Steve Holmes on the Twentieth-Century Trinitarian ‘Revival’

Earlier this year Paternoster released Steve Holmes’ new book The Holy Trinity: Understanding God’s Life in the Christian Doctrine in Historical Perspective series edited by Alan Sell.  Steve has been at work on the doctrine of God for some time now and this book, as Karen Kilby’s blurb on the back cover notes, can be viewed as both a textbook for historical theology and also an ‘intervention’ in recent debates about the doctrine of the Trinity.  The volume certainly endeavors to canvas the historical and modern developments in a level-headed manner and yet, insofar as contemporary trinitarian doctrine must heed the wisdom of our theological forebears, it cannot help but call into question a number of the more recent proposals.

At the end of the book, there is a seven-point summary of patristic trinitarianism that includes, among other things, divine simplicity, the limitations of human speech about God, and the persons being distinguished by the relations of origin alone.  Here is the provocative last paragraph of the book:

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Choosing a Theology Textbook: From Nicaea to Chalcedon

For those of you who have been visiting the blog for a while now, you will know that I have been trying to find a series of books for use in the classroom. Along those lines, I want to say a bit about Frances M. Young’s volume From Nicaea to Chalcedon: A Guide to the Literature and Its Background (2nd Edition) and its possible use as a textbook. Young has updated her work from 1983, with help from Andrew Teal, and there are several features which would make it, in my mind, a great classroom text. First, I think this volume is particularly interesting because of its focus on texts. I will let Young explain:

…the period from Nicaea to Chalcedon is one of the most significant in the formation of the doctrine of the Chruch. Yet the average student of Christian doctrine rarely gets to grips with the background or the literature of the period, let alone the theological argumentation to be found in the texts. The book set out to be a companion to standard textbooks, providing background material, an introduction to the characters involved in the disputes, to the literary sources and critical questions which they pose” (vii). Continue reading

Again on retrieval: Radical Orthodoxy

Another short excerpt from my paper in New Orleans (at Earl’s request):

[S]ome theologies of retrieval offer fresh genealogies of modernity in order to reinvigorate the possibility that postmodern (or late modern) theology might find continuity with the classical Christian tradition. Radical Orthodoxy is one such path. While highly diverse, it shares a common refusal of the language of secularity and autonomy which finds its genesis, on its reading, in modernity.

As a form of ressourcement, the argument is not for a nostalgic return to the theology and politics of the middle ages, instead, it argues (according to Simon Oliver) that “the riches of the orthodox Christian tradition of faith and reason, theology and philosophy, can be deployed not only as a possible solution to the problems of late modernity, but as the only solution.” Theirs is clearly retrieval, but not of practices or even wisdom, but the recovery of relationships and priorities, one that can only be accomplished by a radical retrieval of premodern modes of Christian thinking that refuses marginalization by metaphysics.

Systematic Theology as Retrieval: finding the church’s future in her past

Here is a brief excerpt from the paper I gave with David Buschart last week in New Orleans, “Looking Back, Moving Forward: Retrieval as Theological Method.” (I also heard some great jazz at The Preservation Hall) 

Our interest in the paper was to suggest that “retrieval” is a particular mode of theological reasoning in which its practitioners believe the future of the church hangs in some sense not on our ability to innovate but in our capacity to retrieve something from her past.

Those who pursue retrieval recognize and embrace the fact that the history of Christianity, of the church, and of theology consists of both change and continuity. This may seem obvious, not in need of stating, but recognition of this “both-and” is fundamental to retrieval.

Change is a universal and patently obvious characteristic of historical existence. Thus, the modern era and our own time – whether one regards it as modern, post-modern or hyper-modern – is not alone in seeing an inextricable connection between “history” and “change.” It is one of the necessary parts of this “both-and” – both continuity and change. The modern era can, however, be challenged for its almost myopic preoccupation with change and newness – indeed, dis-continuity? – to the virtual exclusion of continuity. Continue reading

Jonathan Edwards’ Philosophy of History

After reviewing Ben Quash’s volume addressing von Balthasar’s theology of history, I thought I would wade back over Zakaito my personal area of interest and take a look at Jonathan Edwards’ philosophy of history. Avihu Zakai’s volume, put out by Princeton Press (and mostly written at the Center of Theology Inquiry) is entitled: Jonathan Edwards’s Philosophy of History: The Reenchantment of the World in the Age of Enlightenment. I will skip over the initial chapter covering biographical material and move right into his argumentation.

The Soul

In the second chapter, entitled: “Young Man Edwards: Religious Conversion,” Zakai focuses in on Edwards’ conversion experience, asserting, “This spiritual experience informed Edwards’s theology of nature and led directly to his quest to reconstruct the whole material world after the model of his newly acquired religious vision” (54). He then builds on his already provocative thesis, asserting baldly, Continue reading

Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Part 1

For the following couple of posts, I will be looking at the issue of faith in Gregory of Nyssa by reviewing a book by Martin Laird entitled: Gregory nyssaof Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge and Divine Presence (Oxford University Press, 2004).

Laird discusses Nyssa’s view of the mind, that its energies are often dispersed fruitlessly (through worldly passions), and need to be drawn together and focused through self-denial. A worldly person has a “thick” mind, that squanders its potential on human passions. In Laird’s words, “In order for the heart to be whole the mind must in some way be recollected, withdrawn from the affairs of the world. Here it finds its wholeness and ability to ascend” (39).  He continues on to explain:

If unclouded, untroubled, or unimpeded by the senses and passions, the same mind, and not a different compartment or level, will move upward towards the spiritual, intelligible world. Given appropriate ascetic training, there is in the mind an upward orientation, a dynamic capacity to ascend” (43).

The thickness of the mind, in a move reminiscent of Edwards, is unable to know beauty. Again, “the sense faculties are not suitably trained for the discernment of what is beautiful and what is not” (45). Importantly, the mind is able to know beauty, but it needs training to do so (contra Edwards). Continue reading

Will we allow history to critique us?

When reading historical figures, do we allow ourselves to be critiqued by them? Or, do we stand over them from the vantage point of some ‘far superior’ late modern position?

There has been an interesting interaction between Ben Myers (Faith and Theology) and George Marsden in response to Marsden’s Stone Lectures at Princeton. Myers’ big worry about Marsden’s methodology for reading Edwards, and any historical figure for that matter, is that in distinguishing between Edwards’ great “‘perennial ideas’ (e.g. his doctrine of the Trinity) and his outdated nonessential ideas (e.g. his biblical literalism, his millennialism, and so on)” we isolate ourselves from being critiqued by him:

I realise that Marsden was only sketching some brief remarks on historical method, but I think this represents a deeply flawed approach to the question of how we can learn from the Christian past. If we learn from the past by distinguishing the timeless “perennial core” from the nonessential (i.e. flawed) elements, then we’re acting as though our own commitments are the final arbiter of history – we’re assuming that history has found its goal in us. And one of the unfortunate side-effects of this approach is that we’re no longer in a position to be critiqued by history. This would explain the strange fact that Marsden didn’t find any contemporary critical significance in Edwards’ millennialism, his doctrine of progress, or his theology of the election of nations. (Seriously, isn’t all this just a little relevant to American identity and to US foreign policy?).

…Once we perceive that a thinker like Jonathan Edwards was “ultimately concerned with the Christian faith,” it becomes impossible to distinguish between any timeless “core” and the mere “husk” of culturally-bound ineptitudes. Instead, by encountering the strangeness and offensiveness of Edwards’ ideas, we are encountering something new and unexpected about the nature of Christian identity itself. Continue reading