Review of The Way to Nicaea

The Way to Nicaea Book Cover

The 20th century, and the 21st century thus far, has witnessed a renewed interest in the evolution of Christian theology in the 2nd through 5th centuries (and beyond, of course). The collection of fragmented works from the orthodox and heterodox parties in the 19th and 20th centuries have allowed a greater level of precision in this research, as have extensive studies of key figures, compilations of the acts from the Ecumenical councils and local synods, and the discovery and translation of significant works that to this point have not been extant (such as Nestorius’ Bazaar of Heracleides).  For these reasons, along with a generally supportive academic climate and the availability of the necessary sources, Patristic studies have flourished. One result from this flourishing of Patristic studies has been an overthrow of previously held narratives concerning the early debates, the parties involved, and—particularly—the meaning of “Orthodoxy.” Into this milieu, John Behr began writing his 3-part series “Formation of Christian Theology” (2001 – 2004). (Though it promises further volumes, only two have appeared as of 2020.) In the forward to the first volume, The Way to Nicaea, Andrew Louth describes Behr as an Orthodox theologian who bridges the otherwise uneasy relationship between Orthodox theology and the critical approach characterizing contemporary theology and Biblical studies. Accordingly, this series is not conservative in the sense of passing on established narratives and dogmas but constructive, attempting to shed new light on the thinkers involved in and the contours of the early debates. Behr does so through the lens of Jesus’ questions to his disciples, “Who do you think I am?”

Survey of The Way to Nicaea

The Way to Nicaea begins in Part 1 with “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” considering the role of tradition and Scripture in the early centuries of Christianity. Part 2 discusses the thought of Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons; Part 3 concludes with considerations of Hippolytus and “the Roman Debates” (including the Refutation of Heresies falsely attributed to Hippolytus), Origen and Alexandria, and Paul of Samosata and the Council of Antioch. Behr general approach is to consider the argument and theological contribution of the key works by the fathers discussed.

Throughout the series, Behr identifies the different, competing answers to Jesus’ question or different ways that Christ’s “identity” is construed. Generally, he sees similarities in the approaches of Ignatius, Justin, and Irenaeus who equate “identity” with a continuing personal subject, a person who acts and is acted upon. For Justin, he sees the incarnation as “one phase in the biography of the Word” (238). Alternatively, Hippolytus, Origen, and Paul of Samosata (as best as we can reconstruct) appear to see identity in terms of predication, “so that the identity of Jesus Christ is revealed in those properties that mark him out” (239). Along the line of modern works, Behr rejects an “Alexandrian – Antiochene” antithesis as well as the “Word-Flesh,” “Word-Man” dichotomy (especially in the following volume, but evident here as well). He seems to accept the insight of Williams concerning the role of charismatic teachers and their schools in the ages preceding the 4th century; there was tension between Origen and the Alexandrian bishops.

Behr’s treatment of the thinkers addressed demonstrates a thorough acquaintance with recent literature and the thinkers themselves. Though The Way to Nicaea wanders towards the Western Empire in Part 3, Behr’s primary focus remains on the Eastern Fathers. Behr demonstrates particular familiarity with and affinity for Irenaeus, the subject of his doctoral work and other academic works. However, despite the depth of Behr’s interaction with the primary sources and his knowledge of the literature, the first Part, concerning the Scriptures and the general framework within which he understands the fathers to function, is problematic.

Evaluation of The Way to Nicaea

Behr demonstrates an engagement with Biblical studies and its 20th-century development to an extent not often found in Patristic and theological scholarship in general. Accordingly, he rejects the historical-critical agenda and its fruit. Though he does not cite the major players, Behr’s approach to Scripture is similar to the cultural-linguistic paradigm for Biblical interpretation, championed by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei. He understands typology and the way the New Testament and the early church approached Jesus and Scripture as inconsistent with the original intent of the Old Testament Scriptures. Instead, interpreting Jesus “according to Scripture” meant identifying him within the symbolic framework of the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g. 27-28). Paul, we are told, is not concerned with the exegesis of the text. Detached from God’s providence and His authorial intent,1 interpreting Jesus “according to Scripture” becomes an act of interpretive constructive guided by the “symbolic world” of the first testament and its tradition. Accordingly, Behr does not see Scripture exercising a normative role in the New Testament or the writings of the Fathers. Instead, tradition and Scripture are seen as coordinating entities that provide fertile ground for the development of theology witnessed in the following centuries.

We are repeatedly told that the New Testament and its patristic interpreters are not interested in history, at least for theology: “the subject of theological reflection [in this early period] is not the ‘historical Jesus,’ nor the ‘meaning’ of the scriptural and apostolic texts as established by a variety of historical-critical methodologies, but the Scriptural Christ, the Christ contemplated through the medium of Scripture, for he alone is the Word of God” (237). If there is normativity in this approach to the interpretation of Christ according to the Scripture’s symbolic world, it is found in the “hypothesis” and “canon” of Scripture itself. Drawing on Aristotle for the former term, the hypothesis of a work is the first principle for its interpretation (32-33). In the case of Scripture, its hypothesis (according to Irenaeus whom Behr follows closely in Chapter 1), “as articulated in the canon of truth, is that one and the same Jesus Christ is both what it is to be God and what it is to be man” (79). Unfortunately, this sets Behr project on uncertain grounds from its beginning. In general, the “cultural-linguistic” model of interpretation, and the similar view set out by Behr, is not adequate for what the Bible claims itself to be nor for what New Testament authors understood themselves to be doing (as much as is evident from their writings).2 Specifically, a close reading of the Old Testament and the New Testament shows that the Biblical authors knew what they were doing far more than 20th-century scholarship permitted (there has been a slight shift in a positive direction since the 80s, yet it is not sufficient from an Evangelical perspective).3

Behr may be a great interpreter of Irenaeus, but I think his treatment of Irenaeus regarding the rule of truth reads too much of the Postliberal perspective into Irenaeus’ writing. Many studies have demonstrated that the apostolic fathers and later writers had a high view of Scripture as a normative document, in its word as much as its symbols and the Gospel it proclaims (e.g. John Woodbridge, Biblical Authority; Geoffrey Bromiley, “The Church Fathers and Holy Scripture” in Scripture and Truth ed. John Woodbridge, D.A. Carson). I would suggest that Irenaeus’ “rule of truth” is the Bible itself understood according to “its canonical shape and teaching” (The Gift of Reading – Part 2, 10). If so, “the rule of truth” is an expression of the hermeneutical rules that Scripture is its own best interpreter and, more generally, that we interpret parts in terms of the whole, not in isolation.


In sum, there is great value in The Way to Nicaea. However, the paradigm through which he reads the Scriptures and the Fathers is problematic and inevitably will lead to the problems expressed in Rowan William’s Arius and Lewis Ayres “Nicaea and Its Legacy”: if Scripture is not propositionally normative in some sense and the authority of the counsels is not a given—if they are not normative by default—orthodoxy becomes a moving target at the mercy of the latest majority rule.

  1. on the role of intent in interpreting Scripture, see my book The Gift of Reading – Part 2: A Biblical Perspective on Hermeneutics. []
  2. Cf. The Gift of Reading – Part 1 & The Gift of Reading – Part 2. []
  3. cf. God’s Kingdom through His Priest-King; Habakkuk: An Exegetical-Theological Commentary. []

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