This January I’ll be teaching The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils

Boy, that’s possibly the longest title I’ve given a blog post yet! But it’s true! This January I’ll be teaching “The Historical Context of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” for Davenant Hall (the Davenant Institute’s teaching wing). If you’re already excited enough, you can register for the course here. If you need more convincing, read on…

Do you believe in the Trinity? Do you believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human, perfect and entire in each, without getting it all mixed up and turning him into a divinised man or a man adopted by a god or a god who merely uses a human body like an avatar or something?

Do you kiss icons?

If you have an answer to any of these (yes, no, what?), then the outcomes of the Seven Ecumenical Councils should interest you! These seven councils met between 325 and 787. All were called by emperors. All dealt with church-rupturing theological issues. All also dealt with some canon law, except for 5 and 6, so a special council was called after number 6 that we call the Quinisext Council. It’s exciting already, isn’t it?!

These seven councils were admitted by the imperial church to provide the dogmatic boundaries for orthodox thought and worship. They come to be considered as having universal jurisdiction in doctrine and canon law. These seven, and only these seven, hold such a status in the Eastern Orthodox Church. These seven plus a bunch of later ones hold such a status in the Roman Catholic Church. Three of these, if I understand aright, are embraced by the Oriental Orthodox. And I’m not sure if the Church of the East formally embraces any of them, but they espouse the doctrine of the first two.

Protestants tend to explicitly endorse the first four, but I see no reason not to embrace five and six as well, whereas many Reformed Christians reject the seventh because of its acceptance and promotion of holy images (icons). I, personally, accept all seven. I’ve been told that I am what they call, “based”.

These seven councils are:

  1. Nicaea (325): Jesus is of one substance with the Father
  2. Constantinople (381): Reaffirms Nicaea and pushes towards the full divinity of the Holy Spirit
  3. Ephesus (431): Jesus is only one person, fully human and fully divine
  4. Chalcedon (451): Jesus exists in two natures, one human and one divine
  5. Constantinople 2 (553): Jesus’ two natures come together in what we call the “hypostatic union”
  6. Constantinople 3 (680/1): Jesus has two wills
  7. Nicaea 2 (787): Images of Jesus and the saints are good

In my class, we are going to explore the events leading up to and the aftermath of each council. Some of them had some pretty crazy stuff going on at them (particularly Ephesus and second Constantinople), so we’ll look at how (or how not!) to run a church council. We’ll look at why these seven but not other ones (why not Serdica in 343? Why not the Lateran Council of 649? What about the council of 869?). And we’ll examine the writings of one major theologian associated with the teaching of each council.

It’s going to be a fun ride, and hopefully it will help you appreciate even more the glory of the Most Holy Trinity and the Person of Jesus Christ our Saviour and His work of redemption in becoming man.

The Gospel is Jesus, so these questions matter.

You can sign up here.

And for a foretaste, check out my December 16 lecture, “The Christmas Councils”.

Council of Chalcedon, from St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus

Did Constantine really change everything?

Today’s round in my ongoing promotion of my upcoming Davenant Hall course is a post I wrote for Davenant, looking specifically at the question of how the canon of Scripture came to be within the wider framework of, “Did Constantine really change everything?”

You can read it here.

Because any reference to the Christian rulers of Rome requires Constantine’s big, giant head

Exegesis before Constantine (mostly about Origen)

One of the challenges facing anyone who wishes to embrace pre-modern Christian thought is the way the ancient and medieval Christians read the Bible — particularly their use of those approaches to the polysemy of Scripture that we broadly call “allegory” but which I have come to prefer to call the “spiritual sense” of Scripture. I do this partly because the “spiritual sense” may be what we would strictly consider “allegory” (a one-to-one correspondence between events and things in text and events and things in “reality”), or it may be typology (an image in the text is fulfilled in later salvation history, usually by Jesus), or it may really be more “symbolic” (eg., many approaches to Moses on Mt Sinai may be more strictly symbolic than allegorical). Or it may be none of these but occupy some other term relative to the spiritual level of reading — anagogy or tropology or …

Typology is the most scripturally … justified spiritual sense. The book of Hebrews, for example, sees the ceremonial world of the Old Testament as being types of the anti-Type, Christ. Christ himself considers the brass serpent Moses lifted up in the wilderness a type of his own crucificixion (Jn 3). 1 Peter 3:20-22 uses the term antitypos in reference to Noah’s ark as a prefigurement to baptism. The Christian tradition naturally followed the apostolic witness (besides Christ Himself!) and found other types throughout the Old Testament. Melito of Sardis, to cite only one example, in his Paschal Sermon, sees the Passover as a type that Christ fulfils. Typology is happily used by Reformed preachers today.

Allegory, on the other hand, gets people concerned. Although some like to wag their fingers at the post-Constantinian African Augustine, most people, if they know a thing or two, are concerned about Origen of Alexandria (d. c. 253). Origen is seen as a Neo- or Middle Platonist who’s not really fully Christian, and he brings over to the Bible the foreign, pagan Platonic allegory. He’s too speculative, and he rejects the “literal” meaning of Scripture.

The allegories of the pagans, the allegories of the myths, are considered “eisegesis of embarrassment” — the gods getting up to no good in Homer and Hesiod are actually allegories about natural philosophy (“science”). Other myths, such as Hercules’ descent into Hades, are turned into moral allegories. The story of Zeus and Danae, wherein he impregnates her through a shower of gold, begetting Perseus, is considered an allegory about how you can only get the girl if you’re rich enough. Somehow that’s even more embarassing!

Anyway, if pagan allegory is the origin of Christian allegory (which I doubt), then the genealogical fallacy tells us that allegory is how Christian writers smooth out the “awkward” bits of Scripture.

This is not usually the case. There are times, we must admit, when Origen says that when Abraham does something wrong, it’s not literally true but there to serve an allegory. Like Lot having sex with his daughters. But the vast majority of the allegories of the Fathers, of Origen, are nothing of this sort.

Here are some basic facts about allegory as practised by Origen and his successors, such as St Gregory of Nyssa, St Maximus the Confessor, and others:

First, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from Philo and his exegesis. Now, Philo will have taken his method from his fellow Platonist mystics and applied it to the Jewish Scriptures. But the Christians took up Philo precisely because he was a reader of the same Bible as they.

Second, the genealogy of Christian allegory comes from St Paul, particularly the allegory of Hagar and Sarah (Gal 4).

Third, Christian allegory, in fact, almost never denies the historical reality or indeed reliability of the text of Scripture. Some of them seem to deny the historical truth of Genesis 1, but many do not. St Augustine seems to affirm multiple allegories as well as the “literal” truth. They work alongside each other and interplay with each other. God is the Lord both of the writing of Scripture and of history. This is vitally important if we are to understand Origen.

Origen can read scripture “literally” (ad litteram in Latin [although he wrote in Greek]) and “spiritually” at the same time. Allegory and typology are at the service of the historical fact as it unfolds through the revealed word pointing us to God the Word.

Fourth — and this may actually be the single most important point — Christian allegory, like typology, is almost always about Christ. Jesus Christ is the God-Word Who became flesh. He is the wisdom of God. He is present to us in a special way when we read Scripture (something affirmed by Origen in words that are almost sacramental). Jesus is seen as the key to the Old Testament, both in basic terms of fulfilling prophecies and in typological terms. He is also the focus of most allegories, especially those that endure.

Fifth, allegory is careful. In the sixteenth century, allegorical readings of Scripture came under fire because it was seen as treating Scripture as a wax nose that could be bent whichever way the exegete wanted. This is emphatically not what the Origenian tradition does. They have methods that are theological, literary-philological, and philosophical that determine how we are to understand an allegory. In fact, Origen’s search for the spiritual sense uses as much philology as a modernist seeking the plain sense!

Anyway, I doubt this will convince the skeptical that the allegories of Origen, the Cappadocians, Ambrose, Augustine, St Maximus the Confessor, and Lancelot Andrewes are worth reading. But I hope to at least make these things clear. Also, more straightforward ways of reading of greater familiarity to us are still in practice throughout the era before (and after) Constantine.

If you want to learn more about ante-Nicene exegesis and Origen, you should sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, Christianity Before Constantine! Registration ends September 10 — that’s Friday!

Coming soon: My course on St Augustine!

As you know, I have been teaching a course for Davenant Hall (the teaching wing of Davenant Institute) called The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy — and I love it! This teaching is all online, and we have a hefty cohort of auditors. You can also enroll as a for-credit student with Davenant, however; just in case any of you were looking for an intellectually rigorous but structurally flexible path to theological education.

Well, this course is ending soon; a week from today will be my final lecture.

But this is not the end! On April 12, I start teaching another course: Augustine: The Major Works. This ten-week course will cover the major — that is, big and influential — works of St Augustine: Confessions, On Christian Teaching (De Doctrina Christiana), On the Trinity, and City of God as well as two shorter works on predestination because of how prominent the predestinarian debate is in Augustine’s legacy.

But what you’ll find in the rest of these works is the fact that Augustine is interested in far more than predestination, and he has some important things to say — some original to himself, some expressed by him very well, some simply ancient orthodoxy. Reading St Augustine is basically a theological education in itself, exposing you to Trinitarian theology, Christology, the question of salvation, ethics at large, specific ethical questions, the Eucharist, the creation of the world, the redemption of the world, exegetical method, semiotics, mysticism, prayer, memory, the will, the idea of eternity, angelology and demonology, just war theory, theology of history, and so forth.

Besides, St Augustine is the biggest, most influential theologian of the ancient Latin church. He is the father of both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, with a diverse legacy visible in Martin Luther and the Book of Common Prayer on the one hand and St Teresa of Avila and Robert Bellarmine on the other.

I’m teaching a course about Nicaea

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

I am teaching this term — “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy.” It’s an online course with the Davenant Institute, and you can read the official description here. When I approached this course, I did not want it to be simply the fourth century, nor simply, “How did the Arian/Nicene controversy get resolved?”

As a scholar who has spent a lot of time working with the Council of Chalcedon, I wanted this course to demonstrate how the questions being debated from the time of Nestorius’ episcopate to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 were questions embedded in the thought of earlier thinkers, so I wanted to see the course reach a terminus of at least 451.

I also did not want anyone to get the idea that in 381 everything was settled. So extending to 451 helps finish off the Nicene narrative and push us onwards. Of course, the Council of Chalcedon opens up new cans of worms and results, ultimately, in new schisms and all sorts of things going a bit belly-up. There are no living ecclesiastical bodies directly descended from the Council of Ariminum or from Eunomius of Cyzicus, but the opponents of Chalcedon have a strong presence in the Middle East and count themselves part of apostolic succession.

And they all accept the Council of Nicaea.

Anyway, this, perhaps, wider temporal boundary than usual meant that some authors you might expect — Sts Ambrose of Milan and John Chrysostom, for example — are not covered in depth. Alas, such decisions must be made in a ten-week course.

I also wanted to assign entire works of substance, if possible, and not just excerpts or bits of sermons. I want my students to grapple with the tedious parts of ancient theological works as well as the parts of longer treatises that are interesting but may never make an anthology of texts on the Trinitarian or Christological debates. So they are reading all of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, all of St Basil’s On the Holy Spirit, all five “Theological Orations” of St Gregory of Nazianzus (“the Theologian”), etc.

Another thing that I thought was important in approaching this period in theological history, and this is up to me in the lectures and discussions, was to avoid making conclusions into premisses — a perspective gained from Father John Behr here as well as in his book The Nicene Faith. Two examples: It is not straightforward that confessing the God Word as being homoousios (consubstantial/of one substance) with God the Father would obviously be orthodox. Nor is it straightforward that the Trinity is “three hypostaseis in one ousia“. Depending on how you define these words, both of these hallmarks of contemporary orthodoxy were susceptible to unorthodox understandings back then.

A final grand, structural thought was similar to the first. The ecumenical councils move from debating the Trinity to Christology, but the questions of both were abroad at the same time. Moreover, there is more afoot than either of these debates. That is one reason I wanted to include entire works. I also chose to include St Ephrem the Syrian because he represents a very different world than the Greek theologians, both because he is writing poetry and because he is writing in Syriac.

I do not know how lectures on these topics go with different professors. My educational background is in both theology and classics, so the world of Late Antiquity comes forth in my lectures not a little. I have no difficulty keeping the various members of the Constantinian dynasty clear in my mind. I know the political culture and political history of the period. I know the Latin poetry and even some of the Greek philosophy — besides, of course, all the Classical era classics! I love teaching this period and not losing sight of the wider political and cultural environment.

And I love not hiding the fact that I am an Anglican by conviction who has tendencies towards Eastern Orthodoxy.

After two initial weeks of covering the Council of Nicaea and then a blitz through history to 381, we have been and will be looking at Athanasius, Ephrem, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary and Augustine in one week, Cyril of Alexandria and the Council of Ephesus, and Leo the Great and the Council of Chalcedon. Hilary and Augustine are unfairly lumped together because I did not want to cut either of them, but I have trouble envisioning a course that devotes attention to Athanasius but excludes Cyril, and I think Augustine On the Trinity is just too large to grapple with here. That’s for next term, when I get to teach St Augustine. 🙂

I have taken great delight in teaching this class so far. I enjoy preparing the lectures, and the students have good energy, come prepared, and have important things to say as well as good questions. We are almost halfway through. I’ll miss my Monday nights with them when it’s done.

But then, soon enough, I’ll be teaching my next course for Davenant. But more on that anon …

A little Trinitarian incarnational theology

I meant to blog the following video back in December because it’s in part promoting the online course I am teaching for Davenant Hall — The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy, but life is chaos. So here it is now! I promise I’ll tell more about my course soon. And that I’ll promote my upcoming Augustine course in time for interested parties to sign up!

In this video, I lecture primarily about St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation and the Christology of St Cyril of Alexandria.

Enjoy!