Canon, Scripture, and Assumption

The issue of canon is one of those questions that determine the rest of theology.  This is especially true to the evangelicals who hold strongly to inerrancy.  If Scripture (particularly written Scripture) is your ultimate starting point, it better have a very strong foundation.

The issue of the canon can make or break one’s faith.  When I was a freshman in college the liberals under whom I studied kept pointing out there was no such thing as a fully intact canon.  In fact, the Church didn’t have (or didn’t know) of most of Scripture for the first few centuries.  If Scripture is argued to be fully determinative for the church on how it worships and believes, and such a Scripture was simply not there, this is a major problem!

This is not a major problem for those ecclesial traditions that rely on Tradition as a mode of receiving and passing down the faith.  They argue that Tradition and the leadership of bishops who physically succeed the apostles safeguards the deposit of faith.

Intellectually, I am with the latter (Tradition) on this point.  To be fair, though, one must read the best Reformed and Evangelicals on the canon in order to make a fair decision.  I’ve given away most of my library but I’ve kept the best books, I think:  Calvin, Grudem, Berkhof, and Muller.

Calvin:  As is often the case, Calvin doesn’t actually *argue* his position.  He ridicules his opponents and repeats his assertions (he is notoriously inadequate on Christology on this point).

Muller:  Muller places discussion of the canon within its medieval scholastic context (II: 30).  He notes (quite rightly, I think) that medieval discussions of the canon were fluid and probably unnecessary.  He does quote Hugh of St Victor who seemed to say that the Apocrypha is not Scripture.   My thoughts:  he is right on the fluidity of the canon in the Church’s belief.  If you have the gospels, the holy mysteries, and the apostolic deposit (not that Muller is arguing these specific points), a fully intact canon is irrelevant.  In some ways, while I accept the Apocrypha, I agree with Hugh.   There are levels within Scripture.  The Gospel of John is more important than Tobit.

Unfortunately, my discussion of Muller will be way too inadequate for now.  I realize Muller says much more on the Reformed understanding of Canon and I would like to give more weight to his arguments in the future.  (Muller gives more discussion on II:  355-370).

Grudem:  Grudem is probably the most important representative.  He doesn’t weigh the reader down with extraneous details (unlike Berkhof, whose work reads like a foreign language dictionary and will be covered in a later post).  Grudem’s arguments are typically pointed and the reader, even when disagreeing, knows precisely what Grudem is and isn’t arguing.  And unlike most theologians, Grudem can actually write well.

My criticisms of Grudem are along these lines:

  • He assumes whenever the Bible mentions “writing” (or any of its verbal and noun forms), it necessarily means it as an authoritative and codified list that is normative for the community.  But as anyone who has read the Old Testament knows, there are numerous writings in the Old Testament (and also in Jude) that are not canonical and no one (Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox) argues them to be so.  Grudem actually references these writings, but it’s not clear what he is trying to prove.
  • Apropos above, Grudem is committing the “word = concept” fallacy.  When he reads of lists in the Bible, Jewish literature, and in the early Christian church, he thinks they are to be understood in the way “canon” is understood today.  But as Lee McDonald makes clear in his magnificent work on the canon, this is simply not the case.  The early church (at least until St Irenaeus) saw the canon as a story.  St Clement’s community in Egypt saw it as a codified direction for life.  In any case, it wasn’t  a list of Scriptures that are binding.
  • Grudem’s third difficulty is assuming a uniform and early Hebrew canon.  To be fair to all sides, this really is tricky.  If I’m wrong on this point, little in my argument is changed.  On the other hand, Grudem bases much of his position on clinching this argument.  I’m not going to rebut Grudem on this point right now.  It is a long and complicated issue that probably needs a separate post.  Two initial difficulties which Grudem does not address in his text.   Jesus and his apostles used the Septuagint, not the MT.  True, they probably did not think of the list of Septuagintal books as a strict canon (I’m trying to be consistent with my earlier points), but in all likelihood many of the apocryphal works were there and Jesus et al didn’t seem to bothered by them (indeed, one can even maintain that Jesus drew upon apocryphal traditions–…”Berechiah to Zechariah”).  Grudem does not use this line of reasoning for obvious reasons: he would have to admit the apocrypha into the canon.

    Grudem also quotes the Talmud (or parts of it) for rejecting the apocrypha.  Unlike Grudem, who is trying to be a good Christian, the Talmud is very consistent in its reasons for rejecting the apocrypha.  The Talmud says that books like Wisdom “defile the hands” (largely because of the heavy Messianic overtones in the LXX.  It also says the same things about many of the prophets).  Secondly, if one is appealing to the Talmud against early Christian witness, one is in a very precarious situation.  The Talmud also makes scathing sexual references to Christ, Mary, and even condemns to hell many Jewish prophets who criticized Israel.  True, Grudem didn’t have that in mind, but perhaps he needs to understand why the Talmud rejects these books.  The Talmud rejects the Apocrypha for the same reason it rejects Christ:  it points away from ethnic Israel as the focal point of salvation.

There are several issues that still need to be addressed:

  1. The nature of the early formation of the Old Testament Hebrew canon.
  2. Muller and Berkhof on the formation of the canon.
  3. Jesus’s possible use of the apocryphal tradition.

Review of Gregory of Nyssa: Works and Treatises

As is usually the case with the Schaff editions of the Church Fathers, the individual volumes are marked both by triumph and failure (the failure always on the part of the editors). First, a few critical comments on the arrangement of the material. Then, an examination of Gregory’s theology. Gregory’s response to the Second Book of Eunomius does not have subsections, making it difficult to follow and impossible to cross-reference. Yet, many of the leading monographs point to key arguments in this book by subsection, which the editors left out. The same applies to On the Soul and the Resurrection. Thirdly, the editors have frequent footnotes to material and sidebars that have little to do with the current discussion. Concentrating on reading small font, double-columned pages is difficult enough without distractions. Fourthly, the editors try to force Gregory to affirm later post-Reformation Anglican theology (e.g., they are visibly disturbed that Gregory did not affirm the Filioque and thus conclude his “doctrine of the Holy Spirit is undeveloped”).

The Content of Gregory’s Theology
Gregory’s theology can be seen as a division between Uncreated reality and created reality. While capable of standing alone, it is best seen as a critique of Eunomius’ heresy. The main point of contention is Eunomius maintains that the Son and the Holy Spirit are part of created reality (p. 56; all page references are to the specific pages in the Schaff edition). Eunomius would also reduce the divine essence to “Ungenerateness.” He does this because he knows the Son is not Ungenerate; therefore, the Son is not of the essence of the Father and is reduced to created reality.

Gregory is at pains to respond accordingly: we cannot know the divine essence (103; 257). If we cannot know the divine essence, then Eunomius cannot define and reduce the divine essence to “Ungenerateness.” Rather, we know God by his operations/energies (221–God is above every name; God’s names are not interchangeable with his essence, contra later Augustinians; God’s names are rather identified with his energies. Cf David Bradshaw’s response to David Bentley Hart in Orthodox Readings of Augustine; see p. 265 for a very clear distinction between essence and energies; see page 328–we can only know the divine nature by the operations).

How successful was St Gregory in refuting Eunomius? In terms of clarity he wasn’t very successful. St Basil was more clear and St Gregory Nazianzus had more rhetorical flair. St Gregory of Nyssa, though, while perhaps not entirely accomplishing his objective, did clearly delineate the distinction between essence and energies, which would have huge implications in later Filioquist and Roman Catholic debates.

To be fair, there is a section early in the first response to Eunomius where Gregory identifies God with the Good. Many prematurely conclude that Gregory taught a form of Absolute Divine Simplicity. However, knowing that Gregory is a Platonist of sorts, and keeping in mind Plato’s discussion in The Republic. To identify the divine essence with the Good is clearly a Platonic way of thinking about or structuring the matter. The missing piece here is the Platonic way, from Plato’s Republic (509b) of thinking about the Good. Plato says that the form of the good is superior to all other forms since all other forms have it as their end. Which is another way of saying that people do what they think is good (even if they happen to be wrong about what is good.) The key part here is what Plato says in 509b, which is that the Good is huper ousia or beyond being. If the Good is beyond being then there can be no identity thesis, since identity or sameness is applicable to things that be. Consequently for Nyssa and other Cappadocians we do not and cannot know the divine essence (hence no beatific vision like Catholicism or Protestantism). Simplicity for them like say Maximus or John of Damascus is an energy as well.

If simplicity is an energy, then the Identity thesis makes no sense whatsoever. This is one of the fault lines between Latin Scholasticism and Orthodoxy. We both agree that God is superessential or beyond being but disagree on what that means. They take huper ousia to be a certain notion of being, we take it to be not being in any way what so ever. Here is a way to *try* and thinking about it. Ad intra and essentially, God is not something, but he’s not nothing either. Welcome to the world of divine incomprehensibility.

Gregory the Philosopher
Gregory has several treatises on Virginity, the Death of Infants, the Making of Man, and Last Things. In terms of historical theology, Gregory’s conclusions are perhaps more important than his individual arguments. While Gregory affirms the superiority of the Virgin life, many scholars rightly see him urging the purifying of the soul from all earthly good. On The Death of Infants Gregory marks a clear break with the Augustinian west–Gregory placing infants in the category of the saved. While Gregory appears to affirm a form of purifying fire after death, it is different from Purgatory and Limbo.

Gregory and the Church
Gregory clearly affirms baptismal regeneration (62 and 519). Per the Eucharist we must eat the life-giving Christ to undo the poison of the first eating (504-515). We also see that the early church practiced unction (321).

If one is trying to read through the Cappadocian Fathers, read Gregory of Nyssa last. Granted the difficult topic, Gregory is still difficult to read. He himself admits he wanders from the topic on a regular basis. He assumes the reader is familiar with Platonic philosophy. Even so, his theology represents important road marks in the Church’s confession of the Holy Trinity.

The Seal of the Fathers

St Cyril of Alexandria is the sphragidis of the Fathers, the seal of the Fathers.   While he is not the last word in Christology, he was an able summarizer of Christological thought and was remarkably consistent.  He’s also disliked among academics today.  St Cyril played hardball and it seemed like he used unsavory means to keep heretics from being represented at Council.

Prof McGuckin dismantles these myths.  McGuckin a) exposes the postmodern and elitist presuppositions of the university professors and b) offers a different angle on the Nestorian Controversy—and he does it with dash, flair, and humor.

To be fair, though, it is difficult to know exactly what Nestorius actually believed.  Nestorius was accused of maintaining there were two persons in Christ, a position he seemed to deny.  Yet McGuckin makes clear that Nestorius believed in two prosopon in Christ.  This word can mean “person” but doesn’t always, and that appeared to give Nestorius an out.  Yet as McGuckin and St Cyril make clear, Nestorius nonetheless held to two operating principles in Christ.  (At this point McGuckin gives a long summary of Nestorius’s Christology.  In short, it reads:

  • Extreme divine impassibility:  the Logos cannot suffer (131).
  • Christ’s two natures remain ontologically apart, existing side by side (135).
  • The Church’s confession of Christ should always begin with his double reality (156).

On pp. 138ff McGuckin gives a helpful summary of the meanings of ousia, physis, hypostasis, and prosopon.

Cyril’s Christology

Before examining St Cyril’s Christology, McGuckin surveys Apolloniarius’s Christology.  While denounced as a heretic (and rightly so), Apollonaris put his finger on many important points.  To put it another way, while Apollonaris’s heresy was bad, it set the stage for Cyril’s triumph.  Apollonaris saw the important point that had to be maintained:  the single subject of the Logos (179).

Redemptive Deification

St Cyril’s Christology was tied to his soteriology:  “The incarnation was a restorative act designed for the ontological reconstruction of a human nature that had fallen into existential decay as a result of its alienation from God” (184).  The Logos appropriates human nature—and this human nature becomes that of one who is God—the human nature is lifted up to extraordinary glory.

St Cyril also offers us a way to think about divine impassibility:  we should see the intimacy of the connection between the two realities of Christ…In the incarnation the power of the one transforms and heals the fallibility of the other.

“The human nature is conceived as the manner of action of an independent and omnipotent power—that of the Logos; and to the Logos alone can be attributed the authorship of, and responsibility for, all its actions” (186).    The subject is unchanged, but that subject now expresses the characteristics of his divinely powerful condition in and through the medium of a passible and fragile condition.

Of course, St Cyril ties this in with the holy mysteries (188).  The believer is deified because the encounter brings him into life-giving proximity with the Logos—and this proximity was the metaphysical root of all being.

St Cyril’s vision was the transformation of the human race according to the paradigm of divine appropriation of a human nature in the incarnation (188).

The Ecumenical Reception of St Cyril

Cyril preferred to say that Christ was of two natures, placing the stress on the Incarnation (231).

McGuckin scores major points in noting that St Leo’s Tome actually had to pass muster before it was excepted.   The Church didn’t merely receive it and note, “Leo has spoken.  The end.”  They said this, but only after it passed a Cyrillene test.   Why did they praise Leo?  Because his Tome agreed with Cyril and the Fathers, not merely because he was “pope.”


This was a fantastic book.  It is truly one of the great books written on Christology.  Because of the timeline it does not deal with later concerns about the energies and wills of Christ.  However, it wonderfully ties in ecclesiology, Christology, soteriology, and the Eucharist into one prism which then sheds multi-perspectival light on the Church.

Is Monarchy Part of the Natural Order?

There is an interesting debate among political theologians to whether government is part of the created order, or did it arise from man’s sin?  This has always been a tough question for me and I can see both points of view. I’ll consider them briefly,

Government is Part of the Created Order

Hierarchy is natural to creation.  Thus, creation has a hierarchical order.  Further, Adam was called to rule over creation.

Government is not Part of the Created Order

Monarchs exist because of man’s sin.  Monarchs rule because man otherwise will not be represented fairly (only those with ties to big media and big money will be represented).  The monarch is to transcend and offer a just judgment.  This complex, however, only exists because of sin.


So which is it?  If I were more Hegelian, I would run a dialectic–which I might do later.

A Maximian Dialectic?

Hegel:  Thesis/Antithesis –> Synthesis.

St Maximus the Confessor:  Genesis/Kinesis –> Stasis.

But for the dialectic to be consistent, the synthesis functions as a new thesis, which would repeat the dialectical process.  How does a Maximian answer that?

First, to note, it is not the “same” triad as the beginning.  Secondly, we demur with Herr Hegel at this point.  But Hegel was on to something, no?  The stasis per Maximus is not static.  It is referring to our place in glory, which should be seen as “an ever-receding horizon.”

Hegelian Reflection on Monarchy

Taken from Philosophy of Right, section 274.  I’m largely summarizing Fr. Coplestone’s narrative on Hegel.

Hegel gives primacy to constitutional monarchy, but wants a government that allows civic participation.  Citizens should participate in government as part of a subset of the whole–not as individuals.  Hegel calls these subsets “corporations.”  I don’t know to what extent corporations in the mid-19th century resemble corporations today.  But we can view it another way by calling them “estates,” which is exactly how medieval many participated in the monarchical order.

Hegel wants a constitutional monarchy, to which I have grave misgivings.  I understand why, though.  At that time in Europe, the old liturgical tradition had largely been eradicated.  Institutions tended to reflect raw power.   Hegel likely say monarchies as absolute monarchies and wanted to mute that tendency.

Differance as Opposition as Epistemological Violence

In my last post on postmodernism, I ended saying that one of the defining characteristics of postmodernism is “differance.”  But I didn’t give a good explanation of differance.  To be fair, postmodern literature is often murky, but I think the paths along the swamp are clearly enough lit.

Two ways to explain differance

The first way is to say that meaning is always deferred.   We can never fully answer a question with an appeal to a single word.  When we answer, our words often appeal (defer) to yet another word (pardon the terribly short synopsis).

The second way is that differance creates ontological space.  This can be space between entities or space between concepts.  Differance can also be the creation of hierarchies.  When I say this isn’t that, I am differentiating objects (or people, or concepts).  This is fairly harmless, but it also involves a potentially volatile process.  By differentiating entities, I am also creating “oppositions.”

Oppositions are not necessarily violent.  God’s differance with his creation can be seen as harmony, not violence.  But in today’s discourse, it often is violent.  For the academy today, oppositions usually mean someone creates an “other.”  The “other” is often seen as a scapegoat or a symbolic representation of the dangers to “the society.”

This is merely a literary exploration.