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AUGUST 3, 2013

REFLECTION PAPER
CH/TH 679: PATRISTIC THEOLOGY – DR DONALD FAIRBAIRN
TONY ARSENAL
GORDON-CONWELL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

Introductory Remarks The Early Church Fathers are a wealth of information and theological insight that has, until recently, been left relatively untapped by evangelical Christians. This is true at an academic level, with a few notable exceptions, and it is especially true at a popular level. It is not terribly uncommon for the average Christian to imagine that upon the death of the last Apostle the trajectory of theological development plunged immediately into the erroneous and corrupt teachings of the Medieval Catholic Church against which Luther protested and ultimately returned the Church from the utter brink of destruction into the glorious realization of Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. Even among the more educated Christian and those in vocational ministry this is often, albeit implicitly, the assumption. I am reminded of a blog post by noted Particular Baptist John Piper who sought to argue that we are currently in a better position to understand and interpret the Bible than those in the Early Church due to the fact that we have a complete and closed Canon, while they did not. The simple truth is that often times Evangelicals often disregard the whole of Christianity prior to the 95 Theses (at times, even disregarding Pre-Reformation Luther…) as unsalvageable and corrupt. Those who are somewhat learned may make an exception for Augustine… maybe. But even those are selective about what parts of Augustine we accept and what we write off as Roman Catholic trappings. However, in the recent decades, there has been an influx of interest in the Early Christian witness amongst the ranks of seminary bound evangelicals. This influx, what I have begun to call the Patristic Resurgence in a playful jab at the popular Evangelical ministry the Resurgence, is demonstrated by the fact that in the course of a three year program at Gordon-Conwell, I was

blessed with the opportunity to take four classes entirely on Patristic Theology and Writing1. Most recently I participated in Patristic Theology. This course, which many would be surprised even exists at an evangelical seminary, was filled to capacity with students from all different backgrounds and academic levels. From those just beginning their initial Masters work (MA or MDiv) to those beginning to work on their terminal Masters research work (ThM), this course exposed many of them to the difficult, but fruitful writings of the 2nd through 7th centuries. In this reflection I will answer three important questions for anyone who is studying the Early Church. The first is What things that Evangelicals affirm, does the Early Church also affirm but state better? The second of these questions is the converse of the first: What things that Evangelicals affirm, does the Early Church also affirm but does not state better? The final major question that I will address is In what ways do the affirmations of the Early Church differ from the affirmations of Evangelicalism? Finally, I shall briefly discuss what kind of practical impact this should have on our lives and ministries. What Things that Evangelicals Affirm, does the Early Church also affirm but state better? There are several theological loci that I believe the Early Church and the Evangelical Church agree on, but the Early Church is much more effective in its expression. For the sake of this reflection essay, I shall focus on two major points. The first shall be the subject of the Trinity and Christology and the second shall be the exposition of Scripture. Now, it may be a surprise that I am treating the Trinity and Christology as one point. This is merely a matter of space restrictions, as entire essays could be and have been written about the

In addition to the Patristic Theology in Summer of 2013, I was also a student in the Trinitarian and Christological Controversies in Summer of 2011 and took independent reading courses centered on Latin Patristic Authors and in Athanasius & the Cappadocians.

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superiority of the Early Church’s formulation of each of these critical doctrines. However, for the sake of this essay I shall simply address both together. As I mentioned several times during the class meetings, Modern Evangelicals often do not see the importance of these doctrines. Largely in part, in my humble opinion, due to the Enlightenment and Modernist emphasis on observable and rational truth these doctrines have been relegated as auxiliary and unnecessary doctrines. This has unfortunately led to an utter misunderstanding of the classical formulations of these doctrines. Combined with the fact that many Evangelicals, as my introductory remarks indicated, treat the Early Church with distrust and suspicion, and the arguments that the Church Fathers put forward are at times dismissed simply because it was the Church Fathers who put them forward. Add to this already dangerous mixture a shift from Sola Scriptura (the idea that Scripture is the governing authority over all other authorities) to Solo Scriptura (the butchered Latin phrase representing the idea that Scripture is the only authority) and Evangelicals feel that they have the freedom to formulate whatever doctrine of the Trinity they can piece together from the Bible. Christology, although less so, suffers from much the same fate. This reality is made even more destructive by the fact that most Protestants, inheriting their Trinitarian doctrine from Augustine through Calvin and Luther, hold to the so called Western View of the Trinity. This view, although the bifurcation between Western and Eastern views is artificial and inaccurate, essentially starts with the one God, and then seeks to prove that the three persons somehow are fully God but also constitute this one God. While not in itself heretical, this leads many to the errors of Partialism or Modalism. Although Facebook is not the most fruitful theological grounds, I am constantly dialoging with other Christians who act as though the Trinity is a hypostasis/person and that the three persons of the Trinity are either component parts of this one person or that they are simply manifestations of this one person. This is also not simply a problem within the popular level. Noted apologist and

philosopher William Lane Craig has recently sought to provide a new definition of the Trinity in which God is an eternal soul who possesses three sets of rational capacities, and as each of those rational capacities interact with creation we see three different aspects of that one eternal soul.2 This is unadulterated modalism. This leads Craig to a similar error in Christology in which the only thing that the Logos took on during the incarnation was a body, and that the immaterial “portion” or soul of Christ was divine.3 This is simply warmed over Apollinarianism,4 and Craig himself recognizes this by calling this Neo-Apollinarianism.5 This is where the Early Church is much more successful. Even as early as Tertullian in the 2nd century, we already see the doctrine of the Trinity emerge. Primarily we see again and again through the Patristic age that the formula takes the following form: There is one God. This God has a Son (and is therefore the Father) who shares completely in the Father’s nature and is therefore also fully God. This God also has a Spirit who shares completely in the nature of the one who spirates Him and is therefore also fully God. Although it is not free from pitfalls (it lends itself to a more tritheistic understanding, or to an unequal trinity) I believe that this is a much clearer presentation of the reality of the Trinity. Beyond that this presentation squares much better with the Biblical data, in which the word “God” in unqualified use in the New Testament is nearly always used to refer to the Father, and often times the deity of the Son and the Spirit are qualified in light of their relationship to the Father (Son of God, Spirit of God, etc.). Similarly in the area of Christology we see the Early Church make far superior confessions of the person of Christ. Rather

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For an example of Craig’s though on the matter of Trinity see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/a-formulationand-defense-of-the-doctrine-of-the-trinity 3 For an example of Craig’s though on the matter of Incarnation see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/trinity-andincarnation 4 For Craig’s defense of Apollinarius see http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-2-podcast/transcript/s6-6 5 Craig describes this view as Neo-Apollinarian in James Porter Moreland and Willaim Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian World View (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003).

than trying to grapple how two natures (including a will, rational soul, mind, etc.) can combine to become the person of Christ, yet remain distinct within the person of Christ, we see the Early Church instead affirm the addition of a full human nature to the already existing person of the Logos. Especially in Cyril of Alexandria, and the represented writings of Fulgentius, we see the repeated affirmation that the same person who was eternally the Son of God the Father is the same person who joined a human nature to himself and was born according to that nature of the Virgin Mary. The culmination of this repeated affirmation in the Chalcedonian Formula is far superior to the piecemeal attempts that many modern Evangelicals put forward, and we would be wise to simply return to the formulation that is given to us in the Early Church. Secondly, and much more briefly, is the exposition of the Bible. While I resonate with and affirm the motives of Protestants who wish to interpret only in light of the historical grammatical method, I feel that this restriction at times ignores the fact that the Scriptures have two authors. While it is true that we must interpret the Scriptures in light of what the original author and the original audience could have meant, we must recognize that the eternal Spirit of God who inspired those authors is not bound by the same cultural and linguistic contexts. As such, the truism “You cannot say Paul said what Paul could not have said,” simply falls flat. Paul most certainly could have been putting forward things that Paul could not have consciously meant to be putting forward if the Holy Spirit was inspiring him to do so. Plainly put, Evangelicals in their attempt to respect the unique nature of the Scriptures are doing exactly the opposite and reducing it to merely a human text. Now, while I believe that the Early Church had a better view of Scripture in terms of understanding that the Divine Author could have, and often did, intend meaning beyond the intent of the human author, I believe that we must exercise a greater caution than the Early Church often

did. While their perspective on the uniqueness of the Scriptures over and against other written documents is commendable, they often times vastly overstep the bounds of reasonable in their exposition of the divine intent of a text. While this may be a discussion that is better situated under question three, allow me to close this portion of the reflection with this statement. Although we are on more stable and attainable epistemological grounds with the Historical Grammatical method, the intent of the Divine Author of Scripture should and must be sought after. However, the interpretations of the divine intent ought to be held with less certainty and be more open to critique and correction by the church catholic than historical grammatical interpretations. What things that Evangelicals affirm, does the Early Church also affirm but does not state better? There are many things that the Evangelical Church gets right. Of those things, there are several that the Evangelical Church and the Early Church agree on, but that the Evangelical Church has done a better job expressing than the Early Church. While there are several to choose from, I think that the primary glaring example is the rallying cries of the Reformation: Sola Fide and Sola Gratia. Now, I do not wish to paint a picture that denies that the Early Church was a crude works righteous system, because that could not be further from the truth. Faith and Grace were both central and foundational aspects of the soteriological theology of the Patristic period. Apart from Origin (and to a lesser extent, Nyssa and Maximus following Origin), one can definitely make a case that salvation was by grace alone in the Patristic period. One can even push forward a case for justification sola fide in many of the Church Fathers. However, the language and concepts regarding what faith is and how it operates often obscures the implicit emphasis on faith as the instrument of salvation. This is a problem even today for the Evangelical Church, but it was much more prominent in ancient times. For example, we see in the works of Cyril of Jerusalem that it is

God’s initiative and action in taking a human nature and redeeming his lost people. However, his pragmatic emphasis on obedience and sacraments sounds too much like works are required for salvation for Protestants to recognize that Cyril’s ultimate call is to faithful trust in Christ. Similarly in Augustine we discussed how for Augustine merit is what saves us. However, for Augustine, God’s grace is what makes that merit effective. Additionally, the difference for Augustine between a non-Christian doing good works and a Christian doing good works is that the Christian has been chosen by God to have faith, and through that faith and grace the good works become meritorious, while the non-Christian’s good works are not. The same kind of problem presents itself in Fulgentius as he discusses infant baptism. The idea that an infant on the way to be baptized is not saved because the physical rite has not been undergone seems to imply that the water has some kind of magical effect that brings about salvation. For Evangelicals this is simply unacceptable. However, the underlying theology of this understands that on some level, the infant did not receive grace through baptism because God did not elect that infant to receive grace through baptism. While we may balk at the idea that God condemns infants to hell, the reality is that for Fulgentius it is grace alone that saves and that infant simply did not receive grace. Evangelicals however have a much more robust way of speaking of these two important truths. Following the Reformation the idea that grace is actually operative in the Sacraments would shatter the Protestant bodies into fractured groups who would argue over the particularities. While this is tragic, it shows the force with which Protestant’s held the doctrines. Furthermore, the very doctrine of Predestination advanced by Luther himself, and by the Reformed branch of the Magisterial Reformers was explicitly formulated as a barrier to protect the idea that it can and must only be by grace through faith and not works that we are saved. While it is true that this perspective can lead to anti-nomianism, that is a discussion for another day. However, I will close this

discussion with a hypothesis that I believe demonstrates the compatibility of the two voices being discussed. I would argue that the Early Church was often trying to describe what faith looks like, while the Protestant Church is often trying to describe how faith works and what it is. To demonstrate this, simply ask the question “What does a faithful Christian look like?” The answer, as it is so plainly stated in James 2 is that a faithful Christian lives a life of obedience and submission. “You say you have faith, I’ll show you my faith by my works.” Faith is not works, and works are not faith. However the key to understanding the doctrine of justification by faith in the Early Church is to recognize that they are often times describing what a faithful Christian is (IE obedient), and not what a faithful Christian has (IE faith). In what ways do the affirmations of the Early Church differ from the affirmations of Evangelicalism? As one might surmise from the rest of my reflection, I don’t believe that there is much that is substantially different from the Early Church when taken as a whole. I believe that the Early Church presents a theology that affirms the unique role and authority of Scripture, that salvation is by grace through faith (which presents itself through obedience), and that the realities of the Trinity and Incarnation are essentially the same (albeit expressed in more problematic ways by Evangelicals). Where I do believe that the Early Church’s differences are substantive are more in the particular expression of individual writers. This could be said even of individual Evangelicals who make statements that flow contrary to traditional evangelical thought (Clark Pinnock, Peter Enns, or Rob Bell come to mind). While it would be unfair, and poor methodology, to point out a particular writer and act as though they represent an entire group, I do think that there is warrant to identify one particular writer at the head of a theological lineage that is incredibly problematic. In our particular survey of the theology of the Patristic Church, the line of theology produced by

those following (even though at times explicitly attempting to correct) Origen is particularly troublesome. Although it may be unfair to judge Origen from an individual work that is admittedly speculative, there are many problems with the work of Origen. Beyond the obvious problem with the idea of eternally preexistent souls, the idea of self-driven salvation and restoration is particularly problematic. Origen clearly argues that through contemplation and works we are able to follow Christ back to union with the Logos. This not only flows at odds with evangelical sensibilities, but is at odds with the testimony of the majority voice in Patristic literature as well. In addition, while Gregory of Nyssa and Maximus do attempt to resolve, to varying degrees of success, the problem of the preexistence of souls and the heretical Christology present in Origen, they seem to retain this human elevation through contemplation and works that is so repugnant to Protestant thought. In addition, Gregory and Maximus each have their own particular problems that result from their attempt to correct Origen. For Gregory, we see that the ultimate state of a human soul is one of non-identity within union with the Logos. This seems to contradict the idea that we will worship God forever as individuals who are called by and saved by the Son. Maximus however, in my estimation, slides back into a preexistence schema. Although our souls do not lose their identity, they had a genuine ontological existence within the mind of God as the logoi. Although not actualized as Origen postulated, they indeed existed and rather than fall into human bodies as Origen put forth, they are actualized into human bodies instead. Ultimately, the error of Origin is somewhat reduced in Maximus, but the basic contours of the problem remain. So What – Practical Implications We now come to the end of this reflection. One may read this wondering what we can do with this knowledge, now that we have answered these questions. As I stated in my opening remarks, the Evangelical Church is currently experiencing a resurgence in interest in the Patristic

testimony of great figures like Athanasius and Irenaeus. The punch line of this reflection is that what we do, is exactly what we have been doing. Seminaries need to continue offering courses led by experts in this field, Pastors need to continue to lace Patristic quotations throughout their sermons, and young scholars like myself need to continue to read works written by long dead saints. As we seek to continue the Protestant ideal of Semper Reformanda we must recognize that just because we should always be open to reforming the thoughts of the past… that not all of the thoughts of the past are in need of reform. Likewise, we must also recognize that although we may be saying things different ways, we agree with the Early Church more than we disagree. I have said in another essay that it is critical for Protestants to recognize that our theology did not spring into existence on the door of a Wittenberg chapel… this is true today and it will be true tomorrow. Rather than reject the Early Church because they smell like Rome… we need to recognize that there is incredible wisdom and insight within the writings of the Church Fathers. We would be foolish, and indeed we have been foolish, to ignore that truth. Praise God for his grace in bringing this error to light and for providing interest and opportunity to remedy that mistake.