The Theological Textbook of the Early Church

Scholars of the patristic period have a certain right to feel patronized upon being reminded that the unquestioned and universally recognized theological textbook was the Bible. It was the early church’s systematic theology, its Kittle Wörterbuch, its Greek lexicon. Terms in dispute and debate, phrases which needed explication, and even whole perspectives on soteriology were built up out of a careful examination of systematic and incidental treatments of a given topic by the scriptures. This mean that no matter what nonscriptural elements were added to the pursuit of definitions (for example, elements drawn from philosophy, rhetoric, law), scriptural justification was primary. Thus recent studies have shown that those Fathers considered to be most faithful to exegetical concerns brought to the scriptures hermeneutical baggage from “secular” disciplines which shaped not only the form of doctrine but also its substance. Similarly, heretics who had been charged with amalgamating the scriptures with “pagan” philosophy and myth have in more recent scholarship been considered to be exegetes of some persuasiveness and no little sophistication. It would thus be pendantic and a little high-handed to remind working scholars of the need to penetrate the mist of battle between orthodoxy and heresy to uncover the scriptural hermeneutic of each party before making judgments, were not the mass of the literature on Arianism weighted against precisely such a venture. Arius and his circle are described again and again as philosophers, logicians, demipagans, but only rarely as persons concerned to exegete the scriptures by a careful and self-conscious hermeneutic. Little more has been done to lay bare their opponents’ hermeneutical biases. In the case of both Arianism and orthodoxy in the early fourth century, their general biblical hermeneutic exactly corresponds to their soteriological programs. As we have argued elsewhere:

Salvation, for orthodoxy, is effected by the Son’s essential identity with the Father–that which links God and Christ to creation is the divine nature’s assumpti9on of flesh. Salvation for Arianism is effected by the Son’s identity with the creatures–that which links Christ and creatures to God is conformity of will.

Thus the Arians instinctively gravitated to those scriptural texts and exegetical perspectives which emphasized the empirical commonality of the redeemer’s characteristics with those of all other creatures. Athanasius’ party from the beginning of the controversy instinctively leaned toward showing the differences or distinction between the redeemer’s characteristics and ours. Or, as Alexander so succinctly put it:

It must be seen that the sonship of our Savior has no community with the sonship of the rest [of people].

-Robert C. Gregg and Denis E. Groh, Early Arianism–A View of Salvation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981), 7-8.

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