A list of theology conferences

As a theologian, I love a good conference. Having a few days together with other theologians listening to papers on various topics, enjoying good conversation, and just generally sharpening our thinking is anything but a chore for me. In fact, I often come away feeling refreshed.

Now that I have stepped away from the academic world, I’m especially keen to attend conferences as a means of continuing to exercise my mind. But the other day I was thinking about booking something into the calendar in the coming year, and realised that there was no easy way to find out what conferences were being held here in the UK or over in Europe (places that would be relatively easy for me to get to). So with Ian Paul agreeing to host it on his blog, I decided to put together a list of everything I could find.

That list is now live, and can be accessed here. It is focused on distinctly theological conferences, academic or otherwise, and is limited to international conferences held in English. That said, the list is delightfully varied, representing lots of different traditions and aspects of theology.

The idea is that we keep it continually updated as new conferences are announced. You can help by letting us know of anything you might be aware of that we missed. I want this to be of service to anyone with an interest in an area of theology who wants a few days together with others stretching their minds. So have a browse!


On thinking about hell

It is my practice to always have a novel on my bedside table. In the past few days I have been reading Marilynne Robinson’s most recent novel, Lila, which is a deeply engaging and thought-provoking work. Having just preached on Mark 8.31-38, a passage containing a very stern warning from Jesus for those who choose not to follow him, I was struck by this thought from the Reverend, one of Robinson’s two main characters in the book:

Thinking about hell doesn’t help me live in the way I should. I believe this is true for most people. And thinking that other people might go to hell just feels evil to me, like a very grave sin. So I don’t want to encourage anyone else to think that way. Even if you don’t assume that you can know in individual cases, it’s still a problem to think about people in general as if they might go to hell. You can’t see the world the way you ought to if you let yourself do that. Any judgement of any kind is a great presumption. And presumption is a very grave sin (101).

He concludes these words with the statement, ‘I believe this is sound theology.’ I will leave it up to the reader to decide if that is true.

Moberly on the relationship of faith and the authority of Scripture

In his recent book, The Bible in a Disenchanted Age: The Enduring Possibility of Christian Faith, the renowned biblical scholar, Walter Moberly, explores questions of the Bible’s continued relevance in the modern world.

Part of what Moberly takes to task is the notion that biblical authority must stem in some way from its historical reliability, noting that this is a thoroughly modern idea, and pushing back on it in a number of different ways. One of the more intriguing arguments in the book has to do with the relationship of faith and trust in the authority of Scripture. Moberly raises this point by pointing to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel of John. ‘Jesus says that there is a test of his claim that his teaching is from God’, Moberly writes (136). Emphasising Jesus’ humanity, Moberly says that Jesus is not just ‘a kind of ventriloquist’s dummy’, but that he uses his own words; it is instead that ‘the origin of what is his is, in reality, God’ (136). The question, then, according to Moberly, is ‘how…might one be able in principle appropriately to recognise human words as not merely human but also as in some way authentically from God?’ (136) He continues:

The criterion for grasping that the true origin of Jesus’ words is God is clear: it is that one must resolve to do the will of God. What does that mean? …The key point is that a certain kind of knowledge – that particular human words genuinely originate with God – is inseparable from a certain kind of personal responsiveness. The knowledge that is envisaged is participatory. Unless heart and mind have a certain openness towards that which Jesus says and does, the issue of divine origin can only be a matter of mere words, a contestable and unverifiable claim. Whether faith comes in a flash or is a slow and possibly hesitant process does not affect the point that without at least some degree of participatory faith, any possible divine reality in Jesus remains beyond human perception. There is an empirical dimension to faith, but it is the empiricism not of the natural sciences but of the existential engagement of a person with dimensions of reality that can easily remain opaque to the unresponsive (139).

Moberly makes a big deal of plausibility structures in the book, arguing that one of the ways people become open to the possibility of Scripture’s authority is by encountering a community of people who have accepted and live by that authority. The argument is similar here – that one of the ways to test the authority of the words of Jesus is to live as if his words are true, to ‘be led on to dare to believe that which…others believe, that in and through the biblical portrayal of the person, teaching, and works of Jesus (in his life, death and resurrection), the reality of the living God is encountered’ (139). As John Calvin says, ‘All true knowledge of God stems from obedience’ (Institutes, 1.6.2).

In other words, try it on for size. You may be surprised what you find.

Why it’s important to understand theological controversies well

The whole power of the mysterious dogma is at once established by the one word homoousios, which was sovereignly proclaimed at the Council of [Nicaea], because this word stands for both a real unity and a real distinction. It is impossible to mention without reverent fear and holy trepidation that moment – infinitely significant and unique in its philosophical and dogmatic importance – when the thunder of Homoousios first roared over the city of Victory.

So writes Pavel Florensky in his book The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. Florensky’s vivid language aside, this is a common understanding of Nicaea. But, argues Lewis Ayres, in his book, Nicaea and its Legacy, it is a misunderstanding. There is no doubt, Ayres writes, that ‘the fourth century…witnessed a controversy that produced some of the basic principles of classic Trinitarian and Christological doctrine, the most important creed in the history of Christianity, and theological texts that have remained points of departure for Christian theology in every subsequent generation’ (1). Yet much of what happened at Nicaea is not so cut-and-dried as it is often made out to be.

It is commonly held that the Nicene controversy was fundamentally between Arius and his followers, and orthodox theologians, and focused entirely on the question of whether or not Christ was divine. This is problematic, argues Ayres, because ‘it is virtually impossible to identify a school of thought dependent on Arius’ specific theology, and certainly impossible to show that even a bare majority of Arians had any extensive knowledge of Arius’ writing’ (2). In reducing the controversy to this, it covers up the complexity of the theological issues and tensions of the time. And so,

we should avoid thinking of these controversies as focusing on the status of Christ as ‘divine’ or ‘not divine’. They focus, first, on debates about the generation of the Word or Son from the Father. Second, the controversies involve debates about the ‘grammar’ of human speech about the divine.

The rest of Ayres book is given over to a thorough unpacking on those two debates in order to help provide a much more rounded picture of what actually went on at Nicaea, and how that should shape our theology today.

Christians have a tendency to downplay the complexity of such theological controversies, for a number of reasons. To be sure, as Ayres 475-page book demonstrates, it can take a substantial amount of effort and research to understand such a key historical event properly. However, we are also people who like clearly defined boundaries. Ayres notes how quickly the term ‘Arian’ began to be thrown around, because this heresiological label ‘enabled early theologians and ecclesiastical historians to portray theologians to whom they were opposed as distinct and coherent groups and they enabled writers to tar enemies with the name of a figure already in disrepute’ (2). This is a long-standing problem: much popular Reformation history pits Luther against the Roman Catholics, while today we toss around labels like ‘liberal’ and ‘fundamentalist’. But labels only cover up the complexities, and in doing so, fail to help us deal more robustly with the actual theological issues and tensions.

As someone who is heavily invested in Trinitarian theology – indeed, he has weighed in on some of the most recent Trinitarian debates – Ayres is concerned that we understand Nicaea well. And that is because relying on shallow accounts of Nicaea has meant that ‘modern Trinitarianism has [not just] engaged with pro-Nicene theology badly, but… it has barely engaged with it at all. As a result the legacy of Nicaea remains paradoxically the unnoticed ghost at the modern Trinitarian feast’ (7).

Gregory of Nazianzus on the limits of knowing God

Gregory of Nazianzus is best known for his five theological orations (collected in On God and Christ in the Popular Patristics Series), one of the defining patristic texts on the doctrine of God. The orations are primarily a rebuttal of some of the major Trinitarian heresies plaguing the early Church, and Gregory spends the majority of his time untangling the arguments of his opponents, before ending each oration with a string of references to what Scripture says about God.

There are two main points to Gregory’s argument. The first is very simply that God cannot be comprehended. ‘To know God is hard’, he writes, and ‘to describe him impossible’ (39; references here are to the page numbers in the PPS book). He continually returns to this point, criticising his opponents for attempting to rationally work out God’s nature and essence. ‘What can your conception of the divine be,’ he asks, ‘if you rely on all the methods of deductive argument’ (41)? You will have a God who is bounded by the limits of your mind, and the product of your own preconceptions. No, Gregory says, in the midst of a discussion on what it means for the Son to be begotten of the Father, ‘we count it a high thing that we may perhaps learn what it is in the time to come, when we are free of this dense gloom’ (79). For now, we simply accept what God says of himself.

And that leads to the second point in Gregory’s argument – that the attempt of his opponents to use logic to make sense of God belies a deeper desire, namely, to undermine the God of Scripture. Gregory will have none of it, and states that the twists and turns of their logic are not an effort to truly know God; they merely ‘mean to fight foul’ (84). If his opponents really want to mount a challenge against Gregory’s theology, ‘let us see what strength you can muster from Holy Scriptures’ (84). Indeed, he says, ‘it is not a hard task to clear away the stumbling block that the literal text of Scripture contains – that is, if your stumbling is real and not just wilful malice’ (86). What is to be done instead? We are to ‘let the Spirit aid us, and the Word will have its course and God be glorified’ (118). For Gregory, this is about humility: probing into the nature of God can only be an enquiry that has ‘yielded to faith’. In the end, ‘it is better to have a meagre idea…than to venture on total blasphemy’ (126). A God who makes sense is a God made in our own image.

Gregory’s point is simple: Only a very little can be known of God. But we get nowhere near that knowledge if we rely solely on our own speculations. Faith must be given priority. What we know of God we know from Scripture, and while at times we might not be able to make sense of everything revealed to us, faith calls us to accept it. Why? Because even though ‘the knowledge we shall have in this life will be little, soon after it will perhaps be more perfect, in the same Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen’ (34).


Secularism as heresy

Alexander Schmemann, in his book, For the Life of the World, makes some fascinating comments about the relationship of secularism and Christianity, noting particularly that secularism ought to be understood as a heresy, rather than something entirely distinct from Christianity:

[There is] a very real connection between secularism – its origin and development – and Christianity. Secularism – we must again and again stress this – is a ‘stepchild’ of Christianity, as are, in the last analysis, all secular ideologies which today dominate the world – not, as it is claimed by the Western apostles of a Christian acceptance of secularism, a legitimate child, but a heresy. Heresy, however, is always the distortion, exaggeration, and therefore the mutilation of something true, the affirmation of one ‘choice’, one element at the expense of the others, the breaking up of the catholicity of Truth (127).

As a result, Schmemann suggests that instead of seeing secularism as something we simply need to repudiate or condemn, we ought to recognise the opportunity it presents to the Church to witness to the truth:

But then heresy is also always a question addressed to the Church, and which requires, in order to be answered, an effort of Christian thought and conscience. To condemn a heresy is relatively easy. What is much more difficult is to detect the question it implies, and to give this question an adequate answer. Such, however, was always the Church’s dealing with ‘heresies’ – they always provoked an effort of creativity within the Church so that the condemnation became ultimately a widening and deepening of Christian faith itself… If secularism is, as I am convinced, the great heresy of our own time, it requires from the Church not mere anathemas, and certainly not compromises, but above all an effort of understanding so it may ultimately be overcome by truth (127-128).

Schmemann remarks further that whilst heresies in the early church were a result of Christianity’s encounter with Hellenism, the heresy of secularism is a result of the breakdown within Christianity itself in the modern age. That is quite an interesting observation, and perhaps evidenced in part by the fact that secularism primarily exists in the Western world, in cultures with a Judeo-Christian foundation. Still, whether or not you find Schmemann’s suggestion that secularism is a heresy compelling, he is certainly correct to note that if we are to minister effectively in a secular context, we must first understand secularism. Only then can the gospel challenge it at its most salient points.

On a different note, someone suggested to me that much of what Schmemann says here captures something of the nature and the spirit of Anglicanism. But that is perhaps for another time.

Ordination and the preservation of the faith

One of the purposes of ordination, Andrew Davison writes in his book, Why Sacraments?, is to preserve the faith that has been handed down to us:

The Church has an ordered ministry for several reasons. One is to teach and preserve the faith. Timothy, a young elder or bishop, could trust the Christian faith he had received because he knew those from whom he learned it, namely Paul and perhaps other apostles and their delegates: ‘continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it’ (2 Tim. 3:14). Timothy then faced the task of entrusting the faith to others in turn: ‘what you have heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will be able to teach others as well (2 Tim. 2:2). Teaching is a vital part of the ministry of the Church. Since the ordained minister takes a place in the wider whole, this ministry is exercised with accountability, so that the faith can not only be propagated but be propagated faithfully, and therefore preserved.

In the early Church, the teaching role of the bishop developed in clear contrast to the Gnostic cults that were also taking form. While the Gnostics taught secret, esoteric knowledge to the enlightened few (the root is in gnōsis, Greek for ‘knowledge’), the Christian bishop taught in public, seated where all could see him in the cathedral (from cathedra, Latin for ‘seat’). To this day a list of the succession of bishops is displayed in a cathedral to show that we know ‘those from whom [we] learned’ the faith (83-84).

Now, of course, it is important to recognise that ordination does not guarantee that the faith is preserved at is handed down. Only the Spirit of God can do this. But the structures of the Church are there to maintain order and provide accountability, particularly as authority is only granted to its ministers following a time of preparation and examination. And because of that, ordination certainly helps to ensure that the faith is preserved.