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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.

X cannot be understated

I became intrigued by this modal construction recently, after I berated some undergraduates in my comments on their essay that what they really meant was ‘X cannot be overstated’. However, greater reflection leads to me to believe that, while they were probably wrong, the structure is ambiguous.

It turns on the meaning of ‘cannot’, and whether you take it to mean “must not be allowed to be the case” or “is an impossibility that will never occur”. If the former, then “X cannot be understated” means something like “I can’t and won’t allow it to be stated as of less importance than it actually is.” If the latter, then “X cannot be understated” means something more like, “It is impossible to state the importance of X any lower than it actually is” (hidden premise: the importance of X is incredibly low).

The problem with the latter option, is that it is exactly the opposite of what the speaker presumably intends, especially if they meant the former. They might have chosen to construct the opposite statement, “X cannot be overstated”, but it too suffers from the same ambiguity.

I’m still not convinced that “X cannot be understated” means “X is highly important” so much as it means “X is so unimportant that it is not possible to understate it”, but I’m prepared to start giving students the benefit of the doubt, or at least start pointing our the ambiguity of the construction.


Some humble thoughts from me on the Complementarian-Trinitarian debate

(I’d never planned to get into this, but here are a few thoughts on the current debates, from mostly a historical perspective. I may (or may not) wade into the theological argument more seriously later.)

1. It’s much more difficult to accurately portray the 4th century controversies than you’d like. That’s why it’s a whole field of studies in and of itself. What escapes a lot of people is that Nicaea in 325 solved very little. It did deal with Arius. However, it never fixed ‘Nicene orthodoxy’, nor finalised the debates that followed in its aftermath. homoousion did not become an important term until the late 350s. Athanasius isn’t as important as 1st year students think. ‘Lines’ between ‘parties’ are much, much blurrier than textbooks make them out to be. The Creed of Constantinople 381 is so different to Nicaea 325 that JND Kelly doesn’t think you can even call it a revision. For all this, I do think something called ‘Nicene Orthodoxy’ on the Trinity comes to exist. However, its emergence is late, its synthetic, its primarily Cappadocian, and it still contains theological variety within itself.

2. Whether it’s proper to speak of order within the Trinity or not, it’s not proper to tie this to gender debates or ecclesiology (in this case, what women may or may not do in churches). In fact, it’s probably heretical to make those moves. I can see why these moves have come about on both egalitarian and complementarian sides, but they are bad moves to make.

For example, some egalitarians have a theology that tightly links function to being. Woman are the same being as Men, and therefore you can’t exclude them from certain functions, without suggesting difference at the level of being. Therefore, they can’t conceive that in the Godhead there is any difference of function without difference of being. In that view, for the Son to submit to the Father would be Arianism – because it would imply the Son’s inferiority to the Father. That’s why some egalitarians are so committed to proving Eternal Functional Subordination wrong.

It goes the other way too. Ware, Grudem, et alii, are so committed to seeing functional differentiation between men and women, that they want to see it in the Trinity in order to ground their gender arguments.

These are both wrong ways to argue. Wherever you are on the gender and ecclesiology issues, just stop dragging the Trinity into it because you are making a mess of your Trinitarian theology and it’s not helping your anthropology nor your ecclesiology.
3. Reading 4th century theology accurately is really hard work. And systemic theologians and protestant reformation historians often do it less-than-well. Not always, but more than I’d like to see. It’s not that I think non-specialists in this field should just go home, but a recognition that they’re playing an away game would be helpful. The problem, as I see it, is a tendency to read 4th century debates in alien terms of their own frameworks, which gets in the way of reading these theologies on their own terms and in their own contexts.

5. Configuring the debates as primarily ‘Orthodoxy’ vs. ‘Arianism’ misses a huge component: Marcellus of Ancyra. While Marcellus was an early ally of Athanasius, his theology came to be seen as modalist, and the consensus of Eastern bishops was always against him. This tarred Nicaea with guilt by association, and Athanasius as well (though he was opposed for political reasons as well). The final consensus emerged as much from a continuing regard to exclude modalist and Marcellan theology, as it did from ‘defeating Arianism’; for almost all parties, Arianism was dead in 325, Marcellus was the problem moving forward.

The whole ‘Arian’, ‘Semi-Arian’, ‘Neo-Arian’ set of terms is now virtually dead in Patristics. Because after Arius and possibly Asterius, it’s just inaccurate to call other theologians Arian. This is a legacy of over-realising Athanasius’ importance, because it’s he who both constructs ‘Arians’ as the enemy, polemically, as well as champions Nicaea and homoousios from the late 350s onwards.

6. Nicaea wasn’t envisioned as offering a solution. Indeed, beyond being a council that deal with Arius and his heresy in particular, its participants did not give it the kind of status common today. As Sieben argues, the view of the Council itself develops over time, becoming only latter a confession of faith of enduring value, and eventually seen as embodying revealed truth that is essential to the church’s faith-confession. What’s most intriguing about Nicaea is its absence from the debates for at least 25 years following. It’s prominence in introductory church history courses, textbooks, and popular Christian historical imagination is in large part due to Athanasius later writings and his construction of ‘Arianism’ as a threat and ‘Nicaea’ as the solution.

7. With Ayres, I recognise that the range of options is more than just ‘eternal functional order in the Godhead’ vs. not. The danger, as I see it, of EFS/ERS is that it appears to create problems with divine simplicity and the will of God. The danger without it, is that it may be impossible to say anything about intra-hypostatic relations at all.

Blogstorms, digital teacups: New Calvinists and Nicene Trinitarianism

(nota bene: this post is updated about daily with any new contributions I come across. It is in roughly chronological order. New additions welcome!)


Blog posts galore have flown back and forth this week over whether certain persons in contemporary reformed Calvinist circles are pushing their Trinitarian barrels in a non-orthodox direction because of gender debates between Complementarian and Egalitarian positions. Here’s a collation of posts so far:

Liam Goligher kicked things off with two fiery posts:

1. Is it okay to teach a Complementarianism based on Eternal Subordination?

2. Reinventing God

They were particularly fiery posts in that they didn’t stop short of saying that using Eternal Subordination to prop up complementarianism was a departure from Nicene Trinitarian theology and thus tantamount to a heretical view of the Trinity.

Carl Trueman then followed up from Goligher’s post:

3. Fahrenheit 381

Michael Bird weighed in:

4. The Coming War: Nicene Complementarians vs Homoian Complementarians

Mark Thompson gives us:

5. ERS: Is there order in the Trinity?

and promises a second post.

Michael Bird gives a second post outlining some of his own thoughts on the issue:

6. More on the Calvinist Complementarian Divide on the Trinity

Wayne Grudem gives a defence of his position:

7. Whose Position on the Trinity is really new?

As does Bruce Ware:

8. God the Son–at once eternally God with His Father, and eternally Son of the Father

Denny Burk gives a few follow-up comments to Ware and Grudem:

9. A brief response to Trueman and Goligher

And Trueman offers some brief rejoinders to Ware and Grudem:

10. A rejoinder to Wayne Grudem

11. A surrejoinder to Bruce Ware

Mike Ovey’s comments in support of Eternal Subordination:

12. Should I resign? On the eternal subordination of the Son (original post here, reblogged at Credo)

See also posts by

13. Scot McKnight: Is it New? Yes. It is Orthodox? No.

14. Darren Sumner: Some Observations on the Eternal Functional Subordination Debate

15. Mark Jones: God’s Will and Eternal Submission


Michel Barnes, a renowned Patristics scholar, added some comments apparently on facebook, reproduced by Michael Bird (with permission):

16. Comments from Michel R. Barnes.

There is also a bit of a response from Patristics scholar Lewis Ayres, on the same facebook post. Here’s the repost on Bird’s blog:

17. Lewis Ayres’ comment. (Original facebook comments from Barnes and Ayres)

There’s also a summary post by Andrew Wilson

18. Submission in the Trinity: A quick guide to the debate

My friend Ryan Clevenger has a great post on Gregory Nazianzen’s view of the subject:

19. Gregory of Nazianzus on the Submission of the Son.

Luke Stamps has a tidy contribution that brings in Calvin and Gregory of Nazianzus together:

20. The Trinity debate and the history of interpretation

Fred Sanders offers his own related contribution here:

21. 18 Theses on the Father and the Son

Mike Ovey responds with quite a bit of sass to Michael Bird’s take on his position:

22. Can Michael Bird read my mind? Alas it seems not.

Owen Stracham, a self described advocate of “Eternal Relations and Authority Submission” defends his position here:

23. The Glorious Godhead and Oroto-Arian Bulls

A second post from Mark Jones:

24. Eternal Subordination of Wills? Nein! Part Two


A third post from Mark Jones, really getting stuck into Strachan:

25. Biblicism, Socinianism, and “Arid” Scholarhip

TGC Australia have decided to write a whole series addressing it, by Andrew Moody and Mark Baddeley

26. The Ordered Godhead: (1) Commending Nicaea – Moody.

Luke Stamps also shares some thoughts on the divine will:

27. Further reflections on the unity of the divine will.

There’s a post from Derek Rishmawy,

28. On Trinitarian controversy: why it’s not always terrible and how to go about it.

Andrew Perriman:

29. The subordination of the Son, and why it has nothing to do with gender. (and a whole bunch of related posts there)

D. Glenn Butner, Jr.:

30. Eternal Submission and the Story of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.

And a recent round-up post by Alastair Roberts:

31. The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: The Debate so Far.

Darren Sumner again, with:

32. What is the Immanent Trinity? A Clarification for the Eternal Subordination Debate

Matt Emerson, with:

33. What makes a Doctrine “Biblical”? On method.

Matthew Barrent, with:

34. Better late than never: The Covenant of Redemption and the Trinity Debates.

Michael Bird points out the line-up for a section at ETS this year:

35. The 2016 Evangelicals and Gender Study group session on the Trinity.

And lately the ‘civil war’ has even made it to Christianity Today: Caleb Lindgren writes

36. Gender and the Trinity: From Proxy War to Civil War

A guest post by Scott Harrower on Michael Bird’s Blog:

37. Why Trinitarian Debates Really Do Matter!

Another good descriptive post, by Mike Riccardi:

38. Making sense of the Trinity (EFS) debate.

Andrew Moody’s second post over at TGC Australia:

39. The Ordered Godhead: (2) The Beauty of Ordered Willing

And finally a response from Goligher to Ovey:

40. Dr. Liam Goligher responds to Dr. Mike Ovey

Grudem combed through some evangelical scholars to prove the lineage of his view:

41. Another Thirteen Evangelical Theologians Who Affirm the Eternal Submission of the Son to the Father

Then Owen Strachan wrote what I would call a snarky “see told you we were right” post following on:

42. Wayne Grudem Critiques Liam Goligher’s Historical Theology

There’s also a helpful post here from Alistair Roberts giving some reading for those playing at home:

43. The Eternal Subordination of the Son Controversy: Survey of Some Relevant Material

Goligher also as a response to Ware and Grudem, here:

44. A Letter to Professors Ware and Grudem

Keith Johnson has a post over at TGC:

45. Is the Eternal Generation of the Son a Biblical Idea:

Mark Jones offers a response to Wayne Grudem’s list of evangelicals in support of his position:

46. Wayne Grudem’s Historical Theology Analzyed

Carl Trueman gives what he promises to be his last response to Grudem (for now?):

47. Once more unto the breach…and then no more: A final reply to Dr. Grudem

Over at Cripplegate, there’s a whole bunch of useful posts. This most recent one is quite helpful and promising:

48. The Complementarian Trinity Debate: A summary of its beginnings, by Wyatt Graham.

Wyatt Graham continues with

49.  The Complementarian Trinity Debate: A chronological Summar Part II.

Christopher Cleveland has an interesting post, outlining a case for a long-term background in evangelical scholarship, here:

50. Why the Trinitiarian Controversy was Inevitable

Scot McKnight hosts a post from Jamin Hübner at CBE, with plenty of ‘quotation marks’ to undermine Complementarianism and EFS:

51. Subordinationism: Some Major Questions/

Carl Trueman continues, tangentially:

52. The Ecumenical Consequences of the Peace

Malcolm and Karen Yarnell start in with a baptist perspective:

53. Trinity and authority, part 1 of 5.

A mini-essay from Matthew Crawford:

54. Clarifying Nicene Trinitarianism with Cyril of Alexandria

Carrying on from Andrew Moody, Mark Baddeley at TGC Australia writes:

55. The Ordered Godhead: (3) Speaking of God…

Luke Stamps tries to take stock of things:

56. The Trinity Debate: Where do we stand?

Wend Alsup (and Hannah Handerson) at write:

57. The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women)

While Coutney Reissig at Christianity Today writes:

58. Why Complementarian men need Complementarian women

Al Mohler offers his thoughts with:

59. Heresy and Humility – Lessons from a Current Controversy

To which Carl Trueman offers his response here:

60. A Reply to Dr. Mohler on Nicene Trinitarianism

Mark Woods gives a piece for Christianity Today:

61. Complementarianism and the Trinity: Is Wayne Grudem a dangerous heretic?

Matt Emerson gives us two fine pieces:

62. A Summarized Biblical Case for Eternal Generation

63. An Attempt to Arbitrate the Trinity Debate

Lewis Ayres contributes another guest post on Mike Bird’s blog:

64. On the meaning of Nicene Orthodoxy

Kyle Claunch, doctoral candidate under Bruce Ware, responds to use of their work in critiquing ERAS, with:

65. Some Clarifications from @kdclaunch on Bruce Ware and the Trinity Debate


Some new contributions…

Mark Baddeley continues at TGC Australia:

66. The Ordered Godhead: (4) Athanasius and Nicea

Meanwwhile Mark Jones offers up a reading list!

67. A (Somewhat Annotated) Bibliography on the Trinity.

Clarification from Bruce Ware over his views:

68. Knowing the Self-Revealed God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Here’s Nick Norelli offering us:

69. Some Scattered Thoughts on the EFS/ERAS Debate

Mike Bird has three questions in response to Bruce Ware’s post (68):

70. Bruce Ware’s Clarification on EFS/ERAS and Nicene Orthodoxy

Mark Jones, after some heated twitteractions, responds with an article engaging Ware’s latest post:

71. Guest Post from Mark Jones (includes some free commentary on ‘tone’ and ‘fallout’ by Trueman.

Mark Baddeley wraps up the series at TGC Australia

72. The Ordered Godhead: (5) Final Reflections


Todd Pruit just fired a salvo, with a post quoting extensively from Ware and showing some real problems in his book ‘Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance’:

73. Let’s all be Nicene

Bruce Ware gives another guest post defending his position and trying to contextualise statements in the aforementioned book:

74. An Open Letter to Liam Goligher, Carl Trueman, and Todd Pruitt, on Trinitarian Equality and Distinctions

Matt Emerson and Luke Stamps offer a nuanced response to Ware’s latest two posts:

75. Responding to Bruce Ware with Charitable Criticism

A response letter from Goligher, Trueman, and Pruitt

76. The Looking Glass War: Responding to Bruce Ware

An engagement with Ware’s recent post from Geoff Holsclaw:

77. Holsclaw responds to Ware (a little cluttered since it quotes Ware’s post in full and responds point by point.)

A response from Steven Wedgeworth offers a critique of Ware’s position:

78. Bruce Ware’s “Essential Properties of Personhood”: Social Trinitarianism and Pro-Nicene Logic


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