Cyril of Alexandria’s “Canon within the Canon” – What is yours?

Cyril of Alexandria was the church father who argued tirelessly for an orthodox Christology which could genuinely call Mary the Theotokos. He struggled against Nestorius, who allegedly attempted to inappropriately distinguish between the actions and experiences of the divine Son of God and the human Jesus. Against this teaching, Cyril fought to the death to preserve the unity of the divine and human in the Incarnation. For Cyril, the perfect union of God and Man in the Incarnation was the heart of soteriology – the truth of how God has saved humanity.

When one reads Cyril they find that he has a collection of “pet texts” that he references often in order to explain key passages of Scripture or to defend certain doctrines. For Cyril, his “go-to” texts consisted of John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 2:14-17, and (as I argued in my thesis) Romans 5:14. It’s not hard to see why – all of these verses emphasize the Incarnation of the eternal Word of God and its salvific implications. Thus, no matter what text or doctrine Cyril is dealing with, a quick and steady reference to these texts helps put the issue in his overall theological context. As an example, see my post on Cyril’s theological reading of Luke 10:23-24.  

I wonder if this practice, of developing a “canon within the canon” of sorts, is a helpful example for Christians wishing to faithfully interpret Scripture and understand key doctrines. In fact, I would suggest that most Christians already (perhaps subconsciously) interpret Scripture and various theologies in this fashion.

I know that I have a few “go-to texts” that I immediately think of when pondering exegetical or theological issues: John 1:14-18, Hebrews 1:1-4, Galatians 1:3-4, and Philippians 3:20-21. Those who know me can easily see why/how these texts work in my thinking: I consistently emphasize Jesus as the clearest and fullest picture of God (John 1:14-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4), I also have a fairly apocalyptic eschatology (Galatians 1:3-4), and I think Christians should focus more on the future resurrection of the dead (Philippians 3:20-21). Thus, one of my first questions when thinking through an exegetical or theological issue is often: “How does this fit with an understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s character and will?”

I’m interested in whether you have some “pet texts,” what they say about your theology, and whether you think that this practice is ultimately helpful or harmful. So:

 Do you have “key texts” which function for you as a “canon-within-a-canon”? 
What do you they say about your theology?
What dangers are there to employing such an approach to exegesis/theology?

Biblical Studies Blog Carnival | September 2014

Welcome to the September 2014 Biblical Studies Blog Carnival!

September means one thing in Texas: football season is back! And of course, I’m speaking of American football – both college and NFL teams are now on the field once again. I know that many of our biblical studies bloggers are more inclined towards the internationally recognized form of “football” (what we down here in Texas call “soccer”), so please accept my apologies for picking such a culturally-biased theme. You might enjoy the video below of a confused “football” coach attempting to coach a “soccer” team.

College football divides each team into certain conferences – the SEC (Gig ‘Em Aggies!), Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12, etc. Thus, I’ve divided this month’s excellent blogging into four conferences:

– The OTC (Old Testament Conference)
– The NTC (New Testament Conference)
– The CHTC (Church History, Theology, and Hermeneutics Conference)
– The BRC (Book Review Conference)

However, just because a post might not be in one of the above conferences it still might have merited a place in the Wild Card Race (Miscellaneous Posts).

There were a ton of great blog posts this month.
Thanks to all who contributed –  happy reading!

The OTC (Old Testament Conference)

The NTC (New Testament Conference)

The CHTHC (Church History, Theology, and Hermeneutics Conference)

BRC (Book Review Conference)

The Wild Card Race (Miscellaneous Posts)

* * *  New Blog Alert  * * *
Michael Forth, a doctoral student at Aberdeen, has started a new blog: PonderForth. Check out his first blog post, “Is Christian Fundamentalism a Manifestation of Liberal Theology?”

[1] Did I miss a great post from the month of September? Post a comment with the link so that we can all enjoy it!

[2] Next month’s Biblical Studies Blog Carnival (October 2014) will be hosted by Brian Renshaw on November 1. Be sure to stay tuned for another month of blogging greatness.

[3] Phil Long at Reading Acts is still looking for volunteers to host future Carnivals. This is my “emotional plea” for a few decent folks to step up and help continue this biblioblog tradition! If you’re interested and/or willing to be coerced, please contact Phil through his blog.

Book Review: Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea

Robert F. Rea’s new work, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past, is a well-needed clarion call to all Christian traditions that have largely ignored the history of their faith. I have considered church history a vital part of Christian discipleship for many years and in this book Rea clearly spells out many reasons why this is so. In fact, I believe that both Christian churches and Christian schools should be careful to form their children in Church history as much as (if not more) than national history. Thus, I enjoyed Rea’s book and firmly believe that his message is an extremely important one for the Protestant church to hear.

The book is divided into three parts: 1 – How We Understand Tradition, 2 – Expanding Circles of Inquiry, and 3 – Tradition Serving the Church. Part one of Fea’s work explores the meaning of history and tradition and takes a special look at how various groups have understood and related to Christian tradition throughout Christian history. This serves as a helpful background to his discussion on how various Christians understand tradition today. Part two of the book serves to explore the many ways that our Christian identity is necessarily connected to the brothers and sisters who have come before us. He discusses how Christian tradition is actually a vibrant part of the Christian community, how historical Christians can serve as accountability partners, and how they can helpfully broaden our views and correct misunderstandings in our faith. Part three of Rea’s work explores how a proper understanding of Christian history helps the church both understand Scripture and minister more faithfully. Rea helpfully walks through the various strategies of exegesis that have been characteristic of different time periods in church history and gives practical examples of how these historical truths might inform responsible exegesis today.

For the most part, Rea’s book is plenty accessible to students and lay readers. There are times where he condenses a lot of information/names/theories in a few pages (such as when surveying the history of “tradition” from the early Church to the modern period or when detailing the history of exegesis from the early church to the modern period). This may seem overwhelming to novices or, alternatively, over-simplified to those with further education. Rea’s book reads as an apologetic for Christians to know their history and integrate it into their lives, faiths, and ministries appropriately. With this goal in mind, I found Part Two of his work to be the most engaging and practical portion of his book. Ultimately, I believe that an actual primary study of church history is the best way to open one’s eyes up to its incredible importance for today’s church. Thankfully, Rea ends his book with a list of recommended resources – personally, I recommend starting with Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity.

I’d Recommend This Book For:
– Those wanting to know “why” they should care about Church History
– Those looking for a brief overview of Church History
– Perhaps as a textbook for an introductory undergraduate class on Church History
– Perhaps a church small group unfamiliar with church history yet wishing to dig into it.

Why Church History MattersNote: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review. 

Cultivating Identity: Americans and the Church

Are we better at making loyal Americans or committed Christians? As a local pastor and a high-school teacher, this is a question that regularly haunts me. The answer seems obvious: we live and contribute to a socio-religious system that is highly effective at churning out people committed to the American nation-state yet much less effective at creating Christians who feel a deep and abiding sense of loyalty to the global and historic Christian community.

I think this task – instilling an instinct of identity and belonging to the Christian community – is one of the most important roles of the church. This is a particularly acute need in a post-Christendom society which is increasingly confused over the relationship between national and religious loyalties. The scriptures are clear: Christians have been adopted into a new family, united into the corporate body of Christ, and have had their citizenship transferred into a new Kingdom. The church is an alternative polis which exists as an outpost of Resurrection amidst a world of Death.

How might we go about fostering this sense of identity among our church members and youth? Here are a few modest suggestions:

#1 – Teach church history, recognizing its importance for our community.
History is extremely important for creating a sense of identity and loyalty, which is why we almost universally teach it to our youth. However, there is an alarming disconnect between many Christians and the basic history of their community. Here is a prediction: an 18 year-old who graduates high school with many years of training in US History and almost none in church history will be a more loyal American than Christian.

#2 – Give more honor towards those called to ministry or missionary work.
This contradicts the Protestant emphasis on the “priesthood of the believers” and call to minister in the workplace (both truths which I support), but I believe we lack a proper respect for those who enter into ministry or the mission field. Those who choose to sacrifice their lives for the nation (entering into military service, etc) are seen as heroes, while those who choose to enter the ministry or mission field are often met with skepticism and caution (“but you won’t make any money” … “I guess he/she couldn’t hold down a real job”). 

#3 –  Shift the emphasis of our language about conversion from the individual to the social.
Our language of conversion is individualistic, focused on beliefs, and future-orientated, when it should be social, focused on a new lifestyle (discipleship), and celebrating the present reality of the Kingdom. Instead of asking people to convert by agreeing to a few propositions or deciding their preferred destination for the afterlife, let’s call people to take their place in God’s story and join His community. (See this recent post from Michelle Mikeska: Evangelicals and the Moment of Conversion)

#4 – Follow and appreciate the liturgical calendar.
Calendars, like history, are also highly effective at creating an integrated society. Churches and families who follow the rhythms of the liturgical calendar (Advent, Lent, etc) and celebrate/remember the feast days of the Saints will find themselves more connected to the historical and global Christian community.

Do you agree or disagree? Are there any other practices which might be helpful in cultivating a sense of identity and belonging to the Christian community?

How should the church interpret Genesis One?

“In matters that are so obscure and far beyond our vision, we find in Holy Scripture passages which can be interpreted in very different ways without prejudice to the faith we have received. In such cases, we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it. That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.” – Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis

At the start of the school year, I have my students read selections from John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One.  I do this for several reasons.  First, regardless of your opinion about Walton’s theory in Genesis, the book forces my students to learn about the importance of context.  Second, it reveals that the worldview of our own Bible is one that is very different from ours.  Finally, my hope is that Genesis 1 will no longer be viewed as a battlefield between religion and science.  The Bible neither proves nor disproves evolution, young earth, or old earth.  The message that is ultimately conveyed is that the world is good and a place for God’s presence.

What do you think about Walton’s theory regarding Genesis one?

If scripture does not reveal modern science, should its legitimacy be called into question?