Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians, edited by Bradley G. Green
Whether you have studied academic theology or not, if you have an interest in Christian thought, or theology, it is likely the case that along the way you have stumbled along a thinker or writer to whom you have been attracted. It may have been one line of writing, or it may have been a lengthy theological tome. It may have been a polemical work, or it may have been a devotional treatise. Nonetheless, most of us at some point find our “heroes” from amidst the writings of the last 2000 years.
This volume has its origin in a similar experience, or set of experiences. In the writing of my doctoral dissertation, I was trying to work through Augustine’s De Trinitate (The Trinity). This work is in some ways one of Augustine’s most seminal and mature theological works, although The City of God rightfully and understandably should be called his magnum opus. But as I worked through De Trinitate I found myself swimming in completely different waters from my contemporary mileau. It was difficult initially to follow Augustine’s train of thought, to understand perhaps why he was arguing the way he was, and to foresee where he might be headed with his argument. I read and re-read many sections, particularly the opening sections, and continued to plod along. But a wonderful thing happened. As I stayed the course, Augustine began to become a bit less foreign to me, and I began to grasp Augustine’s logic, and I believe I even began to understand why he was arguing the way he sought to argue. A volume that initially had been a bit off-putting—if not downright intimidating—began to appear as a friend and an ally.
And I learned more than simply additional ammunition with which to buttress my systematic theology. As I read and re-read Augustine I was learning how to think theologically. I saw Augustine making theological connections that I might not have naturally made. I saw Augustine wrestling with certain analogies for the Trinity—as if he was inviting the reader to wrestle with an analogy along with him—only to discard most of the analogies before the journey was done, for most of the analogies ultimately proved unhelpful.
In short, by watching one of the greatest theologians of the Christian Church theologize, I was learning how to theologize. And although I already knew that historical theology was important, I was now learning first-hand why historical theology, or the history of Christian thought was so important. Now, It is easy to quote Santayana, “He who is ignorant of the past is doomed to repeat it,” or Richard Weaver, “Ideas Have Consequences.” It is quite another thing to walk with a great thinker, and begin to understand why they argued the way they did, and why a great insight we all repeat today is indeed something we still repeat today.
I teach systematic theology for a living and I love it. I love to quote Charles Hodge when Hodge speaks about how the human mind yearns for order, and how the mind inherently and intuitively seeks to order the data it receives. I think Hodge is right. I passionately affirm that Holy Scripture is inherently theological at its core, and that because of the theological nature of Holy Scripture, systematic theology is a proper and necessary end flowing from the reality of the nature of Holy Scripture itself. I cut my theological teeth on Millard Erickson and John Calvin in the same summer in a hot tenth floor apartment in Little Rock, Arkansas, and I am convinced on the propriety and necessity of systematic theology. But I am trying to make a particular point about the importance of learning to think theologically. In the best of theology courses, students are taught the background of theological battles, and the historical exigencies that led to a particular construal of a particular doctrine in a particular way. But at times we learn, or teach theology by giving a “bullet point” summary of the orthodox position, and students are left knowing they are supposed to believe XYZ—say, the Chalcedonian Formula—but have little understanding of the gravitas and significance of such conclusions. And they are not simply lacking this sense of gravitas or significance, but they do not understand how key thinkers came to such conclusions in the first place. As a result, I suspect many students conclude that they know they should believe the Chalcedonian Formula, if only because Dr. Smith says so, and perhaps they admire, or at least somewhat trust, Dr. Smith (you fill in the name).
I happily and passionately affirm the full authority, sufficiency, and perspicuity of Scripture. And I happily and passionately affirm that all thinkers in the Christian tradition must be judged against the bar of Holy Scripture. God has given us Holy Scripture, and it is certainly sufficient for our needs. At the same time, we would be wrong to suggest that God simply departed from his Church either at the point the last New Testament document was written, or at the point when the New Testament was seen as canonical (pick your date, 367 with Athanasius or earlier). Rather, is it not wiser to suspect that God might have been leading certain persons in the history of the Church to articulate something in a helpful way, to forge a particularly helpful argument, to discover an especially insightful theological axiom or principle?
The best of theology is simply ultimately an attempt to make sense of Holy Scripture. As others have noted, the eighty year old woman in the pew, with the worn Bible, marked and ragged from years of reading, wrestling, and Sunday School teaching, is certainly a theologian in an important sense of the word. And by standing on the shoulders of the key theologians of the Christian tradition, we can see how they attempted to make sense of Holy Scripture in their own time. We may find the occasional interpretation outlandish, or a particularly logical move to be a howling non sequitur, but we do see faithful persons trying to genuinely wrestle with Holy Writ. And because, as C.S. Lewis writes, “their errors are not errors,” our modern lenses can perhaps be jarred and set awry, allowing us to see an insight into Holy Scripture we might have otherwise have missed. If we have not read Athanasius, we might miss the very natural way in which Athanasius, in On the Incarnation, sees the theological interrelatedness between the incarnation and atonement. Similarly, if we have not read Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, we might not see the logic of the atonement as being something so thoroughly God-centered.
Now, I happen to believe the above insights from Athanasius and Anselm are fundamentally biblical. So why not just stick to the Bible, and save our money for something other than buying all those all dusty books? I think the answer is to be found in two interrelated propositions: (1) First, through reading the great theologians we come to see the logic of why they reached the conclusions they did, why they felt that with certain issues the very Gospel was at stake, and we see the significance of central theological conclusions from the last 2000 years; (2) Second, and perhaps just as significant, we learn how to think theologically—how to theologize—by reading the theologizing of the great theologians of Christian history. Let it be said clearly, we should be reading the great theologians, and every theologian should be one who is constantly saturating himself or herself in Holy Scripture. And we should be willing to conclude that certain moves made by certain theologians were wrong-headed, inappropriate, fundamentally unbiblical, etc. But I believe the training received by grasping and understanding the theologizing of the great theologians is invaluable, and would strengthen both the faith and theological work of contemporary theological students. There are many other benefits that could be mentioned—and will be in due course—not the least of these simply being the joy of studying pre-modern theology, and not constantly becoming bogged down in the often sterile and mind-numbing world of contemporary theology. Many nights (and early mornings) spent with Augustine were life-giving in comparison to the task of plodding through the latest theological tome hot off the press.
The best of evangelical theology has always paid attention to the past, and to the key thinkers and issues and doctrinal developments in the history of the church. Evangelicals have affirmed that Holy Scripture is the norm normans non normata: “the norming norm that is not normed.” When evangelicals affirm sola scriptura we are affirming that the Christian canon is the only infallible word we have from God. Thus, Christian theology should always be returning to Scripture, be immersing itself in Scripture, and seeking to understand God and His ways and His will through attention to God’s Word—the Scriptures. Given the proper and sustained attention evangelicals have given—and should continue to give—to Scripture, it is understandable that one temptation for evangelicals might be an inattention to the seminal thinkers of some 2000 years of church history. But this is an unnecessary error for evangelicals, and even more centrally, it is one that is inconsistent with an affirmation of the full trustworthiness and reliability of Holy Writ. The Christian faith contends that all of reality hinges on certain first century events: the incarnation , life and teachings, and death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and the sending of the Holy Spirit and spread of the gospel in the first century. Thus, Christians—who affirm that all reality hinges on such first-century events—have reason to give attention to the past. It is part of the DNA of the Christian faith to recognize that our lives and destinies are inextricably related to a long history of God’s actions in history. And thus Christians should have not only a future focus because we are confident that God is going to keep His promises and provide for his people, we should also have a certain past orientation in that we know that what God has done in the past is key to understanding who we are and how we are to live.
When this volume was being organized and contributors were asked to be a part, the purpose of the book was summarized in the following three key points. The three-fold aims of the volume were:
(1) To strengthen the faith of Christian students (and other readers), by helping them to understand the riches of the Church’s theological reflection;
(2) To introduce theological students to the key theologians of the Christian Church; and
(3) To help readers learn how to think theologically, by seeing how the central early and medieval theologians have thought.
Underneath these three goals is an overarching commitment to the Evangelical tradition articulated during the Protestant Reformation, and clarified and elaborated since that time. There has been a type of renaissance of interest in Evangelical circles over the last twenty years or so in the church fathers. I remember as a seminary student discovering Tom Oden’s Agenda for Theology: After Modernity . . . What? In this volume Oden traced his own journey from being a “movement theologian” (in which he went from fad to fad—feminism, Freudianism, Marxism, etc.) to being an orthodox Protestant theologian. He recounts how he began to read two types of theological works which helped in this journey to orthodoxy: (1) the works of evangelical theologians and (2) the works of the church fathers. In reference to the church fathers, it is difficult to not be infected with a desire to read the church fathers after having read of Oden’s experience of reading them. While I have never been a “movement theologian,” it was during the often soul-withering experience of doctoral studies that I really discovered Augustine, leading eventually to a doctoral dissertation which focused in part on Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity. I learned how to think theologically—at least in part—by spending many hours reading Augustine.
It seems to me that this renaissance of interest in the church fathers is healthy and good. And at the risk of oversimplifying—and I will exaggerate to make the point—there are two mistaken trajectories one might take in returning to a study of the fathers. First, one might conclude that all sweetness and light dwells in the first five to eight centuries of the church, and then see subsequent developments in perhaps lesser light or of lesser value. Second, one might see theology really beginning in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation. Both of these trajectories are properly rejected, and this is clearly a false dichotomy. Evangelicals can (and should) read the fathers and mine all the exegetical insight, theological helpfulness, and pastoral wisdom one can. The riches are great and are worthy of attention. At the same time, Evangelicals can move through the events and writings and theological developments of the sixteenth century and say, “Yes, that was necessary.”
I also suspect that a study of the riches of the church fathers (as well as of the medieval theologians) need not incline one to depart from the Protestant tradition. For some, it appears that the study of the church fathers leads to a loosening of Reformation commitments. I have found that a study of the church fathers (and medieval theologians), when combined with the study of Scripture and the continued study of Evangelical theology, has strengthened my love for, and commitment to, Evangelical theology. A couple of comments are in order. First, the Reformers themselves often saw themselves as in fundamental continuity with the much of the tradition which preceded them, even if they believed a need for reform had arisen. Second, I wonder if certain Evangelicals who make this or that sweeping generalization about some deficiency in the Evangelical tradition have immersed themselves in the tradition—particularly in the Reformers themselves. When I spent a summer reading Calvin’s Institutes from cover to cover I did not find a dry, soulless, heartless dispenser of theological propositions. I found something else: straightforward Bible-soaked theology and a pastoral heart. I suspect that it would help Evangelicals not only to recover the riches of the early and medieval theologians, but also to explore the riches of the Reformers and their heirs also.
In light of the above, contributors were asked in their respective chapters to canvas the following areas: (1) to offer insightful theological and analysis and commentary on each theologian; (2) to offer a critical assessment of each theologian that asks how evangelicals should view and/or appropriate (or not appropriate) the insights of the theologian. It is hoped that this volume might contribute to a passion for thinking theologically, and ultimately, for acting in light of what is known. Augustine could argue that it is right to try and say something about God, as long as we approach him a certain way. Augustine writes: “[T]here is no effrontery in burning to know, out of faithful piety, the divine and inexpressible truth that is above us, provided the mind is fired by the grace of our creator and savior, and not inflated by arrogant confidence in its own powers.” It is hoped that these essays might indeed lead to the cultivation of minds “fired by the grace of our creator and savior,” and that readers might be helped to think well and rightly about our good and great God.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This excerpt is Dr. Green’s Introductory Essay for Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians and is published here with his permission.
1. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Theology.
2. C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1973).
3. The Trinity V.1.