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A Tale of Three Battles | Faculty Blogger

May 01, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

Dr. Fairbairn authors 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here; Part 15 here.

It is often said—correctly—that the Battle of Tours in 732 changed the course of history. It took place exactly a century after Muhammad’s death, during the great wave of Arab expansion that re-drew the political and religious map of the world. Arab Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and then over the Pyrenees into France. Had they been able to continue their advance, they would likely have overrun all of Europe, but they were defeated by Merovingian forces from northern Europe under the command of Charles Martel and forced back into Spain. Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would go on to solidify his control over the region and start a great renaissance of learning in the ninth century, and Western Europe would begin its slow rise to world prominence.

As we tell that familiar story, we often forget that another, equally fateful battle took place at about the same time. In 717–18 in Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his forces narrowly defeated Arab invaders, forcing them back into what is today Turkey. The close call led to an enormous amount of social and theological soul-searching in Byzantium (among other things, the Iconoclastic Controversy arose out of the ideological battle with the Muslims), but it would be more than seven centuries before Muslims (Turks, not Arabs) would conquer Constantinople in 1453. The siege of Constantinople in 717–18 could easily lay claim to having “saved” Europe just as much as the Battle of Tours fifteen years later.

But not long after the Arabs failed to take Europe from either the West or the East, a third, far greater clash took place halfway around the known world. For we need to remember that the two great powers in the world in the eighth century were the Arabs and the Chinese, and the Arabs were much more interested in expanding eastward along the Silk Road than westward or northward. (In fact, it is likely that part of the reason they failed to take Europe was because they devoted much more energy to taking Asia.) After the resolution of an internal conflict brought unity to the Arab forces, they squared off with the Tang Chinese army in 751 at the Battle of Talas, in what is today Kirghizstan. The Arabs were victorious, and China began its slow decline from world power to isolationist kingdom. The Arabs solidified their hold on most of Central Asia, and the region became solidly Muslim.

These THREE almost contemporary battles—not just the one we Westerners are familiar with—changed the course of history. But what about CHURCH history? The picture is varied and complicated, but it may not be too much of an over-simplification to say that the churches in most parts of the world at that time were too closely tied to the local kingdoms. In Western Europe, the church rode the coattails of the victorious Merovingian kingdom to increase its stature and prominence. At the same time, it is surely fair to say that the church adopted too many of the traits of the worldly kingdom, leading to an increasingly militant form of Christianity that would ultimately produce the Crusades. In China (yes, there WAS a church in China then), the church was equally tied to the local kingdom and suffered greatly as the kingdom became more isolationist and xenophobic in the ninth and tenth centuries. By the year 1000, Christianity had disappeared from China.

In between Europe and China, though, something different began to happen. In the Middle East and Egypt, the churches learned to adapt to a lack of power, to a second-class status in society, and for the most part, those churches have endured and maintained their witness during the long centuries of Islamic governmental control. They suffered through the vicious Islamic backlash against Christians in response to the Crusades and the even more vicious Islamic purges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those churches have accumulated many problems in their checkered history, and they are far from perfect. But they have also learned something about what it means to bear witness to the gospel through suffering. As Christians in the West face the reality of our declining influence on an increasingly post-Christian society, perhaps we will find that the churches that have stood their ground in hostile territory for over a millennium have something to teach us 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.

 

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 15

April 08, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here.

It is often claimed that “history is written by the victors,” that those who won the battles (whether military, political, or theological) got to dictate the way those battles were described subsequently. And it is certainly true that the story of the great theological battles over Christian orthodoxy in the early centuries of the Church have—for most of Christian history—been described from the point of view of the belief that came to predominate.

Accordingly, more recent scholars have argued that we need to look at the same controversies without prejudice toward the “losers,” and over the last 200 years a new history of the great theological controversies has been written from perspectives sympathetic to the poor “heretics” who had been maligned by earlier historians. These heretics, the new history alleges, were not actually “wrong.” They were just on the wrong side of the political power plays that dominated the early church. Their only crime was that they lost the war, and they were painted falsely by the victors as malevolent souls intent on destroying the church.

In some ways, the new history does give us a more complete view of the past. It tends to focus on political and social issues more than theological ones, and as such it reminds us that there is always more than theology going on in theological controversies. The new history also reminds us that the victors—the “orthodox”—sometimes twisted the words of the “heretics” or took them out of context to make the losers seem worse than they were. Even more important, the new history reminds us correctly that the heretics did not SET OUT to destroy the faith. No serious Christian tries to ruin the church on purpose.

At the same time, the new history is beset with serious problems of its own, problems that are rarely acknowledged. First and most important, this new history is ALSO being written by the victors. If the traditional history was written by the ANCIENT victors, this new one is being written by TODAY’S victors—the scholars who represent the assumptions and perspectives that are in the ascendancy today. Those assumptions are generally naturalistic (discounting the action of God in history and understanding all events solely in terms of human actions) and relativistic (discounting the notion that there is such a thing as “truth,” and therefore discounting the church’s long-standing insistence that it MATTERED whether, for example, Jesus was fully divine as Athanasius said, or semi-divine as Arius implied).

Put simply, the view that is “winning” today has no place for theological truth at all, and so it sees “Christian orthodoxy” as an arbitrary construct developed for political reasons and imposed on the church by force. This view is scarcely able even to conceive of a world in which people’s salvation actually depends on whether Christ is like this instead of like that. Scholars who hold to this new relativistic view see nothing earth shattering about the great debates of the church, so they assume that Christian leaders were just being mean when they suppressed the writings of those who disagreed with them.

Another serious problem with this new view of history is that it purports to be objective. Scholars consistently give the impression that by treating the “heretics” sympathetically, they are removing the biases of the ancient victors who dictated the first writing of history. But rarely do those scholars acknowledge that in the process of doing that, they are also introducing biases equally great. To assume that it matters not at all whether Jesus is fully God or semi-divine is CERTAINLY NOT to be objective. Rather, it is to make an extreme value judgment, exactly the opposite of the value judgment the early church made when it declared that it makes all the difference to people’s eternal salvation whether Jesus is fully God or less than God. Indeed, NO ONE in the early church—least of all Arius himself—would have agreed with the judgment that it makes no difference whether Jesus was like this or like that. The new history calls itself objective, yet at the most basic level it carries an assumption with which no one at the time—and indeed no real Christian at any time period—could agree. It is a sad kind of logic indeed that enables one to operate from a fundamentally ANTI-Christian perspective while still claiming to be unbiased and objective.

“History is written by the victors.” True enough, but history is also RE-written by TODAY’S victors. And those of us who think the great truths of theology actually matter—indeed that the salvation of the world hinges on them—need to be very careful about the way we read and utilize the version of history that today’s scholars present to us. 

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.

 

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 14

March 13, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here.

One of the words that tend to rub contemporary evangelicals the wrong way is “mysticism.” When we hear stories of people who went out to the Egyptian desert in order to fight demons (St. Anthony the Great in the early fourth century), spent decades perched atop pillars in Syria (St. Simeon the Stylite in the fifth century), or spent their lives gazing at their navels while reciting the Jesus prayer (the Hesychasts of Mt. Athos in Greece, in the late first and early second millennium A.D.), we tend to think that the mystics were the class-A kooks of Christian history. And some of the mystics certainly were kooks, although none of the examples just above were actually as odd as we make them out to be.

But according to the definition of the word, a “mystic” is one who is not satisfied with mere association with the church or with knowledge about God, but who instead longs for a deep, direct, intimate experience of God. By that definition, evangelicals are mystics too, or at least we should be, because we of all people should long for direct experience of God. And if some of the practices of the ancient and Medieval mystics in their efforts to grow closer to God seem weird to us, we have to admit that evangelicalism has also produced some strange practices as well, from tent meetings to Azusa Street to the Toronto Blessing. When we assess a phenomenon like mysticism on the basis of whether it is bizarre, we should recognize that bizarre is in the eye of the beholder, and what seems bizarre to us may seem normal to others.

A better way to assess mysticism—in all its expressions—might be to ask the fundamental question of whether mystical practice constitutes an attempt to establish contact with God, or whether it is an attempt to deepen a relationship with God that one has already been given. In my (admittedly subjective) opinion, the best of Christian mysticism follows the latter pattern.

One of the great names in Christian mysticism, and I think one of the best examples of mysticism at its best, is the fourth/fifth century monk John Cassian. He spent over a decade among the Egyptian desert fathers and then founded two monasteries in southern France around the year 410 A.D. Cassian wrote a long work (the Institutes) on monastic practices and a massive work (the Conferences) of alleged conversations between two neophyte monks and various Egyptian monastic fathers. Through these works, Cassian exerted a major influence on Benedict in the sixth century, who in turn shaped all of Medieval Western monasticism.

Cassian’s thought has been variously interpreted, but in my opinion, the foundation of that thought is that we are united to God as a gift through adoption and that our mystical practices constitute an effort to deepen that previously-established salvation. (See chapter 5 of my book Grace and Christology in the Early Church for my explanation of this foundation.) If I am right about this, Cassian presents us with a model for the Christian experience of God that is somewhat similar to that of evangelicalism—God acts first to establish the relationship, but he then calls us to foster that relationship through our spiritual disciplines. Cassian and other mystics like him may thus be valuable resources for us as we seek to know more fully the God who has brought us to himself. 

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.

 

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 13

February 18, 2014

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here.

There is a famous passage in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory in which the (unnamed) communist police lieutenant expresses incredulity at the possibility that he might have a soul. The main character, the (also unnamed) “whiskey priest” corrects him, saying, “No, you are a soul; you have a body, temporarily.” With these words, the priest encapsulates what has been a common belief throughout Christian history—the soul is permanent and ultimately all that is important; the body is temporary and inconsequential. Perhaps no mistaken attitude has had more staying power, or been more dangerous to the faith, than this relegation of matter and the body to second-class status. From the second-century Gnostics who denigrated the entire physical world to modern scholars who re-interpret “resurrection” to mean merely the soul’s survival after death, these ideas have had a long history and currency.

It should not surprise us, then, that the task of affirming the importance and redeemability of the body was job one for the early church, and among the church fathers who most insistently argued this point was the North African Tertullian at the end of the second century. He may have overdone it when he famously asserted that even the human soul is corporeal, but be that as it may, his arguments for the importance of the body in the Christian scheme of redemption are worth our attention. Among them are the following: 

  • He points out that in Genesis 2, the man starts out as clay and then becomes a living soul when God breathes into him. The physical component comes first and is indispensable. Human beings are meant to be bodies and souls, not souls that merely possess bodies temporarily (On the Resurrection of the Flesh, par. 5).
  • He argues that as God created man, he had in mind the form that he would give to his Son at the incarnation. The goodness of the body implied in the incarnation is anticipated in the original creation of humanity as bodily (par. 6).
  • He argues that no soul can receive salvation unless it believes while it is in the flesh. Thus, bodily existence is the very condition on which the soul’s salvation hinges (par. 8).
  • If one’s soul were really the only part to be saved (as the Gnostics alleged), then one could not even regard the person as saved. Only half of a person would be saved, and the other half condemned. The Bible could not even speak of the salvation of a human person in that case (par. 34).
  • If Paul’s references to “resurrection” in Acts 17 had meant only the continuation of the soul after death, then the Athenians would hardly have noticed. Their philosophers had been saying that for centuries (par. 39).
  • Paul could not have asked us to present our bodies as living sacrifices (Rom 12) if our bodies were ultimately going to perish, or holy sacrifices if our bodies were soiled beyond redemption, or acceptable and pleasing to God if God had peremptorily condemned the body.


These arguments and others like them remind us just how unique a message the Christian faith offers to the world. History has been full of philosophies that exalted the soul at the expense of the body, and even more full of religions (and non-religions!) that glorified the body to the detriment of the soul. Christianity, the church fathers correctly recognized, is almost alone in affirming that we are meant to be both material and immaterial, that God is concerned about us as whole persons, and indeed that we will spend eternity with him not as disembodied spirits, but as persons on this (reconstituted) earth. These most fundamental of Christian truths have wide-ranging implications for all aspects of life on this planet, yet for much of Christian history, we have obscured them with a popular theology that has exalted the spiritual to the detriment of the physical. We would do well to take a page from Tertullian’s writings and to recognize anew the importance of being in the flesh.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 12

December 03, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here.

Facts don’t normally make for reading that is as interesting as stories, but sometimes facts are the best way to tell a story. Or perhaps, facts are the best way to expose the need to change the way we tell a familiar story. Such is the case with our understanding of the early church. Even though we know that Christianity arose in what is today the Middle East, we tend to think that the early church was primarily a European phenomenon, or at least a phenomenon limited to the Roman Empire. Some pertinent facts (or at least likely facts—there is controversy about some of them) quickly show the problem with that version of the early Christian story:

  • There was a significant Christian presence in Egypt in the first century and in what is today Iraq in the second. In most parts of the “Muslim” Middle East and North Africa, there have been substantial Christian minorities for the entire history of the church, and these Christian populations began to decline only in the last 100 years or so.
  • There was certainly a Christian presence in India by the third century and likely by the first. There has been a continuous Christian presence in India for at least 1700 years.
  • The Roman Empire was probably only the fourth kingdom to espouse Christianity as its official religion. Armenia and Georgia (both in the Transcaucasus between present-day Russia and Turkey) and Aksum (modern Ethiopia) preceded it.
  • The greatest intellectual centers of the early Christian church were Alexandria and Carthage, both located in Africa. It would be well past the year 500 before the cities of Rome and Constantinople would match the intellectual stature of the two African cities.
  • We all hear that the office of the Pope in Rome, called the “Chair of St. Peter,” has been continually occupied since the first century. But the title of the patriarchate of Alexandria is the “Chair of St. Mark,” and that chair has been continually occupied for more than 1900 years as well. The holder of that chair is still called “Pope” in Egypt today.
  • There has been a continuous Christian history in black Africa (in Ethiopia) since the 330s. The modern Ethiopian Tawehedo Church (often mislabeled as “Coptic” by Westerners) is the heir of that history.
  • By the year 500, in the Middle East and Africa, the Bible had already been translated from Greek into Coptic (spoken in Egypt), Ge’etz (spoken in Ethiopia), Syriac (spoken throughout the Middle East), Armenian, Georgian, and Nubian (spoken in southern Egypt and northern Sudan). Translation into Arabic followed in the eighth century. During the same time period, the only translation into a northern European language was the Gothic translation done in the fourth century (by an Arian missionary!), and it would be 1000 years later before the next northern European translations began to appear.
  • Christianity had demonstrably reached China by the end of the eighth century, although it lasted no more than two centuries there before dying out, not to be revived until the modern period.
  • It was at least the ninth century (and some argue as late as the fourteenth) before the majority of Christians were located in Europe. (And today, the majority of Christians are again found outside the Western world.)

Again, there is controversy about some of these “facts,” but with that caveat registered, it is still clear that Christianity has—from the very beginning—been a faith for the whole world. The details of the story of Christianity outside of Europe are largely unknown to us in the West, but that is changing today. As the contemporary Christian world is more and more centered outside the West, the early history of Christianity in Africa and Asia is garnering increasing—and long overdue—attention. Ancient works never before available in “Western” languages are being translated, and the rest of the early Christian story is coming to our notice.

What will our story of the early church look like 50 years from now? Well, many elements familiar to Westerners will be the same, but a whole new dimension to the story will likely become familiar, giving us an ever fuller glimpse of the vastness of what the Lord has done in leading his people through the ages. 

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.

 

 

 

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Thank you Dr. Fairbairn for this series and the reminder for us not to neglect the early centuries of the church. There needs to be balance to learn from many saints throughout history regardless of when they lived (time of habitation is not what determines importance but intimacy and conformity to Christ). If you ask an Eastern Orthodox if he/she knows about Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, Jim Elliot, there is a good chance they have never heard of these or other "modern" saints, heroes, martyrs. There is much to learn from the ancient faith, we should not neglect our historical treasure but neither should we neglect what the Lord has been doing down through the ages and continues to do today, it goes both ways :)
Arthur Roshkovski 9:53PM 12/11/13

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 11

October 24, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 11 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here.

It is well known that for every person who is famously influential in history, there are many more who are influential without being well known at all. Nowhere is this truth more important than in the history of the Christian church, a history that is full of little-known stories of faithful believers who lived hidden lives that were of immense value to the progress of the Kingdom. One impressive example of such an unknown influencer is Macrina, a nun who lived in Cappadocia (central Turkey today) in the fourth century. I sometimes refer to Macrina as “the most influential Christian you’ve never heard of.”

Macrina was the oldest of 10 children born to wealthy, devoutly-Christian parents, Basil (a professor and attorney) and Emmelia. Her father betrothed Macrina at age 12 to a famed orator, but he died very suddenly before they were married. Macrina called the betrothal a marriage and resolved to spend the rest of her life alone and celibate, rather than marry someone else. In order to secure this resolution, she persuaded her mother (who was widowed by this time) to join her in establishing a nunnery that later became the pattern for all of female monasticism in the Greek Church. Macrina also founded a hospital and an organization to care for the poor, funding them with money inherited from her parents. She was so thorough in giving her wealth to the service of others that when she died at age 52, she owned nothing except the tattered garment she was wearing.

As impressive as Macrina’s life was, we might never have known about it except for one other detail. She also possessed an extraordinary combination of immense education and desire to use her knowledge for God’s glory. She dedicated herself to the education of her nine younger brothers and sisters, and two of those excelled so much under her tutelage that they were later sent abroad to obtain first-rate philosophical educations. But Macrina did not simply give her brothers their start. She also popped the bubble of pride that sprang up within them as their education progressed, and she convinced both of them to use their learning for the service of Christ.

Those two brothers are known to history as Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa. Together with their best friend, Gregory the Theologian, they are styled “the great Cappadocians,” and the three were the Greek Church’s most brilliant Trinitarian theologians in the period after the death of Athanasius. They took the mantle of leadership during the tumultuous years at the end of the Trinitarian Controversy, and they were the most influential figures on the Council of Constantinople in 381, at which what we call the Nicene Creed was ratified.

Gregory of Nyssa wrote a moving biography of his sister, in which he described her life-long ambition to be the bride of Christ, to long for him, and to serve his people. Gregory’s account means that Macrina’s life is known to us, and the story reminds us of how important and influential a single life can be. At the same time, we are reminded that there are countless more lives of faithful, ordinary Christians of which recorded history has no trace, lives that are equally valuable in their obscurity, equally worthy of celebration by God’s people. We are also reminded that we never know what the Lord is going to do with our own (usually obscure) ministries. We never know whether that person we disciple will be a new Basil the Great. Perhaps this reminder can encourage us to continue to pursue our callings faithfully, just as Macrina did.

 

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.

 

 

 

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Thank you for writing on the life of Macrina. I shared about her life last year at a youth camp in Germany at a workshop I gave. I was blessed to "get to know her" at a History of Christianity course with Professors Justo Gonzalez and his wife Ms Gonsalus. Leaders are said to be influencers, and Macrina certainly was one of them. It was also important for me to see how Christians in all phases of their history have found ways out of the status quo to be able to express their love toward God and their neighbor. Though previously I had looked down on monasteries, I learned that this was a way in which Macrina could fulfill her calling. Like the apostle Paul, celibacy and a life of service were complimentary. Thank you and God bless you.
Jude Enxuto 12:57PM 11/07/13

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 10

October 01, 2013

Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 10 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; Part 8 here; Part 9 here.

One of the things about the early church that troubles evangelicals the most is that the fathers seemed to advocate what we would call “works righteousness.” Why, we ask, did no one in the early church understand justification by faith correctly? One of the ways of answering this question is to say that they did understand justification by faith, or at least some of them did, but they did not express it the same way we do. Recently I’ve been studying the way the fifth-century Egyptian church father Cyril of Alexandria’s understood justification, and his way of articulating that great truth may have a lot to teach us today.

Justification is an ever-present theme in Cyril’s biblical commentaries (regardless of what book of the Bible he is commenting on), and there are two major differences between the way he describes justification and the way we often describe it in evangelicalism today. First, Cyril treats justification not in a forensic or legal framework, but in a participatory one. Think about how often we use either courtroom imagery or the idea of “exchanges” to describe justification. We imagine a situation in which a sinner is declared guilty but someone else—Christ—pays the penalty owed for the sin, or we talk about Christ taking our sin upon himself so that his righteousness could be given to us (“imputed,” we say, using the language of Romans 4) in exchange. And of course, these images are perfectly appropriate. But what Cyril focuses on that we often miss is the participatory framework that undergirds the legal imagery. Christ is the only one who is truly righteous, the only one who is righteous in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we receive his own righteousness. It is not just that God credits Christ’s righteousness to us, although that is also true. Even more fundamentally, Christ’s righteousness becomes our precisely because we are in him, we are united to him through the Holy Spirit.

The second way in which Cyril’s understanding of justification differs from ours is that he makes basically no distinction between justification and sanctification. We often argue that sanctification is the outworking of justification—once a believer has been declared righteous (justification), he or she becomes progressively more and more actually righteous and holy (sanctification). By distinguishing between these, we seek to combat the perceived mistake of Medieval Roman Catholicism by which it allegedly collapsed justification into sanctification. It may seem to us that Cyril is doing the same thing we think Medieval Roman Catholicism was doing, but he isn’t. Rather, the reason he makes no distinction between justification and sanctification is that he sees both of these as taking place at the beginning of faith and as being directly tied to the righteousness of Christ. Just as Christ is the only righteous one, so he is the only one who is holy in and of himself. When we are united to him, then in him we are holy (that is, sanctified), just as we are righteous in him.

It should be clear that Cyril’s understanding of justification is similar to ours, albeit expressed rather differently. More important, it should be apparent that his way of stating this central truth places even more emphasis on Christ than the way we express the truth of justification. The crucial point is not that faith alone justifies, as if any kind of faith in anyone or anything could justify a person. Rather, it is that Christ justifies us when we trust in him. Because he alone is righteous and holy, the only way we can be credited with righteousness is to be in him, to be united to him by the Holy Spirit.

We live in an age which places all of its emphasis on us, and in religion, that emphasis translates into the idea that if a person believes in something—in anything—then that person is “saved” or “fulfilled” or whatever. Our culture believes that the act of believing is what is important, not the content of what one believes. Christianity teaches otherwise: what ultimately matters is not so much whether one believes, but in whom one trusts. Perhaps Cyril’s way of describing justification can be useful to us as we try to explain this great truth of our faith to a society that thinks everything is about us. It isn’t. It’s all about Christ, the Son of God, the only holy and righteous one. Only in him can we become righteous before his Father.

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.

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 9

March 21, 2013

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; Part 8 here.

Sometime around the beginning of the fifth century, a nun named Egeria from the Latin Christian world took a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. She re-traced the route of the Exodus, visited Mount Sinai, spent three years in Jerusalem, journeyed east to Edessa to see Thomas’s tomb, and then worked her way through Asia Minor to Constantinople. The story of her travels, written in Latin and called Diary of a Pilgrimage in English, contains a wealth of cultural and geographic information and a number of stories interesting to a general reader, stories that vary from the impressive to the extraordinary to the bizarre. I’ll mention one example of each, all taking place in the Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

It is impressive that the clergy of the church took such great pains to make sure everyone (including pilgrims from all over the Christian world) could understand the services. The Scripture readings and the liturgy were conducted in Greek, but there was a continuous line-by-line translation of everything into Syriac as the services were conducted. There were also various people present who could explain what was happening to Western visitors in Latin, although they did not translate the whole service. Not only is this a great example of cultural and linguistic sensitivity on the part of the clergy, but it is also a reminder to us that early Christianity was not exclusively Greek and Latin. Indeed, in predominantly Greek-speaking Jerusalem, Syriac speakers far outnumbered Latin speakers.

Egeria’s recounting of the instruction given to those preparing for baptism in Jerusalem is extraordinary. In those days, new Christians were baptized on Easter, and they received instruction in the Christian faith during a period of preparation prior to Easter. (Several examples of such “catechetical lectures” given to instruct the candidates for baptism survive.) Egeria tells us that in Jerusalem this instruction included three hours a day of Scripture reading and sermons, for seven weeks leading up to Holy Week just prior to Easter. During those seven weeks, the candidates would hear the entire Bible read to them and explained. All of us who organize new members’ classes in churches today should be ashamed!

The most bizarre thing Egeria describes is a service on Good Friday. A gold-plated casket was brought out containing wood that was allegedly from Christ’s cross and from the inscription above the cross, and people came forward to touch the wood with their foreheads and to kiss it. But this is not the bizarre part—some readers will know that such practices are routine among many groups of Christians, even today. The bizarre part is that Egeria describes deacons as standing near the holy wood, guarding it. She writes, “It is said that someone (I do not know when) took a bite and stole a piece of the wood of the holy cross. Therefore, it is now guarded by the deacons standing around, lest there be anyone who would dare come and do that again.”

To us, it may seem impossible to reconcile the idea of pilgrim-sensitive, trilingual worship services and extensive instruction of new believers with the idea that someone might think he/she had something to gain by running off with a bite of the cross. Christianity in fifth-century Jerusalem must have been quite a contradictory mix of the profound and the superstitious, we think. But how much different is our version of Christianity? Do not the deep and the superficial, the amazing and the kitschy, sit uneasily side-by-side in most expressions of our faith? Maybe seeing the bizarre in an earlier expression of Christianity will give us incentive to look more carefully at our own, asking whether some of our practices are equally bizarre, but our familiarity with them has hidden that fact from us.

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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 6

November 13, 2012

Dr. Donald Fairbairn

This is Part 6 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.

One of the most commonly repeated “Sunday-school” stories from the early church is that until the conversion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the Romans constantly and mercilessly persecuted the church. It is true that in some places and at some times, persecution was quite intense, but it was much more sporadic than constant, and persecution was rarely very systematic. Not only is the Sunday-school version of events incomplete about how widespread persecution was; it is also incomplete about how the church responded. To hear the story in Sunday School is often to come away with the impression that all Christians in those early centuries were heroes, valiantly going to the lions with the name of Christ upon their lips as they were torn limb from limb. Again, it is true that some Christians met their death in this way, but certainly not many. Far more people caved in during persecution, or sought to evade it, or something of that sort. After all, they weren’t that much different from us.

But before we disparage the Sunday-school version of events too much, we need to recognize that the early Christians themselves held up the famous martyrs as heroes for Christ. The martyr stories were the most popular and influential “biographies” of the early church, inspiring the masses of ordinary believers to be more obedient and faithful to Christ as well. What, though, did the obedience of the ordinary Christians look like? If few Christians were actually martyred, then how did the regular Christians emulate the brave martyrs who had gone to the lions?

Part of the answer to that question can be found during the most widespread persecution of the early church—the so-called “Great Persecution” that began in the year AD 303. Unlike most persecutions, this one did extend throughout the empire, although it lasted much longer in the East than it did in the West. Many martyr stories stem from events during this persecution, most commonly describing the brave Christians who refused to give up their copies of the Scriptures when the Roman officials came seeking them as part of their systematic effort to destroy the Christian Bible. In one particularly noteworthy story, a group of laypeople from the church of Abitina (near Carthage in what is today Tunisia) repudiated the action of their own bishop in giving up the church’s Scriptures, continued to hold Christian services without him, and were arrested, tried and executed for doing so. Christians have long celebrated the bravery of heroes like these Abitinian martyrs and have acknowledged the role their bravery played in the preservation of biblical texts.

But in addition to such overt acts of bravery, there were many smaller ones. Papyri sources reveal that some Christians told Roman officials that they had the Bible in their hearts (doubtless true, but probably also misleading, since there were likely to have been manuscripts somewhere as well). Others gave the Roman officials the runaround—giving names of church members who had the manuscripts, and those church members would give other names, and so on, until the officials would give up and inquire at a different church. Still other Christians gave up copies of heretical or even non-Christian writings, hoping the officials would not know the difference. And one account even indicates that a clever Christian handed over a copy of a medical textbook in the hope that the Roman official either couldn’t read or wouldn’t care, as long as he could go back to his boss with some confiscated writing.

Such duplicitous—even humorous—acts don’t make for great, inspiring reading, and it is not surprising that these were not the accounts that the church chose to preserve and pass on. But as papyri discoveries round out our picture of ancient history, we can recognize that such small deeds were acts of faithfulness nonetheless. Indeed the Lord has used the bold acts of people like the Abitinian martyrs to further his purposes and to preserve his Scriptures. But he has also used the little, ordinary actions of regular believers, who were being faithful to the degree that they thought they could.

In Finding God in Unexpected Places, Philip Yancey famously writes about “saints” and “semi-saints.” He has Ezra and Nehemiah in mind, but Christian history also has many examples of saints and semi-saints. Indeed, so does the present Christian church. And for most of us, who don’t feel very heroic and who read the stories of great saints with a bit of embarrassment and shame, maybe it is encouraging to know that God has worked—and does work—through semi-saints like us as well. Maybe the real role that the great martyr stories play in Christian history is that they inspire a lot of little acts of faithfulness—acts that, although small taken individually, amount to something when considered in aggregate. And maybe that is a sufficient reason to keep telling the Sunday-school version of the story.

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.

 

 

 

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Hi, Dr. Fairbairn! I just wanted to say that I read your book, Life in the Trinity, and it has revolutionized my understanding of God and salvation. I'm now going through it with my small group. I praise God for you, dear brother. Please keep making known the good news!
Adam 1:33PM 01/30/13

Learning from Our Church Fathers: Part 5

August 09, 2012

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.

Why should evangelicals care about the early church, about the first several centuries after the end of the New Testament? Another reason why we should take that period seriously is that the church fathers—at least some of them—demonstrated remarkable discernment in the midst of a very politically-charged atmosphere. Nowhere was this more true than during the fourth-century Trinitarian Controversy, and no one demonstrated more discernment than a person who is not known for discernment—Athanasius of Alexandria.

You may know the situation: A relatively small group within the church, led at first by a man named Arius (from whom we get the name “Arianism”) believed that God the Son was the first and greatest of created beings, but not equal to God or eternal as God is. What enabled them to make this claim was their belief that salvation comes as we march up to God, so the “Savior” could be a creature who himself marched up to God and blazed the trail for us to follow. In contrast, the church recognized, we cannot rise up to God, so God had to come down to us to save us. At the most fundamental level, this means that the persons who came down—the Son at the incarnation and the Holy Spirit at Pentecost—had to be just as fully God as the Father in order for us to be saved. This much was relatively clear to everyone, and so when Arius wrote openly around the year 318 that the Son was a created being—this idea was rejected fairly quickly, most notably in the year 325 at the Council of Nicaea, which we now call the First Ecumenical Council.

However, this clear rejection of Arius’s thought took place in a tumultuous political atmosphere. The Roman Empire had gone from severely persecuting Christians to regarding Christianity as its most favored religion, all in the space of less than two decades after Constantine became a Christian. The inevitable result of imperial favor toward the church was imperial involvement in the church. After Constantine died in 337, his three sons vied for control over his empire and each tried to enlist Christian bishops and Christian theological slogans on his side. The result was a bewildering proliferation of creedal statements, with various different ways of speaking of the Son’s relationship to the Father. The Council of Nicaea had declared the Son to be “of one essence with the Father,” and now other creeds called him “like the Father” or “like the Father in all respects” or “exactly like the Father” or “like the Father in essence.”

The situation rapidly became confusing, as it became harder to tell which statements were equivalent and which ones actually reflected unacceptable differences of opinion. In this confused situation, many people tended to latch onto a single statement and to insist on it in opposition to all others. Parties started to emerge based on particular slogans, and the rival claimants to the imperial throne backed one party or another, one slogan or another, by exiling bishops who held to different slogans.

This is where Athanasius’s extraordinary gift for discernment came into play. No one was ever more adamant in opposing Arianism, but if he had been equally adamant about insisting that everyone use his slogans to oppose Arianism, the controversy might never have ended, since almost everyone was distrustful of everyone else’s slogans. In the midst of the confusion and name-calling, Athanasius was uniquely able to recognize that beneath many (not all!) of the varied statements lay a consensus, shared by most of the church in opposition to Arianism. In the 350s and early 360s, he worked tirelessly to uncover the consensus that he believed lay behind the various anti-Arian statements, and in the year 362, he held a small council in Alexandria at which he was able to show the different groups that they were saying the same thing. This local council was the turning point in the Trinitarian controversy and paved the way for the church’s acceptance of the Nicene Creed (with its bold assertion that the Son is equal to the Father and that this Son “came down” for our salvation) at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381.

Times of emotionally-charged political rhetoric call for stalwart, faithful perseverance in the midst of pressure to compromise. But such times also beget confusion about who is and is not firmly standing for the faith. An important but neglected aspect of faithfulness is the biblical/theological discernment to recognize what is and is not an acceptable way of affirming the faith. In the case of Athanasius and the Arian crisis, this kind of discernment was just as important to the work of the gospel as the fortitude for which he is much more famous. In discernment as well as fortitude, he is a shining example to us of how to live Christianly in a complex, confusing world. And there are other noteworthy examples from the early church as well, examples from whom we can profit as we try to live Christianly in a similarly complex, confusing world.

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.

 

 

 

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I'll respond here to the questions by Riley and Abram. First Riley's: Arius's own thought was condemned very quickly and decisively at a synod in Alexandria and at the Council of Nicaea (both in 325). But the condemnation of Arius also exposed the problem of what language for describing the Father-Son relationship was the best. The controversy over that was fairly protracted. I don't think it was really true that Arianism was making inroads all over the Empire. But it is true that people who SOUND Arian by later standards were being backed by the Emperors (especially Constantius). The situation is very complicated, but what I am trying to argue in my current scholarly work is that there was more of a consensus present all along than people realized at the time. For example, I've recently finished an article arguing that Basil of Ancryra and the so-called "Semi-Arians" were actuallyc ompletely consistent with the Nicenes, even though they did not recognize this fact themselves. Regarding Abram's question, I don't think we should necessarily give the church fathers' exegeis "pride of place." They were not necessarily right just because they were closer chronologically to the NT. Sometimes distance gives one a better perspective. But it is CERTAINLY true that we should give their exegesis a place at the table, a serious hearing.
Don Fairbairn 7:47AM 08/16/12
Good insights, but is it really true that: "when Arius wrote openly around the year 318 that the Son was a created being—this idea was rejected fairly quickly" Seems Arianism was making inroads all over the Empire and beyond, which is why Athanasius was exiled several times. Hence the phrase, "Athanasius contra mundum."
Riley 11:13AM 08/11/12
Hi, Dr. Fairbairn, I just found this series; it's great! Thanks for posting it. Earlier in the series (part 2, I think?) you wrote: And this brings us to a fundamental claim that I often make: What we think the Bible means is influenced by what we think the church has said the Bible means. I love this. It's a notion that is too often overlooked. Do you think there's any merit in giving patristic/early church exegesis pride of place, since they were (historically/chronologically) closer to the text then we are?
Abram K-J 9:22AM 08/09/12

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