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Book Review (pt4): The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware: Criticism and Conclusion

The following is part 4 of 4 in my book review of Timothy Ware’s The Orthodox Church, 3rd edition (New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 359 pp.  Here I offer a few critical thoughts of my own and a conclusion.  Click here for the full review in PDF, click here for the 2-part audio podcast version of my book review.  Because the West is so ignorant of Eastern Orthodoxy and because Ware’s book is already a compact summary of Orthodoxy, I trust that these book reviews will be a valuable resource for those who are the slightest interested in Orthodox Christianity.

Criticism

One does not need to read between the lines to see that Ware is not writing as a disinterested observer of The Orthodox Church.  His book could be considered an enthusiastic and engaging commendation of Orthodox Christianity to Western Christians.  At various points throughout the book, his overview of Orthodoxy comes across as apologetical in tone.  I will draw out two examples and give a brief critique of them: 1) his insistence that the Orthodox Church is utterly unique from anything Western and 2) his historical representation of Patriarch Photius. 

The Uniqueness of Orthodoxy

Ware wants his readers to see that “Orthodoxy is not just a kind of Roman Catholicism without the Pope,” but distinct from any Western “religious system” (2).  To Ware, Protestants and Catholics both have more in common with each other than either of them do with Orthodoxy; they are “two sides of the same [Western] coin” (2).  Indeed there appears to be a subtle (but noticeable) pejorative use of the word “Western,” along with the assumption that Western influence spells the degradation of Orthodoxy (see esp. 116-117).

Ware also appears to have been influenced greatly by Alexis Khomiakov (the first “original” Russian theologian) and his insistence that all Western theology “betrays the same fundamental point of view, while Orthodoxy is something entirely distinct” (123, italics added).  Ware introduces his readers to Orthodox theology this way:

Christians in the west, both Roman and Reformed, generally start by asking the same questions, although they may disagree about the answers.  In Orthodoxy, however, it is not merely the answers that are different—the questions themselves are not the same as in the west. (1)

Ware also emphasizes that the Orthodox Church has never undergone a Reformation or Counter-Reformation like the West, but were only affected by this upheaval in an “oblique” way (1).

As we begin to explore Orthodox theology with Ware, however, it quickly becomes clear that Ware’s claims about the absolute uniqueness of Orthodoxy are exaggerated. For example, thinking of Scripture as existing “within Tradition” and not something entirely distinct from Tradition is one of the ways Catholics have responded to the Protestant position of sola scriptura (196-97).  Protestants would likely think of Ware’s argument that “it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority” as a “Catholic” argument, along with his argument that “individual readers, however sincere, are in danger of error if they trust their own personal interpretation” (199). Ecumenical Councils are binding to both Catholics and the Orthodox, even if they disagree about what would qualify as an ecumenical council.

Ware assures his readers that Orthodoxy believes the Church should be a Scriptural Church “just as firmly” as Protestants (199).  Although the Orthodox (along with Protestants) think Catholic claims of papal authority have resulted in “too great a centralization” in matters of church government, nevertheless, all Catholics and Orthodox alike share in the assumption that the church is to be governed by an authoritative hierarchy (216).  The Orthodox Church may very well be much more than simply a kind of Catholic Church without a pope, but in many areas of church government they are similar enough to cause some Protestants to strain to see what major differences there would be if the pope were not in the governing equation.

Nor is this all. Orthodoxy in fact shares many assumptions and questions in common with other Christian traditions.  It would appear Ware himself proves by his overview of Orthodox doctrines that much of Orthodox theology is very close (if not the same) as in other Christian traditions.  If we are to take Ware as fairly representing the Orthodox position on grace and free-will, it is clear the Orthodox Church falls in the Arminian side of the Arminian-Calvinist debate, for even his way of phrasing the issue bears Arminian assumptions and leaves the “synergy” between God and man ultimately dependent upon the human, for “God knocks, but waits for us to open the door” (222).  This is an Arminian notion of synergy that attributes the granting of grace to God and the acceptance of this grace to the human person, whereas Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin all wished to attribute even the acceptance of grace to God’s grace itself.  That is, much of Western theology—following Augustine—has thought of the human free-will as the proper object of God’s grace, and thus one of the proper functions of grace is to effectively move the free human will to freely accept salvation.  As Aquinas put it:

The justification of the ungodly is brought about by God moving man to justice.  For He it is that justifieth the ungodly according to Rom. Iv. 5.  Now God moves everything in its own manner, just as we see that in natural things, what is heavy and what is light are moved differently, on account of their diverse natures.  Hence He moves man to justice according to the condition of his human nature.  But it is man’s proper nature to have free-will.  Hence in him who has the use of reason, God’s motion to justice does not take place without a movement of the free-will; but He so infuses the gift of justifying grace that at the same time He moves the free-will to accept the gift of grace.[1]

To present the issue as Ware does—that either one believes in synergy or else that God draws people by “force and violence”—demonstrates Ware’s Arminian notion of free-will (222).  This gives the reader the impression that even though the Orthodox Church did not participate actively in the Reformation debates, nevertheless, she not only asks the same sort of questions that the Western traditions have asked, but answers such questions in the same way that many Western theological traditions have answered them. Furthermore, although the Orthodox Church certainly did not participate in the Reformation debates as actively as Protestants and Catholics, they were, however, forced to give their position on many of the fundamental questions that Protestant theologians were raising (see esp. 94-99).

Can we really say that Protestant and Catholic inquiry about papal authority, grace & free-will, the number and nature of the sacraments, the authority of scripture vs. tradition, etc., is fundamentally different than Orthodox inquiry?  Are we not asking the same questions? If Protestants and Catholics are not generally asking the same questions asked (or answered) in Orthodox theological inquiry (as Ware claims), how can such Protestants and Catholics ever hope to find answers to their deep theological inquiries in the Orthodoxy tradition?  Indeed, why have so many Protestants, for example, converted to Orthodoxy because they have found in Orthodox tradition more satisfying answers in their theological quest?  Given the degree of overlap between Western and Eastern theology, Ware’s claim that Orthodoxy does not ask the same questions as other “Western religious systems” and is somehow entirely unique appears to be considerably misleading.

St. Photius The Great

Ware’s picture of Photius is much more flattering than the picture we receive of him in Western historical treatments.  Rather than explain to the reader that the “schism of Nicolas” began because the rightful Patriarch of Constantinople (St. Ignatius) was forced to resign through the use of torture after he refused to give communion to the Emperor’s sexually immoral uncle, Ware chooses his words very carefully:

Soon after his accession [Photius] became involved in a dispute with Pope Nicolas I (858-67).  The previous Patriarch, St Ignatius, had been exiled by the Emperor and while in exile had resigned under pressure.  The supporters of Ignatius, declining to regard this resignation as valid, considered Photius a usurper. When Photius sent a letter to the Pope announcing his accession, Nicolas decided that before recognizing Photius he would look further into the quarrel between the new Patriarch and the Ignatian party. (52-53)

This account does not give consideration to why Pope Nicholas was determined to “investigate” the situation or why Ignatius’s supporters refused to recognize his resignation as valid.  It therefore cleverly obscures what many historiographers consider the occasion for the schism.  No matter how brilliant of a scholar Photius was (and there is no doubt about his scholarly abilities), the details surrounding his ascension as Patriarch of Constantinople are tainted with questionable politics.  Ware, on the other hand, clearly is a great admirer of Photius and delights in painting a flattering picture of him as St. Photius the Great.  He borrows Ostrogorsky’s word of praise that Photius was “the most distinguished thinker, the most outstanding politician, and the most skilful diplomat ever to hold office as Patriarch of Constantinople” (52).  Perhaps Photius was indeed all these things, but perhaps he was also a very shrewd politician, and perhaps Photius’s to-be-expected Orthodox position on the doctrine of Papal supremacy was not the deepest matter of concern for pope Nicholas.

Conclusion

All in all, Ware’s book is perhaps the most engaging and helpful introduction to Orthodoxy available for the Western world.[2] His enthusiastic tone and apologetical stance, far from making the book less commendable, will actually help the reader better sympathize with his Orthodox perspective. Ware’s occasional explicit criticisms of his own tradition,[3] sensitivity to Western concerns, summaries of why the Filioque could be considered heresy, frequent contrasts between Orthodox positions and Protestant or Catholic positions, all add to the value of his book and give it a delightful pungency.  Although his treatment is terse by design, his last chapter, entitled “Further Readings,” conveniently lists numerous sources in topical order for those who wish to do further study.  While his introduction to Orthodoxy is enlightening and elegant, much of his analysis is now outdated.  One can only hope that soon, following Ware’s example, a more up-to-date treatment of Orthodoxy will replace his now classical introduction.

Bradley R. Cochran

[T h e o • p h i l o g u e]

theophilogue.wordpress.com


[1] Summa Theologica, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols., rev. ed. (1948; repr., Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981), I-II.113.3. Furthermore, any movement of the will toward God is “already informed with grace” because it is the result of grace.  ST I-II.111.3.

[2] It is considered “a classical presentation of The Orthodox Church ever since it first appeared in 1963.”  Edward G. Farrugia, “The Orthodox Church,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 62, no. 2 (1996), 536.

[3] He mentions, for example, that due to the traditional alliance between church and state in many Slavic countries, the Slavs “have often confused the two and have made the Church serve the ends of national politics” (77).  Nationalism, in Ware’s book, has been “the bane of Orthodoxy for the last ten centuries” (77).

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Book Review (pt.3): The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware: Orthodox Theology

The following is part 3 of my book review of Ware’s The Orthodox Church. Here I focus on Orthodox Theology.  Click here for the full review in PDF, or here for the full review in podcast format.

Ware, Timothy.  The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp.

The Trinity

As one might expect given the centrality of The Creed in Orthodox life, the foundation of Orthodox theology is the doctrine of the Trinity.  The theological definitions of Nicaea are not simply for high theologians or scholars, but have practical import for every Christian.  “Our private lives, our personal relations, and all our plans of forming a Christian society depend upon a right theology of the Trinity” (208).  To say God is Trinity is to say God is personal, “a perpetual movement of love” (209).  Although it is an Orthodox maxim that “all true theology is mystical,” and although Eastern theology is much more apophatic than Western theology, the definitional creeds demonstrate that the “way of negation” must always be a counterpart to the “way of affirmation,” or cataphatic theology (205, 209).

The Orthodox have developed an essential distinction between two aspects of God in order to preserve and protect the mystery and transcendence of God as well as the immanent experiential dimension of God: the essence-energies distinction.  God’s essence is unknowable, but his energies are ever-present in the created world.  As John of Damascus put it: “That there is a God is clear; but what He is by essence and nature, this is altogether beyond our comprehension and knowledge” (209).  On the other hand, God exists within creation and is “everywhere present and filling all things,” permeating the universe and “intervening directly in concrete situations” (209).  God’s essence and energies are different dynamics of God himself: two sides of the same being of God.  Therefore, God’s energies “are God himself,” and “we experience them in the form of deifying grace and divine light” (209).  We are not able to ever experience the fullness of God’s essence, but only participate in his energies.  “No single thing of all that is created has or ever will have even the slightest communion with the supreme nature or nearness to it” (209).  However, in the incarnation, God has surpassed merely being present in the form of his energies; he has come to the human race as a person.  “A closer union than this between God and His creation there could not be” (210).

Ware does a good job explaining why the Orthodox think the Filioque is heretical or at least dangerous.  It undermines the monarchy of the Father, and therefore the distinctness of the persons of the Trinity.  According to early Christian doctrine, the Father is the monarch of the Trinity—he is the only person in the Trinity whose origin is “solely in Himself and not in any other person” (211).  The Orthodox uphold the monarchy of the Father as essential to Trinitarian doctrine.  This is what makes him “Father.”  The Son and the Spirit have their eternal being from the Father.  The Son is eternally begotten from the Father and the Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father.  The “Double-Procession” doctrine of the West obscures this truth, for it has the Holy Spirit proceeding also from the Son.  Yet this tension is apparently reconcilable if one conceives of this procession in this way: “the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son,” for then the Father is still the source (or as the East might say, then the Father is still the Father).  Even then, however, the Father must be understood to be the eternal source of the Holy Spirit, and the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Son must be seen as a temporal mission.  Undermining the distinctions of persons in the Trinity and what makes each person unique leads inevitably to de-personalizing the doctrine of the Trinity and falling into ditheism or semi-Sabellianism (213).

The Orthodox “hawks” follow the polemical spirit of Photius and consider the Filioque heresy, whereas the Orthodox “doves” advocate “a more lenient approach to the question” that focuses more on how the language of the Filioque is understood than on the phrase itself.  For the latter group, the Filioque is still “potentially misleading” and a “confused phrase” (213).  Ware suggests that the West has a tendency to overemphasize the unity of the Trinity and points to Aquinas as the example of how Western conceptions of the Trinity tend to depersonalize the Trinity.  According to Ware, Aquinas “went so far as to identify the persons with the relations: personae sunt ipsae relations,” which appears to turn God “into an abstract idea” (215).   The “hawks” think that the Filioque has caused the West to subordinate the Spirit to the Son—“if not in theory, then at any rate in practice” (215).

Anthropology

That we are made in the image and likeness of God must be understood primarily in terms of the Trinity.  In the Greek Fathers “image” and “likeness” are not mere synonyms.  Image refers to man as an icon of God: man’s free will, reason, and sense of moral responsibility.  “Likeness” on the other hand, refers to moral likeness and “depends” on each individuals moral choice and human effort (219).  To become more and more like God is to become more and more deified or “assimilated to God through virtue” (219).  The deified person has become a “second god” or “a god by grace” (219).  As the Scripture says: “You are gods, and all of you sons of the Most High” (Psalm 82:6).  Disease and death are a result of human sin.  The human will is weakened and enfeebled by what Greeks call “desire” (Western theologians call this “concupiscence”), but humanity is not thereby entirely “deprived” of God’s grace.  Rather, after the fall grace works on the human from “outside” rather than from the “inside” (223).  The Orthodox disagree with Augustine’s belief that after the fall humans loose their “freedom” and sin by a necessity due to a “sin nature” (223).  To Orthodox, this would seem to contradict human free-will and deny humanity of the “image” of God.  Furthermore, babies do not inherit the “guilt” of Adam, only his mortality and corruption.  Guilt is not inherited, but humans are guilty inasmuch as they imitate Adam (224).

The Incarnation

Whereas the West tends to view the incarnation as necessary only because of The Fall, Orthodoxy believes that the incarnation is the logical outworking of God’s philanthropia: his loving desire to be united with humanity.  God would still have become incarnate even if there was no fall of the human race into sin.  Ware also wants to cast doubt on the common “assertion that the East concentrates on the Risen Christ, the West on Christ crucified” (227).  Ware believes that “representations of the Crucifixion are no less prominent in Orthodox than in non-Orthodox churches,” but the Orthodox do not separate the glory of Christ from his crucifixion and tend to hold in contrast “His outward humiliation and His inward glory” (226-27).  Even the crucified Christ is “Christ the Victor” (228).  “The western worshipper, when he meditates upon the Cross, is encouraged all to often to feel an emotional sympathy with the Man of Sorrows, rather than to adore the victorious and triumphant king” (228).

The Holy Spirit

Whereas Western theology tends to have an inexcusably underdeveloped doctrine of the Holy Spirit, Eastern theology “lays great stress upon the work of the Holy Spirit” (230).  In a sense, the Eastern theologians consider the sending of the Holy Spirit as the ultimate aim of the incarnation, and the entire Christian life is “nothing else than the acquisition of the Holy Spirit” (230).  This acquisition is a human participation in God; it is deification; it is theosis; it is salvation; it is redemption.  Christians are called to “participate in the divine nature” according to 2 Peter 1:4.  “The human being does not become God by nature, but is merely a ‘created god,’ a god by grace or by status” (232).  Practically speaking, this takes place to the degree that the human will is conformed to the philanthropic will of God; it takes place to the degree that the human will loves God and others (232).  Our “full deification,” however, will take place at the Resurrection when our bodies too will become “deified” as the glorified body of Christ (233).  The two-dimensional icons of glorified saints in the Orthodox Church depict this final glorification, and remind Orthodox Christians of the redemption of all creation (234).  The Orthodox belief in cosmic redemption is what fuels their “increasing concern about the pollution of the environment” (235).  The maxim of St. Silouan of Mount Athos sums this concern up this way: “The heart that has learnt to love has pity for all creation” (235).

Ware suggests six points of clarification necessary for not misunderstanding the doctrine of deification.

1. Deification is not for certain Christians, but all Christians.

2. Deification presupposes a continual repentance (and therefore the presence of sin)

3. The methods for deification are not eccentric:

a. Go to church

b. Receive the sacraments regularly

c. Pray to God in “spirit and truth”

d. Read the Gospels

e. Follow the commandments

4. Deification is a “social process” for it involves loving one’s neighbor.

5. Love for God and neighbor must “issue in action.”

6. Deification presupposes the life of the church.

The Church

There are many similarities between Orthodox ecclesiology and Catholic ecclesiology.  Orthodoxy insists on hierarchical structure, Apostolic succession, the episcopate, the priesthood, prayer to the saints and intercession for “the departed” (239).  However, whereas the Catholic church believes in papal infallibility, the Orthodox “stress the infallibility of the Church as a whole” (239).  Ware also adds that “to the Orthodox it often seems like Rome envisages the Church too much in terms of earthly power and organization” (239).  Orthodox ecclesiology, while having “many strict and minute rules, as anyone who reads the Canons can quickly discover,” nevertheless is more mystical and thinks of the church more in terms of its relationship to God (240).

Ware summarizes the Orthodox doctrine of the church in three major points.  The Church is 1) the Image of the Holy Trinity, 2) the Body of Christ, and 3) a continued Pentecost (240).

1) That the church is an “image” of the Trinity means at least two things.  First, this is because the church consists of many persons united in one, yet each retaining their own unique personhood.  Second, this also means that just as in the Trinity all three persons are equal, “so in the Church no one bishop can claim to wield an absolute power over all the rest; yet, just as in the Trinity the Father enjoys pre-eminence as source and fountainhead of the deity, so within the Church the Pope is ‘first among equals’” (241).

2) That the church is “the body of Christ,” means “the church is the extension of the Incarnation, the place where the incarnation perpetuates itself” (241).  The Church is the “organ” of Christ’s redeeming work, prophetic utterance, priestly ministry, and kingly power (241).  Christ has promised his “perpetual presence” in the Church.  In Orthodox ecclesiology, this is especially the case in the sacraments.  The Church exists “in its fullness” wherever the Eucharist is celebrated (242).  “The Church must be thought of primarily in sacramental terms,” that is, “it’s outward organization, however important, is secondary to its sacramental life” (242).

3) The Church is a continual Pentecost because the Spirit continues to give himself to the Church.  Irenaeus wrote “where the Church is, there is the Spirit, and where the Spirit is, there is the Church” (242).  The gift of the Spirit is given to the church, but also “appropriated by each in her or his own way,” making the gift of the Holy Spirit very personal (242).  The Church is therefore a place of diversity and variety, yet a precisely because it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, it is also unified.  The Church is the true Holy University (my words, not Ware’s)—united by the Holy Spirit, yet diversely gifted by the Holy Spirit.

This Church is also both invisible and visible, divine and human.  It is invisible because it includes all the saints of history and the angels.  It is visible because it consists of specific congregations worshipping on earth.  It is human and its members are sinners; yet it is divine for it is the Body of Christ (243).  While the West has grown accustomed to distinguishing between the visible and invisible church, the Orthodox does not separate these two, “for the two make up a single and continuous reality” (243).  The visible church and the invisible church are the very same church.  Finally, in Orthodox theology, one can say that individual members of the Church are sinners, but one cannot therefore say that The Church sins, for it is the sinless Body of Christ.

Human sin cannot affect the essential nature of the Church.  We must not say that because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect; for the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven, and cannot sin.  … St. Ephraim of Syria rightly spoke … ‘The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this ‘something different’ is the Body of Christ.’ (244).

The Orthodox believe that the unity of the Church “follows of necessity from the unity of God” (245).  “There is only one Christ, and so there can be only one Body of Christ.  Nor is this unity merely ideal and invisible” because, as we have seen, for the Orthodox the visible and invisible church are the same church.  The “undivided church” is not something that existed only at the early stages of Christianity and something we hope to attain in the future.  It is a present reality in the here and now.  On earth, it exists in a “visible community” (245).  Therefore, the Orthodox Church admits of no schism within the church, only schisms from the Church.

For Catholicism, the Pope is the “unifying principle” of the Church, but for Orthodoxy, the unifying principle is sacramental communion (246).  “The act of communion therefore forms the criterion for membership of the Church” (246).  In case the reader has not figured it out by this point, Ware explicitly spells out the implication of this aspect of Orthodox ecclesiology: “Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one, naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church” (246).  The Orthodox Church, according to Orthodox ecclesiology, is not just the “real” Church or the “right” church—it’s the only Church.  Ware speaks with a tone of disapproval for Orthodox theologians who “sometimes speak as if they accepted the ‘Branch Theory’” that allows for different branches of the Church (e.g. Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).  Therefore, it is visibly one and there are no divisions within the Church.  Ware’s comment that this will probably seem a bit “arrogant” is a humorous and delicate understatement.

Nor is this all.  “Orthodoxy also teaches that outside the Church there is no salvation (Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus).  For Orthodoxy this statement is redundant; a tautology.  Ware explains: “Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church” (247).  Does this mean Catholics and Protestants are outside salvation?  Ware answers this question as if the answer were obvious, but he gives a surprising answer: “Of course not” (247).  This takes some careful explaining:

As Augustine wisely remarked, “How many sheep there are without, how many wolves within!”  While there is no division between a “visible” and an “indivisible Church,” yet there may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone.  If anyone is saved, he must in some sense be a member of the Church; in what sense, we cannot always say.

But Ware’s attempt to explain his surprising answer does not resolve the obvious tension.  If the Orthodox Church is the only church, and the unity of the Church is visible, then the question of how one can be considered a member of the Orthodox Church who does not belong to this visible Church (i.e. those who do not have sacramental communion in an Orthodox Church) is indeed a grand mystery.  Furthermore, whoever the Orthodox think these secret members of the Church are, they must certainly not be Catholics or Protestants, for the Orthodox believe that if they alone convened a general council (excluding Catholics and Protestants), it would be a true Ecumenical Council with the same authority of the first seven Councils.

Book Review (pt. 2): The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware: Orthodox Tradition

The following is part 2 in my Book Review of:

Ware, Timothy (Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia).  The Orthodox Church, 3rd Edition.  New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1993. 359 pp.

For the whole review, you can click here for the PDF version, or go here for the podcast audio version.

Orthodox Tradition

The Orthodox accept all ecumenical councils as “infallible” and desire to protect primitive beliefs and practices of the church.  However, only the first seven major councils are considered truly “ecumenical.”  Although Catholics went on to have more councils the Catholic Tradition would consider “ecumenical,” the Orthodox do not recognize them as ecumenical at all, and therefore do not recognize them as authoritative.

The Orthodox often consider the “apparent changelessness” of the Orthodox Church as one of its distinct characteristics: its “air of antiquity” and faithful continuation of the ancient practices of the church (195).  According to Ware, this is also partly why some of the Orthodox fall into an “extreme conservatism” and fail to distinguish between Tradition and traditions (198).  The “outward forms” that express the Orthodox Tradition include the Bible, the seven ecumenical councils (the Creed), later councils, The Fathers, the Liturgy, Canon Law, and Icons.

The Bible is honored and venerated as authoritative within the Orthodox Church, but not over the Orthodox Church.  Within the Orthodox Church, Scripture is considered God’s supreme revelation (199).  Therefore, its teaching has authority.  However, “it is from the Church that the Bible ultimately derives its authority, for it was the Church which originally decided which books form a part of Holy Scripture” (199, italics added).  Individual readers will inevitably interpret the Bible as they read it, but individual interpreters will always be “in danger of error” if they do not accept the authoritative guidance of the larger Orthodox Church.  Unless an individual’s interpretation is accepted by the broader church, it is not authoritative.  In this way, “it is the Church alone which can interpret Holy Scripture with authority” (199).  Furthermore, the Orthodox Church does not dichotomize Scripture and Tradition, for they see Scripture as itself a part of Tradition.

It would be an understatement to say that Orthodox biblical interpretation is heavily influenced by the readings of the Septuagint: the Septuagint translation is considered “inspired of the Holy Spirit” and therefore constitutes God’s “continuing revelation” (200).  This also means the ten additional books of the Septuagint are part of the Orthodox canon, although Ware concedes that many Orthodox scholars now consider the Deutero-Canonical Books of the Septuagint as “on a lower footing than the rest of the Old Testament” (200).  Although Orthodox scholars have not enjoyed a prominent role in the critical-historical study of the Bible, Ware assures his readers that Orthodoxy “does not forbid” such study (201).

Even if all the doctrinal definitions of the seven ecumenical councils are “infallible,” the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed is the cornerstone of all the creeds, surpassing all subsequent creeds in its importance (202).  Orthodox theology is also heavily influenced by subsequent definitions of certain local councils and letters or statements of faith written by certain influential bishops.  Ware conveniently lists the most important of these, sometimes called the “Symbolical Books” (203).

While the theology of the Fathers produced the first seven ecumenical councils, “as with local councils, so with the Fathers, the judgment of the Church is selective” and “Patristic wheat needs to be distinguished from Patristic chaff” (204).  The Orthodox do, however, see a consistency of mind in the Fathers.  This they call the “Patristic mind” (204).  Although there is a particular reverence for writers of the early church—especially the fourth century Fathers—“the Orthodox Church has never attempted to define exactly who the Fathers are,” so Ware is optimistic that unless God has “deserted the church,” more Fathers will come (204).  The most recent “Father” mentioned by Ware, however, was the fourteenth century Saint: Mark of Ephesus (the one who refused to sign the Florentine Union document).

Ware claims that “other parts of Tradition do not have quite the same authority” as Scripture, the Creed and the Ecumenical Councils (197). When speaking of the Liturgy, however, he emphasizes that certain doctrines that the Orthodox express in their worship can be “just as binding as an explicit formulation,” even thought they have never been defined or proclaimed as dogma by Orthodoxy (197, 204).  The maxim Lex orandi lex credendi [our faith is expressed in our prayer] is particularly applicable here.  Orthodoxy has made very few dogmatic statements, for example, about “the Eucharist and the other Sacraments, about the next world, the Mother of God, the saints, and the faithful departed,” even though their services and the Liturgy reflect these beliefs (205).

Protestants often appreciate the theological definitions of the early councils, but Orthodox take the ecclesiastical declarations with a similar seriousness.  Declarations of the ecumenical councils dealing with Church organization and governance are called canons.  Certain writers compiled these canons, along with other local canons, and wrote explanations and commentaries.  Today, the commentary of St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain (1800) known as the Pedalion [“Rudder”] is the standard Greek commentary on canon law.  Although much of this ancient canon law is outdated and out of use, if and when a new general council of the Orthodox meets (which so many Orthodox despair will never happen), Ware hopes they will “revise” and “clarify” (read: update) Canon Law (205).

The Orthodox Church’s devotion to the veneration of two-dimensional icons is perhaps one of her most striking features.  The Orthodox consider them as means to attain to “a vision of the spiritual world” (206). God can be revealed through art, yet because the Holy Icons are an expression of Tradition, “icon painters are not free to adapt or innovate as they please” but only within the limitations of “certain prescribed rules” (206).  Their art cannot be a mere reflection of the artists ascetic sentiments but “must reflect the mind of the church” (206).

How Academic Research Benefits Christian Ministry and Education

The following is a brief reflection on research and its benefits for a vocation in Christian ministry or Christian education, written by Bradley R. Cochran.

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Love demands some apprehension of the good that is loved. … Accordingly knowledge is the cause of love for the same reason as good is, which can be loved only if known.” – Thomas Aquinas[1]

Although I have rarely seen or heard writing described as a tool for human development, my own personal development has been greatly shaped by my own writing. This is because writing involves research, research involves reading, and words have the power of influence. It is difficult to measure how great of an impact certain writings have had on my thoughts, and therefore my actions, at various stages in my personal development. For example, when I became a Christian at the age of twenty, it was prompted—at least in great part—by the words I read in the Bible. It seems hardly controversial to note that in the history of our Western culture, the words of the Bible have profoundly changed the lives of countless people.  Although not all Westerners would find this a happy situation, it would be naïve to deny that the Bible has historically had a powerful effect on Western culture, ethics, education, philosophy, politics, and therefore, people. Although the Bible is not the only collection of writings that have profoundly influenced people, it is a convenient example of how words—written words in particular—have the ability to change people.

After becoming a Christian in the Protestant tradition (where the Bible is venerated as the singularly ultimate authority for all matters of life and doctrine), I was immediately faced with the challenge of living out the teachings of scripture.  For me, this began my journey into research. In my own experience, then, research began not as an academic enterprise, but as a highly personal enterprise of spiritual formation. In trying to live out my faith, I began to search the scriptures and read Christian books in order to know how to think and act as a Christian.  My biblical research was, from the start, a matter of determining how to live.[2]

With the help of a mentor, the Bible, and research, I was able to satisfy most of my questions and live out my faith with a clear conscience. Therefore, although research may not always play a substantial role in personal development for everyone, such development continues to be my greatest reason for valuing research. This paper will be a brief reflection on the importance of writing and research in my own studies and in my vocational goals. Because I also have vocational aspirations to teach and also continue as an active Christian minister, I will also mention ways theological research and writing are helpful in teaching and Christian ministry.  Since in many ways I see my vocational goals as depending on my own personal development, I will seek to emphasize specific ways theological research and writing are important to my personal development.  I propose that the ultimate importance of research and writing in my own studies is for personal development, and this personal development turns out to be of greatest benefit to my vocational calling.

 

Points of Clarification About Research

Although the process of research and writing is relatively complex and involves numerous subtleties I will be unable to cover in this paper (e.g. limiting the scope of research, evaluating sources, developing an argument, etc.), there are a few key elements in the creative process that need clarification before I discuss the benefits of such research and writing.  First, there is research and there is academic research.  Research could be defined so broadly as to include finding a telephone number in a phone book, but this is not the kind of research I have in mind in this paper.[3] Academic research involves systematically finding sources that are most relevant to your question or research topic and reading books and articles relevant to your subject matter.

Research in an academic context is refined and has a more complex ethos and more clearly defined guidelines.  If I could describe the ethos in one word, it would be objectivity.  The goal of objectivity shapes the entire process.[4] For example, good research is not simply believing and regurgitating whatever you happen to read,[5] but reading broadly enough to engage different opinions that bring various evidences into view.  One must have some relatively objective way of evaluating the reliability, coherency, and prejudices of a given source.  Reading only sources one already agrees with is also poor research for the same reason: objectivity.  If one never reads the other point of view how will they come to know whether their own views hold up against counter evidence or argumentation?  Besides, this would take the fun out of research! The idea is this: the more evidence you examine, the more viewpoints you consider, the more objective your research report will be. It would be naïve, however, to think that research takes away all bias.[6] Yet the research process is designed to work against one’s biases and prejudices so as to help one grow toward an ever-increasing objectivity.  Developing critical thinking skills is crucial to the process for this very reason.

Secondly, apathy does not lead people to research, interest does.  There is no such thing as a disinterested researcher.  Perhaps researchers can be more or less interested, but something must move the will to desire to do research—even if it is imposed on them from a teacher as a dreaded assignment!  The most crucial part in the research process is determining a topic for research.  There are many guidelines for how to go about this, but the point I want to emphasize is this: contrary to popular belief, the heart as well as the head can drive good research.[7] The more passion I have for a topic, the easier it is to discipline myself to study hard and leave no stones unturned.  Furthermore, my choice of subject matter can determine how practical and helpful the research report will be to me and to others.  The judgment will inevitably involve some level of subjectivity, for different things are more important to different people, and the same things are important to a greater or lesser degree to the same people at different times.

The Importance of Research For My Own Studies and Vocation

If research did nothing else than provide the researcher with a greater agility with words, a broader vocabulary to draw from in her everyday speech, and a more confident tone of voice in her everyday interactions with people, this would be of weighty significance.  Yet this is precisely the sort of personal development I have found to be the result of research in my own life.  The constant grind of academia—reading books and articles, writing out one’s thoughts, questioning and answering questions—has the potential to rapidly develop one’s ability to communicate.  This has immeasurable relational (as well as vocational) benefits.

For example, when I used to have disagreements with friends over religious topics, the discussion would always escalate into an intense debate that put significant strain on our friendship (at least for the moment).  I did not know how to handle the skeptical criticisms of friends who questioned the direction of my life into Christian ministry and my religious beliefs.  After exposing myself to a wide variety of philosophical and theological opinions, observing how authors of books and articles kindly and eloquently disagreed with each other, and reading books that helped me better understand my own faith tradition, I found myself not only able to have discussions on religious and ethical topics without getting tongue tied or without causing a tense debate, but even able to impress those with whom I disagreed by how I could articulate their own thoughts with more force and clarity than they themselves could (before explaining why I disagreed with the same sort of force and clarity).

Research and writing fosters healthier written and verbal communication between human beings—and this can have benefits for vocational goals.  I have an edge in public speaking—whether a Bible study, preaching, or teaching—because I have plenty to say and craft my words more carefully.  Being able to articulate myself has resulted in greater success in vocational tasks (e.g. trying to counsel teenagers who have no guidance and are struggling with all sorts of life issues, making sure I understand my supervisor’s intentions by asking key questions, communicating the vision of my ministry to those who support it financially, etc).  Because communication fosters better relationships, research and writing better prepare me for my vocational goals.  This would be true regardless of my vocational calling, but is especially true in vocational callings that require high degrees of personal interaction and public speaking (i.e. Christian ministry and education).  In a teaching vocation, such articulation is the life-blood of one’s daily affairs.

Research and writing not only help me to better articulate myself, but they force me to inform my opinions and become aware of the strongest arguments against my own convictions.  This can be a grueling process that humbles the intellect.  It can be a disorienting thing too, if one comes to realize that the persuasive arguments and rhetoric she inherited from her tradition to defend her beliefs simply cannot stand the test of evidence and counter-critique.  It fosters humility on the one hand, and respect and appreciation for those with whom one disagrees on the other hand.  It is important for people in a vocation of Christian ministry to understand and appreciate those within their own faith tradition who disagree with one another about how they understand the Bible and practical questions of church life.  Pastors should have well reasoned arguments in support of their ethical and spiritual teaching that makes sense within that faith tradition.  For a teaching vocation, having one’s opinions well informed is simply the default expectation.  For my vocational goals, then, the habit of reading arguments for opinions you disagree with is vital.

Whether I am serving as a Christian minister or a teacher (and Christian ministry most often involves teaching), I will be bombarded with questions.  The more research and writing I have done in my field, the more likely I will be to answer those questions in a way that satisfies the questioner.  After doing so much study and research, I may know of several books that treat the very topics church members or students are interested in. I may not always have the answers to all of the questions students or church members might ask, but after having acquired the skill of research, I may be able to either point the questioner to a helpful book or research the question myself and e-mail the questioner a response to their question.  In short, I will be able to better minister and teach.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica, 5 vols. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benzinger Bros., 1948; reprint, Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 1981.

Turabian, Kate. L. A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed. Revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Vyhmeister, Nancy Jean. Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008.


 

[1] ST I-II.27.2

 

[2] I was answering questions like this: Should I follow through with my engagement to a woman who is not a Christian? Is it wrong for us to be sexually active outside of a marital context? Should I continue deep friendships with friends who influence me to continue in drug abuse and criminal activity? What church should I join (Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Reformed, Baptist, Methodist)? What should I say to Mormon’s who knock at my door? Should I only listen to Christian music? What can I do to grow in my love for God and for others? What school should I attend? What should I choose for my college major? Is drinking alcohol wrong? Is it still acceptable for me to hang out at nightclubs as a Christian? Is it wrong to be angry with those who try to hurt me? Does being a Christian mean that I cannot defend myself when physically attacked?

 

[3] For example, Turabian’s manual considers the mundane task of “finding a plumber” research.  Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 7th ed., rev. Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 5.

[4] The goal of objectivity makes intelligible the various ways of defining research.  For example, Vyhmeister defines research as a “systematic search for adequate information to reach objective knowledge of a specific topic.”  It includes “careful investigation of all evidence.”  Nancy Jean Vyhmeister, Your Guide to Writing Quality Research Papers: For Students of Religion and Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2008), 1.

[5] This is why research is not simply “rewriting other people’s words and ideas into a neat description.”  Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 5.

 

[6] In this respect, I find Vyhermeister’s way of explaining research a bit naïve.  Does all research result in “objective knowledge”? The claim needs a great deal of clarification. Can one always be aware of their presuppositions as to neatly list them in their introductions? The very nature of some presuppositions escape our notice and others would be too mundane to list.  Deciding how to list one’s presuppositions is not as easy as she makes it seem.  For example, she presumes a great deal in her own book without listing them in her introduction.  Why is this?  Do researchers really have to steer clear of defending their own convictions and opinions?  This seems impossible.  Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 1,3,6. Turabian’s way of explaining research works much better.  “That is how a research report differs from other kinds of persuasive writing: it must rest on shared facts that readers accept as truths independent of your feelings and beliefs.”  Turabian, A Manual for Writers, 6.  This does not say whether these “shared facts” are true or false, only that they are “shared” and thus provide the grounds for persuasive writing.

 

[7] Cf. Vyhmeister, Your Guide, 2: “Research is done with the head and not the heart.”  The goal of objectivity does not, as she appears to think, rule out passion from the research process or the writing process.

Freedom for Excellence: Pinckaers Alternative to “Ockham’s Other Razor”

In our last post we looked at Pinckaers criticisms of Ockham’s Other Razor (i.e. William of Ockham’s notion of free will), which he calls “freedom of indifference.”  This post is Pinckaers description of what he thinks is a more accurate notion of human freedom: freedom for excellence.

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Pinckaers, Servais, O.P. The Sources of Christian Ethics, Translated by Sr. Mary Thomas Noble, O.P. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1995.

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Freedom for Excellence

Freedom for excellence is first illustrated as akin to a child learning to play the piano.  She must have some predispositions to learn—an attraction to music and an “ear for it” (354).  In this case, her predispositions enable her to develop the freedom to play beautifully after much discipline (355).  Progress is developed by regular exercise, or, a habitus (355).  The ability, in the end, to play with ease, compose new music, and delight oneself and all who hear, is the stage of maturity corresponding to freedom (355).  Similarly, the virtue of courage is “acquired far more through small victories of self-conquest, repeated day after day, than through dreams of great actions” (356).  The author briefly mentions what he calls “the internal harmony of the virtues”—“true courage is worth little without wise discernment as to what should be done, and without self-control, justice, and generosity” (357).  A notion of freedom in this framework places predispositions and natural inclinations in service of freedom (rather than opposed to it, as with Ockham’s Other Razor), in fact enabling it (357).

The root of freedom is twofold: 1) a sense of the true and good and 2) a desire for knowledge and happiness (357).  These are the semina virtutum (the seeds of virtue).  Our natures are inclined to sense the virtues and give spontaneious praise to them, and this is the sequi naturam (follow nature) principle of the ancients and what St. Thomas calls the instinctus rationis (rational instinct).  “Far from lessening our freedom, such dispositions are its foundation.  We are free, not in spite of them, but because of them” (358).

The Stages of Development

Freedom for excellence “requires the slow, patient work of moral education in order to develop” (359).  The author takes us through these stages as he sees them.

Childhood corresponds to what we shall call the stage of discipline, adolescence to the stage of progress, and adulthood to the stage of maturity or the perfection of freedom. (italics added, 359)

The first stage is a delicate affair in which the moral educator must be neither authoritarian nor libertarian, but somewhere in between, making sure the “child” understands that the “discipline, law, and rules are not meant to destroy his freedom … Their purpose is rather to develop his ability to perform actions of real excellence by removing dangerous excesses” that “jeopardize his interior freedom” (360).  The student must experience the love of his teacher and the love of God (362).  This discipline “appeals to natural dispositions, to a spontaneous sense of truth and goodness, and to the conscience” (360).

The key characteristic of the next stage, the stage of progress is “taking one’s own moral life in hand, by a predominance of initiative and personal effort, by the development of and appreciation and taste for moral quality, and the deepening of an active interiority” (363).  In is in this stage that the virtues begin to form and take shape and the “adolescent” begins to find joy in the virtues themselves and develops strong dispositions for action (363).

The final stage is that of maturity (or “perfection” in the human sense of “complete,” 366).  This includes mastery of excellent actions and creative fruitfulness (366).  In this stage charity is “perfected” or matured such that the persons “chief concern is to be united to God and to find all their joy in him” (368).  Yet this joy passes from God to others so as to make their virtue beneficial for the community (367).  Pinckaers clarifies that this description in “stages” does not necessarily mean that in experience the process is perfectly “linear,” but involves a “certain dialectic” (372).  Also, one should not get the idea that once “maturity” or “perfection” is reached there is no room for growth (373).

Compared with Freedom of Indifference

Compared with the “delicate” process of moral education here, the “theory of freedom of indifference robs discipline and education of the profound, intimate rootedness they require.  Education becomes a battle; it can no longer be service or collaboration” (360).  Pinckaers attributes the cut-off point in moral education after only the first stage to the position found in the freedom of indifference (362).  Whereas freedom to do evil is essential in freedom of indifference, it is a lack of freedom in this model (376).  The reduced role of Scripture is also to be blamed on Ockham’s freedom of indifference (377).  Pinckaers concludes that freedom for excellence offers “a far better foundation for receiving revelation and grace, particularly through freedom’s natural openness to the true and the good” (377).

“Exegetical” Preaching is Unbiblical; Topical Preaching is Transformational

The following is a thoughtful response by Brad Bigney (pastor of fast growing Grace Fellowship in Florence, KY) to the exegetical dogmatism of many Reformed Christians who think exegetical preaching is the kind of preaching that is most faithful to the Bible itself (e.g. Mark Dever includes exegetical preaching as one of the marks of a healthy church and trains other pastors after this standard).  After sitting under Brad’s preaching for 3 months, I’m starting to think that a good measure of topical preaching is actually a mark of a healthy church.

Why Do You Preach More Topical Sermons than Exegetical (Verse by verse through books of the Bible)?

From time to time people will ask me why I do so many topical sermon series instead of picking a book of the Bible and preaching through it verse by verse.

Here are some of the reasons why I preach the way I do here at Grace Fellowship:

1. Jesus preached topical sermons – if Jesus thought it was effective… so do I! Seriously… when you read through the Gospels you don’t see Jesus gathering a crowd and then starting to preach or teach verse by verse through one of the Old Testament books of the Bible they had at that time. He used visual illustrations, and He met the people right where they were and taught using just a verse or two for the basis of His teaching. It was hard hitting, and did not compromise God’s truth, but it was not an in depth explanation verse by verse through a book of the Bible.

2. There is no biblical record of the Apostle Paul or any other disciples ever preaching exegetically, verse by verse, sermons from a book of the Bible. You can see examples of this with Paul’s sermons in the book of Acts (on Mars Hill and other places).

3. There is no command in the New Testament instructing pastors to preach or teach verse by verse through books of the Bible. In Paul’s letters to Timothy, he doesn’t take time to exhort him to preach in a certain manner. He simply says to preach the Word (2 Timothy 4:2).

4. Many times the emphasis on preaching verse by verse through books of the Bible is driven by a belief that Bible information is the key to changing lives. Paul tells us that knowledge alone puffs up, but love edifies (cf. 1 Cor. 8:1). Not always, but many times the preachers and churches that are characterized by verse by verse preaching through books of the Bible are heavy on information or Bible facts, and much lighter on how those Bible truths apply to your life. I think that Bible application is the key to changing lives. Sheer volume of Bible information is not what changes lives. In-depth Greek or Hebrew word studies is not what changes lives. Understanding how to apply God’s Word practically in our everyday lives is what produces a love and passion for changing & growing.

Too often the goal of exegetical preaching is simply “What?” “What does the Bible say?” Our goal at Grace Fellowship is not just “What?” but “So what?” and “How?” “How does that apply to your life today?” “How would you start doing what God’s Word says to do in that verse?” “What needs to happen for you to start obeying what is being taught there?”

The clear and practical application of God’s Word to a person’s life, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is what changes lives. As a communicator I certainly benefit from word studies, but I rarely choose to pass all the details of my study on to my listeners. Believe it or not… my goal is not the preaching or teaching itself… my goal is changed lives. I want to connect real people to a real God, through His life-changing Word.

5. Be sure you understand what I’m not saying. I’m not saying it’s wrong to preach verse by verse through books of the Bible, but I am saying if you choose to do that, be careful. Make sure you don’t get caught up in your exegesis, and the details of your word studies, and lose sight of the main thing… communicating for changed lives.

6. There seems to be an arrogance among Christians who prefer exegetical verse by verse teaching of the Bible… as if they’ve got the corner on the market… they love God more… and they honor God’s Word more. This isn’t true of everyone, but I run into it frequently when this question of preaching style comes up. I rarely hear any topical preachers criticizing exegetical preachers, but I do hear quite a bit of criticism from exegetical preachers, and Christians who prefer that format, towards preachers who preach more topical or expositional sermons.

7. Look at the end result. I can’t speak for every other pastor who’s chosen to preach topical sermon series, but God has been very good to us here at Grace Fellowship. People are changing and growing because of what they’re learning from God’s Word. So if changed lives for the glory of God is the final goal, then look at the fruit of our ministry. Are people being saved? Is the Gospel being preached? Is Christ being exalted? Is the cross central in the preaching and teaching? Rather than backing away or watering it down, do we preach and teach the whole counsel of God’s Word – even the hard places? Are believers being fed and grounded in God’s Word to know how to handle life effectively by handling God’s Word accurately? Are people more devoted followers of Christ? Is the Bible our source of authority for making decisions and setting direction in our church? Is sin being exposed?

If all of that is happening effectively, I see no reason for alarm or concern. The comment I hear more than any other at our church from new people is “I’ve never grown this much in my life at any other church.” If changing and growing more and more into the image of Christ is the goal (see Roman 8:29) then it appears that God in His mercy has been pleased to use both topical and exegetical sermons to get us there.

8. It could be that this question regarding the style or format of preaching is centered around a personal preference more than it is the issue of “right” or “wrong.” It is the same as people who want to argue hymns versus choruses. I’m aware of people that leave our church for this and other matters of personal preference, and they are not wrong to do so. However, God has been using the topical or expositional style of preaching here at Grace Fellowship to bring people to Christ and root them in His Word and His grace.

9. Preaching and teaching topical messages does not mean it’s lighter in theology or preparation time. My first priority is the sermon preparation; I spend more time each week preparing my sermon than anything else I do. Preaching a topical message does not mean that it was just thrown together at the last minute. Also, preachers who preach topical sermons are not more liberal in their theology, and they are not less committed to the authority of God’s Word. God has graciously used people to communicate His Word who have been more topical or expositional rather than exegetical. Charles Spurgeon was certainly not liberal in his theology or uncommitted to God’s Word, yet he rarely preached an exegetical sermon. However, he always preached a biblical sermon that was anchored by a verse or verses that he was driving home to the hearts of the people. He preached for changed lives, and God blessed.

10. Format or style of preaching is no indication of the level of love for God’s Word. I hope that my love for God’s Word and my submission to its authority is equal to any exegetical preacher. While my messages are not usually rooted in one passage that is being unpacked verse by verse they are rooted in the truth of God’s Word, and each point is anchored by a biblical truth or verse that from Scripture.

HT :: Grace Fellowship Sermons

Book Review: Participatory Biblical Exegesis by Matthew Levering

The following is a book review of: Levering, Matthew. Participatory Biblical Exegesis: A Theology of Biblical Interpretation. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2008. 310 pp. For the audio version (which has a more elaborate conclusion) click the play button below or download it to your itunes.  For a PDF version of this book review, click here.

Levering’s proposal in Participatory Biblical Exegesis poignantly addresses what R.W.L. Moberly calls “a curious situation” in Christian biblical exegesis (2). Modern Christian biblical interpretation has heavily relied on historical-critical methods that tend to preclude interpretations that invoke the most important divine and spiritual realities to which the biblical texts refer (2).  Since historical-critical inquiry and discovery has proven fruitful for a fuller understanding of the linear-historical realities of the biblical texts, rather than propose something less than historical-critical methodology, Levering hopes to redeem the valuable finds of historical-critical methodology for Christian interpretation by proposing something more: a broader understanding of history as including also a participatory dimension (1).

His proposal is that history is not merely linear-historical but also metaphysically participatory (finite participation in divine being).  Therefore in order to do justice to the human and historical aspects of exegesis, Levering argues that one must go beyond the linear-historical dynamics of the text to account for the realities beyond the words (the res, 11).  The ultimate argument of the book, then, is about the nature of history (3).

The Advent of Historical Critical Methods

Chapters one and two seek to demonstrate the “gradual displacement” of the patristic-medieval participatory approach to scripture (14). Levering hopes to shine light on exactly why history came to be conceived as purely linear-historical and divine realities as extrinsic.  This metaphysical shift takes place in “the Scotist rupture” of the fourteenth century (19).  Scotus rejected the Platonic understanding of participation and the Aristotelian understanding of ultimate teleology that Christian theology had, up to this point in history, largely appropriated in Christian theology (19).

After locating the origins of the modern understanding of history in medieval nominalism, Levering hopes to show the implications such a view of history has for biblical exegesis.  He does this by looking at how biblical commentary of the same text (John 3:27-36) drastically changes over time, starting with Aquinas’ exegesis that illumines the participatory elements of historical reality (25) and ending with modern modes of biblical exegesis that marginalize all such approaches (53).  For Christian interpreters, “commentaries do not [easily] blend history and theology” because the modern idea of history makes history “exegetically problematic” (52).

Participatory Biblical Exegesis

In chapter three, as Levering begins to offer a vision for participatory biblical exegesis, the real concerns come to the fore as he warns that notions of history and biblical interpretation that do not involve recognition of divine realities are ultimately “anthropocentric (and thus, from a Bible’s perspective, idolatrous)” (64).  Renewing the tradition of patristic medieval participatory biblical exegesis, on the other hand, offers Christian interpreters the sorely needed “theocentric model of biblical interpretation” (64).  Levering marshals the brilliance of St. Augustine’s insight into the nature of teaching: “all teaching is about res, realities” and therefore, “in order to understand true teaching one must learn how to judge the relative importance of various res, so as to be able to get to the heart of the teaching” (65).  To do otherwise would be to cling to “created realities, loving them without reference to their Creator”—a “doomed enterprise” that confuses the means as above the end (65).  (Here is the real heart of Levering’s proposal; the rest of the book is historical/theological/exegetical troubleshooting. In this chapter, most of his ideas find expression.)

The ultimate end of all teaching “aims at building up love of God and neighbor in ecclesial communion” (68). Humility requires that one recognize the “norm of Scriptural reading” of the Body of Christ (68). The scriptures ultimate telos (my word, not his) is to mediate an encounter with God: “’existential’ participation” that amounts to God’s own teaching which “re-orders” one’s loves (69).  This effectively reverses the hermeneutical priority from linear-historical to existential-participatory (69).  The author then further expounds on this key idea through Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of Scripture as “transformative sacra doctrina” (71) that must be understood as a unified whole rather than “a mere repository of facts and ideas” (75).

In the second half of chapter three, Levering is forced to take the reader a step back from the euphoric teachings of Augustine and Aquinas to revisit the muddled issues of contemporary biblical interpretation (76).  Levering by then, however, has made his point well: linear-historical tools cannot be employed in a “neutral” fashion (77): they either include or preclude the divine realities as part of real history.  Levering claims not only that a participatory mode of exegesis is necessary for discerning the divine res, but he makes the further claim that this approach is “required to account for even the linear-historical complexity of the biblical texts” (77).  But is such a participatory perspective able to capture fully the “unsystematic” messiness of human authorship and intention?

Levering argues that his approach does not demand “that all biblical authors/redactors, working in various genres, are saying and intending the same thing,” but only “that Scripture’s human authorial teachings and intensions be recognized as belonging to the participatory framework—divine revelation and inspiration—of the Trinitarian doctrina” (80). Problematic passages must be governed by the schema of doctrina, which includes abandoning a particular explanation of any passage “if it be proved with certainty to be false”  (81).  Levering backs this claim by appealing to Dei Verbum’s doctrine of inspiration that claims that Biblical interpretation “seeks salvific truth” (83-84).  This chapter concludes by an affirmation of the “centrality of God the Teacher, in whose teaching exegetes participate” (89).

God as the Teacher

Chapter four is concerned with affirming the necessary locus of receptivity to God the Teacher—the “divinely ordained fellowship” (90).  Here Levering is concerned to show that his proposal is more promising for finding common ground for dialogue with Jewish interpreters than the “comparative textology” of mere historians who ignore the divine and ecclesial aspects of biblical exegesis (96).  The Pontifical Biblical Commission document, in spite of its “good job” in some respects, is troubling on account of its “presumption of a solely linear-historical model” to both Jews and Christians who see Scripture as more than just “ancient texts” (96).  To do justice to real history, including the “communal participatory appropriation” of Scripture, biblical interpretation must heed the communal traditions in which the biblical texts are “operative” (99).  This aspect of historical transmission should distill the fears of “total semantic indeterminacy” (100).  To ignore communal interpretation is fatal because the true meaning of Scripture is “embodied” in this “communal, intellectual, moral, and liturgical” history (104, 102).

Communal Context of Kenotic Love

As we discover in chapter five, for Levering, the communal teaching of the Christian church that sets the context for all exegesis is “kenotic love” that includes “cruciform peace” and is therefore more promising that the Spinozian undermining of ecclesial authority (140).  In the end, Levering comes through with a robustly Christian biblical exegesis that “under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” in ecclesial communion, understands the fullness of sacred scriptures because it participates in the realities to which they refer—specifically the “Christological plan of human salvation” (143).

Conclusion

Levering’s narrative of the origins of modern notions of history will need to be evaluated by interested historians, and his peculiar Platonic understanding of participation (though nowhere extensively explained) may not be shared by all Christians (although some account of our participation in God is indeed necessary).  Certainly, however, Levering has exposed a naïveté in Christian biblical exegesis by showing the woeful inadequacy of any interpretation that does not take the divine realities into account as real history.  In this respect, his work is a brilliant myth buster, forcibly deconstructing the illusion of neutrality in historical-critical methods that exclude the divine realities in history and perhaps an eye-opener to what should be more obvious to those who cherish this aspect of Scripture above all else.  This insight is especially relevant to those who use the historical-critical method in apologetic postures.

Although Protestants will perhaps wish to dispute his argument for ecclesiologically governed interpretation, I would argue (as a Protestant) that such Protestants engage in performative contradictions anytime they use the word “heretic.” Although Levering’s work still leaves certain questions unanswered, it appears to be more suggestive than comprehensive, inviting other Christians to join him in rethinking an authentically Christian hermeneutical framework that does not shy away from all useful critical tools but keeps the divine realities central to the task of interpretation.

by Bradley R. Cochran

Book Review: Jesus and the Eyewitnesses by Richard Bauckham

The following is a book review of Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Eerdmans, 2006).  538 pgs. 

Introduction

For hundreds of years now, Christians have been told their main sources for the person of Jesus are corrupt.  The real historical Jesus, if he can be known at all, cannot be known by the NT gospels.

Does history, then, undermine faith?  

Bauckham does not think so, and he makes an unprecedented historical case for understanding the gospels as faithfully representing the eyewitness testimony of early Christians who knew Jesus and witnessed his ministry, miracles, and resurrection.  His exceptionally conservative approach, although not shared by most scholars and historians, has created a splash in New Testament studies.  His case cannot simply be ignored.

Bacukham’s proposal in Jesus and the Eyewitnesses for understanding the Gospels as eyewitness testimony, though lucid and cogent, is nevertheless complex and multifaceted.  The ingenious originality of this work, combined with its broad scope of unexplored possibilities, have led at least one reviewer to criticize it on the grounds that “the sheer amount of information and analysis … presented is overwhelming at times” (Byron, 115).

To get a handle on a quick summary, this review will attempt to first explain the significance of the work by setting it in the context of mainstream scholarship on the gospels.  Second, we will briefly highlight Bauckham’s reconstruction of the historiographic context in which the gospels were written, how oral tradition and memory fit into his argument, his explanation of the unexplained phenomenon of names in the gospels, and finally, his case for the identity of the “beloved disciple.”

Uncontrolled Oral Transmission Over Several Generations

Central to the current project of form criticism, argues Bauckham, is this assumption: by the time the oral Jesus traditions crystallized in the written gospels of the Christian canon, they no longer faithfully preserved the real history of Jesus of Nazareth.  This is because such oral traditions were, according to form critics, subjected to “a long process of anonymous transmission” relatively uncontrolled (6, 8).  The original arguments of form critics such as Bultmann compared the oral transmission process to folklore, which passed from generation to generation over long periods of time.  Such a model, it was thought, explains why such a wide variety of both similarity and dissimilarity exists between the gospels.

Such a model is now rejected.  The unchecked presupposition of form critics that the anonymous transmission over a long span of time, however, stubbornly remains (7, 249).  Thus, speculations about what Sitz im Leben each literary unit originated from leave the impression that the gospels shed more light on the early church’s faith than the historical person of Jesus (244).  Such a dichotomy inevitably forces historians to reconstruct alternative Jesus’s with imaginative speculations (3).

The “generally accepted” dates for the gospels make any comparison with folklore entirely inappropriate by severely limiting the intervening period of time between the events of Jesus’ ministry and the writing of the Jesus traditions (7).  Furthermore, the assumptions by which form critics understood themselves to be discovering the pure form of the oral tradition have been undermined by subsequent scholarship.  For example, Mark’s gospel was thought to be composed of short saying or stories about Jesus superficially strung together by the redactor (242).

More sophisticated connectivity and plot, however, have long since been recognized in Mark by form critics themselves (243). Scandinavian scholars have examined models of oral transmission in rabbinic Judaism (as opposed to Folklore or Hellenistic literature) and concluded that it provides a model for understanding the early Jesus traditions (249).  Kenneth Baily’s studies on oral tradition have also influenced scholars like N. T. Wright and James Dunn, moving scholarship well beyond the initial form critical mold (252).  Scholars now openly challenge Bultmann’s “laws” of tradition (247) and believe “the kind of tradition history Bultmann thought could be reconstructed did not exist” (248).

The Historiographic Context of Early Christianity 

Contrary to form critical orthodoxy, the earliest evidence for how the early Christians would have conceived of the composition of the gospels suggests that the Jesus traditions were “attached to specific named eyewitnesses” or “tradents” (20).  Papias might have written in 110 C.E., but the time period he recalls when the Jesus traditions were still being sought after was much earlier, which makes the Papian fragments crucial evidence for the “historiographic context” in which the gospels were composed (14, 24).  Bauckham’s analysis concludes that Papias’s wording reflects the “historiographic ‘best practice’” of valuing first-hand eyewitness as the most important source in historical accounts (24).

Borrowing the language of Byrskog, Bauckham understands Papias to have sought either “autopsy” or “indirect autopsy” (from living eyewitnesses such as John the Elder or disciples of such tradents such as Aristion) according to the standard practice of the day for writing history (24).  His “deliberate” language of the viva vox had “wide currency” during this time (cf. Loveday Alexander’s research, 21-23) and therefore is the proper historiographic context for understanding how the gospels were written (22, 25).  Eyewitness testimony was considered the most important source, but the job of the historian was to preserve these faithfully while giving them the “properly ordered form,” as Kürzinger’s translation makes more clear in Papias’s intentional appeal to this language (26).

For Bauckham, “a key implication” is this: the evidence of the Papian fragments shows that the Jesus traditions were tied to the eyewitnesses who originated them (28).  Diametrically opposed to the assumptions of form critics, Papias’s account shows that the more “anonymous” the tradition was, the less valuable it was to Papias (29).  If this is the earliest extra-biblical evidence for how early Christians sought to write their own account of Jesus’ life and ministry, we should expect that the gospels were written with the same historiographic goal in mind.  This would make sense, for example, of the strong extrabiblical tradition that the gospel of Mark was derived chiefly from the eyewitness of Peter, and the parallel to Papias’s Prologue in Luke’s introduction (Luke 1:2).

Formally Controlled Transmission with Limited Flexibility

Bauckham borrows from Bailey’s work (as do Wright and Dunn) to suggest that the historiographic context (in which individual tradents of the Jesus tradition were authoritative guarantors) calls for a more nuanced conception in which the essentials of the oral tradition were “formally controlled” from the outset by eyewitness who were such “from the beginning” (262) while a limited amount of flexibility was allowed regarding the retelling of peripheral details (258, 287).  In this case, a reasonable use of Ockham’s Razor would suggest that “there is no good reason to suppose that the range of variation of particular traditions was even greater than the range we find in the Gospels themselves” (259).

This is confirmed by Pauline language of  “the traditions” (1 Cor 11:2) that he “received” and subsequently “delivered,” expecting them to “hold fast” to it (e.g. 1 Cor 15:1,3; Gal 1:9; Col 2:6; 1 Thess 2:13; 4:1; 2 Thess 3:6) without corrupting it (264).  Paul understood himself to be the “mechanism of control” (258) of this tradition in the Christian communities while the Jerusalem church still played the central role of authority (265-266).

The Role and Reliability of Memory

Bauckham also wants to rid readers of the impression that once oral tradition is absorbed into the “collective memory” of a community, it becomes disconnected with the individual memory of the eyewitness tradent (292-293).  Since the content of these formally controlled traditions involves memory, and since reconstructive theories have tended to emphasize the unreliability of memory, Bauckham navigates the research to explore how the evidence of such research can in fact support the general reliability of the eyewitness testimony of the earliest disciples, and how “deferred meaning” can be a legitimate way of making better sense of the whole of one’s experience, retrospectively constructing a more satisfying “meaning” in the present from the “facts” of the past (319-357).

The Phenomenon of Names & The Synoptic Problem

If Papias was so eager to tell his readers that his rendition of the Jesus traditions was informed by eyewitness sources, and this was so important to the early Christian community—why are the gospels not also prefaced with attributes to their sources?  With some qualifications, Bauckham is able to argue that the gospels, in a subtle way, do in fact attribute the whole of their account to eyewitness.

Although eyewitnesses other than the twelve appear in the gospels indicating eyewitness testimony of minor tradents (especially for Luke’s account), the outstanding preservation of lists of those who were with Jesus “from the beginning” also demonstrates their central role in the controlling of the traditions (114-147).  Bauckham’s chapter on Palestinian Jewish names shows that it is unlikely these names were simply added as literary devices (67-84).  This makes the claim that they were preserved because they were the sources behind the traditions more plausible (84).

Although among the twelve disciples only a few of them have any significant roles in these gospels, their names are carefully preserved with Peter always at the front of the list due to the chief role of his eyewitness authority.  There are traces of a “Peterine perspective in Mark” along with what Bauckham calls the literary devise of inclusio in which Peter’s name is carefully placed at the beginning and end of the book to indicate qualification for being the authentic eyewitness source for Mark’s gospel (155-182).

This is confirmed again by Papias’s fragments that speak of Mark as Peter’s “interpreter” (which just means he had to translate Peter’s Aramaic into Greek like a secretary, 206).  Certain anonymous persons who aided Jesus, anointed him as Messiah in his messianic visit to Jerusalem, or defended him with use of violence at his arrest remain anonymous for protective purposes (this he calls “protective anonymity,” 183-201).

Bauckham argues that Papias must have compared Mark unfavorably to the other gospels, however, for its lack of chronological order (taxis), and this explains why the other synoptic gospels were written (219).  Luke’s gospel built off Peter’s testimony in Mark, and therefore similarly has the Petrine inclusio, yet is especially enriched by the women eyewitnesses and thus forms a double inclusio (130-132).

Mark’s lack of taxis also helps explain why Matthew wrote his gospel, according to Papias, in “the Hebrew language” with taxis, but then the ordinary freedom others took in translating it tarnished this order (222-224).  This helps explain, in turn, why the gospel of John, with its more precise chronology, was written (225), which contains the name of its eyewitness author—the “beloved disciple” (227-228).

The Case for the Identity of the Gospel of John

Bauckham reestablishes the epilogue as authentic and integral to the gospel then argues that the author of the gospel who speaks with an “authoritative we” in John is none other than “the beloved disciple”—an eyewitness “from the beginning” according to that gospel (358-383).  The author wrote this gospel through self autopsy with the help of other individual disciples; this explains the gospel’s eccentricity (403).  It is the most theologically audacious gospel also for this reason—it was the only gospel written by an eyewitness “from the beginning” (411).  But who is its author?

Papias’s Johannine language, list of disciples, and favoring of John’s gospel, along with his talk about “John the Elder,” makes it plausible that this John was the author of the gospel (417-423) but Eusebius edited his comments about this due to his own bias (424).  The Muratorian Canon also appears to rely on Papias (427).  Polycrates identifies John of Ephesus as “a priest, wearing the high-priestly frontlet,” the most unambiguous way to designate him as high priest (445-446).  The simplest explanation, suggests Bauckham, is that Polycrates and the Ephesus tradition simply identified John with the John in Acts 4:6, for such exegetical identification was common in the early Christian movement (451).  But this means they did not identify him with John the son of Zebedee (452).  Finally, Irenaeus, who came from the province of Asia, identifies the John of Ephesus with the author of the gospel of John (453).

STARING ACROSS LESSING’S GREAT DITCH

Details of Bauckham’s case may be disputed, but his approach as a whole, as Bond points out, depends on “whether the hypothesis as a whole accounts for the evidence better than that of the form critics” (Bond, 270).  If it stands the test of further research, scholars who have become cozy and comfortable in their skepticism may find themselves uncomfortably close to the real Jesus of history.  Rather than a chasm between the Christ of faith and the Jesus of history, Lessing’s Great Ditch will be narrowed to only a short leap.  For many this might open the floodgates of exciting new possibilities for a union between synoptic historical integrity and Christian faith.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: OTHER REVIEWS CONSULTED

Bond, Helen K. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal of Theological Studies, no. 1 (April, 2008): 268 – 271.

Byron, John. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Ashland Theological Journal 39 (2007): 113 – 115.

Downing, Gerald F. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Theology 111, no. 861 (May-June, 2008): 190 – 191.

Köstenberger, Andreas J. Stephen O. Stout. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Bulletin for Biblical Research 18, no. 2 (2008): 209 – 231.

Paget, James Carleton. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59, no. 1 (January, 2008): 83 – 84.

Palmer, Darryl W.  Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Austrailian Biblical Review 56 (2008): 77 – 79.

Perry, Peter S. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Currents in Theology and Mission 35, no. 6 (December, 2008): 450.

Scaer, Peter J. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Logia 16, no. 4 (2007): 58 – 60.

Taylor, Nicholas H. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 30, no. 5 (2008): 40 – 41.

Tolppanen, Kari. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Toronto Journal of Theology 24, no. 1 (2008): 98 – 100.

Wicker, James R. Review of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, by Richard Bauckham. Southwestern Journal of Theology 50, no. 1 (2007): 96 – 98.

Book Review: How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Larry W. Hurtado

The conventional answers to questions about how Christianity began cover a wide spectrum of unverifiable beliefs.  How did such a small band of Jesus followers turn the world upside down so quickly?  Of course, most Christians would say that the bodily resurrection and outpouring of the Spirit had a lot to do with it.  But secular studies that cannot explain Christian origins by recourse to “faith” or the supernatural tend to have quite different stories about how Christianity originated and about who Jesus really was as a historical figure.  

The most popular version of Christian origin theories accounts for Christian beginnings by proposing that Jesus was probably just a prophet, but, over time, his followers who admired him so greatly began to worship him as a god.  Making this sort of narrative even more historically credible, the Jews who were spread far and wide throughout the Roman Empire in the ancient world (far away from the “orthodox” center in Jerusalem) were more susceptible to pagan influence.  This makes the story easy to tell: Jesus was a charismatic Jewish prophet who, when many Jews in the diaspora became convinced that he was the Messiah and inaugurated the Kingdom of God, began to worship him as a god contrary to Jewish Orthodoxy.  This was the inevitable influence of pagan religiosity among the Jews of the diaspora: a syncretism of Jewish Messianic theology and pagan religion.  

This narrative is easy to follow and quite believable.  But does it fit the earliest evidence for Christian beginnings?  

Larry W. Hurtado doesn’t think so, and he’s made it his life-long labor of blood, sweat and tears to show how such a narrative simply does not take the evidence seriously.  But don’t judge him too quickly: he’s not just some Bible-thumping evangelical out to scorn the unbelief of secular historians.  Hurtado is also a serious historian of high caliber who sticks to the historical-critical method.  He seeks to offer an alternative narrative that he claims fits the evidence much better, but without appealing to anything supernatural.  The following is a summary and review of the most compact version of his argument in the following book: 

Hurtado, W. Larry.  How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005. Pp. vii + 234.  $20.00, pb.

Hurtado’s book, How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, contributes to modern studies in Christian origins.  That is, it seeks to investigate Christian origins strictly on historical grounds and provide an explanation for how and when devotion to Jesus—as a historical phenomenon—originated.  Systematically avoiding what he calls a “theological” or “religious” evaluation of the validity of such early Christian devotion, Hurtado consciously limits himself to a historical method (2).  Hurtado’s historical method includes analysis and interpretation of the sources that provide the earliest evidence for Christianity (roughly the first and early second centuries c.e.).  His work therefore demands an overlap with New Testament scholarship (5).    

The original setting for the first four chapters of this book was the Deichmann Annual Lecture Series at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.  The chief aim of these lectures was to show how the study of the New Testament in Israel is important for historical analysis of the Jewish religion in the Roman period (ix).  However, Hurtado has combined the content of these Deichmann lectures (chapters 1-4), along with journal articles that provide further support for his positions (chapters 5-8), in order to provide a widely accessible version of his contributions (x).

The author’s main argument is that devotion to Jesus alongside the one God of the Old Testament (which included not only doctrine about Jesus but remarkable religious devotional practices) not only developed surprisingly early, but emerged as a “binitarian” mutation of Second-Temple Jewish monotheism within circles of Jewish Christians.  On the one hand, since the worship practices of this binitarian monotheism involved an unprecedented level of devotion to Jesus as divine, this sets it apart from the more common “principal agent” speculations of Second-Temple Judaism (these agents were never the object of multiple worship practices as was the case with early Christian devotion).  On the other hand, it was still binitarian monotheism with the kind of exclusive bent typical of the Jewish Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 (“The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!”).  These Jewish Christians did not add Jesus to a pantheon of deities or divinize him after the apotheosis model of pagan religion but rather worshiped Jesus as subordinate to the one God who they believed willed him to be worshipped in this way. 

This is why Hurtado’s work has a sharp focus on establishing a few major points, such as: 1) the evidence for a high Christology is surprisingly early within the Christian movement, 2) it is only when one gives full attention to devotional practices (and not just doctrinal formulations) that the distinctness of the development of early Christian devotion can be fully appreciated, 3) this development is adequately understood only as a mutation of Jewish monotheism and not as the result of pagan religious traditions, 4) the evidence for early Jewish hostility toward Jewish Christians is most adequately and naturally accounted for if we understand Christian devotion to have offended Jews because they saw it as a serious deviation from monotheistic worship (understandably so), and 5) this significant religious mutation is sufficiently explained by analogy to the broader phenomenon of religious experiences that are perceived to be divine revelations and tend to create remarkable innovations within religious traditions.      

Placing Hurtado’s Proposal Among Approaches to Christian Origins

Modern scholarship and historical investigation has produced various and conflicting approaches to Christian origins.  While Hurtado is quick to acknowledge his “enormous debt” to previous studies (xii), he also aims to criticize historical proposals intended to explain the emergence of Jesus-devotion that in his view are problematic and “unsatisfactory” (6).  In his first chapter, he places these approaches under three categories and gives proponents of each: 1) evolutionary proposals (e.g. Wilhelm Bousset, Burton Mack, Maurice Casey, James Dunn), 2) Jewish messianic and martyr cult proposals (e.g. William Horbury) and 3) theological inference proposals (e.g. Timo Eskola, Richard Bauckham).  While he offers only preliminary critiques of these positions in this first chapter, the rest of his book sets out to marshal the evidence for his criticisms.     

First Hurtado sets his approach against evolutionary proposals, particularly the religionsgeschichtliche Schule of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that sought to explain the emergence of devotion to Jesus as divine primarily as a late first century development resulting from the inevitable influence of pagan religions once Gentile converts outnumbered Jewish Christians (15-16).  Wilhelm Bousset, for example, argues that worship of Jesus began with “Hellenistic Gentile” circles with a background of pagan demigods and divinized heroes (16).  Bousset concludes that while the apostle Paul himself was influenced by such groups, such a “Christ cult” was not characteristic of the original Jewish Christians in Judea (16).  In spite of Bousset’s impressive scholarship and what Hurtado calls the “intuitive appeal” of his position, the author complains that Bousset’s view of early Christianity and Roman-era Jewish traditions is “inaccurate and simplistic” (17). 

While Maurice Casey and James Dunn differ from Bousset by rejecting the idea that Paul could have countenanced the worship of Jesus alongside God, as Hurtado sees it, their unwavering commitment to a late date for Jesus-devotion (late first century C.E.) puts them at odds with the earliest evidence (17-18).  As his argument develops throughout the book, Hurtado points especially to Paul’s letter to the Philippians (ca. 60 C.E.) in which worship of Jesus as divine appears to be already developed enough for Paul to quote a Christological hymn or ode with remarkable claims about Jesus’ status in relation to God—claims that are tantamount to viewing Jesus as divine (83-106).  He also invokes Pliny the Younger’s letter to the Roman Emperor Trajan (ca. 112 C.E.) in which he reports that Christians “chant antiphonally a hymn to Christ as to a god” (13).  Furthermore, Dunn’s claim that there is no evidence of Jewish hostility toward Christians earlier than the Gospel of John is, by Hurtado’s estimation, “simply incorrect” (20). 

For example, the synoptic gospels (understood to have been written before the Gospel of John) depict hostile Jewish authorities that accuse Jesus of blasphemy (154).  Hurtado appeals to the work of D.R.A. Hare who urges that the gospel of Matthew’s “central point” in depicting such persecutions reflects tensions between Jewish authorities and the church (156).  Dunn’s view is commendable to Hurtado in at least one respect, however: he is at least ready to grant more plausibility to the proposal that Christianity spawned from religious dynamics already operative within Second-Temple Jewish monotheism (19).

The second approach to fall victom to Hurtado’s critique is represented by William Horbury’s approach to Christian origins: the Jewish messianic and martyr cult proposal.  By arguing that Jewish worship of messianic figures and martyrs was already well established before the rise of Christianity, Horbury explains Christianity as simply a variation of this cultic form of Second-Temple Judaism (21).  Although, like Dunn’s approach, Horbury’s attempt has the commendable quality of locating the development of Christianity within the Jewish matrix (as opposed to a pagan one), Horbury’s definition of “cult” blurs the distinction between the kind of reverence shown to figures of God’s entourage (even when they are heavenly beings that appear to share attributes of God) and the kind of unprecedented devotional practices that characterize the innovations of the early Christian movement (21).

He makes the case for six distinctive devotional practices that underscore his point (28): 1) singing hymns about Jesus in worship gatherings, 2) praying to Jesus and to God through Jesus, 3) calling on Jesus’ name in baptism, healing and exorcism, 4) practicing the eucharist that invoked Jesus as “Lord” of the gathered community, 5) ritually confessioning Jesus in worship, and 6) attributing prophetic oracles to the risen Jesus (or to the Holy Spirit understood as the Spirit of Jesus).  Not only is there no parallel to any one of these peculiar practices in Horbury’s examples (argues Hurtado), “the cumulative pattern of devotional practice is even more striking” (28).  This is why Hurtado enumerates such practices: to show that the analogy fails miserably.

Timo Eskola and Richard Bauckham represent the third approach Hurtado finds inadequate, in which these worship practices are understood as simply the logical “next step” in light of Jesus’ exalted status, a legitimate theological inference fully appropriated (22). Eskola draws comparisons with Jewish merkavah mysticism in which God is seen to share his throne with another figure.  In Eskola’s analysis, Christians simply drew the inference that if Jesus shared the divine throne with God, worship befitted this unique status.  While Bauckham’s approach is more elaborate (entailing what he describes as Jesus sharing in the “divine identity” by taking on the role of creator and cosmic ruler), his account is similar to Eskola’s.  Once Christians were convinced that Jesus was the creator of all and ruled over all, they were obliged to worship him as God (23). 

Although this third category of “theological inference” receives praise from Hutrado inasmuch as it does justice to the early evidence for unprecedented cultic devotion to Jesus, he still finds this proposal deficient in on at least two accounts: 1) they do not explain how such remarkable convictions about Jesus arose in the first place and 2) they fail to account for why Jews did not find it logical to worship “God’s throne-companions” in other figures of Second-Temple Judaism who also shared in God’s rule and creation (e.g. God’s Wisdom or Word, 23).  While Jews of this time often portrayed figures in the most lofty of terms, never did they take the “momentous step” of making them the object of cultic devotion that “in any way” comes close to the Jesus devotion of early Christians (23-24). 

Evidence and Secondary Arguments

By his scrutiny of these three approaches to Christian origins, Hurtado establishes his chief concerns.  The claims he makes in chapter one by way of pithy critique he develops and bolsters with further argumentation throughout the rest of his book.  I will give a few examples to show how many of his subsequent points fit with the main concerns already mentioned. 

Proposals of Christian origins must take seriously the dating of early Christian sources (especially Paul’s letters).  They must also do justice to the high Christology that such sources demonstrate were already developed by the time these sources originated (one can almost see Hurtado rolling his eyes every time he mentions the chronological blind eye in approaches that see Christology as an evolutionary trajectory that culminates in John’s Gospel).  To call attention to this point, he devotes chapters to a closer examination of Paul’s letter to Philippians (83-106) and to early sources that show hostility to Christian devotion from Jews and pagans (56-82)—both of which help to establish that worship of Jesus as divine developed (as far as Hurtado can tell) from the earliest moments of the Christian movement.  In establishing this, Hurtado hopes to dissuade future studies from what he sees as futile evolutionary proposals that fail to take seriously the volcanic nature of Christian origins.  

His examination of Philippians is packed with exegetical points.  In this one chapter he manages to demonstrate the fruit of an “inductive” approach (89), explain why we should not expect the Christological ode to have poetic meter (early Christians imitated the style of the biblical Psalms, 84-85), shows how the existence of the Christological ode and Paul’s failure to explain it both reflect that it was already known and affirmed (87), argues against the Adam-Christology approach to the passage on several grounds (88), highlights the importance of recognizing the emphasis of the passage indicated by the “therefore” in verse nine (“therefore, God also highly exalted him,” etc.), and shows allusions to Isaiah 45 that amount to an early “Christological midrash” (92) that also demonstrates sensitivity to a Jewish mindset (they were providing scriptural justification for Jesus’ status, 93).  This chapter considerably corroborates his contention that early Christianity developed in a thoroughly Jewish mindset—not some Gnostic redeemer-myth or apotheosis model.  The way in which Jesus is carefully depicted as being humbly submitted to God and receiving his high status from God betrays a sensitivity to a thoroughgoing monotheistic framework (95-96). 

Perhaps most importantly, however, he draws attention to the structure of the Greek that “practically requires” one to understand Jesus’ status before his abnegation as “being equal with God,” since “being in the form of God” parallels this phrase in a way that requires us to interpret one in light of the other (100-101).  If Jesus’ pre-existence and divinity are fully developed in this Christological ode that was well known by the time Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians, such an ode must have developed between the time of Jesus’ execution and 60 C.E., which means that the most significant Christological development (Jesus’ equality with God) developed within the first half of the first century C.E.  This is breathtakingly early.   

Hurtado cashes in his distinction between Christian doctrine and Christian devotional practice (the latter of which must weight heavily in the discussion of Christian origins) in chapter two.  Here he shows how it is precisely these devotional practices that distinguish Christianity from previous developments within Judaism and explains what provoked outrage among Jews (34).  He further supports his claim for such devotional practices to have developed early by reference to phrases that go unexplained in Paul’s letters (e.g. Marana tha, Abba, 37).  In support of his proposal that Christianity developed within Jewish circles, he rehearses widely acknowledged aspects of the earliest sources (e.g. Jesus’ own entourage were all Jews from Judea, other prominent figures in the movement were Greek speaking Jews, many Gentile converts were proselytes to the Jewish religion, even many of Paul’s fellow workers among the Gentiles were Jewish, etc., 38-39). 

To add to his case that early Christianity was not likely caused by pagan influence, he argues that reasons exist for believing that after the Maccabean crisis, Jewish reaction to pagan religious influences became more hostile (41).  There is no evidence, he claims, that the kind of influence non-Jewish religions had on Jews—such as seen in the often cited example of Philo who was influenced by Greek philosophy—was the kind of influence that led Jews to consciously overturn the core of their monotheistic tradition (40).  His clincher is this: the earliest Christian sources show an antipathy towards pagan religion in general on the grounds of monotheism in particular (42-45).      

If Hurtado will not accept the dominant theories of Christian origins, then he must explain a more plausible scenario in which such drastic innovations might have taken shape.  To put it simply: if pagan influence is not the culprit that caused Jews to worship a human, what else could have caused them to do something so radically counter-intuitive?  This is why Hurtado offers his last chapter to provide a social-scientific “conceptual model” that he understands to fit snugly with the type of innovations that characterized early Christianity (179-204).  

Social-scientific studies that document how recipients of intense religious experiences tend to lead to reconfigurations of beliefs and practices of the “parent” religious tradition must be taken seriously because they provide a viable explanation for why Jewish monotheism went from one-person monotheism to two-person monotheism (“binitarian monotheism”) so swiftly after the execution of Jesus.  In terms of the evidence, Hurtado suggests, the development of Christianity was less like a slow evolution and more like a Cambrian explosion.  He contrasts the arguments of Anthony Wallace, Rodney Stark, Mark Mullins, Byron Earhart, and Werner Stark with other scholars who seem to arbitrarily restrict all religious innovation to “deprivation theory” in order to show that it is by no means obvious or necessary to deny religious experience a potential causal power in religious reconfigurations (186-191).  He then attempts to recount how, according to our earliest sources, religious experiences seemed to be precisely the fountainhead of the innovations that caused the early Jewish Christians to start a new religion while understanding it as the further fulfillment of the previous Jewish monotheistic paradigm (192-204).      

Reviews of Hurtado’s Book 

As someone not in the field of Christian origin studies, I am in no position to evaluate Hurtado’s case with persuasive authority, yet his arguments appear lucid and even ingenious.  Peer reviews reveal high praise but also several criticisms.  As one might expect, many Christian reviews consider this book “a valuable and unique contribution” for the general interested reader even if they are partial to his more thorough book Lord Jesus Chirst: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity (Kruger, 370; Gooder, 34).    

Common criticisms of his book are that “it makes for a rather ‘scattered’ read” or is repetitious (Kruger, 372; Gooder, 34; Parker, 376).  One evangelical appears to be mildly criticizing the book for not having a chapter on how it was the bodily resurrection of Jesus that caused all the religious experiences (Stenschke, 177).  This reviewer has apparently missed the point of Hurtado’s methodology.  You cannot revolutionize a field of study like Christian origins by appealing to the supernatural—that is the whole genius of Hurtado’s labor, he has boldly ventured into an anti-supernatural field of study and managed to successfully point the evidence in the right direction (i.e., one that is congenial for recourse to the supernatural).  

The most serious criticism I was able to find against Hurtado was by Nathaniel Morehouse of the University of Manitoba who appears to be lamenting when he writes that for those familiar with Hurtado “very little in this book will come as a surprise” (Morehouse, 615).  His chief complaint is that Hurtado’s “razor-sharp focus” blinds him from exploring “other extra-Jewish options” as perhaps having a causal role in Christian origins (Morehouse, 616).  He fails, however, to offer any convincing suggestions.  He backs his criticism up with two points: 1) if the early churches were analogous to other Voluntary Associations they may have been persecuted for similar reasons as these groups—namely, for being illegal associations; 2) the theology that might have “resonated” with gentile Christians “might have been influenced by forms of non-Jewish religiosity” (Morehouse, 616).  The first of these points escapes me.  It is not clear to me exactly what part of Hurtado’s argument this necessarily undermines.  The second point appears to be special pleading for a possibility that Hurtado has cast into doubt with a flood of arguments that will not easily be overturned.

Although Hurtado’s aim is to explain Christianity purely as a historical phenomenon by means of natural explanations and without providing any “religious” evaluation, by the time he is done using Ockham’s razor to cast doubt on the efficiency of theories that seek to explain the development of Christianity by going outside the community of Second-Temple Judaism, the Christian apologist would appear to have her work cut out for her.  For Christians, the fountainhead for Christianity was the resurrection appearances of Jesus to the apostles (and many others) who subsequently proclaimed this resurrection with a reckless passion that compelled them even under guillotine-like pressure. 

Hurtado’s historical backdrop for Christianity makes belief in the resurrection more plausible (what else would most easily explain the transformational impacts of the early Christian’s experiences and their explosive power through those who claimed to have seen the risen Jesus?).  His study dignifies Christianity from the stigma of having been corrupted from its earliest decades by pagan religious influence.  Ironically, it would appear that Hurtado’s approach to Christian origins, while being most strikingly in accord with recourse to the supernatural, however, happens also to be most strikingly in accord with the evidence in a way that meets the least amount of resistance from the historical-critical method.  This is not to claim that his approach is without any difficulty, but his streamlining of the evidence appears much more historically intelligible than so many convoluted approaches to Jesus studies that seem to satisfy only a minority of skeptics.  One hopes his persistent reinterpretation of the relevant evidence will revolutionize the field of Christian studies.  Will the post-enlightenment anti-supernaturalist field of Christian origins be content with “neutral” evidence that explains Christianity purely on naturalistic terms while at the same time making a way for recourse to the supernatural appear to tell “the whole story”?             

BIBLIOGRAPHY: REVIEWS CONSULTED  

Gooder, Paula. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado.  Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29, no. 5: 34. 

Jurgens, David. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Reformed Review 60, no. 3 (Fall): 154-56.

Kruger, Michael, J. 2006. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Westminster Theological Journal 68, no. 2 (Fall): 369-72.  

Morehouse, Nathaniel. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 36 no. 3-4: 615-16.

Parker, David. 2007. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Evangelical Review of Theology 31 no. 4 (O): 376-77. 

Stenschke, Christoph W. 2009. Review of How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God?: Historical Questions about Earliest Devotion to Jesus, by Larry W. Hurtado. Evangelical Quarterly 81 no. 2 (Ap): 175-177.

Charlemagne & the Carolingian Renaissance

Dale T. Irvin & Scott W. Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, Vol 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453.  Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006, pp. 234-41.

Charlemagne (reigned from 768-814 C.E.)

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Forcing entire peoples to either undergo Christian baptism or face execution and establishing capital punishment for worship of any traditional gods, failing to baptize one’s children, cremating the dead, or even eating meat during Lent, Charlemagne’s rule was excessively brutal (at one point he had four thousand Saxon prisoners of war executed) and was the first full-scale use of military force and violence to compel peoples to convert to Christianity. 

Ruling from his capital Aachen (in modern Belgium), at the height of Charlemagne’s power, he ruled the majority of modern France, Germany, Austria, and Hungary (all the way to the Balkans) and eventually took on many of the trappings of Roman imperial identity.  Even the Islamic caliph Harun al-Rashid (best remembered for his role in “1001 Arabian Nights”) responded to news of Charlemagne’s enthronement by sending a gift! 

The rule of Charlemagne ushered a period known as the Carolingian Renaissance in the West in which Charlemagne encouraged schools and a steady flow of Latin texts into his capital, invited the best theologians in the West to come to his capital, and issued a series of General Directives intended to address a number of social reforms (for example, the legal status of marriage put an end to polygamy even in the aristocracy and forbade priests to marry, he enforced the exclusive use of the Rule of Benedict, secured the caliph’s permission to build a monastery in Jerusalem, endorsed and forced the filioque phrase to be used in the Latin versions of the Nicene Creed recited in the churches to the displeasure of the Pope Leo III, etc.).

Charlemagne’s legacy lived on beyond his kingdom and long after the Carolingian line of kings (which came to an end in 911 C.E.) and set a precedent, one that Christian rulers would emulate in the centuries to come.

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