“Ressourcement” is a ubiquitous catchword among evangelicals in recent years. The promise of turning to old, Christian resources for insights into our present problems has proved exciting and fruitful for many. Like those who practice ressourcement, or theological retrieval (looking at the Christian tradition for answers to today’s problems), I am convinced that we have much to learn from those who came before us. God’s Spirit has not been silent until the Reformation or contemporary Evangelicalism; the Spirit of God has been active in and among his people from the beginning of the church until now. However, I perceive great danger in this project of ressourcement when it is detached from the Evangelical belief in the sufficiency and clarity of Scripture.
We cannot, I believe, look to the ancient sources as if they have answers other than those God has given us in Scripture, yet this is exactly what many brothers and sisters are doing in the name of “ressourcement.” However, we must not do this; we must read those who came before us to get new insight into Scripture and God’s ways. We read those from alien contexts and ages to escape the presuppositions and blinders we have inherited from our present age. As we do so, we will see some things our predecessors did not, and they will show us things we missed. We will engage in a dialogue, together standing before the Bible. If we do not do so, we stand to repeat the very errors early theologians made when they engaged in their own ressourcement projects. Consider with me the Council of Chalcedon and its aftermath, which shows the danger of detaching theology from the Scriptures.
Chalcedon and the Authority of Nicaea
Most textbook treatments of the Definition of Chalcedon (a 5th-century summary of the doctrine of the Incarnation that has been considered definitively orthodox since then) focus on several sentences in the middle of the document that express the doctrine of the hypostatic union, that in the incarnation Christ was made known in two natures united in a single hypostasis or prospon. However, the parts of the Definition usually ignored should be troubling for Evangelicals. In the 4th and 5th centuries, the Nicaean Creed (325 AD) gained prominence as the point of commonality among the disparate theological and philosophical minds who later centuries would identify as the orthodox or conciliar Christianity (those that held to the major ecumenical councils). The importance of this creed at the beginning of the 5th century is clear; in 431 AD, the first council at Ephesus will forbid the production of any new creed other than Nicaea (canon 7).
At Chalcedon, the prominence of Nicaea is ratcheted up a notch. The Nicene Creed together with Constantinopolitan Creed (381 AD, treated as part of the former creed) is described as the “unerring faith of the fathers,” it is said to “shine forth preeminent,” to be “sufficient for complete knowledge of and confirmation of godliness,” “for it both thoroughly teaches the complete matter concerning the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it also present the Lord’s incarnation to those who receive it faithfully.” It is hard not to hear echoes of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 and 2 Peter 1:3 in this description of the Nicene Creed. Should we not be uncomfortable that the words of men, even Spirit-filled men, are treated like the God-inspired Scriptures, as the sole and completely sufficient standard of orthodoxy—the standard defining “in” an “out” in the visible Christian community—until Christ returns? Not only should this trouble us, but historically it also produced an unsustainable situation at Chalcedon and afterwards, a situation from which we have much to learn.
As much as those at Chalcedon wanted to uphold the Nicene tradition, they were confronted by a problem: the Nicene Creed, as interpreted through Athanasius and others, seemed to stand in tension with the Biblical account of the incarnation. The theologians at Chalcedon were unwilling to abandon the Scriptures they love but neither were they willing to abandon the “fathers” whom they revered with great honour. In the Nicene Tradition, an elaborate ontology was developed; they developed an elaborate explanation of what a thing was and how individual things, such as humans, related both to one another and to the universal defining them, in this case, “humanity.” This philosophical system was closely tied to the interpretation of the Nicene Creed by the 5th century, yet it was unable to sustain the doctrine of the incarnation. For this reason, 5th-century theologians developed a different ontology to explain how Christ Jesus could be fully God and fully human. In the Definition of Chalcedon, both philosophical frameworks were set side-by-side, without an explanation for how they could be reconciled. Instead of choosing one or the other—Scripture or tradition—they combined the tradition of their fathers with philosophical innovation necessary to account for the Biblical teaching of the incarnation.
Chalcedon and Later Ressourcement
The document they produced caused great division among Christians across the Empire and centuries of debates among its interpreters. Moreover, it seemed to be the start of a troubling trend recorded by Patristic scholar Patrick Gray.1 A key aspect of post-Chalcedonian theological discourse was amassing evidences for doctrine from the testimony of Patristic sources, from 4th and 5th century fathers in particularly. Yet, as Post-Chalcedonians began to do this, they were confronted by the difference between their own beliefs and those of their theological Fathers. In response, they would often reinterpret those sources to fit their theological position in the very process of drawing on this early testimony to bolster their position. This is practiced in numerous minor ways by post-Chalcedonian theologians, but it is vividly on display among the Tritheists. The Tritheists drew liberally on 4th-century fathers like Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus to defend their claim that Christianity believed in three Gods with a conceptual unity (a unity in mind alone, not in substance or being, which the 4th century fathers insisted upon).
I suggest that it is the very reverence for the fathers, assuming that they were nearly infallible in their insights, that led later theologians to twist their teachings. Their reasoning may have gone something like this, “if the fathers were right, and God in history has rightly led me to the position I hold know, then they must agree with my position, even if they do not say so clearly.” Perhaps a better a response is to acknowledge that though wise, our theological forefathers were not infallible—even in their conciliar consensus—and being biblical means engaging with them intelligently and humbly, learning from them, but reading alongside them as brothers and sisters who may grant us insight into the God of the Scriptures and his world, not as theological sources to be mined in and of themselves.
This is the lesson we have to learn from Chalcedon. When we look at the early Church, we do not find a definitive philosophy or theology, if by the latter term we mean a system of abstract truths that are organised and displayed in a rationally commendable way—or any definition like this. We find Christians who know and believe in the God of the Bible, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and seek to articulate their beliefs in a robust intellectual culture. We encounter Christian intellectual activity, call it philosophy or theology if you will, in development. We have much to learn from how these Christians engaged with the Bible and their surrounding culture; we have much to learn about the Bible, ourselves, and our culture from doing so. Yet if in the name of ressourcement we search the early church for definitive answers to today’s problems, we stand to repeat their mistakes. We stand to ignore the fact that they are doing the same thing we are today, imperfectly engaging in thought about God and his world from Scripture. They did not do this perfectly, so we cannot uncritically accept everything they teach; we do not do this perfectly, so we cannot ignore the valuable contribution they offer to our contemporary problems.
Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash
- Patrick T. R. Gray, The Defense of Chalcedon in the East (451-553), Studies in the History of Christian Thought v. 20 (Leiden: Brill, 1979); Patrick T. R. Gray, “‘The Select Fathers’: Canonizing the Patristic Past,” in Studia Patristica (Louvain: Peeters, 1989), 21–36; Patrick T. R. Gray, “Covering the Nakedness of Noah: Reconstruction and Denial in the Age of Justinian,” Byzantinische Forschungen 24 (1997): 193–205. [↩]