Saturday, November 26, 2011

Pulpit Review: Ancient Christian Doctrine

Edwards, Mark J., editor. Thomas C. Oden, series editor. We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord (Ancient Christian Doctrine 3). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009. 194 Pages. Cloth. $50.00. (P)

Elowsky, Joel C., editor. Thomas C. Oden, series editor. We Believe in the Holy Spirit (Ancient Christian Doctrine 4). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009. 309 Pages. Cloth. $50.00. (P)

Di Berardino, Angelo, editor. Thomas C. Oden, series editor. We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (Ancient Christian Doctrine 5). Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2010. 316 Pages. Cloth. $50.00. (P)

Our Modern world gets a regular glimpse at Ancient Christianity thanks to InterVarsity Press. 

In this review, we complete a series of reviews on the five-volume Ancient Christian Doctrine series, now complete.

Read our review of Volume 1:

Read our review of Volume 2:

Volume 3 continues the series' Ancient Commentary on the Nicene Creed.

The resurrection changed everything. "But for the resurrection," writes Mark J. Edwards, "there would have been no reason to argue for a union of two natures in the person of Christ, let alone for a dyad or triad in the Godhead. All that he had said and done in the course of his earthly ministry would have sat well enough with the character of a prophet who excelled such predecessors as Isaiah and John the Baptist only in power and closeness to God."

That is the story that unfolds as Edwards gathers together the most salient comments from the early church on the latter half of the second article of the Nicene Creed on God the Son as the crucified and risen Lord. The deliberations of ancient Christian writers on these matters are regarded now as the nucleus of Christology. The work of Christ is customarily considered, in Western Christendom at least, as the principal object of his coming. That Christ died for our sins was an axiom of all apostolic preaching.

In these pages we see that the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation were not the second thoughts of Christendom after its encounter with Greek philosophy. Rather they were forced on the church by its refusal to adopt the polytheism of the Greeks as a means of reconciling the sovereignty of God with the exaltation of Christ as Lord.

It is ultimately in the work of Christ that the essentials of his Person are revealed. The church's early teachers ultimately combine to denounce the critical maneuvers that would persuade us that the Scriptures do not mean what they plainly say. Here, as throughout the Creed, we see how the early church rooted all its claims in Scripture. (publisher's website)
Where Volume 2 focuses on the person of Christ, Volume 3 focuses on His work for us and our salvation in his crucifixion and Resurrection.

Choice Quotes:
  • From the Introduction: "There is no consensus now that the high Christology is a proof of late composition" (xvii)
  • Jerome: [Peter] means it cannot be and my ears cannot bear, that the Son of God should be killed...[Jesus] means, "Because you are speaking in opposition to my resolve, you deserve to be called an enemy." (21, Peter's Confession)
  • Cyril of Alexandria: For all that, let them not divide him double-mindedly or foist on us two sons but confess him as one and the same, as the Word of God become man, and predicate everything of him, words and deeds alike. For since the same one was at the same time God and man, he speaks both what befits God and what befits humans, and likewise his acts are both human and divine... (40, Miracles and the Two Natures)
  • Hippolytus: This was the salvific desire of Christ, this his spiritual love, to show that the types were but types and to give his holy body to his disciples in place of them: "Take eat; this is my body. Take, drink; this is my blood, the new covenant, which was poured out for all the remission of sins." (79, The Last Supper)
Christian catechesis abounds in resources to teach the Apostles' Creed. Let us hear from ancient pastors how Scripture presents the truths we confess in the Nicene Creed.

The Third Article gets two volumes in this series.

 Volume 4 focuses on the person of God the Holy Spirit.

"The Spirit blows where it pleases," Jesus said to Nicodemus. "You hear its sound but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

The Spirit, like the wind, is hard to pin down. Any discussion of the Spirit is fraught with the difficulty of speaking about something or someone who defies definition and who purposely averts attention from himself toward someone else. So it is with the Spirit. And so it is with the church's reception of and conversation about the Spirit, even in its early centuries. It is hard to pin down, and the church's voice on the Spirit has been about as loud as the whisper of the wind that indicates the Spirit's presence.

The church's teaching on the Holy Spirit is perhaps what Nicolas Berdayev has called "the last unexplored theological frontier." In these latter days of the church, this "final frontier" is receiving increasing attention. The rise of the Pentecostal movement, the engaged witness of the Orthodox churches, which have historically been more sensitive to the role of the Spirit, coupled with the fact that people in general are looking for a deeper and more relational faith, perhaps help explain in part the increased attention the Spirit is getting.

It is appropriate then that the base camp of this exploration be established in the early understanding of the church on these matters. Following the outline of the succinct third article of the Nicene Creed, Joel Elowsky opens up to us vistas of the Holy Spirit with expertly selected passages from ancient Christian writings.

This portion of the Creed, apart from the filioque, is largely uncontroversial. The full deity of the Spirit is highlighted not so much by theological definition as by the emphasis on worship and action. While the Creed itself does not speak directly of the work of the Spirit in justification, sanctification and the like, the early church theologians nevertheless had much to say on these issues. Here we see clearly how the Spirit is "giver of life." (publisher's website)

Seeing the Greek, Latin, and English of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed should encourage all Christians to work toward unity with the mind of Christ, and encourage us to keep confessing the one holy catholic and apostolic Church, not anticipating an earthly visible unity, but in hopes of better appreciating our heavenly unity with Christ and through Him, with one another.

Of issue in this volume is a possible misunderstanding by the reader of what is a loaded term in the East, theosis (137ff); Synesios of Cyrene's confused hymn about the Spirit (18); and a muddled explanation of the current muddled situation (xv, in contrast to the clarity of Martin Luther's explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles' Creed on the active work of the Spirit).

The editors do a marvelous job of making the appeal to Scripture first, Nicene Creed second, and Fathers as third authority in what could have been the most controversial volume in the set. We pray for a Nicene unity!

Of note:
  • From the Introduction: "The early Christians approached their teaching about the Holy spirit more cautiously and humbly than subsequent ages have done at times" (xxxiii).
  • This abundance of caution is seen especially when explaining blasphemy (36).
  • The Giver of Life (Historical Context): Repentance precedes justification in the sense that it prepares the heart to receive God's gracious gift of forgiveness by tearing down any notino of self-justification...(84)
  • A vital section: A Vital Sacramental Union (163-166).
  • Filioque (217ff, especially note 16 on page 219)
  • Hymns (248-249)

I would propose that Volume 5 is as much a volume on the work of the Holy Spirit as Volume 4 was on the person of the Holy Spirit.

When was the church founded? Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and not of a religious organization subsequently called church. We don't find in the Gospels expressions which make reference to the foundation of a new religious community, a new and distinct community of followers of Jesus. But after the resurrection of Jesus, his followers, as a result of his express command, gather together not only those from the people of Israel but men and women of all nations.

The final clauses of the Nicene Creed spell out, briefly and to the point, the church's self-understanding in these early centuries. Angelo Di Berardino assembles a wide range of texts and teachers of the church during these years to enrich our understanding and deepen our faith in the great mysteries expressed here.

The Creed quickly hits the four marks of the church--that it is "one holy catholic and apostolic." What do we mean by professing each of these? Di Berardino helps us to give an answer with the help of the fathers of the church.

The volume closes, as does the Creed, with a consideration of baptism (the traditional entrance for people into the church) and two central features of the church in the future--the expectation that all of God's people will enjoy the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. (publisher's website)

In conversation with ancient and modern Christians, I would assert:
  • Apostolic doctrine is of more importance than the form of apostolic succession (cf. 78ff).
  • Comparing teaching to the teaching of the Word is the most important guarantee of apostolic doctrine (cf. 83).
  • Defining baptism as "immersion" or "ablution" (87) is an incomplete definition given that various washings in Mark and Acts use the same Greek term and do not everywhere and always mean "immersion."
  • Dear Victorinus of Petovium (and his modern readers and followers), don't take "a thousand years are as one day" out of context, please (167). Thank you! 
Readers should note:
  • The importance of the Greek term ekklesia in classical Greek, the Septuagint, the New Testament, and beyond (xix).
  • Augustine on Psalm 138, summarized by the Editor: The Church Was Born from the Cross (33).
  • Pacian of Barcelona on the term "catholic" (75).
  • A helpful section defending Infant Baptism (107ff).
  • A most helpful Conclusion of the Ancient Christian Doctrine Series by General Editor/Series Editor Thomas C. Oden (269ff).

I am impressed by the five volumes of Ancient Christian Doctrine. This set should grace the shelves of every Christian pastor. Consider sharing a set with your pastor (perhaps as a congregational gift to him) for Christmas.

The whole set of five volumes is available for $200 from the publisher. While price remains a concern to us with our readers in mind, other vendors sell individual volumes for less. Still, if you would like to bless a publisher for good materials and encourage them to do more Ancient Christian resources, purchasing them direct may be a good idea!

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.