History of Christian Doctrine vol 1 (Shedd)

Shedd, William G. T. A History of Christian Doctrine volume 1. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, [reprint] 1998.

Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology was a literary and theological masterpiece.  His History of Christian Doctrine, while quite excellent, is not at the same level.  Most of the difficulty is Shedd’s a) trying to do too much in the first volume; and b) spending an inordinate amount of time on the history of prolegomena.  Shedd’s strengths are in the doctrine of God and Anthropology.  He isn’t able to devote his time to them until much later (and in case of the latter, the next volume).  Nonetheless, Shedd gives us much to think about and ably summarizes thorny philosophical debates. 

(1) Much of the early history of doctrine is necessarily tied in with apologetics (and one should note, classical apologetics). Not surprisingly, these were often aligned with various Greek schools.  That was inevitable.  The trick was to untangle oneself from problematic implications of Platonism.  As man then was more inclined to accept things like “the eternal” and “soul,” the apologist had an easier time of it, especially on the relation between faith and reason (Shedd 157).

(2) As we move into the modern age, one is surprised that in attacking Hume and Deism, Shedd didn’t spend more time annihilating Hume’s faulty reasoning on miracles.  We’ll return to that.

(3) As Christian reflection developed, their minds generally illustrated more refinement and sophistication.  Shedd notes that the pre-Nicene fathers’ arguments “rest mainly upon the innate consciousness of the human mind” (229).  This makes sense.  They didn’t have the scientific discoveries that would have allowed them to fully weaponize natural theology.

(4) Anselm and the ontological argument.  

  1. A Perfect being is necessarily conceivable because a contingent being is not the most perfect we can think of.
  2. Perfect islands do not claim to have “necessity of existence.
    b1) This is so because necessity entails an objective correspondent to itself (232)
  3. There is a logical contradiction in supposing the non-existence of a necessary being.
  4. Gaunilo’s objection fails because it confuses the category of matter for the category of mind.
  5. Kant’s objection that existence is not an attribute also fails because the point is not more existence but necessary existence.

5) God’s attributes.  “They sought to keep clear of that vague idea of an abstract Monad without predicates” (241).  This is the god of the Gnostic abyss and pantheism. “Attributes like…holiness, justice, truth, and mercy enter little, or none at all, into the ancient Gnostic and the modern Pantheistic construction of God” (242).

Appeals to pagan “Trinities” are irrelevant since they are usually figurative personifications and not distinct hypostases.

6) Ante-Nicene Trinitarianism relied heavily on the Logos concept.  To be noted, simply because John used Logos does not mean that he was using it in the same way that current Greek philosophy used it.  John would have been more familiar with the Ha-Debar of the Hebrew writings.  In any case, Logos-Christology fell into disuse compared with the concept of “Son.”

7) Nicene Trinitarianism.

  1. The Son as Logos must be eternal, otherwise God would have been without his Logos (308).  This is a rhetorically powerful argument but it is open to the charge of equivocation.
  2. Eternal generation is the communication of an eternal essence (317). If the Son is of the eternal substance of the Deity, he cannot be a contingent being.
  3. The Arians separated God’s will from God’s nature and so denied eternal generation (325 n1).
  4. If God is Father, then paternity and filiation belong to the deity of necessity (332).
  5. If created things cannot be created directly by the deity, “and must come into existence through a middle Being, then the Son (a creature ala Arius), would need a mediator to his creation.  And this medium would require a medium, and so on” (333).

8) God and consciousness.  While “self-consciousness” is not how we define a divine person, there is an analogical way to speak of it in terms of the Godhead.  On a human level,

  1. The I must behold itself as an objective thing. In doing so, there is now a distinction between the subject-ego and the object-ego.
  2. The finite ego must perceive the subject-ego and the object-ego are one and the same essence.  “This second act of perception completes the circle of self-consciousness” (366).
  3. There is no need for a subsequent factor because the first moment perceived the self as object but the last moment perceived an act.
  4. Of course, this would only apply to the divine once we remove categories of time and degree.  In which case,
  5. The subject-ego (Father) is perpetually beholding itself as object-ego (The Son) and the third distinction (The Holy Spirit) is intermittently perceiving the essential unity and identity of the subject-ego and object-ego (Father and Son).
  6. If this seems too speculative, rest assured that Jonathan Edwards did something similar.

The first half of the book reads like a history of method.  The second half is more properly a history of doctrine.


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