Saint Augustine: much maligned, little understood


Augustine grappled with some big questions. Following on from my last post, what follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount of his writings that I have been able to engage with recently…

open quotesgrace heals us so that we have the freedom to choose rightclose quotes

Augustine’s theology of grace demands a different reading of what it means for the Christian to have freedom of action. There is a danger that, if we accept Augustine’s diagnosis of our weak human state, we become virtual puppets of God.1 Just as the sinner has no option but to sin – does not have the ‘freedom’ of manoeuvre to avoid it – does the Christian therefore have no option but to be saved? According to Rist, Augustine would respond to such a charge by arguing that grace restores, rather than takes away, free will.2 “Our delusion,” explains Rist, is that “to do ‘as we like’ is freedom.”3 However, even our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the good. The function of grace, therefore, “is not to drag us, kicking and screaming, to salvation,”4 but rather to heal us so that we have the freedom to choose right. Augustine describes this in another way as God’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”5 If Pelagius’ views freedom as the means by which humans attain their salvation, for Augustine “it is the issue, not the source, of salvation.”6

open quoteseven our free will must be restored so that it unconquerably desires the goodclose quotes

To speak in an Augustinian register about the love of God working with our free will is to use the imagery of the elect Christian as a wounded man being helped to cross a road that he wants, but is unable, to cross, unaided.7 Of course, this ‘external’ support for the morally corrupt is really internal support, and a moral cripple requires not just the healing of a limb but the restoring of the whole personality. This journey of healing is one in which the baptised Christian must “remain an invalid,” living life in a “precarious convalescence in the ‘Inn’ of the Church”8 until, in the distant future, his body is transformed.

By the 390s it is clear that Augustine’s emphasis is more and more on the darkness of human experience and that the journey to Christ-likeness would never be complete until the Christian enters peace in the ‘City of God’. The life of the Christian would always have, according to Augustine, “a streak of ugliness that seems to endure no matter how well we learn to control our speech and actions.”9 It is at this point that Augustine’s doctrine of grace seems to me to not only be morose but does not offer a sufficiently robust doctrine of sanctification in the present and seems to ignore the opportunity to know God’s (albeit partial) healing now for the human psyche. It seems that Augustine’s doctrine leaves little room for each human being, whilst corrupted by sin, to also reflect and bear the image of their maker.

open quotesGod’s love breaking into our predicament with “sweet violence.”close quotes

Such an emphasis on the struggle of the Christian life opened Augustine to significant criticism. If one still finds incoherence in Augustine’s understanding of the relationship between grace and freedom establishing, rather than violating, free will, then they “inherit the misgivings of Julian of Eclanum”10 who argued that for the sinner to have no choice but to sin was to absolve the sinner of responsibility for their actions (sine reatu). Likewise, for the saint to pursue good and so possess glory “without the bother of holiness (sine cura sanctitatis)”11 seemed equally against the grain. Room needed to be left in the human experience for human responsibility towards God and especially for the special exertions of a religious life.12 In what is sometimes somewhat misleadingly seen as a ‘semi-Pelagian’ modification of Augustine, it was proposed that God began the life of grace, but that “virtue under grace no longer expresses human self-determination.”13

Williams is unrepentant in arguing that Augustine, with his insistence on the need for conversion, is closer to the heart of the gospel than the Pelagian overstatement of humanity’s unaided spiritual resources for personal salvation. The positivist Pelagian view sees “no schism in the heart and so no need for healing and reconciliation.”14 An Augustinian picture, however, depicts “the world as unclear and the human spirit as confused and imprisoned in fantasies,”15 in which the need for reconciliation “is a basic human datum.”16

open quoteswhen God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given directionclose quotes

What’s increasingly clear to me, is that Augustine’s thinking gives us a clear framework, perhaps more than any of other early Christian writer, in which to understand how the complex web of human experience is subsumed by the grace of God, presenting the action of God present in the Christian in spite of mixed motives, continuing sin, confusion and doubt. To adopt the imagery of Williams, a human life is given unity and intelligibility not from within but from outside: “when God pulls taught the slack thread of desire, binding it to himself, the muddled and painful litter of experience is gathered together and given direction.”17 Augustine’s legacy was in understanding that a graced life could include within it a life of moral struggle and spiritual darkness. Augustine was able to accept the radically conditioned state of human behaviour and integrate this reality with the grace of God at work to mend the wounds in human experience. God was looking, according to Augustine, not for heroes but for lovers, “not for moral athletes but for men and women aware of their need for acceptance, ready to find their selfhood in the longing for communion with an eternal ‘other’.”18

Through the development of his theology of grace, Augustine displayed the Pelagian optimism for human agency to be “based upon a transparently inadequate view of the complexity of human motivation.”19 It is clear that Augustine’s doctrine of grace shall continue to stand as a problematic yet clearly articulated “defence of Christian mediocrity.”20

  1. The analogy here is taken from Rist, J., M. (1997), Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptised, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 133–4  ↩

  2. See Letter 157.2.10 in Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  3. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  4. Rist (1997), p. 134  ↩

  5. See Serm. 131.2 cited in Williams, R., (1979) The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd), p. 82–3  ↩

  6. Williams (1979), p. 82–3  ↩

  7. Rist (1997), p. 133–4  ↩

  8. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 365  ↩

  9. Kent in Stump, E., and Kretzmann, N. (Eds.) (2001), The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224  ↩

  10. Wetzel, J. (1992), Augustine and the Limits of Virtue, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 197  ↩

  11. Wetzel (1992), p. 197  ↩

  12. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 63  ↩

  13. Wetzel (1992), p. 163–4  ↩

  14. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  15. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  16. Williams (1979), p. 87  ↩

  17. Williams (1979), p. 81–2  ↩

  18. Williams (1979), p. 86  ↩

  19. Brown (1967), p. 371  ↩

  20. Markus (1991), p. 45  ↩

Saint Augustine: are we babies or sons of God?

It’s popular in many circles to knock and caricature Augustine’s ideas – I used to be in that camp despite having never actually read any of his writings for myself! What follows isn’t an attempt to defend Augustine, but to understand and explore his continuing relevance as I reflect on the small amount I have been able to engage with recently…

Saint Augustine of Canterbury

Augustine, even at the best of times, is a fairly morose character. He’s perhaps at his most sanguine when reflecting upon human nature, which is perhaps nowhere more shocking than in his condemnation of un-baptised babies. Seen positively, particularly in passages in the Confessions, Augustine likens man’s relation to God as like that of a baby to its mother’s breast – a relationship of intimacy and stark dependence as a result of helplessness. In bleaker passages, Augustine would concede that un-baptised infants would be punished eternally for their inherited sin “albeit ‘lightly.’”1 The emotive language and implications of Augustine’s condemnation does have profound symbolic importance to the way he viewed the Christian’s position. The warm image of a baby at the mother’s breast is intended to be directly applicable to all Christians’ position as “reliant on the sustaining love of God.”2 Just as a baby cannot speak, act or believe for themselves, so every Christian is reliant from first to last upon the divine action of God at the point of baptism and beyond. Baptism, for Augustine, launched a “lifelong process of convalescence,”3 rather than a one-off break with the past and a victorious life free from all hint of sin. Makes you want to sing for joy doesn’t it?!

open quotesBaptism launched a lifelong process of convalescenceclose quotes

Standing in opposition to this view, the Pelagian4 would hold such an image of babies in contempt. Needless to say that for Pelagians, we are born with a capacity for good and evil and that “before the activity of the individual will there is nothing in humans other than what God has placed in them.”5 Pelagius was clear that our capacity for choice has always been intended to be used for good, and that the resources to do good was therefore within each human. For Pelagius, Caesestius and the so-called ‘Sicilian Anonymous’, there could be no sin that was not willed. It was their very different aetiology of sin that “accounts for their refusal to ascribe sin to infants, whose lack of an operative will is axiomatic.”6 A more helpful way of understanding man’s relation to God at baptism, they would argue, is that of becoming a ‘son of God’. Baptism, for the Pelagian, was emancipatus a deo: just as, in Roman law, a son was ‘released’ from parental dependence into adulthood, the Christian was capable, by his own power, to go out into the world “to uphold in heroic deeds the good name of their illustrious ancestry.”7

open quotesWe are reliant on the sustaining love of Godclose quotes

The Augustinian language of dislocation within the self was intended to be seen as a reflection of, and result of, “the dislocation in the primordial community between man and God.”8 For Augustine, Christ was the definition of what it means to be human, and the trinity was the lens through which we understand the nature of selfhood. In insisting that the human will could obtain perfection outside of the trinity and Christ’s mediation, Augustine’s claim that the Pelagian view of our position before God did no less than rupture the trinitarian and christological economy.

So, are we babies or are we ‘sons of God’? Big issues. Somewhere in between? 😉

  1. Casiday, A., and Norris, F., W. (2007), The Cambridge History of Christianity: Volume 2 Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 515  ↩

  2. Casiday and Norris (2007), p. 515  ↩

  3. Markus, R. (1991), The End of Ancient Christianity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 54  ↩

  4. An amorphous grouping against whom Augustine spent the best years of his life trying to refute  ↩

  5. McGrath, A., E. (2005), The Christian Theology Reader, (Oxford: Blackwell), p. 404  ↩

  6. Casiday and Norris (2007), p. 514  ↩

  7. Brown, P. (1967), Augustine of Hippo, (London: Faber & Faber), p. 352  ↩

  8. Markus (1991), p. 61  ↩

So What?


{This is a follow up post to Part 1 and Part 2.}

My wife is very good at asking me a question I need to ask myself a bit more often: ‘So what?’ Why does it matter how justification works, as long as it does? Does it really matter if Wright has a different take on the imputation of God’s righteousness to Piper?

Piper is very clear that he thinks it matters very much. He argues that Christ is the basis of, and the instrument of, our justification. By faith we’re united with Christ so that in union with him, his perfect righteousness and punishment are counted as ours (imputed to us). Wright, on the other hand, argues that justification is the announcement issued, on the basis of faith, of who is part of the covenant family of God. Justification isn’t a substance or a ‘thing’ that is passed on to those who have faith in Jesus – it isn’t something that ‘happens’ to someone who puts their faith in Jesus. Justification isn’t a description of how someone becomes a Christian, but rather a declaration that they are a member of God’s family. As the Messiah took upon himself the death that we deserved, Wright argues, God justifies all who are ‘in Christ’ and declares them to be members of his family.

‘Great’, I can hear my wife say, but isn’t that just a false dichotomy? Piper’s interested in how individuals come to be saved and Wright emphasises what happens when they do. Piper is concerned with a starfish and Wright with the ocean, but isn’t the truth that the gospel is both?

Here are a couple of pretty important reasons that Piper cites as to why he thinks that this is an issue that needs bottoming out:

Is the gospel an account of how people get saved or isn’t it?

“The gospel”, according to Wright, “refers to the proclamation that Jesus, the crucified and risen Messiah, is the one, true and only Lord of the world.”1 So far so good, but it’s what Wright goes on to claim: “’The gospel’ is not an account of how people get saved. It is… the proclamation of the lordship of Jesus.”2

Needless to say, Piper takes issue with that on several levels, as we shall see.

Is justification addressing ‘how’ you become a Christian or isn’t it?

Justification wasn’t seen by Paul and his contemporaries, as about ‘getting in’ as much as it was about ‘staying in’. Yet haven’t we learnt to read plenty of scriptural passages that are about justification altering our relationship with God? What about Romans 5:1 (if you’re reading this on my website, just hover over the reference and it’ll pop up for you.) Doesn’t that verse alone seem to suggest that justification brings about a “fundamentally new and reconciled relationship with God”?3

Why I think this matters…

I think that what we think about the gospel and about justification will affect the way we live. What we think about the gospel will shape how we respond to the tough times, how we respond to the knocks to our faith, how we respond when we doubt God. It has immediate pastoral relevance when helping others to follow Jesus too. What we think about the gospel, and justification, will affect the way we share the gospel with others.

The primer I referenced in an earlier post puts it this way:

Which is more scandalous? The multitudes of Christians who think they need to earn their salvation by being good? Or the throng of Christians who think that holy living doesn’t matter as long as they have prayed the sinner’s prayer? Pastors’ answers will largely indicate how they feel about the justification debate…” 4

I have sympathy with the pastor who says of Wright’s, arguably more obscure, view on justification, “very few people in my congregation would understand it, and few would take real comfort in it.” On the other hand, he says, “whenever I nail a strong justification sermon and emphasize that nothing we do provides any grounding for our right standing with God, I’ll get e-mails thanking me for such a freeing message."5

This is the point, however, when I start to get a bit nervous. Just because someone is expressing an opinion that is difficult to follow and not immediately grasped, it doesn’t mean that his or her opinion is wrong.

I want to get as close as I can to understanding what Paul was saying to the early church when he spoke about justification. If Wright is closer to this than Piper, I don’t care whether it’s complicated or not, it deserves to be taught in every church. If the answer is more complicated than the one I have been brought up to believe, then so be it. If we choose to place an emphasis on something other than what Paul placed emphasis on, we better have a good reason.

If my cultural blinkers are keeping me focused on a gospel that risks me thinking that the world revolves around me as a person rather than around the cosmic plan of God then I want to do something to change that. Right now, that thing I’m going to do is think. I hope you’re thinking of doing the same thing.

  1. Wright cited in Piper, (2008: 18)  ↩

  2. Wright cited in Piper, (2008: 18)  ↩

  3. Piper, (2008: 19)  ↩

  4. See “Not an Academic Question”  ↩

  5. See “Not an Academic Question”  ↩

42 and all that

open quotes[Wright’s] portrayal of the gospel – and of the doctrine of justification in particular – is so disfigured that it becomes difficult to recognise as biblically faithful.close quotes

(John Piper1)

Ok, the quote to your right is a serious statement, so over the next couple of posts I’m going to start exploring the debate between Piper and Wright as I understand it…

At the start of his book, Wright gives an analogy of a friend who, through accident of education, is convinced that the sun revolves around the earth. This friend points to what he sees with his eyes – the rising and setting of the sun – and holds that tradition, held over many hundreds of years, also stands in support of his claim. Despite long conversations late into the night, your friend remains unconvinced by all your attempts to persuade him otherwise. The point that Wright makes is that this is exactly how it appears to him – his attempts to outline a different way of viewing God’s plan for salvation have been flatly rejected as obscuring what, to many in the reformed tradition at least, is presented as ‘the most obvious meaning’ of scripture. With some frustration, Wright is seeking to outline his view that discussion of justification as ‘the evidence of our eyes’ belies the fact that the reformed view of ‘justification’, as many understand it, is deeply conditioned by a tradition that obfuscates Paul’s original meaning. Here, Wright spells it out:

The theological equivalent of supposing that the earth goes round the sun is the belief that the whole of Christian truth is all about me and my salvation2

Wright, aware of his own potential to be in error, is seeking to engage in a discussion on whether the sun truly does revolve around the earth or if things might be a little different from what they seem. If the ‘story’ of justification is not that God revolves around me, the sinner, and that Paul was meaning something quite different, then this copernican revolution deserves our careful attention. Wright’s argument is that justification is, indeed, expressing a much larger story about the plan of God for his universe. “God is rescuing us from the shipwreck of the world, not so that we can sit back and put our feet up in his company, but so that we can be part of his plan to remake the world.”3 Salvation, whilst obviously hugely significant for every individual, is part of a much larger purpose:

We are in orbit around God and his purposes, not the other way around4

To be fair to Piper, I’m sure he would very much agree that we are not ‘the centre of the universe’. His very definition of God’s righteousness as “[God’s] unwavering faithfulness to uphold the glory of his name in all he does” lays this out fairly firmly. However, something in me riles against the tendency in reformed evangelical circles to explain the Christian life from the starting point of detached propositional truths. This isn’t the way Paul chose to unpack the Christian life. God didn’t give us the Bible as a systematic, theological primer, he gave us a book with lots of really good stories, letters, poems and histories – the ‘doctrine’ threaded through its pages is mostly pulled out to address specific pastoral needs. If we depart from framing our discussion in the context of God’s plan for the universe, then are we departing from the Bible’s choice of communication?

The historian in me is more attracted to Wright’s attempt to place Paul firmly within a historical context. I am also impressed by how hard he works to synthesise the old and new testaments. Here’s a confession: I admit to being attracted to this approach, before actually hearing his arguments, because it fits into my categories of thinking. So, when Wright says things like “for too long we have read scripture with nineteenth-century eyes and sixteenth-century questions. It’s time to get back to reading with first-century eyes and twenty-first century questions…”5 I‘m liking his style. At times, it does feel as if Piper’s arguments are a little detached from all that has gone before, as if the long story of Israel is merely a backdrop that can be pushed aside (once proof texts have been extracted, of course) rather than the whole book being about the story of God’s plan to save the world.

In case it isn’t already obvious, I’ll come out, unashamedly, to state that as I start to explore what I think, my eggs are largely starting in Tom Wright’s basket. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to be ‘thinking out loud’ as I unpack this debate a bit further, in a (vain?) attempt to come to my own, considered, opinion. All being well, my next post will ask a question I haven’t properly addressed yet regarding Wright and Piper’s conflicting views on justification: ‘So what?’

  1. Piper, J. (2008), The Future of Justification: A response to N. T. Wright, Nottingham: IVP, p. 15  ↩

  2. Wright, N., T. (2009), Justification: God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision, London: SPCK, p. 7  ↩

  3. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  4. Wright (2009), p. 8  ↩

  5. Wright (2009), p. 21  ↩

Romans 16v1-16 – Part 3

Continued from Part 2Part 1 here

16:3–15: Personal Greetings

A significant indication that there may have been equal opportunity for roles within the church is found in verse 3. One can argue that this list of greetings is structured not (as was typically the case) in terms of social status but in terms of ecclesial standing. The greetings list begins with greetings for Prisca and Aquila (a couple whom Paul most likely knew well) alongside the ekklesia (ἐκκλησία) community that meets in their house (vv. 3–4), and ends with greetings to whole groups and to ‘all saints’ belonging to them (16v15).1 In mentioning Prisca before her husband, Paul may be inferring that she was even more outstanding in her work for the church than was Aquila.2 Some commentators suggest that Prisca is mentioned before Aquila because she may have occupied a higher social rank than her husband.3 The co-text of these verses does not suggest that this is a correct interpretation however. Verses 21 – 23 lists five names before those of the socially elevated Erastus and Gaius with their “municipal office and spacious habitation” respectively (v. 23).4 It would appear that Paul is more interested in listing people’s importance for the church than for their secular credentials. For Paul to choose to over-ride social conventions in mentioning Prisca before her husband, it seems likely therefore that Paul was attributing particular importance to the role of Prisca in that house church community.

open quotes… whilst this passage does not prove apostolic leadership for women in the church, it certainly does not rule it out.close quotes

The identification of Andronicus and Junia (v. 7) as ‘outstanding among the apostles’ (ἐπίσημοι ἐν τοῖς ἀποστόλοις) may also indicate a degree of equity in gender roles within the church. Interpreters from the thirteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century generally preferred the masculine identification of ‘Junias’, with seemingly no supporting evidence, as a contraction of the name ‘Junianus’.5 Before the thirteenth century commentators largely preferred the feminine identification ‘Junia.’6

Cohick helpfully points out that the masculine name “Junias” appears on no known “Greek inscription, public monument, graffito or literary document.”7 With the debate hinging on whether the name is accented, made problematic by the fact that most MSS do not use accents, it would appear that the hypothetical masculine name “Junias” rests on “nothing more solid than conventional prejudice.”8

We must rightly ask, however, that if they are ‘outstanding’ examples of apostles, what was meant by the term ‘apostle’ as applied to them? Feminist commentators have usefully drawn attention to questionable methodology in regards to the translational decisions made over Junia’s gender. Accepting the case for ‘Junia’ over ‘Junias’, we cannot then state with apodictic certainty, however, that Paul was therefore making a statement about the role of women as apostolic leaders within the early church as some have sought to do. We still need to distinguish the sense in which the word ‘apostle’ is being used here. Wallace and Burer argue linguistically that the Greek phrase means “well-known to the apostles” and thus doesn’t indicate that Junia was an apostle. It would, though, appear that their analysis falls short of being able to explain how Andronicus and Junia could be an ‘outstanding’ example of being well-known.9 Paul often uses ‘apostle’ in a loose sense to denote ‘messenger’ or ‘emissary’10 and Moo suggests that we can therefore read this title here as “travelling missionary”11 rather than as an office or title within the early church.

Taking an approach commensurate with what Osiek identifies as a “hermeneutic of loyalty,”12 Harrison argues that in this passage Paul’s “relation to [women] and [his] appreciation for them makes suspect the verdict of those who would label him a misogynist.”13 To count Andronicus and Junia amongst the apostles, and not only this but outstanding among them, is highly significant evidence for the regard in which Paul held for women within the Christian movement. There is a danger here of over interpreting the evidence given in this text, yet it is clear that whilst this passage does not prove apostolic leadership for women in the church, it certainly does not rule it out.

Feminist theologian Schüssler-Fiorenza is quick to identify the trend to masculate Junia as an “androcentric theological assumption [which] cannot be maintained exegetically.”14 She goes further however, in suggesting that this example is only the “tip of an iceberg” in which the role of women has been “submerged… by an androcentric model of early Christian beginnings” that will refuse to recognise evidence for the leadership of women.15 In contending that our reading of this text has been held back by the unconscious bias of established scholarship and the “obfuscating functions of androcentric language of biblical sources,”16 she asserts that we have “erased”17 women’s role in the early church. Only through what she calls a “hermeneutic of suspicion”18 are we able to recover glimpses of women’s participation, leadership and experience in the beginnings of the Christian church. Whilst one must be suspicious of a conservative-traditionalist approach that grants the Bible absolute authority almost to the point of denial that the worlds of the reader and the author exist, Schüssler-Fiorenza is at risk here of using women’s experience as a hermeneutical principle which is over and above Scripture. If this is her stance, then she fails to articulate an evaluative criteria that seeks to justify this interpretive framework to safeguard against eisegesis without appropriate respect for historical context and appropriate exegesis.19

Continue to Part 4

  1. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 66  ↩

  2. See also Romans 16:3; Acts 18:18, 26; and 2 Tim 4:19. Only 1 Cor 16:19 (cf. Acts 18:2) presents the opposite order. “If Luke had known anything about a socially elevated status of Prisca, he would have loved to mention it, distinguished women being a preferred subject for him: e.g. Luke 8:3; Acts 17:4, 12; vf. 16:14; 17:34.” Lampe (1991), p. 223  ↩

  3. Lampe (1991), p. 223  ↩

  4. Lampe (1991), p. 223  ↩

  5. Moo (1996), p. 922. (cf. NIV; RSV; NASB; TEV; NJB)  ↩

  6. Moo (1996), p. 922. (cf. KJV; NRSV; REB). John Chrysostom: “Think how great the devotion of this woman Junia must have been, that she should be worthy to be called an apostle!” Bray (1998), p. 372  ↩

  7. Cohick (2002), p. 644. Moo rightly cautions, however, that the Greek form of the name (as opposed to the Latin form) was not a popular name. Moo (1996), p. 922  ↩

  8. Cranfield (1985), p. 377  ↩

  9. Burer & Wallace (2001), p. 91  ↩

  10. See 2 Cor 8:3; Phil 2:25  ↩

  11. Moo (1996), p. 924  ↩

  12. Wacker (1998), p. 36  ↩

  13. Harrison (1976), p. 166  ↩

  14. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 68  ↩

  15. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 60  ↩

  16. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 71. Wacker (1998) describes Schüssler-Fiorenza’s work as representing a ‘hermeneutic of liberation’ approach to feminist theology, p. 44  ↩

  17. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1995), p. xlviii  ↩

  18. Schüssler-Fiorenza (1990), p. 71  ↩

  19. Wacker (1998), p. 46, echoes this critique as pointing to “… different basic decisions in feminist hermeneutics that need to become subject to discussions in critical solidarity beyond the domain of feminist exegesis.  ↩

Should the historical-critical method be laid to rest? An Essay

biblical interpretation

Historical-criticism has been the dominant approach in biblical interpretation since the mid-nineteenth century until the 1970s. It has long been taken for granted as “the only scientifically respectable way to study the Bible,”1 in the English speaking world at least, but “is now under a cloud.”2 In contemporary biblical studies the number of approaches to interpretation are legion, and with so many of them seeking to consciously reject the historical-critical approach we must look carefully at the role it has played, and continues to play, asking whether it has not “been falsely demonised in the process.”3 This essay will evaluate key aspects of the philosophical, methodological and theological outcomes of historical-criticism and argue that it continues to provide invaluable interpretive tools when handled carefully and intelligently. It is very difficult to do justice to the fact that there is no such animal as the historical-critical method. Some have tried to categorise the multifaceted nature of it. For example, Plantinga distinguishes at least three distinct types of historical-criticism: ‘Troeltschian’, ‘Duhemian’ and ‘Spinozistic’.4 In the interests of brevity, however, it is simply worth noting that to use the term ‘historical-critical method’ is in itself “something of a misnomer to describe a complex set of attitudes and assumptions.”5 As Barton rightly points out, the prospects for and role of historical-criticism will depend largely on what definition we prefer to attach to it6 and that it is an approach that is far more nuanced than many of its critics will admit.

In the last thirty years the philosophical underpinnings of the historical-critical method and the historian’s ability to reconstruct the past have been seriously brought into question. The historical-critical approach emphasises the discovery of the historical context(s) in which a text was written and subsequently added to. It claims that to discover the meaning of a text it is first necessary to identify the authorial intent, which can be determined only by closely aligning oneself with the historical background behind the text. Often presented as “the correct method for getting at the meaning of the text,” it also risks taking the scriptures out of the hands of the non-specialists.7 This is perhaps ironic considering that historical-criticism arose, in part, as a response to the church’s dogmatic authority only to replace it with a dogmatism of its own.

Dobbs-Allsopp rightly discusses the need to rethink and retheorise the objectivist and foundationalist assumptions that have informed and motivated the historical-critical practices of the past.8 Historical-criticism, in its quest for the ‘original meaning’, values what Barton describes as “disinterested scholarship.”9 This quest for ‘what really happened’ assumes that the historian can have unbridled access to the facts without tarnishing it from their personal views, interests or wider Weltanschauung. Yet thinkers such as Martin Heidegger, for example, have forced us to take seriously the role that preunderstanding plays in the process of interpretation.10 As readers, we do not approach texts as a blank canvass, but rather our existing understanding is adjusted to integrate new ideas and perspectives. None of us read in a vacuum; “everyone has an axe to grind”11 and our ability to ‘know what happened in the past’ is to some degree at least socially and culturally determined.

If our critique of this objectivist thinking extends to rejecting the possibility that “a literary piece itself [has] an existence quite independent of its author”12 then objectivity and the search for the ‘original’ meaning becomes in itself meaningless. We cannot, or should not, shed our presuppositions precisely because it is they that mediate understanding. Yet for Barton these presuppositions are the very things that risk blocking our ability to understand. In defence of the positivist motivation to free the text to speak for itself through dispassionate scientific enquiry, he then argues that “the cure is more criticism, not less,” recognising that “it has usually been far too influenced by commitments lying solely outside scholarly detachment.”13 He gives evidence for his argument by citing that “biblical critics did not begin by deciding that [for instance] the Pentateuch must be composed from several sources” but that “the conclusion forced itself upon them, in some cases much against their will.”14 Yet, we must ask, how did these conclusions ‘force themselves’ upon these critics? We are encouraged to the conclusion that it was inevitable rather than a conclusion shaped – in some degree at least – by the cultural horizon(s) of the critic.15

On the contemporary scene, deconstructive readings that have chosen to view texts consciously through a particular lens (post-Holocaust, ethnic, post-colonial and so forth) help us to recognise how texts can be heard, regardless of their intended meaning, and can also jolt us “out of comfortable half-truths to see something which is really there in the text and to which we had not previously paid attention.”16 Miller, for example, helpfully points to the androcentric nature of much of the ancient cultures (and indeed the biblical archaeology that uncovers them) that feminist perspectives have revealed and brought into the contemporary consciousness.17 This is useful in discouraging any approach that claims to be value-neutral but may actually be, as one critic has described, enabling the theologian to smuggle their “commitments under cover of dark.”18 As Long has observed, “we will be able to be more objective only if we learn to conceal our subjectivity less”19 and learn to see our interpretive role in dialogical, rather than objectivist, terms.

Another criticism of the historical-critical approach centres on its methodology, specifically its focus on genetic questions. Many of the tools most closely allied to historical-criticism, such as text-, form-, redaction-, and source-criticism (amongst many others) are analytical rather than synthetic. In other words, historical-critical analysis of texts often involved fragmenting texts to understand their history and pre-history. Theologians deployed sophisticated philological and linguistic study methods to obscure texts to discover what the author could have meant within his own period. Deuteronomist Robert Polzin rightly notes, however, that theologians in this tradition have often not been as skilled at “putting the parts back together again in a significant and meaningful way.”20

This predilection for the atomisation of texts finds its epistemological roots in the spirit and legacy of Enlightenment rationalism, with a Kantian tendency to separate knowledge into ‘aesthetic’ and ‘useful’ categories whereby religious language, often metaphorical rather than scientific in nature, thereby becomes suspect. Alter even speaks of the ‘hidden imperative’ that “the more atomistic, the more scientific”21 which in turn devalues the ‘final’ canonical text. There is undoubtedly some truth to the caricature that, for historical-critics, “often the finished product seems to be of less interest than the underlying sources”22 and that they are “frequently ill-equipped to appreciate the ‘literariness’ of the texts.”23 Whilst by no means exclusively the case, the historical-critical approach’s primary methodological tools are at times in danger of elevating the diachronic over the synchronic biblical text. Any hermeneutical method that cannot strike a balance in this area will always be self-limiting in its usefulness.

Whilst the foundational assumptions on which this trend within historical-criticism can be questioned, however, Sternberg points us towards the fact that “the task of decomposition calls for the most sensitive response to the art of composition.”24 These analytical tools, appropriately used, can lead us to eminently useful questions and tentative conclusions about the ‘final’ text as we have it. Whilst studies of these kinds have undoubtedly led some to question the unity of the Bible, this in itself is no reason to debunk the historical enterprise as unhelpful and unnecessarily ‘academic’. What it does do is challenge us to rethink and reformulate what it means to describe the scriptures as a unity.

This strand of thinking regarding the reformulation of texts raises a wider point, and common criticism, of the historical-critical method – namely, its appreciation of the Bible as Holy Scripture and its ability to formulate a theological meaning to texts. If the historical-critical method does not, primarily, appreciate the fundamental nature of the Bible as scripture then one can rightly question whether it should have ever held the ‘dominating position within biblical interpretation’ it once did. Seitz argues that historical-critical study “plays no positive theological role whatsoever,” but merely plays “a necessary preliminary [and] preparatory function.”25 Goldingay rehearses this argument by pointing to the fact that historical-critical interests centre on topics on which the text does not overtly focus. Therefore, it “misfocuses the interpretive task [and] cannot directly help exegesis,”26 thereby leading to a reductionist approach to the scriptures. Where theological concerns jostle with interesting historical, textual, grammatical and literary issues, it is often at the cost of the theological.

These claims are at least partially true. Polzin rightly alerts us to the danger of making the primary object of study the pre-text rather than the text, through the desire to “excavate behind it to its hypothetical earlier forms.”27 Establishing the historical events that lie behind the story does not “in itself establish the story’s meaning… [and thereby] fails to realise the text’s own aim.”28 The biblical narrative and the meaning within it rest on far more than its historical facticity. German New Testament scholar Stuhlmacher took the view that historical-critical exegesis is not “in and of itself [a] theological interpretation of scripture”29 but can be when approach with a ‘hermeneutic of consent’ to biblical texts which is marked by “a willingness to open ourselves anew to the claim of tradition, of the present, and of transcendence.”30 To downgrade historical-criticism to Seitz’s ‘preparatory function’ is to assume that a theological hermeneutic is a ‘stage’ within a larger process rather than something that must inform the interpretive process throughout.31 Stuhlmacher’s ‘hermeneutic of consent’ usefully emphasizes the role of the interpreter’s conscious use of the tools within this process, flagging the need for them to be aware that the way in which they use hermeneutical tools is of high import.

Historical-critical methods can therefore play an important role in determining the theological or spiritual meaning(s) of texts. One would be uncomfortable with any attempt to detach the ‘timeless message’ of scripture from its original world and context. A key implication of its ‘timelessness’ is not only that it can speak beyond the context in which it was written, but also that it is not ‘timeless’ in the sense of being “without historical rootedness.”32 The fact that scripture is a collection of historical works, written by human authors, invites us to approach them historically. This author has sympathy with those who claim it is also a misunderstanding of historical-criticism to assume it originally ever intended to stop at the level of historical enquiry. Dobbs-Allsopp, for example, claims that historical-criticism was “initially intended to inform us about the literary text itself and only secondarily about the history and religion revealed in that text.”33 Historical-criticism is concerned with more than just historical facticity – it arose in the period of rationality to deepen the roots of spiritual life. Thoughtfully applied, therefore, it can also be seen as a literary, as well as historical, method of biblical interpretation.

Arising in the period of rationality, an undeniable achievement of the historical-critical method has been to make us aware of the historical and cultural location of the biblical texts,34 shedding new light and fresh perspectives on scripture as well as bringing into focus what Soulen describes as the humanity of the scriptures. It has deepened our conception of the historical context of the biblical narrative by attuning us to the multi-contextual nature of the religious, economic, political and ideological concerns across centuries of Israelite history. It also has served to make us sensitive to the “genre, setting and audience that separate different stages and elements of biblical literature.”35 At times it has provided a framework to question traditional beliefs or understandings that were unjustified. For example, it has been a tool that has enabled us to question, with good grounds, whether Moses wrote Genesis; Paul wrote Hebrews; or whether Isaiah is the author of the whole book of Isaiah.36 In this regard it has the capacity to enable us to “respond to scripture itself by being critical of received theories regarding the origin, nature, and meaning”37 of scripture. In other words, partially at least, it has helped us pull back the veil of our previous assumptions and enables us to listen to the text itself.

In the modern arena, Möller identifies that historical-criticism is either “taken for granted, rejected or, somewhat grudgingly, accepted only to be relativised by being augmented… [by other readings which are] what really matters.”38 If we brand objectivity as an illusion, or merely beyond our reach, then we must tread carefully around postmodern, ahistorical strategies of reading that give the reader “pride of place in the interpretive process” as if the text risks becoming “a playing field in which we can romp to our heart’s desire.”39 I therefore concur with Collins that “the inevitability of presuppositions should not be taken as an invitation to excel in bias.”40 If we, as readers, take over the interpretive task and use the text for our own purposes, then there is a real danger that scripture will become, to use C S Lewis’ words, “only a reflection of our silly faces.”41

History happened. A radical historicist branding of history as an illusion cannot take account of the historically real. Language and perspective can point, albeit imperfectly through our culturally conditioned lenses, to a reality independent of the reader. This author would concur with Wright, a ‘critical realist,’42 that in history there is something to be known “other than the knower (realism), but that knowledge occurs only along the spiralling path of dialogue… between the knower and the thing to be known.”43 Any modern appreciation of the historical-critical method should therefore take into account that whilst there is something to be known, the act of knowing or understanding is subjective. To use the language of Thiselton, it requires us to see God’s word as operating within a particular cultural ‘horizon’ that must meet the readers own ‘horizon’ of worldview, experience, linguistic and cultural environment through which we understand and appropriate meaning.44

In conclusion, we must take the historical rootedness of the biblical text seriously whilst also alert to the danger of letting the detail of historical minutiae sidetrack us from the central task of exegeting the text. If we are to explore the Bible’s historical context we simply cannot reject the historical-critical enterprise entirely. In the light of the criticisms of the method identified here and elsewhere, however, we must be careful not to assign the method “a primary and foundational role.”45 As interpreters, we must know ourselves well – our worldview and presuppositions – so that we can deploy historical-critical insights intelligently alongside the wider corpus of modern interpretive tools.

Books worth reading on the subject

  • Barton, J., (2006) ‘Historical-critical approaches’ in Barton, J., (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Biblical Interpretation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • –––––– (1996) Reading the Old Testament: Method in Biblical Study, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Bray, G., (Ed.), (1996) Biblical Interpretation Past and Present, (Illinois: Intervarsity Press)
  • Dobbs-Allsopp, F., W., (1999) ‘Rethinking Historical Criticism’, Biblical Interpretation 7, p. 235 – 271
  • Goldingay, J., (2004) Models for Interpretation of Scripture, (Toronto: Clements Publishing)
  • Miller, J., M., (1999) ‘Reading the Bible Historically: The Historian’s approach’ in McKenzie, S., L. and Haynes, S., R., (Eds.), To Each its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press), pp. 17 – 34
  • Möller, K., (2000) ‘Renewing Historical Criticism’ in Bartholemew, C., Greene, C., Möller, K., (Eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, (Carlisle: Paternoster)
  • Moritz, T., (2000) ‘Reflecting on NT Wright’s Tools for the Task’ in Bartholemew, C., Greene, C., Möller, K., (Eds.), Renewing Biblical Interpretation, (Carlisle: Paternoster)
  • Silva, M., (1996) ‘Has the church misread the Bible?’, in Silva, M., (Ed.), Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan)
  • Soulen, R., K., (2003) ‘The Believer and the Historian: Theological Interpretation and Historical Investigation’ in Interpretation (April 2003), pp. 175 – 186
  • Stuhlmacher, P., (1977) Historical Criticism and Theological Interpretation of Scripture: Towards a Hermeneutics of Consent, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press)
  • Thiselton, A., C., (1980) The Two Horizons, (Exeter: Paternoster)
  • Wright, N., T., (1995) Scripture and the Authority of God, (London: SPCK)

  1. Bray (1996), p. 461  ↩

  2. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  3. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  4. Möller (2000), p. 150  ↩

  5. Barton (2006), p. 2  ↩

  6. Barton (2006), p. 18  ↩

  7. Möller (2000), p. 158  ↩

  8. Dobbs-Allsopp (1999), p. 240  ↩

  9. Barton (2006), p. 12  ↩

  10. Silva (1996), p. 19  ↩

  11. Barton (2006), p. 13  ↩

  12. Silva (1996), p. 21  ↩

  13. Barton (2006), p. 15–17  ↩

  14. Barton (1996), p. 22  ↩

  15. Möller (2000), p. 154  ↩

  16. Wright (1995), p. 72  ↩

  17. Miller (1999), p. 32  ↩

  18. Barton (2006), p. 13  ↩

  19. Möller (2000), p. 157  ↩

  20. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  21. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  22. Barton (2006), p. 9  ↩

  23. Möller (2000), p. 156  ↩

  24. Möller (2000), p. 155  ↩

  25. Möller (2000), p. 146  ↩

  26. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  27. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  28. Goldingay (2004), p. 20  ↩

  29. Stuhlmacher (1977), p. 90  ↩

  30. Stuhlmacher (1977), p. 85  ↩

  31. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  32. Goldingay (2004), p. 167  ↩

  33. Dobbs-Allsopp (1999), p. 236  ↩

  34. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  35. Soulen (2003), p. 179 – 180  ↩

  36. Goldingay (2004), p. 174  ↩

  37. Goldingay (2004), p. 174  ↩

  38. Möller (2000), p. 149 – 150  ↩

  39. Möller (2000), p. 163  ↩

  40. Möller (2000), p. 167  ↩

  41. Möller (2000), p. 165  ↩

  42. Critical realism is one of several contemporary approaches that argues for a new synthesis of
    modern hermeneutical tools with a recovery of a historical reading of texts.  ↩

  43. Moritz (2000), p. 179  ↩

  44. Thiselton (1980), p. 95 – 99  ↩

  45. Soulen (2003), p. 181  ↩

Paul’s Collection for the Saints in Jerusalem: An Essay

The collection has been described as occupying a “central place in [Paul’s] work among gentile churches… [becoming] a defining emblem of his apostolate.”1 It was certainly “one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projects,” looming large within the Corinthian and Roman letters, “both theologically and practically.”2 The collection for the saints of Jerusalem does beg an important question: just what was it about the collection that meant that Paul was willing to sacrifice his very life to accomplish it? 3 Why did he devote such time and energy to the project? It is clear that meeting the concrete economic needs of the Christ-followers in Jerusalem must form part of our answer to this, but this essay shall demonstrate that we must not only ask what it means to say that economic factors were not foreign to Paul’s mission, but also go on to question specifically what it was about meeting these economic needs through the collection that meant Paul was prepared to devote years of his ministry to it.We find in Paul’s letter to the Galatians what, most scholars agree, is likely to be the oldest text about the collection.4 Here Paul writes a polemical narrative of the Jerusalem Council (Galatians 2:1–10), adding that the council had asked him to do one more thing: remember the poor. We know from 1 Corinthians 16:1–4 that Paul had instructed Galatian converts to set aside money on the first day of each week for the collection.5 The prominent position given to this phrase “only the poor” (μόνον τῶν πτωχῶν ἵνα μνημονεύωμεν) draws the phrase to the attention of the reader. Interestingly, however, the rest of Paul’s letter to Galatians remains silent on this subject. 6 As there seems to be little to no mention of “the poor” in this letter one could conclude, with Sze-Kar Wan, that Paul’s willingness to emphasise it is evidence that he took the charge to ‘remember the poor’ seriously as an “integral part of his apostolic mission”7 without need for further explanation in the rest of the letter.

Scholars are widely in agreement that at least sections of the Jerusalem church in the first century experienced “chronic poverty.”8 We have little evidence as to why the saints in Jerusalem had so many poor among them, whom they themselves could not help, nor are we given a direct reason as to why Paul was eager to help them.9 Whilst the reference to the ‘poor’ in Galatians 2:10 is notoriously difficult to pin down, meaning perhaps either the economically poor or the eschatologically poor,10 further references to the “poor among the saints of Jerusalem” in 2 Corinthians 9:12 and Romans 15:26 do seem to make it clear that there was at least some part of the Jerusalem church that was poor in the economic sense. Whilst economic hardship may have precipitated the request for funds, the length of time Paul took to complete the collection (most likely around a year and a half11) might well indicate that it was intended to relieve not one specific crisis but rather a more chronic need amongst the Jerusalem church. Yet many also question whether the collection was “merely charity to relieve the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church”12 or whether there were broader factors at work. It is difficult, for example, to account for the rich vocabulary of 2 Corinthians 8–9 only through a concern for the economic plight of the Christians in Judea.13 We must also recognise the possibility that the saints in Jerusalem chose, by way of self-definition, to describe themselves as the humble poor, waiting for eschatological deliverance, as well as a descriptor of their financial position.

open quotesThe collection was one of Paul’s most ambitious hands-on projectsclose quotes

The economic benefit of the collection for the Jerusalem church may well not have been of primary importance. Whilst we cannot confidently determine the monetary results of Paul’s collection, there are several factors at play that may indicate that the “actual sum of money was not extraordinarily large.”14 The contributing region of Macedonia, for example, was itself suffering under “severe poverty, aggravated by the persecution to which the Christians there were being subjected.”15 It is also likely that Corinth, the chief city in Achaia, probably gave a “meagre contribution”16 – Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 16:3 that he was arriving in only a short time to organise the delivery trip to Jerusalem, giving little time for substantial contributions to be organised. Despite the significant delay in Paul’s plans, evident in his needing to mention it again some time later in 2 Corinthians, it does seem unlikely that large amounts of money would have been able to be organised.

It is immediately striking, when reading the longest discourse on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9), once again how little the “supposedly dire situation of the poor in Jerusalem is used in the appeal.”17 This may well have been because the plight of the Jerusalem church was well known to the Corinthians and could thus be omitted, but the decision not to draw especial attention to their economic needs would seem extraordinary when Paul seems so eager for the Corinthians to participate. One reason for this may well be to do with Paul’s desire to “decouple the Corinthians’ contribution from the patronal expectation that the Jerusalem church could become obligated to them as a result of the gift.”18 Decades of research have shown that Roman patronage was a highly influential factor in the Corinthian congregation.19 In the light of Paul’s insistence on the priority of the Jewish people in Romans, Paul goes to some length in Corinthians to avoid any suggestion that gifts to the Jerusalem church would imply any level of submission by Jerusalem to the gentile churches. In reiterating to the Corinthians that all generosity and wealth come from God, and that in providing for the needs of the ‘holy’ they are ultimately rendering thanks to God, Paul is presenting a theological argument that undermines any temptation on the part of the Corinthians to view their gifts to Jerusalem along Roman patronal lines.20 It can therefore be seen that in Corinthians, Paul “consciously disengages the Jerusalem church from the gentile churches, so that the former would not be placed in a direct obligatory relationship to the latter.”21

We might therefore conclude that in the Corinthian correspondence the economic hardship of the Jerusalem church features in the background, not in the foreground, of Paul’s argument in his letter precisely to uphold his vision of κοινωνία and ἀγάπη amongst the Jewish and gentile churches, rather than allow this to be jeopardised by alternative patron-client systems of social relations amongst the churches. Paul refers to this work as a ‘ministry’ (διακονία)22 and as one that evidences the grace at work amongst them overflowing in a generosity towards others in response to the generosity of God to them in salvation. It is expressly not, therefore, that the economic needs were merely a convenient vehicle with which to promote ecumenical unity between Jewish and Gentile converts as some seem to infer,23 but rather came from a desire to ensure that the gift was made in a way that reinforced his vision of inter-racial Christian κοινωνία. Paul also shows a sensitivity to the Corinthians’ own financial resources (8:12–15) and to the “suspicions always likely to hang around such financial transactions (8:19–21; 9:5).”24

open quotesan intensely practical expression of ἀγάπηclose quotes

Paul employs the noun κοινωνία three times25 with reference to the collection, and the verb κοινωνἐω once.(Rom 15:27) This was one of Paul’s “preferred phrases for speaking of the life of the Christian community.”26 Paul’s frequent use of the term in connection with Christian community, and especially connects it with the supplying of needs whether spiritual27 or material.28 Nickle argues that in applying the term to his collection Paul was “clearly emphasising that it was a direct expression of Christian fellowship that his churches were contributing relief funds to Jerusalem.”29 The use of the collection as an expression of unity is unpacked most fully in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to which we must now turn.

In Romans Paul imbues the collection with theological meaning that suggests that in the light of the fact that the Gentiles have received a share in the Jews’ spiritual privileges, they should now also share their own material benefits. Paul’s vision of the collection, in Romans, is that it is a massive symbol and prophetic sign “blazoned across half a continent, trumpeting the fact that the people of God redefined around Jesus the Messiah is a single family.”30 Now that they are a single family in Christ, they must live as such and live by the principle of practical ἀγάπη. Paul seems to be more than aware that this gift, a sign of the unity redefined around the Messiah, might be rejected by the Jerusalem church for the very reason that it had originated from Paul’s uncircumcised churches and thereby “reckoned to be tainted, to have the smell of idolatry still upon it.”31 There may also be a very practical awareness by Paul that if he advocated separation from the Jewish synagogues he might draw attention to the early church in a way that might risk it losing the privileged status granted to Jews under Roman rule.32 In Romans 11:17–24 Paul uses the analogy of an olive tree to allow both for the “commonality and diversity that then existed in the Christ communities at Rome”33 whilst also being used to oppose any gentile movement that might pride itself on its independence from Israel. Paul, therefore, is consciously seeking to avoid “escalating [any] process of self-definition [that might precipitate] the final separation between the synagogues and the house churches”34 and seems eager to maintain unity across racial boundaries.

We must be wary of treating Paul’s Jewish heritage statically as if his ethnicity was merely an interesting cultural artefact. Indeed in Romans particularly he seems willing to emphasise, in Becker’s words, “the salvation-historical priority of Israel and Jewish Christianity over the Gentiles.”35 Yet the voluntary nature of the gift must surely negate the view held by some, such as Karl Holl, that the collection was a “shameful imposition, which revealed [Paul’s] subservience to Jerusalem.”36 It does seem likely that agreement over the collection at the Jerusalem Council was hammered out “in the context of an intense wrangling over ethnicity”37 with at least two opposing views on the incorporation of the Gentile believers. On the one side was the maintenance of traditional Jewish ethnic boundaries based around the outward signs of circumcision and dietary restrictions to fulfil the Torah. On the other was Paul’s concern with “redefining Jewish group boundaries to include gentile converts,”38 through a faith-centered reading of the Abrahanic covenant with the “new law of Christ – to love each other – replacing the centrality of the Torah.”39 For Paul, ἀγάπη was the basic modus operandi for the new Jew plus Gentile movement with Christ as its head.

The collection was an intensely practical expression of ἀγάπη bringing the Jewish and gentile congregations together and symbolizing an “emerging universalizing society” operating “along Jewish lines which in effect brought all Gentiles into the metanarrative of Israel.”40 Whilst upholding the Jewish salvation story, Paul rejected any hint of cultural chauvinism in criticizing both “those who would close the door on the Gentiles or insist that Gentiles adapt to Jewish norms before they would be included.”41 Sze-Kar Wan therefore sees the collection as both a statement against Jewish ethnic exclusiveness as well as a symbol of resistance towards and criticism of any system, including the Roman imperial order, which might stand against allegiance to Christ the Jewish Messiah. Seen through these eyes, the collection is part of a wider vision for Paul of Jewish and Gentile congregations together “daring… to reorder economic life together along unabashedly transcendent, universalizing principles.”42 This analysis does make some sense of a Paul who, as a Roman citizen and an ethnic Jew in a subaltern community under Roman rule, worked hard to set up communities of people who were citizens of a new and different sort of empire in which Jesus was lord and Caesar was not.43

Many scholars have been quick to point out that Paul’s collection reflected several aspects of contemporary Judaism, particularly in its organisation from the Jewish Temple tax. Nickle emphasises its similarities in both the external elements as well as in its symbolic significance. He argues that it was precisely because the “symbolism of the Temple tax corresponded so precisely with the hopes for the unity of the Church with which Paul had invested his project” that he was led to borrow and use so many other aspects of that tax.44 He maintains that Paul deliberately arranged his collection for the Jerusalem community as a parallel to the collection for the Temple, and in particular asserts that Paul probably made advantageous use of the protection provided under the special concessions granted to Judaism by the Roman government. If Paul had publicly differentiated between his collection and the other usual contributions sent to Jerusalem, his collection would probably have been judged illegal by the Roman authorities.45

Tellbe usefully points to the Temple tax as a Jewish identity marker that had an important social meaning in that it served an important reminder for the Diaspora Jews of their primary affiliation and so became a “concrete expression of first-hand loyalty to the Jewish nation and its religious leadership.”46 In other words, it was a way of declaring yourself a Jew and to be reckoned to be one by your neighbours. We must ensure that we keep at the forefront of our minds that Paul’s collection was a voluntary collection. However, through the lens of Tellbe’s analysis we could view the collection as an expression of Christian identity: an identity as a community formed around Christ to express in practical ways the rule of ἀγάπη. Tellbe’s analysis does overstep the mark, however, when expounding Paul’s argument in Romans 13:1–10. Here he points out that Paul does not mention anything about the Temple tax when addressing the obligation to pay taxes. Tellbe implies through this that “Paul in practice implicitly affirms the autonomous religious identity of the Roman Christians vis-à-vis the Roman Jews.”47 He seems to be suggesting that because Paul does not mention the Temple tax within Romans 13, a passage that explicitly addresses the Christian relations with the Roman authorities (rather than Temple authorities), Paul is therefore hinting that the Roman Christians had an identity entirely separate to Roman Judaism. We should rightly heed the warning of Campbell that this is an argument from silence and may say as much about the Jewish-Gentile mix in the Roman church as it might do about Paul’s attitude towards the Temple tax.48

open quotesThe collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testingclose quotes

The significance of the collection for Paul is further emphasised if we accept Wright’s assessment of Paul’s attitude towards Jerusalem. Wright argues that Paul had a “clear awareness that the days of Jerusalem, as he knew it, were strictly numbered.”49 We must be careful not to automatically assume that this, for Paul, meant that he was envisaging this as the ‘Parousia’, the end of the space-time order to take place within his lifetime, but that there was an imminent judgment due on the Jewish world, and by extension Jerusalem, that gave Paul’s mission such urgency.50 In the fallout from this, he argues, Jewish non-Christians, and not a few Jewish Christians, may well lay the blame at the feet of this early Christ movement for undermining Torah obedience though mixing with pagan idolaters. In return, gentile believers may well celebrate the demise of a nation that could have been perceived to have been opposed the true gospel. Wright contends that Paul was aware that such an event would split the church down the middle “along the very seam which Paul spent most of his time stitching up.”51 The collection, therefore, was an important attempt to bolster the unity amongst the churches to help it withstand future testing.

In conclusion, it is clear that the collection “was not just an example of poor-relief,”52 but it is certainly not less than an example poor-relief. Provision for the poor saints of Jerusalem was a clear demonstration that economic factors featured prominently in Paul’s strategy to demonstrate, in immensely practical ways, the rule of ἀγάπη and the unity of Christian κοινωνία amongst the early Christ movement. The economic needs of the first Christians therefore lay close to the heart of his apostolic mission. To expend the time and effort that his collection must have required, it must have been intended to be far more than a token gesture. In the words of Wright, he must have seen it as “a major element in his practical strategy for creating and sustaining the one family of God redefined around the Messiah and in the Spirit.”53 Paul was eager, though, to avoid any sense in which meeting the economic needs of these first Christians might promote ethnic superiority or precipitate expectations of patronal subservience. As an ethnic Jew, Paul may well have constructed the collection to closely mirror the Temple tax, but in doing so re-orientated his gift to the Jewish Christians not around the temple itself but around his vision of a multi-ethnic Christ-movement that could withstand all pressure because of its unity in Jesus the Messiah.

Websites worth reading

Some books worth reading on the subject

  • Campbell, W., S., (2008) Paul and the creation of Christian identity, (London: T & T Clark International)
  • Bruce, F., F., (1993) ‘Paul in Acts and letters’, in Hawthorne, G., F., Martin, R., P., Reid, D., C., (Eds.), Dictionary of Paul and his letters, (Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press), pp. 679 – 92
  • Dunn, J., D., G., (1998) ‘The Collection’ in Dunn, J., D., G., Dunn, The theology of Paul the Apostle, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)
  • Munck, J., (1959) Paul and the salvation of mankind, (London: SCM)
  • Nickle, K., F., (1966) The Collection: A study in Paul’s strategy, (London: SCM)
  • Sze-Kar Wan, (2000) ‘Collection for the saints as anticolonial act’, in Horsley, R., A., (Ed.), Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Taylor, N., (1992) Paul, Antioch and Jerusalem, (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press)
  • Tellbe, M., (2001) Paul between Synagogue and State, (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International)
  • Wedderburn, A., J., M., (1988) The Reasons for Romans, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark International)
  • Wright, N., T., (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: SPCK)
  • Wright, N., T., (1994, 2nd edn.) ‘Jerusalem in the New Testament’ in P. W. L. Walker, (Ed.), Jerusalem Past and Present in the Purposes of God, (Carlisle: Paternoster), pp. 53–77

  1. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194  ↩

  2. Wright (2005), p. 167. Paul makes reference to the collection in every one of his major letters (see Rom 15:25–28, 1 Cor 16:1–4, 2 Cor 8–9, Gal 2:10)  ↩

  3. Romans 15:31  ↩

  4. Munck (1966), p. 291  ↩

  5. “The term used here, λογεία (vv. 1,2), was commonly used for money collected for religious or cultic purposes, which is clearly the meaning here as well.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193–4  ↩

  6. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  7. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 193  ↩

  8. Bruce, F., F. (1993), p. 686  ↩

  9. See Galatians 2:10. Munck (1959), p. 287  ↩

  10. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  11. “Accordingly to 8:10, the Corinthians had pledged to contribute to the collection a year earlier, an indication that the project had been delayed for at least that long.” Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 194. If we include the events that resulted in the launching of this project, the time involved in the collection “spanned the entire period of his known public missionary activity from Antioch to Rome.” Nickle (1966), p. 100  ↩

  12. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  13. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 195  ↩

  14. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  15. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  16. Nickle (1966), p. 129–130  ↩

  17. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  18. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 210 – 211  ↩

  19. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 214  ↩

  20. See 2 Cor 9:12 and Taylor (1992), p. 203  ↩

  21. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 212 – 213  ↩

  22. 2 Cor 9:1; Rom 15:25  ↩

  23. See comments by Karl Holl as quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  24. Dunn (1998), p. 711  ↩

  25. Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13; cf. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:15  ↩

  26. Nickle (1966), p. 105  ↩

  27. Rom 15:27; cf. 1 Cor 9:11ff, 23; 2 Cor 1:5ff; Phil 1:7  ↩

  28. Rom 12:13; Gal 6:6; Phil 1:5; 4:14f.  ↩

  29. Nickle (1966), p.106  ↩

  30. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  31. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

  32. Thoughts adapted from Campbell (2008), p. 77  ↩

  33. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  34. Campbell (2008), p. 79  ↩

  35. Beck quoted in Wedderburn (1988), p. 74  ↩

  36. Such as Karl Holl quoted in Nickle (1966), p. 100–101  ↩

  37. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 200  ↩

  38. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 192  ↩

  39. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 203 – 204  ↩

  40. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  41. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  42. Sze-Kar Wan (2000), p. 196  ↩

  43. These thoughts are adapted from Philippians 3:20 and Wright (2005), p. 170  ↩

  44. Nickle (1966), p. 99  ↩

  45. Nickle (1966), p. 87–89  ↩

  46. Tellbe (2001), p. 184  ↩

  47. Tellbe (2001), p. 188  ↩

  48. Campbell (2008), p. 78  ↩

  49. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  50. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  51. Wright (2005), p. 169 – 170  ↩

  52. Wright (1994), p. 61  ↩

  53. Wright (2005), p. 167  ↩

Paul vs. The Roman Empire

st paul

Reading ‘Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Roman Empire’ by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat has got me thinking once again about Paul and the Roman Empire. Others have reviewed this book and some of the issues it raises far more ably than I1 so I thought I’d focus my thoughts in a different direction – based on an essay I wrote on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

“But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” Philippians 3:20–21

I love Paul’s description of the Philippian Christians as ‘heavenly citizens… eagerly awaiting a Saviour’. It is broadly accepted as a statement that relativises all earthly rule, including that of the Roman Emperor Caesar.2 Many have gone much further, urging that Paul’s statement “opposes the head of imperial Rome with the true Emperor-Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.” 3 The extent to which this statement and the comparisons it evokes can be seen to be explicitly or implicitly anti-imperial has been a matter of considerable debate in recent years. The contention is that to make use of imperial metaphors was to therefore be in confrontation with the one to whom the metaphor would usually be applied – this is the harder case to prove. I’d argue that whilst Paul’s description does not need to be read as overtly anti-imperial, and any claim that this is Paul’s primary purpose is to distort his message, it does carry the hallmarks of imperial discontent within it, not least by its focus on the Christ crucified on a Roman cross.

“Our citizenship,” Paul says, “is in heaven.” Here was a picture that the Philippians could understand. The colony of Philippi was “one of the proudest outposts of Roman civilisation in the Greek world.”4 The intention was for colonies, acting as strategic military centres throughout the empire, to remain “fragments of Rome” where Roman dress was worn; Roman magistrates governed; the Latin tongue was spoken; Roman justice was administered; Roman morals were observed.5 It was a method by which Rome’s way of doing things would be known by the conquered country. “Even in the ends of the earth”, Barclay observes, colonies “remained unshakeably Roman.”6 The Philippians knew that if ever they were in difficulties, they could call upon the emperor to come and rescue them. Caesar provided justice and peace to the Roman world and was therefore hailed as Lord and trusted as Saviour.7

It was against this background that Paul declared Jesus to be Saviour and Lord. The direct comparison seems clear enough: just as the Philippians were none too aware of the status of Roman citizens within the colony of Rome, Paul’s readers were not to forget that their citizenship is in heaven and that they were awaiting a saviour from there. Paul invites the Philippian Christians to see that they, too, are part of a commonwealth which is a present reality.8 Whilst they remained spatially located within the reaches of the Roman Empire, their allegiance and commitments found its first expression elsewhere. 9 The Philippians’ “conduct must match [their] citizenship”10 as they await their “saviour” who will be able to “sustain and vindicate his followers at Philippi, not merely in the face of Rome’s enemies, but in the face even of sin and death.”11

The work of Horsley, Wright and Oakes, to name a few cited here, are part of a much broader research agenda in Pauline studies to relocate the issue of Christian origins “from a question of Jewish religious sectarianism to one that stems from considerations of the Roman imperial context.”12 Their work emphasises recent epigraphical and archaeological evidence pointing towards the cult of Caesar being more than simply one religion amongst many in the Roman world. Indeed more than one of the most dominant cults in this part of the empire. A lot of work has been done to demonstrate that honours and festivals for the emperor “were not only widespread but pervaded public life, particularly in the cities of Greece and Asia Minor, the very areas of Paul’s mission.”13 Whether it be on their coins, in statues, in processions, games and feasts, in pictures and in inscriptions, imperial cult and ideology was all around.14 It was “part of the air Paul and his converts breathed”15 and, in fact, the means “whereby the Romans managed to control and govern” their empire.16 Rather than use large-scale military-presence, Caesar worship was to be a Roman instrument of social control. Critics of this approach identify within it a danger that we impose upon Paul our understanding of the expectations and values of the streets of Philippi with its imperial dominated scenery. It may well be that in our understanding of the imperial context we risk assuming Paul had assimilated this rubric and structure that was arguably quite alien to his very Jewish understanding of Christ and the shape that communities moulded around the Messiah must adopt. It is along these fault lines that much of the debate concerning Paul’s statement to the Philippians must operate.

A key issue we must address is that of the problem of language and metaphor. Bryan objects that the Philippians are not being called to reject Roman citizenship and all that it represents any more than, as members of “the household of God”, they can no longer claim to belong to any ordinary household. According to this logic, earthly parents should not now be rejected because they are now children of God. Bryan declares that “such assertions would manifestly be nonsense and involve a simple failure to appreciate the nature of metaphor.”17 We should read Paul’s statement to the Philippians that Christians are not literally citizens of heaven, just as we are not “literally children of God (who is not literally a parent) or the church is literally a household.”18 To suggest that at such moments as these “Paul was concerned with denying something to Caesar is surely a spectacular example of placing the cart before the horse.”19 According to this view, Paul’s message to the Philippians falls far short of an anti-imperial message through a denial that the language used was intending to convey that meaning.

It is in Bryan’s explanation of what Paul’s metaphor is intended to achieve, however, that his argument falls short. He urges us, rightly, to pay close attention to the direction Paul points the Philippians’ thoughts to in the light of the imagery used. What Paul does not explicitly do is claim that they are to deny or resist the claims of the lesser ‘saviour’. He does not expressly say that as members of God’s commonwealth they must renounce their Roman citizenship (if, indeed, any in the community actually possessed it). Paul continues his letter by directing them to some specific details of their life together: “I exhort Eudia and I exhort Syntache” – the double “exhort” emphasising its importance – “to agree with one another in the Lord.”20 Bryan argues that this can be taken as evidence that Paul has been using the Roman context as a model to illustrate the behaviour required within the church. If Roman citizens know how to act, how much more then, as heavenly citizens, should the Philippian church know how they should act?21 Fee echoes this line of thought, taking the view that Paul “is not herewith renouncing their common citizenship in the earthly ‘commonwealth’”22 but rather encouraging the Philippians to ring changes in their behaviour as a result of their heavenly citizenship. This explanation for Paul’s purpose in this section of his letter seems more satisfactory than Tellbe’s. He asserts that opposition from outside of their community (from the civic authorities), and from within (from Christian Judaizers) led to the need for Paul to affirm their distinct identity as citizens of heaven.23 This explanation seems to pay little reference to the Paul’s comments in the context of the surrounding flow of argument.

What Bryan fails to do is acknowledge the significance of heavenly citizenship being able to define their ethical life.24 Neither the Roman colonist nor the Philippian church’s quality of behaviour was to be shaped by the alien environment around them,25 but rather “determined by the heavenly character of the commonwealth to which we belong.”26 Such a statement becomes immediately political. Importantly, it is Christ’s actions, not Caesar’s, that become the “warrant as well as the paradigm for the actions Paul urges on his readers.”27 It is clear that it is against the gospel of Christ, not Roman law, by which the Philippian church was to be ordered, and by which they would spread abroad “in this “conquered” world the customs, culture, manner of life, and laws of their heavenly home.”28 Bryan does not give adequate weight or significance, in my view, to the explosive expectation that as citizens of heaven their life together was to be determined not by Caesar but by the crucified Messiah.

I have serious reservations about viewing imperial politics as merely framing the historical context of the early Jesus movement around the Mediterranean. It is my view that Rome’s empire was not the background, but the foreground of Paul’s world – the New Testament texts “assume and engage Rome’s world in every chapter.”29 This was the world in which first-century Christians lived their daily lives and the world that “the New Testament writings negotiate throughout.”30 The focus, however, of Paul’s statement, isn’t so much about the negation of Roman imperialism but the promotion of the once crucified but soon to be returning Lord Jesus and his ekklesia among the nations living under his rule and reign.31 It was anti-imperial to the extent that it presented an alternative way of living based not on the ‘peace and security’ offered by Rome to the Mediterranean world, but by a saviour from heaven. Paul’s statement does not need to be read as an open or overt challenge to Roman rule to still maintain an anti-imperial flavour. Paul’s choice of language, the contrast of characters, choice of themes, and his retelling of the stories offer an alternative ending in which Jesus is Lord and Caesar isn’t. This Jewish monotheistic critique of pagan rule may well not have been the primary purpose of Paul’s statement to the Philippians, but it does seem to be woven into the tapestry of his thinking.

Blogs worth a read on this subject

There’s a fantastic mp3 recording online of a debate between NT Wright and John Barclay. This can be found along with some useful discussion at, and

Jonathan Dodson also lists some useful cautions of the ‘Fresh Perspective’ hermeneutic seen in writers such as NT Wright as well as an interview with Justin Hardin on the Roman Imperial Cult (whose doctoral supervisor was John Barclay).

Phil Wilson’s slides are also worth a skim through, found at

Signposts for further reading…

  • Ascough, R., S. (2003), A Review of Tellbe’s ‘Paul between Synagogue and State’ in ‘Journal of Biblical Literature’, Vol. 122, No. 4, (Winter, 2003), pp. 772–774
  • Barclay, W., (1993) The Daily Study Bible: The letters to the Philippians, Colossians & Thessalonians, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press)
  • Bryan, C., (2005) Render to Caesar – Jesus, the Early Church and the Roman Superpower, (New York: Oxford University Press)
  • Carter, W., (2006) The Roman Empire and the New Testament, (Nashville: Abingdon Press)
  • Crossan, J., D., and Reed, J., L., (2005) In search of Paul, (New York: HarperCollins)
  • Fowl, S., E., (2005) Philippians, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans)
  • Garland, D., E., ‘The Composition and Unity of Philippians: Some neglected literary factors’, NovT 27 (1985), 141 – 73
  • Harrill, J., A. (1999), Review of Horsley’s ‘Paul and Politics’ in ‘The Journal of Religion’, Vol. 79, No. 4, (Oct., 1999), pp. 711–712
  • Horsley, R., A., (Ed.) (1997), Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Martin, R., P. & G., F., Hawthorne, G., F. (2004), 43: World Biblical Commentary: Philippians, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson)
  • Oakes, P., (2001) Philippians: From people to letter, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
  • O’Brien, P., T. (1991), The Epistle to the Philippians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans)
  • Silva, M., (1988) Philippians, (Chicago: Moody Press)
  • Wright, N., T., ‘Paul’s gospel and Caesar’s empire’, in Horsley, R., A., (Ed.), (2000) Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium & Interpretation, (Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International)
  • Wright, N., T., (2005) Paul: Fresh Perspectives, (London: SPCK)

  1. See, for example, iMonk and a series of posts by Julie Clawson of which that link is the first  ↩

  2. Bryan (2005), p. 92  ↩

  3. Martin & Hawthorne (2004), p. 233  ↩

  4. Wright (2005), p. 72  ↩

  5. Barclay (1993), p. 69  ↩

  6. Barclay (1993), p. 69  ↩

  7. Wright (2000), p. 168  ↩

  8. See O’Brien (1991), p. 461  ↩

  9. Fowl (2005), p. 173  ↩

  10. Barclay (1993), p. 69  ↩

  11. Bryan (2005), p. 84  ↩

  12. Harrill (1999), p. 711  ↩

  13. Horsley (1997), p. 4  ↩

  14. Oakes (2001), p. 174  ↩

  15. Wright (2000), p. 161  ↩

  16. Wright (2000), p. 161  ↩

  17. Bryan (2005), p. 85  ↩

  18. Bryan (2005), p. 85  ↩

  19. Bryan (2005), p. 91  ↩

  20. Philippians 4:2  ↩

  21. Bryan (2005), p. 84  ↩

  22. Fee cited in Fowl (2005), p. 173  ↩

  23. Ascough (2003), p. 773  ↩

  24. See Philippians 3:17–19  ↩

  25. Caird cited in Martin & Hawthorne (2004), p. 231  ↩

  26. Silva (1988), p. 214  ↩

  27. Cousar cited in Bryan (2005), p. 87  ↩

  28. Martin & Hawthorne (2004), p. 234  ↩

  29. Carter (2006), p. 1  ↩

  30. Carter (2006), p. ix  ↩

  31. Crossan and Reed (2005), p. 409  ↩

Rethinking The Council of Nicaea (325)


The Council of Nicaea, and the Arian controversy with which it dealt, remains “a landmark in the development of classical Christology.”1 Its reception, and the process that led up to its development, is a far more convoluted process than the classical portrayal of the victory of Athanasian ‘orthodoxy’ over ‘Arian heresy’. Many of its conclusions were far from wholeheartedly embraced by many for much of the rest of the fourth-century, and a millennia and a bit later, elements of Arianism still exist in the thinking of groups like the Unitarians and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Notwithstanding this, its conclusions and the process by which it arrived at them, lay important foundations not only for Christology but also for the life and practice of the Church and its key thinkers. The controversy of Nicaea revolved around the person of Arius. His fundamental premise was the “absolute uniqueness and transcendence of God, the unoriginate source of all reality.”2 God is the only one who is selfsubsistent; nothing exists which does not ultimately derive from God. Arius’ logic led him to the conclusion that the Father must have existed before the Son. Hence the familiar slogan ‘There was when He was not’.3 This statement clearly places Father and Son on different levels; Father as unoriginate, Son as a creature deriving from the Father. Arius was keen to emphasise the Son’s uniqueness to the rest of creation, but does so with some difficulty: The Son, he argued, is “a perfect creature, yet not as one among other creatures; a begotten being, yet not as one among other begotten beings.”4 To refer to the ‘Son’, according to Arius, was “an honorific, rather than a theologically precise way of speaking”5 because of the controlling principle of a God who is totally different in essence from his creation – including, of course, the Son. Equally, to speak of the Son as ‘God’ was also a courtesy title, a designation “by participation in grace”6 We can therefore tentatively conclude, based on incomplete source material, that the status of the Son was seen by Arius as a consequence not of the nature of the Son, but of the will of the Father.7

We must be aware of the danger of concluding, however, that the controversy surrounding Arius concerned the ‘divinity’ of Christ. At issue until the very last decades of the crisis was “the very flexibility with which the term ‘God’ could be deployed.”8 Ayres points out that many fourth-century theologians would distinguish the terms ‘God’ and ‘true God’, making any a priori agreement about the meaning of, and ‘grammar’ for talking about, God very difficult.9 Aside from the language of the divine, the question of the generation and ontological status of the Son or Word does have “immediate repercussions for how one understands incarnation and redemption.”10 One must question whether a generated and inferior Son can act salvifically to effect closeness to the Father in any meaningful way. If Jesus was lower than the Father then he couldn’t possibly fully know and understand the Father: God was again ‘unknown’ and ‘unrevealed’. A key thinker in the development of this line of thought can be identified in the figure of Athanasius of Alexandria.

Athanasius is often credit to be the “rock from which Nicene orthodoxy was hewn.”11 Whilst present at the council as a young deacon accompanying his bishop, Alexander, we do not see any “sustained public refutation of Arianism until the early 340s with his Orations against the Arians.”12 For Athanasius, the established liturgical customs of baptising in Jesus’ name and of addressing prayers to the Son made nonsense of Arius’ description of the Son’s lower status to the Father if he was worshiped both in the New Testament and liturgical tradition.13 Christians were not wrong to worship Jesus – but in doing so they were recognising him as God incarnate, as the worship of any creature was forbidden.14 Most importantly, Athanasius emphasised that it is only God who can save, and so the redemptive work of Christ was undermined by Arius’ views. Only the creator can redeem creation,15 since only a divine Mediator could re-establish fellowship with God. If creatures cannot redeem other creatures, and according to Arius Jesus is a creature, then Jesus Christ cannot redeem humanity – salvation requires divine intervention.

It would seems then, that the council “had a more limited objective than is sometimes supposed.”16 Through the process of outlawing Arianism, the council was able to affirm both the Son’s full divinity and equality with the Father. Whilst debates on the issue would continue well beyond Nicaea, we can consider this council to be the place where Jesus was first officially to be considered ontologically identical the Father, which dealt “a mortal blow to subordinationism.”17 This was, perhaps, Nicaea’s main achievement. The degree of Christological consensus achieved did enable the development of doctrine concerning the relationship of the Trinity. In the aftermath of the debates between Arius and Alexander at the council on the relationship between Father and Son, the council adverted to the Holy Spirit in what seemed “like a mere afterthought”18 in the short addendum ‘And we believe in the Holy Spirit’. This clause would need to be developed further, especially through the writings of Athanasius and Basil of Caesarea, and in 381 at Constantinople.

It’s pretty clear that the creed produced at Nicaea did not “end the Arian crisis – it confirmed its existence.”19 Through its condemnation of Arius and its positive formulation of the faith, it “opened the way for the solution of questions that were still open.”20 Through the confrontation at Nicaea, Arius had “stirred an intellectually careless Church into a ferment of conceptual reconstruction.”21

Some blogs about Nicaea

For more on Alexander’s dealings with Arius head over to Notes from a Small Scotsman. also gives an account of the crisis that’s worth a read, as is as

Books worth a read…

  • Ayres, L., (2006) Nicaea and its Legacy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Bray, G., (1997) Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Ross-shire: Christian Focus / Mentor)
  • Cassidy, A., and Norris, F., W., (Eds.), (2007) Cambridge History of Christianity: Constantine to c. 600, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) – Norris, F., Greek Christianities, pp. 70 – 117 – Anatolios, K., Discourse on the Trinity, pp. 431 – 459
  • Chadwick, H., (2003) The Church in Ancient Society, (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
  • Hanson, R., P., C., (1988) The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Kelly, J., N., D., (2007) Early Christian Doctrines, Fifth Edition, (London: Continuum)
  • Letham, R., (2004) The Holy Trinity, (New Jersey: P & R Publishing)
  • McGrath, A., Christian Theology: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing)
  • Studer, B., (1993) Trinity and Incarnation, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark)
  • Williams, R., (1979) The wound of knowledge: Christian spirituality from the New Testament to St John of the Cross, (London: Darton, Longman & Todd)
  • Williams, R., (2001) Arius: History and Tradition, (London: SCM Press)

  1. McGrath (2001), p. 357  ↩

  2. Kelly (2007), p. 227  ↩

  3. Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  4. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 358  ↩

  5. Arius cited in McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  6. Arius cited in Kelly (2007), p. 229  ↩

  7. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  8. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  9. Ayres (2006), p. 14  ↩

  10. Ayres (2006), p. 3  ↩

  11. Norris in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 74  ↩

  12. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 436  ↩

  13. Kelly (2007), p. 233  ↩

  14. McGrath (2001), p. 360  ↩

  15. McGrath (2001), p. 359  ↩

  16. Kelly (2007), p. 237  ↩

  17. Letham (2004), p. 117  ↩

  18. Anatolios in Norris & Cassidy (2007), p. 441  ↩

  19. Letham (2004), p. 117 – 8  ↩

  20. Studer (1993), p. 107  ↩

  21. Williams cited in Letham (2004), p. 126  ↩