Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (2): Evangelicals have a deeply problematic tendency to read early church history through a reformation lens.

(See first post in this series here)

Evangelicals, like all Protestants, tend to define themselves in terms of Reformation distinctives, which has its pros and cons. I think the Reformation (re)discovered important theological and biblical truths and rightly called for a reform of the Catholic Church as it then stood in Western Europe. However, it also had the consequence that Protestantism continually defines and locates itself as a movement over/against Roman Catholicism. If Catholicism ended, what would Protestantism be?

It also had and continues to have a debilitating effect on Protestant scholarship more broadly, and Evangelicalism in particular. That is, it has made the Reformation period both normative and norming for historical theology. This is seen, for one, in the fact that those who teach, write on, and interpret Patristics within Evangelical institutes and for Evangelical audiences are often (a) those whose specialty is Reformation history, and (b) Systematic theologians.

Not, of course, that those trained in other disciplines can never or should never dare to comment or produce scholarship, but taken as a whole, it skews Patristic studies by evangelicals in a certain direction. One in which the ‘normal’ view of things is shaped by those trained in 16th century theology, history, and 20th century concerns. There is a real danger of anachronism here, that we would read Early Church Theology not on its own terms, not in the context of Late Antiquity, but subject to our own agendas, and our own colonialising narratives, as we try to make a history of early Christianity fit our doctrines of, for example, decline and reform, or Pristinism, and so on.

Asking questions like, “Where is justification by faith in the early church?” or “What evidence is there for penal substitutionary atonement in the Fathers?” are valid questions. But they are not the right questions to start with. They reflect our concerns, and in particular they reflect our concerns as shaped by 16th century ones. They are second-order questions, and if you ask them first, you distort early Christian theologies by (mis)leading the witnesses. Better by far, it is, to attempt to enter into the historical context of those believers, and attempt to understand what they wrote, and what they did, on their own terms, in the matrix of how they themselves articulated it.

How does this contribute to a lack of Evangelicals in Patristics? In three ways, as I see it. Firstly, if Reformation and Systematics researchers can do the job, why bother training Patristics scholars? (I’ll have more to say on this in my next post). Secondly, if you continually explain and mine the field of Patristics in service to other agendas, there’s no value in Patristics per se. It’s a means to other ends, and those ends dictate where students will place their studies, and how the evangelical context ‘values’ Patristics. Thirdly, simply doing Patristics well will involve a partial rejection of this paradigm of evangelicalism, which is going to lead into my fourth post.

Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (1): Some Evs aren’t sure there were any Christians between Paul and Luther.

Recently on twitter I suggested a number of reasons why there are relatively few Evangelicals involved in Patristics as an academic field. I felt that it wouldn’t be a waste of time to expand some of those thoughts into more considered reflections (as did Brandon Smith)

Saying that, these are big generalisations. There are evangelicals in patristics, and there are obviously exceptions to my observations. Moreover, I write from a particular perspective; I observe American Evangelicalism primarily from a distance, and the term “evangelical” itself can be a problematic nomenclature. However, I’d rather deal with caveats post-factum.

One of the reasons there aren’t many evangelicals in patristics is because of a strong, prevailing tendency among evangelicals about who counts as a Christian and how the Church History story ‘goes’. Those tendencies is that (a) only people with a genuine personal converted faith in Jesus Christ are Christians, (b) failure to articulate a doctrine of justification by faith alone contradicts (a), (c) that after the New Testament the church ‘fell’ and lost its genuine grasp on a salvific doctrine of faith, and (d) that doctrine, and so genuine belief, was only rediscovered at the Reformation (or worse yet, the birth of your denomination!).

If you read history like this, and you do theology like this, then you can understand why, even if evangelicals don’t say this, they may well act like it’s true – that there were New Testament believers, and then there were Roman Catholics (because protestants tend to read themselves over against Roman Catholicism), and they all believed in justification by works, and then there was the Reformation. So why would we bother doing Patristics when it’s just reading the works of Roman Catholics we know are a priori wrong anyway?

The problems in this ought to be painfully apparent, and if you’re reading this you’re almost certainly predisposed to agree with me anyway. Nonetheless, let me articulate the fundamental flaws in this way of thinking.

  1. This is very poor historiography. It doesn’t take seriously the history of the early church, it doesn’t engage early Christian theology, it refuses to engage or else prejudges everything between 90 and 1517 AD.
  2. This is a poor theology of God’s sovereignty and of the church. Do you really think that the Church disappeared for 1500 years?
  3. It renders Protestantism a historically groundless de novo movement.
  4. It severs all connection with conciliar Christianity. That is, why would you affirm the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, and the Chalcedonian Definition, if you thought they were penned by heretics?
  5. It turns Justification by Faith alone into “Justification by an explicit mentally-assented doctrine of Justification by Faith alone”; which is Protestant’s Gnosticism. If you think that justification is by faith, then you cannot make a criterion of that to be an explicit knowledge and affirmation of that same doctrine a salvific requirement without undermining your own doctrine. This, by the way, is the grounds on which evangelicals can engage in genuine ecumenism.

Evangelicals have a strong, related tendency to think of Patristics as “Catholic” or “Orthodox”, which is a half-truth at best. It is true that within those traditions, a higher degree of importance and authority is placed on early church authors. And it is true that the academic landscape of Patristics has, in the past, generally been dominated by scholars coming out of those traditions. But it is not somehow “exclusively” their dominion, despite what some apologists out of those traditions claim, and despite how evangelicals themselves distance Patristics from theology.

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.



Patristic Readers – Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Simplicium

As promised, I have a new short pdf text up at Patristic Readers, it’s Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Simplicium, De Fide.

I decided to tackle this short text after finishing up Ad Ablabium, partly because the latter is too short for a print volume by itself, partly because I thought it would prove a very manageable short text dealing with a related topic, i.e. continuing in the vein of Gregory’s Trinitarian theology. The Greek is not overly difficult, and the high amount of repetition should be of great benefit to students with less developed skills. I commend it to your reading leisure!

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)”

Patristic Readers – Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium

Just now I’ve posted up and released a pdf version of my Patristic Readers edition of Gregory of Nyssa’s Ad Ablabium.


Altogether, the number of hours for this volume is not staggering, but it has taken quite some time. I’ve refined my process for Greek quite well, and when I’m on task and working I get through things at a decent pace. However, there are many gremlins that slow things down, and working on something like this is distracting for the doctoral research, so I suspect it will be a little while before the next volume. The next one will involve a Latin Father, and so there is also some more ‘set-up’ time on the Latin front as well.

I’m moving towards some print volumes, my hold-up remains cover design but I think we’re making progress there. I’ll let you know.