Brief Notes Towards a Reformed Theology of Religions (With a Bit of Bavinck on the Unevangelized)

theology of religionI’ve been reading Gerald McDermott and Harold Nestland’s new theology of religion A Trinitarian Theology of Religion: An Evangelical Proposal and it’s been quite stimulating. While I used to give the problem of other religions and the Christian faith more thought, I haven’t as of late. Still, McDermott and Nestland’s stimulating work have gotten the juices flowing again. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer 7 brief, tentative notes towards my current “theology” of other religions. What, in light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, can we say is the truth about what we typically think of as other faith-systems?

1. Jesus Christ alone is the crucified and resurrected Lord over all creation. The confession of Christ’s preeminent, sole, unique, saving Lordship is baseline for any Christian theology of other religions.

2. Consistent with this, as the uniquely Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ alone is and reveals the ultimate fullness of truth about God, the world, and everything else. Jesus’ revelation is not one among many, or merely a slightly clearer revelation of a broader religious truth.

3. Jesus reveals the Triune God to to be ultimate spiritual reality. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not merely the names we’ve given to our Christian experience of some deeper Real that every other faith is describing by some other name. Hard Pluralism about religious reality is inconsistent–well, just in general–and with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

4. There is no other name under heaven by which men may be saved than that of the Lord Jesus. This means at the very least that salvation comes by, in, and through the work and person of Jesus Christ alone. It is only by union with his obedient life, atoning death, and life-giving sacrifice that any can be redeemed from their sin and brought into a saving relationship with God. For that reason, other religions cannot be the mechanism or method for the salvation of any person. Salvation is solely by the grace of Jesus Christ, not the result of human works or merit.

5. Other religions, just as all other philosophical thought systems that do not flow from the truth of gospel, participate in idolatry. While they testify to the basic human need to worship, they do so in a disordered fashion, according some part of creation with the honor, dignity, and function that only God may rightfully occupy. Note though, this is true as much with Hinduism as it is with Marxism or Aristotelian philosophy.

6. The complementary reality is that within other religions there can be elements of truth found within them through God’s work of common grace. Note, this is not saving truth, or special grace. That said, some religions’ teachings may be the result of the Holy Spirit’s restraining work of mercy, though not likely his illumining work of salvation. That a Muslim knows there is one God and does not fall into the obvious idolatry of animism or ancestor worship, I take to be the restraining work of common grace. Also, it seems possible to see those aspects in Buddhism that teach compassion, or at least militate against socially-destructive forms of obvious selfishness, to be truths of common grace as well. Many of us would have no trouble affirming something like this about the truth of systems of thought we call “philosophy” such as Aristotelianism and Platonism. I take this to be as true for the systems of thought we typically designate “religious” in the West.

7. Finally, as to the very sensitive question of the salvation of members of other religions who have never had the opportunity to explicitly respond to the gospel, unsurprisingly, I suppose I hold decently conservative views on the subject. When I was younger I used to straight-forwardly affirm a C.S. Lewis-style inclusivism–God saves some on the basis of their response to the truth they could respond to, yet only on the basis of Christ’s merits. Lately though, in light of the types of concerns summarized by this excellent little article by Kevin DeYoung clarifying the case for exclusivism, I have become me much more cautious about affirming something speculative on this issue and wary about going that route.

My thought in this area has been rather unreconstructed since my shift Reformed, though, so I decided to do a little digging in Bavinck and I find this interesting section on the fate of unevangelized pagans and children who die in infancy. After discussing some historical positions–for instance, Augustine and others believed some pagans like Socrates were in a position similar to OT saints–he goes on to write this fascinating passage:

In light of Scripture, both with regard to the salvation of pagans and that of children who die in infancy, we cannot get beyond abstaining from a firm judgment, in either a positive or a negative sense. Deserving of note, however, is that in the face of these serious questions Reformed theology is in a much more favorable position than any other. For in this connection, all other churches can entertain a more temperate judgment only if they reconsider their doctrine of the absolute necessity of the means of grace or infringe upon that of the accursedness of sin. But the Reformed refused to establish the measure of grace needed for a human being still to be united with God, though subject to many errors and sins, or to determine the extent of the knowledge indispensably necessary to salvation. Furthermore, they maintained that the means of grace are not absolutely necessary for salvation and that also apart from the Word and sacraments God can regenerate persons for eternal life.
Thus, in the Second Helvetic Confession, article 1, we read: “At the same time we recognize that God can illuminate whom and when he will, even without the external ministry, for that is in his power”…And the Westminster Confession states (in ch. X, §3) that “elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit, who works when, and where, and how he pleases”, and that this applies also to “all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.” Reuter, accordingly, after explaining Augustine’s teaching on this point, correctly states: “One could in fact defend the paradox that it is precisely the particularistic doctrine of predestination that makes possible those universalistic-sounding phrases.”
In fact, even the universalistic passages of Scripture cited above come most nearly and most beautifully into their own in Reformed theology. For these texts are certainly not intended universalistically in the sense that all humans or even all creatures are saved, nor are they so understood by any Christian church. All churches without exception confess that there is not only a heaven but also a hell. At most, therefore, there is a difference of opinion about the number of those who are saved and of those who are lost. But that is not something one can argue about inasmuch as that number is known only to God. When Jesus was asked: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he only replied: “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many … will try to enter but will not be able” (Luke 13:24). Directly important to us is only that we have no need to know the number of the elect.
In any case, it is a fact that in Reformed theology the number of the elect need not, for any reason or in any respect, be deemed smaller than in any other theology. In fact, at bottom the Reformed confessions are more magnanimous and broader in outlook than any other Christian confession. It locates the ultimate and most profound source of salvation solely in God’s good pleasure, in his eternal compassion, in his unfathomable mercy, in the unsearchable riches of his grace, grace that is both omnipotent and free. Aside from it, where could we find a firmer and broader foundation for the salvation of a sinful and lost human race? However troubling it may be that many fall away, still in Christ the believing community, the human race, the world, is saved. The organism of creation is restored. The wicked perish from the earth (Ps. 104:35); they are cast out (John 12:31; 15:6; Rev. 22:15). Still, all things in heaven and earth are gathered up in Christ (Eph. 1:10). All things are created through him and for him (Col. 1:16)

Reformed Dogmatics Volume 4: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, pp. 726-727

Bavinck is about as orthodox Reformed as you get–rejecting pluralism, universalism, affirming predestination–and yet still he finds some space for the possibility of the regeneracy unevangelized. I find that interesting, even if I’d need to give it more thought. In any case, I’m quite sure whatever God does do is consistent with the astounding mercy, love, and justice demonstrated on the cross.

None of this is particularly astonishing, new, or controversial (I hope). Still, it seems profitable to be laid out for reflection and discussion.

Soli Deo Gloria

Defending #ClassicalTheism One Tweet at a Time

panentheismI just finished John W. Cooper’s masterful work Panentheism: The Other God of the Philosophers yesterday. It’s often charged that ‘classical theism’, the Augustinian tradition of theological reflection held broadly across Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed traditions, is ‘the God of the philosophers’ that was forged via the synthesis of Greek Philosophy and the Gospel. Usually this charge is leveled by those putting forward an alternative, more biblical, or whatever view, often coming from a panentheistic framework, or largely influenced by it. Cooper’s main task in this judicious, fair-minded, and quite comprehensive work is to trace the philosophical lineage of panentheism beginning with Neoplatonism through thinkers like Eriugena, Bohme, Cusa, Schelling, Hegel, and so forth on down into contemporary thinkers such as Hartshorne, Moltmann and Clayton.

Well, feeling a bit feisty and inspired, I took to twitter and began tweeting a series of one-line defenses of ‘classical theism.’ Some are snarky, others not so much. It’s Twitter so they lack the precision, and probably the charity of Cooper’s work. Twitter theology is always a risk. Still they were kinda fun and some friends joined in, so I figured I’d share them here.

Finally, he’s not actually on Twitter to participate, but it’s not a party without Kevin.

And we’ll sign off on that note. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

Soli Deo Gloria

Sometimes A Little Greek Can Save Your Doctrine of God

greekMost of the time a solid translation, good reading skills, and a solid grasp of the story-line of the Bible is good enough for constructing the rough outlines of a good doctrine of God. I mean, you can at least come up with a solid handle on the Creator/creature distinction, God’s power, righteousness, love, and so forth mostly by cruising through the text with a sharp eye and a keen mind. That said, sometimes a knowledge of the way Greek or Hebrew works can come in handy, especially when your doctrine is being challenged at that level. Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance.

John 1:1-3 is one of the key explicitly texts (though far from the only one) used to establish the basic outlines of trinitarian doctrine, especially the equality, eternity, and so forth of the Son. It reads like this:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1-3)

It’s hard to get more obvious than that. It clearly says that the Word, later explicitly identified as the one who becomes flesh in Jesus (1:14), was with God in the beginning, that is, before the creation, and is the agent of creation. In the biblical storyline, there are only two main categories of reality: God and all the stuff God made. The Word is clearly identified as being on the “God” side of the line.

Also, there is the explicit identification, “the Word was God.” That seems pretty obvious too. But, thing is, that’s where a dispute can arise. You see, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other deniers of trinitarian doctrine will often point out that in the Greek, the word “God” (theos) is missing the definite article in the phrase “the Word was God”, meaning it should be read as “the Word was a God” not “The Word was the God“, the sense implied by the typical English translations. In which case, it’s not really teaching he is fully God in the same sense as the Father, but that he is divine in some modified, lesser sense.

But does that follow? What’s going on here? John Frame gives us 7 reasons to think that the absence of the definite article in verse 1:1 is simply a grammatical quirk and not a theologically significant absence throwing our trinitarian doctrine in disarray (which, in any case, it wouldn’t, since the doctrine doesn’t only hang on this verse). Also, just so you know, for this discussion, he’s broken the verse up into three clauses:

  1. In the beginning was the Word,
  2. and the Word was with God,
  3. and the Word was God.

With that in mind, here is Frame’s reasons:

  1. The absence of the article may be a “purely grammatical phenomenon.” When, as here, a Greek sentence uses “to be” to connect a subject and a predicate noun, the predicate noun normally lacks the article, even when it is definite. So the absence of an article implies nothing about the precise sense of theos.
  2. This argument is even stronger in passages like ours, where the predicate precedes the subject. The “Colwell Rule” states that in such a sentence, the predicate noun usually lacks an article, even though it is definite, but that the subject of the sentence, if definite, will employ the definite article. So again the phenomenon has a grammatical explanation and does not presuppose any change of meaning between “God” in clause two and “God” in clause three.
  3. As we have seen, in such constructions the predicate noun usually or normally lacks the article. Following that normal practice here may have also served the author’s purpose to draw additional attention to the term God, the center of the chiasm [Frame identified a chiasm earlier in the text]. Dropping the article focuses on the noun itself, and it brings the two occurrences of theos closer together in the chiasm. This consideration weakens further  the need for further explanation.
  4. In similar verses, where theos is a predicate noun lacking the definite article, a reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable (see Mark 12:27; Luk 20:38; John 8:54; Rom. 8:33; Phil. 2:13; Heb. 11:16).
  5. There are many other verses, some in the same first chapter of John, in which theos lacks a definite article, but in which the reference to God in the fullest sense is indisputable. Nobody would claim a reduced meaning of theos, for example, in 1:6, 13, or 18.
  6. Even if we grant that theos without the definite article puts some emphasis on the qualities of God rather than his person, this supposition does not entail that theos is the third clause has a reduced sense. To prove otherwise, one must show that the qualities in view are something other than the essential attributes of God. If the qualities are essential qualities, then the third clause identifies the Word with God in the highest sense.
  7. A very strong argument is needed to prove that the meaning of theos changes between clause two and clause three. That burden of prove has certainly not been met.

-John Frame, The Doctrine of God, pp 665-66

This is the kind of text and objection that has been used to mislead hundreds of thousands of, largely well-meaning people like Jehovah’s Witnesses into denying one of the most sacred truths of God revealed through Christ. Still, we see here the both the rules of Greek grammar and close attention to the use of the definite article in similar texts throughout both John and the rest of the NT reveals this objection to be a very weak one indeed.

As I said before, I think that other features of the text, the context surrounding it, and a good grasp of biblical theology are probably good enough to ward off challenges to most doctrine. The average churchgoer probably doesn’t need to know Greek in order to be confident of the truth classic, trinitarian doctrine. Every once in a while, though, it can come in handy.

Soli Deo Gloria

Does Discussing the One God Before the Triune God Distort our View of God?

There's Thomas--he's probably  thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

There’s Thomas–he’s probably thinking about how to distort the doctrine of God right now.

In theology, everything is connected. One doctrine implies another and seemingly innocuous modifications in the order of arguments, or the way we proceed methodologically, can lead to surprising conclusions and unfortunate results. In the wake of Barth’s trinitarian revolution in mainstream theology, many 20th century theologians have argued that just such a process happened in classical theology when it comes to the doctrine of God.

Among others, Jurgen Moltmann and Colin Gunton gloomily point to Aquinas’ decision to order his discussion of the doctrine of God in such a way that he discussion the divine attributes (holiness, aseity, omnipotence, etc.) before he comes to the trinitarian persons. Because of this fateful decision, they say his discussion and those in the classical tradition which he represents comes up with a concept of God rooted less in the biblical revelation of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and more from generic categories of being drawn from Greek philosophy and human reason. From there, theologians are faced with the difficult task of trying to reconcile revelation and reason in a way the results in all sort of theological puzzles that have plagued the tradition ever since.

But is that necessarily the case? Does a decision to treat the divine nature or being prior to treating the doctrine of the Trinity necessarily result in a sub-trinitarian doctrine of God? Herman Bavinck actually faced that argument about 30 years before the Barthian revolution, answering the objection in the negative and defending the classical ordering in theology:

In the work of some theologians the locus of the Trinity precedes that of the attributes of God; and Frank even has serious objections to the reverse order. If treating the attributes of God before the doctrine of the Trinity implied a desire to gradually proceed from “natural” to “revealed” theology, from a natural to the Christian concept of God, then this procedure would undoubtedly be objectionable. But this is by no means the case. In the doctrine of the attributes of God the tradition includes the treatment of the divine nature as it is revealed us in Scripture, is confessed by the Christian faith, and exists–as will be evident in the locus of the Trinity–in a threefold manner. In order for us to understan in the locus of the Trinity that Father, Son, and Spirit share in the same divine nature, it is necessary for us to know what the divine nature comprises and in what ways it differs from every created nature.

And this is not merely a matter of logical ordering that classical theologians have come up because of their own prior methodological preferences. In this, they only follow Scripture:

In the matter of order, too, Scripture is our model. In Scripture, the nature of God is shown earlier and more clearly that his trinitarian existence. The Trinity is not clearly revealed until we get to the New Testament. The names of YHWH and Elohim precede those of Father, Son, and Spirit. The first thing Scripture teaches us concerning God is that he has a free, independent existence and life of his own that is distinct from all creatures. He has a being (“nature”, “substance”, “essence”) of his own, not in distinction from his atributes, but coming to the fore and disclosing itself in all his perfections and attributes.

–Reformed Dogmatics Volume 2: God and Creation, pp. 149-150

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It's a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

Truly dominant-looking theological man. It’s a win for Reformed beardliness everywhere.

From there goes on to substantiate and develop with extensive biblical argumentation the doctrine of the independence of God at the head of his discussion of the attributes.

Now, I won’t say that critics like Moltmann and Gunton haven’t had some real beefs worth looking at. I almost never want to play the Greek card, but I’ll admit there are times when I read a classical bit of theology and think there’s a bit of the gap between their doctrine of God and their doctrine of the Trinity. Nor will I necessarily fault any modern theologians who’ve chosen to reverse the order and treat the Trinity first. I’m a bit partial to the method myself.

My point here is that Bavinck has given us two solid reasons for thinking that ordering our discussions in the doctrine of God in the classical way is not simply an exercise in “natural” theology, or will necessarily result in a non-trinitarian conception of God’s being. In order to speak about the way that Father, Son, and Spirit all possess the one divine nature, it’s quite logical to want to know what the divine nature is. Beyond that, and more importantly, this order of study mirrors the order of God’s own revelation. Yes, it is true that there are hints of the Trinity in the Old Testament revelation, but the doctrine only comes into its own in the New Testament. It’s hard to fault a theologian for modeling himself explicitly on Scripture this way.

Bavinck himself stands as a counter-example to this whole charge. Read through his explorations of the divine attributes and you’ll see their clear and extensive grounding in Scripture and revelation, including God’s triunity, long before he engages in any sort of theological development or philosophical reasoning that could be accused of being “natural” theology. What’s more, his locus on the Trinity is stunning; I’d be hard-pressed to find any distortions there.

In other words, what I’m is that, it does no good to write off the classical tradition as sub-trinitarian and refuse to read anything before Barth or Rahner. Individual theologians might be, but then again that’s true of modern theologians. What’s more, if you’re looking to do some theology yourself, you may have an option open to you considered closed off before.

It wouldn’t surprise me that there’s probably more than one way to testify rightly to the glory of the Triune God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin Summarizes Chalcedonian Christology in Two Paragraphs

chalcedonAfter much controversy and struggle in the Church, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) put out a formal definition on person of Christ, regarding his full divinity, humanity, and the union of the two natures. While not exhausting the depth and beauty of the person of Christ, it lays down important boundaries within which theologians must stay if they are to properly teach the glory of the Son who took on flesh for our salvation.

Chalcedon has stood as the bulwark of orthodox-catholic Christology across traditions for a millenia and a half, and yet, while good expositions of it are available, it still takes some time digging to find a good, clean summary of what the Definition actually says. That’s why I was pleased to find this passage in Calvin’s comments on John 1:14, “and the Speech* (Word) became flesh, and dwelt among us”, in which he briefly and clearly expounds the scriptural truth that Chalcedon teaches:

The plain meaning therefore is, that the Speech begotten by God before all ages, and who always dwelt with the Father, was made man. On this article there are two things chiefly to be observed. The first is, that two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man. The second is, that the unity of person does not hinder the two natures from remaining distinct, so that his Divinity retains all that is peculiar to itself, and his humanity holds separately whatever belongs to it. And, therefore as Satan has made a variety of foolish attempts to overturn sound doctrine by heretics, he has always brought forward one or another of these two errors; either that he was the Son of God and the Son of man in so confused a manner, that neither his Divinity remained entire, nor did he wear the true nature of man; or that he was clothed with flesh, so as to be as it were double, and to have two separate persons. Thus Nestorius expressly acknowledged both natures, but imagined two Christs, one who was God, and another who was man. Eutyches, on the other hand, while he acknowledged that the one Christ is the Son of God and the Son of man, left him neither of the two natures, but imagined that they were mingled together. And in the present day, Servetus and the Anabaptists invent a Christ who is confusedly compounded of two natures, as if he were a Divine man. In words, indeed, he acknowledges that Christ is God; but if you admit his raving imaginations, the Divinity is at one time changed into human nature, and at another time, the nature of man is swallowed up by the Divinity.

The Evangelist says what is well adapted to refute both of these blasphemies. When he tells us that the Speech was made flesh, we clearly infer from this the unity of his Person; for it is impossible that he who is now a man could be any other than he who was always the true God, since it is said that God was made man. On the other hand, since he distinctly gives to the man Christ the name of the Speech, it follows that Christ, when he became man, did not cease to be what he formerly was, and that no change took place in that eternal essence of God which was clothed with flesh. In short, the Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal Speech who had no beginning of time.

Commentary on John 1:14

The whole section is worth review as Calvin deftly comments on controversies both ancient and contemporary to his own day. Indeed, as challenges and confusions about just who Jesus is continue into our own, students and disciples of the Word would benefit from listening into the disputes of another age. While they’re framed in different ways, they are often-times structurally similar such that hearing the answer discussed in a context less immediate and personally-charged for us, can cast a clearer light for our own days.

Of course, the point of all this is not mere doctrinal correctness, but the life of doxology that follows. Christ is not properly worshipped and glorified, unless his magnificent person is properly taught and displayed according to Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*Calvin follows Erasmus in rendering the word ‘logos‘ as ‘Speech’ instead of ‘Word’. For his explanation, see his comments here.

Mistaking a Stick for the Son

sunpaintingEver run across those verses with God kind of loudly declaring “I am God, acknowledge that” and so forth? You find them in Isaiah (43:11; 45:5), Ezekiel (12:15; 2044), and places like that. I remember when I first read them in my studies, I was kind of put off. I didn’t get it at first. God seemed awfully narcissistic and insecure to be going on about himself like that, kind of like the awkward guy who refers to himself in third person. (“Derek doesn’t like mayonnaise. Derek is the greatest.”)

Well, later on, I read a bit more, understood the context, and began to deeply love these declarations of God’s sovereign uniqueness. He truly is the LORD, and compared to him there is no other. I love the bold, forthright assertion of his His kingly ‘colossal self-regard’, to use Walter Brueggeman’s phrase. What’s really amazing about it is that there’s actually something very humble about God coming to us and declaring himself to a rebellious people. Given our willful blindness to the truth, why should a great and mighty Creator bother with us at all? Yet in these statements God invites us to relationship with a true and living God, not the false little idols we’ve made for ourselves.

Athanasius paints helpful picture for us when it comes to understanding these passages:

And this account of the meaning of such passages is satisfactory; for since those who are devoted to gods falsely so called, revolt from the True God, therefore God, being good and careful for mankind, recalling the wanderers, says, ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘I Am,’ and ‘Besides Me there is no God,’ and the like; that He may condemn things which are not, and may convert all men to Himself. And as, supposing in the daytime when the sun was shining, a man were rudely to paint a piece of wood, which had not even the appearance of light, and call that image the cause of light, and if the sun with regard to it were to say, ‘I alone am the light of the day, and there is no other light of the day but I,’ he would say this, with regard, not to his own radiance, but to the error arising from the wooden image and the dissimilitude of that vain representation; so it is with ‘I am,’ and ‘I am Only God,’ and ‘There is none other besides Me,’ viz. that He may make men renounce falsely called gods, and that they may recognise Him the true God instead…

Discourses Against the Arians 3.8

Our idols are like finger-paintings of the sun posted in our windows. There’s no comparison to the real thing. In his mercy, God reveals himself to us that we might turn from these darkening idols to the true light of God.

Now, Athanasius is dealing with this text in his disputes with the Arians.  They were contending that in light of these, it’s blasphemy to say that the Son is co-eternal with the Father. Athanasius goes on to give the passage a Christological shape in order to expose their confusions:

Indeed when God said this, He said it through His own Word…For the Word of the Lord came to the Prophet, and this was what was heard; nor is there a thing which God says or does, but He says and does it in the Word. Not then with reference to Him is this said, O Christ’s enemies, but to things foreign to Him and not from Him. For according to the aforesaid illustration, if the sun had spoken those words, he would have been setting right the error and have so spoken, not as having his radiance without him, but in the radiance shewing his own light. Therefore not for the denial of the Son, nor with reference to Him, are such passages, but to the overthrow of falsehood.

-ibid.

Just as its ridiculous to think that the sun could shine a light without its own radiance, Athanasius says it’s a mistake to think of God saying “I am the LORD, apart from me there is no other” without His Word. The Son is not some thing external to the Father, but is of his own essence. From all of eternity God has been the Father of the Son. Which is why, when he wants to make himself  known, God declares himself to us through Jesus Christ, the Son. The Son is how God calls us away from the worship of false gods of our own making, speaking light into all of our darknesses.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Theological Importance of Knowing What ‘Time’ It Is

old-clockMost of us don’t think of knowing what time it is as a significant theological issue. Beyond showing up promptly out of respect for an acquaintance, or knowing when to get to church on Sunday, how could it be? According to Athanasius it could mean difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In his First Discourse Against the Arians he sets about answering objections to the Son’s deity from Scripture, showing that the Arians’ hermeneutics were hopelessly misguided and indeed, characterized by interpretive folly.

Bringing forward texts like Hebrews 1:4 “being made so much better to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”, they argued from this that it is clear that the Son is made ‘better’ in which case he could not be eternal, uncreated, admitting of improvement. Athanasius says that this exegetical failure is rooted in their ignorance of time.

Appealing to the Eunuch’s question to the apostle Philip, “of whom does the Prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 7:34), he expounds the very important interpretive rule that:

…it is right and necessary, as in all divine Scripture, so here, faithfully to expound the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point; lest the reader, from ignorance missing either these or any similar particular, may be wide of the true sense… (7.54)

Athanasius notes how persistent the disciples were about understanding these particulars, especially the time, so that they would not fall into error:

…And the disciples, wishing to learn the time of what was foretold, besought the Lord, ‘Tell us,’ said they, ‘when shall these things be? and what is the sign of Thy coming?’ And again, hearing from the Saviour the events of the end, they desired to learn the time of it, that they might be kept from error themselves, and might be able to teach others; as, for instance, when they had learned, they set right the Thessalonians. who were going wrong. When then one knows properly these points, his understanding of the faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy… (ibid.)

Scripture also gives us the negative example of what happens when one is temporally disoriented:

…Thus Hymenæus and Alexander and their fellows were beside the time, when they said that the resurrection had already been; and the Galatians were after the time, in making much of circumcision now. And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’… (ibid)

Arius and his followers were making Hymenaeus and Alexander’s mistake, not noting the time with respect to the texts in dispute. If they had, they would have observed that the apostle is not referring to the Lord with respect to his pre-incarnate state, but within the economy of salvation with respect to his humanity. That is the time when God “spoke to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the Son obtained a more excellent name than the angels (Heb. 1:3, 4).  In other words, they didn’t understand the hermeneutical difference it makes that the story’s main character has a “history” that begins in eternity.

Christianity is a historical faith about things that took place in particular locations at precise times. Salvation is a dramatic reality which means that knowing which act we’re in can drastically impact the way we read the lines. While modern biblical studies have directed us to pay closer attention to the concrete socio-historical circumstances surrounding the texts, and recent narratival/canonical approaches have re-emphasized the redemptive-historical location of the text, Athanasius reminds us to keep an eye on the distinction between history and eternity.

Soli Deo Gloria