Constructing a Course...Constructively
I have been asked to put together an undergraduate elective course on the doctrine of God for Grove students for next year. There is, of course, a current (and most welcome) revival of interest in Protestant circles in classical Trinitarianism and the theology of the first four ecumenical councils, built on the back of the historical scholarship of the last thirty years in patristic, medieval, and early modern areas. We now know so much more about what the church through the ages thought about its greatest dogmas that, for orthodox Christians today, one could borrow the words of Wordsworth on the French Revolution:
Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.
Yet teaching such a course raises peculiar challenges, not least the fact that pre-modern theology was typically driven not simply by exegetical or polemical concerns but also by doxology. Debates about the Trinity offer a good example: for all of the rarified distinctions and arcane language of Nicene and post-Nicene theology, the driving issue could be summarized in this way: ‘What are we saying about God when we baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit?’ And while the ferocious back and forth between Nestorius and Cyril and their followers can sometimes make the reader’s head spin, the basic concern is this: ‘When we cry out in praise, “Jesus is Lord!”, what are we saying and on what grounds can we say it?’ Surely there is nothing more simply doxological in Christianity than baptism and praise? Classical theology was founded in praise and terminated in praise.
So constructing a course to teach such in the present day is a challenge, because the matter is not simply one of the grammar of theology proper, nor of mastering the semantics of the vocabulary of classical theism. It involves capturing something of the awe and wonder and humbling mystery of the truths of God in Himself and of God made flesh -- of the soverign and transcendent God who yet stoops to save. And for a younger generation that wants to see an immediate practical pay-off (read: connecting to action in this world) for any theological idea and also wants a God who is immediately sympathetic and approachable, the transcendent God of the creeds seems rather remote and even abstract, the preserve of pointy-headed theology wonks.
Thus, I am convinced that teaching the doctrine of God must involve two further elements, in addition to both tracing out the historical and exegetical story of creedal formulation and addressing the various systematic and polemical concerns. It must also pay attention to the church’s language of praise; and it must cultivate a humble piety which prevents the collapsing of the Creator and creature, an which piety was such a hallmark of key players in the development of the doctrine of God, not least men such as the great Gregory of Nazianzus and, from a later epoch, Anselm.
And so when I teach the course, I intend not simply to read the classic polemical and systematic texts with the students – ‘On the Incarnation’ by Athanasius, ‘On the Unity of Christ’ by Cyril, ‘On the Trinity’ by Augustine etc. Such texts are basic and vital. But I also intend to look at the liturgies and the poems and the sermons and the hymns and prayers which many of these men wrote. That will hopefully take the students to the heart of the Christian devotion which really drove these men and which led them (often reluctantly) into the fire of the sadly necessary polemics.
In this context, readers might want to look at the following books which help to connect classical theism to devotion and praise:
John Owen, On Communion with God