From the old HB (2007)
Editor’s Note: This is the 3rd in a series of interviews with graduates of the Westminster Seminary California MA (Historical Theology) program. Rich Bishop (WSC ’02) is a graduate of Wheaton College, and now a PhD student at the University of Virginia. In my opinion, he gave one of the better senior speeches ever given at the annual Friday night graduation reception. He taught a January term course on Patristics at WSC this past academic year and we look forward to having teach again.
In an admittedly cursory search, WSC was the only seminary I could find with an historical theology program that focused on primary sources and attempted to cover the whole sweep of Christian history. A Reformed seminary was appealing because I was making the journey from Pentecostal to Reformed Christianity at the time. In addition, I had a good friend, Mark Stromberg, who came to WSC the year before I did. Sunny San Diego weather was another bonus.
What did you think you would be doing by now?
I didn’t have a real clear idea, but I suppose it was something not unlike what I’m doing now.
What are you doing now and why?
As far as academics are concerned I am pursuing a PhD at the University of Virginia in the Religious Studies Department, under the rubric, Christianity and Judaism in Antiquity.
Tell us a little about your dissertation.
I am writing about Ambrose of Milan (339-397). Ambrose had a more robust view of Christ’s human psychology than some of his patristic predecessors, even the Nicenes, had. That is what I am interested in. By Christ’s human psychology I mean, e.g., his emotions and will. It’s important because it is a fresh way of approaching Christological questions (rather than focusing on the emerging technical terms such as person, nature, soul). I also think that Ambrose’s interest in Christ’s human psychology led him to appreciate Christ’s human obedience. That appreciation for Christ’s human obedience resonates with themes in Reformed theology, and I think that thematic resonance is what originally attracted me to the topic.
Why the interest in Patristics?
Early on it was because I supposed Reformed theology is most interesting at the interface with other disciplines, or other historical eras. I still think that, but Patristic theology has become interesting to me in its own right. The claim that the study of Christian history is nothing more than a syllabus of errors merits dispute.
You gave a paper not long ago to a conference. Tell us about it.
People go to conferences for lots of different reasons, but the standard reasons—meeting people with similar interests, honing your presentation skills, forcing you to actually write something, cross-fertilization—all seem true to my experience. You can also learn a lot about the culture of the umbrella organization. I’ve gone to conferences for the North American Patristics Society (NAPS), the American Academy of Religion (AAR), and the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), which represent three very different constituencies. I recommend that seminarians at WSC attend—submission deadlines have passed—some of ETS, AAR, or SBL, which are in San Diego this November (2007). The papers I gave were reworked seminar papers; in retrospect, however, I think I would have been better served to read a paper that had more relevance to my dissertation. But I’m still glad I did it.
What do you make about the current evangelical enthusiasm for the Fathers?
I’m glad that some evangelicals are interested in learning more about ancient Christianity, and if the interest produces good scholarly work on particular figures or problems, which it has, that is all to the good. Anecdote suggests that some of the evangelicals who are interested in the early church are interested in it as an alternative to the theological traditions of the Reformation. I hope that neither the enthusiasm for the early church nor the dissatisfaction with the Reformation are uncritical.
Have you written other things?
Mostly nothing, but I have done a little bit of translating for The Church’s Bible. I also translated the Rudimenta Pietatis, a short 16th century Scottish catechism that was used in Latin schools. That’s coming out in Kerux before too long.
What are you reading now?
Serious extracurricular stuff includes: Janet Soskice, Metaphor and Religious Language; George Steiner, After Babel; Samuel Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer. I’ve also managed to work my way down to about 6th circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno, where I have been stuck for several months now. I would like to get to Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification.
What should everyone know about the fathers that they probably don’t know?
(1) That many of them are a good read—thought-provoking conversation partners in exegesis and theological formulation. (2) That the question is not only, “To what extent were early Christians influenced by Hellenism?” but also “To what extent and in what ways did early Christians transform Hellenism?” (3) That for the first seven hundred years or so the question that most captivated the imagination of early Christians was, “Who is Jesus Christ?” (4) That patristic theology and practice were a significant influence on the early development of Reformed theology and practice. (I’m hoping to get around to studying this intersection at some later point in my career.) (5) That reading rabbinic literature is good cross-training for anyone studying patristics, or most other areas of the theological encyclopedia (hat tip to Prof. Estelle for the metaphor).