is to bring into conversation the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus and Julian (aka the Apostate). I think this is a novel idea and a good one. Particularly, I appreciate the way Elm rejects the notion that Gregory was a failed ecclesiarch and personally lackluster figure. Such a person does not become bishop of Constantinople, nor the most influential Greek theological writer of his age. By understanding Gregory’s writings as rhetorical perfomance that instantiates prestige, and by aligning the ‘true philosophical life’ as a performance of civic engagement for the social elites, Elm helpfully brings Gregory out from the purely ‘theological’ sphere and places him appropriately in the socio-cultural context of late-antique bishops as 4th century urban elites.

However, I have a second criticism of Elm here, when she writes, “Focusing on what unites rather than divides Julian the emperor and Gregory the Theologian reveals that the boundary between pagan and Christian was so porous that theses terms lose their analytical value.” In my mind this is a tautological statement that is also misleading, because it appears to mean, “Disregarding the distinctions between pagans and Christians and highlighting their similarities reveals that they are actually much more similar than they are different.” This is, ratione ipsa, true: abolishing their distinctions abolishes their distinctness. Does it have an analytic value to flatten some of those differences to highlight for us their similarities? Oh yes, certainly. And that is well-needed in this case, because Gregory and Julian are not figures brought into conversation and their similarities do need to be highlighted. To do so, however, and suggest that their differences are thus almost irrelevant is to do a disservice, I think, to those real differences.


State of the Projects: August 2016

Well, July was a busy month, what with Trinity debates all over the internet to keep up with, teaching a Greek intensive on Gregory of Nazianzus’ Oration 29 (a lot of fun, though we did not finish the text), and being sick for the last two weeks (an ear infection, which has left me with blocked Eustachian tubes which remain blocked ’til this very day…).

Nonetheless, we are progressing. The thesis is progressing I should say. I finished up a draft of chapters 5 and 6, which are kind of a double-header that looks at Proverbs 8 in Patristic interpretation, with a focus obviously on Hilary and Basil, and Acts 2:36. This month I am diligently at work (and 7000 words words in) to a second double-chapter, chapters 7 and 8 which look at the use of John in Hilary and Basil (excluding John 1, which received its own chapter earlier on; I suppose that weights my thesis towards interpretation of John, but only on the basis that pro-Nicenes spend an inordinate amount of time talking about John themselves).

My goal is to have these chapters 7 & 8 drafted by the end fo the month, as well as a conclusion chapter. That will bring us to a full first draft. I’ll then launch into a barrage of (a) secondary reading, (b) revision and proof-reading.

In the meantime and on the non-thesis side of life, I am simultaneously looking for a place to live for the short term, and looking for a place of employment for the long. We shall see! I am sure the good Lord has them both in hand.

A brief non-update on my Patristic Readers

I was very glad to awake this morning and see that Geoffrey Steadman as returned to his Greek and Latin texts with Facing Vocabulary and Commentary projects with some very fine new additions.

It has reminded me that I do need to return to my inspired-by-the-above Patristic Readers. Really, my work on these ground to a virtual halt due to the twin pressures of a thesis and an infant child.

It also hasn’t helped that I have so far worked on relatively short texts which do not provide enough material for a print volume in themselves.

I do have hopes though! I have already made a decent start on the third Gregory of Nyssa text, and that should not take forever, which could see the three of them put together for a printable volume.

Also, teaching Gregory Nazianzus Oration 29 this week, I normally format my own teaching materials in the same style as the readers. So that would be a headstart there for a next volume. It would be nice to offer all 5 Theological Orations together.

Even after just a day of teaching with some experienced students, I’m reminded how great the gap is for those wanting to transition into Patristic texts. It is not easy, and good help is hard to come by. I myself have had recourse to ask more than a few questions about Gregory’s Greek to an associate.

Anyway, we live in hope, and particularly I hope to put this dissertation to bed in a few months…

A few more thoughts on the recent Trinity Debates

One of the interesting things about the intra-Evangelical Complementarian Trinity Debate with a really-long-name, is that people’s positions appear to fall out along some very clear party lines.

The leading American ERAS/ESS/EFS proponents all come from very particular backgrounds. There’s not a lot of surprise in their positions. When you line up other defenders of the same position in the UK, and Australia, it becomes very obvious that there are party lines.

What I think is a most telling fact, even though it’s not a compelling argument in and of itself, is that (so far as I can tell), historical theologians and the like whose field is Patristics, and particularly 4th century Patristics, almost universally reject ERAS as a valid reading of Nicene Orthodoxy. Whether ERAS is right or not, it’s not what historians think pro-Nicene theologians were wanting to say.

That, if anything, ought to give doctrinal theologians a pause. ERAS clearly is novel. It’s a set of categories and an attempt to think about ad intra relationships in a way that our predecessors did not. Even if you think it’s right, you should at least come clean and recognise that it’s new. If you want to argue that it’s ‘in line’ with the tradition, that’s another argument. It’s not the same argument as trying to rustle up some Patristic supports.

Every time someone trots out a quotation in this debate, my critical alarm bells start ringing, “What’s the context of this quotation? What is the overall shape of that author’s theological argument? Is this quotation true to their authorial intention?” Language about Trinity can get really confusing, really fast. And 4th century Greek writers are not easy to translate into clear, comprehensible, nuanced English (pick 2 of 3). It’s easy to find quotations that sound like they support your position, but do they really?

For my part, I think the onus is very much on ERAS proponents to make a case. Classical Trinitarianism doesn’t need to defend itself here – no one on that side of the Nicene fence is trying to say “hey, the Son doesn’t submit to the Father”, but rather, “hey, why are you trying to shoe-horn in authority-submission relations into the ad intra relations of the three hypostaseis? We don’t need that in here thanks very much.” The problems of ERAS remain: how is it not a rejection of a single Will in the Godhead? How does it not violate Divine Simplicity? How is it not over-privileging authority-submission as a paradigm to understand Trinitarian relations?

In terms of the most recent posts, I think Ware did a very admirable job in clarifying his own views. I am sympathetic to his statements that it is ‘hard to see’ the direct Biblical basis for Eternal Generation, but that it still remains a compelling account. It seems to me that Ware is wrong, but has shifted to be less wrong over time.

I have less sympathy for Grudem’s position, because quite frankly Grudem continues to demonstrate to me in his writing and thoughts that he is far from competent in this area: his systematic doctrine textbook is notorious for prooftexting. Appendix 6 in it shows me he doesn’t understand μονογενής in the Fathers, even if he is technically right about John 1. His reasons for rejecting impassibility show me that he has not understood the classical formulation of that doctrine. His prooftexting of historical support for ERAS continues to call into question his ability to read historical texts accurately. And his frank admission that he doesn’t understand Eternal Generation but thinks it would be better replaced by ERAS just seems to confirm this trajectory – Grudem doesn’t understand Nicene Orthodoxy.

I think we’ll see this topic simmer down in the next few weeks. My post chronicling blog-posts on the subject has hit 72 different posts, and that is not even all of them! But it seems this civil war is going to cool down for awhile. I suspect Grudem will formulate something more specific and ‘weighty’ at his ETS presentation, and I think his opponents are going to rip it to pieces, but this isn’t going away. Neither, sadly, are some of the hysterics.