I tried something in class yesterday with wonderful results. In an upper level theology course we came to the end of several days grappling with writings from a handful of early church figures on the topic of Christology: Irenaeus, Arius, Athanasius, Apollinarius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Cyril of Jerusalem. We had walked through these readings together, and along the way I sprinkled our conversations with background information, pointed out doctrinal connections they might not have seen, and drew their attention to particularly salient points.
Yesterday, as we pulled the threads together, I asked my students to write a letter. “Chose one of these ancient figures and reach back across the centuries” I told them. “They, like us, sought to contend for the Gospel – can you express to them how their Christology benefits you today? And they, like us, did so imperfectly – even if you disagree with their Christology, could you receive them as a legitimate conversation partner?”
Their letters were immensely encouraging and showed theological maturation on many different levels. The points of agreement and disagreement between the ancient figures did not go unnoticed, and many were able – without being asked in the assignment – to articulate the rationale which motivated the arguments. They drew wisely upon relevant biblical material, were sensitive to their place within the tradition of faith, and showed surprising maturity related to the pastoral issues connected to the doctrinal debates. These are all good and show the development of the technical skills required for theologians, but, frankly, more encouraging to me was the tone of the letters.
“Bravo!” I said to them today, “My young theologians, you sought to genuinely hear from these figures, to enter into dialogue with them, and not merely stand over them.” For instance, many more than I expected wrote to Apollinarius,and while they acknowledged their disagreement with his Christology they thanked him for his partnership with Athanasius during the Arian controversy before Apollinarius’ views came under greater scrutiny. Another letter took Gregory of Nazianzus to task for handling doctrinal controversy in ways they felt harmed the church’s mission. What is going on here? They are thinking about the pastoral implications of doctrinal difference and the manner in which such disputes are negotiated, and this gives me great hope for the church of their generation.
I love this first one because they asked Cyril a sincere clarifying question:
Cyril of Alexandria, … the section about Jesus suffering brought a question to my mind. I was wondering if you could expound on your thought that the divine part of the Word of God does not suffer. Though I understand that Jesus, as you put it, suffered “blows or piercing with nails” because he had a human body, would he still not have suffered in another ways such as emotionally and mentally?
This one thanks Gregory by sharing how his Christology served her spiritual development:
Gregory of Nazianzus, … Your writing has allowed me to dig deeper and that has allowed me to view myself in a new way. My abilities are far greater than I thought. I am a carefully crafted (though still imperfect) model of the perfected image of God, who is Christ Jesus. Each day I am being molded further into that perfected image. It’s so awe-inspiring to think that the Father sent the Son to take on flesh to be the example of how to love, how to do outreach, how to operate in faith. He was PERFECT. Such a thing can only come from God. It is true divinity within humanity.
I admire this one, because, though they see the error in Apollinarius’ Christology, they nonetheless thank him for his service to the church.
Dear Apollinarius, I appreciate so much your work in defending the divinity of Christ in the Arian controversy. Without your faith and hard work, my faith might be different today. There is a long chain of events that have happened since you walked the earth. However, the traditions of faith that you and others have passed down to me have helped me believe in Jesus Christ. While we would have been friend, we would have disagreed on some issues. This would not break our friendship, but would probably cause us to have many lively debates.
I could list more, but the point is this: letter writing caused my students to reach across the centuries and engage these figures as human persons. Church fathers became “friends,” of sorts. And those whose views the early church deemed heretical became what they are: not merely false teachers but humans made in the image of God.
I don’t doubt that my young theologians will stand for the truth of the Gospel, but I am more encouraged than ever that they will do so after the pattern of Christ: with sacrificial love for their neighbors, even those, or perhaps especially those, with whom they disagree.