Living orthodoxy or dead conservatism

I recently watched a really good episode of the Pilgrim Faith podcast on YouTube where my new colleagues Joseph Minich and Dale Stenberg of the Davenant Institute (where I teach) interview my friends from PhD days Cory Brock and Nathaniel Gray Sutanto (goes by Gray). The interview was about Cory and Gray’s new translation of Herman Bavinck’s Christian Worldview.

They talked about many things pertinent to Bavinck, early twentieth-century Reformed theology, and the creation of a worldview. One thing that arose was the idea of living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism, which came up partly in the context of Bavinck and Kuyper’s work in founding a new Reformed church in the Netherlands (I think? I know nothing of Dutch ecclesiastical history after Thomas a Kempis, and I was also rolling change from tips at the cafe I manage so some details slipped by as I counted nickels, dimes, quarters, loonies, and twoonies).

Since I forget some of the context of the discussion, I am mostly just rolling from the paired phrases: living orthodoxy rather than dead conservatism.

I think some would argue that conservative theology and ethics are moribund, are fossils, are traditionalism dressed up in modernist Protestant garb, or, for other Christian tribes, simply mediaeval corpses dressed up in liturgical vestments. I may know far less about Bavinck than my friends, but I have no doubt that this is not the target of the phrase “dead conservatism”.

Instead, “dead conservatism” is what I might call the “conservative temperament” coupled to articulations of historic orthodoxy that are simply held in the head but with no union of the head and the heart. Dead conservatism will happily and gleefully sign off on all three historic Creeds or a church body’s confessional document; it can proudly proclaim itself Bible-believing and theologically sound.

Living orthodoxy is not simply an attempt to accurately and truthfully articulate the faith once delivered. It is finding life as a disciple of Jesus Christ at the same time — maybe even through an orthodox articulation of faith. Living orthodoxy is embracing the reality that Jesus is life and the light of human beings.

If we try to unite the head and the heart, we find true power in words such, “for us humans and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” The God who is Jesus is not aloof and distant; he is near to us and intimate, participant in our entire human existence — as the fathers I just finished teaching demonstrate, from Athanasius to Leo the Great. He became a human being. He suffered, was crucified, and died for us.

And he really truly in real human history with a real, albeit glorified, human body rose again from the dead.

Living orthodoxy takes this as fuel for absolutely everything. The life of discipleship, of being an apprentice to Jesus our teacher, is empowered by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. Actually, in Athanasius’ terms, it is an ongoing participation in that incarnation, for we are the body of Christ. Look to the cross and the empty tomb — here is the fuel for prayer, for fasting, for studying Scripture, for charitable deeds to neighbours; he tasted everything there was to being human. Oh — and he conquered death!

“Glorious now, behold him arise!” as “We Three Kings” puts it each Epiphany.

We follow where He has gone before. We need not fear government restrictions, COVID-19, recessions, ordinary illnesses, unemployment, boredom, isolation, woke capitalism, surveillance capitalism, the alt-right, white supremacy, Marxists, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Justin Trudeau, Doug Ford, “liberals”, “heretics”.

Living orthodoxy, living with right belief and right worship in the light and life — as part of the light and life — of Jesus the ManGod — also provides the fuel for the creation of a Christian culture. In our context, not so much the kind we saw in the 1200s with Gothic cathedrals, beautiful manuscripts, and wealth lavished upon all things “Christian”, more the kind we saw in the 200s with the creation of tight-knit communities of disciples learning the ways of the Master, and writing theology and commentaries on the Bible and living rightly amongst their pagan neighbours, always seeking Christ the teacher (or paedagogus), creating not a ghettoised sub-culture but a life-bringing counter-culture.

All of it — absolutely all of it — flows from the kind of orthodoxy that is alive, that is not simply signing off on the 39 Articles or the Westminster Confession or the decrees of the ecumenical councils, but saying that these are the distillation of the teaching of the God Word found in Scripture and lived in the centuries — then going forth into the world and living as a result.

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.