A Church Historian and a Baptist

I had a startling question a month or so ago from someone: What did Athanasius have that Origen lacked and which permitted Athanasius to recover the apostolic doctrine of the Trinity?

That is one nicely tangled up question.

One can see that it derives from our ideas of the Reformation: What did Luther have that Tyndale, for example, lacked and which permitted Luther to recover the apostolic doctrine of justification? This kind of question demonstrates a disposition toward doing church history. The idea is that the original was the true and that the task of the church is to keep from drifting from it.

There is nothing wrong with saying that. The problem is when you think that what the church keeps it keeps without doctrinal development. So the problem is that you do not say enough. Let me put it this way: Why didn’t we have the reformation until the 15th century? Was it because then people at last realized they were being unfaithful and had departed from the apostolic doctrine of justification? Sure, but there is another aspect to this recovery. That is the fact that doctrinal development had to take place for the church to be able to distinguish the transformation of salvation considered as a whole from the change of relationship that is justification. The categories for making the distinction did not exist. That does not mean they were unimportant categories, but that they required some time to discover. The development in thought necessary to making the distinctions in the doctrine of salvation, in advancing the doctrinal formulation to that moment available were not in place all along. They precede the time of the Reformation, but not by much.

You can’t just read Scripture and make all the distinctions necessary to arrive at the Protestant doctrine of justification without significant philosophical development in the background. It is more obvious in the first question: you can’t just read Scripture and come away believing there is one God in three persons with inseparable operations, a distinction between the being and the economy and all the rest. You can’t even walk up to Scripture, as we have recently learned, and understand the eternal generation of the Son; you have to have a concept of eternity as out of time, and you will not get that from Scripture. You have to have a category for the uniqueness of the Son which requires some distinctions that are not made in everyday language.

If you read the book of Job you will notice that dialogue never involves abstract reasoning. It was written of a pre-speculative society: Job, his friends and Elihu did not know how to perform abstract reasoning. And we notice that God, whom you can be sure was not pre-speculative, did not tax them with abstract reasoning: it would have been incomprehensible to them. We get abstract reasoning from that interesting moment in Greece, and you could say that in the ancient world a philosopher was one who had achieved and could employ abstract reasoning. This did not transform its societies overnight, but began to permeate the ancient world in the fullness of time.

The apostolic apprehension of the Trinity, the reality which they had contact with and expressed, needed doctrinal formulation: Scripture is not a collection of precisely formulated doctrines buried away in otherwise impractical genres. Scripture reveals God to us, and his rescue, and why we are being rescued to begin with, but we have to do something with what Scripture reveals before we have theology. Just read the Bible first and then read a Systematic Theology and you will notice that they are not the same kind of book at all. And it is misleading to think that Scripture is different from a Systematic Theology because it is somehow inferior in its organization. It is organized on a different principle. In fact, Systematic Theology has no organizing principle until the 12th century or perhaps I should say the 13th, when it is conceived or discovered, and first employed.

What Origen lacked, to answer the first question, was at least a concept of personality. But it would be misleading because it suggests the apostles had a concept of personality, which they did not. Scripture does not have the word ‘person’ because no human being had that concept in the first century. It was not available, and it had to be developed in order to make sense of what Scripture was affirming. The doctrine of the Trinity does not contradict or add to Scripture, but the doctrine of the Trinity is a way to maintain the commitment to the coherence of what God has revealed within the bounds of what today we call the canon.

If one is a Baptist and aspires to church history, one is going to be asked, I have found, how one can be a Baptist and be in any way a reputable church historian. The idea is that Baptist polity has no historical antecedents. It is the same question that is asked about the Reformation: how can you be part of a church that was not there all along?

The answer to that requires at least two considerations. You have to realize that Baptist polity or Protestantism do not arise as a radical discontinuity with the past: they distinguish themselves from something, but in the context of similarities. You do not, in fact, distinguish anything unless there is an implied similarity, as Plotinus pointed out. The doctrine of the Trinity, the doctrine of God, the doctrine of Christ, of man in its main aspects, of salvation in many aspects, of the Holy Spirit etc., are a great part of what is continuous. These things can be traced through history. So a part of the problem with the question is that it posits too radical a discontinuity.

The other aspect of the answer is to say that doctrinal development has a logic to it. You cannot talk about the relationship of the human and the divine in Christ until you have settled the question of his relationship to the divine in the first place. If Christ is God, then we can begin to consider whether he is also man, but it makes no sense to urge the second question before you have settled the first. Once the question of Christ’s deity is settled, the question of the Holy Spirit’s arises, but not before. And so on. Baptist belief is the answer to a complex set of questions, some of which, the crucial distinctive ones, never arose till after the first 1500 years of the church. These cannot have arisen without certain social and theological developments which brought the particular set of questions into focus, many prior ones having been answered to get there. The London Baptist Confession of Faith provides the answers to a set of questions that represent a new collection never before obtained.

To be frozen in time is sometimes urged as the more historical position. To me that is the least historical position. When you have once settled a theological matter, you will generate another series of question which cannot be ignored. Doctrine must develop if you are to keep the deposit faithfully, because you will have to provide answers which maintain the coherence of Scripture and allow you to formulate accurately the advanced implications of what it reveals. And that is why, if you are a church historian or a historical theologian (which is mostly what I’ve here been doing), it is by no means inconsistent also to be a Baptist.

Benedict Options

It is the season for considering the proposal of the Benedict Option. Everybody is talking about it except Westminster Seminary. I asked somebody who knows, who keeps an eye on what others are saying within and without, and the word is that they’re not interested at WTS. It is one of the things I’ve found to admire about presuppositionalists: they do not care about the ferment of the wider world because they believe the wider world is mad. It means you don’t have to be conscious of the currents. On the other hand, all that counts is their current, which is the problem.

Anyway, Benedict Options are being placed on the table, and there are currents swirling around it. I gather what I do without research, in this case, because I have other researches to occupy me at this time. It comes by the illative sense, and you must take it as such.

What is the Benedict Option? It is based on an alarm about the state of civilization. Western Civilization is over, we need to quit worrying about rescuing the world from what is coming, we need instead to make sure we keep what we have: Christianity. The situation principally requires we become concerned with survival.

The appeal of such an option is the appeal of prudence. Conservative books of doom have been telling us for ages that Western Civilization is over. People who know how complex a thing civilization is, how fragile ours has become, recognize that things will not continue to be as they are. Civilizations have collapsed in the past, and we have read of the carnage.

That which makes it not quite appealing is the element of predicting the future. I admire John Lukacs for this: he can talk of doom and frankly point out bad conditions, but he refuses to predict the future. One simply cannot know what tomorrow will be, no matter how much one knows. False—even if they are conservative—prophets have to redefine what has happened today to fit yesterday’s prediction. It never quite matches up. Nor is that business uncommon. Is what will happen next all that obvious? Rod Dreher—the man advocating a Benedict Option—admits he did not see Trump coming, but is nevertheless sure calamity is in store. (And if you read the news today, calamity is in store. My money is nevertheless still on Trump.)

No doubt calamity is in store. History is a series of calamities, of natural and of human agency. I have no doubt the postmodern condition is crumbling away and will no longer obtain, and we may even look back on it as a better age. All good things must come to an end. Byzantium ended, Hellenism ended, the Roman Republic ended, Christendom endeth, Periclean Athens ended, England that was is no more, and so will the USA be, and is.

The Benedict Option calls for bunkers of the mind: Christians giving priority to Christian rather than American institutions. Because of this, the transformationalists are a bit worked up, as you can imagine. They are not the only ones, but you can see what is being sorted and why it is confusing. Christianity has an obligation, in their minds, to transform our society. It is not simply a matter of providing good Christian witness, it is a matter, for them, of excluding a vital part of that Christian witness: the social.

A taxonomy was recently suggested in one of the more illuminating comments at the Internet Roach Motel. I was reading it because it mentioned the PCUSA, which is the denomination Princeton Seminary aligns with. It offered these four positions:

1 – the gospel is all this-worldly. Let us make a difference here and now.

2 – the gospel is half this-worldly and half other-worldly. Let us hold both firmly.

3 – the gospel is mostly other-worldly but with crucial this-worldly implications. Let us not leave these out. And here, I may add, is the bulk of Christian sympathy, though it is probably moving upward on this list rather than downward.

4 – the gospel is radically other-worldly, this-worldly implications matter, but in comparison with what is other-worldly concerns, these implications are ephemeral.

The Benedict Option challenges the first and second. It challenges the first option because it is not a theologically radical option. It affirms that this world is not our home in a way that an exclusively or nearly exclusively this-worldly gospel never can. It challenges the second as well, establishing a priority where one is not desired. And you have to bear in mind that the reality is probably that these positions are better seen as a spectrum, so something of the third position is in some way challenged as well.

Because I wonder if fundamentalists (who I would suppose are in the lower regions that I myself inhabit) find the Benedict Option all that novel. I say that since the debating going on strikes me as very much like the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. How far gone are the institutions? When do we pull out? If we stay, will we keep anything at all? What is our identity and how do we maintain it? I think that with the Benedict Option Christians are debating identity, or neglecting to debate identity, again. If that were clear, then the question would come into focus which the Benedict Option seeks to answer: how to we interact with the world, given who we are? And my sense is that the confusion around the issue has to do with an incoherent answer to the prior question of identity. I think all that is mixing about right now is a sorting of those who are clearer about identity being pulled toward each other. These last are already focused on the question of how we interact, to the extent that they are clear about identity. But I have to wonder if most are.

That, for what it is worth, is what I make of it.

One penultimate observation: here is a good opportunity for scholars of that early 20th century phenomenon to offer advice, it seems to me. Not to use history to predict the future, but to use the kinds of complete or at least realistic considerations that one can sometimes obtain from remembering the past to inform our present moment.

Ultimate, dangling, and not as important observation: all my sympathies are with the last. Hence: Platonism, being a low-church Baptist, and probably the temperament of one who was shaped in circles of premillennial outlook which is not, regarding this-worldly’s order, sanguine. I am not now a premillennialist, but one doesn’t just shed these forming influences easily, they are part of one’s identity and for that reason cherished. I actually think how seriously you take what is other-worldly will relativize what is this-worldly, with the result that this world can be important enough; it is not a zero-sum game, but rather one of proportions: the greater the one, the greater it will make the other, for all that it is small in comparison.

Something I’ve Learned

The amount of time I have left in classwork is down to weeks, then that will be over. I haven’t been blogging because I’ve had things to keep me occupied. I’ll reflect on a few things I’ve learned, which are of no benefit to any reader. These are just a curiosity for the sake of blogging.

I’ve learned to take notes better.

I’ve learned I can start and finish a paper in a month, more or less.

I’ve learned how to come up with a lecture, as opposed to a sermon or a Sunday-school lesson.

I’ve gotten efficient at this work.

I’ve become calm about it, knowing what I’m capable of and the time required. I am not the kind of person who naturally relaxes about a deadline. I do not need to hear it is coming. I usually finish long before it comes. What I had to learn was not to start with too much haste: to calm down about time passing and quit sprinting to the end of the projects as soon as possible.

I’ve learned when I can quit reading.

I’ve learned to read in various ways.

I’ve developed more ways of making arguments and demonstrating things.

I’ve learned to write with greater clarity.

I’ve learned to recognize when I need to figure out something prior before advancing on something posterior.

And I’ve consolidated my grasp on the general outline of things, at least before the Reformation.

So I’m very pleased with the PhD so far.

Classical Theism Stemming from . . .

He was the most acute of Christian Platonists and did much to lay the foundations for the synthesis between Christianity and classical theism stemming from Plato and Aristotle. Plotinus in the third century AD deeply influenced him by his systematization of the Platonic tradition, but Augustine also became one of the most penetrating of all critics of this philosophical tradition to which he himself owed so much.

-Henry Chadwick, Augustine: A Very Short Introduction, 4

The Night

John 3.2

Through that pure virgin shrine,
That sacred veil drawn o’er Thy glorious noon,
That men might look and live, as glowworms shine,
And face the moon,
Wise Nicodemus saw such light
As made him know his God by night.

Most blest believer he!
Who in that land of darkness and blind eyes
Thy long-expected healing wings could see,
When Thou didst rise!
And, what can never more be done,
Did at midnight speak with the Sun!

O who will tell me where
He found Thee at that dead and silent hour?
What hallowed solitary ground did bear
So rare a flower,
Within whose sacred leaves did lie
The fulness of the Deity?

No mercy-seat of gold,
No dead and dusty cherub, nor carved stone,
But His own living works did my Lord hold
And lodge alone;
Where trees and herbs did watch and peep
And wonder, while the Jews did sleep.

Dear night! this world’s defeat;
The stop to busy fools; care’s check and curb;
The day of spirits; my soul’s calm retreat
Which none disturb!
Christ’s progress, and His prayer time;
The hours to which high heaven doth chime;

God’s silent, searching flight;
When my Lord’s head is filled with dew, and all
His locks are wet with the clear drops of night;
His still, soft call;
His knocking time; the soul’s dumb watch,
When spirits their fair kindred catch.

Were all my loud, evil days
Calm and unhaunted as is thy dark tent,
Whose peace but by some angel’s wing or voice
Is seldom rent,
Then I in heaven all the long year
Would keep, and never wander here.

But living where the sun
Doth all things wake, and where all mix and tire
Themselves and others, I consent and run
To every mire,
And by this world’s ill-guiding light,
Err more than I can do by night.

There is in God, some say,
A deep but dazzling darkness, as men here
Say it is late and dusky, because they
See not all clear.
O for that night! where I in Him
Might live invisible and dim!

-Henry Vaughan

Anselm, Augustine & the Angels

Anselm has a passage in Why God Became Man where he considers whether the number of elect humans makes up for the number of fallen angels. After all, he assumes, there is a definite number.

Why should he?

Well, God either made an infinite number of creatures or a finite number of creatures. It may be that God did make an infinite number or creatures, but it strikes me as highly improbable, and in fact absurd. I am not sure that I can demonstrate that there is not a finite number of creatures, since it seems to me that you don’t require space for an infinite number of spiritual beings. Still, how likely is it that this should happen? And I’m inclined to believe that all you need is boundaries; which in terms of the spiritual realm, is a definition, as Eriugena teaches. God has many creatures, but surely these are not infinite in number, but finite, since they are part of creation which is limited. God alone is infinite.

If, however, it can be demonstrated or it is revealed that God made an infinite number of angels, then it is illogical to assume that he would need to replace any of them when some fell. You can’t diminish infinity by subtraction.

But let us say it really is absurd to believe that there are an infinite number of angelic beings, which seems by far more probable, and assume instead there is a finite number. What kind of God does not have a reason for that number? Only an arbitrary God would make a random number of angelic beings, and that is not what we ought to think about God. God is not arbitrary; God has intelligence and purpose, and when God makes a number of anything, though we may not understand it, you can be sure there is a reason for it: that is how God does things because that is what God is like.

So, then, if you have a finite number of angels, and some of them fall, you no longer have that original finite number. You have a diminished finite number. If that number had a reason, then that is a reason to replace them. So it is not so far-fetched, it seems to me, for Anselm to assume, as Augustine did before him, that perhaps the number of the elect in some way corresponds to the unknown number of the fallen angels, replacing in that City those who diminished the original supply.

A Trajectory

There can be no doctrine of the Trinity without a prior doctrine of divine simplicity.

The doctrine of divine simplicity was not exegetically derived, it is a doctrine of natural theology. It is a philosophical assumption which we use to make sense of Scripture, as the law of noncontradition is.

Interestingly enough, Plotinus worshiped a divine simplicity; this is the logical conclusion of the Platonic trajectory.

This is the Platonic trajectory:

1 The imaginary encounter between Socrates and Parmenides in the Platonic dialogue Parmenides shows two things. The first is that Plato favors the Parmenidean one over the Heraclitean many. The second is that it is demonstrated that forms are of different kinds: not all forms are equal.

2 Plato develops his doctrine of forms over the years. They exist in ambiguous relationship to God because he is not interested in the question of God, he is not even interested in a system as such. There is, however, an emerging hierarchy of forms.

3 The relationship of the the forms to God concerned Middle Platonists, who were beginning to feel the influence of Judaism’s monotheism. They move the forms into the mind of God.

4 Plotinus sees that the forms cannot be in the mind of God. He posits a form of the form, a radically transcendent and ultimate One, or the Good, who is the absolute principle of prior simplicity.

The arguments for this radical, prior simplicity, this from which all forms derive though in it they are not many, not separable, not even distinguishable, are assimilated by Christian theologians and assumed when reading Scripture.


In Eriugena, the relation of God and Creation is introduced as a way to set a discontinuity between the divine simplicity of Plotinus, and the realm of forms. What was for Plotinus Nous, for Eriugena is the Image of God, that is the archetype of Man, in whom all of creation finds its forms, and who is not God, but who is informed by that which is form of the forms.