Posted by: mattcolvin | October 28, 2013

Greek Ontology, Jewish Christology, and Ecumenism

Some years ago, I had a dustup with a young Presbyterian pastor on an email list. He was striving to vindicate the value of Greek philosophy for the theological enterprise. I had criticized the Nicene Creed for using the concept of ousia, on the grounds that this idea was basically at odds with the Biblical doctrine of creation, and that, far from being helpful or even innocuous, it had required substantial redefinition in order to be squared with the data of Scripture. I said that I liked the Christology of N.T. Wright, which makes no appeal to Greek philosophical concepts, and attempts to explain the divinity of Christ in terms that were culturally available to Jesus, Paul, and their Jewish audiences. My opponent replied that the rejection of ousia was a hallmark of Arian madmen; that Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy had much of good and usefulness for the Church; and finally, that he, for his part, wanted nothing to do with a Van Tilian dichotomy between “good, pure, Hebraic thinking” and “bad, polluting, Greek thinking”.

I have mulled over that discussion from time to time, and it came to mind again as I read these words from the preface to Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the God of Israel:

“When we think in terms of divine identity, rather than divine essence or nature, which are not the primary categories for Jewish theology, we can see that the so-called divine functions which Jesus exercises are intrinsic to who God is. This Christology of divine identity is not a mere stage on the way to the patristic development of ontological Christology in the context of a Trinitarian theology. It is already a fully divine Christology, maintaining that Jesus Christ is intrinsic to the unique and eternal “identity of God. The Fathers did not develop it so much as transpose it into a conceptual framework more concerned with the Greek philosophical categories of essence and nature.” (Emphasis added)

Bauckham is saying that the Church Fathers transposed the Biblical and 2nd Temple Jewish Christology into a Greek mode. Implicit in Bauckham’s statement that the Biblical Christology “is already a fully developed Christology” and not “a stage on the way to the patristic” one, there lies the suggestion that this earlier Christology is probably superior. Although this superiority does not derive from an a priori “valorization” of Hebrew thought, as though Jews were not sinners, nor from an a priori condemnation of Greek thought, as though there were no common grace, nonetheless, there is a real privileging of the one culture inasmuch as it produced the Scriptures. Salvation is from the Jews.

After all, just as Jesus was not born with a Greek body, so he did not use ousia and physis to explain His identity or the identity of the Father. Are we to suppose that the councils did a better or more thorough job than He did? (Would it even be lawful for Christians to believe that the Councils explained Jesus’ divinity better than Jesus?)

Side by side with Bauckham, I am also reading Philip Jenkins’ Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years. It is rather like a tour of a sausage factory — and I say that as one who loves sausage!

I respect the boundaries set by the creeds, and have no desire to entertain any of the heresies they anathematized. But I also have never felt very comfortable using them as an explanation of what I mean when I talk about Jesus being God. It has always seemed to me, being a Protestant and holding to sola scriptura as a principle governing form as well as content, that the Bible tells us not merely that Jesus is God (leaving us free to explain that fact with whatever shibboleths may most expediently gag the heretics), but it also guides us us in how to go about explaining His divinity. And that way looks quite different from the way of the creeds.

Incidentally, this is also a point of difference (one of many) between myself and certain Anglo-Catholics, who are comfortable attaching the epithet “sacred” to the word “tradition”. Some of them look to the ecumenical creeds as possible sources of Christian unity in the future. While not denying that some of the creeds may indeed be received and adopted by the whole Church, I am uncomfortable according such a central unifying role to documents that in my view partake of human error in method even if not necessarily in content. It is not a coincidence that the first Council of Nicea, which set the Church hurtling on its career of Greek ontological Christology, also anathematized the quartodecimanians, who were reckoning the date of Easter in relation to the Passover’s date (14 Nisan) on the Jewish calendar. Constantine promulgated the council’s decrees with a letter in which he urged “that we may have nothing to do with those murderers of our Lord, the Jews”. This was not an auspicious beginning for the creeds and councils as a means of effecting the unity of the body of Christ: it was an attempt to cut off from the body of Christ a group of Christians, denying them the right to belong to the Church if they dared to attempt to remain Jewish in such things as the reckoning of time. I believe Acts 21:21-24 shows that the apostle Paul would have gone to great lengths to combat such exclusion.

These considerations of method also apply, mutatis mutandis, to the documents being produced by GAFCON and the orthodox Anglican primates who lament the apostate actions of the Episcopal Church in the USA and the Anglican Church in Canada. The Jerusalem Declaration is a fine thing, but the bishops prudently minimized the references to it in their Nairobi Communique, choosing instead to call the pro-sodomy Anglican churches to repentance for their rejection of Scripture’s commandments and norms.

Yet I wonder whether the GAFCON bishops have also gone far enough in following the Bible’s models of expression as well as its moral norms. I have blogged before about the way Scripture opposes sodomy. It does not do so in the same way that the GAFCON primates have done. Their way is more dignified, sanitized, and polite. Their tone is one of grief and sorrow. This is appropriate as far as it goes, but when faced with heretics attempting to pervert the church,  the apostles showed more  Galatians 5:12 (“I wish they would castrate themselves”) or Philippians 3:2 (“beware of dogs, evildoers, the mutilators of the flesh”) or Revelation 2 (“You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who teaches my servants to practice sexual immorality”). If the Bible norms our speech ad verbum as well as ad rem, then these are the sorts of epithets that ought to be applied to those who advocate the embrace of sodomy among Anglican Christians.



  1. I’m also not comfortable to the near fetish and canonical status with which the Nicene Creed and the doctrine of the Trinity are treated by many Christians.

    There was a condemned council, the Council of Seleucia in 410 A.D, which during the battle of the councils produced the “Dated Creed” which omitted the “substance” language and merely said that Christ is like the Father, etc, I kinda like this creed although I would want to say much more than merely “like” and would add a more biblical phrase which goes, “and the Son is one with the Father” rather than of “one substance”, which I believe preserves the sense of the unity of Son with the Father without the need to wade into Greek metaphysics.

    Anyway, my Protestant instincts couldn’t help agree with the conclusions of this council which went,

    We having yesterday assembled by the emperor’s command at Seleucia, a city of Isauria, on the 27th day of September, exerted ourselves to the utmost, with all moderation, to preserve the peace of the church, and to determine doctrinal questions on prophetic and evangelical authority, so as to sanction nothing in the ecclesiastic confession of faith at variance with the sacred Scriptures, as our Emperor Constantius most beloved of God has ordered…

    Since, however, the terms homoousion and homoiousion have in time past troubled the minds of many, and still continue to disquiet them; and moreover that a new term has recently been coined by some who assert the anomoion of the Son to the Father: we reject the first two, as expressions which are not found in the Scriptures; but we utterly anathematize the last, and regard such as countenance its use, as alienated from the church…

    Condemned though this creed and council is, I can’t help thinking that these paragraphs do make excellent sense!

  2. Dominic, yes, I agree wholeheartedly.

    I would add this: It is a measure of how unhealthy is the weight our tradition accords the Councils that many traditionalist clergymen today would reject what you quote from that Council of Seleucia JUST BECAUSE the Council was not Nicene in its Christology – as though its failure to conform to that standard meant that it cannot have attained any truth at all on any matter whatsoever!

  3. […] Greek Ontology, Jewish Christology, and Ecumenism and Are the Creeds Distracting Us From NT […]

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