The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy

The Council of Nicaea
Council of Nicaea, St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

This January will mark two years I’ve taught for Davenant Hall. It will also be the first time in my academic career I have the chance to teach something for the second time — The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy. Ad Fontes recently published a piece of mine promoting the course. I hope you enjoy the piece — and maybe you or someone you know will sign up!

Here’s the intro — read the full article here.

Growing up in an Anglican church, we recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday—you know, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” I remember being quite surprised in confirmation class when I learned that the creed we recited at Holy Communion wasn’t actually the Nicene Creed but a later Creed, from Constantinople, with some added bits about the Holy Spirit. As I recall, I was a bit put out about this. Why didn’t we use the original? Why did we use some interloper masquerading as the Nicene Creed? Somehow, whatever lessons I got from confirmation class about why these two creeds exist just didn’t stick. I blame, of course, my teenage self. The priest who taught me was very good and a huge church history buff. I still talk church history with him to this day.[1]

The question of my teenage self, setting aside the bizarre feelings that the Creed of Constantinople is an interloper, is a worthwhile question though: why do we have two creeds that we think of as the Nicene Creed? Isn’t one Nicene Creed enough? And why is the second such creed the one we use at Holy Communion?

Read the full article on Ad Fontes
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The fourth century: Bursting at the seams with ecclesiastical history

Here’s a YouTube video I made a while back about the fourth century. I’ll be teaching fourth-century ecclesiastical history for Davenant Hall this January in my course called “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy (325-407).” You can sign up for it here! And if you’re not sold that the fourth century is a wild time worth studying, here’s the video:

What do I mean, I’m becoming a theologian?

The other day, I took in hand a copy of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, photographed it, and tweeted:

But what, really, makes this different from any of the other times I’ve tweeted theology books?

What makes this different is why I’ve decided to get down with Lombard (and Bavinck, too, as it turns out). When I post a picture of (or even read) Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Vermigli’s Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, St Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Discourse, St John of Damascus On the Orthodox Faith, or any other theological book, I am reading or consulting that book for a few possible reasons:

  • I’m teaching it or its author
  • I’m researching something to do with it
  • Personal edification

And, technically, none of the courses I have yet taught have been theology courses. Thus far, besides Classics (Latin, Greek, ancient history, Latin & Greek literature) I have taught church history/Christian history. My students at Davenant Hall do end up reading quite a bit of theology, usually (if you study with me in January, you’ll get to read theology by Sts Athanasius, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom! Sign up today!). But the purpose of my teaching is for them to understand those authors on their own terms and in their historical context.

So what’s different with Lombard and Bavinck?

This time, I’m reading theology to teach theology.

That’s right, in January, besides my teaching at Davenant Hall, I have the opportunity to teach the course “Theology 1: God and Creation” at Ryle Seminary in Ottawa, covering, as the course website says, “A systematic and biblical study of Christian theology proper, with special attention to the Trinity, God and Creation, and the nature and scope of revelation.” Now, the doctrine of the Trinity is, to a large degree, what my other course, “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy” is about. So the content overlaps.

But it’s different to put together a course where you say, “Whom am I teaching? What period am I covering? What are the most important primary sources for my students?” versus one where you say, “What am I teaching? What doctrines do I need to cover? What theological principles related to this topic will my students need the most?”

And so: enter Peter Lombard.

(Why him specifically? I’ll get to that later, maybe.)

Protestants and the Desert Fathers

Earlier this summer, I was blessed to be raised to the rank of Professor of Christian History at Davenant Hall. During the interview, which was one of the best live (alas, not in-person) theological conversations I’ve had in a very long time, one of my colleagues remarked that he thinks it’s cool that we, a Protestant theological college, are offering a course on the Desert Fathers. (Sign up here!)

But, of course, the question is always: How do I sell this to my fellow Protestants?

Why study the Desert Fathers with me? Or at all?

For some people, the Desert Fathers and the entire monastic movement that flows from them represent something in Christianity that is unnecessary at best, Pelagian at worst. Isn’t asceticism an unholy hatred of the body? Don’t the Desert Fathers teach works righteousness?

If we want to answer these questions, we must quickly (if briefly for a blog post) go to the sources (ad fontes! in good Reformational fashion). What is asceticism? What do the Desert Fathers believe about grace? Can we today learn things from them?

Asceticism comes from the Greek word askesis, which is the Greek word for “training”, like athletic training — askesis is the word St Athanasius uses to describe the lifestyle and path of St Antony the Great. It is, then, more like “spiritual training” than hatred of the body. However, the entire human life is lived in the body. Therefore, the training of most Christians in history has involved embodied aspects — and, when healthy, no hatred of the body. Fasting, for example, is simply, well, expected of us by our Lord. And simple eating, simple living, are themselves caught up in various Scriptural injunctions, not to mention St Clement of Alexandria’s Paedagogus.

Here is the lifestyle of St Antony as described by St Athanasius:

All his desire and all his energies he directed toward the great effort of ascetic discipline. So he worked with his hands, having heard ‘Let the lazy person not eat’. [2 Thes 3:10] He would spend part of what he earned on bread and part of it he would give to those who were begging. He prayed all the time, having learned that it is necessary to pray by oneself without ceasing. [See Mt 16:6 and 1 Thes 5:17] Indeed, he paid such close attention to the reading of Scripture that nothing in the Scriptures was wasted. He remembered everything, with the result that for him memory took the place of books.

Life of Antony, 3.5-7, trans. Vivian and Athanassakis

Somewhere, either Evagrius or the Life of Antony, the mean between abuse of the body and its indulgence is counselled in the wisdom of the Desert. The Desert Fathers do not hate the body.

Oh, and before addressing grace, look at where St Antony’s inspiration for askesis came from: Scripture. Indeed, he seems to have lived a life saturated with the Bible, doesn’t he? This is their ideal. In the first monasteries that shared a common life, besides a regular round of praying the Psalms and other Bible-reading, they had major Bible teaching twice a week.

What about grace? The Desert Fathers, after all, expend a lot of energy teaching about, well, expending a lot of energy. One of the famous sayings is that prayer is hard work until your last breath. Where, then, does grace fit in? Here’s what Evagrius says in his short work On the Eight Thoughts:

A great thing is the human being who is helped by God; he is abandoned and then he realizes the weakness of his nature. You have nothing good which you have not received from God (cf. 1 Cor. 4:7). Why then do you glory in another’s good as if it were your own? Why do you pride yourself in the grace of God as if it were your own possession? Acknowledge the one who gave it and do not exalt yourself so much. You are a creature of God; do not reject the Creator. You receive help from God; do not deny your benefactor. (8.12)

In Evagrius of Pontus: The Greek Ascetic Corpus, trans. Robert E Sinkewicz, p. 88.

Evagrius goes on, but I think you get the point.

Finally, there’s a historical reason to study any of the pre-Reformational monastic texts. As Dallas Willard notes in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines, the best books about the spiritual disciplines from Benedict onwards (if not from St Antony onwards…) were written by or about monks. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them and apply their wisdom to our own situation.

Indeed, we learn Trinitarian theology, Christology, the doctrine of God, ethics, morality, theology of the human will, semiotics, political theology, demonology, diabology (is that the word?), angelology, and (depending on your tradition) church order, liturgy, and canon law from the Fathers.

Why not the spiritual disciplines?

And if so, why not the fathers who were devoted to nothing else in their undivided pursuit of God?

So, come, learn with me this Fall.

I’m teaching the Desert Fathers this Autumn!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I love the Desert Fathers. They are my first love in patristics, beginning with Athanasius’ Life of St Antony and the Sayings of the Desert Fathers translated by Sister Benedicta Ward. As I say on the product page where you can sign up:

How do we reach up to God? How can we pray without ceasing? What even is prayer? Are we really meant to sell all our possessions and give to the poor? What is the place of fasting in the Christian life? Questions like these drove a great movement of men and women from the cities, towns, and villages of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, into the wilderness or desert, beginning in the fourth century—a movement so large it was said that these men and women made the desert into a city. These earliest monks of the Christian Church sought to live the Scriptures and fill their lives with prayer, seeking after God with a single-minded, wholehearted devotion. The monastic desert cities of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria became the foundation of the spiritual disciplines as practiced through the long centuries to our own day. Their legacy is found not only in the monasteries of the Middle Ages, not only from Ireland to Iraq, but also in the spirituality of St Thomas à Kempis, whose Imitation of Christ has been read and beloved by Protestants of every generation, and in John Calvin, whose own spirituality bears the mark of St Bernard of Clairvaux.

In this course, we are going to dive into the sands of the desert, moving chronologically from the life and letters of St Antony of Egypt, the reputed “first Christian monk/hermit”, in the early 300s and whose life was recorded by St Athanasius, up to the letters of Sts Barsanuphius and John of Gaza in the mid-500s. Along the way, we shall spend time with the famous sayings of the Desert Fathers—short, pithy quotations or anecdotes with a deep meaning similar to the Proverbs of Scripture—as well as the work of Pachomius who was the first abbot of a community of monks; the lives of various Desert Fathers recorded by Palladius of Aspuna; the ascetic and mystical work of Evagrius Ponticus; and the life of Symeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar in the Syrian desert. I promise that we’ll meet a lot of behaviors and some teachings that are weird to us. I also promise that we’ll be challenged to go deeper in our own devotion to God, our own study of the Scriptures, our own pursuit of pure prayer. To study the Desert Fathers well is not simply to study the history of Christianity but to open up yourself to the transformative power of the same God whom they met in huts and caves on the banks of the Nile, the Jordan, and the Orontes.

So sign up today!

St Athanasius round-up

Life is very busy (so I’ve not blogged as much I’d like), but you should know that I have an upcoming course with Davenant Hall this summer called “Athanasius Against the World”. I hope you will be able to join me for it! In the meantime, here are some of my previous Athanasius things, culminating at the bottom with my recent St Athanasius video on YouTube:

Reflections on John 12 (from 2021)

A little Trinitarian incarnational theology for you (from 2021 — video of my Davenant Fellows Lecture from December 2020)

Irenaeus and Athanasius (from 2013)

Saint of the Week: St. Athanasius (from 2010)

Wish I had more time for St. Athanasius (from 2009)

Beowulf and the interweaving of secular and sacred

Full disclosure: While this post does represent something that’s been on my mind, I’ve chosen this particular topic tonight to encourage you to sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, The Church in Medieval England! Registration closes on Thursday, March 24.

I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (1) I’d been planning on reading it since the summer, but some medieval Arthuriana and my reading load for teaching prevented me until now. Beowulf is greatly enjoyable — monsters, adventure, sword-wielding swimming contests, and only 3182 lines versus The Odyssey with 12,109 lines. (2) Beowulf was my second epic (the Odyssey my first), and my second piece of long-form medieval literature (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Tolkien, when I was 13). It has stuck with me these many years, appealing for all the reasons ancient and medieval epic and romance stay with me — poetic artistry, a good story, some wise utterances.

One of the many reasons Beowulf continues to resonate with me is a characteristic that is eminently medieval, although it is an impulse the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians also demonstrate, albeit differently. The poem is itself deeply religious, deeply Christian, but the characters are pagans. While I concede that around the time Beowulf was composed, there was some concept of the “secular”, (3) there is very little in art of this period that would look such to us today.

Beowulf is interesting in this regard because, as I say, it is a deeply Christian poem. Yet none of the characters of the poem are Christians. They are all pagans, and explicitly acknowledged as such; there is not even an attempt by the Beowulf poet to imagine them as “noble pagans” who are Christians before Christ who maybe make the cut on Judgement Day (or Doomsday to be more OE).

That said, the frequency of mentions of God in Christian terms renders the tone of the poem pius in a properly Christian sense. Pietas here means rendering the proper respect and honour and duty to those around you and above you. In a Christian sense, it includes worship of and obedience to God, as well as honouring your human father and mother. It is also often seen to include fulfilling obligations for the political community, something that obviously becomes culturally conditioned depending on your context. In Beowulf, this last means kings giving gifts to thegns (a good king is a ring-giver) as well as helping your friends and harming your foes (in a Homeric rendering of accounts). Harming your foes is not exactly Christian, but it is unclear to me whether the feuds of Beowulf are approved by the poet or simply recorded, whereas aiding friends and giving gifts are both approved of.

The pagan cast of the epic, however, has misguided pietas towards the false gods of ancient Germanic religion, and the poet makes this clear, interweaving his own Christian commentary on the pre-Christian tale. Several times, the poet draws the reader out of pagan glories to the final judgement, lamenting the deaths of the unbaptised pagan heroes of the past.

However, throughout, there is also an almost unconscious pietas, a sort of natural law (to misapply the term) in Beowulf himself. Here I confess that I am borrowing from Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics.” In the poem, as Tolkien observes, Beowulf goes from trusting solely in the gift of God in the fight with Grendel, to trusting in weapons, armour, shield, in the fight with the dragon. Beowulf consciously chooses to trust in God for the outcome of the fight with Grendel, not in the weaponry or art of war devised by men:

… And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.

trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 685-687.

Beowulf meets Grendel in the night, grapples with him, and rips his arm off. Grendel will bleed to death as a result.

The second monster is Grendel’s mother, whom Beowulf confronts with weapons. His first sword, Hrunting, fails him, and he almost loses this fight, needing the aid of a magic sword to gain the victory.

The third monster is the dragon. This time, Beowulf wins but dies in the process, slain by the dragon he and his thegn Wiglaf slay together. The poet says of him as he goes off to the fight:

The fabled warrior in his warshirt and helmet
trusted in his own strength entirely
and went under the crag. No coward path!

trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 2539-2541.

Whereas with Grendel, Beowulf trusted in God to guide the outcome, here, with his weapons, he trusts in himself. He defeats the dragon, but the cost is his own life. The theme drawn through these episodes is that of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” The less Beowulf trusts in God, the more dire becomes his own individual situation.

Yet there is also a high regard for Beowulf as a king saving his people, as a faint image of Christ. Beowulf sets out with twelve companions, his own apostles. And he is abandoned at his moment of keenest need save by one, Wiglaf, just as Christ was abandoned by all the (male) disciples save by St John the Evangelist. Like Christ, his death saves his people. To kill the dragon, the king dies; and in biblical imagery, the dragon represents the devil, defeated by Christ on the Rood.

In these and many other ways, Beowulf is a deeply Christian poem. The poet is not setting out to be “authentic” about these pagan characters. To his own self and his own religion he remains true. Yet his vision of their lives is capable of seeing the swift, sure hand of Almighty God at work.

This intertwining of pagan and Christian, or in other circumstances secular and sacred, is one of the things I love about the Middle Ages. So much of it has these layered readings and meanings and beautiful takes, just waiting to be fleshed out, or even enfleshed. It means that you can’t separate a study of medieval England (or a course!) into “secular” and “sacred” in any easy way.

If you want to engage with this beautiful medieval world more, do sign up for my course!

(1) This was round 4, first was R M Liuzza in high school, then Kevin Crossley-Holland in my 20s, then Tolkien around age 30; I hope that Round 5 will be in OE.

(2) At this point in my life, I have read a lot of ancient and medieval narrative literature, some of which I will definitely spend my life rereading.

(3) For the early medieval secular, see the special issue of Early Medieval Europe from last February.

My appearance on the Ad Fontes Podcast

I had the blessing to appear on the latest episode Ad Fontes Podcast — you can listen on Spotify here. I’m not sure you can call being an audio guest an “appearance”, but my voice was there with Rhys and Onsi! It was a great privilege to share a mic with these two gentlemen. Ad Fontes is the podcast associated with the Davenant Institute’s journal, Ad Fontes. As the podcast description says:

Ad fontes” means “to the sources!” and was a rallying cry of the Reformation as the Reformers sought to return to the historic teaching and practice of the church. We hope to do the same in this podcast by looking closely at the kinds of texts and sources covered in the Ad Fontes journal.

Our aim is to not just to think about the sources, but to think through the sources – to have our minds shaped by what has gone before, not to simply pay lip service to it. We’re not just after knowledge, but wisdom.

The topic under consideration for this week was, as Rhys’ title says, “Ye Olde England” — specifically, Christianity in England in the Middle Ages, moving beyond stereotypes of tyrant kings, superstitious masses, and proud popes to the beauty, piety, and theology of the medieval millennium as it was lived through by the people of the English nation.

As you probably know, I’ll be teaching on this topic starting in April, so sign up now!

Again, you can listen to the podcast here.

The Church in Medieval England

When I was a kid, if you were to ask me what my favourite things were, the answer would be easy — knights, castles, and the Middle Ages. What were my favourite stories? The answer could be found by finding me crouched just inside the door to my bedroom where the hall light spilled across the floor, reading a library book about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What was my favourite historical event? The Crusades.

Add to this the fact that I was reared in the Anglican Church with a priest for a dad who loves history. In confirmation class, maybe also through osmosis or conversations around the home or in the car, I came to understand that the Anglican Church wasn’t like other Protestant churches — we stood in line with the medieval church in England, stretching back to Augustine of Canterbury. All we did was clear away some abuses (like clerical celibacy!) and clarify some unclear teachings (like, say, justification by faith alone).

You can imagine, then, how pleased I am to be offering my course The Church in Medieval England: 597-1485 for Davenant Hall this spring term, starting in April! You can sign up here.

To pique your interest, here’s the description I put in the syllabus:

The period known as the Middle Ages is often thought of as “dark”, particularly as far as Christianity is concerned. In this course, we will study the path of Christianity in England from the arrival of Italian missionaries in 597 to the accession of Henry Tudor (Henry VII) in 1485, a journey from small Anglo-Saxon kingdoms through the Norman world, up the cusp of the Reformation era. In the lectures, I will move generally chronologically, examining events and major figures as they arise. Particular attention will be given to the twelfth century because of the transformations of the wake of the Norman Conquest, the emergence of the Cistercians, and the rise of universities, as well as late medieval piety and calls for Reform.

What we shall see is a nuanced world of many layers, where the deep Augustinian theology of Thomas Bradwardine (Archbishop of Canterbury, d. 1349) co-exists with those he felt were Pelagian. Alongside the monasteries and universities, there is also the popular world of medieval religion, found in poems, plays, and pilgrimages, devoted to Christ’s passion, the saints, the Eucharist. In a sort of middle place, we will find time for the mystical writings of hermits, canons, and Carthusians, some, like the Abbey of the Holy Ghost, directed to the laity.

We will read Gildas, Bede, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, The Dream of the Rood, the Life of Alfred by Asser, Eadmer’s Life of St Anselm, Simeon of Durham, Aelred of Rievaulx, primary sources about Thomas Becket, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Everyman, shorter devotional poetry, Pearl, Julian of Norwich, John Wycliffe, and medieval liturgy.

Other big names will also turn up, names like Aneirin, Boniface, Aelfric, William of Ockham, William the Conqueror, William II Rufus, Henry I, Henry II, lots of other kings and queens, Thomas Bradwardine, Richard Rolle, The Cloud of Unknowing, Margery Kempe, John Peckham (Archbishop of Canterbury), Queen St Margaret of Scotland, and so forth, as well as some continental biggies like Gregory the Great, Innocent III, Gratian, Thomas Aquinas, et al.

So sign up here now!

Durham Cathedral Priory in the snow (my picture)