The Development of the Church during the Third Century

Key Points During this Time

  • After a long history of enduring sporadic persecutions, the mid-third century saw the first systematic persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire
  • The cult of the martyrs developed in the last half of the third century, strongly impacting corporate and personal spirituality
  • Cyprian of Carthage engaged in a number of disputes regarding church order and discipline, composing treatises and letters that shaped western ecclesiology
  • Christian art and architecture began to flourish from the mid-third century, exhibiting styles and motifs common to the culture yet adapted to biblical stories and Christian purposes (especially funerary)
  • Manicheism posed a competitive threat to Christianity from the mid-third century
  • Texts such as Didascalia Apostolorum, and the work of leaders such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, Methodius, Lactantius, and Dionysius of Alexandria helped shape the church of the last half of the third century
  • Numerous internal and external factors appear to have contributed to the great success of Christianity in the third century


The third century was a time of tremendous growth for the church, although it faced some of the most severe challenges of its history. Under the emperors Decius and Valerian, Christianity was subjected to widespread and systematic persecution, resulting in numerous martyrdoms. Whereas the veneration of martyrs became a major feature of early Christian piety, the large number of apostates created a crisis in church discipline once the persecutions subsided. Cyprian of Carthage sought to find a middle way between the rigorist and laxist responses to those who denied Christ under threat of persecution, prescribing different manners of church discipline depending on the severity of the offense. Cyprian’s discussions of this matter and such things as the authority of the episcopacy made lasting contributions to church order and the practices of penance and church discipline in the western church.

The first identifiable Christian art appears around 200. Although much of it is funerary and therefore perhaps not entirely representative, surviving examples show that Christians adapted the motifs and style of their Greco-Roman context to create a body of highly symbolic art, much of which refers to biblical stories of rescue and themes of hope.

With its Christian elements and strong dualism, Manicheism posed a competitive challenge to the later third-century church. The later third century was also marked by a number of important texts, such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, and influential leaders, such as Dionysius of Alexandria and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Methodius and Lactantius wrote important texts that shaped the church of that era.

Scholars attempting to explain the success of Christianity in the third century adduce a number of external and internal factors contributing to the church’s growth and vitality. However, attempts to account for Christianity’s success turn out to be more descriptive than explanatory.


The Church and the Empire

Key Points During this Time

  • Popular opinion responded negatively to Christian aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and Christians’ unwillingness to worship pagan gods. Imperial authorities were bothered by the apparent obstinacy of Christian subjects unwilling to show political loyalty by worshipping the emperor and the gods of Rome.
  • Roman persecution of the church prior to the mid-3rd century was sporadic and localized, not systematic.
  • Christian apologists of the 2nd century responded to both popular and philosophical accusations against Christianity, employing the philosophy and rhetoric of the day in order to rebut accusations and promote Christian belief and practice.
  • The logos Christology of the 2nd-century apologists supplied Christian intellectuals with a way to address non-Christian concerns about Christian teaching, as well as providing the foundation for later Trinitarian speculation.
  • The surviving literature of 2nd-century martyrdom supplied stories and themes that permanently shaped the self-understanding of the Christian church.
  • A developing theology of martyrdom was expressed through several characteristic motifs, many of which helped connect the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ.


Although persecution of Christians in the second century was sporadic and localized, the threat and occasional reality of its occurrence contributed greatly to the formation of early Christian identity. Popular opinion responded negatively to Christians for a number of reasons, including their aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and especially their refusal to honor the gods of Rome and the surrounding culture. Many non-Christian intellectuals found Christian belief to be ridiculous and criticized the social composition of the church. Imperial authorities were bothered by Christian stubbornness in refusing to demonstrate their allegiance to Rome by the usual means, i.e. worshiping the genius of the emperor and the gods of Rome. The legal basis for Roman persecution expressed Roman sensibilities of justice, but also strict Roman insistence on submission to imperial authority.

Christian apologists sought to respond to the critics of Christianity in a variety of ways, relying mainly on the philosophy of the day as a means by which to explain Christian belief. Some sought to clear up misunderstandings about Christian practice, stressing the virtues by which Christians lived. Others upheld the moral superiority of Christianity in comparison to pagan culture. Justin Martyr laid aside numerous popular charges against Christianity, sought to explain Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, and advocated an understanding of Jesus Christ that connected him to the principle of the Logos. This gave non-Christian intellectuals a framework in which to understand the significance of Christ and shaped early Christian belief.

Although martyrdoms were sporadic, their occurrence led to the celebration of their faithful acts, especially in the composition of accounts of their martyrdoms. These circulated throughout the churches, shaping Christian theology and liturgy as the church connected the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ. Martyrs were understood to be faithful witnesses and heroic athletes, and the descriptions of their deeds were tinged with commonly occurring motifs, such as grace, Eucharist, baptism, the Holy Spirit, and eschatological hope. Christian self-understanding came to be pervaded by the ideals conveyed by descriptions of martyrs’ deeds.

Jesus & the Church

Key Points During this Time

  • Christianity developed within the community of Jesus’ earliest disciples on the basis of core Jewish beliefs, as interpreted and exemplified according to Jesus’ teaching, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.
  • The most significant controversy in the very early Christian church concerned the terms by which Gentiles would be accepted into the community.
  • With the church’s expansion from Jerusalem, traditions about the work of particular apostles became associated with specific locales by the end of the first century, most notably: James in Jerusalem; Peter and Paul in Rome; John in Ephesus; and Thomas in Syria.
  • Early Christianity was not uniform, yet a common faith in Jesus and a common core of apostolic traditions helped shape a specifically Christian set of doctrinal commitments, worship practices, and ethical expectations.
The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul

Jesus’ first-century ministry of healing and teaching not only attracted large crowds, but he also gathered a number of disciples with whom he worked closely. Many acclaimed him as the Messiah, the Lord’s “anointed” who would deliver God’s people, Israel. After the Romans put Jesus to death as a political threat, reports of his resurrection led his disciples to become convinced that God had vindicated him as Messiah (Christ), and the events of Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection became the pillars of Christian faith. Early Christian beliefs, worship, and ethical practices owed much to the traditions of Judaism, to which were added distinctive Christian convictions about the role of Jesus Christ as the world’s savior.

The early church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of Jewish believers, though they were a diverse lot; some were Judaean, but many were Hellenistic Jews from the Diaspora. They looked to Peter and then James, the brother of Jesus, for leadership. Once persecution at the hands of the Jewish establishment broke out against Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, the Hellenists in particular were scattered, taking the message of Jesus’ gospel (or euangelion, meaning “good news”) into the synagogues of many different cities of the Roman world. Soon, even large numbers of Gentiles were being attracted by the Christian message and lifestyle, causing the most significant controversy for the church of that era: the terms by which Gentiles should be received into the church. The Apostle Paul effectively championed a liberal position on the issue, with the result that Gentile Christians were in the majority by the end of the first century.

Fairly strong evidence supports the tradition that both Paul and Peter ended up in Rome and were martyred there under the emperor Nero. Peter probably played a significant leading role in the church at Rome, though the claims that Peter was the “pope” are anachronistic. Other locations came to be associated with the work of specific apostles, namely John in Ephesus and Thomas in Syria. The church at Ephesus may have been the most influential church of the mid- to late-first century, very likely the point of origin of some or all of the Johaninne literature of the New Testament. Strong traditions also place Jesus’ mother Mary in Ephesus, under the care of John. East of Antioch, the gospel spread among communities of Syriac-speaking people, whose traditions preserved certain Semitic features and a literature with strong ties to the name of the Apostle Thomas.

First-century Christian communities were diverse. Yet they enjoyed a significant measure of unity, due to a common faith in Jesus, a shared heritage in Judaism, a core of apostolic teaching, and habits of frequent travel and communication between churches. Out of this matrix arose characteristics that would come to distinguish churches far and wide, such as a shared commitment to interpret the Old Testament scriptures in light of Christ, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday assemblies, and moral emphases.

Roman, Greek, and Jewish Worlds Set the Setting

  • Christianity began in a cultural setting defined by three circles of influence: Roman law and government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.
  • Christian attitudes, practices, and social norms showed the influence of pre-existing cultures, yet were worked out within a distinctively Christian frame of reference
  • Judaism provided the immediate religious context for Christianity

Alexander the Great

The setting in which Christianity began was primarily shaped by three key influences: the political rule of the Roman Empire, the cultural impact of Greek expansion, and the religious legacy of Judaism. These three not only shaped the world in which Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and died; they also provided the setting in which Early Christianity grew and flourished. The Roman Empire defined the political and legal environment of the early church. Christians faced charges in Roman courts and their cases were adjudicated by Roman appointed judges. Latin was the official language of government and was especially in use in the western part of the empire. Following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek (Hellenistic) culture spread over much of the Mediterranean world and beyond. Greek was the language most commonly used throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, Hellenistic standards were the primary influences on education, literature, and philosophy. As Christians developed their own theology, they did so mainly using the categories and terminology inherited from Greek philosophy. Christian practices were deeply shaped by the practices of the broader culture.

Jesus was born a Jew and his earliest followers were Jews. Although the Jewish homeland (Israel) was the scene of a number of revolts against Rome and was eventually taken away from the Jews, the principal elements of the Christian faith found their original significance in expectations shared by many Jews regarding the Messiah. Early Christian worship and leadership were modeled on that of the synagogue, and Christians used the Jewish scriptures, especially the Greek Septuagint. Christian ethics owed a great deal to Jewish principles. One of the most remarkable aspects of the story of the church is to be seen in the transformation of a movement centered on a person of Jesus’ humble origins, to become the official religion of the empire and a decisive influence on western civilization and the world.

Why Historical Theology Matters in a Seminary Curriculum

History-repeatsJust why is theological history important, because the study of history provides a classic mode of learning. Examinations of primary and secondary sources help students to think about their subject rigorously. They must learn to organize and assess evidence, analyze problems, interpret complex events, and finally to write with clarity and precision. In short, studying Church History helps students learn how to learn.

History is popular. History’s special appeal comes from its distinctive subject matter, the human past. Church History is interesting because it deals with real people and events, not with abstractions.  The history of the Christian Church from the earliest times to the present offers a boundless variety for selecting favorite topics and pursuing personal interests.

Historical knowledge is important. Amnesia is devastating on the individual level. If I do not know who I am and where I have come from, then I cannot know where I am or should be headed.  Studying Historical theology links seminary students to the Church’s past. Examining the history of Church doctrine down through the ages gives students a better understanding of their own beliefs and their origins. It gives the student a solid foundation of doctrine firmly established throughout the ages and gives depth to their own faith.

Studying Historical Theology helps distinguish orthodoxy from heresy. Knowing the past is important because those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. The heresies of today are nothing new, they are old heresies resurfaced. A good understanding of church history gives one the ability to recognize heresy. For example the modern day cult known as the Jehovah Witnesses is actually a form of the ancient heresy of Arianism, which was dealt with at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. This example shows just how essential it is to know the Church’s past. It gives the student another tool to defend the truths of Christian orthodoxy against all its opponents.

Studying Historical theology also helps with biblical interpretation. Looking at the development of Christian doctrine throughout the ages helps the student to contrast one’s own interpretation with that of the church’s past. Historical theology gives the student a proper lens through which to test their own orthodoxy. For example creeds from the early church such as the Apostles Creed and the Athanasius Creed are some of the earliest attestations of proper biblical interpretation. If a believers interpretation contradicts that of these ancient creeds it would be wise to reevaluate this interpretation. These are just a few reasons why studying Historical theology is important.  It shows us that we are not alone in our Christian faith but that we stand on the shoulders of those great men who have gone before us, history matters.



Why Study Historical Theology?

1. The study of history provides a classic mode of learning. Examination of primary and secondary sources help students to think about their subject rigorously. They must learn to organize and assess evidence, analyze problems, interpret complex events, and, finally, to write with clarity and precision. In short, studying Church History helps students learn how to learn.

2. History is popular. History’s special appeal comes from its distinctive subject matter, the human past. Church History is interesting because it deals with real people and events, not with abstractions.  The history of the Christian Church from the earliest times to the present offers a boundless variety for selecting favorite topics and pursuing personal interests.

3. Historical knowledge is important. Amnesia is devastating on the individual level. If I do not know who I am and where I have come from, then I cannot know where I am or should be headed.

Calvinism and the London Baptist Confession of 1644

Baptist Roots
Where did Baptists come from and, historically, what are their beliefs?  The majority of historians agree that today’s Baptists were derived from three major sixteenth-century streams: Particular Baptists, General Baptists, and Seventh-day Baptists. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these denominations birthed a multitude. Separate Baptist, Primitive Baptist, American Baptist and Southern Baptist are just a few of today’s 100-plus Baptist denominations. Each of the three major Baptist groups claims a different line of descent. The Particular Baptists claim a heritage going back to the Protestant Reformers and Puritans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The General Baptists trace their roots from the earlier Anabaptists of the fifteenth century, and the Seventh-Day Baptists came later, in the sixteenth century. All three major Baptist denominations started in England.

Other Seventeenth-Century Baptists
The Seventh-Day Baptists, known to follow the Judeo-Christian tradition of worshipping on the seventh day of the week, were never large in number, nor are they today. They number less than 50,000 worldwide. The General Baptists were named for their theological stance of having a general, and thoroughly Arminian, view of the atonement.  Lead by John Smyth, they were a noncreedal denomination. By the eighteenth century, English General Baptists had mostly moved into Unitarianism, while most of America’s General Baptists were overtaken by the diverse strands within the Regular Baptist denominations.

The Particular Baptists
Particular Baptists were also commonly called Strict Baptists because of their practice of closed communion, their theological stance on Christ’s definite atonement for His elect, and their two-office congregational polity. It was the Protestant forerunners, like the Reformers & Puritans, that brought about a strong confessional emphasis among Particular Baptists’ theology. The Particular Baptists first appeared in a London church organized by Henry Jacob following his exile from Holland. This church was founded on a basis of confession of individual faith and of a covenant, and it contained both Independent Puritans and radical Separatists. In 1633, the issue of who would administer baptism splintered the two camps. In 1638, the first Particular Baptist Church was established in London under the leadership of John Spilsbery.

The theology of these Baptists appealed to the nation’s prevalent Calvinism and offered no obstacle to the mass of Englishmen. With the rapid growth of the Particular Baptist came serious accusations, such as Pelagianism and Anarchy. This is important to note because both groups were part of the radical wing of Anabaptism; thus, Anabaptism cannot trace its historical roots to the Particular Baptist denomination.

By 1644, the seven Particular Baptist churches in London were quick to follow their Protestant forerunners’ confessional examples. To document their doctrinal differences from the General Baptists and Anabaptists, the seven closely associated and London-based Particular Baptist churches prepared to published their own confessional statement of theology.

The London Confession of 1644 served as an apologetic theology, defending Particular Baptist views against the Arminian General Baptists and other radical groups like the Anabaptists. Henry C. Vedder called it “one of the chief landmarks of Baptist history.” There were five key futures that made it different from the multitude of Protestant Reformed Confessions of its time:

  1. Two representatives from each of the six Particular churches and three from Spilsbery’s church were included in the signatories of the confession.
  2. It had a strong Christological focus.
  3. It was building a confessional theology that gave structure to the New Testament’s administration of the Covenants of Grace—not attempting to reform the National Church.
  4. It charged that the act of baptism was to be a complete immersion of the individual and gave an outline for conduct in case of civil persecution.

It gave the Particular Baptists of its time a distinctive Baptist theology of the church, all while affirming the Reformed view of salvation

The Particular Baptists and Calvinism
1644 brought a year of growth for the Particular Baptists as they more clearly defined the doctrinal standards in their confessional statement. 1645 brought a year of trouble. . Arminian General Baptists charged the Particular Baptists with not addressing free will, communalism, and falling from grace enough, especially within the L0ndon Confession of 1644’s first edition.The General Baptists’ response to the London Confession of 1644 was documented in a pamphlet titled “The Foundation of Free Grace Opened,” which gave their dictional stance against limited atonement, clearly siding with Arminian theology.

The differences and disagreements between 1645’s General and Particular Baptists gave rise to a second edition of the 1644 London Confession and of the First London Baptist confession of 1644. Third and fourth editions would be made later in 1651 and 1652. As William L. Lumpkin commented, about the Particular Baptists,

In the Army of Cromwell, Baptists had distinguished themselves and had risen to positions of leadership . . . (Calvinist) Baptists were everywhere in prominent positions, and no longer lived in fear of the King and Parliament. The Westminster Confession has appeared in 1646, and by comparing the London Baptist Confession with it men could see that Baptists indeed belonged to the mainstream of Reformed life.

Calvinistic theology can be seen in a number of areas within the Particular Baptist’s confessional documents. Here are just a few examples taken from the second-edition London Baptist Confession of 1646.

Total Depravity
Article VI: first Eve, then Adam being seduced did wittingly and willingly fall into disobedience and transgression of the Commandment of their great Creator, for the which death came upon all, and reigned over all, so that all since the Fall are conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity, and so by nature children of wrath, and servants of sin, subjects of death, and all other calamities due to sin in this world and for ever, being considered in the state of nature, without relation to Christ.

[See also Article V.]

Unconditional Election
Article V: Subject to the eternal wrath of the great God by transgression; yet the elect, which God has loved with an everlasting love, are redeemed, quickened, and saved, not by themselves, neither by their own works, lest any man should boast himself, but wholly and only by God of His free grace and mercy through Jesus Christ.

[See also Article XVII and Article XIX.]

Limited Atonement
Article XXI: That Christ Jesus by His death did bring forth salvation and reconciliation only for the elect, which were those which God the Father gave Him; and that the Gospel which is to be preached to all men as the ground of faith, is, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the ever blessed God, filled with the perfection of all heavenly and spiritual excellencies, and that salvation is only and alone to be had through the believing in His name.

[See also Article XXX.]

Irresistible Grace
Article XXII: That faith is the gift of God wrought in the hearts of the elect by the Spirit of God, whereby they come to see, know, and believe the truth of the Scriptures, and not only so, but the excellency of them above all other writing and things in the world, as they hold forth the glory of God in His attributes, the excellency of Christ in His nature and offices, and the power of the fullness of the Spirit in His workings and operations; and thereupon are enabled to cast the weight of their souls upon this truth thus believed.

[Se alsoArticle V and Article XII].

Perseverance of the Saints
Article XXXVI: To this Church He has made His promises, and given the signs of His Covenant, presence, love, blessing, and protection: here are the fountains and springs of His heavenly grace continually flowing forth; thither ought all men to come, of all estates, that acknowledge Him to be their Prophet, Priest, and King, to be enrolled amongst His household servants, to under His heavenly conduct and government, to lead their lives in His walled sheepfold, and watered garden, to have communion here with the saints, that they may be made to be partakers of their inheritance in the Kingdom of God.

[See also Article XXVII.]

Connections to Today’s Current Situation
Where do Baptists come from, and what are their historical beliefs? The question lives on, surfacing again in the twenty-first century within America’s largest Baptist denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. As Rev. Dr. Tom Ascol stated, (during the Southern Baptist Convention of 1995), “Never in our history have we stood in greater need of reexamining our roots.” The issue is the same today as it was in 1995.

With regards to today’s current situation involving soteriology within the Southern Baptist denomination, members must look past the “traditional” views of the twentieth century and back to their historical fathers of the seventeenth century. We must not forget the theology that the Baptist church is founded upon. Southern Baptists need to clearly see the historical value of their Protestant Faith and its theological stances. As Baptist historian W. T. Whitley once stated (on Baptists’ redress of their own history), “. . . if a later generation finds that it does not agree with its predecessors, whether in content or in emphasis, it has openly revised and re-stated what it does believe or it has discarded the old confession and framed another.”

Additional Reading Information on Calvinism and Baptist Church

When Baptist Cared About Antinomianism

The quote below is by  Scottish Presbyterian Thomas Chalmers (1780–1847), who  is speaking specifically of the English Particular (Calvinist) Baptists would held to the LBC-1689. He states the following from his observations of them during his time,

Let it never be forgotten of the Particular Baptists of England that they form the denomination of [Andrew] Fuller and [William] Carey and [John] Ryland [Jr.] and [Robert Hall [Jr.] and [John] Foster; that they have originated among the greatest of all missionary enterprises; that they have enriched the Christian literature of our country with authorship of the most exalted piety as well as of the first talent and the first eloquence; that they have waged a very noble and successful war with the hydra of Antinomianism; that perhaps there is not a more intellectual community of ministers in our island or who have put forth to their number a greater amount of mental power and mental activity in the defence and illustration of our common faith; and, what is better than all the triumph of genius or understanding, who, by their zeal and fidelity and pastoral labour among the congregations which they have reared, have done more to swell the lists of genuine discipleship in the walks of private society—and thus both to uphold and to extend the living Christianity of our nation.

From Presbyterian Thomas Chalmers personal experience and witness of the Particular Baptist during his time, they defended the Christian Faith against such theological errors like Antinomianism. Now if such could be said about today’s American Baptist, could you imagine the difference in understanding Law and Grace?

*** Quote taken from Lectures on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1844), 76.

History/Nature dualism, imago Dei

Essential to developing an ecologically sensitive theology is the necessity of devising a theology of nature. Richard Bauckham sheds some clarity on the concept of nature and how the word is commonly used. He lays out four common usages of the term ‘nature’: (1) essence, such as employed in Chalcedonian Christology, (2) the entirety of the created or observable world as separate from and distinctly different than God, (3) the world (including humanity) in a pre-fall state, and (4) the observable non-human world with a priority towards the natural environment and its relation to human life.[1]

Inherent within the last usage, Bauckham claims, is a presupposed “distinction between ‘nature’ and humanity, or rather, between nature and culture/human history.[2] Bauckham, as well as Rosemary Ruether, Joseph Sittler, Jurgen Moltmann, Stephen Bouma-Prediger, and Ian Barbour cite the nature/history dualism as ecologically unjust and unfaithful to the biblical witness. Bauckham claims that distinctions  made between human culture and nature are false. Bouma-Prediger states simply that the dualism assumes that “history is defined as and limited to human history and thereby set over against nature.”[3] Because of that distinction, Bouma-Prediger asserts that traditional theology has allowed “redemption and grace” to “extend only as far as history, i.e., humanity.”[4] The cosmic scope of the work of Christ is diminished within the the history/nature dualism. Rather, Bouma-Prediger affirms with with Joseph Sittler that such an assumption represents a deep misunderstanding, and that “history must be redefined as inclusive of all being and nature must be reconceived as inclusive of human being.”[5] He continues,

These revisions are fully compatible with the claim that Christianity is a historical religion. Indeed they more accurately capture the comprehensive biblical vision of the redemption of bodies, of grace for a groaning creation, and of shalom for all of God’s creatures.[6]

An ecological perspective (for more on this, see my earlier post St. Basil, Ecology, and Fellowship: Part 3) implores us to reconsider the categories of history and nature that are typically mutually exclusive and posit humanity as both different from and over and above the natural world. Humanity must be conceived as a part of nature, thus drawing nature into the realm of history. From this point we can go proceed in either of two directions: the image of God or human dominion in Genesis 1:28. For our purposes here, I’d like to focus upon the imago Dei.

Bauckham states that the writer of Genesis 1 sees humanity as “one of the land animals, created on the sixth day,” yet makes a distinction between them in 1:28, while the writer of Genesis 2 envisions both Adam and the animals as “created out of the ground,” invoking images of God designing clay figures. He claims that in the second creation account nothing distinguishes Adam from the animals.[7] Bauckham alludes to a lack of clarity regarding the intention of Genesis 2:7 to imply that Adam directly received the breath of life from God.[8]

Even if this detail does indicate Adam’s special status in God’s sight, it indicates nothing about human nature which distinguishes it from the animals. However received, the same divine breath animates all things . . .the Old Testament seems to draw no hard line of distinction between human nature and the animals.[9]

Anna Case-Winters would agree with Bauckham, and states, “there is an unbroken continuity with the rest of nature; separation is a false report on reality . . .we are nature.”[10] Traditionally, human dominion is connected to being created in the image of God, based on a hierarchical pattern of creation. On the connection between dominion and creation in the image of God, Bauckham claims that it does not refer “to the dominion itself, but to whatever characteristics of human nature make human beings capable of this dominion.”[11] So instead of Genesis 1:26-28 being read as building dominion into the fabric of creation, with humans ontologically superior to the natural world, Bauckham insists that the writer of Genesis 1 is

starting from the empirical observation that human beings are the dominant species on earth, and providing a theological interpretation of this; that God in creation intended human beings to be the dominant species on earth and intended them to exercise their dominion as [God’s] viceregents, responsible to [God].[12]

Anna Case-Winters offers a critique on the common conceptualizing of the imago dei in regards to theological approaches that seek to firmly establish the imago dei as “what distinguishes the human being from nature,” and what sets humanity over and above nature.[13] When theology is performed in such a manner, she claims,

one suspects an agenda designed to establish human rights to rule and exploit the rest of nature.  I think the whole approach to the imago dei needs to be reconsidered.  Our present habits of thought have led to separatism and anthropocentrism, which have proven both untenable and dangerous.[14]

For Case-Winters, the preferred approach is rather to draw distinctions around the contributions which “human beings may make to the rest of creation.”[15]

Whether we think of the image of God in terms of intrinsic capacities such as reason/ rationality or the quality of our living in relationship, these admit of more and less and could be seen as placing the human being on a continuum rather than in absolute distinction.[16]

Employing distinctions between human history and nature and excluding nature from history and history from nature has practical/ethical implications as well as influences upon our theology. These two categories must be reimagined in order to create an ecological theology that contains an ethos of love, care, and equality among life.  Stephen Bouma-Prediger has summarized five arguments from Rosemary Ruether that highlight the problems of the history/nature dualism and why it ought to be rejected:

1) this dualism is false because the natural world is historical in its own right; 2) this dualism is false because the natural world is indelibly affected by human agency and thus a part of human history; 3) this dualism is false because, as corporeal, humans are embedded in the natural order; 4) this dualism has led to disastrous consequences since it has sanctioned various forms of exploitation; 5) this dualism conflicts with the biblical emphasis on a single all-embracing covenant.[17]

How do the two different accounts of creation influence your understanding of humanity, non-human life, and ethic towards creation? How do you understand the imago dei in relation to the rest of creation?


1.Bauckham, Richard. (1986). “First Steps to a Theology of Nature.” The Evangelical Quarterly, 58 no.3, 229.


3.Bouma-Prediger, Stephen. The Greening of Theology: The Ecological Models of Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joseph Sittler, and Jurgen Moltmann (Atlanta: Scholar’s Press, 1995), 272.




7.Bauckham, 231.


9.Ibid., 232.

10.Case-Winters, Anna. “Rethinking the Image of God.” Zygon 39 no. 4 (December 2004), 815.

11.Bauckham, 233.


13.Case-Winters, 814.


15.Ibid., 825.

16.Ibid., 818.

17.Bouma-Prediger, 271.

What is Historiography?

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Historiography, properly understood, is the study of the way in which history is (and has been) written. The term “history” itself proves at times a confusing concept as it can refer to either the bare events of the past or the written (and oral) records of those events.

When studying history we rarely (if ever) have unmediated access to the bare facts of the past. The way in which these events—and the circumstances and motivations surrounding them—are preserved is always perspectival. That is, history is always codified through the ideologies and experiences of certain persons or groups. This does not make the history less valuable as historical artifact, but helps us realize that when we read history—especially biblical history—we are not encountering un-interpreted and un-mediated facts.

Following Huizenga and VanSeters we may helpfully define history as “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.” This definition highlights at least two important points:

1. History writing is purposeful, not accidental: When encountering and engaging narrative texts in the Bible, it is important that we attempt to discern the purpose(s) behind them. We should ask the same questions of these narrative accounts that we do of Pauline Epistles. Who wrote this? What may have occasioned its writing? What is its rhetorical function or strategy? The sweeping biblical narrative is more than just the mere accumulation of traditions and accounts over time. It is a deliberate re-telling of events. In this way, we may note that the biblical writers purposed much more than simply relating past events to future generations. They are purposeful documents, meant to give shape and substance to the Israelite identity as a people set apart to YHWH.

2. History writing uses the past to explain the present: It can be persuasively argued that some of the best history writing takes place far after the events it purports to record. It has long been assumed that an author’s close historical proximity to an event ensures the accuracy of the recounting. While this may be true to a certain degree, it is also true that historical distance allows for a more comprehensive perspective on the event, its importance, and its lasting significance. Take for instance the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. While we can certainly document and write of the immediate impact caused by these destructive forces, it will take many years to fully understand the implications and significance of these events. In much the same way, assigning a later compositional date to biblical texts may in fact heighten their value as historical texts. Due to this historical distance between text and event, we also see that these narratives are not written to  the same people that they are written about. Thus past recounting is meant to address present situations. For instance, the so-called historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible appear to be shaped in some capacity by the catastrophic experience of exile.

It is my suspicion that approaching narrative texts as compilations of bare historical facts has ultimately proven detrimental to the contemporary evangelical church and its understanding and appropriation of these texts. If Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Matthew, or Acts are “just bare history,” it is difficult to see their practical import. There are certainly things we can learn through the unfolding of history, but it is my contention that this approach tends to miss the rich contours of these historical narratives. More than simply “what happened?” perhaps we need to learn to ask questions like “why this story?” or “how does the narrator want people to respond to this account?” More pointedly for us as a contemporary audience, “what is this text trying to accomplish in the lives of its hearers/readers?”

What do you think? Does our understanding of historical narrative require more nuance? Is this trajectory practically helpful or is it more trouble than it’s worth?

History, Narrative, and the Book of Judges

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Like many, I grew up with a steady diet of Old Testament Bible stories. David, Noah, Adam and Eve, Abraham, and even Samson were all quasi-familiar characters in what appeared at the time as a disorganized conglomeration of ancient events. How these individual stories related to one another, and what held them together appeared unimportant to my understanding of what it meant to “be like David.” It wasn’t until my undergraduate studies that I began to realize the serious deficiencies in my piecemeal understanding of the Old Testament. The realization that (a) Genesis-2 Chronicles tells essentially one story and (b) Jesus doesn’t come to us in a historical vacuum spurred me on to further study of this strange and wonderful collection of Old Testament books.

Recently, I have become deeply interested in the function and purpose of biblical narratives. In my current studies I have focused primarily on the Book of Judges and its role within the sweeping story of the Hebrew Bible. More broadly I have taken a keen interest in the writing of history (historiography) and the ways in which the Israelite storytellers shaped and crafted their narratives in order to communicate and impart to future generations their grand successes, epic failures, and unique identity as a people in covenant with YHWH.

I must admit that many of my conclusions remain provisional, as my thinking in this area continues to mature. Over the next several weeks and months I will post a variety of materials (bibliographies, summaries, quotes, etc.) related to the issues mentioned above. I would gladly welcome any and all feedback or thoughts!

By way of introduction I’ve provided three brief bibliographies. The first relates generally to the study of historiography and biblical narratives. I have been heavily influenced in this area by the work of Robert Alter and Adele Berlin. The second list is like the first, but aimed specifically at the study of Judges. I am persuaded that Judges is a late(ish) book, perhaps taking its final form in the exilic period. I have also included a selection of commentaries that I have found to be exceptionally useful. Most of these commentaries helpfully–and in my opinion rightly–treat the book of Judges as a literary whole.


Historiography and Narrative
:: General Introduction ::

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Amit, Yairah. “Narrative Art of Israel’s Historians.” Pages 708-15 in Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books. Edited by B. T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Berlin, Adele. Poetics and the Interpretation of Biblical Narrative. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994.

Kofoed, Jens Bruun. Text & History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.

Long, V. Philips. “The Art of Biblical History.” Pages 281-429 in Foundations of Contemporary Interpretation. Edited by M Silva. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

McConville, J. Gordon. “Faces of  Exile in Old Testament Historiography.” Pages 519-34 in Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography. Edited by V. P. Long. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999.

Merrill, Eugene H. “Old Testament History: A Theological Perspective.” Pages 65-82 in A Guide to Old Testament Theology and Exegesis. Edited by W. A. VanGemeren. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999.

Provan, Iaian, “Ideologies, Literary and Critical: Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 585-606.

Historiography and Narrative
:: Book of Judges ::

Brettler, Marc. “The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics.” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 (1989): 395-418.

Dumbrell, William. “‘In Those Days There Was No King in Israel; Every Man Did That Which Was Right in His Own Eyes’: The Purpose of the Book of Judges Reconsidered.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 25 (1983): 23-33.

Spronk, Klaas. “The Book of Judges as a Late Construct.” Pages 15-28 in Historiography and Identity (Re)Formulation in Second Temple Historiographical Literature. Edited by L. Jonker. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 534. London: T & T Clark International, 2010.

Tollington, Janet. “The Book of Judges: The Result of Post-Exilic Exegesis?” Pages 186-96 in Intertextuality in Ugarit and Israel. Edited by J. C. De Moor. Leiden: Brill, 1998.

Wenham, Gordon J. “The Rhetorical Function of Judges.” Pages 45-71 in Story as Torah: Reading Old Testament Narrative Ethically. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.

Select Commentaries
:: Book of Judges ::

Block, Daniel. Judges. New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999.

Butler, Trent. Judges. Word Biblical Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

Niditch, Susan. Judges:  A Commentary. Old Testament Library. Louisville: WJK Press, 2008.

Ryan, Roger. Judges. Readings. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007.

Schneider, Tammi. Judges. Berit Olam. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000.

Webb, Barry. The Book of Judges: An Integrated Reading. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2008.