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Become a Heretic for a While

I recently spent several hours trying to convince a class that Arius was right, the Son is not equal with the Father, and Athanasius blew it.

Open window on brick lined wall

So we looked at all the biblical data suggesting that the Son is subordinate to the Father. We discussed Greek philosophy and how the Nicene view of three persons (hypostases) in one substance (ousia) necessarily entails either modalism–i.e. the one substance (God) just manifested himself at different times as different persons (Father, Son, and Spirit)–or tritheism–i.e. the one substance (deity) gets expressed in three distinct beings (Father, Son, and Spirit) just like our one human nature gets expressed as many particular humans. And, most importantly, we talked about the Cross, how Athanasius’ overly divine Son downplays the real human suffering on the cross that is a necessary part of any true atonement. 

In short, we presented a pretty compelling argument for the truth of Arianism. Indeed, when we were done and had summarized all the strongest arguments for Arianism on the board, I asked the class to refute them. And they were stuck. They still felt intuitively that Arianism had to be wrong, but they couldn’t find the chinks in the armor. It looked so compelling.

That’s when I knew we’d arrived.

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A Common (But Bad) Reason for Rejecting Penal Substitution

Crows-Celtic-CrossAs a theology professor, I routinely hear people claim that Anselm  invented the penal substitution  view of the atonement. This is the idea that Jesus bore the punishment that we rightly deserved because of our sin, and that this was necessary for us to be reconciled to God.

Before Anselm, the church had a view that focused almost exclusively on ideas like victory—i.e. on the cross Jesus defeated the enemies of humanity like Satan, death, and sin—and healing—i.e. the entirety of his incarnate life healed our broken humanity and made it possible for us to resume the path to godlikeness. (If you’d like some examples, see here  and here .)

And people often use the relative newness of the theory as a reason for rejecting it. If the early church didn’t think of the cross as some kind of vicarious punishment, if that was just a medieval invention, let’s get rid of it.

There’s just one problem with this: it’s wrong. And it’s wrong for two important reasons.

[This is the beginning of my newest post over at Head over there to check it out, and let me know what you think.]

Basil vs. Augustine: A Holy Spirit Smackdown (Wheaton Theology Conference 2)

Okay, so “smackdown” might be a bit of a stretch. But Gregory Lee‘s paper on the first day of the Wheaton Theology Conference addressed the common idea that eastern and western theologians have long had fundamentally different theologies of the Spirit. Taking Basil the Great and Augustine of Hippo as representative figures given the undeniable influence that each has exercised in their respective traditions, Lee argued that there is far more that unites the pneumatologies of these towering figures than divides them. Differences remain, but should be viewed in light of the overwhelming common ground.

human brains and war rope

Basil and the Holy Spirit

I won’t try to summarize everything that Lee did to explain the context and significance of these two pneumatologies. But Lee started with a useful explanation of the opponents that Basil faced in his day. The immediate occasion for Basil’s famous On the Holy Spirit was a controversy that broke out regarding the proper use of prepositions. (And we thought today’s grammar police were bad!) Two of Basil’s doxologies attributed equality to the Spirit in the Trinity, saying things like “Glory to the Father, with the Son, together with the Holy Spirit.” Instead, they thought it more appropriate to use “from whom” for the Father, ”through whom” for the Son, and “in whom” for the Spirit. Although this might sound like a minor grammatical point, it manifests radically different visions of who God is.

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Is God at Work in History?

In my church history classes, I often ask students why the early church grew so rapidly. And we discuss non-theological factors like the pax Romana, a shared language, established trade routes, and the charitable endeavors of the early church.

Then someone inevitably asks, “What about God?” Surely God wanted the church to grow and the gospel to spread. So we can look back on history and see God at work making sure those things happened in the first few centuries of the church.


After listening for a few minutes, I ask the students to consider the near elimination of the church in North Africa and Asia Minor after the rise of Islam. What do you do with that? If God wants the church to grow and the gospel to spread, why did that happen? How do you find God at work in those historical events?

What about the Crusades? The holocaust? The Rwandan genocide?

How do you discern God at work in history? That’s really the question. How can we speak so confidently about God at work in growing the early church and then just stammer awkwardly when asked about more tragic realities of the past?

What is the relationship between divine providence and the study of history?

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Saturday Morning Fun…A Digital Recreation of St. Andrews Cathedral

Check out this stunning recreation of what St. Andrews Cathedral would have looked like if it hadn’t fallen into disuse during the Scottish Reformation. I may be a little biased since I did my doctoral work in St. Andrews and used to walk by the cathedral ruins every day, but I thought this was quite well done.

And here’s what the cathedral looks like today.

St Andrews Cathedral

Developing a Doctrine or Transforming a Tradition: A Review of the Quest for the Trinity

One of the most remarkable features of twentieth century theology was its emphasis on the doctrine of the Trinity as one of the most central and important aspects of Christian theology. The Trinity isn’t some abstract and speculative idea that we can discard in favor of the more important and practical aspects of the Christian faith. According to many modern theologians, what we believe about the Trinity shapes Christian faith and ministry.

quest for the trinityThat all sounds great. But in his new book, The Quest for the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (IVP, 2012), Steve Holmes argues that there’s a lot more to the story. These modern theologians haven’t just reemphasized the importance of the Trinity. Along the way, they have reconstructed it, subtly changing the doctrine in ways that run contrary to what the church has always believed.

This outstanding resource should be in the “must read” category for anyone wanting to understand the doctrine of the Trinity and/or the contemporary theological scene.

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What Has Libya to Do with Jerusalem? A Review of Early Libyan Christianity

Libya ruins (550x367)

If you say “Libya” to most Americans, certain ideas will come to mind: maybe Islam, the recent Benghazi attack, or Muammar Gaddafi. I think it’s relatively safe to say that most people would not think “one of the most important centers of Christianity in the early church.” According to Thomas Oden’s Early Libyan Christianity: Uncovering a North African Tradition (IVP, 2011), that’s a problem.

The first issue, of course, is that many Christians remain unaware of the vital role that African Christians played in the history of early Christianity. For them, Christianity didn’t show up in Africa until the colonial powers imposed it on the continent during the modern era.

early libyan christianity

And that’s tragic. Some of the oldest and most influential centers of Christianity were in North Africa, places like Alexandria and Carthage. And many of Christianity’s most influential leaders and theologians likewise came from and ministered in North Africa, people like Clement, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine. African Christians were shaping Christianity 1,500 years before the rise of the European colonial powers.

If you’d like to explore the significance of African Christianity further, I strongly recommend Thomas Oden’s excellent little book How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity.

But there’s a second problem. Even after studying church history and gaining an appreciation for how important Africa is, many of us still leave out an important part of the story: the huge section of North Africa between Alexandria (Egypt) and Carthage (Tunisia): the region known in the ancient world as Libya.

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There Were No “Dark Ages”

eclipse (300x300)I have written before about why we need to eliminate the idea of a “Golden Age” of Christianity, a time when the church was nearly perfect, an era that we just need to imitate if we want to create healthier churches today. And, after a few minutes reflection, most people accept that every generation had its flaws and foibles. We learn from them not because they were perfect but because they walked before us and modeled how to live faithfully in the midst of a horribly broken world.

But many still want to hold on to the Golden Age’s evil twin brother: the Dark Age, an age where the church was so fallen and its understanding of the truth so twisted that we have virtually nothing to learn from those who lived through those dismal days. An age when the lights went out, leaving only darkness.

For most Protestants, the Dark Age was not just a particular generation, or even an entire century. No, we have our sights on something bigger, blacker, and more tragic: the wasteland of medieval Christianity. A thousand years lost in the dark void between the bright lights of the early church and the Reformation.

[This is the beginning of my most recent post over at Head over there to read the rest, and let me know what you think.]

Evangelicalism and Its Pathologies

Everyone carries with them the seeds of their own destruction. Growing up, my parents warned us that our family DNA conveyed dangers like alcoholism, heart disease, and skin cancer. Regardless of whether these dangers came through genetics, family dynamics, or some combination of the two, I didn’t ask for them. Of course, I also received tremendous gifts from my heritage, too many to count. But today we’re focusing on the dark side. So let’s stay negative.

Movements, like individuals, carry their destruction with them as well: genetic traits embedded in their institutional DNA from the beginning, which, left unwatched or unchecked, will eventually lead them into their own pit of despair.

DNA (550x356)

Evangelicalism is no different. Like all movements, it received at its birth both tremendous strengths and potentially debilitating weaknesses. And its history has been marked by the highs of the former and the depressing lows of the latter.

I was reminded of this during a fascinating presentation by Tim Larsen, one of my new colleagues at Wheaton College. Larsen unpacked the history of evangelicalism and its pathologies in four simple stages, as history that, as he said in the presentation, is brought to you by the letter “D.”

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Women Who Gave Their Lives for the Church

perpetua and felicity martyr martyrdomThe Fourth of July is a great day for celebrating heroes. But this year I thought we should celebrate heroes of a slightly different kind.

In her book Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History, Diana Lynn Severance points out that 170 of the known martyrs in the early church were women. And, although all of the martyrs served as testimonies to Christian faithfulness and caused many non-Christians to ask serious questions about a religion that could inspire this kind of commitment, it seems that the martyrdom of Christian women had a particularly large impact on both Christians and non-Christians alike. So some of the most famous stories of the early church involved the martyrdom of women like Perpetua and Felicity (pictured on the right), Blandina, and Agnes.

Although we have little information on many of these amazing women, we know enough to celebrate the tremendous faith and perseverance they displayed in the church’s earliest days. Here is a list of some of the more famous martyrs, taken from a table of martyrs Severance provides in Feminine Threads (pp. 48-50).

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