Chronological Snobbery and the Question of Christ

Ever tempted to think we have little to learn from people who lived long ago? If so, C.S. Lewis would warn you against what he called “chronological snobbery.” For Lewis, that term referred to the widespread tendency among us modern folk to think we have reached a level of enlightenment and that the ancients have nothing to teach us. I bring this up because I came across a quote today that helpfully pushes back against that sort of arrogance. The quote comes in a little book I’m reading as part of my Christmas preaching preparation. It’s called For Us and for Our Salvation: The Doctrine of Christ in the Early Church by Stephen J. Nichols. The introduction takes on the problem of chronological snobbery head on:

In our contemporary struggle to present Christ as the Bible portrays him, we should not work in a vacuum. We owe it to ourselves to look to the past and to learn from the church’s struggles. Perhaps in no area of theology is this more necessary or beneficial than in the doctrine of Christ in the early church. The first four or five centuries of the church’s existence witnessed the launch of nearly every possible challenge. Further, one is hard-pressed to offer a better response to those challenges than that offered by the early church leaders. We may be able to devise fresh and contemporary ways to illustrate their teachings and expressions, or we may have to think of new ways to relate their teachings to particular challenges that we face in our day, but there is practically no room for improvement on those teachings. What these early church leaders said and did is tried and true (14). 

Despite our radically different contemporary contexts, the early Church has much to teach us. And when it comes to the question of Christ, their wisdom has stood the test of time. 

Moltmann on the Immortal Soul vs. Bodily Resurrection

The immortality of the soul is an opinion – the resurrection of the dead is a hope. The first is a trust in something immortal in the human being, the second a trust in the God who calls into being the things that are not, and makes the dead live. In trust in the immortal soul we accept death, and in a sense anticipate it. In trust in the life-creating God we await the conquest of death – ‘death is swallowed up in victory’ (I Cor. 15.54) – and an eternal life in which ‘death shall be no more’ (Rev. 21.4). The immortal soul may welcome death as a friend, because death releases it from the earthly body; but for the resurrection hope, death is ‘the last enemy’ (I Cor. 15.26) of the living God and the creations of his love (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996, 65-66).

In short, the immortality of the soul is not a Christian doctrine. Resurrection of the body is. 

Seneca’s Tough Love for Book Lovers

If you are like me, and take great joy in curating your personal library, then this excerpt from Seneca’s Epistle 2 may be a little disappointing. The translation is from Gummere’s volume in the Loeb Classical Library: 

The primary indication, to my thinking, of a well-ordered mind is a man’s ability to remain in one place and linger in his own company. Be careful, however, lest this reading of of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady. You must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind. Everywhere means nowhere…And in reading of many books is a distraction.

Accordingly, since you cannot read all the books which you possess, it is enough to posses only as many books as you can read…So you should always read standard authors; and when you crave a change, fall back upon those whom you read before.

This reminds me of a critique I heard some time ago of the way we assign reading in University courses. The argument was made that by requiring lengthy reading lists in our classes, we condemn our students to remembering very little of what they hurriedly skim through. Instead, it was suggested, we should assign fewer books of great importance and have our students read them deeply and repeatedly over the course of the semester. Sounds like Seneca would agree. As would I suspect Dr. Bancroft, who taught me Great Books and a great deal more, not least the importance of reading a book slowly and more than once.

Which two or three books do you go back to over and over? Which authors do you tend to read more than others? How might digital media forms relate to Seneca’s warning against disorderly reading? Do feed readers epitomize “discursive and unsteady” reading? 

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In biblical theology, human life is embodied life.

No gnostic anthropology around here. A thoughtful reminder from Robert Gundry that full humanness requires embodiment:

The separation of spirit from body affects the spirit as well as the body. In the Biblical perspective, the physical body is just as essential to life which is life indeed as is the spirit. Barring the effects of sin (which touch the spirit, too), the body as such does not shackle the spirit. It provides the spirit with an organ of expression and action, just as the spirit provides the body with animation and direction. By total separation, then, body and spirit die together. The whole man dies. 

The Biblical touchstone for truly human life is not consciousness of the spirit, let alone the material being of a physical object such as the body. Rather, man is fully himself in the unity of his body and spirit in order that the body may be animated and the spirit may express itself in obedience to God. Both parts of the human constitution share in the dignity of the divine image. That dignity lies in man’s service to God as a representative caretaker over the material creation. For such a task, man needs a physical medium of action. Neither spirit nor body gains precedence over the other. Each gains in unity with the other. Each loses separation from the other.

From Robert H. Gundry, Sōma in Biblical Theology: With Emphasis on Pauline Anthropology, (SNTSMS 29, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1976), 159-160. 

Athanasius on the Resurrection

Today is Easter Sunday. Where better to turn than On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius? This is one of those books that I keep coming back to over and over again. And as many times as I’ve read this ancient book, it never gets old. It never loses its potency and is always fresh. So, here are a few excerpts on the significance of Christ’s resurrection for your Easter morning. 
The Reason Christ Came

The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to His victory over death, the assurance to all that He had Himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that He kept His body incorrupt (22).

Death No Longer Feared

A very strong proof of this destruction of death and its conquest by the cross is supplied by a present fact, namely this. All the disciples of Christ despise death; they take the offensive against it and, instead of fearing it, by the sign of the cross and by faith in Christ trample on it as on something dead. Before the divine sojourn of the Savior, even the holiest of men were afraid of death, and mourned the dead as those who perish. But now that the Savior has raised His body, death is no longer terrible, but all those who believe in Christ tread it underfoot as nothing, and prefer to died rather than to deny their faith in Christ, knowing full well that when they die they do not perish, but live indeed, and become incorruptible through the resurrection (27).

 The Victory of Christ

Death has become like a tyrant who has been completely conquered by the legitimate monarch; bound hand and foot as he now is, the passers-by jeer at him, hitting him and abusing him, no longer afraid of his cruelty and rage, because of the king who has conquered him. So has death been conquered and branded for what it is by the Savior on the cross. It is bound hand and foot, all who are in Christ trample it as they pass and as witnesses to Him deride it, scoffing and saying, “O Death, where is thy victory? O Grave, where is they sting?” (27). 

Christ is risen! Alleluia! 

Tertullian on the Sign of the Cross #AshWednesday (HT: @scotmcknight)

I came across this quote this morning while reading Scot McKnight’s book Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today:

At every forward step and movement,
at every going in and out
when we put on our clothes and shoes,
when we bathe,
when we sit at table,
when we light the lamps,
on couch,
on seat,
in all the ordinary actions of daily life,
we trace upon the forehead the sign [of the Cross].            -Tertullian, De Corona, chap. 3

Talk about a great quote with which to begin Ash Wednesday, a pleasant (and providential!) surprise, indeed.

Would you worship a God who…?

Here’s a gem from F.F. Bruce in his commentary on Hebrews 2:10:

There are many who are ready to tell us confidently what would and would not be worthy of God; but in fact the only way to discover what is a worthy thing for God to do is to consider what God has actually done. The person who says, “I could not have a high opinion of a God who would (or would not) do this or that,” is not adding anything to our knowledge of God; he is simply telling us something about himself.

Having told us all about ourselves, Bruce goes on to talk about God:

We may be sure that all that God does is worthy of himself, but here our author singles out one of God’s actions and tells us that it was a fitting thing for him to do. And what was that? It was his making Jesus, through his sufferings, perfectly qualified to be the Savior of his people. It is in the passion of our Lord that we see that we see very heart of God laid bare; nowhere is God more fully or more worthily revealed as God than when we see him “in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (The Epistle to the Hebrews, NICNT).