Cyril and the Condemning of Nestorius at the Council of Ephesus

The more I study Christian history the more I’m convinced that every Christian needs to have a solid foundational knowledge of it in order to guard themselves from bad theology, understand the origin of their own beliefs, and better realize the forgotten concept of what it means to be the universal church.  We stand on the shoulders of faithful men and women who have gone before us, many times without realizing it.  Thus, Wednesday (sorry I’m late on this) should officially have been “Thank a Dead Guy Day.”  On June 22, 431 Cyril of Alexandria called the Council of Ephesus in order to address the teaching of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius.  Nestorius had been wrongly teaching that there was a division between the humanity and divinity of Christ.  The way he spoke of Jesus made it sound like there were really “two separate sons”: the Son of God and the Son of Man, the human being the part that the divine Son dwelt in intimate association with.  For Nestorius this helped explain several Scriptures that spoke of divine as well as human attributes when speaking about Jesus.  After all, how could God be hungry or tired (Matt. 4).  Furthermore, people were speaking of Mary as the theotokos (Mother of God) and Nestorius felt it his duty to stop such talk.  Enter Cyril!  He saw the danger of Nestorius’ teaching.  If Jesus was not fully divine, he could not redeem sinners.  If Jesus was not fully human, he could not represent man.  If Jesus was only a human being with an intimate divine connection, how was he any different from Old Testament prophets?  He rightly saw the Jesus was not a split person, but one person with two natures.  Jesus was fully man AND fully divine.  Cyril referred to the union of deity and humanity in Jesus as the “Hypostatic Union.”  Furthermore, since Jesus was God in the flesh, one could, strictly speaking, talk of Mary as the Mother of God.  At the end of the Council of Ephesus the teaching of Nestorius was condemned and he was excommunicated for his refusal to recant his false teaching.  The decision of the council in 431 has been the orthodox view of the church ever since.  Seems fitting to remember this in a day when people want to speak of Jesus as merely a good prophet, teacher, or even divinely inspired human being.  He was much more than that!

The Story of God, the Story of Us

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible by Sean Gladding (IVP, 2010).

★★★★☆ and  ★★☆☆☆

The Story of God seeks to retell the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption, mission, and consummation in a new and engaging way. Rather than just summarizing the story, Gladding weaves his own narrative to help us see the story from two very different perspectives. In the process, he draws out some aspects of the story that we often overlook, and helps us see it in new and interesting ways. If you’re already familiar with the biblical narrative and are looking for a fresh take that will challenge you in new ways, this is well-worth considering. But, if you were hoping for a solid introduction to the biblical story and its key ideas, I suggest you look elsewhere. And, that’s why I’ve given the book two different scores.

Summary

Gladding divides the book into two halves. In the first half, he tells the story of a group of Jews living during the Babylonian exile who struggling to make sense of their status as God’s people and what has happened to them. An older teacher leads them in a re-telling of the story from Genesis through exile and, in the process, reminds them of who the story is really about, what God has been trying to do since the beginning, how they ended up where they are, and how they should continue to live in response to this story. The second half of the book jumps forward a few hundred years and picks up the story in the New Testament period. Here we find a non-Christian merchant coming into contact with an early Christian community, and we watch as he comes to understand both their lifestyle and their message, gradually becoming a part of the community himself. So, these two narratives serve as the lenses through which Gladding presents the biblical story.

Strengths

The book’s greatest strengths lie in its readability and creativity. Gladding writes well and offers several interesting characters that help the reader stay engaged. I particularly enjoyed the story-teller approach in the first half of the book. I was able to picture some of what it would have been like for Jews in the exile to struggle with the difficult questions of identity, purpose, and destiny that must have plagued them as they lived outside the promised land. And, Gladding doesn’t back away from engaging the difficult questions that people in a situation like that would have been asking.

I also appreciated that Gladding doesn’t try to offer simple answers to difficult questions. He often portrays his story-teller as struggling with a particularly tough question and openly acknowledging that he doesn’t have all the answers. Instead, he continually returns to the overall narrative as the proper context within which to struggle (continually) with the most difficult questions. Granted, this does feel on occasion like Gladding is just dodging the hard questions, but a book like this can’t do everything. So, Gladding primarily stays focused on the narrative even while raising and occasionally addressing some of the harder questions.

And, I really like the way that Gladding tied the story to identity and mission. For Gladding, we must know and remember the story if we’re going to understand ourselves as the people of God and remain faithful to our calling in the world. To some extent, the book serves as a warning of what happens when we forget the story and an appeal to re-tell that story to ourselves and our children on a regular basis.

Weaknesses

One of my bigger concerns about the book is that Gladding sometimes presents his particular interpretations of the story as though they were simply obvious elements of the story itself. The most obvious example of this is Gladding’s egalitarianism. For Gladding, egalitarianism is an obvious implication of the story from the very beginning, even though it gets clouded as the story degenerates into hierarchy and power struggle after the fall. Now, I’m sure that egalitarians will find this to be one of the book’s strengths. My problem is that Gladding offers this interpretation with no indication that there may be other ways of reading the story that many find equally compelling. (He does note a few minor characters who have obviously understood the story differently, but not in a very positive light.) My problem here isn’t so much that he presents the story from an egalitarian perspective, but that he does so without acknowledging that there’s a legitimate question at this point. He’s not afraid to raise, and even wrestle, with other difficult questions. So, by not doing so here, he really obscures the reality of the interpretive situation.

Another key concern is that Gladding doesn’t really do justice to the biblical story when it comes to issues of sin/wrath and guilt/shame. I appreciate that he presents the story consistently in terms of relationship and faithfulness (or its lack). That’s necessary to telling the story well. But, he places little emphasis on the themes of God’s holiness and wrathful response to sin, or the consequent guilt and shame that are so destructive for relationships on every level. Even if you think these elements are often overemphasized in traditional theology, the answer isn’t a corresponding neglect but a more helpful balance.

I also felt that the part of the story focused on the cross and resurrection was sadly lacking. He devotes an entire chapter to the cross and does a nice job identifying some of the amazing benefits that God pours out on his people through the cross. But, he completely dodges the issue of substitutionary atonement. It’s not even that he brings it up and rejects it. He doesn’t even deal with it. He simply points to some (not all) of the great benefits of the atonement and then says it’s a mystery how God in his love brings those about through the cross. Given how he bypassed other key themes earlier in the story, I wasn’t surprised that he didn’t make substitutionary atonement part of his story, but I was surprised that he didn’t even raise the question.

Finally, although I like the emphasis on “story” and find it a helpful way of talking about identity, mission, and faithfulness, I thought it was overdone in places. For example, at one point the Jewish story-teller explains to his people that they’re in exile because they’ve forgotten the story (p. 85). Although that’s true in a sense, it would seem more faithful to the actual narrative to say that they’re in exile because of their rebelliousness and idolatry. Gladding would probably say that this is included in what he means by “forgetting” the story, but it’s hard to see how any modern reader who doesn’t already know the story would make that connection.

Conclusion

Gladding has done a fine job presenting a very readable and compelling overview of the biblical narrative with a strong sense of how that story should drive our own identity as God’s people and our sense of mission and faithfulness in the world. Unfortunately, I think that he doesn’t do justice to quite a number of key themes that are absolutely central to the story. So, I can’t recommend the book as a primary resource for understanding the biblical narrative. And, that’s the reason for the lower score. If the book was presented as a resource for people who already have a solid understanding of the story and are looking to be challenged with a very different perspective on that story, then this is an outstanding resource that I would highly recommend. It would still have some significant flaws, but would be very useful in that respect. Unfortunately, though, the book presents itself as an introduction to the biblical story designed for people who have not even read the Bible (as explained in the preface). If that’s the purpose, then the book’s failure to deal adequately with key themes is a real problem. So, I feel like I almost need to give the book two scores depending on who is reading it and why: four stars for the person looking for a fresh take on a familiar story, two stars for the person looking for a solid introduction to the biblical narrative and its core themes.

The “Messianic Secret”: Early Fabrication or Historical Reality?

“Don’t tell anyone who I am.”

If this is something that Spiderman says to Mary Jane after she discovers his secret identity, it makes perfect sense. He has to keep his secret to protect his loved ones, and he probably doesn’t want his friends knowing that he spends his evenings prancing around the city in colored spandex. Or, if an undercover cop whispers this to his informant as they slip into the underground hideout of some notorious gang of thugs, everyone understands that he has pretty good reasons for want to hide his true identity.

But Jesus? He’s the Messiah, the one who’s supposed to come and lead God’s people into all the blessings of the kingdom. That’s the best news around. Why would he want to keep that a secret?

He wouldn’t.

At least, that’s what Wilhelm Wrede argued in his The Messianic Secret. According to Wrede, the early church didn’t come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah until after the resurrection. But, once they’d come to believe, the early Christian community needed some explanation for why Jesus wouldn’t have given any overt indication of this  before his crucifixion. So, Wrede argued, the Gospel writers, particularly Mark, invented the “messianic secret” as a way of explaining this inexplicable silence.

But, is that an adequate explanation? Not according to Jesse Richards in the paper that he presented at the NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society: “Mark’s Nuance of Wrede’s Messianic Secret: ‘The Messianic Paradox’.” Richards argues that although Wrede’s argument is interesting and provocative, it ultimately fails to convince. Instead, he contends that these sayings manifest the “messianic paradox” of a suffering messiah, not an after-the-fact theological reconstruction fabricated by early Christian leaders.

Here’s the outline of the paper that he provides in his introduction:

First, a brief overview of Wrede’s place in historical Jesus studies, and thesis, will be provided to frame the discussion; second, a critique of Wrede’s thesis will be offered; third, A proposal of how the secrecy theme is historical and stems from the life of Jesus. Fourth the significance of Jesus crucifixion as King of the Jews; finally, literary criticism which has been used to evaluate Mark’s narrative strategy will be shown to support the Messianic paradox, and thus argue against the idea that Mark was concocting a
messianic secret.

After a lengthy summary and critique of three main lines of evidence offered by Wrede in support of his hypothesis (the distinct nature of the messianic motif, the unhistorical nature of exorcisms, and the post-Easter belief in Jesus as Messiah), Richards moves into his argument that a more plausible account of these messianic sayings can be found in the messianic paradox:

From a narrative analysis of Mark it becomes clear that Mark was seeking to emphasize Jesus as the suffering messiah. This is truly the messianic paradox—that Messiah would suffer. Mark uses pacing of his narrative to focus in on the week of Jesus’ death. His use of irony allows the themes of secrecy and messiahship to exist together, without one having to negate the other. Additionally, his irony lets the reader in on the truth of Jesus as Messiah. Mark also highlight’s Jesus’ messiahship through the climax of his narrative—the confession of Peter, and then uses triads to show that Jesus is anointed to be Isaiah’s servant of the Lord who will give his life as a ransom. The gospel is also full of intercalation, which helps to highlight this theme as well. Mark’s plot, including Jesus indictment of the temple cult, the leader’s rejection, and the disciples misunderstanding are intentionally contrasted with the God of Israel, tearing open heaven to declare Jesus his Son at baptism, and tearing the curtain open to declare Jesus his anointed Isaianic servant at death.

So, Richards argues from a variety of angles that the messianic “secret” was not a post-Easter fabrication, but was actually an historical aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry, consistent with the paradoxical reality of the suffering and crucified Messiah.

(This is last part of a series highlighting papers presented by faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)

Marcus Borg – from a Charismatic Cuban Perspective

[This is a guest post by Jesse Richards, an MA graduate from Western Seminary, reposted from his blog Without Void.]

Marcus Borg….I actually think I cursed Him and asked God to strike down satan’s work when I first heard him interviewed with Dominic Crossan on NBC in 2006. They were talking about Jesus final week and Dom Crossan said Jesus’ body was probably thrown in a shallow grave and eaten by dogs…implication— the resurrection did not happen. You could see why as a young (22 years) hot-blooded cuban charismatic I called down imprecations.

What I did for the next 5 years was I naively lumped, Borg, Crossan, and all the other Jesus Seminar fellows into the demonic category, and relegated them to the dustbin when it came to my own thinking on Jesus. My simple thought was “These demonized guys had nothing to offer us in the church.”

It was my time at Western Seminary, combined with being on the mission of Jesus to high school students in Portland (who embrace conspiracy theories), that made me realize the importance of historical Jesus studies, and even most of the work that Borg and Crossan had done in their research and writing.

As I would simply share the message of Jesus with students, and other co-workers, I started realizing that most people on the ground in Portland are more skeptical about the Jesus tradition than Borg and Crossan. This was rather alarming! Yes, as I sought to engage people with this man from Nazareth, the conversation could quickly tailspin into religious pluralism, the Da Vinci Code, ethical hot button issues, politics, mayan prophecies, or aliens! At least Borg and Crossan could say things like, ‘Jesus was a man of the Spirit who opposed the corrupt temple establishment’ (Borg) or ‘It is bedrock that Jesus was crucified King of the Jews’ (Crossan). I found that common people, even the college educated, even public school history teachers, did not have much of anything to say when it came to Jesus of Nazareth. Why was this? How had the most towering figure in civilization been forgotten by the people of Portland?

As these frustrations ruminated in my mind I was working through a reading list on historical Jesus studies. One book I was reading edited by Dunn and Mcknight contained an article by Borg on Jesus and the Spirit. After reading the article I decided to digress from my reading list to dig a bit more on Borg. I picked up Borg’s doctoral dissertation from Oxford ‘Conflict, Politics, and Holiness in the teachings of Jesus’. After reading the work I was impressed by the rigorous social, political, and historical effort Borg had put into his reconstruction of Jesus’ life. I actually found myself saying at several points, “This is very helpful”. I then read Jesus; A new Vision and Jesus; two visions which I thought were both very helpful at many points.

From my reading, a basic outline of Borg’s thought on Jesus is:

  • Jesus was a man of the Spirit (like Honi or Hanina Ben Dosa).
  • Jesus vision at His baptism was a powerful experience.
  • Jesus was a very successful exorcist.
  • Jesus taught using parables and aphorisms.
  • Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy.
  • Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.
  • Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activity.
  • Jesus tomb was probably not empty, but the community proclaimed him raised.

It is this basic historical sketch, that I find many people on the streets of Portland are not aware of. Evangelicals would nuance some of this basic outline, and disagree with some of the points, especially the empty tomb. By and large however, I came to discover that there is an agreed upon consensus even among ‘mainstream’ liberal, and conservative scholars on the outline of Jesus’ life.

After all this reading, I made an appointment to sit down for coffee with Marcus in the pearl (a trendy part of downtown Portland where Marcus lives). My conversation with him was chill. I simply asked questions to figure out what this man thought of Jesus. He had much evangelical bashing to do (and I almost wonder if he did this to test how I would react….pretty offensive stuff), but as we kept on the topic of Jesus life, and ministry, I found myself learning from most of what He said. Marcus and I have maintained email contact, and I enjoyed sitting with Him at ETS NW, as he scratched out his notes for how to respond to Craig Blomberg, I enjoyed getting a glimpse of how this man thought.

Since I have listened to Marcus first hand I now know the points at which we have similarities and differences.

Strong points of Disagreement:

1. Empty Tomb

2. His definition of religion as “a linguistic cultural phenomenon”

Strong points of agreement:

1. Jesus was a successful exorcist

2. Jesus broke all the purity regulations disrupting the boundaries set up by the aristocracy

3. Jesus ministry was a petition against the temple elite, the power brokers.

4. Jesus was crucified for His perceived revolutionary activities

Take aways:

Be sure to read first hand accounts of people you disagree with when you can make the time. You will learn!! Obviously no one has time to read stuff from everyone they disagree with on every issue (too many people, and too many issues).

Liberal Historical Jesus Scholarship can help us steer popular ‘conspiracy theorists’ back towards a more chastened historical approach to Jesus. An approach that agrees with much of the biblical portrait, even if it disregards inerrancy and inspiration. In this sense, liberal historical Jesus scholarship can aid in evangelism to a bewildered generation of people who can remember Dan Brown and Zeitgeist, but not Jesus of Nazareth.

When words mean more than they seem, or not

I like those optical illusions that are really two pictures in one. Some people see a saxophone player, others a woman’s face. But, the truth is that the picture contains both. It has semantic “depth,” containing multiple legitimate meanings at the same time.

Words function much the same way. Rarely does any particular term support only a single meaning. Instead, words are “polyvalent,” rich with multiple possible meanings, simply waiting for an author to select one of those many meanings in any particular act of communication.

But, that depth of meaning also contributes to significant ambiguity if it’s unclear which of these several meanings the author intends. And, at times, the difficulty of choosing between multiple possible meanings leaves the reader wondering if the author may actually be playing with more than one meaning at once. Is it possible, that rather than choosing between A, B, and C, I’m supposed to see all three in the same text? If so, how would I know?

These are the questions that James DeYoung addressed in the paper that he presented at the NW meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, “Origen’s “Beautiful Captive Woman,” Polyvalence, and the Meaning of the “Righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17“. (Dr. DeYoung is Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Western Seminary.)

The specific focus of the paper is the paper that Frank Thielman presented at last year’s national ETS conference. Thus, DeYoung begins his paper by summarizing Thielman’s two key arguments and the main lines of evidence used to support them. First, Thielman contended that “righteousness of God” in Romans is polyvalent, including at least three basic ideas: (1) the saving activity of God, (2) the gift of acquittal, and (3) an attribute of God. All three of these are in play throughout Romans, so we shouldn’t try to limit Paul’s meaning to any one of them. Second, Thielman argued that analysis of both biblical and extrabiblical information suggests that the specific attribute in view is God’s fairness and equity in how he distributes salvation.

What follows this summary is really a series of thoughts sparked by this way of understanding Paul. DeYoung is particularly concerned about the implications of finding such polyvalence in the text. Although he affirms that texts may have a surprising depth of meaning, and he’s cautious about identifying the meaning of the text directly with any particular interpretation of that meaning, he rejects the idea that an author (in normal discourse) intends more than one meaning at the same time. And, he suggests that such moves toward polyvalence are implicitly attempts to move away from authorial intent as a guiding hermeneutical objective.

DeYoung is also troubled by the emphasis that Thielman places on extrabiblical literature in the discussion. Although DeYoung recognizes the importance of such secondary literature, he thinks that the biblical context, particularly the OT background and worldview, of NT terms/phrases should have preeminence.

So when does the interpreter appeal to secular usage to interpret a biblical text? It should be done to confirm a biblical definition, or to explain a term that is a hapax legomenon (occurring only once in the literature), or when it adds meaning that the Bible would also support.

Several of DeYoung’s arguments relate to the fact that he remains ultimately unconvinced by Thielman’s argument for “equity” as the attribute under consideration. DeYoung thinks that Thielman mishandles some of the evidence and overemphasizes others.

So, to conclude, DeYoung offers his own understand of the phrase in question.

So what is the “righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17? It seems best to define it as follows. In the gospel, proclaiming the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God is revealing his nature as upright. He is upright or just because the gospel is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes it. Or, because the gospel (proclaiming the atoning, substitutionary death of Christ and his resurrection) is God’s power to save everyone (v. 16) who believes (v. 17b), God reveals that he himself is just or upright regarding the need to punish sin by what he has done right in the work of Christ at the cross and in the resurrection. He vindicates himself as just by  what he did at the cross and by how he can accept the guilty.

(This is part of a series highlighting papers presented by several faculty and students from Western Seminary at the 2011 NW regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. You can see the rest of the posts in this series here.)