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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 8

February 28, 2013

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 5 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here.

One of the figures from the early church who has sparked the most controversy is Theodore of Mopsuestia, who lived in what is today southern Turkey in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. Theodore lived his life in relative obscurity, but after his death his Christological thought (like that of his more famous student Nestorius) was condemned by the church. But scholars in the 19thand 20th centuries have argued that the condemnation of Theodore (and maybe also of Nestorius) was unjust, the product of church politics more than doctrinal inadequacies.

Part of the reason many modern scholars have sought to rehabilitate Theodore is the fact that they have regarded him as the greatest biblical interpreter in the early church. He is thought to have been the supreme example of the so-called “Antiochene school,” whose proponents sought to take the Bible literally and to take history seriously, in contrast to the “Alexandrian school,” whose proponents allegedly denigrated history through allegorical interpretation and philosophical speculation. This neat dichotomy between the two schools has been increasingly called into question by patristics scholars, but it remains very influential and still dominates most books on the history of biblical interpretation.

A couple of days ago I read a new translation of Theodore’s commentary on John’s Gospel. As I expected, I found much evidence of the concern for history that modern scholars find attractive. Theodore has a long discussion of the relation between the Synoptic Gospels and John’s Gospel. He injects many points of historical background into his exposition of specific passages. And he is particularly concerned to show how the various resurrection narratives in the four Gospels fit together without contradiction. All of these concerns are characteristic of Theodore as I knew him from other writings of his that I’ve read previously, and this historical concern is very commendable.

At the same time, this commentary also confirmed what I’ve long held to be the central problem with Theodore’s thought—he sees Christ not as God the Son incarnate, but as a man in whom the Word of God dwells. In John 3:13, 8:58, and 17:24 (among other passages), Jesus indicates that he—not just his divine nature but he as a person—has always existed and always been in fellowship with the Father. In his discussions of the first two passages, Theodore refuses to say that the Son as a person has come down from heaven or that Jesus as a person has existed before Abraham. Even more strikingly, in discussing Jesus’ statement that the Father has loved him before the foundation of the world (John 17:24), Theodore takes this to mean that the Father foreknew that he would love the man Jesus once he was born on earth, rather than taking it to mean that the Father loved the pre-existent Son from all eternity past.

These passages do indeed indicate that Theodore’s understanding of Christ was problematic (something I’ve argued on the basis of reading his other writings), but they also indicate something else. Why do scholars say that Theodore takes the Bible literally if he feels compelled to interpret some of Jesus’ most direct statements about his eternal pre-existence and eternal relationship to the Father in such non-literal ways? It is certainly true that Theodore takes many biblical passages more literally than orthodox church fathers do. But when it comes to passages on the most central affirmation of the Christian faith, Theodore seems much less literal than the orthodox church fathers. On what basis, then, should we classify Theodore’s interpretation as “literal” and others’ interpretation as “allegorical,” when the accuracy of those descriptors depends on which biblical passages one is considering?

You see, “literal” and “allegorical” are not merely neutral descriptors. They are labels with significant value judgments attached to them. To allegorize, we seem to think, is always bad. To take the Bible literally, we think, is always good. In fact, though, no one takes every biblical passage literally. All interpreters have a rationale for understanding some passages in one way and other passages in another way. When we study—and seek to learn from—the biblical interpretation of the early church, the value judgments attached to the labels “literal” and “allegorical” may hinder our task of understanding why they interpreted the Bible the way they did. Maybe we need to seek to understand more deeply, without being so quick to label patristic biblical interpretation as either “literal” or “allegorical.”

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , equipping leaders for the church and society , faculty blogger

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 7

February 07, 2013

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 5 in a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here.

One of the things I tell my students is that unity among Christians—real unity, that is—cannot be forged. This usually comes as a surprise, because we often speak of trying to “be uniters” or to “forge unity” among competing parties or groups. But if we think about it, we recognize that “forge” can mean two things—either “manufacture” (as in forging a wheel out of iron) or “fake” (as in forging a painting). Almost by definition, if we fake unity by ignoring substantial differences between two or more Christian groups, what we wind up with is merely the semblance of unity, not the real thing. Likewise, we cannot manufacture unity. As hard as we may sometimes work toward unity, we cannot produce it out of nothing. If it isn’t already there, we can’t make it come about. In contrast to either manufacturing or faking unity, I tell my students that real unity has to be discovered.

To say this is to admit that many times, there is a real unity between different groups of Christians but that the unity is obscured, hidden in some way. In Christian history, what has sometimes obscured whatever unity may have been present was either ill will (refusal to believe that the other side had good intentions and even that that other side might agree with us) or terminological confusion (using the same words to mean different things, or using seemingly opposing words to mean the same thing, without realizing that this was happening). As I have studied the controversies of the early church, I have repeatedly been amazed by the way these two factors have conspired to obscure how much consensus was actually present on the great theological issues of the day.

One example on which I’ve written recently (in an article coming out this April in Journal of Theological Studies) has to do with the complicated interaction between two groups in the fourth century who were both trying to articulate the relation between God the Father and God the Son. We label these groups Homoousians and Homoiousians (notice the letter “i” that distinguishes those two words). The Homoousians affirmed that the Son is “of one substance” with the Father, using the Greek word homoousios which the Council of Nicaea had used in 325 and which would eventually be retained in the Nicene Creed in 381. The Homoiousians, in contrast, preferred to say that the Son was “like the Father in substance,” using the Greek word homoios (“like” or “similar”), and their phrase was not ultimately used by the church in its creedal statements.

It may look like these two groups did not share the same view of the Son. Indeed, the Homoiousians themselves did not think they were saying the same thing as the Homoousians, because at a synod in Ancyra (Ankara today, the capital of Turkey) in A.D. 358, they actually condemned anyone who used the word homoousios to describe the Son’s relation to the Father. Some of the Homoousians (like Epiphanius of Salamis) also thought that they were not saying the same thing, and they condemned the Homoiousians.

But I suggest that the two groups—who between them comprised most of the Christian church in the fourth century—were in fact saying the same thing about God the Son. After all, “of one substance” and “like in substance” could mean the same thing, if one takes “like” to mean “exactly like.” If I’m right about this, then the consensus in the fourth-century church about the Son’s relation to the Father was greater than we often think. There was more unity than we realize—or than they realized—but that unity was obscured and had to be discovered before a consensus articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity could be achieved.

Studying issues like this forces me to ask, How much more unity is there among us—between the fractured and sometimes fractious groups of the Christian church—than we realize? Do we allow terminological differences to obscure a consensus that is actually there? Do we not even try to look for any possible unity because of our ill will toward other groups of Christians? My research in the early church has led me to believe that back then, there was more of a consensus about the faith than our books normally tell us today, and even more of a consensus than people at the time realized. Might that also be the case today?

Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.

 

 

 

Tags: Author: Donald Fairbairn , equipping leaders for the church and society , faculty blogger

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