Classic Consensual Ecumenical Teaching

My basic purpose is to set forth an ordered view of the faith of the Christian community upon which there has generally been substantial agreement between the traditions of East and West, including Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. My intent is not to present the views of a particular branch of modern Christian teaching, such as Roman Catholic or Reformed, but to listen single-mindedly for the voice of that deeper consensus that has been gratefully celebrated as received teaching by believers of vastly different cultural settings, whether African or Asian, Eastern or Western, sixth or sixteenth century.

My intention may be simply put: I hope to set forth what is most commonly stated in the central Christian tradition concerning God. This effort is therefore ecumenical in a larger sense than is usually assumed in the modern ecumenical movement. It proposes to follow that ancient ecumenical consensus of Christian teaching of God as seen in earliest creedal summaries of Irenaeus, c. AD 190; Tertullian, c. 200; Hippolytus, c. 215; Council of Caesarea, 325; Council of Nicaea, 325; Marcellus, 340; Cyril of Jerusalem, 350; Council of Constantinople, 381; Rufinus, 404; Council of Chalcedon, 451. These confessions still embrace and empower not only centrist Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics and Orthodox but also great numbers of evangelicals, liberals, and charismatics.

Hence I am seeking to set forth key constructive arguments of two millennia of ecumenical Christian thinking-that God is, who God is, and what that means for us today. I seek an internally consistent statement of classical Christian thinking about God so as to provide a reliable foundation for baptism, the life of prayer, scripture studies, and for the living of Christian life.

No attempt has been made to avoid the classical language of the church. The study of God does better by letting tested classical Christian language speak for itself in its own directly powerful way to modern minds and hearts wrestling with the limits and failures of modern consciousness. The faithful have no dread of using the traditional language of the church. Terms like incarnation and resurrection need to be explained, not avoided.

Contemporary cultures present no tougher challenges to Christianity than did the fall of Rome, the collapse of the medieval synthesis, the breakup of the unity of Christendom in the sixteenth century, or the French Enlightenment. Christian teaching today must be pursued amid a similar collapse of modern assumptions. I will not try to offer classic Christianity artificial crutches to assist it in catching up with the frenzied pace of modernity. My premise is that modernity has more catching up to do with classic Christianity. My passion is in the closest possible adherence to the texts of classic Christian teaching.

Modest Reaffirmations

In reworking the earlier three-volume edition (1987-92) into a single volume, I reaffirm solemn commitments made at its beginning:

to make no new contribution to theology

to resist the temptation to quote modern writers less schooled in the whole counsel of God than the best ancient classic exegetes

to seek quite simply to express the one mind of the believing church that has been always attentive to that apostolic teaching to which consent has been given by Christian believers everywhere, always, and by all. This is what I mean by the Vincentian method (Vincent of Lérins, Commonitory).

I have listened closely for the historic ecumenical consensus received by believers of widely varied languages, social locations, and cultures, whether of East or West, African, or Asian, whether expressed by women or men of the second or first Christian millennium, whether European or decisively pre-European, post- or pre-Constantinian.

My goal has not been to survey the bewildering varieties of dissent, but to identify and plausibly set forth the cohesive central tradition of general lay consent to apostolic teaching, seen not through its centrifugal aberations but in its centripetal centering. I will spend little time trying to knock down others' cherished views. The focus is upon setting forth plausible layers of argument traditionally employed while presenting in connected order the most commonly held points of biblical teaching as classically interpreted by the leading teachers of the earliest centuries of Christianity.

My intention is not to try to satisfy the finicky appetites of naturalistic skeptics who will always remain hungry. Nor is it to find a clever way of making the way of salvation conveniently acceptable to the prejudices of modernity. I am pledged not to become fixated upon the ever-spawning species of current critical opinions, but instead to focus single-mindedly upon early consensual assent to apostolic teaching of how God the Spirit works to fulfill the mission of God the Son on behalf of God the Father.

I do not assume that my reader already affirms classic Christian teaching. I wish only to give a fair hearing to the way in which classical Christian teachers have always understood their own grounding and empowerment.

I will not dodge or explain away the time-honored vocabulary of the church, or seek constantly to substitute diluted terms congenial to modernity. The witness to God's saving action is best served by letting the tested language of the Christian tradition, as refined through countless historical and political mutations, speak for itself out of its own power to modern minds struggling with the follies and limits of modernity. Only those who give traditional Christianity a fair hearing can fairly decide whether it makes sense. Deteriorating modern ideologies must now catch up with the ever-new forgings of classic Christianity, not the other way around.

Those who are at home with liturgy and those who prefer a down-to-earth, socially engaged, pragmatic level are inheritors of the same consensus. Both can dive deeply into the stream of classic Christian language without a sacrifice of conscience. Some will bring an imagination awakened by theoretical interests, other by practical ethics. All of these varied partners will recognize the best of their own recent traditions as already at home and included within the embrace of classical Christian thought. The beautiful species known as Christian orthodoxy deserves advocates who try to do what Rachel Carson did for birds or what Archie Carr did to advocate the cause of endangered sea turtles.

The Promise of Unoriginality

The only promise I intend to make, however inadequately carried out, is that of unoriginality. I plan to present nothing new or original in these pages. Nothing of my own that would have my initials stamped upon it is important in this discussion. Admittedly the classic language must be reappropriated and articulated in sentences written and ordered by some particular person. Yet I hope my own voice does not intrude upon the radiant voices of Paul, Irenaeus, Anthony, and Athanasius.

I wish to provide neither a new interpretation of old ideas, nor a new language that is more acceptable for modern sensibilities. Rigorous accountability to the ancient teachers themselves is a large enough task, without adding to it other heavy burdens. If that seems irregular, it can be viewed as a response to a prevailing excess, one that inordinately emphasizes self-expression, often exaggerated in current self-importance. I do not pretend to have found a comfortable way of making Christianity tolerable to vanishing forms of modernity. I present no revolutionary new ideas, no new way to salvation. The road is still narrow (Matt. 7:14).

I do not have the gift of softening the sting of the Christian message, of making it seem light or easily borne or quickly assimilated into prevailing modern ideas (Clement of Alex., Exhort to the Heathen; Hippolytus, Refutation of All Her. 4.47-51; Origen, Ag. Celsus 6.16). I do not wish to make a peace of bad conscience with dubious "achievements of modernity" or pretend to find a comfortable way of making Christianity expediently acceptable to modern assumptions (Kierkegaard, Judge for Yourselves!; Prefaces). If Paul found that "the Athenians in general and foreigners there had no time for anything but talking or hearing about the latest novelty" (Acts 17:21; Basil, Hom. on Ps. 45), so have I found too much talk of religion today obsessed with novelty.

I am dedicated to unoriginality. My aim is to present classical Christian teaching of God on its own terms, undiluted by modern posturing. I take to heart Paul's admonition: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we had already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted [par o parelabete, other than what you received from the apostles], let him be eternally condemned [anathema esto]!" (Gal. 1:8, 9, italics added).

I have not focused upon answering contrary or odd opinions except when they have served to make ancient ecumenical reasoning more transparent. I have tried to keep out petty local viewpoints in the interest of clarifying only those teachings upon which the central streams of classical Christian theologians have textually agreed as expressing the mind of the believing church. At points where that agreement is not fully evident, I either leave the subject for further debate or try to state the principal viewpoints remaining in tension within classic voices. I hope to constrain my own particular idiosyncratic way of looking at things. My mission is to deliver as clearly as I can that core of consensual belief that has been shared for almost two millennia of Christian teaching. Vincent of Lérins described this core as that which has always, everywhere, and by all Christians been believed about God's self-disclosure.

The modern rules of authorship insist that every author strive for originality. The classic Christian rule is opposite. Its writings value the most faithful replication of the most ancient sacred texts and resist vain pretenses of originality. So brace yourself. There is hardly a sentence ahead that is not accompanied by a classic reference or quote, most from the period before the fall of Rome.

The Consensual Doctors and Documents

The principal classical interpreters of scripture are those usually designated as the four great ecumenical Doctors of the Church of the Eastern tradition (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Chrysostom) and the four Doctors of the Church of the West (Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great).

Among others who have been perennially valued for accurately stating points of ecumenical consensus are Hilary of Poitiers, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo I, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, and among Protestants especially Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer. "Classic" in our definition includes classic Reformation sources in so far as they reflect the ancient ecumenical consensus.

Consensual documents widely received by the consenting church over a long period of time are valued above statements of individuals. Most important of consensual documents are the decisions of ecumenical councils and the most widely received synods and councils. The method of consensus hinges on the fact of wide consent (consentio, "to be of one mind, to agree," from con-, "with," and sentire, "feel" or "sense"). Who gives consent in this consensus? The whole church, the cloud of witnesses. How is this consent defined? In correspondence with ancient ecumenical consent as found textually in the ecumenical councils.

The term traditionally applied to the classic Christian teachers of the first five centuries is "patristic" (from pater), in reference to the fathers of the church. Yet since there were also influential women and not men alone, we will also be hearing from the matristic (from mater) exegetes and saints such as Macrina, Perpetua, Caecilia of Rome, Agatha of Sicily, Margaret of Antioch, Paula, Eustochium, and Amma Theodora. When the generic term "patristic" is used, it refers mainly to those whose writings have most shaped the tradition, the fathers and mothers in the faith, whether they write or die to attest the faith.

I do not quote these interpreters in order to make intellectual heroes of them or to treat them as geniuses or creative innovators. Oddly enough, most of them, insofar as they were consensually received, thought of themselves as unoriginal in desiring especially not to add anything to an already sufficient apostolic faith, but only to receive and reappropriate that faith accurately and honestly in their particular social and historical setting. They were not seeking to invent new ideas but simply and plainly to understand God's actual goodness and purpose as revealed in universal history.

There was indeed creative genius at work in the communities of orthodoxy, but the individual teachers who best served those communities did not think of themselves as creative geniuses. They knew that it was the community itself that was brilliant, and made brilliant by the power of the Spirit. The most powerful writers, such as Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine, were those who most accurately gave expression to the faith that was already well understood generally by the community they served.

Hence I will constrain the impulse to tangle with detailed controversies in modern sources. That is not my purpose. Each doctrine has a lengthy history of controversy. That history is the subject of historical theology, but that differs from the method of a compendium of classic Christianity, which assumes that it is useful to set forth classic Christian thinking cohesively without becoming disrupted or preoccupied with each successive stage of development through which each teaching has passed in various contexts, traditions, symbol systems, and periods. The teacher of classic Christianity must be thoroughly informed about these developments but need not always burden readers with their details.

Readers may be helped by assuming that before each and every paragraph is an implicit phrase: "The principal classical exegetes say . . ." It would be tedious to repeat such a reference constantly, so I ask your indulgence in my saying it only once.

Rediscovering Early African Voices in Classic Christianity

The earliest forms of classic Christian teaching bear a distinctly African stamp. The common perception is that Christianity in Africa is a relatively recent arrival from the West. This classic consensus shows the opposite: Christian intellectual formation is oldest in Africa. The contributions made by African Christian thinkers had decisive effects on the formation of world Christianity, and especially European Christianity. The editorial and translation teams that produced the twenty-nine volumes of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture were amazed to find such a large proportion of texts from the African continent in the earliest comments on scripture.

African Christianity is foundational for classic Christian teaching. This serves as the potential basis for a new African ecumenism that promises to reshape the recovery of apostolic teaching in world Christianity. In the years between the publication of Systematic Theology and that of Classic Christianity, these African texts were being heavily mined in primary sources. Many of these appear prominently in these pages: Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, Augustine, and the great Cyril. Christianity is often portrayed as an essentially European religion. This is regrettable because classic Christianity has its pre-European roots in cultures that are far distant from Europe and that preceded the development of early modern European identity, and some of its greatest minds have been African, as I have set forth in How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity.

The System of References

Embedded in almost every paragraph of these pages are references to leading classical Christian sources. They point modern readers to a textual history of dialogue that rightly informs contemporary discussion. The most important service I can render readers is manifested in these quotations and embedded annotations. This follows the method of reference in classic Christianity, with constant orientation to scripture and the tradition of exegesis of scripture.

To some it may seem amusing-to me it remains a sober, ironic fact-that this volume is written as an introduction to its annotations. If the text invites readers to search out the original sources that called it forth, the arrow will have struck its mark. Only if it succeeds in pointing believers back to Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Macrina has it fulfilled my expectation. This kind of textual accountability hopes to point beyond itself to the texts out of which its argument lives.

Among eccentricities I ask the reader to tolerate is my sincere opinion that the most valuable aspect of this compendium of classic Christianity is its parenthetical references. If it is possible for an author sincerely to ask a reader to rivet attention upon the sources to which he points and relatively less to his own inventions, I would indicate that as my true intention. Picture me as on my knees begging you to do just this one thing.

My concern is not primarily with knocking down beliefs but with upbuilding, not with polemics but with peacemaking, not with differences but with consensus, not with development of doctrine but with the unity of the Christian tradition, which has so astutely and imaginatively addressed so many different cultural environments. Hence I have preferred primary biblical and early Christian sources to recent secondary sources.

My criteria for textual citations need to be candidly stated. I have preferred citing:

biblical texts with clear teaching values, rather than those containing ambiguities or requiring clarification of complex historical conditions and assumptions;

the most widely received classical teachers rather than ancillary or non-consensual exhibits;

earlier rather than later classical writers; and

those writings that most clearly reflect ancient apostolic teaching rather than those dealing with special viewpoints and controversial themes.

Clear Models of Consensus Versus Disputable Figures

I am less prone to quote Origen than Augustine, but I quote Origen on points on which he was generally received by the ancient church consensus and do not quote Augustine on those points on which he was not generally received. On those particular points on which respected patristic writers tended to diverge from the central ancient ecumenical consensus (e.g., Origenist views that the power of God is limited or that stars have souls, or Novatian's view of the permanent exclusion of the lapsed, or Gregory of Nyssa's universalism, or some of Augustine's views of election and reprobation), I will be less prone to quote them, but I will quote freely from their writings that have been widely received.

Some may think it odd that I have sometimes quoted classic Christian teachers who have been declared anathema on some particular points by the councils or condemned by various consensual teachers. Examples among our referees are selected appreciative citations from Tertullian, Novatian, Theodoret, and Ambrosiaster, whose doctrinal aberations have been limited to specific points, but whose teachings beyond these are freely quoted within orthodox teaching. The points on which they are quoted here are only those in which their orthodoxy was not questioned or those on which they may have expressed the consensus better than many others. Among those regarded by most as profoundly orthodox but who suffered on some particular point from temporary excommunication are Maximus the Confessor, who lost his tongue for what he said, Chrysostom, who was expelled from Constantinople and died in exile, and the brilliant Origen, who was rejected by Jerome and Cyril but used extensively by both of them.

I will take this story step by step, avoiding technical phrases, striking for the heart of the matter. For models of the theological clarity, precision, and cohesion that all do well to emulate, see Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations, and John of Damascus, Orthodox Faith. Models for this ancient ecumenical method may be seen in Cyril of Jerusalem, Catech. Lect.; Vincent of Lérins, (Commonit. 1-3), and Gregory the Great (Epis. 25). Watching them play theology is like watching Willie Mays play centerfield or Duke Ellington play "Sophisticated Lady."

As you go, bear in mind Kierkegaard's axiom: everything about religion is amusing, and especially Christianity, where everything hinges on the incarnation. So cool it, relax, breathe, and swim to the deep fathoms.

Interlude: Seven Reasons Why this Exploration is Distinctive

Several features of this compendium make it unusual and in some ways distinctive. If asked to write an honest description of what is atypical and unusual about this volume, I would note the following:

1.This compendium is the first in many years to view systematic theology as a classic treasury of scriptural and widely received patristic texts that point toward this distinctive work of the Spirit: These texts all share a common classic premise that it is the same Spirit who inspired the canonical text who is actively creating the unity and cohesion of the whole doctrinal effort amid changing historical circumstances. This cohesion is not the product of the work of modern scholars, but of the work of the Spirit throughout twenty centuries of intensive, critical scriptural exegesis. Note how different this premise is from those that have prevailed in most theologies written since Schleiermacher early in the nineteenth century.

2.This volume is the first in the modern period to present the whole range of issues of classic Christian teaching with constant reference to the much wider range of patristic texts now available. Many of these were not available to premodern writers.

3.This volume is the first in recent decades to attempt to present a text-based consensus of early Christian thought that embraces the whole range of issues of systematic theology. It presents a consensual argument that appeals to authoritative texts shared by Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, classic liberal, evangelical, and charismatic believers. Most comparable attempts address only one or two of these audiences.

4.The reason for presenting these texts in systematic order in one volume is to offer the opportunity to see their intrinsic interconnections. Where repetitions occur, they are necessary to demonstrate the connections textually. I want only to provide clear evidences of the unity of classic Christian teaching by presenting discrete, convincing, and authoritative examples of it. This is the task of the science of theological reasoning as viewed classically. I know of no better place to glimpse the spirit and method that pervaded the forms of theological reasoning modeled notably by Cyprian, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Bede. They all showed these textual interconnections. They focused on delivering accurately the authoritative texts in a plausible, thoughtful arrangement and in an uncomplicated, readable style in order to show forth their cohesiveness as a demonstration of the work of the Spirit. There was no accent on the individual virtuosity of individual thinkers or on those who were putting the pattern together. The pattern arose out of a worshiping community. The important thing was not the brilliance of any individual's arguments but the shared pattern formed by the conflation of texts themselves, radiating the power of the Spirit.

The purpose of extensive consensual reference is not to set forth all the conceivable interpretations of scripture. Rather it is highly selective: to present only those that best convey the consensus of faith. No other work focuses deliberately on this criterion to my knowledge. In fact this whole standard classic procedure is viewed with alarm by many academicians as an incongruous act of proof-texting. It is deemed incongruous because many in the academy have already decided before making the investigation that there can never be any consensus among such varieties. Meanwhile the truth of the consensus and its durability have remained unexplained and ignored in the academy. The cost is that the modern laity is deprived of the authoritative texts upon which classic Christianity is built. The selection of these references is very deliberate. They all hinge on canonical and authoritative classic texts-scripture texts first, and the most widely received interpreters of scripture worldwide over the centuries next. They beg to be read. They plead to be placed within an overarching argument of the whole sequence of topics of classic Christian teaching, as they have been so often in the history of classic Christian teaching.

5.My particular way of arranging and titling the headings of the compendium has little importance other than to introduce these more important voices in due order. The order is entirely borrowed from the consensus. If anything makes this book a little different from most popular modern theologies, it is this. I have exercised the freedom to reference a few modern texts, but only in those cases where a modern text gathers up the wisdom of the classic consensual texts most aptly.

6.This compendium is the first comprehensive attempt to carry out the ecumenical method proposed by Vincent of Lérins in the fifth century. Its classic medieval form is found in Thomas Aquinas' Compendium of Theology and its best modern representative is William Burt Pope.

For these reasons this compendium is unique.

This Treasury

What I most want my reader to grasp is that the worshiping community has this treasury of sacred texts to deal with in constructing a pattern of Christian teaching. They are not merely speculation, and not the result of autonomous creative thinking, but wise texts that have proven important and valuable to the community of prayer for generations. This compendium consists primarily of the sequential presentation of those texts, both from scripture and tradition, with minimal claim of any originality of arrangement. Both the texts and their arrangement have been available for centuries. But they have been too long ignored.

This is a tested way of teaching introductory classic Christianity. Since so long ignored, it is perceived as a very unexpected way of teaching basic theology today. It is new only because it has been forgotten for many decades as a valid method of teaching. I want to show that the return to the method of classical Christian teaching is just as illuminating and fresh and edifying today as it has been for dozens of previous generations. I can only do this by presenting it point by point, in the order in which it has been most commonly presented over two millennia.

Classic Christian thinking can be grasped by contemporary critical minds if they can learn to think historically within a community, rather than individualistically. Only when each one hears his or her own individual experience illuminated by the wisdom of the historical Christian community is it then possible to contribute that illumined personal experience back to the community (Cyril of Jerusalem, Procatechesis, prologue:1-6).

The Storehouse of Sources

The references in this book represent consensual Christianity, not because I say so but because a history of widely recognized consensual advocates says so. These are not just my opinions and choices. They are choices made by thousands, millions, of believers from multiple cultures over multiple centuries. Most of the references are from those sources most widely recognized by the classical tradition, especially through the councils and the Great Doctors of the Church. Ancillary voices that have received less attention may just as accurately express the mind of the believing church. They include great teachers of widely different cultures-like Ephrem the Syrian, Pachomius of Tabennisi on the Nile, Optatus of Numidia, Didymus the Blind, and Dorotheus of Gaza. They show that the consensus can be expressed by marginalized or minority voices who have not often been heard within the majority traditions.

The historic church does not depend upon modern cultural sources to legitimize it. Its sources are mature and made sufficient by the ways that the Holy Spirit has brought centrifugal unity to Christian teaching in the earliest centuries of Christianity. And do not get angry at me if I report what classic Christianity says. If I represent it wrongly, yes, let's hear it. If I insert my own biases, tell me. But in most cases the problem is not with me but with classic Christianity, especially if I am telling the same truth held by the great tradition. You are confronted with a decision. Those who flatly disagree with classic Christianity have a basic decision to make, especially if they seek ordination. Is it right to pretend to ignore this teaching? Better to work it out by further counsel with people you trust. Better yet to go back to the texts and see if I am telling the truth.

Subjective judgments on whether these texts are intriguing or irrelevant, exciting or boring are entirely for the reader to decide. There is no doubt that they have been regarded as life-changing to many. But it remains a subjective judgment as to their ability to enliven a given reader. I prefer allowing them to be freely given permission to speak in their own language, even if it means that modern ears will stereotype them as old-fashioned and traditional. Being traditional is what makes them worth returning to again and again. Their longevity and the multicultural breadth of their authority is precisely what commends them. It is more relevant to ask why this extraordinary power of endurance still persists. The perception of classic Christian wisdom as if it were tedious may say more about the perceiver than about the truth of what is perceived. Even if they are perceived as dusty and dull, that does not change the objective fact that these texts have spoken powerfully for Christian teaching for hundreds of years, and in most cases more than a thousand years. They have changed thousands of lives. The reason why they are quoted directly is to allow the reader to encounter openly the texts that modern chauvinism has already decided are boring and dated, letting the reader make the call.

A Guide for Locating Parenthetical References

Those who wish to pursue a more concentrated investigation of classic works cited in this compendium will be able to do so through the parenthetical references. The key to the abbreviations is provided on page 865. Section numbers have been preferred to page numbers in citing references because this is common practice in patristic reference, and it more accurately points to the ancient text in its original language as found in commonly received editions. Patristic references provide information on the author and title, either by section number (ordinarily inserting periods between section and subsection numbers) or by page number (ordinarily inserting a colon before a page number). A colon in a parenthetical reference may point either to a page number or, in the case of a scripture text, a verse number. A period within a reference points to a section or subsection number. For example, Augustine, Confessions 10.1 means Book 10, Section 1 of the Confessions. References to scriptural commentaries by ancient writers typically follow the convention of including book, chapter, homily, section, or part number (then period), then section number or biblical chapter (period), then verse number (for example: Chrysostom, Hom. on Acts 11.4.31 means Homily 11 at the specific point of commenting on Acts 4.31, because that is how the commentary is arranged). Whether the first digit refers to a book, chapter, homily, section, or part number depends on the way the received source text or original language text is separated into segments. Anomalies persist because original language editions may vary in their systems of numbering or sectioning. Some texts are divided by book, chapter, section, and subsection, and others in other ways, such as volume, part, or division. A reference to Chrysostom, Hom. on John 88.2 does not refer to Chapter 88 of John, but Homily 88 written by Chrysostom on John, quoted from Section 2.

The comments on scripture by Origen, Chrysostom, Ambrosiaster, and others are commonly noted either as homilies or as commentary. We are forced by the standard literature to employ both forms. Homilies were normally presented as instruction to a worshiping community, while commentaries were line-by-line analyses of problems and issues in the text. While some prefer to distinguish these approaches sharply, we see them flowing together quietly in most ancient Christian writers. Chrysostom's work is most variably referenced as homily, commentary, or simply epistle or gospel, but our preference is homily.

Since each original source may discuss varied topics in a single section or page, it is best not to expect the section reference to deal solely with the specific point the reader desires to see in context. Work through the flow of reasoning in the reference. Where some difficulty persists in locating a classic passage, it is wise to read sequential pages immediately following (or for context, preceding) the portion referenced, or consult the Latin, Greek, or Syriac text or another English translation (see list of abbreviations). Many difficulties will be avoided by remembering the distinction between colons and periods in the citations. The rule: where page numbers occur, they are preceded by a colon.

In order to standardized spelling and make grammatical idioms more uniform, the English references will not reflect odd alternative spelling variations of older translations. In cases where Greek, Latin, Syriac, and Coptic texts have not been previously translated into suitable English, we provide new translations. The references point to the best and most accessible translations of biblical and patristic texts. Recent translations have been preferred to older ones, and many have been newly translated. We intend to present dynamic equivalency translations of long-neglected texts which historically have been regarded as authoritative models of biblical interpretation. Where current English translations are already well rendered, they will be used, but if necessary their language will be brought up to date or amended for easier reading. For ease of reading we have in some cases edited out superfluous conjunctions.

Where a scripture reference is followed by a classic patristic reference, my intention is to refer the reader to further insights from the consensual tradition of exegesis into that scripture text. The reason I have not limited the scripture references to a single translation from a single original language version is because the patristic writers themselves were quoting from various original Hebrew, Greek, or Old Latin texts. The Septuagint was their most frequent source for the Old Testament and Apocrypha, which they then translated into Latin or Greek or Syriac, from which the modern English translator of the patristic source has to search for the way in which that writer understood the scripture text. Since they did not always work out of the same original text, we cannot arbitrarily impose upon them a modern translation from the Hebrew Bible or Greek original. Most patristic writers were working out of the Greek Septuagint and New Testament, and some fewer out of a version of the Old Latin or Peshitta or Syriac text. The task of the modern translator is to follow the intent of the classic exegete rather than to provide a translation that would assume that the ancient writer who was using the Septuagint had access to the Hebrew Bible or the accepted modern critical text of the New Testament. In accord with the criteria used by the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (ACCS), we have either made our own translations in accordance with the patristic writer's intent, or used or modified a reliable contemporary translation in accord with that intent. Since this is not a work for philological professionals, we have not cluttered up the text by seeking to speculate on which original source text the author was using or which modern translator comes closest to approximating that author's intent in interpreting it. We prefer to use those translations that we have worked on together as an international translation team in the ACCS and its successive projects, and to use the norms of abbreviations that have been established there. The reader can search out page numbers of references in further detail by going directly to the extract as it is found in the ACCS or in the original edition of Systematic Theology. The central rule of translation has been clarity of intent and brevity of reference, so as not to load up the sentences with unnecessary subsequent or modern references. Intrinsically an ecumenical project, this study hopes to serve Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox lay, pastoral, and scholarly audiences.

The Pyramid of Sources

Following these criteria, it is evident that only a few of the most important contemporary contributors will be noted, whereas a much broader spectrum of ancient sources will be recalled. Over fifteen thousand specific primary source references to consensus-bearing teachers are here offered, most of which are ancient.

The weighting of references may be compared to a pyramid of sources, with scripture at the base, then the early Christian writers, first pre-Nicene then post-Nicene, as the central mass, then the best of medieval followed by centrist Reformation writers at the narrowing upper mass, and more recent interpreters at the smaller, tapering apex-but only those who grasp and express the prevailing mind of the believing historical church. Modern trends in systematic theology have been prone to turn that pyramid of texts upside down, quoting mostly modern sources and few earlier ones. I am pledging not to turn that pyramid upside down, as have those guild theologians who have most valued what is least tested.

I intend to set forth in consistent order those points most commonly held on all major affirmations of classic Christian teaching. The most authoritative affirmations of classic Christian doctrine hinge on the best and most widely received scripture interpretations of the classic exegetes. These are the views that have been happily received by the consensus fidelium. Medieval and Reformation exegesis stands upon the shoulders of the ancient Christian writers. The accompanying diagram (on page xxvii) represents this priority ordering of sources.

Hence primary biblical and classical Christian sources are consistently cited in preference to recent and secondary sources of all kinds. Among classic exegetes, those who have gained the widest consensus are quoted more often than those who have tended to elicit division, speculation, individual creativity, and controversy. Earlier rather than later sources are cited where possible, not because older is sentimentally prized, but because they have had longer to enrich and sculpt the historic consensus.

These classic Christian writers must not be pitted against scripture, since their deliberate purpose was to illuminate, order, and explicate the truth of scripture. In Luther's view, that was precisely what made them authoritative sources: "All the fathers concede their own obscurity and illuminate Scripture by Scripture alone. And, indeed, that is the right method. Scripture should be placed alongside Scripture in a right and proper way. He who can do this best is the best of the fathers" (Luther, Reply to Emser, WML 3:277; WLS 1:88).

Why Consensus Is Not Fundamentalism

Consensus clarification is a far cry from peddling fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is a recent concept. Classic Christianity is not recent. Fundamentalism takes its distinct form of its special definition only belatedly in the late nineteenth century. Since the founding conference of the fundamentalist movement in Niagara in 1895, it has been a movement with a very constricted vision of the history of exegesis as related to doctrine. Fundamentalism has a hundred-year-old memory. Classic Christianity has a two-thousand-year-old memory, plus its memory of ancient Israel before Jesus.

Here is a quick summary of ten major reasons why classic Christian teaching is not rightly termed fundamentalism.

This is merely recapped in ten points that could themselves constitute a book. But this is not what this book is about. Nonetheless it is necessary to say because some might misread my intent or mistake the catholicity and evangelical depth of classic Christianity. I cannot allow you to have an easy excuse to put down the great forms of reasoning in classic Christianity by pigeonholing it with an entirely wrong designation. "Those who handle the text in too literal a manner have a veil cast over their eyes, whereas those who turn to contemplate the God of whom the Scriptures speak receive the revelation of divine glory which lies behind the letter of the text" (Gregory of Nyssa, Against Eunomius, 7.1).

Re-Establishing the Scriptural Foundation of Classic Christian Teaching

Classic exegetes cite scripture not as wooden, lifeless proof-texts, but as vital landmark affirmations of a worshiping community, where the church has found consolation and wisdom, and upon which ancient teachers have repeatedly reasoned and commented.

The history of classic Christianity is primarily a history of exegesis. If so, today's readers cannot be denied the right to examine the verbatim biblical texts upon which classic Christian teaching is largely a comment. It would be absurd to provide references to early exegetes but fail to mention the texts themselves. Yet this absurdity prevails in much contemporary theology. Most common points of consensual Christian exegesis were reasonably well formulated by the fifth century. Upon these we will focus.

A theology bent upon avoiding its textuary is inordinately self-inhibited. It ends in finally cutting itself off from its own vital sources. A theology that limits its referrals only to those texts that are elaborately placed in historical context will finally mutate into a historical report, not a systematic theology.

Literalist practices of proof-texting or stacking references relentlessly are rightly rejected. Yet the ancient ecumenical tradition requires theology to show how it bases its conclusions upon canonical texts. Disapproval of proof-texting must not lead to ignoring the very canonical texts upon which classic Christian teaching thrives. When modern forms of historical exegesis compulsively attempt to place every scriptural reference in its historical context, they risk becoming a long string of historical digressions on modern commentators so as to inadvertently forget the sacred text itself. This is another way for the interpreter to exercise silent control over the text. In this way the well-meaning attempt at historical critical exegesis may take a heavy toll on actually hearing the text, contrary to its intention.

The faithful are drawn to the living tradition, not dead archaisms. The affirmations most alive in Christian teaching are those that are most widely shared through all the times and contexts in which they have been celebrated. The faithful value the practiced wisdom of Christian tradition. Where highly imaginative forms of Christian tradition have received general lay consent, they are typically grounded in the preceding consensus of apostolic testimony.

The classic exegetes treated conserving forms of Christian tradition with lively imagination, and imaginative forms of Christian experience with a celebration of their antecedents. They have discovered through experience that there is nothing more forward-looking than taking the risk of allowing themselves to be addressed by the texts of holy scripture and tested tradition.