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.

Rethinking Paul

First, let me welcome you to Theology Thursdays. Posts on Thursdays will generally deal with issues of Theology, and/or Biblical Studies.

Today I want to think a little bit about Paul. Here’s a caricature of a common interpretive strategy:

“Look, here’s Paul’s ministry methodology. It’s in the Bible, it must be right! This is an inspired and authoritative way to do ministry!”

There are a lot of takes that basically follow this approach. Today I’m suggesting it’s fatally flawed.

Paul is not Jesus, and even if he was this would be wrong. There are many aspects of Jesus’ ministry we do not try and reproduce because (a) we’re not Jesus, (b) our context is not Jesus’, (c) the Gospels give us little indication that many of Jesus’ methodologies are given for imitation. The same applies in Acts. Acts is not primarily written to be prescriptive for churches. There are very important lessons to learn from Acts, but methodology is rarely one of them.

Things are a little more tricky when it comes to Paul. Because he writes letters as an Apostle, designed to be authoritative, and their mode is generally didactic. The epistolary material is not descriptive in the way Acts is, nor does it occasion the same kind of reading Acts does. However, the fact that the letters are didactic does not mean everything in them is to be interpreted in the same way. Especially on this point – Paul’s strategies and methodologies of church planting and leadership.

I repeat, Paul is not Jesus. So when Paul says, “imitate me as I imitate Christ” that second clause is vital, and Paul knows it. We are not bound to imitate Paul in respect of things in which Paul does not imitate Christ. Paul, no doubt, was a sinful man. He is held up as a paradigmatic believer, but not a sinless one. We should not easily forget this. Paul rarely teaches or directs others to adopt his methodologies or strategies. However very often we hear, “Paul did X, Y, Z, therefore we should do the same.” I am suggesting that this is a lazy and misleading hermeneutic.

The Apostolic Age between Jesus’ ascension and the death of the last Apostle (I take it to be John) was not a Golden Age. Many things went wrong immediately. If you received a resume from Paul of Tarsus, Church Planter, you would be horrified. Almost every church he planted had significant doctrinal issues, as well as some having serious schisms, and flagrant immorality. Granted, this was generally not attributable to Paul’s teaching, but I believe it highlights something that Paul himself highlights – the weakness and frailty of these clay vessels through whom God is pleased to work. Paul is well aware of his own frailties and failings. For example, 2 Corinthians. As one gets to the end of Paul’s life, letters like Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy reveal that Paul is struggling very much to see the future in bright terms. There has been significant damage in the Christian communities either founded by him or under his oversight. 1 Timothy as a letter entrusting oversight of Ephesus to Timothy highlights how, in a church where Paul spend considerable time and energy, still succession was an issue and still false teaching arose. Reading 2 Timothy straight afterwards, it appears that Timothy for unknown reasons has not stayed in Ephesus. Did Timothy abandon his work there? 2 Timothy is very concerned that Timothy should ‘keep the faith’; Paul exhibits his worry that Timothy, perhaps his closest disciple, will abandon both him and the gospel, like so many others. 2 Timothy in this light reads like the final letter of a man worried that everything he has worked for is in danger of coming to nought.

And yet it did not, did it? The church did not fail with Paul’s death. Why? Because it didn’t rest on Paul. Paul, like us, was a clay vessel containing a priceless treasure. That treasure was carried by other flawed, sinful human beings. In the end, I don’t believe Paul himself despaired. He knew that it was not in Timothy’s strength, or the Gentile churches’ own strength, or even his own strength, that God’s gospel would continue forth, but in the strength of God who had already carried a fallible and weak Paul so long, so far. And there is a lesson in that too.