The Deposit of Faith, towards a definition

What is the apostolic deposit of faith?  This question is hard to answer in a non-circular manner.  The implied answer among all traditions is “Whatever we are already teaching now.”  Such a position is impossible to prove.  For all of the evils of liberal/critical biblical scholarship, they did shed important light on the manner.  If we focus on the apostolic kerygma, we see an emphasis on Christ’s death and resurrection according to the Scriptures.   So what is the apostolic deposit?  To quote an older liturgy, “Christ has died.  Christ has Risen.  Christ will come again.”

It seemed good at the time

What comes to mind when you think of compelling, persuasive arguments?  If you believe in democracy, electioneering, and mob rule, no doubt images of sound-byte demagogues herding the masses to the booths come to mind.    If you are more intellectual, you think of aesthetically-pleasing foonotes, two-premise syllogisms, and quoting texts accurately.

If someone justified their case by saying, “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” you would no doubt conclude they were a bit off.   or failed seminary or something.

If I may say this with all respect, that is precisely what the apostles did.   Acts 15 recounts the apostles’ response to those who said Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved.  The Law said one must keep the commandment of circumcision forever.  (It said similar things about various feasts as well).   If the early church held to a GH reading of Scripture, and the early church held to sola scriptura as a hermeneutical construct, there is no way they could justify doing away with circumcision.

Incidentally, I make the argument that the grammatical-historical method of interpretation is necessary to sola scriptura and evangelicalism.    Or, if I may expand, the results from the GH method are necessary.  Chapter 1 of the Westminster Confession of Faith says that Scripture has only one meaning (presumably the divines were rejecting the fourfold method of the medieval church).  I maintain, however, that even on the GH terms, this view is impossible.    Presumably to the Old Testament hearers, Genesis 17 meant you had to circumcise the males in your household and you must always circumcise the males in your household.   It’s really not up for interpretation.   That’s not really a problem for the evangelical until we get to the part where God says you have to do this forever.     But it is quite clear that the church didn’t think they had to circumcise males forever.

The opponents in Acts 15 weren’t dummies.  If doctrine were simply decided by “Scripture alone,” and we interpret scripture by a literal reading, then the Judaizers would have won easily.   The law said you had to circumcise males forever, and circumcision had a very sharp meaning (pun intended).   There is no way that the Judaizers’ argument can be dismissed if we are going by what the Bible (as they had it at the time) said.


Unless there was another principle of authority at work.  How do the apostles solve the issue?  They don’t simply appeal to a “plain and simple reading of the Bible.”  They do quote the Prophet Amos, to be sure, but they give a very non-straightfoward interpretation of the passage, an interpretation that was surely challenged by the Judaizers.  Ultimately, they say, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

If that’s all there is to the argument, that’s a lame argument.   But if the church is the body of Christ, and the tradition of the Church is the mind of Christ, and that is how decisions in the Church are to be made, then the argument takes on a new dimension.

Review of Hilary of Poitiers

Taken from NPNF (Second Series) vol 9.

In reviewing St Hilary’s thought, I will be relying primarily on Geofrey Bromiley’s Historical Theology for clarification on more difficult points.    In no way can Hilary’s work be considered a literary masterpiece.  It is about one hundred pages too long, repetitive, and wordy.  To be fair, he wrote much of it in exile and like Augustine, was not always privy to the more mature Eastern thinking (though Hilary rectified this in some ways).

Hilary begins his theology with God’s revelation.  We know God as he reveals himself to us.  However, our theologizing about God will always be opaque.  God is invisible, ineffable, etc., and the mind grows weary trying to comprehend him (ii.6).  Language itself fails us as words are powerless (ii.7).   Analogies offer some help but they only hint at the meaning (i.19).

Trinitarian theology for the church begins with the baptismal formula in St Matthew’s gospel.  The Father is the origin of all; the Son is the only-begotten, and the Spirit is the gift (ii.1).    As the source of all the Father has being in himself.   The fullness of the Father is in the Son.   Because the Son is of the Father’s nature, the Son has the Father’s nature.  Hilary’s point is that like nature begats like nature.

In a break with pagan thought, Hilary distinguishes between person and nature:  “nor are there two Gods but one from one” (ii.11).

Hilary and the Spirit

Did Hilary teach the Filioque?  It’s hard to tell, and neither camp should draw hard conclusions.  The facts are these:  1) in ii.29 the Schaff edition reads “we are bound to confess him, proceeding as He does, from Father and Son.”  However, the foonote points out that there are alternative, more probably readings.  It is acknowledged that throughout Hilary’s work the text has been corrupted at parts.   Even asssuming the present reading to be the correct one, one must ask if by procession Hilary would mean the same thing as later Filioquist writers?  The Latin word for proceed (procedere) does not have the same range as the multiple Greek words for “proceed.”  Roman Catholic scholar Jean Miguel Garrigues notes that one simply can’t read English translations of the Latin semantic domains of “proceed” and from that infer, quite simplisticly, that Hilary believed in the Filioque (L’Esprit qui dit «Père!» (Paris 1981), pp. 65-75.; [no, I don’t read French.  I found a link to this book on Perry’s blog, attendant with the relevant discussions).

2) Hilary goes on elsewhere to affirm that the Spirit is from the Father alone (viii.20) and the Father through the Son (xii.57); neither of these texts, obviously, are hard Filioquist reads, and in any case, this wasn’t Hilary’s point.


As an anti-Arian text, there is a reason why the Church spends more time with St Athanasius, Ambrose, and the Cappadocians.  The Cappadocians and St Ambrose would later refine Hilary’s argument.

On the other hand, Hilary provides the late Western reader with a number of valuable and often stunning insights to the nature of the Church, philosophy, and the evaluations of post-Reformation traditions.

The Eucharist: St Hilary draws an analogy between the “of one nature” with Father and Son and the utter reality of the Son in the Eucharist.  We receive the very Word make flesh in the Eucharist, not due to an agreement of will but because the Son took man’s nature to himself.

Denies monergism: Hilary denies there is a necessity on our will because that would impose faith on us (viii.12).

We know God by his operations or powers (later theologians would say energies):  God’s self-revelation displays his Name (Person).  This revelas his nature (i.27).   This is what Dr Joseph Farrell calls the ordo theologiae:  persons, operations, essence.  The persons do things and this reveals their essence.  In de Synodis para 69 Hilary warns that we must not start with the consubstantiality (or essence) when we do our Trinitarian reasoning, for this leads to confusion since the terms are not yet defined.  Rather, we must begin with the Persons.  (Critics of de Regnon be confounded!   Hilary clearly understands the importance of starting with the Persons, not the nature).

Rejects philosophical nominalism:  names correspond to realities (ix.69).  Therefore, are we justified in saying something is true of the Person of Christ that is not true of the taxonomy?  I admit:  this isn’t Hilary’s debate, since he hadn’t yet dealt with the Calvinist take on the extra Calvinisticum.  Hilary says “We must not divide Jesus Christ, for the Word was made flesh” (x.60-62).   Was there an “extra” to the divine nature outside the person of Christ?  Hilary doesn’t think so.

Prays to Saints:  “Be with me now in thy faithful spirit, holy and blessed Patriarch Jacob, to combat the poisonous hissings of the serpent of unbelief” (v.19).

On the Rock of Matthew 16.19ff:  “This faith it is which is the foundation of the Church; through this faith the gates of hell cannot prevail against her” (vi. 37).  The faith of the apostles, not the see of Peter, is the foundation of the Church.


It is not a literary masterpiece, nor is it really an outstanding apologia against Arianism.  However, it is a faithful reflection of the Tradition passed down, and it does give many remarkable “snapshots” of the Church’s belief which can inform, challenge, and hopefully change the minds of folk today.




Essay on Gavrilyuk’s book “The Suffering of the Impassible God”

The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought

Gavrilyuk is rebutting the claim that the early church simply adopted Hellenistic views regarding God and impassibility (if and to what degree does God suffer). In his opening chapter Gavrilyuk demonstrates that the early church could not have adopted the prevailing Hellenistic view on divine (im)passibility because the Hellenists themselves differed greatly on what they meant by the term.

This static “Greek” view of God is contrasted with the wildly anthopomorphic version of the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures. Theology and the Fathers adopted the Hellenistic view of God instead of the Biblical view.  While this view is standard liberal German theology, one can’t help but notice similar remarks coming out of some biblical theological circles (including one publication ministry going by the initials “BH”).

The problem with this view is not simply that the Greek views contradicted one another, as noted above (meaning there is no overarching “Hellenistic” view of Divine Impassibility), but also that the “wildly Hebraic Scriptures” contained passages that appear to be contradictory per divine impassibility on first reading (contrast Jonah with the verse that says “I, the Lord God, do not change” and “does not repent”).

Obviously, we see that the category of “divine impassibility” cannot be used as a blanket category.  What does divine impassibility mean?  It is usually taken to mean that the divine nature (or sometimes a divine person–heretics often confuse person and nature) does not  suffer in one sense and/or any sense.  On a more broad level it could mean that the divine nature/person does not engage in anthropomorphisms.

The early Christological heresies held to a strict form of divine impassibility.  The heretics understood that Christ was either divine and/or participated in the divine nature; therefore, Christ couldn’t have really suffered on the cross (Docetism), been of the same divine nature as the Father (Arianism), or had a real participation in humanity’s suffering (Nestorianism).

Docetism and the Sufferings of the Martyrs

The ancient world was scandalized by the idea that men would worship a suffering god.   If Christ were divine, he was not so during the Crucifixion, so the Docetists reasoned. The church met this attack on several fronts.  They responded to Gnosticism arguing that creation was God and that God used material means for our salvation.  Hence, it was not shameful for God to participate in human birth and death, if that were to restore us to incorruptibility (88).  Still, at this point in the Christian narrative, it was not entirely clear how the divine nature participated in the Cross (89).  There were pointers:  The Son, not the Father, suffered.   Thus, the Church reasoned that the divine nature did not suffer “nakedly” but through the Son.  It was not always clear, though, how this went about.


Gavrilyuk surveys a number of different interpretations of “Arianism” (104-114).   Despite the nuances of Arianism, and acknowledging the basic textbook definition (which is essentially correct), Arius had a desire to protect the transcendence of God, and more pointedly, to remove him from any hint of suffering or change (129-130).  It is quite likely the Arians agreed that the Son suffered.  In fact, Gavrilyuk frames the debate this way:  the passible Son was inferior in essence to the impassible Father.  He was generated and subject to suffering (130).  Arius did not want to affirm a God who suffered in Christ, but that God did not suffer in Christ or apart from Christ (131).   The key issue, then, is divine impassibility.

But for the orthodox divine impassibility functioned a different way:  it was a negative characteristic that did not preclude God from acting in the world (132).  Divine impassibility functioned as a sign of the Logos’ full divinity (similar to how Divine Simplicity functions), but this attribute did not imply that the Logos acted apart from Christ (133). The Logos was involved in human sufferings but the divine nature was not diminished by them.

The last point is a major point that functions as a lens for viewing the Christological controversies.  We go back to the role of apophatic qualifiers.  Terms like “Divine Simplicity” and “Divine Impassibility” are not meant to be taken in an absolute and unqualified sense.  With regard to the latter, it does not mean that the divine nature forever and always remains “untouched” (and passibilist theologians are often unclear as to how suffering affects the divine nature), but that the divine nature/divine person is not overwhelmed by them.  Divine impassibility, as Gavrilyuk makes clear throughout the book, does not mean that God never suffers or has human emotions.  It means that God is not overwhelmed by suffering nor is he subject to improper human pathe.


Gavrilyuk (rightly) draws upon John McGuckin’s work on St Cyril.   What was Nestorius’ goal?  Gavrilyuk clears away a lot of the debris left by modern scholarship on Nestorius (including the nonsense that he didn’t believe the theology attributed to him).  Nestorius and Theodore took proper pious responses concerning transcendence and impassibility, and brought them to a bizarre consistency.  We can summarize many of their goals this way:

  • The divine action in the Incarnation did not bring God qualitatively closer to creation in any way (142).
  • Christ’s two natures must be seen as a conjunction, not a union (and represent the separation between created and creator.   Note the eerie similarity to Calvinism on this point.  Calvinists say the union of the two natures, particularly the way the natures share with one another, is merely a verbal predicatio and not a real union–cf Richard Muller, A Theological Dictionary of Greek and Latin Terms, 74).
  • Therefore, the man assumed and the God who did the assuming must be thought of separately. As Gavrilyuk maintains, “It was impossible [on Theodore’s gloss] for the divinity to participate any way in the sufferings of the humanity” (Gavrilyuk, 143).

Admitteldy, St Cyril responded to Nestorius using often paradoxical categories.  According to our modern sensibilities, this isn’t playing fair.  It seems as though we are holding Nestorius to logical consistency but are allowing Cyril to deal from the bottom of the deck.   Even so, Cyril can (and Gavrilyuk does not stress this point all that much) run a deconstruction on Nestorius’s system.  Since Nestorius denies that the Divine Logos is the subject of all Incarnate acts, but rather sees God merely indwelling a man, Nestorius’s system is identical in principle to Arius’.  Neither of them allow the Logos BOTH fully divine status AND fully human experiences.  What’s the difference, on Nestorius’ gloss, between God indwelling the holy saints and God indwelling Christ?  Simply a matter of degree, not kind.  This is simply respectable Arianism.

Cyril, and through him the Church, responds that God the word did not suffer nakedly, but since in the Incarnation something new happened for ontology, real human experiences* can be predicated of Christ (who is the Divine Logos) (156).

The key to the union (henosis) lies in the emptying (kenosis).   What happened when the Logos emptied himself?  Nestorius said that the emptying of the Logos was simply the conjunction of the human nature to the divine (Gavrilyuk, 158; again, this could easily be taken from half a dozen Reformed systematic theology texts).   For Cyril, however, it was God’s descent to the limits of humanity and allowing these limits to have dominion over him.

The rest of a Cyrillian analysis can be found in Farrell or McGuckin.


Gavrilyuk is not using the word “dialectic” in a Hegelian sense.  He is simply showing the process of how the Church sharpened its vision concerning who Christ is.  Each debate focused the issue more intensely.   Some questions were left unanswered after Cyril, like the two wills of Christ.

Gavrilyuk does a fine job outlining his thesis and keeping the historical scope under control.  The actual text of the book runs for 180 pages.  The narrative is always tight and Gavrilyuk rarely pursues tangents.  On the other hand, one feels that Gavrilyuk could have examined the historical controversies in slightly more detail, but that is a minor complaint.

*Obviously, real human experiences do not include sin and vice.  This is a major point for Christology and Anthropology, and one that Gavrilyuk does not draw out.  If Christ assumed a real human nature with real human experiences, it is a given that sin and vice are not natural to the human state.  If sin and vice are not natural to the human state, it follows they are not part of human nature.  If so, then they must be located somewhere else.  The East says they are located in the act of the willing (see St John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Romans 5:12).

Who’s the Platonist Now?

One of the more common charges against the early Christian world, and particularly the Eastern church today, is that it is baptized Platonism. It suppressed the earthy, covenantal Hebraism of the Old Testament and original disciples into the more arid Hellenism which we know today.

But is that true? While a number of early fathers were Hellenized (Augustine anyone?), at the most important points of dogma they not only did not commit to Hellenism, but firmly rejected and reworked it.

For example, Hellenistic thought saw the world in dialectical conditions. If there is a good, there must be a corresponding bad. Obviously for Christians this won’t work: God is good and eternal yet evil is not eternal. St Gregory of Nyssa firmly rejected this reasoning.

Likewise, much of modern Christianity–particularly the segment of Reformed thought influenced by John Piper–sees that for God to be Lord there must be something for him to be Lord over (this is actually taken from Origen. Piper advances the premises but not the conclusions, to be fair). Christians confess God to be eternal. They confess him to be Lord, yet they do not confess that he must have had something from all eternity to be Lord over. Again, the Church rejected Hellenism at a key point.