Protestantism, Patristics, and the Practice of Exegesis

Most of my training in biblical studies occurred in a Reformed Protestant context, for which I am quite thankful. However, one of the problems of Protestant perspectives on early church history is a tendency to think, “right doctrines, dodgy exegesis”. The narrative constructed is that the early church did alright, except they ‘declined’ more and more from the golden age of the apostles, until the glorious restoration of the Reformation put everything right.

That’s not a very accurate historical picture, and it’s not good historiography either. It also introduces an acute crisis into Protestant theology – how can Protestants confess the same doctrinal and creedal formulations, if they reject as unsound the methods that produced them? Did the fathers at Nicaea and Constantinople come up with the right answer from the wrong working? And if so, is that okay?

One of the questions behind my research questions is concerned with this very problem. If, as the popular notion goes, patristic exegesis was deeply flawed, then the results of that exegesis, namely Classsical Trinitarianism, are open to severe doubt, and the claims of Protestant churches to be creedally Nicene becomes problematic since they reject the foundations of Nicene (well, Theodosian) orthodoxy.

But, of course, the reality is a much more complicated affair.

For one, patristic exegesis isn’t a monolithic ‘thing’. While there are indeed far-flung examples of rampant allegorism, this is not the only or even the predominant method for reading scripture in Late Antiquity. The practice of those trained in Greek and Latin rhetoric looks quite a bit like historico-grammatical criticism (although it would be a mistake to equate the two).

Which is great, until you realise that very often fathers produce ‘correct’ doctrine from incorrect texts. There’s a whole example in Hilary where his text appears to have a negation where they major textual tradition has a positive statement. Hilary thus spends a considerable amount of time proving an ‘orthodox’ doctrine from a text of scripture that affirms the exact opposite of what most Christians would consider to be the authoritative version of the text.

The good news, at least so far as those pesky people who keep asking what the result of my PhD studies is, is that patristic exegetes are much better at exegesis than 1st year seminary students think they are.

The bad news is, a large basis of that exegesis is built on a soteriology that most Protestants, and probably a large portion of Roman Catholics, would find problematic. The rejection of the non-Nicene soteriologies built around the Son being a creature who acts as revealer, exemplar, and model of salvation, is part-and-parcel of the victory of a pro-Nicene soteriology in which salvation occurs as human nature, conceived in a universal and collective sense, is assumed by the Logos, sanctified, and ultimately deified through the resurrection and ascension, resulting in the glorification of humanity in Christ. While, theologically speaking, I think this is true and compatible with other soteriological motifs in scripture, it is a long way from the predominance of justification and substitutionary atonement in modern reformed circles.

No doubt at this point many would like to know, ‘so, what does this mean?’, ‘what are the implications for contemporary Christian doctrine and practice?’, to which I am not ready to give an answer by any means. I think the challenge is to work at the two-fold task of being an excellent exegete of Scripture, for what it says in and of itself, and to work at the task of reading the Fathers faithfully, to exegete their works for what they say, in the historical context in which they write, so as not to distort them for ulterior purposes.


What my thesis is actually about

Or, ‘what I think my thesis is actually about’.

I don’t post much about my thesis work, for a few different reasons, but here’s part of a draft introduction that I can pretty safely share.

If you’d like to read some portions of my thesis in progress and offer some critical feedback, feel free to ask me directly (via email). I could do with a couple of external sources of review at this stage.

Anyway, here is what I’m working on:



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 respectively, in order to demonstrate that one of the features of fourth century theologians traditionally identified as ‘Orthodox’ or ‘Pro-Nicene’ is their common exegetical practice.

Throughout this study I use the term ‘Pro-Nicene’ in a self-consciously anachronistic post-factum manner.[1] As I discuss further in this chapter, the traditional divisions and typologies of theologians and theological positions within this period has undergone significant revisionism, and is open to considerable critique. The 325 Council of Nicaea didn’t define a theological position in regards to the later debates, and only from the 350s does it emerge as a significant ‘claimant’ for a theological solution to these latter questions. However, insofar as later authors contend ‘for’ Nicaea, and the theological tradition after 381 accepts and solidifies some authors as being orthodox precisely because their theological positions line up, more or less, with what the church throughout the Roman Empire came to accept as normative, ‘pro-Nicene’ does work as a post-factum label.

In that regard, I broadly consider theologians such as Athanasius, Hilary, the three Cappadocians, Chrysostom, among others, to be ‘pro-Nicene’ in their formulation, while at the same time recognising that such a label does not mean either that their theologies were the same, or even necessarily related. The label as such is not meant to unduly assume theological unity, but rather provide a functional point of departure in examining their theological diversity.

The question I investigate is one of exegetical practice, in relation to doctrinal formulation. This combination highlights certain features, and sets others aside. The main emphasis of this study is not a thorough-going treatment of either author’s exegetical practices, and especially I do not delve into a treatment of their works generally considered ‘exegetical’, such as their commentaries on various biblical texts. Equally so, although this study interacts considerably with doctrinal formulations in the context of mid-fourth century theology and late antique philosophy, this is not its primary focus either. Rather, in the combination of the two, I examine how these two authors use biblical texts and practices of interpretation in order to support, articulate, and argue for a particular theological position in regards to the Trinity.

For this reason the texts under primary consideration are Basil’s Contra Eunomium and Hilary’s De Trinitate. Both works are primarily doctrinal in character, rather than exegetical, and yet both involve extensive use of the Biblical scriptures. Both texts, likewise, emerge in polemical contexts: Basil, quite consciously writing against Eunomius and his Apologia, and Hilary writing against opponents both real and constructed. However the arrangements of their works and their emergent contexts and audience are different. Basil’s work is patterned closely on citation and refutation of Eunomius’ argument in Apologia and so is far more driven by doctrinal questions. Hilary’s treatise is occasioned by polemic, but is structured to address broader theological propositions by treating portions of Scripture at greater length. It is, at the same time, a composite document and considerably longer than Basil’s work. Furthermore, Hilary writes out of the experience of exile and contact with the theological currents of the East, and yet for a Western audience and shaped by Latin authors prior to him. In contrast, Basil’s work is thoroughly Eastern in both context and audience. Lastly, both works emerge in a very close temporal connection, as I will argue in relation to the dating of Contra Eunomium below.

These considerable similarities and differences serve to highlight the advantage of this comparative study. For if the question is one of identifying common exegetical practices that are found among notionally ‘pro-Nicene’ authors, then similar documents by different authors, with different contexts and influences, would go a long way to demonstrating that one of the features that unites ‘Pro-Nicenes’ and indeed forms the basis for speaking about the abstract ‘pro-Nicenism’ as a thing, is precisely this shared exegetical practice.

[1] I prefer pro-Nicene to Nicene for the reasons that Ayres outlines his use of the term. Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy: an approach to fourth-century Trinitarian theology (New York: OUP, 2004), 236-40.

Dichotomising the Fourth Century

There are two types of people in this world: those who dichotomise everything, and those that don’t.


Back when you took Church History 101 (You did take Church History 101??) you were told a story. It was a lying lie of a story in which the Orthodox were trundling along just fine until the Heretic Arius appeared out of nowhere, hoodwinked half the church, and the rest of the century was a battle between Athanasius (aka Gandalf) and the Arians (aka Hordes of Orcs) in which Orthodoxy prevailed. Or maybe you went to some new perspective college that taught you that Athanasius was the wicked witch of the West and suppressed all those vibrant diversities and is the source of Western Christendoms enduring penchant for violence and totalitarianism.

Either way, it’s a way of schematising the 4th century, and it flattens everything onto a single axis. Which is what we do, we carve up terrains and we tend to polarise theologians into opposites.

When I first read Ayres’ Nicaea and its Legacy it was a big bombshell, ‘There are no Arians!” Instead, there was a complexity to the period that required more (and more nuance). The problem with dichotomies is that they over-simplify, but the problem without dichotomies is that you can’t make sense of things. We want to categorise thinkers and groups of thinkers because it makes sense of them. So even as we realise that Arians vs. Orthodox is a defunct polarity, and so too is Eastern vs. Western (at least within the Greek-Roman context) as well as Antiochene vs Alexandrian, we keep coming up with other ways to try and categories the terrain of theology.

As far as my work goes, Khaled Anatolios has a pretty good summary of recent attempts in this area in his Retrieving Nicaea. He reviews Joseph Lienhard’s division between miahypostatic and dyohypostatic theologies. The problem with Lienhard’s dichotomy, apart from being a mouthful, is the weight it gives to hypostasis as the characterising distinction. The Ayres/Barnes approach, at least as Ayres works it out, is to talk about trends towards emphasising sameness and diversity between the Father and Son. This, of course, is problematically vague. Alternatively, in Nicaea Ayres works on a ‘Four Trajectories’ scheme which has the advantage of more complexity, but one of the great problems of complexity is that it reduces one’s ability to get a grasp on what’s going on.

(Of course, the “most” accurate mapping of the controvers(ies) would be to explore each individual author and their writings uniquely. But that is like having a map that is on a scale of 1:1, which is not a useful map at all! The whole point of having a map is to have something to navigate the actual terrain by, not to reproduce that terrain).

Anatolios’ own proposal is to situate the dichotomy as Unity of Being vs Unity of Will. Personally I think this is a persuasive schema for dichotomising all the theologies in play, though it’s not perfect.

In my own work I use the labels Pro-Nicene and Non-Nicene, generally. Pro-Nicene is helpful because, even though I recognise that certain theologians don’t necessarily depend nor derive their theology from/on Nicaea itself, they represent a trajectory that comes to be ‘pro’, i.e. favourably disposed to Nicaea as a solution and an expression of their broad theology that gets worked out, and from the post-Constantinopolitan perspective, such theologians get grouped together as ‘orthodox’ precisely in this element. Meanwhile, Non-Nicenes do not regard Nicaea so favourably, but neither are the defined by their opposition to Nicaea as a theological construct. At the same time, use of such labels to some extent sidesteps some of the questions that dichotomisation raises – ‘Pro-Nicenism’ is not, in this usage, a label for theological unity, but for ecclesio-political alignment.

When it comes down to it, the map of the theological terrain has to be more textured than a simple polarity. That’s the whole point of nuanced reading and research on these figures, to bring out their distinctives and show their differences instead of collapsing them into a single category. At the same time, dichotomisation, perhaps along several axes, helps to get one’s head around these groupings, their similarities and differences, which is just what the human mind does.