Monday, 30 November 2015

A Christmas carol about St Nicholas, the Arians, and the Nicene Creed

St. Nicholas bringing gifts © Elisabeth Ivanovsky
On Facebook the other day, Derek Rishmawy said he wished there were more Christmas carols about St Nicholas' defence of the Nicene faith. The Santa Claus songs are excellent in their own way, but they don't always go as deeply as they could into the problems of 4th-century trinitarian theology. So, as an early Christmas present to Derek, I wrote this carol about St Nicholas, the Arians, and the Nicene Creed.

Possible titles: "Santa Ain't an Arian", or "Put Some of That Old Time Trinitarian Theology in Your Stocking", or "All I Want for Christmas Is the Faith of Saint Nick," or, perhaps best of all (suggested by David Koyzis), "Ho-ho-homoousios". Whatever you call it, just be sure to sing it nice and jolly, accompanied by sleigh bells.

To the tune of Jingle Bells

Nicholas, you’re the best,
Nicky all the way!
Defender of the Nicene ὁμοούσιον Πατρί – hey!
Nicholas, you’re the best,
Nicky all the way!
Defender of the Nicene ὁμοούσιον Πατρί.

“There was when he was not,”
said Arius & Co.
It seems they had forgot
that God has come below:
born in Bethlehem,
crucified and raised,
not a creature but the One
whom angels hymn with praise – oh!


By the candlelight
Share some Christmas cheer!
Give someone a gift!
Drink another beer!
For our light has come
And burned away our dross.
God in flesh: O come let us
Adore φῶς ἐκ φωτός – oh!


Heresy is dull,
a bland philosophy,
it steals away the gifts
beneath the Christmas tree.
The holy catholic church
Bids all our joys increase,
So get beneath the mistletoe
And give the kiss of peace – oh!


Every girl and boy,
And all the grown-ups too,
Let your hearts be glad,
Let Christ be born in you.
Sinners, don’t despair,
There’s no need to be blue,
Lift your hearts up to the Son,
he’s θεὸν ἐκ θεοῦ – hey!


Friday, 27 November 2015

Know-it-all heretics

Eunomius has everything figured out. Which pretty much summarises everything that is wrong with his theology. Divinity is, Eunomius claims, unbegottenness (which is why he thinks that the Son cannot be divine). Basil is aghast: “How much arrogance and pride would it take for someone to think that he has discovered the very substance of God?” (Against Eunomius, 1.12). Eunomius is like every other heretic: an aggravating know-it-all.

Arius is certain that the Son is not co-eternal with the Father. Apollinaris, agreeing that Arius must be wrong, knows that Christ can be fully divine so long as he is not fully human. Nestorius, going with the dismissal of Apollinaris, figures out how the divine and the human natures interact in Jesus (even in Mary’s womb!). Eutyches, standing with the church in rejecting Nestorius, solves the metaphysical problem of two natures (or one or three—the numbers all blend together). The early christological heretics all claim to understand the relation of the divine to the human in Christ. Each heretic solves the problem with confidence, but the church confidently keeps the problems and so keeps the faith.

The orthodox tradition maintains the tension between the knowable and the unknowable in its affirmations. We cannot know what divinity is in itself, just as we hardly understand the nature of humanity, but it seems necessary to say—if salvation is real—that Christ is fully divine and fully human and that these two “natures” are not merely pressed up against each other or mixed together, but are somehow united in the person of Jesus Christ. But orthodox theology rarely attempts to specify that “somehow”.

The heretics prefer to iron out the creases in their doctrines of God and Christ, leaving a smooth surface where everything is laid bare. But the orthodox tradition leaves the bedsheets in a crumpled pile, with hidden and mysterious crevices. Ironing the divine linen is an impossible task, for God is like a fitted sheet—accomodating yet unwieldy. Talk about God will always have hidden depths and untidy corners. “Heretics were too clever by half, thinking they could know God precisely so as to define the divine Being in all exactitude” (Frances Young, God’s Presence, 253).

Rowan Williams points out that the word “heresy” comes from the Greek hairesis, which connotes making a choice that creates division—“a heresy in St Paul is… choosing to belong to this little group rather than the whole fellowship” (“What is Heresy Today?”). The heretic is the one who looks at the doctrine of God and says “I understand this” or “I can prove that this is so” in such a way as to exclude all other understandings. The creeds, by contrast, were written to establish unity within the church through prayer, contemplation, and interpretation. To riff on Robert Jenson, there is nothing as capacious as a creed.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Tweet review of Edwin Hatch, The organization of the early Christian churches

It is a rare thing to come across such a hair style, or such a book. Edwin Hatch's 1880 Bampton Lectures gave a groundbreaking economic and institutional history of early Christianity. The lectures were published in 1881 as The Organization of the Early Christian Churches. The book was considered so important that it was promptly translated into German by no less a person than Adolf von Harnack. The book was recommended to me by one of my PhD students, and I'm very glad I read it. I was lucky enough to get a copy with uncut pages so I had the added pleasure of cutting the pages with my breakfast knife (following the revered example of Dr Johnson). I reviewed the book with a series of tweets, compiled here for posterity:

Lecture 1. Early Christian institutions have survived. This gives them a false air of familiarity and makes historical work bloody hard.

Lecture 2. The church was one of many civil clubs. Its special mark was almsgiving. This required financial administrators ("bishops") as well as distributors ("deacons").

Lecture 3. Early Christian governance was a continuation of the Sanhedrin: a court of collegial elders ("presbyters"), mostly for purposes of moral discipline.

Lecture 4. The apostles were succeeded by these councils of presbyters, but divisions soon led to the elevation of bishops as symbols of unity.

Lecture 5. Early Christian ordination was appointment to office, the same as in civil institutions. It did not confer spiritual powers. (Tertullian and the Montanists were defenders of tradition in the face of rapid institutional change.)

Lecture 6. So how did the clergy become a spiritually distinct class? Through state exemptions, they first became a civilly distinct class. The spiritualisation of this distinctiveness came later.

Lecture 7. Imperial power helped to weld the churches together until "church" came to mean a confederation ruled by councils.

Lecture 8. The medieval divide between parish clergy and cathedral clergy came from the way differing forms of civil organisation were adapted to urban and regional settings.

Conclusion: Every aspect of church order can be explained by external influences. Institutional forms are not fixed but elastic. They can and should be modified today. Attempts to rehabilitate the forms of earlier ages (he is thinking of the Oxford Movement) are misguided.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

A letter from a church to local mosques

Here is a letter I drafted for the church I attend in Swansea (UK), Uniting Church Sketty (a Local Ecumenical Partnership, born in May, of the former Bethel United Reformed Church and Sketty Methodist Church). Signed by our minister the Revd. Leslie Noon on behalf of the church and sent to the imams of the three mosques in Swansea – Sunni, Shia, and the University mosque – it is the kind of letter that I pray you might bring to the attention of your own church if you live in a Muslim-Christian context. In the aftermath of the Paris massacre, in Europe, the US and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, no one is more at risk than Muslims themselves, from local xenophobic abuse and assault as well as from the pseudo-Islamic apocalyptic death cult known as IS, which is, after all, an equal-opportunity destroyer.

In the name of the One God, the Compassionate, the Merciful, we greet you on behalf of Uniting Church Sketty. In the wake of the horrific events in Paris, we write to express our concern about their impact in the UK, particularly on the Muslim community.

The BBC has recently reported that hate crimes against Muslims in London have risen by 70% in the past year. Since the terrorist attacks, there have been disturbing reports of verbal and physical abuse against Muslims around Britain, and such incidents will no doubt increase in the weeks ahead. The toxic combination of panic and fear, religious ignorance, and xenophobic scapegoating suggests that we should not be complacent about Islamophobic violence occurring in Swansea.

In this ominous context we, as a church, reaffirm our solidarity with Islam in the fundamental principles of love of God and neighbour, and in our common search for peace and justice. We also express an especial concern for the safety and wellbeing of Muslims in Swansea during these troubled times. We will, of course, remember you in our prayers, but if there is any practical support that we can give you, please let us know. Both the Qur’an and the Bible say that God is able, and we are ready to work with you opposing what is evil and defending what is good.

May God unite us in purpose and peace.

In friendship, &c.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Tweet review of Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire

The book is Christoph Markschies, Christian Theology and Its Institutions in the Early Roman Empire: Prolegomena to a History of Early Christian Theology, newly translated by fellow blogger Wayne Coppins (Baylor University Press 2015). I reviewed it on Twitter as I was reading it over the last couple of days. I've pasted all the tweets below – first a summary of the book and then some general thoughts.

Summary of each section

1.1 Christian history is not a one-way street of development or decline.

1.2 New ideas have to take root in new social forms. A history of theology is a history of institutions and their guiding norms.

2.1a Early Christians generally participated in the pagan education system with very little fuss.

2.1b Christian teachers adopted diverse educational institutions. This helps to explain the diversity of early Christian theology.

2.1c While some Christian teachers (e.g. Justin) were free-wheeling philosophers, Origen's school was more like a formal university.

2.2 The Montanists sought to recover the power of primitive Christianity by adopting the institution of the pagan oracle cult.

2.3a A third new institution: the Christian worship service. This absorbed elements of both pagan and Jewish cults.

2.3b School-theology was urban; prophetic-theology was rustic; liturgical-theology was universally accessible.

2.3c Early eucharistic prayers show a high degree of adaptation to local contexts. Liturgy was a vehicle of theology.

2.4 When Christianity transformed institutions, the old forms remained recognisable; that was part of the attraction.

3.1a The development of fixed norms isn't a power-play or a theological regression. It's necessary for the formation of new institutions.

3.1b Normative lists of a NT canon weren't only used in ecclesial institutions but also in the free-wheeling schools.

3.1c Marcion's institutional setting was Alexandrian philology. He wasn't trying to create a new canon but to edit an existing one.

3.1d Powerful bishops and free-wheeling teachers both used a NT canon in exactly the same way.

3.1e The Gnostics, free-wheelers par excellence, presupposed the same normative canon but interpreted it differently.

3.1f The point of this is that the canon was not an authoritarian construct used to suppress dissident voices.

3.1g But the canon wasn't monolithic either. Different communities had slightly different canons with a common centre.

3.2 This (amazing) section on the canon has been a case study in the way norms functioned in the new Christian institutions.

4.1 Walter Bauer's thesis of early Christian plurality and of orthodoxy as power remains dominant, even though it can be seen now as a piece of liberal protestant apologetics.

4.2 If Bauer's basic thesis of early Christian plurality is correct, is there nevertheless a deeper unity of Christian identity amid the plurality?

4.3 In opposition to Bauer, the inculturation view argues for a deeper unity by positing an original (culturally pure) gospel embedded in diverse cultures.

4.3b If Bauer's model is an apologetic for liberal protestantism, the inculturation model is an apologetic for Catholicism. Both models impose too much on the sources.

4.4 Plurality and identity go together. Early Christians forged a coherent and bounded identity out of plurality.

4.5 Early Christianity was a pluralism centred on an identity-forming centre articulated in theological institutions.

Bibliography: 100 pages. Small font. German encyclopedic erudition. Anglo-American scholarship well represented too.

General thoughts

Best part is the very rich and very important section on the NT canon. The book is worth getting for this alone.

Other highlights: the account of Origen's school, and the surprising demonstration of local improvisation in early eucharistic prayers.

I see this as a revitalised history-of-ideas approach. It doesn't see ideas as the products of social struggle.

Nor are ideas timeless truths. Nor do they unfold teleologically. Ideas belong to the engine of social life.

The book argues that early Christian plurality is best explained by the diversity of its institutions.

It includes research from ritual studies and material culture (e.g. a nice little section on ancient libraries) but also shows the validity of the "great authors" for early Christian history.

After all, individual talents like Origen weren't just products of institutions but were creative agents of institutional formation.

Compared to the rest of the book, the theoretical basis of the plurality/identity thesis (sections 4.4 – 4.5) seemed a bit thin.

The three institutions studied here are selective and illustrative. But it got me thinking about the theological function of other institutions like baptism, burial, martyrdom, etc.

I wish there'd also been a section on early Christian preaching (especially since Markschies has done top work on preaching elsewhere, e.g. in his book on Origen). But I'm not complaining. 

Also really useful is the way the book maps out the field of early Christian studies. Great section on Walter Bauer and his reception.

All in all, I don't think I've learned so much about early Christianity since reading Peter Brown or Elizabeth Clark.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Stages of grief following a terrorist attack

The Six Stages of Public and Political Grief Following a Terrorist Attack

  1. Shock
  2. Panic and paranoia
  3. Twitter storm
  4. Selective fury, ideological posturing, scapegoating, expressed in Manichaean and apocalyptic discourse
  5. Knee-jerk clampdowns and counter-violence
  6. Shopping and self-beautification

Six Factors Which Inhibit the Grief Process and Suggest the Need for Counselling
  1. Pausing and taking a deep breath
  2. Self-examination
  3. Attentiveness and joined-up thinking
  4. Abjuring demonization and xenophobia
  5. Looking for political solutions rather than relentlessly bombing the barbarians “back to the Stone Age” (Curtis LeMay)
  6. Cultivating empathy (not fashionable feelings), imagination (not the same-old same-old), hope (not liberal optimism) – and prayer (not as withdrawal or escape from world but as Karl Barth’s “beginning of the uprising against the world”)

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