Tag Archives: Council of Chalcedon

Medieval scholastics’ use of Scripture: Explaining what can be explained, but no more


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I was asked a little while back to provide a blog post for the American Bible Society, related to the new Medieval Wisdom book. It’s taken a while to come up with something appropriate for the ABS, but I think this will serve the purpose:

 

The scholastic theologians of the 12th and 13th centuries brought together faith and reason, love and logic, religion and science, and Word and world in a breathtaking synthesis that delved deep into the Bible for wisdom about our life with God. Their efforts and the understanding that came from them birthed such cultural institutions as the university, the research laboratory, and even the hospital. The great engine driving early and medieval Christians’ search for theological truth about God and the world was not idle or sterile intellectual curiosity but rather the desire to know how to live in the light of the Creator God’s love for his creation.

. . .

Because medieval Christians valued reason highly, seeing it as the image of God in humankind, they concluded that such an amazing gift must be given for a purpose. In David N. Bell’s words, “It is not to be squandered or neglected, but used appropriately in the service of the Giver.” And so they set out to understand God, themselves, and their world in rational terms. More than this: since reason was understood as our surpassing gift from God, the medievals used it as one would any treasured instrument (think of a Stradivarius violin): with great passion, care, and discipline.

But this is not the end of the story about how medieval thinkers viewed and used reason. Since certain aspects of God seemed beyond reason — the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection are just three — tension and controversy also arose. From the second century through the medieval period, and more urgently once the scholastic movement began in the twelfth century, faithful Christians argued about how much of a role reason should be given. One thing became clear early on. Good theology could not be done with reason alone, in the realm of pure abstraction and logic-chopping. Put in positive terms, this meant that reason and faith, logic and love, must be held together. To separate them was to court heresy, as the church fathers had insisted.

. . .

Shortly before the opening of the medieval era, in 451 A.D., at Chalcedon in Asia Minor, one of the few councils accepted as authoritative today by all three major confessions of Christianity formulated its famous “four fences.” In a simple yet profound statement, that gathered group of teaching pastors (“bishops”) insisted that Christians are bound to speak of Jesus as “one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.”

These four fences— the “withouts”— preserve the mystery of the relationship of Christ’s human and divine natures. By them, the Chalcedonian pastors were claiming only that Scripture does not support a confusion, change, division, or separation between Christ’s two natures (and each of those errors, through over-rationalizing the Scripture account in one direction or another, was actually taught by one party or another at the time). The pastors were not trying to define rationally the precise nature of the relationship between the two natures, for that would be to attempt to penetrate where scripture revelation has not spoken.

Thus the Council at Chalcedon preserved a paradoxical tension beyond reason, which says a thing (Jesus) can be both 100 percent one thing (divine) and 100 percent another thing (human). Of course, in the realms of mathematics, logic, or physics, this statement is impossible. But harnessing reason in service of faith, the gathered pastors specified only as far as they felt Scriptural revelation allowed – and no further.

. . .

ATONEMENT

Centuries later, the scholastic theologians applied reason to faith in the same cautious manner – not to make too clear that which God has made obscure, but to do our best to understand the things of God without doing violence to their sometimes irreducibly puzzling or paradoxical nature.

One powerful example of this reason-protecting-mystery dynamic comes from the teachings of a thinker some call the “father of scholastic theology,” Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033 – 1109) – in particular, his reasoned explanation of the bloody scandal that was the crucifixion.

If you’re a thoughtful Christian — or a thoughtful non-Christian considering the claims of the Christian faith — then you’ve likely wondered about this yourself. This is maybe an even harder nut to crack than the paradox of Christ’s simultaneous identity as both fully human and fully divine. It may in fact be the greatest paradox imaginable.

What the Bible teaches about the atonement for humanity that the Second Person of the Trinity accomplished through dying at humans’ hands is not just incongruous – Why would an all-powerful God choose to redeem his human creatures in such a bloody and ignominious way? No, it is far worse than that, logically speaking. Because what the story of the crucifixion claims is this: that the divine being God, the only being who fully owns his own being eternally, not owing it to any parent or creator in time, entered the stream of time, lived within time, and then ceased, as all time-bound creatures do, to exist (at least, on earth as a creature).

Anselm’s Explanation

Anselm, a master of dialectic – that is, the rational investigation of disputed opinions – presented his elegant argument in his still influential Cur Deus Homo (“Why the God-man?”). In the mode of reverent “faith seeking understanding,” he asked this same question, “Why should we credit this story of atonement, in which the eternal maker of all things undergoes a typically bloody, painful human birth in a dirty, cold stable; lives a difficult, sporadically persecuted life; and finally allows himself to be subjected to an extra-legal proceeding, be declared a criminal, be nailed to a cross, and die? Couldn’t God have achieved our redemption in a less implausible, not to say illogical, way?”

Anselm does not make the story rationally consistent by cutting off some part of the revelation – by doing, that is, the sort of thing the early heretics did in order to get rid of the tension between God’s perfect divinity and his abject death. Anselm doesn’t solve the conundrum by saying, “Well, God didn’t really die because he never had a really human body, only the appearance of one,” which is an explanation that some had tried to give early on (the Docetist heresy). Nor does Anselm veer to the other possible explanation, “Well, somebody did die, but it was someone who was less than God: the very special man Jesus” (the Arian heresy).

Instead, Anselm reasons from the structures of social understanding around him; he seeks in those cultural materials an explanation that will satisfy his hearers without destroying the mystery. The explanation he hits upon is that God’s honor, like that of a feudal king, has been offended and diminished by the (original) sin of his human subjects and that this terrible transgression must be addressed through some act of “satisfaction” that restores the honor of the king. While avoiding resolving the mystery toward Docetism or Arianism, Anselm retains it and explains it through the reasonable cultural metaphor of “satisfaction,” working out the mystery in elegantly logical language so that people of his age can understand it.

Anselm’s explanations of the atonement does no violence to the central mystery, which is that the undying, fully divine God died. The biblical paradox is not disposed of. Just as the Chalcedonian Definition uses reason to retain the paradox of the two natures of Christ and the doctrine of transubstantiation uses reason to retain the paradox of bread and wine that is also Christ, Anselm has used reason to retain the Scriptural paradox of the God-man who dies, while asking how we can understand, at least in part, what God is doing through the atonement of Christ.

What can we learn about how to approach Scripture from the examples of Chalcedon and Anselm? Of course neither Chalcedon’s statement on the two natures of Christ nor Anselm’s on the atonement is the “last word” on the subject. Soon after Anselm came Peter Abelard, with another (but also Scripturally based) explanation of the atonement that took as its central metaphor, not the correction of a slight to a feudal Lord’s honor, but the compassionate action of a grieving father willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his children, so that they would be emotionally impacted by their father’s sacrifice and return to him (such a story as we find in the parable of the Prodigal Son). And when John Calvin, centuries later, returned to Anselm, he reworked some of his ideas for his own time, in a penal substitutionary theory that seemed less feudal and more purely biblical – and is still hugely influential in 21st-century Protestant preaching around the world.

What this suggests is that every new generation and every new culture needs to do its own careful, sensitive work of “reasoning with Scripture.” While doing so, we could do much worse than follow the example of the scholastic exegetes, who, themselves following the example of the fathers at Chalcedon, set out to explore what may be explored with the wonderful gift of reason, but insisted on doing so within the bounds of the irreducible mysteries presented in the pages of the Bible.

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Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


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Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

Controversies about Christ in the early church, part IV: The divine swallowing the human and the fourth council’s “four fences”


Cross of the Coptic Church, mistakenly called a “monophysite” church

This post follows from “Who do you say that I am: Controversies about Christ in the early church,” , and

So now we’re in the run-up to the fourth council: the council of Chalcedon. The major issue here was this: Eutyches was abbot of a large monastery. He was a strong supporter of Cyril, who had started to fight the Nestorians. This Eutyches was not going to compromise his position against Nestorius: he eliminated all possibility of a werewolf-Jesus by saying Christ had only one nature: his divine nature.

Remember the orthodox position: from the moment the 2nd person of the trinity became incarnate, this divine nature or person also possessed a human nature.

But how did Eutyches explain our salvation if Christ had only a divine and not a human nature? Continue reading

Is contemplative prayer a legitimate Christian practice?


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Over at Internet Monk, an excellent review of a book on classic Christian spirituality, Gary Thomas’s Sacred Pathways, has stirred up a heck of a hornet’s nest. A couple of critics are insisting at some length that contemplative prayer of the sort Thomas, Foster, Willard, and others recommend is “syncretistic” and thus dangerous.

Here is an excerpt from the review:

If you’ve read anything else by Gary Thomas or checked out his website, you know that unlike some evangelicals he believes that the Holy Spirit has been active throughout Christian history, not just since 1517. Continue reading