Tag Archives: Gregory Nazianzen

Reason: one use of it builds faith–the other creates heresy; the early and medieval church knew the difference


ecumenical-council

Having looked, in the “theology chapter” of the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, first at our evangelical problem with Truth, then at the medieval scholastics’ way of understanding and teaching Truth, we now come to the central storyline of medieval theology: its unique attempt to hold faith and reason together.

I start my discussion of this heroic attempt with a brief account of where the early church thought heresy came from (surprisingly: an over-active use of reason) and how early theologians and councils acted to preserve the integrity of the apostolic faith.

The next post will show what medieval thinkers did with this early precedent when it came time to re-explain the mysteries of the faith for new socio-cultural realities.

When I say that medieval thinkers held reason and faith in a delicate balance, I am thinking of their ability to use reasoned understanding and argument not to erase mystery, but to carefully couch and protect it. This was a premodern trait. The modern tendency – let us say, post-Enlightenment – has been to put our trust in what Stanley Grenz called the “omnicompetence” of reason–its supposed ability to fix all humans problems and solve all conundrums. The postmodern tendency, on the other hand, is to point to the man behind the curtain, or the emperor who has no clothes–to assume that anybody who claims to have figured things out via reason is actually making a power grab, disguising baser motives.

I would argue that the postmoderns are now where the nominalists were at the end of the medieval period. They have looked cynically behind the claims that we may know truth, at least partially, via reason, and they have lost faith in our ability to see any truth beside the one each of us makes for ourselves. Conservatives today may even be tempted to identify postmoderns as those who, in the Dantean phrase, have “lost the good of the intellect”—they can no longer access moral truth. But that’s too easy: the fundamental insight of postmodernism is hard to argue with: people do in fact often claim to be following the direct dictates of reason when in fact their motives have little to do with reasoned understanding. (Nor is this even intentional much of the time!)[1]

But when we go back to a brilliant premodern Christian thinker such as the proto-scholastic Augustine of Hippo, we find a different process: Instead of claiming that “reason solves all,” he frequently looks up from an argument he’s just presented (say, on the nature of the Trinity), and he says:  “I didn’t say you had to like it.” Continue reading

Did early Christians reject secular medicine? Glimpses from Darrel Amundson


Cover of

From a fascinating book by Darrel W. Amundsen—Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)—come the following observations on early Christian attitudes toward medicine and physicians. These excerpts come from chapter 5, “Medicine and Faith in Early Christianity” (sentences not in quotation marks are comments from me). See here for further insights from Amundsen, on what medievals thought caused illness. And see here for some of his observations on the spiritual usefulness of illness and the meaning of plague.

“While among pagans [128] and Christians the same range of attitudes toward medicine and healing existed, there was one essential difference between pagans and at least those Christians who had actively embraced the gospel. . . . This pervasive difference between pagans and Christians resulted from the highly personal relationship existing between the individual Christian and an omnipotent God who was typically viewed as a having a direct concern with and involvement in the life of the believer. Continue reading

The seven deadly sins: Evagrius


Here I am at the Calvin seminar on the seven deadly sins, at Calvin College. What are we talking about? Here’s a sample, on the deadly sins (better: “capital vices,” that is, dispositions from which a bunch of other nasty dispositions and sins flow) in the thought of Evagrius Pontus, whose list included eight of the suckers:

Calvin Seven Deadly Sins seminar Day 2

A survey of the seven deadly sins (capital vices) in Evagrius’s Praktikus, Gregory the Great’s Moralia, and John Cassian’s  Conferences, conference 5

Presenters: Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung (Calvin College) and Robert Kruschwitz (Baylor University):

Evagrius (345 – 399; died as Origenist controversy breaking out) inherited and joined well-established desert tradition. Showed up in late 300s. Not an innovator re inventing the desert experience.

What he did do was try to gather, systematize, innovate a bit, but right down what was going on already. Compiler in a creative way.

Cassian (365 – 435?) joined him out in the desert for around 2 decades. When Evagrius died, he set out for Southern France, set up a monastic version of the desert tradition out in France. Continue reading

Three Wise Men from the East: The intrepid trio who saved the early church from idolatry


It’s tough for us to appreciate what a threat the Arian heresy was to the church in the 4th century. Basically, it had people worshiping Jesus even though they were convinced he was a fellow creature and not God–nothing short of idolatry according to the God of the Old (and New) Testament!

The Council of Nicea in 325 was supposed to slap down this mis-reading of Scripture, but for decades all it seemed to have done was stir up a hornet’s nest of controversy. For example Bishop Athanasius, the staunchest defender of orthodoxy at Nicea, was exiled by various Arian emperors no fewer than five separate times after the council was over.

Into this boiling pot of theological and spiritual confusion came three men of holy habits and clear thought: the Eastern trio now referred to as the “Cappadocian Fathers.” My friend Edwin and I engraved a cameo of each for Christian History a few years back:

Three Wise Men from the East
The Cappadocian Fathers brought the best gift of all: a powerful scriptural defense of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity against the Arian heretics.
Edwin Woodruff Tait and Chris Armstrong

Basil of Caesarea (“the Great”)
Pugnacious saint and theologian of the Spirit

Mention the “church fathers” to a Western Christian, and Basil the Great is not usually the first name to come to mind. Yet even for the Roman Catholic Church, Basil ranks with his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom as one of the great propounders and defenders of the faith.

Born around 330, Basil grew up in a world where Christianity was recognized by the Roman government but divided between those who believed in the full divinity of Christ and the Arians who did not. For much of the fourth century, the Arians would enjoy the support of the emperors. The struggle between Christianity and the empire had not ended with Constantine. Continue reading