Thursday, April 29, 2010

Gavrilyuk, Paul The Suffering of the Impassible God: The dialectics of Patristic Thought

Gavrilyuk, Paul The Suffering of the Impassible God: The dialectics of Patristic Thought Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.

I've been mulling over the doctrine of impassibility for a few weeks, promtped by some college students no less, and remembered seeing this book in the Library some time ago. The dark-red covers of the Oxford Early Christian Studies series definitely help their visibility! (And many of the titles sound engaging. I have one on Divine simplicity sitting on my shelf waiting to be read at present).

Gavrilyuk's work has a brilliant clarity to it. He sets up the theological scene well: impassibility is a relatively minor theological position in contemporary academia, plus the fact that readings of the Fathers on impassibility tend almost universally to dichotomise a Hellenistic influenced philsophical impassibility against a 'biblicist' passible minority.

The bulk of the book, then, is an attack on this status quo, through a careful, mostly chronological, discussion of impassibility against the patristic debates. In chapter 1, Gavrilyuk dismantles the basis for finding impassibility in Greek philosophical models, showing that impassible divinity is not found in Stoic thought (p29, the impersonal singular deity, the world-soul of Stoicism, was “an active, sentient, rational material principle”, yet subject to the changes of the world - hardly impassible), nor in Middle Platonism whose ultimate transcendent One was beyond even the passible/impassible dichotomy.

The debate about passibility deeply links to our reading of scripture in a God-befitting manner. How do we reconcile God being like a man, yet not like a man (Num 23:19, Dt 8:5, for instance. see p43 and discussion of Philo)?

In the second chapter Gavrilyuk begins to position the doctrine of impassibility starting with ante-Nicene fathers. He makes three main points (p48): (a) impassibility distanced God frmo the mythological gods. (b) impassibility was compatible with the emotionally-coloured characteristics. esp see divine anger. (c) located conceptualy in sphere of apophatic theology. His treatment of divine anger is particularly helpful, tracing how this was used polemically against Christians, and how theologians begin to speak of divine anger as God's judicial response to sin, actively willed by God. Impassibility is more about protecting God's sovereignty and agency, then about denying him an emotional life. So, “God is impassible in the sense of being immune to the negative consequences typically associated with human emotions” (p59, speaking about Augustine).

Chapter 3 begins to trace the debate in terms of the tensions with Docetic and Gnostic interpretations. Both were concerned to uphold God's transcendence and impassibility, and did so by denying the full reality of the humanity of Christ. The paradoxical nature of the 'orthodox' position is well revealed in this quote from Origen, "he who was in the form of God saw fit to be in the form of a servant; while he who is immortal dies, and the impassible suffers, and the visible is seen" qui immortalis est, moritur et impassibilis patitur et invisiblis videtur (Origen In Leviticum Homiliae 3.1) (p68-9). The desire of the docetics was to quarantine the divine from unbefitting actions and events. This is a theme that runs into the later chapters.

In the fourth chapter we move into monarchian debates. Noetus, et al, implemented a straightforward syllogistic approach to conclude that God suffered, therefore the Father suffered, and so passibility/impassibility were temporary, not eternal or innate, properties of God (p93-4). Gavrilyuk surprisingly argues that Tertullian and Novatian missed an important Christological point in the monarchian's position, about the unity of a flesh-spirit christology, while they were focused on Trinitarian questions.

The treatment of the 'Arian' controversy forms the bulk of Chapter 5, with Gavrilyuk surveying a number of readings of the driving concept of Arianism. The key question for impassibility here is, "Does the Generation of the Son from the father Entail pathos?" (p114), while pointing up the real difficulties of translating pathos ("it means anything that necessitates change or becoming or human experience" Hanson, Search, 101 n.11.; p114 of Gavrilyuk).

The gold of the argument here comes late in the chapter, as Gavrilyuk argues that the Arians were concerned to protect the immutability, transcendence, and thus impassibility of God the Father, and so the Son who suffered, being passible, must be "inferior in essence" (p130), while "For the orthodox the function of the divine impassibiliy...did not preclude divine care or God’s direct involvement in history" (p132), indeed for Athanasius salvation depended on that God himself became directly involved (De incarnatione makes this abundantly clear).

Chapter 6 then moves into the Christological debates between Nestorius and Cyril, and here we are moving to a Patristic dialectic solution: the 'orthodox' were concerned to maintain the real, full, and direct involvement of God in the incarnation, while preserving God-befitting language in discussion of God's emotions and suffering. This meant the careful distinction that the Son, not the Father of the Spirit, became incarnate and suffered, as well as the repeated paradoxical, yet necessarily so, as Cyril repeatedly placed side by side the impassibility of God, with the suffering of God the Son in the flesh (p162). If this is not so, and one asserts that God suffers, outside the incarnation, the problems are these: "First, it would mean that the antropomorphic descriptions applied to God literally, that God had a constitution that would enable him to feel human emotions and suffering prior to the incarnation. Second, the presupposition that the divine nature could itself suffer renders the assumption of humanity superfluous..."the incarnation would be unnecessary" (p159).


The success of Gavrilyuk's book is doing exactly what he set out to do: demolish the continued (I found it in a Church History textbook just yesterday) erroneous idea that impassibility represents an import from hellenistic philosophy, and so is false. The excellence of the work consists in some thorough-going treatment of the Fathers in their context, to show that they indeed worked through both biblical and systemic-theological processes, to reach a point of rejecting false solutions to the tension between God's impassibility and Christ's passion.

In some future posts I will ofer a few more reflections on impassibility, but for anyone with some interest, and background perhaps, in Patristics and the doctrine of impassibility, this is a great read.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lest we forget: The vanity of nations and the cult of military sacrifice

When a state has no gods, it deifies its own. For it has no sense of something greater, no limit to its imaginings, and so it must conceive them. This tendency is nowhere more prevalent than in late western democracies, since they eschew all religious partisanship, and construct an identity based on nationhood and citizenship. This is seen, not least, in attempts to reassure Americans in the wake of 9/11 that American Muslims were Americans first, Muslim second, a state of affairs that should at least raise the eyebrow.

In Australia today, it is the celebration of Anzac Day. While many nations have some similar remembrance of soldiers' sacrifices, Australia is perhaps unique in its celebration of an essentially disastrous and futile military action, directed by officers of another nation, that ended in no great gain yet great loss of life, as the marker of its 'birth of national identity' and the commemoration of war.

Anzac day, in recent years, has become the only truly sacred day in the civic calendar, and its tag line, "Lest we forget", encapsulates its purpose: to immortalise the memory of those who have died for the nation.

It is at this point, and I am sure some of you reading will take offence, we must turn aside. If Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who came into this world to redeem men and women from every tribe, language, people and nation, and unite them in himself as one body, and come again to judge the living and the dead, if He offered up his life as the true sacrifice, what truck are his disciples to have with war and its cultus?

For it is the vanity of nations that they are worth dying for, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that weighs its own citizens' lives as worth more than the enemies, when they are not. It is the vanity of nations that makes of men professional killers then lauds them as heroes. It is the vanity of nations that thinks its brief glory will endure forever, when history is littered with the ruins of entire peoples, languages, civilisations, all of whom bled many more lives than we. So long as it is 'we', and not 'them', there will always be a justification, always a price for someone else to pay.

As a church, we should always call into question to absolutising tendencies of the state. For the church is, by the calling of Christ, an transnational body of people. It stretches across different nations, and declares that they are temporal not eternal, relative not absolute, man-made things not gods.

As a church, we ought not to immortalise those who killed and died for the nation. In fact, to do so is to be horribly 'muddled' in our thinking, schismaticising our own identity between Christ and the Nation. We remember, instead, the martyrs - men and women who died for something far greater, the good confession of our Lord Jesus Christ, who purchased them by his blood. What Christian today will remember not the sacrifices of soldiers, but those of the martyrs? I fear the answer is few.

Lest we forget - come, let us commemorate the dead, those lives lost fighting for a cause that cannot endure, those lives lost 'for king and country', those lives lost that can never be regained. Let us remember the great absurdity and tragedy of war, and refuse to give it its wanted place. Let us lament those who died too young to hear the good news, and those they slew bringing guns not gospel. It is the greatness of their sacrifice, heartfelt and 'heroic', that magnifies the folly of the cause, and leads us to memorialise not their victory, but only one more defeat.

And at the going down of the sun, perhaps we will recall these words:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Thesis introduction

Here's an early draft of the intro to my thesis:

In recent years traditional schematisations of the history of theological debate during the 4th Century period, specifically those centered around the Councils of Nicaea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, the Trinitarian and Christological issues involved, and the development and resolution of various viewpoints on those issues, have been challenged and largely revised. Firstly there was a revision of our understanding of Arius, and perhaps more significantly, those traditionally labelled ‘Arians’, who now it appears had very little to do with a theological lineage of Arius at all. This resulted in a more complex and nuanced understanding of the theology of those identified as Homoiousians, Homoians, and Anomoians.

Secondly, and more recently, Lewis Ayres has produced a substantial, and not uncontested, revisionist history of the whole period, turning attention from the theologians-formerly-known-as-Arians, to those traditionally identified as Homoousians, Orthodox, or Nicene. He, in concert with Barnes, refers to the pro-Nicenes, as a number of theologians who came to articulate theologies that explicitly or implicitly championed the use of Nicene terminology as an expression of their theology, which has come down to us as Classical Trinitarianism.

A large proportion of this historical work has centered, and rightly so, on those figures traditionally regarded as ‘major players’ in the 4th Century debates: Athanasius, the Cappadocians, Augustine1. In this thesis I propose to turn attention to John Chrysostom. Long regarded as one of the foremost preachers of Late Antiquity, Chrysostom’s enduring legacy as a preacher and commentator continued and continues to have significant influence. Yet, a later contemporary to the Cappadocians, he played no significant part in the resolution of ecclesiastical and theological disputes made and represented by Constantinople 381.

Ayres, in his work, speaks repeatedly of common pro-Nicene ‘strategies’ that tie together the pro-Nicene theologians, and of a shared grammar of theological discourse. The question that begs to be answered in the case of Chrysostom, then, is to what extent does Chrysostom share and exemplify these pro-Nicene strategies.

In order to answer this question, I propose to do four things.

Firstly, I will briefly review some of the relevant historical background to Chrysostom’s preaching. This will include the historical period of Late Antiquity in Chrysostom’s lifetime; socio-cultural factors that may bear upon his preaching; Greek rhetoric as exemplified by Libanios and his school, and as practiced by classically-trained clergy in the Greek East; the city of Antioch; influence and comparison with Diodore of Tarsus and Theodore of Mopsuestia; the theological scene of the late 4th century in terms of the continuing and resolving Trinitarian debates.

Secondly, I will outline and articulate 9 strategies that I consider representative of pro-Nicene theology. I derive 6 of these directly from Ayres, and 3 from the reading of primary sources directly. In both sets I will attempt to locate these 9 in sources from those theologians identifiable as pro-Nicene.

Thirdly, I will apply these nine criteria to a close-reading of Chrysostom’s homilies on John’s Gospel. There are eighty-eight homilies on the Fourth Gospel, to which I will apply the criteria broadly across the corpus, with particular attention to key contested passages of the period. This will take special reference to the polemical context of the homilies, in terms of the ongoing presence of Anomoians in the lineage of Aetius and Eunomius. Both Anomoians, and John’s contemporary Theodore, provide some measure of control in isolating and identifying pro-Nicene strategies and unique content.

Fourthly I will draw some conclusions from the presence and/or absence of these criteria in Chrysostom’s treatment of the Fourth Gospel. This will include a consideration of pro-Nicene theology outside the major theological ‘players’ of the 4th century, homiletics, and scope for further research.

1 Not because of his role in those debates, but due to the significance of his trinitarian understanding for the development of Western Theological Thought

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This work by Seumas Macdonald is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License.

The Education of believers

In NSW at the moment we are having a lovely stoush over the place of Religious Education in schools. To understand why, one has to understand history: legislation in 1880 guaranteed an hour a week of the school program would be made available for Special Religious Education (SRE), to be provided by religious providers from outside the school, and non-SRE children were not to be instructed from the School curriculum during that time (so as not to disadvantage SRE-children).

In recent days, a secular Ethics-based course has been developed, as an alternative to SRE, and is being trialled in a number of schools. The current debate centers a lot around: whether the Ethics course should properly ‘compete’ with SRE, how Ethics enrolments conflict with SRE enrolments, whether Ethics courses will ultimately lead to the exclusion of the SRE provision in schools, etc..

I think I understand and respect the genuine concern of many Christians that the introduction of the Ethics course, and its ambiguous ‘branding’ and method of introduction, represent a real threat to SRE in schools, and to opportunities for the Gospel. At the same time I think we may have just really lost our head on education as Christians.

Education, in an ancient context, was an immense privelege that belonged to the wealthy. It was also not a state or societal responsibility. Our individualism leads to a broader notion of ‘community’, and so universal education leads us to the state-backed and run education models of today. I want to suggest, that education as a more generic entity, belongs with much smaller communities, and even with parents and their families. SRE does represent a phenomenal opportunity, especially for reaching children of nominally christian households. But it’s not a right, except in a legal sense in NSW. We are not entitled to preach and religiously instruct other people’s children. And if the circumstances were reversed we would be justly agitating for the right to have our children not religiously instructed by other religious groups. Nor is education of the children of our own church communities someone else’s responsibility. Parents and churches should rightly look to themselves to educate their children, both in the faith, and in life and learning. This doesn’t mean home-schooling (though it might), but it does mean the ownership of responsibility for the issue.

I’m unconvinced Christians are waging this battle in the right way, contesting public space in a manner that respects the integrity of the church. Those are my thoughts, happy to hear some of yours.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Why it’s weird: Stepping out of paid ministry but not your ministry context

Because people know I trained at a theological college, and one that generally prepares people for local church ministry, the question, “What church are you at?” usually implies an answer that presumes I am working there. It takes a few extra steps of conversation to explain that I was working there, but my position evaporated because of funding.

Which leads on to the fact that we’re still here. And it’s a little weird. For example, it was a little weird to have a farewell during a service but then to be there the next week. I now have an understanding and appreciation for why people in ministry often move church contexts when they leave a role within a particular church.

So, I’m trying to reflect a little on why it’s weird, for us in particular, not for all such situations. For example, in some cases it’s because there is still expectation to perform the same ministry work one did before, which is a very unfair burden. That’s not really the case for us.

I think there are a number of factors. Firstly, I was in a formal role with certain functions, but now that role has ceased, I have to renegotiate what functions I perform: what are my pastoral responsibilites within the church?

Then there is the question of relational investment. There’s some expectation that we’ll leave, and rightly so, either to take up some work somewhere else, or mid-term ultimately to go overseas. That sense of imminent leaving forestalls some long-term emotional committment to relationships with people here, on both sides.

A third factor, and one I think has much broader reaching implications, is how we think about ministry and paid ministry in particular. I take it that paid ministry exists for the following kind of logic: it makes sense to set aside some people to devote themselves to training in the scriptures, and being freed from other work obligations, to devote themselves to gospel work. If we value that as a church community, then we’ll set aside money to make that happen. It’s not generally appropriate to expect people who make their living from ministry to do it for free – that’s a callous way of abusing another person’s graciousness (though if they want and offer to do things freely, that’s entirely fine!). So, when that money ceases, it necessarily has an impact on a person’s freedom from other entanglements for gospel ministry, and makes some kind of statement about the communities valuation of that person’s work.

I’m not particularly trying to raise any grievance here, or lodge a complaint, or anything like that (which I know may be the implication some draw from the above). I just want to articulate that when we relate money and ministry, and then money ceases to be provided, it has a personal impact on the previously paid minister, and this flows on into relationships. I’m still trying to sort through that impact for myself, but it’s not to be discounted.

So there are a few factors, and what they all amount to is a set of new uncertainties in established relationships, and perhaps an adjustment period if long-term settlement was our goal, but since it’s not, those uncertainties are not likely to get resolved in the short-term. I think that’s why it’s a little weird.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Answering identity questions

It’s common to answer those initial identity-establishing questions with an answer that defines who you are largely in terms of what you do for paid (or significant non-paid) employment. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this – it’s a very short-hand way of contextualising the person you’re speaking with. Add a couple of other salient facts, where they grew up and where they live, and you’re in a position to make a rapid assessment, i.e. to stereotype them. We tend to think stereotyping is bad, but stereotyping serves all sorts of purposes. If we refuse to revise our udnerstanding of someone because our stereotype has closed that off, then we have a particular problem.

Moving on though, Christians in particular like to answer the “who are you” question by first going to their family. This is something I’ve noticed particularly of late, that they will name their spouse, then their children, before moving on to soemthing else. Again, there’s much to be commended in using our family to identify us.

But I want to suggest something that Christians ‘get’ theologically, but don’t get pragmatically. Our identity is first and foremost shaped by our relationship with God in and through Christ. So I am an adopted child of God through union with Christ by the Spirit of adoption. That is the primary identity I bear, and it’s one that shapes all others.

What if we made the conscious effort to start off our new conversations and interactions with that fact. But don’t stop there. Saying, “Hi, I’m a child of God,” in our culture sounds a little bit wacky and the conversation may well stop dead. We need to link our identity in Christ with our living it in the world. So, something like this, “Well, the most important thing in my life is believing in Jesus, and so that has led me to do X, Y, Z as a career, because of values A, B, C.” You’ve introduced Jesus at the start of this conversation, used it to ground your identity, communicated something about your work, and linked it to the values you have and practice as a Christian. And your conversationalist can pick up the work element and talk about that if that’s safest for them. Or maybe they’ll want to explore more about the role of Jesus. Who knows? But it’s there, at the start, shaping the relationship.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

3 thoughts on mission and everyday life

1. What if you started praying at work? I do not mean either privately in a no-one-notices kind of way (though that is a good thing), and I do not mean in an ostentatious way that draws attention to itself. I mean what if you regularly prayed throughout the day, in a way that was clear about what you were doing, but didn't seek to draw attention to it. When you came in to start the day, you might sit at a desk and pray for a minute or two. After lunch you might read a psalm and pray for a moment. Before heading into court, you might excuse yourself for a moment to pray.

A simple, deliberate practice like this would both help to sanctify, and thus integrate, work life as Christian life, while at the same time publicise (as opposed to privatise) religion back into the public sphere.

As for the challenge that may come in a secularised society, if political correctness can give space and time for a Muslim to pray 5 times a day, then 1 Thess 5:17 is your verse: a Christian's life should be regularly and continually marked by prayer.

2. Treating secular societies as 'hostile' in a way analogous to closed-access countries.

Australia is not that bad, as I compare it to impressions of the UK for instance, and in the USA religion is still a public conversation topic, but post-Christian socities often evidence a hostility for Christianity that manifests in political liberalism, PC, and aggressive secularism. We might gain a lot if we began to see our own socities as hostile to Christianity, and shape some of our missional practices accordingly.

3. Re-orient our christian lives and fellowship around mission foci, not geographical beds.

One of the things I have learnt, or re-learnt, from being a full-time student, is that the dynamic of working a full day plus commuting changes one's lifestyle dramatically. When I say full-time student, I mean that I go in to the office at 8am, and leave about 4:45. Unlike most workers, I have lots of freedom to schedule my own day, but nonetheless it's a full day. It's also 1.5 hrs commuting either side of that. I imagine for many workers, their days are much longer, their work much more demanding, and consuming.

So when I come home each day, I'm pretty tired. Secondly, the geographical focus of most of my life is not where my home is. Urban life is not, typically, centered around one's place of sleep, especially for the commuter. So there are weaknesses in the parish model.

What if we organised whom we fellowshipped with based on (a) where we worked (both geographically and industry-wise), (b) who we wanted to reach? Smaller groups, mission focused, and that was 'church'. In a sense, this is coming back to the Total Church model, but it's coming back at it from a different angle. I tend to read Total Church as someone with a church-ministry-minister mindset and ask, "how do we make church more like that?", but if we are prepared to ditch some fundamental structures of parishes, buildings, ministers, etc., and ask what it might look like to lead tentmaking missionary lives in our host culture, we get there in a different way.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Waltke, et al

I don't have anything substantially new to add to the drama surrounding Waltke's 'resignation' from RTS, but I think Mike Bird has some good things to say here, and John Hobbin's round-up is helpful for getting up to speed on the whole situation.

Intentionality and Mission

While I was in Mongolia I happened to pick up and read thoroughly Patrick Lai's book "Tentmaking: Business as Missions". It had a lot of really excellent insights, and even though tentmaking wasn't/isn't where things seem headed for us, I took a lot away from reading it. So much so, that I'm inclined to pick it up again and take some proper notes.

One of the things that impressed me, was the integration of work, life, and 'ministry'. The picture of a tentmaker as someone who integrated their work-life as a Christian, and had gone to a particular place with the particular intention of reaching people with the gospel, showing a faithful Christian life, discipling believers, and planting churches, was a powerful image.

It made me think about what this might look, if we taught people to do it and live it without going overseas. Lai defines tent-makers with the proviso of 'cross-cultural', which is helpful. We both want to encourage all christians to think of themselves as 'missionaries', while at the same time recognising the distinct hardships and difficulties of Christians who are pursuing mission work that is cross-cultural, international, etc.. Nonetheless, if we had Christian people in local churches who made intentional choices: where to work, who to get to know, specific groups that they were trying to get to know, model Christlikeness to, and share Jjesus with, with an integrated understanding of their work and life as all under the Lordship of Jesus, I think we'd see something major change in the life of the church. And this might, in fact almost certainly would, cause difficulties with established 'churches'. When faithful Christian people pull out of institution-run programmes because they have devoted their energies to missionary endeavours, it is bound to cause both pain and misunderstanding. But the reward would be eternal.

I need to get some more thoughts together on this and express it better...

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Opening up dialogue, sharing research

I've been toying with an idea for a little while, and it's about time I asked the internet for some feedback.

It's one thing to be blogging about various things, all of interest, and it's another to be working away in a graduate program doing research. The expectation of the latter is that one will work away in comparative solitude, produce something original, and then add it to the hopelessly expanding and specialising field of knowledge. And yet, research in patristics is hardly competitive pharmaceutical discoveries or the like. What gain is there really to spend three years in silence and then only once complete to say something that may or may not be timely?

The other factor on my mind is that I think well when I compose, either by writing or speaking. That's why my 3rd research subject/exam turned into 30K worth of blog posts. I needed a way to articulate my study revision in a way that would help me conceptualise.

So, I'm thinking through how to do the same with my thesis. What might it look like to blog a thesis into existence? How could I creatively open up this process to external input? What safeguards might be important in that process?