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.

Hilary, verse-flipping, and the true Scotsman.

No true Scotsman is a form of (informal) logical fallacy, of the type where having set up definition X of something, e.g. “A scotsman is blah, blah, blah”, and faced with a particular example, “Well then, so-and-so is a scotsman, based on your definition”, the interlocutor moves the goalposts, “Well, no true scotsman would (insert characteristic of aforementions so-and-so”), thus excluding them from the refined definition X1.

A similar thing is going on in Hilary’s debate(s) with (unnamed) opponents, which he tackles in Book 5 of his De Trinitate. Having spent Book 4 tackling the confession drawn from the Letter of Arius, and arguing from the Old Testament that the Son is God, he then spends Book 5 arguing that the Son is verus Deus, “true God”, against the contention that the Father alone is verus Deus.

In sections 25-31, Hilary turns his attention to the combination of Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is One” (audi, Israel, Dominus Deus tuus unus est) Isaiah 65:16 “they will bless [you] the true God” (benedicent [te] Deum verum). Modern translations render the Hebrew of that verse differently (So that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of truth (ESV) Whoever pronounces a blessing in the earth will do so in the name of the faithful God (NET)), but let’s stick with the Latin for now.

Hilary’s response is very interesting. Firstly, he suggests that te is an addition, and a very problematic one. “if te is read, the pronoun appears to signify a second person; otherwise if the pronominal word is absent, then the noun[1] refers to the speaker of the statement itself.”[2] Now, actually, Hilary is very interested in two related questions every time he does this kind of exegesis: who is the Speaker, and who is the Addressee. Furthermore, when the Speaker is God in the Old Testament, and the Addressee is called ‘God’, Hilary understands this to be indicative of the difference in the Trinitarian persons, for otherwise God should (properly speaking) refer to himself in the First person alone.

The next thing Hilary does is to quote Isaiah 65:13-16 at length. He does this because he considers proper interpretation to depend upon proper contextualisation. (To those who think the Ancients didn’t know anything about exegetical method, take note!) The introduction of this passage clearly indicates that the Lord is speaking through the Prophet. Hilary further argues for why the adjective ‘true’ is supplied here, and argues that it is in reference to the ignorance of the Jews who worshipped God simpliciter, not as Father, and so were ignorant of the Son and did not recognise him as God in his incarnation.

Then (wait for it…) he commences a clause-by-clause analysis of the whole passage, giving his thoughts on what each element means. Especially important is his understanding of verse 15, “You will leave your name for a rejoicing unto my elect, but the Lord will kill you” [3]. Anyway, differences aside, Hilary interprets the first part of this in terms of Romans 2:29 and the elect, i.e. Christian believers, as the new Israel. The second part, “The Lord will kill you”, he interprets in line with his principle that a mention of God by God must indicate a difference of persons. Thus the Dominus who will kill is the Son. This allows him to take the ‘new name’ of Isaiah 65:15b, “but my servants will be called by a new name”, to refer also to Christ. All of which leads to the key verse, 65:16. Having established by the context that the God referred to within the passage is God the Son, the words verum Deum refer not back to God the Father, Deus solus verusque, but to God the Son. Thus one cannot use the adjective verus to exclude the Son, for the very verse they call upon to do so, actually refers to the Son as Deus verus!

[1] i.e. Deum

[2] Personae enim alterius videtur esse pronomen, ubi te est: caeterum ubi pronominis syllaba non erit, ibi ad auctorem dicti refertur et nomen. V.26 with a slightly freer translation.

[3] Relinquetis enim vos nomen vestrum in laetitia electis meis, vos autem interficiet Dominus; again, significantly different from Modern translations, such as “You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse, and the Lord God will put you to death (ESV)”;  “ Your names will live on in the curse formulas of my chosen ones. (NET)”

Exegesis as Reading

A little while ago there was an exchange that started on B-Greek, a place I generally read but do not interact, about Exegesis. Then there were a few blog posts, one by D. Streett, one by B. Hofstetter.

I often deliberately don’t engage in discussions that I don’t have time for, but obviously I have opinions. Particularly outrageous, bombastic ones. So part of my heart warms when R. Buth writes, “This is why I define “exegesis” as learning to extract meaning from a language that one does not control. “

Somewhat like Barry, I had already done a degree that was virtually Literature studies, as well as started down the Classics track, and taught myself the fundamentals of Koine Greek, before I got to seminary. One of the reasons “exegesis” is so problematic is that Biblical Studies got hived off, with so many other humanities disciplines, into a discrete ‘discipline’ about 200-150 years ago. On this regard, see the recent volume by James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, which among other things does a good job of explaining how humanities ‘disciplinised’.

Exegesis as practised by most biblical studies students is a process of analysis and interpretation of a text at a fine-detail level: grammatical, lexical, syntactical analysis of words, phrases, verses, put together at the level of a paragraph. It rarely moves beyond paragraph level. It is, as Buth points out, often done by students/scholars who actually have no “control”, that is no genuine active competency, in the target language.

Let’s just stop and say, “That’s odd.” We would find that incredibly odd for a modern foreign language student. “Oh, you can’t speak a word of French, but you can analyse to death the syntactic choices of individual sentences in Camus’ The Plague?”

I want to be really clear here: there is a place for fine-detailed studies of grammatical, lexical, syntactical elements of small units. Everyone else calls this linguistics. And many, many of these ‘questions’ disappear, or better yet are disambiguated by a genuine competency in the language.

Take a step back – what is the purpose or goal of exegesis? To acquire a better understanding of the meaning of the text. We can call this ‘exegesis’, but we may as well call it ‘reading’, though we must keep in mind that ‘reading’ here actually means something like ‘interpreting’, i.e. we are engaged in attentive, analytical reading at micro and macro levels. Or, “literary criticism”.

I don’t think calling it ‘reading’ is always helpful. In my school there were some teachers who used to say nonsense like “We don’t interpret the Bible, we just read it.” Which was always doctrinal dribble based on a claim to avoid the theological difficulties that the very idea of ‘interpretation’ generates. No, that won’t do. Reading itself is an interpretive act.

On the other hand, reading here is a higher order activity than mere reading. And it really must go beyond the sentence level. Unless you can get to a level of discussing a whole text – a whole book, then you are missing the integrity of the text and cannot complete your reading. That’s why discourse analysis, or just plain literary criticism, needs to work at the macro-level.

To wrap up, I am constantly amazed to interact with so called ‘critical scholars’ who look at, say, a book like John’s Gospel and see nothing but a pastiche of cut-up pieces that represent a proto-Gnostic text re-edited by a proto-Orthodox edited then re-edited again. Why do they see only that? It’s because they analyse a painting by looking at each blob of paint from a stroke of the brush and consider it a different source. They never step back and see the artistry. Whether they are right or wrong is irrelevant to the fact that they can’t step back and look at the whole, can’t discuss the meaning of the book, can’t discuss themes, genre, art, motifs. Because they can’t decide which of 400 types of genitives the proto-Gnostic redactor meant, and their competency in the language is like a tourist who got off the plane with an antique reference grammar of the language and nothing else.