Ancient Theology Blows My Mind

Some of you may recall my first encounter with paleo-orthodoxy in 2007, when, to quote my other blog, “My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson.”  Well, as I read Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see post), Hall’s chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and not Made,” which deals with St. Athanasius contra Arius, a similar event occurred.

To describe such a brain-cracking is hard.  It seems silly when I review the chapter.  It seems like, “Well, yes, this is Nicene theology, Matthew.  This is the mindset you were reared on.”  My Father is a big fan of St. Athanasius.  Nevertheless, the Truth comes bounding into my life and mind sometimes, and the shock of it is explosive.  Suddenly, my brain-pain is split wide open.  I gape in wonder at the beautiful simplicity of orthodoxy and proclaim, “Yea, verily!”  or “Sweet deal!”  So, at the risk of sounding like a pedestrian, small-brained kid from rural Alberta . . .

St. Athanasius primarily blew my mind by pointing out that when we talk of the Divine, we are talking about a categorically different Being than when we talk about anything else in the universe.

Thus, begetting with God is not the same at all as begetting with men.  How can it be?  Men are bound by time, and thus beget in time.  God is not; God is eternal and exists outside of time.  Thus, He would not necessarily beget in time.  In fact, since like begets like—were I to have a son, he would be consubstantial with me by nature—God cannot but beget anything other than God.  Therefore, whatever God begets is like God.

As Hall puts it, “whatever is predicated of the Father must be predicated of the Son . . . .  That is, if the Father is sovereign as an attribute of deity, the Son possesses that same attribute.  If the Father is Lord, the Son is Lord.  If the Father is Light, the Son is Light.  [Quoting St. Athanasius], ‘Thus, since they are one, and the godhead itself is one, the same things are predicated of the Son as of the Father, except the title of ‘Father.’” (p. 44).  I was also especially fond of St. Athanasius’ analogy of the Sun and its radiance; you cannot separate the two.  Thus it is between the Father & the Son.  Clearly this analogy, like all analogies (especially those used of the Godhead) could break down, but it is firm enough to do the job.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus sort of blew my mind also.  In Hall’s recounting of his Theological Orations, St. Gregory never goes beyond the bounds of Scripture yet uses logic to demonstrate certain truths of the Holy Trinity.  First of all, we see an element of Patristic methodological thinking that is absent today.  Hall, paraphrasing St. Gregory, writes, “Theology, while employing the mind, also involves the heart.  A pure heart, one grounded in the worship of the church and a life of prayer, will produce clear and fruitful theological reflection.  A murky heart and a dark mind, on the other hand, will produce a sick, thorny theology; it will offer no nourishment, only harm.” (p. 56)[1]

I once took a correspondence course from a prominent Protestant college in Australia.  This course was an introduction to the Bible, and its goal was to get us students acquainted with Scripture and the main foci and themes running throughout the divine narrative.  According to the authors of this work, using the interpretive method laid out by the book, anyone—Christian or pagan—would be able to correctly interpret Scripture and see what its plain sense was. St. Gregory and others would likely raise an eyebrow at this.  Really?  If we Christians see as through a mirror darkly, what about those who do not have the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten their hearts and minds?  This modernist approach also fails to take into account the human heart, something that St. Gregory of Nazianzus does first off—theology is both of the mind and the heart.  If we want to be true theologians, we should seek to be pure of heart.  How many academic theologians operate that way today?

However, these foundational challenges were not what blew my mind as I read about St. Gregory.  What blew my mind was the simple statement in a cool, logical fashion of the truth:

For indeed, it is not some deficiency in the Son which prevents his being Father (for Sonship is not a deficiency), and yet he is not Father. . . . For the Father is not Son, and yet this is not due to either deficiency or subjection of essence; but the very fact of being unbegotten or begotten, or proceeding, has given the name of Father to the first, of the son to the second, and to the third . . . of the Holy Ghost, that the distinction of the three persons may be preserved in the one nature and dignity of the godhead.  (71)

He blew my mind elsewhere, but I can’t find the reference just now.

May the Lord God Almighty blow all our minds by the stark reality of His Truth now and again.


[1] This sentiment is echoed in John Cassian’s Eighth Conference when Abba Serenus says that the pure of heart alone can properly interpret the high points of Scripture, and that a holy life is necessary for anyone who wishes to discern the true meaning of the Bible.

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Good Books Point to Others

The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers.  I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do.  Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more.  This book does that.

Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts.  Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.  Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.

If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:

Online Resources

-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.  A very valuable resource.

Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study.  This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.

The Fathers of the Church at New Advent.  Another collection of writings.

-There is a Patristics Bog Carnival roaming around out there, usually at hyperekperissou; this past month it was at The Church of Jesus Christ.

Primary Sources

-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to.  Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.

-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God.  This book is short and readable.  It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.

-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit.  This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit.  St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.

-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian.  This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.

-The Apostolic Fathers.  These works are individually short.  I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas.  They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.

-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:

-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.

-St. Augustine, The Confessions.

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.

Secondary Sources

-Drobner, Hubertus.  The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007.  This book is a “patrology.”  As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers.  However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.

-Oden, Thomas C.  The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002.  In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.”  He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.

-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999.  This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline.  He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.

*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time.  Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.

“Learning Theology with the Church Fathers” by Christopher A. Hall

Learning Theology with the Church Fathers is Christopher A. Hall’s sequel to Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (the third in the trilogy is Worshiping with the Church Fathers).  In this book, Hall examines various theological questions, taking the question of the divinity of Christ as his jumping-off point.  The examination of the question at hand is always narrowed to certain Church Fathers, never the entire corpus of Patristic thought on each issue, an approach that keeps the book to a reasonable, readable length.  For example, in the chapter “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, he draws principally from St. Athanasius.  In “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, our guides for the journey are St. Gregory of Nazianzus and St. Augustine of Hippo.

Other issues Hall sheds Patristic upon are the two natures of Christ, the Holy Spirit, the question of sin & grace, providence, the love of God, Scripture, ecclesiology, and the Resurrection (the final one).  He realised whilst writing that the topics covered weren’t enough, that something more needs to be said.  The third volume will help us draw nearer to the mind and life of the Fathers, for these men were not mere academics but practising, preaching, and worshipping pastors—thus, the question of Patristic worship is important.

The best things about this book are:  i. It blew my mind.  ii. It made me want to read more of the Church Fathers.  Each of these will receive a post of its own later.  Some other, more general comments on the book are the order for today, however.

My favourite chapters of this book were those that dealt with what I think of as theology proper—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  Thus, “Christ the Son, Begotten and Not Made”, “The Mystery and Wonder of the Trinity”, “Christ Divine and Human”, and “On the Holy Spirit” especially, although “God’s Wise and Loving Providence” helped draw me closer to an understanding of impassibility, a doctrine I am not yet comfortable with.  This may be that I do not fully understand what it means for God to be impassible; it may be that I am clouded and biased by my 21st-century ways; it may be that the Fathers are wrong.  The last option makes me very uncomfortable, because I tend to agree with things they all agree about.

One of the aspects of Patristic thought that this book helps to draws out is its focus on real, live theology.  These days, a lot of people talk about something called “theology”, but it’s really a Christian or biblical approach to certain issues—such as eco-theology and ethics, but even at times ecclesiology, sacramental theology, liturgical theology.  Very rarely do we say, “Gee, who on earth is God?”  The Fathers did.  Who is Jesus?  How does the nature of who Jesus is affect the way we live, think, are saved?  Who is the Father?  Who is the Holy Spirit?  How on earth are there three Gods and one God all at the same time?  The Fathers addressed these foundational issues, and then from this truly theological framework—one always rooted in the foundations of Scripture and tradition—dealt with other issues, such as justification and ethics.

Hall attempts to give Nestorius and Pelagius a fair hearing in this book, but at no point does he act as though the teachings attached to their names are legitimate orthodoxy.  This is a dangerous but admirable trait.  When we look at these figures of church history, we have to realise that every saint was also a sinner, and every sinner a potential saint.  And sometimes people said things that they didn’t necessarily mean, or hadn’t thought through properly, or expressed badly, or their followers took their arguments to their logical, heretical conclusions.[1]

Sometimes you want more than a mere exegesis of the Fathers as they exegete Scripture and tradition, bringing them to bear on the theological questions at hand.  Sometimes I want to know more than just what this one Father taught, more than just this one thought on a question.  Sometimes I want to see objections to these thoughts, or counter-arguments to objections in my mind, or a thorough “modern” rationale for these ideas.  At times, these elements are lacking, but not always.  When they are present, Hall sometimes takes too long going about it, and this may be why he avoids it sometimes.  It may also be that his mind did not conceive of the same counter-arguments to the statements of the Fathers as mine did.  However, this is not meant to be a complete display of all of Patristic thought on these questions, nor even on all questions, since some never even arise.

The authors presented by Christopher A. Hall in Learning Theology with the Church Fathers are all major thinkers of the Patristic age, and their thoughts tend to be representative of the ideological climate surrounding the theological questions he addresses.  This book, as a result, is a good book to inspire people to explore the field of Patristics and Patristic theology further.


[1] This happens today with certain types of Calvinist.