Statements that the Bible/NT do not have a fully orbed Trinitarianism abound. Of course, those with a “low, slow” christology make that affirmation, but even those with an “early, high” christology regularly make such claims. Behind this is a strong concern to avoid the anachronism of later (creedal) theology back into texts. It is this problem of anachronism that I think undergirds those that would both deny and affirm Nicene theology. In other words, both groups are actually committing an anachronistic reading by making the comment that a fully orbed Trinitarianism is not found int the NT.

Historical Criticism: The concern of anachronism is almost self-evident in historical critical studies. There is a one-way flow of time, and every text/author must be interpreted in light of what is contemporaneous or previous to them. In no way should later conceptualities be introduced that would taint the historical evidence. Therefore, introducing later Nicene theology into a text would be out of order and would produce anachronistic results. Accordingly, one can easily say that the NT does not have a fully formed Trinitarianism, by which they mean a fully formed Nicene Trinitarianism. However, by using this later standard by which to measure Trinitarianism, historical critics have implicitly imported an anachronistic conceptuality into their their argument. Can’t the NT have a fully formed Trinitarianism on its own terms? Or might we say, in light of the historical critical concern to bracket out the ontology of Nicaea in terms of the immanent Trinity, they can fall into the trap of missing the event and action of God in terms of the economic Trinity. For example, Dunn in his Christology in the Making argues that Christ is the revelation of God in Paul’s letters, just that Christ is not ontologically identified with God (through pre-existence) in Paul’s letters: “God had himself acted in and through Christ” (255). This seems to be a strong indication of an economic view of Trinity, which is set in opposition to an immanent view. Yet if the immanent view was not at play in the discussion as an alternative, then the economic would be allowed more space.

Thus, it seems that this anachronistic standard is shaping historical critical affirmations and denials. This doesn’t mean that ontological issues are irrelevant to assessments of these texts, but we need to be careful of importing a standard from a latter time in order to make those assessments. This isn’t only a problem for those critiquing or questioning traditional readings, and I’ll mention how more traditional readers deal in anachronism  while trying to support their readings in a follow-up post.

I was asked to write a review of the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible with a focus on Romans. My first Bible that I really read was the NIV Study Bible that was around in the early 90’s. It was a great aid to my faith and personal growth. I’ve not engaged a study Bible in years, so this was an interesting exercise.

This Bible follows the same format of most study Bibles, including general introductions, call out boxes, and footnotes. As with the title of the study Bible, the information helps explain the text but with a focus on the cultural background. Those materials include geographic details, social practices (Jewish, Greek, and Roman), rhetorical practices, and engagement with other texts such as the OT and Second Temple literature.

The general introductions were informative and the footnotes included a good bit of quick information. The notes are not not merely background information, but provide a helpful explanation of how the paragraph holds together: e.g., 1:18-22, which mentions Wisdom of Solomon, and 3.10-18, which notes the unifying factor of the quotes, not just sin but body parts (feet, eyes, and especially mouth).

These are the main call-out pages that give the a focused attention on topics: Rome Homosexual Activity in Antiquity, Adam in Jewish Tradition, Flesh and Spirit, Pure and Unclean Foods, and the Erastus Inscription. I found discussion of Homosexual Activity in Antiquity. It gives discussion of Greek and Roman practices and context. In particular, it focuses on older men with boys as well as the use of prostitutes and slaves. It explains the demographic basis about baby girls being more often discarded in ancient cultures, which leads to the focus on boys. Ultimately it describes the practices without prescriptive interpretations.

There are elements that are missing. There’s surprisingly little about justification here in Romans (or Galatians). There are only footnotes which by implication gloss justification with “acquittal”. That’s not a minor issue in the letter. While I’ve seen or heard most of the information here since this letter is a focus of mine, but I can say that there were elements that I wouldn’t have focused on but should have or hadn’t thought of. So, I’m a fan.

 

O’Keefe (“Impassible Suffering?”, 44-45) describing Cyril of Alexandria:

Those who refuse to confess that Mary is Mother of God do not appreciate the fullness of the Son’s participation with us, just as the Arians misunderstood the fullness of the Son’s participation in God.

Thanks to Nijay Gupta for his favorable review of Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (Fortress, 2016):

This is a timely book, offering thoughtful and thought-provoking reflection and debate on how Pauline scholars use the language of apocalyptic and apply it to the Apostle’s letters. I do not doubt that this volume will enjoy a long life of use, especially the early chapters that treat the critical matters of definition and methodology. Students of Paul will benefit greatly from this colloquium on Paul’s apocalyptic thought in context. (Horizons in Biblical Theology 38 [2016]: 242-44)

I’m often underwhelmed by arguments for the existence of God, often because they are based on natural theology and therefore don’t really give proof of God as Trinity but just a generic theistic god. However, Charles Taylor makes an interesting observation about the distinction between Augustine (with Anselm and Descartes) and Thomas in their arguments that I found interesting:

[Thomas’ proofs] argue to God from the existence of created reality (or what the proofs show to be created reality). They pass, as it were, through the realm of objects. The Augustinian proof moves through the subject and through the undeniable foundations of his presence to himself. (Sources of Self, 141)

The subjective argument of Augustine is this:

my experience of my own thinking puts me in contact with perfection, which at one and the same time shows itself to be an essential condition of thinking and also to be far beyond my own finite scope and powers to attain. There must then be a higher being on which all this depends, i.e., God.  (Sources of Self, 140)

Of course, this distinction makes sense given the respective Platonic and Aristotelian emphases, but I hadn’t considered this difference.

Continuing a series of posts about NT Christology, Larry Hurtado recently posted about “Chronology and Ontology“. There, he makes this claim:

So, how can we say that “ontological” categories don’t appear to be operative in earliest Christological texts? Negatively, there is the absence of the sort of philosophical terms that make their appearance in subsequent Christian texts. Positively, the Christological statements that we do have in NT texts seem to me to express claims more of a relational and transactional nature. In various ways, Jesus is uniquely linked with God, and is conferred (by God) with a unique status and role in relation to God.

My thoughts immediately ran to Colossians 2.9, which he doesn’t mention in his post. However, after being questioned in the comments about Col 2.9 and Heb 1.4, he follows up with a comment:

Sure, there are verbal links, but the sentences (and so the connotation of the terms) are different. And remember that sentences are the primary semantic unit, not “words”. So, e.g., in Col 2:9, Jesus is the one in whom “the fullness of deity dwells bodily,” which makes Jesus the vehicle of deity, which is a bit different from the later questions about whether the “Son” and God the Father share the same “essence.” And in Hebrews 1:3, the Son bears “the stamp” of God’s “being,” the term hypostasis used here in its more typical sense, whereas in the later Christological debates the term takes on a new/peculiar sense designating the particularity of the divinity of each of the three “persons” of the Trinity. Again, let’s respect the historical particularities of any text.

I  (Ben) wrote an article on Colossians 2.9–“You Are Filled in Him: Theosis and Colossians 2–3“–and among the topics I treat there is the ontology of this passage. As I point out there, even Dunn concedes how the terminology is relevant:

Dunn, for instance, while defending the latter option [that the dwelling is functional not ontological], concedes that θεότης “was sufficiently familiar in literary Greek to denote the nature or essence of deity, that which constitutes deity.” [Dunn, Colossians, 151]

In response to Dunn and McGrath, I make use of Hurtado’s conceptualities to argue for an ontological reading:

In one of his more recent works, Hurtado notes the informal distinction
in NT texts between discourse and practice, that is, there is a triadic shape of the God-discourse (elevated language about Father, Son, and Spirit) alongside a dyadic devotional practice (focused on the Father and Son). 24 In this taxonomy, the hymn in 1:15–20 reflects devotional practice, whereas 2:9 reflects God-discourse, since it is focused more on concepts than practice. That is, repeating but also expanding the language of 1:19, Paul is clarifying in 2:9 what he means by the fullness dwelling in Christ: it is the fullness of deity. That this fullness is not just God’s presence with Christ is shown through 1:15–20, where the cultic devotion reserved for God alone is now also given to Christ. Thus, 1:15–20 with its devotional practice and 2:9–10 with its God-discourse mutually inform one another.

As part of my conclusions, I write:

Paul’s use of θεότης invites us to consider the ontology of the assertion because the term itself relates to the divine essence. Francis Watson and others have rightly argued that in Paul’s letters that Christ’s function coheres with a divine ontology. Though addressing a later debate, the language and conceptualities of Nicaea can be of help. Importantly, one of the major topics in the Nicene debates was the issue of the coherence of act and being. That is, the orthodox confession was that Christ’s being (ontology) and act (function) cohere so that he is divine as the Father is divine. Thus, although extrabiblical concepts were employed to support the argument in the fourth century, the affirmations reflect the same judgments regarding the “unique divine identity” that Bauckham argues is in play in first-century assertions like we see in 2:9.

Of course, there is much more content and substance to my argument in the essay, but I would argue that ontology is too easily dismissed by Hurtado in this case because he wants to separate concepts and judgments. We should be sensitive to the problem of anachronism, but being too sensitive to it means that we miss the similarities.

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I (Ben) am a part of a reading group at church that recently finished Charles Taylor’s Secular Age, and we’re now into Sources of Self. (I know, I go to a cool church!) Taylor’s discussion in Secular Age was very impacting. In particular, his chapter on Bulwarks of Belief is one of the most important things I’ve read on how laying out systematically how the ancient/medieval social imaginary is different to the post-Enlightenment social imaginary. Understanding that difference is fundamental to interpreting these ancient texts. (As a good intro and interaction with Secular Age, I’ve assigned Jamie Smith’s How (Not) to Be Secular with success a couple of times.)

Taylor describes our current age as the Age of Authenticity, which is built upon the idea that we have to create our identity. Since people struggle either to pick the right identity to create or want to create an identity but really don’t have the resources to achieve that goal the level of anxiety has increased greatly: The Age of Authenticity is the Age of Anxiety.

As part of his argument Taylor, at times makes use of Durkheim, and I have to confess I kept getting lost in what Durkheim held to. Another friend from church not in our reading group (I know, what a great church!) mentioned these School of Life videos and specifically the Durkheim one, and his relevance for Taylor became self-evident.