A Measure

Something Lewis Ayres said about historiography came through clearly for me yesterday. I was having a discussion about Justin Martyr and someone mentioned the Logos Christology. I’m not an expert and don’t know too much about that. But I know something about Justin, and I don’t think his real contribution is the Logos Christology, though perhaps it is. The situation did make clear to me what Ayres had said.

When we study these figures we tend to ask what their contribution was, and implied in that question is a standard against which to measure the contribution. But what supplies the implied standard? We are studying figures in church history so we reach for our systematic theology. We evaluate them in terms of our developed systematic theology, is what Ayers pointed out. There is nothing wrong with asking what someone contributes, but Ayres objects to using systematic theology to measure them. That is not to say that systematic theology doesn’t have its place, nor that I am against it. But this is not its proper use.

This is how one can see why Ayres objects: let us take up the measure, let us pick Calvin’s Institutes—I hear it is wholesome, good doctrine and I accept that. I then go to Justin and ask him what exactly he brings toward the finished product of Calvin’s Institutes. You see the absurdity of the question for Justin. There is a lot of terminology, lots of assumptions, many arguments that Justin cannot possibly take into consideration. Even to deal with Justin in terms of the Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century, 150 years away, is to ask too much of him. He cannot possibly anticipate it, let alone consciously contribute toward it. It is the wrong way to evaluate what he was doing: a standard that sets can even set aside conscious personal agency.

But that’s what we often do. We evaluate figures in Church History in terms of a standard that is ours, as pieces on the way to us of theology as it develops through historical forces. Whig theory of history. So, what’s the alternative? You can ask what the person contributes, but first you have to do what John Lukacs says: (1) what is his situation, (2) what did he perceive his situation to be, and (3) what was he therefore doing? On those terms you can answer the question, what did he accomplish.

Founders of the Middle Ages by Edward Kennard Rand

Founders of the Middle AgesThis is a great book.

27        “Gregory’s literary style is formed on the simplest models. Here is a man educated in the old training, who deliberately threw it away.”

Rand’s droll procedure is first to establish that each of these founders in fact enjoyed a thoroughly classical education: they were trained by classical methods and steeped in classical culture. Having reaped the benefits, they then affected to turn against it, which pious hypocrisy vastly amuses Rand. It is obviously an approach with some drawbacks, but Rand’s sardonically cheerful wit mitigates the more sour conclusions that might be drawn. Obviously, once he had the advantage of the training, once he had inextricably absorbed the benefit, Gregory could afford to turn on it. Rand’s argument is that we should read his dismissals lightly, considering them little more than necessary affectations.

37        “Of all the ancient philosophies, Christianity is most nearly allied to Platonism, though it is not that.”

53        “Dr. More well remarks that not the Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Porphyry and Proclus, but the Christian philosophy of the great Alexandrians and Cappadocians is the real heir of the Academy.” Rand hastens to include Cicero, and in fact makes, throughout the book, Cicero the real mediator of the Platonic tradition to the Church. It is a Latin approach seeking a European goal (Founders of the Western Middle Ages). It is no wonder he sets Cicero over Plotinus when his founders are Gregory, Ambrose, Jerome, Boethius, and Augustine. He was, after all, a professor of Latin.

63        “For from the first to the last the principle written is clear that, while Christian faith finds much in Pagan belief and Pagan morals to avoid, it may, or rather it must, draw freely from it sustenance on the thought, the poetry, and the inspiration of the past.”

There is his thesis: we must not overplay Christian protestations and invective against Pagan culture. They had to draw on it because they were in the midst of it and had to draw on something. In fact, they were well-trained in it, and the protestations the Christian fathers made must be weighed and evaluated carefully, rather than simply taken at face value. Or:

64        “Thus were the foundations of Christian humanism laid.”

93        “An intellectual Christian like Ambrose rejected such science precisely as he rejected the history of the Olympians, not because it was Pagan and wrong, but because it was stale and untrue.”

144      “This carefulness on the part of Boethius led to the creation of a new vocabulary for philosophy, worked out step by step in the Middle Ages and appearing in something like the final form in St. Thomas Aquinas.”

145      “By helping to create a new philosophical idiom, Boethius performed a valuable service to the development of thought in the Middle Ages.”

149      “For with both Cicero and Boethius, it is Aristotle that is harmonized with Plato and not vice versa.” And, one might add, Plotinus. And therefore, the early Middle Ages.

155      “But, most important of all, he illustrated, in these brief tractates, the application of logical method, as well as the new vocabulary, to theological problems, on the understanding that fides, the ultimate truth, may be supported by the free effort of human reason.”

Exactly what Rand means by ‘supported’ is somewhat ambiguous, but that in some sense it is true is clear enough. This is his case for Boethius: carefulness with words that leads to a new philosophical idiom which can be used to support the Christian faith. Boethius, in other words, sets up Aquinas.

181      “No poetry, and no religion, that is not also art will long survive.”

Interestingly enough, Rand’s somewhat chatty but witty and curious lectures are still being cited and consulted nearly ninety years on.

213      “Yet his purpose is not to supersede Pagan culture, but to include it. The culture which Prudentius embodied in his hymns, and which he passed on to the coming generations, could not dispense with the ancient authors who had contributed to its making.”

It was not possible, and poetry is an obvious place to see it. And if you consider that Justin Martyr wrote dialogues and apologies, like Plato, that Origen wrote On First Principles, that besides the Homilies and Commentaries, the literary genres employed by the Church Fathers had long antecedent with which there was more than passing familiarity, it is hard to object.

250      “There will be different effects from different men and moments of the period of Foundation. There will be a powerful effect from the master-mind of Gregory. But the ultimate victory will be that of the party of Lactantius and Cassidorus, advocates of Christian humanism in which the old education is vitally embedded in the new.”

Gregory being an example of higher hypocrisy regarding his rejection of the Pagan learning he appropriated, and Lactantius and Cassidorus being less so, or not at all.

268      “Augustine’s feeling about the ancient culture, if I may run on with this topic for a moment, is at once like, and unlike, that of Jerome. . . . They both show an inevitable reaction against Paganism after their conversion, but in a different way. With Jerome, whose agile temperament plunged readily into extremes, the reaction both took a more violent form and more quickly cleared away. With Augustine, it was slower in coming and more lasting in effect. . . . The tendency to open himself to the immediate inspiration, to give himself to the needs of the present, and to put away the past, increased with his years.”

One of the great drolleries of this book is Rand’s play on the situation he lived, with progressive education seeking to throw out the classics—that which he himself taught. Rand is constantly poking fun, both at his objects and at his subjects.

280      “The views of any mediaeval authors about the Classics were formed, not only by what authoritative Churchmen of the time might say, but by what was transmitted from the past under the sanction of a Lactantius, an Ambrose, a Jerome, an Augustine, a Boethius. . . . the Pagan authors were immovably fixed in Christian education.”

Related Observations

1 – Seeing the Philadelphia airport, one of the better large airports that I’ve been in, one is struck by how reduced the aesthetic requirements now are. It seems the criterion is one: it has to look new. Anything built has only to look new, and that makes it a great building. The problem is: it can only look new for so long.

2 – The internet roach motel is doing some programmatic Biblicism on the Trinity. I guess I notice because I keep going to look for anybody with a clue on this recent debate. I’m not impressed with any fundamentalist comment on the situation to date. Am I foolish to keep looking? Here’s a question about theological method: how does, and how should, history inform your theological method? I was talking to a staunch covenant theologian I know and observing the literalism with which someone like Snoeberger reads—in some comments on his blog—the Nicene Creed. “They read the creeds the way they read the Bible,” he then observed. I don’t want it to seem anti-dispensational; I’m not that because I am indifferent, and dispensationalists are not all of the wonder-crushing variety that Detroit represents. There are some who read and understand poetry; Tozer was a dispensationalist, after all, and I do not wish him otherwise. But it is a good question: Nicaea has a whole culture of theology that is developed in order to obtain stable meanings for the specific terms. This culture follows it ever after. The implications of what it means are drawn out over time, but still flow from Nicaea so that we speak of Nicene Orthodoxy. Interpreting Scripture does the same (because theology is Scripture interpreted correctly): it builds a tradition of interpretation, a culture that carries with it assumptions. Does your theological method take that into account, or is it a continual rejection of the actual contribution that those accrued things bring? And here’s another related question: are you attached to the church throughout the ages? Is that important to you? How is it, if you affirm it, more than an affirmation?

3 – Speaking of teaching Church History: could your approach to Church history be characterized as an affirmation of something you belong to, or mostly as a denial of something alien to your identity as a Christian? Both will be present, but which dominate and characterize what you do?

4 – When I went to consult commentaries for the passage I spoke from on Sunday, I noticed that Craig Blomberg did not even seem to understand the Gospel, at least not from his commentary on the last half of Matthew 19. Perhaps I did not read him carefully, but what I saw was moralism, economic theory, and quite distant from, for example, Calvin. Calvin is irritating on the Gospels since he has that harmony going on, but at least he understands the message. I had a conversation with someone about the passage earlier in the week, and he was influenced by the idea that you should not read your theology into the text. Of course, you can’t use your theology to distort what the text is saying, but the relationship is not one of complete malleability on the side of your theology. Theology, after all, is the careful product of Scriptural interpretation. If you don’t bring your theology to the interpretation of the text, aren’t you operating on the assumption that what is clearly taught elsewhere might contradict what is taught here? You will never have sophisticated theology until something that is clearly taught begins to adumbrate other passages, bringing out further implication. That, come to think of it, is a good definition of Biblicism: theology refusing sophistication.

Gabriel’s Theodicy

You have to see this. It is so intense it is at first like a black hole. You cannot read it once and get it. But there is such an intensity of meaning there once it starts coming together as you re-read it that it blazes.

I say it because if you don’t stop to try and understand it, you may ignore it. What actually drew my attention was that ‘so’ in the first line. It was the heuristic device, and I still find it hard to accept, but it kept me there. I haven’t commented on it because I was consulting with the poet laureate of fundamentalism.

It is astonishingly intense. It is worth understanding. It is a great insight and hard to see how else it could be put.

I detect no formal principle, and that surprises me. That’s why I wanted to consult the poet laureate of fundamentalism about it, to make sure I wasn’t missing it. I am not sure, but I wonder if perhaps there was originally more regular meter that got chiseled away as the block was sculpted. It is a good final product.

Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology by Lewis Ayres

Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology

12        “Pro-Nicene theologies combined both doctrinal propositions and a complex of intellectual theological strategies. Together these doctrines and the strategies within which those doctrines were intended to be read constitute a theological culture.”

20        “The greater one’s ability to place theologies within the traditions that nurtured them, the better one understands their dynamics.”

36        “Understanding this moral aspect of education helps to clarify the ambiguous feelings of many intellectual Christians toward Roman education. Roman educators wanted students to learn the right lessons from the right texts. Education in reading technique, therefore, became a contested cultural area and Christians eventually if slowly sought to adapt these teaching techniques by focusing them on Scripture.”

39        “The better we understand the process of adapting (and transforming) technical terminologies and persuasive non-Christian ideas to read the resource of the plain sense [of Scripture], the better we understand early Christian ‘theology’.”

84        One of the things that had to be overcome was that individual terminology and creeds were being used to mean different things, even though the terms were the same or similar. What was needed was a consensus of assumptions and practices within which the specific terminology and formulations could function: a theological culture.

94        “A standard connotation of the term homoousios was membership in a class” –so that it coordinated two beings, rather than identifying them. Same species.

162      “We also see here the very fluidity of credal formulation in the early fourth century becoming an open point of appeal.”

236      3 central principles for pro-Nicene theology: (1) “a clear version of the person and nature distinction, entailing the principle that whatever is predicated of the divine nature is predicated of the three persons equally and understood to be one”; (2) “clear expression that the eternal generation of the Son occurs within the unitary and incomprehensible divine being;” (3) “clear expression that the persons work inseparably.”

237      “There is no one original Nicene theology that continues unchanged through the century. Extensive influence of Athanasius’ theology on the Cappadocians is difficult to prove. Western accounts are not simply dependent on eastern translations and there was a significant and persistent non-Nicene presence in parts of the west. The theologies that constitute pro-Nicene orthodoxy are not reducible to one point of origin or to one form of expression.”

246      “Oration 29’s use of the language of ‘convergence’ (. . .) deserves further comment. Gregory’s [Nazianzen] source is probably Plotinus.” En 2.2.1 and 3.8.11

256      About Constantinople (381) “Nobody intended this creed as a replacement for Nicea, merely as a statement of Nicea’s faith. Thus, part of the reason for the lack of reference to this creed until the council of Chalcedon in 451 is the lack of intention of its framers that the Constantinople creed serve as a precise marker of orthodoxy.”

275      Nicene theology was not just the development of disconnected ideas, but of interrelated conceptions: “the Christian imaginative universe—and of a collection of intellectual practices . . .”

281      “Pro-Nicenes assume the impossibility of there being degrees of divine existence, and they assume God to be the only truly simple reality. The generation of the Son and the breathing of the Spirit thus occur within the bounds of the divine simplicity.”

287      “The language of simplicity is inseparable from the language of divine incomprehensibility and gives rise to ‘formal features’ of divine being that should govern all our speech about God.”

330      “Gregory Nazianzen also understands the basic task involved in moving towards the vision of God as involving both not thinking of God in material terms and refocusing the gaze of the mind away from its obsession with the material world.”

335      “Like almost all early Christian writers, pro-Nicenes read Scripture as a providentially ordained resource for the Christian imagination.”

353      “Indeed, Gregory [of Nyssa] again seems to be following Plotinus’ lead: both writers not only talk of a power as being intrinsic to a nature, but also metaphorically present a power as being ‘around’ a nature.” En 5.1.6

356      “In other words, articulating the pro-Nicene grammar of divinity necessarily involves articulating an account of the relationship between Creator and creation.”

366      “Ultimately, however, we will best understand this mature account when we see that it is also an articulation of the very epistemological and anthropological dynamics that we have seen shared between pro-Nicene theologians and present so clearly in Gregory of Nyssa.”

382      “The grammar of God’s simplicity, partially stemming from those Platonist engagements serves not to make God a unitary essence or to replace biblical exegesis with discussion of the three Neoplatonic hypostases. Rather, that grammar serves to enhance the explanatory power of a fully Nicene Trinitarianism in which the order of Trinitarian generation is preserved . . . Augustine’s Platonism serves the cause of good exegesis.”

389      “Claims about the metaphysical bondage of Christian thought are not simply part of modernity’s dislike of metaphysics per se: they are also closely related to post-Enlightenment thought’s suspicion of the idea that contemplation of the divine might be the goal and root of theology, wanting instead to focus Christian attention on the ‘practical’ and on the narrative of Christ’s ministry as transformative of human possibility.”

387-391           Three strategies used to dismiss historical inquiry and understanding of ancient theology.

387      1 – reading pre-modernity as a gradual anticipation of modernity (progress toward . . . us).

388      2 – classical theology unsustainable because indebted to Greek thought . . .

390      3 – presenting philosophies as self-enclosed systems. You can’t really take from them without succumbing to their assumptions.

392      “For example, both Gregory of Nyssa and Augustine adapt themes from Plotinus: neither, however, makes any extensive use of the complex discussions concerning the interrelationships between the three primary hypostases that so fascinated the latter. Rather, discussions that Plotinus would have assumed to be pertinent only to the One or Nous are drawn on and melded together to discuss the Christian Trinity.”

414      “By now it should be clear that the challenge to modern Trinitarian theologies from pro-Nicene theologies stems from a difference in theological culture: the principles of classical Trinitarian theology were sustained by a culture taken to be essential to the appropriate use and belief of them, but a theological culture very different from that shaped by the broad field of modern systematic theology.”

428      “questions about the persuasiveness of pro-Nicene theology are also questions about the nature of theology itself.”



Lord, if I love Thee and Thou lovest me,
Why need I any more these toilsome days;
Why should I not run singing up Thy ways
Straight into heaven, to rest myself with Thee?
What need remains of death-pang yet to be,
If all my soul is quickened in Thy praise;
If all my heart loves Thee, what need the amaze,
Struggle and dimness of an agony?—
Bride whom I love, if thou lovest Me,
Thou needs must chose My Likeness for thy dower:
So wilt thou toil in patience, and abide
Hungering and thirsting for that blessed hour
When I My Likeness shall behold in thee,
And thou therein shalt waken satisfied.

-Christina Rossetti

Some Metrical Observations on a Hymn

The hymn I have in mind goes thus:

O worship the King all-glorious above,
O gratefully sing his power and his love:
our shield and defender, the Ancient of Days,
pavilioned in splendor and girded with praise.

Observe the meter:

Iamb, anapest, iamb, anapest (10)
Iamb, anapest, iamb, anapest (10) (an ingenious way to make anapests work)
Iamb, anapest, anapest, anapest (11)
Iamb anapest, anapest, anapest (11)

A striking meter.

I pause here to make some observations most probably already have but without which the rest might not be intelligible. The music of English poetry is produced by two things coming together: the meter, which is as the strings of a violin, and the rhythm of the phrases, which is as the bow. Anybody who has struggled to appreciate poetry knows that until you can hear this out loud in your head, you have to read it out loud to hear its music. In this case, rhythm that will counter the disastrous effects of anapestic meter is crucial. It also seems to me the rhythm of lyric poetry has to be regular, and when it is, it is then matched to the melodic phrases of the music.

In the case of O Worship, song and poetic music are very well matched, and this is one of the things that makes it great. It is pretty good just because of what the author did to avoid writing doggerel (when the rhythm and the meter collapse and are indistinguishable), never mind a regular meter with the words in the right place. But this is how you know it is a great hymn, when you are looking at considerations of poetry. I have to wonder if he didn’t have J. Michael Haydn’s tune in mind when he wrote the poem.

In our blue Trinity Hymnal you can just look across the page at 15 and see something much different. It is another adaptation of a psalm, but the only consideration is to reduce it to some meter and some kind of rhyme. The result is mostly doggerel, there is anastrophe which serves no higher purpose than making sure the rhyme scheme is preserved, and the obvious lack of art requires no long perusal to discern.

The other thing our poet did with the meter of O Worship was to deploy a series of effects thereby. Art lives in its effects. So in order to understand it you ask what the effects accomplish. In the case of these verses, the ingenious extra syllable creates a rushing effect (a little more is being squeezed in), or a more robust effect (like having ten rather than three columns supporting your architrave), and so on. An example:

Your bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
it streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
and sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.

There is a studied ambiguity in the first two lines, I think. We are talking about God’s care: it is bountiful, in fact, inexhaustible. But why are we talking about how we can’t talk about it? Then, as if that were not enough, we say it breathes in the air and shines in the light. It is a comment on the extent of the bounty: wherever air goes, God’s bounty is breathing, wherever light shines, it is with lit with God’s generosity. It is nevertheless hard to picture anything specific. One wants an example; one expects that from this poet. Here, we are not getting a firm grasp on care, just on bounty—the modifier. What then happens is that in the 11 syllable lines of the stanza we get a very specific picture: it is like water, one of God’s most generous ideas. If the first two lines, besides what they explicitly say, develop an ambiguity about the subject, then that is like asking a question. The last two lines, then, come back with the answer, as if to say: here is what I’m talking about. The extra syllable lends the effect of greater detail, there is more to this part, and that effect corroborates, echoes, or, if you’d rather, it brings home that resolved ambiguity.

And that is not the only verse or way in which an effect of the meter is deployed.