A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Blog

Proportional Blessing

When I guest preach in a brand new place, it’s likely to be on Ephesians 1:3-14. I’ve lived in that passage long enough that I know what I’m doing in there, I’ve studied every word, and I have a good sense of where everything is. I can reach into it and bring out the parts that I think will speak to this congregation. I feely admit that my Ephesians 1 sermon is what some traditions call a “sugar stick” sermon. But I also never tire of it, and there’s always something new in it for me. I recently spoke at Sovereign Hope in Missoula (Hi Fongs! Hi Tyler!), and as I unfolded the riches of Ephesians 1 this time and explored the meaning of “every spiritual blessing,” I found something new. I’m not sure what to call it, but it has something to do…

Read More

How to Learn from Other Kinds of Christians

The Student Ministry at my church (middle school and high school) has been studying John 13-17 for a few months. The Pastor of Student Ministry invited me to join their Wednesday night meeting to speak about Christian unity, with a special focus on how to think about all the different denominations that exist. I spoke for about 40 minutes before the whole group broke up into small groups for discussion. While I didn’t write up anything official, I did prepare some talking points and wanted to post them here. (Don’t expect much more than talking points, dear reader.) Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23, asking the Father that those who believe in him would be unified: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” When we hear about being One just like the Father and Son…

Read More

“Quite …Able to Communicate”

There’s a little story in Brother Andrew’s classic book God’s Smuggler that always comes to mind when I think about what Christians have in common. The gist of it is that two believers with no shared language find a way to communicate anyway via their shared love of the Bible. I first heard the story as a little kid, when my dad read it to me from the little Penguin paperback edition of the bestseller (1967, co-authored with John and Elizabeth Sherrill). And I’m probably guilty of re-telling it quickly, with insufficient detail, to make a point about Christian unity. So here’s the detail, from ch. 15 of the original edition (I don’t have, and haven’t consulted, the Chosen/Baker updated edition, which is the official best way to get the whole book). Anyway, for my own future reference, here’s the story. Brother Andrew (real…

Read More

Coordinating Exegesis

Gregory of Nyssa takes up the Nicene faith and sings it in the key of life: We believe in the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:3) who is the fountain of life (cf. Ps 36:9), and in the only-begotten Son of the Father (Jn 3:14, 18) who is the Author of life, as the Apostle says (Acts 3:15), and in the Holy Spirit of God, concerning whom the Lord said, it is the Spirit who gives life (Jn 6:40).1 You see what he is doing: Taking the theme of life, and knowing that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Nyssa looks through Scripture to find passages where each person of the Trinity is linked to life. What he finds is the Father as fountain, Son as source, and Spirit as giver. This corresponds neatly with both Matthew 28:19 (the sequence…

Read More

Grace Times Three (Davenant on Colossians)

When John Davenant (1572-1641) hits the word “grace” in the opening of Colossians, he has much to say. His Colossians commentary is admirably copious (about 900 pages). But he’s never just filling up pages or chasing word count. Davenant on Colossians has a constant eye for theological interpretation. By way of greeting, Paul says “grace to you.” Earlier Davenant had acknowledged the word’s use (alongside “truth”) as a salutation, Here he digs in and informs us that the term grace denotes three things : First, the gratuitous act of the Divine will accepting man in Christ, and mercifully pardoning his sins. This is the primary meaning of this word, which the Apostle every where enforces. By grace are ye saved (Eph 2:5); Being justified freely by his grace (Rom 3:24). This gratuitous love of God is the first gift, says Altissiodorensis [William of Auxerre],…

Read More

Erskine on the Son’s Presence

Ralph Erskine (1685-1752) wrote voluminously but not systematically, so tracing out a line of thought in his work can be a challenge. I’m jotting down some notes here on a line of thought I’d like to pursue sometime. Erskine’s got a theology of the presence of the Son which I think presupposes a notion of trinitarian mission; it presupposes it but doesn’t quite make it explicit. In the places where I expect him to say “the Son from the Father,” he tends to say “God in Christ.” He does have a high, traditional trinitarian theology, but when he speaks (as he often does, quite resourcefully and deliberately) of direct, experiential contact with God in Christ, he tends not to connect the trinitarian dots. Of course “God in Christ” means the Father sent the Son, and Erskine knows that. But his theology offers a chance…

Read More

On Consideration, Book V (Bernard of Clairvaux)

One of the last writings Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) completed was his Five Books on Consideration. The whole work is fascinating and worth reading: it’s essentially advice to one of his former students who had become bishop of Rome (Pope Eugene III), explaining how to manage such great obligations without losing his soul. The early books feature meditations on virtue, practical advice on schedule management and delegation, an apology for the results of the second crusade, and plenty of pointed directions for how to reform the church’s own government –these catalogs of abuses and corruptions help explain why On Consideration became a favorite text among reformers like Wyclif and Erasmus, and especially among capital-R Reformers like Calvin. But the real treasure is Book V, chapters 6-14. Here in the final 25 pages or so, Bernard turns the reader’s attention to the things above, and…

Read More

But Super Cahoots

People who tend to think of the three persons of the Trinity as three distinct individuals, each with their own individual center of consciousness (maybe a differentiated self-awareness knotted together with a matching other-awareness), faculty of willing, and so on, are what we loosely call “social trinitarians.” I put this in scare quotes because it’s a notoriously imprecise label that has probably served more to confuse issues than it has succeeded to pick out any particular view. It’s one of those conventional labels that you have to use and then immediately define specifically; so it loses the advantages that labels are supposed to have: quick, clear communication. But when it functions adequately, the “social” in “social trinitarian” is supposed to evoke the old social analogy for the Trinity: the persons of the Trinity are like three people in a close relationship. Perhaps the label…

Read More

Mark’s Start

If you’re already familiar with the other Gospels, Mark can be startling. How in the world can he leave out so much? How can he start the story of Jesus without explaining either the virginal conception or the genealogy of Jesus? How can he bring in John the Baptist with no historical backstory? How can he just start right in with the heavens being torn open and Jesus hearing the voice of the Father saying, “You are my beloved son”? Even if you affirm Mark’s chronological priority, and on that basis believe that the proper form of these questions ought to be flipped around (“Why do Matthew and Luke add so much?”), Mark’s narrative parsimony is remarkable. His “suddenly this happened!” storytelling strategy leaves you wondering how we got here, even when we just got here. Consider the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan….

Read More

“To Offer Him Any Attention”

There’s a scene near the end of Pride and Prejudice where Mrs. Bennet has a social opportunity to say characteristically foolish things to Mr. Darcy. Alert readers are apprehensive! But the narrator reassures us: “Mrs. Bennet luckily stood in such awe of her intended son-in-law that she ventured not to speak to him, unless it was in her power to offer him any attention, or mark her deference for his opinion.” I thought this was an odd use of “attention,” which ought to mean “the act of attending or heeding; the act of bending the mind upon any thing.” This definition is from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, nearly contemporary with Austen (P&P was published 1813; Johnson’s dictionary was published in its first edition 1755, fourth edition 1773). But it wouldn’t make much sense to say that Mrs. Bennet didn’t speak to Mr. Darcy except to…

Read More

Iambics to Seleucus (Amphilochius)

Amphilochius of Iconium (ca. 345-404) was the bonus Cappadocian: he did not attain unto the three, and his works are not well preserved for us, but he was right there with Basil and the Gregs, and his theology was very influential in the early centuries. I ran across a nice little sequence of lines from his Iambics to Seleucus, and spent some time studying them. These lines didn’t end up working for the project I was writing, but I didn’t want to forget them. They seem to be rehearsing Trinitarian orthodoxy circa 400, and so the fact that they don’t try to boast much originality is one of the best things about them. We have an early pro-Nicene working out the best ways to say things, making sure to use the key terminology with conspicuous correctness. So here they are: For the eternal Trinity…

Read More

Precept, Prayer, Promise

God commands us to do a good thing. We hear the precept, but what if we despair of our ability to carry it out? What can we do? We can ask God for divine assistance, or even ask him to do the commanded thing for us (or through us, or to us, or within us). In response, he promises to do so. Looking back on this three-step sequence, we might even find ourselves confessing that God intended to make the promise anyway, and so he gave the command in order to prompt us to ask for the gracious help. Precept-Prayer-Promise. It might seem convoluted, especially when drawn out to three beats. Augustine noticed the sequence and prayed to God in his Confessions, “Give what you command, and command what you will.” That sounds like only two beats (give=promise, command=precept), but of course we’re hearing…

Read More

Trinity in the Bible (Handout)

One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is show Christians how to see the Trinity in the Bible. I like to teach a three-session series on the topic, looking at five key passages (John 1:1-3, Matt 28:19, Gal 4:4-6, 2 Cor 13:14, and Eph 2:18). My goal is to spend enough time with each passage to sense its own dynamics, understand it in context, and develop the confidence to paraphrase its meaning. As Bible students get more comfortable with the key ideas, their paraphrasing can take many forms. But in a short course at the congregational level, I make sure to introduce the traditional terms (essence, person, preexistence, eternal generation, inseparable operations, etc.) and to treat them as helpful guidelines provided to us from the Christian church of the ages. The emphasis is sola scriptura (since God alone is fit to…

Read More

Easy Trinity, Hard Trinity

There’s a kind of back and forth involved in teaching about the triune God. You have to be able to state the doctrine briefly, but be prepared to unfold it at greater length. The brief and easy statement needs to be clear and satisfying, and then the longer statement needs to not contradict the brief one. I find this back and forth movement throughout the Christian tradition, and though I’ll illustrate it by looking at the Heidelberg Catechism, I could also have used examples from the fourth, fifth, or thirteenth centuries. But it’s a movement of thought often missing in current conversations about the Trinity. Here’s the example: Question 24 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks how the three articles of the Apostles’ Creed are divided, and answers: Into three parts:God the Father and our creation;God the Son and our deliverance;God the Holy Spirit and…

Read More

Reading a Nativity Image

Let’s look at a nativity image. Around Christmas, you see birth-of-Christ imagery of all kinds, simplified or elaborated with a variety of details and variations. Things are left out, things are patched in. And even if you search the early centuries of the Christian visual tradition for the first nativity images, you find a lot of variation (magi took an early lead over shepherds, for instance). Nativity images are a kind of placeholder for layers and layers of interpretive meditation. Any particular one you happen to see probably contains selections from a wonderfully expansive tradition of visual interpretation of the meaning of Christ’s birth. To see the full range of visual interpretation, you could study one of the more cluttered icons from the elaborate Byzantine tradition. But my personal favorite is the extremely bookish and highly verbal tradition known as the Biblia Pauperum. Take…

Read More

Journey of the Word (Lessons between Carols)

1. Genesis 3: God Promises a Redeemer In the beginning, two trees stood in the midst of the garden. There was the tree of life, and there was the tree of knowledge, and they just made sense. They grew side by side, and self-evidently belonged together. The LORD God planted them there as a dual blessing in a world of blessedness, a match made in paradise. But now nobody remembers how they were ever supposed to go together, because Adam and Eve took them apart… and lost the instructions. Whatever else the LORD God had said about the two trees, he had definitely commanded Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That prohibition was holy and righteous, but our first parents called it into question. Their ears had heard the holy word that walked among the ancient trees,…

Read More

Benefits of Faith in the Trinity

“What benefits do we receive” from believing each doctrine we believe, asks the Heidelberg Catechism. This recurring question about benefits is a hallmark of the catechism, inviting the reader not to stop at mere affirmation, but to press on and embrace the practical results and the appropriate comfort that follow from faith. “What fruits do we derive,” “what comfort do we find,” and so on. But when the Catechism comes to faith in the Trinity (questions 24 and 25), it does not raise this question. Why not? We don’t know; it doesn’t say. Perhaps the author, confident that his exposition of the persons of the Father (Q. 26-28), Son (Q. 29-52), and Holy Spirit (Q. 53 and following) was adequately focused on practical application, decided to hold his fire on the Trinity question itself. There can be, after all, something impertinent in asking “what’s…

Read More

Parergon Management

Sometimes when you’re working on a big project, you find yourself spinning off, almost by accident, little sub-projects. These can be of various kinds: some are distracting sidelines; some are sub-sections that are fine but just don’t fit the flow of thought; some are ideas that develop their own heft and center of gravity and just spin away. There’s a word for those little excrescences in your productivity: they (plural) are parerga, or each of them is a parergon. A little by-work, that developed alongside the large, main work. People used to use this word in literary or artistic contexts: if Michelangelo made a small painting while working out ideas for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, you would call that little stand-alone painting a parergon of the big project. So it’s different from a preliminary sketch, because sketches are practice for the main work. A…

Read More

About This Blog

Notes, quotes, thoughts, trial balloons, reviews, Twitter threads that turned out okay, position papers, miscellanies. Lightly edited theology writing from Fred Sanders.

Explore Blog Categories