Graduate Seminar on the Apologists of the Early Church at Southwestern Seminary

Presley_justin_martyrThis fall I have the opportunity to teach a graduate course on the apologists of the early church. I am really looking forward to working more closely with these primary sources throughout the semester.

We will begin reading through Robert Grant’s work: Greek Apologists of the Second Century, which is the best introduction to the history and theology of the apologists. (This text is out-of-print now, but I am grateful that WJK was willing to run a special printing just for the students in our course!)

Grant opens the volume with a brief summary of the cultural tension these ancient apologists faced and surveys some of their primary objectives:

Apologetic literature emerges from minority groups that are trying to come to terms with the larger culture within which they live. Apologists do not completely identify themselves with the broader society, but they are not advocates of confrontation or revolution. They address their contemporaries with persuasion, looking for links between the outside world and their own group and thus modifying the development of both. … His [the apologist’s] primary goal is to interpret his own culture –religious, philosophical, or artistic, as the case may be –to the broader group. Some apologists simply try to vindicate their own culture and religion in relation to the surrounding culture and religion and usually try to prove that theirs is more ancient, more authentic, and more expressive of common values.

Grant continues explaining that the success of the apologists is limited, though their works were used and read throughout the tradition. The era of the apologists is an interesting period of the early church when the Christian community lived on the margins of society, yet at the same time eagerly engaged the culture and reasoned with various intellectuals and authorities. They clarified Christian doctrine and practice for the outsiders and dispelled rumors and myths about the faith.

Below I offer the basic reading list for our course:

  • Robert M. Grant, Greek Apologists of the Second Century
  • Aristides, Apology
  • Athenagoras, Embassy for the Christians, The Resurrection of the Dead
  • Epistle of Diognetus
  • Justin Martyr, The First Apology, The Second Apology, Dialogue with Trypho
  • The Letter of the churches of Lyons and Vienne
  • The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas
  • Melito of Sardis, On Pascha
  • Tatian, Address to the Greeks
  • Theophilus of Antioch, To Autolycus

After working through Grant and surveying the Greco-Roman context of the second century, we will work systematically and chronologically through the primary sources. Along the way we will highlight the common threads of the apologetic testimony and the uniqueness of each contribution. This includes the various theological and philosophical debates, as well as the performance of scripture in each account. We will also read a few martyrdom accounts as an extension of the early church’s apologetic testimony. Since I will be engrossed in these works, I suspect there will be few more posts about the apologists in the coming months.

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A Method for Intertextual Analysis of Patristic Exegesis – The case of Irenaeus and Genesis 1-3

Presley_Intertextual_Reception_of_Genesis_1_3_Irenaeus_of_LyonsFraming an intertextual method for patristic exegesis

Through the course of research for my book, The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons, I surveyed a variety of works on “intertexuality” as a method of textual analysis. Building upon these studies, I crafted a specific methodology for patristics. I found this necessary since most works on intertextuality were written for Biblical Studies (i.e. Fishbane and Hays) and often narrowly focused on their particular portion(s) of scripture (i.e. Old Testament/Hebrew Bible and New Testament).

In the second century, the church fathers are not thinking in those terms. They regularly mined both the Old and New testaments together in various kinds of relationships and harmonies (some similar to the use of the OT in the NT, but much of it extends beyond this). So intertextuality in patristic exegesis must think in terms of “canonical” textual integration. My methodology, though, is not without precedent. Two works that I found helpful for crafting a method of intertextuality include Van Wolde (“Texts in Dialogue with Texts: Intertextuality in the Ruth and Tamar Narratives,” Biblical Interpretation, 1997) and Giere (A New Glimpse of Day One: Intertextuality, History of Interpretation, and Genesis 1:1-5, de Gruyter, 2009) – (the work Reading the Bible Intertextually was also helpful). The difference is that these studies were far more diachronic, while my research was an intensive synchronic study of one father (Irenaeus) and his intertextual reading of one section of scripture (Genesis 1-3)

A intertextual method for studying patristic exegesis

So after surveying these sources, here is the method I developed (for further explanation and analysis see the introduction to my book, pp. 39-43):

First, I identified all the allusions to Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus’ work Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies). For this I relied upon Biblia Patristica and any references in the various critical editions, including especially Sources chretiennes. Other volumes, such as the Orbe’s commentaries on Haer. 4-5, were also helpful.

Second, I identified any verifiable intertexts in the immediate context that were hermeneutically related to Genesis 1-3. Again, I relied upon Biblia Patristica, Sources chretiennes, Orbe, and others. I acknowledge that the concept of “text” is imposed, but I was simply looking for any echo, allusion, or citation of related intertexts. Most often these were scriptural allusions, though extra-biblical and apocryphal allusions were also cited.

Third, I identified any structural, theological, or linguistic markers or patterns that developed from the interaction of these texts. These markers include any key terms, concepts, themes, characters, or images. Isolating these integrative features provided an avenue to evaluate the literary, rhetorical, or theological nature of these textual relationships.

Fourth, I evaluated and classified the new network of meaning that developed from the integration of the texts and the strategy that Irenaeus applied to fashion these texts together. I am not concerned with any experimental concept of intertextuality, but merely using this method as a lens to explain precisely how Irenaeus (and the church fathers) framed their theology through the integration of specific texts.

Consequently this method generated far more textual relationships than I ever imagined. Irenaeus is a scriptural theologian in every sense of the term. His theology is always framed in and through the nexus of integrated passages of scripture. In the table below I offer just a snippet his intertextual reading of Gen 1-3 (for the full chart see the appendix of my book, pp. 263-267):

Haer. 3.18.1 Gen 1:26 John 1:2-3, John 1:10, John 1:14
Haer. 3.18.7 Gen 2:5 Rom 5:12, Rom 5:19
Haer. 3.19.3 Gen 2:7 Isa 7:11-14, Luke 15:4-6, 24, 32, John 14:2, Rom 12:4, 1 Cor 15:20, 23, Eph 1:22, 4:9-10, 16, Phil 3:9, Col 1:18-20

So in these few chapters, Irenaeus reads Genesis in continuity with John, Paul, and Isaiah. Throughout the course of the book, I identify 84 specific sections of Adversus Haereses (Against Heresies) that together contain hundreds of allusions to Genesis and various other related intertexts. From his reading of these texts, I developed a series of reading strategies that explain how he networks these texts which I discuss briefly here.

Irenaeus and the mosaic of biblical quotations

After evaluating these textual relationships, this study leaves no doubt that Irenaeus’ work is, in the words of Lawson, a “mosaic of biblical quotations.” (Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus, ). I fully expected to find particular sets of relationships that would be useful for his polemical theology, but the more I studied his exegesis of Genesis 1-3, the more textual diversity I found. This paragraph in my conclusion sums up this point:

[T]his analysis reveals that his intertextaul reception of Gen 1-3 is extensive and diverse. This includes the types of reading strategies he applies to Gen 1-3, and the diverse number of intertexts he reads alongside these creation texts. There are some repeated textual relationships, but these are rare and almost always found coupled with additional intertexts. Thus, is he not beholden to any particular sets of texts and the diversity of text cited in connection to Gen 1-3 is wide-ranging. At the beginning of the is study I expected to find particular groupings of texts that were tailored for his Gnostic polemic, but every successive analysis of the use of Gen 1-3 with in his argument contributed fresh intertextual relationships. Through his theological argumentation, he freely forms and re-forms interrelated networks of texts. (p. 245)

I am now curious how other fathers might have integrated texts different or if textual integration could shed any more light on cultural or theological dependance. I also wonder how the results might differ if I applied this methodology to a different text (especially a different genre in scripture). But those questions must be left for future projects and other studies.

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Filed under Biblical Interpretation, Irenaeus, Methodology, The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons

Launch of the Southwestern Center for the Study of Early Christianity

The Southwestern Center for the Study of Early Christianity officially launched last week. The occasion was marked by a special evening event that included a discussion of the plans for the center and lecture by Jeff Bingham, noted patristic scholar and Assistant Dean for Bible and Theology at Wheaton College. There was even a book drawing for a free copy of the rare, out of print, Eastern Fathers of the Fourth Century by Georges Florovosky.

Speaking to a large gathering of Southwestern graduate students and faculty, Bingham presented a paper on some of his recent research titled: “Tempering the Hellenistic Thesis: Athenagoras on the Prophets.”

Bingham’s paper focused on two sections of Athenagoras’ Legatio (Embassy for all Christians), Leg. 7.3 and 9.1, that contain well-known early Christian descriptions of divine inspiration in the Biblical prophets.

In these passages Athenagoras explained to his Greco-Roman audience that the prophets “have spoken by the inspiration of a divine Spirit about God and the things of God (Legatio 7.3). He also described how the Spirit “moved the mouths of the prophets like instruments” (Legatio 7.3). The use of instrumentation resurfaces a few lines later when Athenagoras described how the prophets of Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the others, “in the ecstasy of their reason, as the divine Spirit moved them, proclaimed the things that they were inspired to say, the Spirit using them just as a piper blows into a pipe” (Legatio 9.3). The image of the piper blowing into the pipe was a classic early Christian image for inspiration.

Of course, ancient Christian theologians were not the only ones discussing divine inspiration and using these types of illustrations. Most scholars actually assume that these passages represent the apologist’s Hellenistic reading of the prophets, which also participates in a broader Hellenizing trend in the early church. There are a number of scholars that observed similarities and parallels between Athenagoras’ writings and other ancient thinkers. But these studies cite these parallels with little or no commentary and do not consult other potential backgrounds or explanations.

Bingham, however, provided a broader analysis of the background for Athenagoras’ treatment of prophetic inspiration. His work indicated that any dependence on Hellenism in these descriptions of inspiration require more nuanced characterizations. On one hand, Bingham acknowledged the parallels with Philo concerning the divine inspiration of the prophets including: the state of ecstasy, the role of the Spirit, the effect upon reason, and the musical metaphor. All of these find some resonance with the work of the apologist. On the other hand, there are significant differences as well. One key difference is in their use of the musical metaphors applied to the act of inspiration in the prophets, which is essential to Athenagoras’ understanding of inspiration. In Bingham’s words:

“this study shows that conclusions based on assumed parallels with Plato also require adjustment. Athenagoras does not share the notion of an unconscious, passive, mindless prophet or poet who under inspiration composes flawed, contradictory material. Rather, there are important similarities with early Greek thought on the activity and contribution of the inspired poet as well as the infallibility of the composition. The inspired prophets, in the mind of Athenagoras, are coadjutors with the Spirit and their speech, as well as their books, contains harmonious, true teachings.”

In his conclusion, Bingham observed that Athenagoras portrays the prophets as rational, doctrinal Christian authorities that supersede the teachings of the poets, philosophers, or any human opinions. His view of inspiration, furthermore, produces a theology that artfully weaves together both pagan and Judaeo-Christian sources in his defense of the Christian faith. Thus, the Hellenistic background in these passages is not nearly as prominent as some have assumed.

Bingham’s paper was well-received and sparked good dialogue and debate among the students and faculty. His lecture also generated excitement for the possibilities of early Christian studies at Southwestern Seminary.

In the coming year, the Southwestern Center for the Study of Early Christianity will begin to take shape by offering a variety of lectures, seminars, study groups, courses, and online resources for students interested in the early church. We will continue to build upon the long tradition of critical engagement with the fathers at the seminary and support our Baptist and evangelical convictions through retrieving patristic views on theology and scripture.

These are exciting days at the seminary for anyone interested in the study of the early church and the evening provided just a taste of some of the good things to come in the study of early Christianity at Southwestern.

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Filed under Athenagoras, Church Fathers, Southwestern Center for the Study of Early Christianity, Southwestern Seminary

Release of the Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons

Stephen Presley Intertextual ReceptionThis week marks the release of my new book on Irenaeus’ reading of Genesis 1-3 entitled: The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons. The book is published in the Brill series Bible in Ancient Christianity Series, which boasts a fine collection of works that examine scriptural interpretation in ancient Christianity. This book is the product of nearly a decade of writing and reflection on Irenaeus’ reading of these chapters that spans both my graduate and postgraduate research. This is not the first treatment of Irenaeus’ reading of Genesis 1-3, nor do I expect it will be the last. His interpretation of these protological chapters is far too diverse and intricate. But I think that this work helps develop our understanding of the complexity of Irenaeus’ exegesis and contributes to the important conversation of biblical interpretation in the early church. Irenaeus sits at the fountainhead of the grand history of interpretation of the sacred scriptures and wading into the world of Irenaeus’ scripture reading, and especially his interpretation of the opening scenes in the drama of divine economy, serves as a good entryway into the general study of the history of biblical interpretation.

My book shows how Irenaeus’ reading of Genesis 1-3 is pivotal for reading countless other scripture passages. Irenaeus reads the bible theologically as a complex web of scriptural interrelationships. What this means is that Irenaeus cannot read Genesis without the voices of other scriptures chiming in and he cannot read other scriptures without the contribution of Genesis 1-3. On the first page of the book, I describe this approach like this:

This study gives attention to the ways that Irenaeus reads scripture, particularly Gen 1-3, intertextually. The basic premise guiding this study is that the reception of any particular passage of scripture in Irenaeus necessarily includes the reception of theologically and hermeneutically interrelated passages. Irenaeus receives and interprets texts in relationship.

With scriptural consonance as his guide, Irenaeus applies a collection of intertextual reading strategies to the creation accounts. These strategies allow the bishop of Lyons to gather together collections of scriptures that define and defend his theological perspective against his Gnostic opponents. As Irenaeus says himself, “the proofs from the Scriptures cannot be shown except from the Scriptures themselves” (Haer 3.12.9). His reading of Genesis 1-3 ultimately touches nearly all points of his theological framework including his theology of creation, doctrine of God, soteriology, Christological, and eschatology. As a way to reflect upon the book and the key points of my conclusion, I want to provide a short blog series that examines each of the key reading strategies of Irenaeus’ intertextual reading of Genesis 1-3 and a few examples that I describe in the book. These strategies include:

  • A literary reading
  • Prophetic reading
  • Typological reading
  • Verbal connections or patterns
  • Organizational function
  • Narratival or creedal summaries
  • Prosopological reading
  • Illustrative identification
  • General-to-particular reading

In future posts I will work through these reading strategies and explain how Irenaeus utilizes each of them in his theological interpretation of Genesis 1-3. Hopefully this will serve as a way to consider the implications of my argument in the book and allow for more conversation about the interesting features of Irenaeus perspective of scriptural consonance.


Filed under Bible in Ancient Christianity, The Intertextual Reception of Genesis 1-3 in Irenaeus of Lyons

Headed to Cowtown

fort-worth-logoAfter four years at SWBTS Houston, I am transitioning to the Fort Worth campus. While the move is exciting, it is hard to say goodbye to a great group of students and faculty in Houston. The students here are some of the best. They give me hope for the future of the church and especially the future of ministry in the Houston area.

I also leave behind our SWBTS students in the Darrington prison unit. It is difficult to describe the impact of this teaching experience and the ways that reading scripture with the incarcerated has deepened my understanding of hermeneutics. Entering prison was like traveling to a foreign country with its own language and culture, which naturally presented all kinds of unique challenges to reading and applying scripture faithfully. Through the years I was fortunate to get to know many of them personally and share in their suffering. These men give me hope that repentance and reform is possible through the work of Christ.

But the move to SWBTS Fort Worth provides a great opportunity to focus on my particular area of expertise and research: patristics. I will serve as Associate Professor of Church History and teach graduate and postgraduate courses in church history and patristic theology and exegesis.

In addition to this, I will also serve as the director of a new research center starting up this fall at the seminary: The Center for Early Christian Studies. This patristics study center will focus on the thought and writings of the early church and how the church fathers can inform our Baptist and Evangelical theology.

I am excited to take on these new roles and to serve the seminary in these ways. I look forward to joining the SWBTS faculty in Fort Worth and getting started this fall.

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Stuart Parsons on Ancient Apologetic Exegesis of Theophilus of Antioch

Ancient_Apologetic_ExegesisIn his recent publication, Ancient Apologetic Exegesis: Introducing and Recovering Theophilus’s World, Stuart Parsons provides a helpful introduction to the use of scripture in the writings of Theophilus of Antioch.

In the world of second century Christianity, Theophilus is often overshadowed by more illustrious figures such as Justin Martyr or Irenaeus of Lyons. It certainly does not help  that only one of his principal works has survived, but, as Parsons argues, this should not detract from the appreciation of his intellectual contribution.

Parsons’ work goes far in painting a portrait of the intricacies of Theophilus’ use of scripture in the second century apologetic context. In fact, prior to this publication there has been no extended treatment of Theophilus’ use of scripture (12). Instead, he had, more often than not, been characterized as a disorganized thinker and haphazard in his use of the biblical text.

However, Parsons recognizes that there is a world of difference in the use of scripture between the ancient and modern context. He observes:

[w]hile highly –literate cultures such as our own automatically and unthinkingly focus mainly on full- and partial-quotation, highly illiterate cultures appreciate the values of allusions and of mere reminiscences of texts which do not even provide a partial quotation (158).

In other words, an allusion in the ancient world can convey the same sense and force as a citation in the modern world.

Parsons evaluates Theophilus’ use of scripture with careful precision and locates numerous allusions and subtle echoes of scripture that have been previously overlooked. He argues:

Theophilus cast Scripture in his profoundly protreptic letters to play a compelling, and very central and indispensable role in his classic and precise rhetoric of witness interrogation. When we judge by second-century standards rather than modern ones the intent, potency, and coherence of Theophilus’s writings, the persisting stereotypical view of him must fall away. The approach we will take also engages dynamics of ancient orality and recollection as well as contributing to the new emerging portrait of patristic exegesis, one avoiding anachronisms of older scholarship, through renewed awareness of ancient literary practices. Scripture functioned in a particular and distinctive was in second-century apologies, a way that scholarship has not yet truly perceived (12).

In the end Parsons’ reveals a Theophilus who was intimately acquainted with scripture and not shy about engaging his audience with biblical images and concepts. This work helps recover an image of the ancient bishop from Antioch who had sincere concerns for the church and preserving her theological convictions.

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Filed under Apologists, History of Interpretation, Theophilus of Antioch

Glenn Kreider on God With Us in Prison

prpbooks-images-covers-md-9781596381186Last night Southwestern Seminary Prison extension campus at Darrington welcomed Glenn Kreider, Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Seminary who delivered a lecture entitled “God IS with us.” The address offered an introduction to his recent publication: God with us: Exploring God’s Personal Interactions with His people throughout the Bible that surveys the nature of the divine attribute of condescension.

Kreider shared with the students how a single paragraph in one of Cornelius Plantinga’s Advent sermons sparked the idea of this book. Reflecting on the nature of humility in the incarnation, Plantinga writes:

The Son of God just does what he sees his Father doing. He empties himself and takes the form of a servant because that’s the way they do it in his family. And God exalts Jesus Christ and gives him the name above every name because that too is the Godly way – to exalt the humble, to get very enthusiastic about those who spend themselves for others (36).

Again and Again, Kreider returned to these lines as he pondered the implications of Plantinga’s assertion. The incarnation is not something entirely unprecedented, but participates in a long history of divine humility that pervades God’s activities throughout the biblical story. Suddenly, for Kreider, the incarnation is not altogether unusual or dramatic, but rather the astonishing and remarkable way that God’s has always worked among his people.

In his book, Kreider characterizes God’s condescension as an underappreciated divine attribute. He defines condescension as the “voluntary descent from one’s rank or dignity in relations with an inferior” (15-16). Divine condescension, then, is “intertwined with humility, grace, submission, forgiveness, compassion, looking out for the interest of others, and love” (16).

Viewed through the lens of condescension, Kreider sees the story of the bible from a different perspective. It is the story of God’s regular and habitual humbling of himself on behalf of his people.

In the rest of the book, Kreider traces out the instances of divine condescension throughout the contours of the Biblical narrative. From the opening scenes of creation and throughout the Old Testament to the coming of the Son and the ministry of the Apostles, God is actively humbling himself to relate with his creatures.

The lecture and the evening left me with a couple of lingering thoughts.

First, the narrative description of divine humility in the Old Testament is particularly helpful. In a way that would make Marcion cringe, Kreider shows us a God of the Old Testament who is not wholly vengeful or evil, but humble and gracious. This is a God who blesses Abraham and covenants with him. This is a God who blesses Moses and continually provides for the nation of Israel. This is a God who dwells among his people in the tabernacle. This is a God who saves Rahab and Ruth, makes promises to David, and proclaims hope through the prophets. The God of the Old Testament is not obtuse or unconcerned with the plight of his creatures. Instead, God is actively humbling himself in order to redeem and restore humanity throughout the Old Testament.

Second, I could not help but observe the appropriateness of this topic for the prison setting. The reminder that God regularly humbled himself for the sake of his people resonates with a group of men who have been locked up and all but forgotten. As Kreider spoke, I observed a room full of more than one hundred inmates who listened intently to story of the humility of God. They were reminded that God never turns away from his creatures that are hurting and broken. God’s condensation meets these men in their own prison cells and walks with him through the long, tiring days of incarceration.

For Christians the implications of divine humility are highly demanding. As Kreider writes in his conclusion:

Condescension, the voluntary humbling of oneself for the sake of others, is not merely an attitude but an action. It takes many forms, all of which can be summarized as gifts of love. Forgiveness, humility, and service are particularly good examples of condescension (208).

The incarcerated men in our prison seminary understand all to well the challenges of love and forgiveness and the years they have spent in prison have given them plenty of time to reflect upon these things. I know they were grateful for the reminder that God is with us, just as he has always been.

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Filed under Book Review, Darrington Seminary Extension, Doctrine of God