Playing with Theological Explosives: A Second Interview with Matthew J. Thomas

Playing with Theological Explosives: A Second Interview with Matthew J. Thomas

I had the privilege to once again chat with Dr Matthew J. Thomas about Paul’s well-known phrase “works of the law.” When Paul says we are not justified by “works of the law” (see e.g., Gal 2:16), what does he mean? Is he saying good works are not necessary for salvation? Or by “works” is Paul’s focus on those ordinances peculiar to the Jewish law (sabbath-keeping, dietary restrictions, circumcision)? Or is perhaps something else going on? The answer to these questions is one that has been hotly debated among Pauline scholars through the years, and Matthew Thomas has written an excellent book that contributes to that discussion (which N.T. Wright has called “theologically explosive”).

In my opinion, Thomas’ method is refreshing: He seeks an answer to the questions above by investigating important early Christian writings from the second century. His assumption is that Paul’s first readers had an advantage in understanding a phrase like “works of the law” given their proximity to him in history.

I’ve interviewed Matthew a couple of times before (you can find those here and here). In the interview below, we focus our discussion on how his book has been received since its publication. In what follows, I ask Matthew to respond to a couple of reviews recently published online. I very much enjoyed and learned from this conversation, and I hope you do, too.

*My questions are in bold; Thomas’ answers follow in regular font.


Since the publication of your book, Paul’s “Works of the Law” in the Perspective of Second-Century Reception, several reviews have been written in response. Generally speaking, what has surprised you most about the reception of your own book?

The first thing I would say is what has been most encouraging (though not completely surprising) — that these early patristic sources really seem to be helping people understand Paul much like they’ve helped me. The real value in the book is the witness of these early Christians, and it has been a privilege to be able to spend years learning from them and sharing their insights into the faith with others. I did have a hunch while I was writing the dissertation that all this material could be very helpful for people, and the hunch helped power me through some very long days and nights researching and writing over those years. But you never really know for sure until you see it! 

I think the other real surprise from the book’s reception is how respectful it’s been (apart from a couple outliers), given the theological significance of these matters. I remember early on one scholar (who liked the book) telling me how much a certain denomination’s representatives were going to hate it, but really there’s been very little vitriol or even unfairness. That’s also been an encouraging surprise for me, because I recognize how much is at stake for people with these debates, and it’s not like I entered into them as a partisan with all the answers. Really it’s quite the opposite; I was getting into all this precisely because I didn’t know the answers, and I could see what seemed like bits of wisdom and insight across varying perspectives. The positive response is also encouraging because no matter one’s denominational background, these early Christians are a part of our shared heritage (and one that many of us simply don’t know about), and so it’s been awesome listening to people from different backgrounds become connected with this heritage, even if parts of it might seem foreign or strange initially. 

One reviewer in particular, Robert J. Cara at CredoMag, has labeled the core of your work as a “non-starter” in an attempt to understand what Paul meant by “works of the law.” How do you respond to this sort of critique?

It’s true! We should cancel this interview. I want to say at the outset that I appreciate how the reviewer is forthright that he’s a polemicist against the “new perspective” and regards it as really problematic. (From my own vantage point, I should say I think there’s some “new perspective” ideas that strike me as rather problematic as well). 

So, is it true about you, as the reviewer says, that “Unfortunately, [Thomas] primarily sides with the NPP,” and that your “primary conclusion places Thomas squarely in the NPP camp”?

I think we talked about this in our last interview, but the way I first got into this project was from trying to adjudicate between the “old” and “new” perspectives, and reading in Calvin’s Romans commentary that the early fathers held to a different position than his own on “works of the law.” So I suppose one could say I side with Calvin here, in that my project fills in the details of what he already tells us. Now, it’s true that there’s a great deal of correspondence between these early figures and what we’re calling the “new” perspective, but Calvin would be the first person to tell you this were he around today. Regarding “camps,” while I have the fortune of having a fairly diverse theological background, my own aspiration is to be as fair and accurate as possible in presenting this early material, and honestly, I think the NPP itself is too varied to even be called a “camp.” If I have a camp, I suppose my hope is for it to be that of the early church. From a historical standpoint, there’s a privileged vantage point they have from being in such close historical proximity to Christ and the apostles, and theologically, their testimony is something we’re already reliant upon for other matters (like with our creeds and the canon). So, for me, it seems consistent to listen to them here as well.

Let’s work through a few other statements made in the CredoMag review. How would you respond to the following charge from Robert Cara: “Thomas’ methodology presupposes, whether intentionally or not, that Paul’s understanding of works and justification is tied only to Romans and Galatians where ‘works of law’ is mentioned and that the understanding of works and justification is exhausted in a Jew-versus-Christian context. On the contrary, from a Reformational perspective, Paul’s discussions of works and justification in Philippians 3, Ephesians 2, 2 Timothy 1, and Titus 3 are a significant aid to understanding his discussions in Romans and Galatians.”

It’s true that my study focuses primarily on Romans and Galatians, since these are the two epistles in which “works of the law” are discussed. However, it’s not accurate to say that I presuppose Paul’s theology regarding works and justification is tied only to these two epistles. One of the things the second edition with IVP afforded me an opportunity to do was to elaborate on areas like this in the new preface (which I genuinely believe the reviewer probably missed). Here the best thing I can do is to quote what is stated there:

“As with Romans and Galatians, the Pauline writings elsewhere are clear that the source of saving grace is not any works of our own, but God (cf. Eph 2:8-9; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5). At the same time, these Pauline texts are also clear that believers remain accountable for the grace that has been given (1 Cor 3:13-15; 2 Cor 5:10, 11:15; Eph 6:8-9; Col 3:22-25). To use a helpful distinction from John Barclay, God’s grace for Paul is unconditioned, but not unconditional; while given without regard to prior worth, this grace is not without obligations upon the recipient’s subsequent life, precisely because Christ’s justifying gift enables an obedience that is otherwise impossible. Within this paradigm, while the Torah is a witness to the arrival of Christ’s saving power, the “works of the law” are not the source of God’s grace, nor do they form the criteria by which humanity will be judged as righteous or unrighteous—for which the familiar example of Abraham, who was righteous by faith prior to the Torah and even the sign of circumcision, is key.”

It’s worth mentioning as well that, for better or worse, the tradition of focusing on Romans and Galatians is itself a rather Reformational one! This isn’t to say that the reformers disregarded the other epistles by prioritizing these two, which they certainly didn’t; but it’s also hard to say it’s a distinctly Reformational perspective to use these other Paulines as an aid to interpreting Romans and Galatians. To take one example from this same historical period, the Council of Trent uses these other Paulines extensively as an aid to interpreting Paul’s theology of justification in Romans and Galatians, without reaching precisely the same conclusions as Luther or Calvin. 

Here’s another line from the reviewer: “Even though Thomas does consider the Epistle of Diognetus 3–4, he does not consider chapter 9, which alludes to Titus 3 and Romans 5, refers negatively to ‘our own works,’ and wonderfully extols the ‘sweet exchange’ of our sinfulness for Christ’s righteousness. Thomas’ [sic] justifies this omission because ‘the Diognetus 9 passage clearly addresses a different context than Paul’s in Romans; no mention of law or Jews can be found’ (152).” I’m curious, Dr. Thomas, how would you respond to this charge?

Here as well, the best thing I can do is to quote directly from the IVP preface, which gave me the opportunity to elaborate on the broader patristic framework of salvation, which, though not identical to the “works of the law” question, carries a great deal of overlap. I discuss this soteriological framework on p. 221 of the book: that “initial justification is completely by grace apart from works of any sort, and that final judgment (or final justification) is based on the outworking of this grace in one’s subsequent life.” As I wrote in the new preface:

“These two sides of this patristic framework can be well illustrated using Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant as an analogy: while the servant is granted an inconceivable gift simply by his petition, without being able to give anything, this gift is meant to be transformative in the servant’s life. When the servant is judged according to his deeds, which have manifestly not been transformed by the king’s mercy, all that remains for the servant is severe judgment.”

Diognetus 9 gives a beautiful illustration of this transformative gift, and the whole passage is worth reading:

“9:1 So then, having already planned everything in his mind together with his child, he permitted us, during the former time, to be carried away by undisciplined impulses as we desired, led astray by pleasures and lusts, not at all because he took delight in our sins, but because he was patient; not because he approved of that former season of unrighteousness, but because he was creating the present season of righteousness, in order that we who in the former time were convicted by our own deeds as unworthy of life might now by the goodness of God be made worthy, and, having clearly demonstrated our inability to enter the kingdom of God on our own, might be enabled to do so by God’s power.  2 But when our unrighteousness was fulfilled, and it had been made perfectly clear that its wages—punishment and death—were to be expected, then the season arrived during which God had decided to reveal at last his goodness and power (oh, the surpassing kindness and love of God!). He did not hate us, or reject us, or bear a grudge against us; instead he was patient and forbearing; in his mercy he took upon himself our sins; he himself gave up his own Son as a ransom for us, the holy one for the lawless, the guiltless for the guilty, the just for the unjust, the incorruptible for the corruptible, the immortal for the mortal.  3 For what else but his righteousness could have covered our sins?  4 In whom was it possible for us, the lawless and ungodly, to be justified, except in the Son of God alone?  5 O the sweet exchange, O the incomprehensible work of God, O the unexpected blessings, that the sinfulness of many should be hidden in one righteous person, while the righteousness of one should justify many sinners!  6 Having demonstrated, therefore, in the former time the powerlessness of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed the Savior’s power to save even the powerless, he willed that for both these reasons we should believe in his goodness and regard him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, healer, mind, light, honor, glory, strength, and life, and not be anxious about food and clothing.”

This is an incredible passage, and a really great example of the inconceivable gift and the transformation it brings: that while humanity apart from Christ is unable to enter God’s kingdom, it is now possible by the sweet exchange of grace that Christ gives to those now empowered by him.

Another great example to illustrate this framework is 1 Clement, on which I’m currently finishing a book with St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series. It’s an epistle from the late first century, and (in my view) is most likely written around 69-70 AD. Clement has sometimes been dismissed by interpreters from an “old perspective” background for his theology of justification, which is regarded as focusing too much on judgment and accountability. (To take two examples, Werner Jaeger says that Clement’s “concept of Christianity is closer to Stoic moralism than to [Paul’s] letter to the Romans,” and Ludwig Lemme claims that Clement’s restatement of justification theology represents “nothing but an empty phrase.”) And the epistle does have a lot of clear things to say about judgment by works:

 “Beware, beloved, lest his many benefits turn out to be our condemnation, as will happen if we do not conduct ourselves worthily of him and accomplish in harmony that which is excellent and well pleasing in his sight.” (21.1)

“For he warns us, ‘Behold the Lord [is coming], and his reward is before him, and he will pay every man according to his work.’” (34.3)

 “We may share in [God’s] promised gifts… [i]f our mind is fixed faithfully upon God, if we seek out what is well pleasing and acceptable to him, if we accomplish what is in accord with his faultless will and follow in the way of truth.” (35.4-5)

“The greater the knowledge that has been bestowed upon us, the greater risk we run.” (41.4)

“The man who with humility and eager gentleness obeys without regret the righteous commandments of God, this man will be listed and enrolled in the number of those who are saved through Jesus Christ.” (58.2)

Now, does this mean that Clement believes one should attribute salvation to ourselves or our own works? Clement’s clear answer is no, and he’s insistent that the OT patriarchs didn’t do so either!  In tracing his audience’s spiritual lineage through figures like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Clement summarizes: 

“All, therefore, were glorified and magnified, not through themselves or their own works or the righteous actions that they did, but through his will.” (32.3).

For Clement’s audience, what is true of the patriarchs is true of them: 

“And so we, having been called through his will in Christ Jesus, are not justified through ourselves or through our own wisdom or understanding or piety, or works that we have done in holiness of heart, but through faith, by which the Almighty God has justified all who have existed from the beginning; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.” (32.4)

How does one hold these ideas together—namely, that we are judged according to our works but that our salvation is by grace alone? As I mentioned above, it’s actually quite easy using a paradigm like the one Barclay articulates: while God’s grace is unconditioned in that it is given completely without prior merit or righteous actions, it is not unconditional in the sense of carrying no future obligations. As with Diognetus, the term that connects the two sides is God’s justifying grace, which renews and remakes humanity so as to be able to serve God with a new heart (like the prophets had testified in passages like Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36). And as Clement makes clear, these future obligations are actually more pressing for the Christian (cf. 41.4), precisely because of the transformative nature of the gift that God gives by grace through faith.

I noticed a rather interesting claim from the reviewer. At one point, he says “It is well known that several second-century authors are clearly semi-Pelagian.” Could you comment on this statement? Given the seeming anachronism it presents, could you begin by answering the question of where Pelagius got his time machine?

Haha! I will probably need the assistance of a Doctor Who fan to answer this question. So a few things: There’s a danger here when it comes to anachronistic judgments. You can use christological doctrine as a good analogy – one can easily make many early fathers out to be subordinationist or even Arian, when really the issue is that their language isn’t conditioned by these conflicts of later centuries, and so at times it can come across as imprecise or even erroneous. Such language doesn’t mean that the substance of their theology was necessarily heretical by later standards, or that “heresy preceded orthodoxy,” to borrow Walter Bauer’s phrase. I’m actually surprised that the reviewer’s position so closely resembles the Bauer-Ehrman narrative that heresy (here semi-Pelagianism) was so prominent within this early period, with (Augustinian) orthodoxy only taking hold in later centuries. (While granting that not everything is uniform in the second century, I don’t think this narrative really works at the level of historical detail, and there’s a book called The Heresy of Orthodoxy which points out a number of the problems with it.) 

But let’s have some fun here: let’s imagine that all these texts I examine were written in the early fifth century – would they be semi-Pelagian? I really don’t think they would be, and there’s been recent work done elsewhere (like Brian Arnold’s book on justification in the second century) that argues along similar lines. (Of course, part of this depends on how you define semi-Pelagian, as I’ve come across definitions by which Augustine himself would qualify as semi-Pelagian!) 

This is also something that you elaborate on in the preface of the IVP edition: How did Augustine himself see his own ideas in relation to the tradition that preceded him?

This is a great question. An excellent source for this is Augustine’s Against Julian, where he responds to the Pelagian assertions with an argument from tradition by appealing to eleven illustrious bishops and doctors who preceded him. Interestingly, the authority Augustine always starts with is Irenaeus (who is probably the most important voice in my book) and then proceeds through others like Chrysostom and Jerome, showing the continuity and catholicity of his doctrine and the absence of “Pelagianism” from the preceding tradition. This is interesting because it’s often said that the Pelagian controversy was what pushed Augustine in new and unfamiliar territory — Luther, for example, in lamenting how doctors of the church like Origen and Jerome lost the teaching of justification, says “the same thing would have happened to Augustine if the Pelagians had not eventually exercised his full attention and driven him to the righteousness that is of faith.” And in reality, I think there’s something to this: there are new theological avenues opened up by Augustine within this period as he thinks creatively about the specific challenges he’s facing. But it’s also easy to forget that Augustine himself appealed to the church’s preceding tradition of doctors and bishops as the standard against which his own work should be measured, as well as the standard by which Pelagius and his followers would be shown to be innovators. In Augustine’s words, his doctrine’s vindication lies in its catholicity and coherence with the church’s earlier teachers: “Irenaeus, Cyprian, Reticius, Olympius, Hilary, Gregory, Basil, Ambrose, John [Chrysostom], [Pope] Innocent, Jerome, and the others, their comrades and colleagues, and, in addition the whole Church of Christ.” 

I wonder if there’s a little irony in Cara’s review of your book. For instance, his review was published in a Credo issue that begins by saying how “the contributors abandon the critical spirit of our contemporary era and clothe themselves in a spirit of hermeneutical humility” and “sit at the feet of ancient interpreters.” And yet, at the same time, Cara himself ends by condemning several of these ancient interpreters as being semi-Pelagian!

There is a bit of inconsistency there, but of course it’s not unique to this context. I remember reading Calvin’s Institutes and becoming accustomed to his respect for the fathers and how often he’d appeal to them as witnesses in debate, and then you occasionally come across these passages where he completely changes course. For me this first happened when I was reading Inst. 2.2, where in discussing free will he comments that “all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings,” and he then proceeds to correct Augustine as well. It’s rather surprising if you had gotten the impression from Calvin that the early church was simply to be followed! 

Let’s talk about Calvin a bit more. We discussed this some in our last interview, but is there any overarching theory that Calvin applies for discerning when the church fathers are right and when they are wrong?

It’s a really good question, and I think that it ultimately comes down to whether they agree with what he understands to be the true interpretation of Scripture. It’s true that there’s generally a disposition of respect towards the fathers, and that he does make general appeal to these first five hundred years as a reliable guide. But it’s also true that Calvin doesn’t think the consensus of the fathers — even a very strong consensus, as on the question of free will — is authoritative to the degree that it should outweigh what he individually believes to be the teaching of Scripture. 

This means that rather than the fathers carrying decisive authority, Calvin’s employment of them in his writings is primarily polemical, to use the language from Tony Lane’s John Calvin: Student of the Church Fathers. It’s not that Calvin wouldn’t like the fathers’ consensus to be on his side on every issue (he certainly would!), but this consensus being with his opponents doesn’t necessarily shift him to their side rather than sticking with his interpretation of the texts. Tony’s book notes an example where this becomes particularly clear in Calvin’s 1 Corinthians commentary at 3:15, which of course is where his opponents had frequently appealed for their understanding of purgatory, and which also carried the testimony of many fathers in its favor. When the fathers are clearly on the other side of his polemics and deviate from his understanding of Scripture (as with Inst. 2.2), Calvin doesn’t hold back: 

“‘He himself will be saved, etc’. It is certain that Paul speaks of those who, while always retaining the foundations, mix hay with gold, stubble with silver, and wood with precious stones — that is, those who build upon Christ, but in consequence of the weakness of the flesh, admit something that is man’s, or through ignorance turn aside to some extent from the strict purity of God’s word. Such were many of the saints, Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, and the like. Add to these, if you choose, from those of later times, Gregory and Bernard, and others of that stamp, who, while they had it as their object to build upon Christ, did nevertheless often deviate from the right system of building. Such persons, Paul says, could be saved, but on this condition — if the Lord wiped away their ignorance, and purged them from all dross.”

One can sense Calvin’s frustration here, but part of me wonders whether he intends for this passage to be hilarious as well. “We know Cyprian, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Bernard, etc. often deviated from the right system, such as here with purgatory. Could they still be saved? Paul says they could, on this condition—if the Lord purges them!” 

Let’s switch gears and take a look at another review, this time from the Orthodox biblical scholar Fr. Stephen de Young over at Ancient Faith. Fr. Stephen calls your book “the most important work in Pauline Studies, and likely in Biblical Studies as a whole, of the current decade” (a rather different assessment than Cara’s review we examined above!). Fr. Stephen’s review also has some strong words against the “Lutheran” reading and its overall plausibility. How would you respond to his assertions?

While it would be difficult for me to contradict any of what Fr. Stephen says in his review (and not just because he likes the book!), I do think a few useful points might be added by way of supplement. One of the most helpful theological books I’ve ever read is Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism, and it’s also one of the most surprising in that it’s a detailed defense and appreciation of Luther and Calvin’s central aims by a Lutheran pastor-turned-Catholic priest. Bouyer’s work isn’t an attempt at some shallow ecumenism, but rather shows clearly how the central positive assertions of the reformers (if not always their negations) are truly catholic ones, and that disagreeing with them would make one not just a bad Protestant, but also a bad Catholic! 

He begins the book with this very powerful description of the spiritual life and discipline of a vibrant Protestant context, and makes the observation: 

“We must be quite clear on this point—namely, that, if the various revivals in Protestantism are invariably due to a return to the first Reformers, this is due to the positive values that lie at the root of Luther’s insight… There lies the sole reason for the possession by Protestants of the kind of spiritual life described above; it exists, not in spite of their Protestant principles, but because of them—whatever objections may be raised against other features to be found in the origin of the Reformation.” 

At the same time, Bouyer says, these vital spiritual characteristics “fade away or vanish altogether in those cases where the Reformers are treated as ancestors to be venerated and subsequently ignored. Whenever Protestantism returns to its original spirit, they recover their strength.” 

What Bouyer means is that close adherence to the central positive principles of Luther and Calvin produces communities of real spiritual devotion and vitality, and that these central assertions themselves are vindicated as being genuinely catholic truths by the standards of historic orthodoxy. 

Now, Bouyer is a Catholic priest, and so obviously he doesn’t think that either Luther or Calvin are without errors, which he generally identifies as the negations that accompany their positive assertions and their underlying philosophical presuppositions. But the broader point I think still stands: one does not need to agree with every detail of their theology (whether on “works of the law” or elsewhere) to identify with their central aims and profit from their writings. 

And of course, one does not even have to look outside of Protestantism to recognize that this is the case. The classic example of this is Lutheranism itself, which rather famously diverges from Luther in areas like double predestination and free will. A good contemporary example would be reformed baptists, who are generally enthusiastic about Calvin, but simply have to say he’s wrong about paedobaptism (even though he identifies “assaulting paedobaptism” as “the design of Satan” in the Institutes (4.16)).

That reminds me of the passage we discussed last time, where Luther says that if you deny that baptism imparts salvation, then you must believe that justification is by works — which is also hardly something reformed baptists would believe! Now isn’t there also the added difficulty of getting Luther and Calvin to agree with each other? Many modern reformed folks often think Luther and Calvin agreed on all the important matters. But this isn’t true, correct? 

That’s right. You can see this same point if you just line up Luther and Calvin next to each other; though there’s substantial areas of overlap, it’s also true that their theologies differ in important areas as well, which is part of why Lutheran and Reformed branches of the reformation were distinct from one another from the beginning. (This piece is a great introduction: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/was-luther-a-calvinist/). If complete agreement with Luther and Calvin were necessary to draw positively upon them, then no one would be able to do so, since both figures themselves have major areas of divergence between them.

One particularly painful example of all this is in Luther’s Brief Confession Concerning the Holy Sacrament in 1544, in which he rather violently condemns as heretics all those of the Swiss church whose Eucharistic doctrine did not align with his, which Calvin (in writing to Bullinger) recognized included himself (“I hear that Luther has at length broken forth in fierce invective, not so much against you as against the whole of us.”) 

It’s interesting that it’s actually Calvin himself, writing to Melanchthon the next year, who gives a classic statement warning against over-veneration of Luther: “[I]n the Church we must always be upon our guard, lest we pay too great a deference to men. For it is all over with her, when a single individual, be he whosoever you please, has more authority than all the rest, especially where this very person does not scruple to try how far he may go.” Or as he writes to Bullinger years later: “One thing only I should wish you to bear in mind; it is that I have long ago despaired of those creatures who ape Luther.” 

(As an aside, for anyone who finds that Calvin’s style of polemics doesn’t appeal to them, give his letters a try — they can be a delight to read, and they give an incredible vantage point for seeing how the Reformation looked from the inside as it was taking place.) 

Is it possible that Luther’s views about “works of the law” represent not so much a retrieval of what the early church believed, but is actually an instance of doctrinal development? And if so, should we view this as a negative thing? How would you assess this idea? 

It’s a great question, and it probably depends on what one means by “development” and the criteria used for assessing it. This same idea is actually mentioned by Alister McGrath in his excellent 1982 article in Harvard Theological Review called “Forerunners of the Reformation?,” in which he concludes that the precise understanding of justification articulated by Luther and Calvin was a new idea within the history of Christian thought. He then concludes: “That there are no Forerunners of their doctrines of justification has little relevance today, given current thinking on the development of Christian doctrine,” and cites J.H. Newman’s Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine in a footnote. 

This is a really interesting move, because Newman himself gives clear guidelines for how to discern “genuine developments” from “corruptions,” which he calls seven notes: preservation of type, continuity of principles, power of assimilation, logical sequence, anticipation of its future, conservative action on its past, and chronic vigor. Now one does not need to read a great deal of Newman to get the sense that the distinctive Lutheran perspective on justification would probably not qualify as a “genuine development” for him, and I personally have not come across someone else arguing that it would meet the criteria as Newman articulates them. (The sixth criteria, “conservative action on its past,” is particularly tricky.) 

Of course, Newman doesn’t offer the only paradigm for understanding development: one can go as far back as the early fifth century for parallel ideas in St. Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitory. This is how he begins his section on the development of religious knowledge:

“But some one will say, perhaps, Shall there, then, be no progress in Christ’s Church? Certainly; all possible progress. For what being is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it? Yet on condition that it be real progress, not alteration of the faith. For progress requires that the subject be enlarged in itself, alteration, that it be transformed into something else. The intelligence, then, the knowledge, the wisdom, as well of individuals as of all, as well of one man as of the whole Church, ought, in the course of ages and centuries, to increase and make much and vigorous progress; but yet only in its own kind; that is to say, in the same doctrine, in the same sense, and in the same meaning.”

How would St. Vincent judge whether we are dealing with progress or alteration in this case? It’s worth reading the entire section in the Commonitory to make a judgment, and here as well, the difficulty would probably be Luther’s acknowledged discontinuity with the early fathers in this area. But of course, one might apply other criteria of development from other theories, and by these perhaps reach a different conclusion.

Do you have any general advice for ecumenical theological discussion on disputed questions?

I am greatly indebted to Markus Bockmuehl, who had a similar path from Regent College to Oxford, and his work and example have had an enduring impact on me. One day in a seminar he shared this quote from Pseudo-Dionysius which he’d translated himself, and it’s remained with me ever since as an aspiration for academic discussions, and life in general:

“Don’t imagine it a victory, holy Sopatros, to have denounced a worldview or opinion that appears to be no good. For even if you have refuted it decisively, it doesn’t follow that the views of Sopatros are therefore beautiful. For you – or others! – could be so pre-occupied with the many falsehoods and appearances that you fail to spot that which is One and hidden – the Truth. Just because something is not red, that does not mean it is therefore white; nor, if something is not a horse, is it therefore necessarily a man. If you take my advice you will do as follows: give up speaking against others, and instead speak up genuinely on behalf of the truth in such a way that what you say is wholly unquestionable.” (Ps-Dionysius, Letter 6)

I think this passage is so valuable because not just in theology, but in society more broadly, we have these crises of partisanship where everyone ends up focusing on all the wrong ideas everyone else has (and often without reflecting whether similar weaknesses are in my own). Not only is this usually not very constructive for arriving at the truth (or helping others to do so), but it also tends to form our character in ways that impede our growth in sanctity, so that growing in love for God and our neighbor almost seems like a distraction from winning the fight, rather than being our very purpose. Conversely, when we prioritize learning and communicating the truth with as much accuracy and transparency as we can, I think we find that erroneous ideas almost take care of themselves in a way, like how light takes care of darkness just by the nature of its presence. And in the process, I think this posture helps us to become truer people, people who embody and show with our lives the value of the truth that has been shared with us. 

That’s terrific advice. And it sounds like the perfect place to end. Thanks, Dr Thomas, for taking the time to answer these questions. 

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