Book Review: “The Way to Nicaea” by John Behr

Behr, John. The Way to Nicaea. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001. 234 pp. $20.00.

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St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press (SVS Press)

Biographical Sketch of the Author

John Behr is presently Regius Professor of Humanity at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He previously served as a faculty member at St. Vladimir’s Seminary and, at the time of the book’s publication, served as the Dean of the seminary.[1] He also serves as the Metropolitan Kallistos Chair of Orthodox Theology at the Vrije Universiteit of Amsterdam and the Amsterdam Center for Orthodox Theology.[2] He previously served as the editor of St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly and continues to serve as editor of the Popular Patristics series produced by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.[3]

Behr completed an undergraduate degree in philosophy in 1987, followed by additional study in Greece.[4] He then completed a Master of Philosophy (M. Phil.) in Eastern Christian Studies at Oxford University under the supervision of Bishop Kallistos.[5] Subsequently, he began work on a doctoral degree under Bishop Kallistos, exploring issues of asceticism and anthropology with particular emphasis on Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria.[6] His doctoral research was examined by Fr. Andrew Louth and Dr. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and later published by Oxford University Press.[7] Behr is the author of numerous volumes, including a series on the Formation of Christian Theology (of which the present work is the first installment), The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death, Becoming Human: Theological Anthropology in Word and Image, St. Irenaeus of Lyons: Identifying Christianity, and John the Theologian and His Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology. He also completed a translation and critical edition of Origen’s On First Principles.[8]

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Summary of the Contents

The Way to Nicaea is the first installment of a planned three-volume series examining the evolution of Jesus’s question, “Who do you say that I am?” across the early centuries of theological development. Specifically, the series is intended to examine the development of this pivotal question from the earliest days of the Christian church’s history to the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In this first installment of the series, Behr examined the development of the series’ central question through the first 300 years of the church’s existence. The work is divided into three parts focusing on the Gospel of Jesus Christ (part 1), the Word of God (part 2), and the Son of the Father (part 3). Behr explores the development of the kerygma, the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ culminating in the conviction of both Jesus’s humanity and divinity, in the church’s theological understanding throughout each of these major sections.

In Part 1, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” Behr examined the establishment of Christianity on the foundation of the canon of the Gospel and tradition. In the first chapter, Behr discussed the tradition and canon of the Gospel according to the Scriptures. In the second chapter, Behr examined the Scriptural Christ. In Part 2, “The Word of God,” Behr analyzed prominent figures from the 2nd century, evaluating how each theologian contributed to the church’s understanding of Christ as the Word of God. In the third chapter, Behr examined the contributions of Ignatius of Antioch. Moving forward, Behr evaluated the contributions of Justin Martyr in the fourth chapter. Finally, in the fifth chapter, Behr explored the contributions of Irenaeus of Lyons.

In Part 3, “The Son of the Father,” Behr provided an analysis of central theological figures in the 3rd century, evaluating how these theologians and the central debates to which they contributed in their era shaped the church’s understanding of Christ as the Word of God and the Son of God. In chapter six, Behr examined the contributions of Hippolytus and the Roman debates, while in the seventh chapter, he discussed the contributions of Origen and Alexandria. Finally, in the eighth chapter, Behr explored the contributions of Paul of Samosata and the Council of Antioch.

The book concludes with an epilogue that summarizes the central points and tenets of the research presented by Behr in the work. In the epilogue, Behr reviewed the progression of the Christian church toward the answer to Jesus’s central question, “who do you say I am?” He observed that by the time of the 2nd century, what the church recognized as normative Christianity had largely been crystallized. Normative Christianity constituted the commitment to understanding the Lord Jesus by engaging the Bible on the basis of the canon of truth rooted in the context of tradition (p. 237). Behr continued to summarize and advance the argument found throughout each major section of the work that the object of the church through the era examined was not pursuit of the “historical Jesus,” but rather the Christ of Scripture (p. 237). Behr acknowledged the contours of many “simmering” theological issues that would erupt into greater disputes in the coming centuries but noted that throughout these crucial early years, the church continued to advance in pursuit and defense of the answer to Christ’s pivotal question (pp. 237-241). In summarizing the contributions of the work, Behr invokes the book’s title and fits the contributions of the work in context by observing, “[t]he way to Nicaea is, thus, not a pre-history of Nicaea, but the necessary background for understanding the theological debates of subsequent ages” (p. 241)

Critical Evaluation

At the onset of the work, Behr acknowledged that the central purpose of the book is to evaluate the church’s answer to Jesus’s question, “who do you say I am?” in the context of the first 300 years of the church’s history. In doing so, Behr sought to establish the background and broader theological framework of the theological issues, challenges, and questions that ultimately led to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325. In pursuit of these objectives, Behr achieves his aim with considerable success. The systematic survey of the formation of the canon of truth, the contributions of significant theologians in the 2nd and 3rd centuries in evaluating, analyzing, debating, and answering major questions and issues related to the canon of truth, and the synthesis of issues and ideas facilitated by Behr’s research presents the reader with a remarkable contribution to the understanding of the theological context of the age examined.

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Behr’s work is marked by several strengths. His research is thorough and deep, but his presentation is not encyclopedic. Behr does not try to pack everything into a single volume but chooses to take a theologically focused approach at the expense of much of the typical background material expected in a work of this nature. In the introduction, Behr summarized his intention along the following lines: “Without wishing to minimize the importance of the broader contexts, this work focuses on the central issues of theology, examining how they are bound up with the Gospel itself, in such a manner that there is a standard or canon that both enables meaningful theological reflection and facilitates the evaluation, on theological grounds, of this reflection” (p. 5). As Andrew Louth’s forward observed, Behr is aware of the institutional, cultural, and intellectual background of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries examined – and notably demonstrates this awareness throughout the work – but chooses to focus the content of the book on the theological considerations of the era. From an experiential standpoint, Behr’s choice to take a non-encyclopedic approach to the work makes it an enjoyable literary journey that enables the reader to digest the multifaceted issues and inquiries of the age in a systematic and rational fashion while also maintaining a pleasurable level of readability. This sets The Way to Nicaea apart from a number of other contributions to this particular area of inquiry, such as J. N. D. Kelly’s well-known Early Christian Doctrines.

However, the non-encyclopedic approach employed by Behr also comes at a cost – and that cost is primarily the lack of a clear and organized sub-structure, particularly throughout the earlier chapters of the work. While the book is rationally and appropriately organized at the macro-level in terms of major divisions and chapters, the reader will find useful headings and subheadings throughout the early chapters painfully rare. Given the breadth of issues, personalities, and significant debates discussed, the reader sometimes strains to see the systematic flow within each chapter from one topic, point, or issue to another. While the text, itself, is certainly well-written and pleasurable to read, discerning the broader flow of each chapter can be challenging. Further, one particular chapter stands out as an exception to the smooth flow and overall readability of the work: chapter six, which examines Hippolytus and the Roman debates. While Behr’s research is thorough, and the contributions of this particular chapter are certainly useful and beneficial for the reader in understanding the importance of Hippolytus and the debates of the era, the chapter reads with impaired fluidity and smoothness relative to Behr’s preceding and succeeding chapters. As Andrew Louth further observed in his forward, “[t]his is, therefore, a demanding book, requiring of its readers careful attention: but such attention will be richly repaid.” (p. xii).

An additional weakness of the work is paradoxically tied to one of its strengths: the limited amount of background material provided in the exploration of the examined theologians and the debates contemporary to their historical contexts. Particularly in Parts 2 and 3, little background material is provided concerning the particular theologians and church fathers examined. While Behr examined much about their theology and discourse, the scope limitation established for the work prohibits exploration of the broader and more personal historical background that shaped each individual’s own theological development.

In terms of theological bias, Behr is clear concerning the perspective from which he writes from the earliest pages of the work onward. Behr’s perspective is first acknowledged in the book’s forward, where Louth observed, “Professor Behr does not take refuge in easy answers and, as we have seen, his Orthodoxy is radical, not conservative. Moreover, while being thoroughly Orthodox, it is written in the theological idiom of contemporary academic theology, which thereby also enables Orthodoxy to have an authentic voice in current theological debates.” (p. xii). Given the uneasy relationship historically existing between Orthodoxy and critical theology chronicled in the forward by Louth (pp. ix-xi), Behr’s contribution of a work demonstrating mastery of the biblical and patristic sources of the era rooted in his Orthodox perspective forms an important addition to patristic scholarship which notably transcends historic theological divides.

While Behr’s analysis is thorough and well-grounded, there are several areas where Behr establishes assumptions that remain in significant debate. In dealing with the questions, work, and thought of Hippolytus (pp. 141-162), Behr relies heavily on the guidance of Allen Brent’s Hippolytus and the Roman Church in the Third Century: Communities in Tension Before the Emergence of a Monarch-Bishop (Leiden: Brill, 1995). Given the historical disagreements concerning what Hippolytus actually stood for that commenced in the years shortly after his death, uncertainties regarding which historical documents Hippolytus authored, and recent scholarship that has only served to magnify disagreements concerning Hippolytus as a historical figure, theologian, and scholar, considerable debate exists concerning the appropriate interpretation of this controversial theologian. For a historical figure as complex as Hippolytus, heavy reliance upon a single work – even one as comprehensive as Brent’s volume – is, at best, dangerous and, at worst, insufficient to facilitate a full evaluation of the possible interpretations and perspectives on such an individual.

Behr’s exploration of a similarly complex figure in Paul of Samosata (pp. 207-235) is better balanced in terms of interpretative sources and makes valuable contributions to the body of thought concerning this notorious figure of the third century. Behr not only provides a concise but helpful framework synthesizing what is known of Paul but also explores the church’s debate around Paul’s beliefs concerning Christ and the theological impact of the church’s condemnation of him that would set the stage for future disagreement. “The condemnation of the infamous Paul of Samosata, together with the criticisms raised against him by the Council of Antioch, encouraged the position that treated the Incarnation of the Word as the “ensouling” of a body, a dubious legacy that contributed significantly to the controversies of the following century” (p. 235). Or, as Behr summarized in brief in the epilogue, “…for the critics of Paul of Samosata, Jesus Christ is no longer himself the Word of God, but a compound of which one element is the Word” (p. 238).

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In The Way to Nicaea, Behr enables the reader to see the formation of the broad theological understanding constituting the foundation of the church’s debates that would ultimately lead to the Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, as well as subsequent controversies and their related ecumenical councils. Central to that foundation is the church’s formation of its understanding of the canon of truth. As Behr asserts throughout the work and supports using the contributions and discourse surrounding each of the examined theologians – Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Hippolytus, Origen, Paul of Samosata, and others – the canon of truth is the foundation of answering Jesus’s question, “who do you say I am?” “The canon of truth thus facilitates the meaningful engagement with Scripture, an interpretative engagement carried out from the perspective of the Cross, so maintaining the tradition of the Gospel preached, from the beginning, ‘according to the Scriptures’” (p. 237).

On the whole, the book constitutes a valuable and fascinating addition to the scholarly understanding of the early church’s theology. The synthesis of individuals, issues, and events facilitated by Behr’s work provide an original and profitable contribution to an area of scholarship already densely populated with contributions from an array of perspectives and backgrounds. Behr’s work is to be commended to any serious student of the early church and the church fathers, and most especially, to those who take seriously the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the central question placed by Him to His disciples so many years ago: “who do you say that I am?”


[1] John Behr, “Bio,” frjohnbehr.com, https://frjohnbehr.com/bio/

 

[2] Ibid.

 

[3] Ibid.

 

[4] Ibid.

 

[5] Ibid.

 

[6] Ibid.

 

[7] Ibid.

 

[8] John Behr, “Bio,” frjohnbehr.com, https://frjohnbehr.com/bio/

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