Monday, January 4, 2021

Origen of Alexandria – a lengthy selection from his Homily #8 on Leviticus

Given the ongoing discussion in the combox of the previous thread concerning Origen’s negative comments about birthdays, I thought it best to provide a larger context for the quote I had provided in the opening post of that thread. From Origen’s, Homily 8 on Leviticus we read:

 Homily 8

Concerning the statement, "Every woman who conceives and bears a male child will be unclean for seven days."[1] And concerning the varieties of leprosy and the purification of a leper.[2]

WE ARE taught by a statement of the Lord himself that our Lord Jesus Christ is called a doctor in divine Scriptures as he says in the Gospels, "The healthy need not a physician but those who are sick. For I came not to call the just but sinners to repentance.”[3]

(2) Now every physician prepares useful medicines for the body from potions of herbs or trees or even from veins of minerals or the organs of animals. But if perchance someone beholds these herbs before they are prepared by the understanding of science, if they are indeed in the fields or mountains, he crushes and passes by these herbs like cheap hay. But if he were to see these arranged in proper order within the school of medicine, then he would believe these to contain something of a cure or a remedy although they give off a harsh and bitter odor, even if he should not yet know what kind of health or remedy is in them. We said these things about ordinary physicians.

(3) Come now to Jesus, the heavenly physician. Enter into this medical clinic, his Church. See, lying there, a multitude of feeble ones. The woman comes who was made "unclean" from birth.[4] "A leper" comes who was segregated "outside the camp" for the uncleanness of his leprosy.[5] They seek a cure from the physician: how they may be healthy, how they may be cleansed. Because this Jesus, who is a doctor, is himself the

[1] Lev. 12.2

[2] Cf. Lev 13 and 14

[3] Matt. 9.12-13

[4] Cf. Mark 5.25; Lev. 12.2f.

[5] Cf. Mark 1.40; Lev. 13.46

p. 153

Word of God, he prepares medications for his sick ones, not from potions of herbs but from the sacraments of words. If anyone sees these verbal medicines scattered inelegantly through books as through fields, not knowing the strength of individual words, he will overlook them as cheap things, as not having any elegance of word. But the person who in some part learns that the medicine of souls is with Christ certainly will understand from these books which are read in the Church how each person ought to take salutary herbs from the fields and mountains, namely the strength of the words, so that anyone weary in soul may be healed not so much by the strength of the outward branches and coverings as by the strength of the inner juice. Therefore, let us see what diverse and varied medications for purification this present lesson effects against the uncleanness of birth and the infection of leprosy.

2. It says, "And the Lord spoke to Moses saying, 'Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, If any woman conceives and bears a male child, she will be unclean for seven days.' “[6] First, let us consider according to the historical sense if this does not seem to be a superfluous addition, "A woman who conceives and bears a male child." How else could she bear a male child unless she had conceived? But the addition is not superfluous.

(2) For the Lawgiver added this word to distinguish her who "conceived and gave birth" without seed from other women so as not to designate as "unclean" every woman who had given birth but her who "had given birth by receiving seed." There can also be added to this the fact that this Law which is written concerning uncleanness pertains to women. But concerning Mary, it is said that "a virgin"[7] conceived and gave birth. Therefore, let women carry the burdens ofthe Law, but let virgins be immune from them.

(3) But if some cunning person attacks us and says that Mary is also called "a woman" in the Scriptures-for the Apostle says, "But when the fullness of time came, God sent his son,

[6] Lev. 2:1-2

[7] Cf. Mat. 1.13

p. 154

made from woman, made under the law that he might redeem those who were under the Law"[8]—we will respond to him that in this the Apostle called her "a woman," not because of corruption, but because of her sex. When he said "God sent his Son" he explained at the same time that he had come into this world by an entrance common to us all.

(4) Moreover, this term is about an age of life, that is to say, that time when the female sex proceeds from the years of puberty and passes to that time when she seems to be suitable for a man. Just as, on the contrary, the person is called a man who passes the age of adolescence, even if he does not yet have a wife whose husband he may be said to be. Likewise, those whom no blemish of intercourse with a female has touched are usually called by that name.

(5) Therefore, if one who knew no intercourse with a woman is rightly a man by virtue of a manly age alone, by the same logic why is not a virgin who remained chaste called a woman by virtue of the maturity of age alone? Consequently, when Abraham sent his servant to Mesopotamia into the house of Bathuel in order that "from that place he would take a wife for his son Isaac," the "servant" inquired rather carefully and "said to him, 'What if the woman does not want to follow me, should I take your son there?' “[9] He did not say, What if the virgin does not want to follow me.

(6) Therefore, let these words be for us a confirmation of what we observed that the Lawgiver did not add to Scripture superfluously, "If a woman receives seed and bears a son,”[10] but that there is a mystical exception, which separated Mary along from the rest of women whose birth was not by the conception of seed but by the presence "of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Most High."[11]

3. Now therefore, let us also inquire what may be the reason that a woman, who in this world furnishes a service for those who are born, is said to become "unclean" not only when "she received the seed" but also when "she gave birth.”[12] From this

[8] Gal. 4.4-5

[9] Cf. Gen. 24.4-5

[10] Lev. 12.2

[11] Cf. Luke 1.35

[12] Cf. Lev. 12.2

p. 155

also she is commanded to offer "the young of pigeons or turtledoves for sin at the door of the Tent of Witness,”[13] for her purification that "the priest may make propitiation for her" as if she owes a propitiation and a purification for sin because she furnishes the service of bearing a man into this world. For so it is written, "And the priest will intercede for her and she will be clean.”[14] I myself in such matters dare to say nothing. Yet, I think there are some hidden mysteries contained in these things and there is some hidden secret, for which "the woman" who conceives by the seed and gives birth is called "unclean," just as the one guilty of sin is commanded to offer a sacrifice "for sin" and thus to be purified. [15]

(2) But Scripture also declares that one himself who is born whether male or female is not "clean from filth although his life is of one day.”[16] And that you may know that there is something great in this and such that it has not come from the thought to any of the saints; not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival,[17] and in the New Testament, Herod.[18] However, both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. For the Pharaoh killed "the chief baker,”[19] Herod, the holy prophet John "in prison.”[20] But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day.

(3) For also such a great prophet—I mean Jeremiah who “in the womb” of his mother “was sanctified” and “was consecrated as a prophet for the nations”[21]—would not have composed something useless in the books destined to be eternal he could preserve some secret, full of profound mysteries,

[13] Cf. Lev. 12.6

[14] Cf. Lev. 12.7

[15] Cf. Lev. 12.7

[16] Job 14.4-5

[17] Cf. Gen. 40.20

[18] Cf. Mark 6.21

[19] Cf. Gen. 40.22

[20] Cf. Mark 6.27

[21] Cf. Jer. 1.5

p. 156

where he says, "Cursed be the day in which I was born, and the night in which they said, behold a male child. Cursed be he who announced to my father, saying, 'A male child was born to you.' Let that person rejoice as the cities which the Lord destroyed in anger and did not repent it."[22] Does it appear to you that the prophet could have invoked such severe and oppressive things unless he knew there was something in this bodily birth that would seem worthy of such curses and for which the Lawgiver would blame so many impurities for which he subsequently would impose suitable purifications? But it would be lengthy and better suited to another time to explain the testimony which we have taken from the prophet because now our purpose is to examine the reading of Leviticus, not of Jeremiah…

(5) But if it pleases you to hear what other saints also might think about this birthday, hear David speaking, "In iniquity I was conceived and in sins my mother brought me forth,"[26] showing that every soul which is born in flesh is polluted by the filth "of iniquity and sin"; and for this reason we can say

[22] Cf. Jer. 20.14-16; Job 3.3…

[26] Ps. 50.7

p. 157

what we already have recalled above, “No one is pure form uncleanness even if his life is only one day long.”[27] To these things can be added the reason why it is required, since the baptism of the Church is given for the forgiveness of sins, that according to the observance of the Church, that baptism also be given to infants; since, certainly, if there were nothing in infants that ought to pertain to forgiveness and indulgence, then the grace of baptism would be superfluous. [28]

[27] Job 14.4-5

[28] Origen’s understanding of infant baptism in this passage is similar to that of Augustine. Origen’s is a witness to infant baptism contra Tertullian, See J. W. Trigg, “A Fresh Look at Origen’s Understanding of Baptism,” SP 17.2 (1982), 959-965.

p. 158 (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley; Catholic University of America Press – 1990, pp. 153-158)

Hope the above lends some clarity as to why Origen took such a negative view of birthdays.

Grace and peace,


Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Origen of Alexandria – commentary on the celebration of birthdays

In combox of my previous post, I linked to the Catholic Encyclopedia entry: Christmas. From that entry, we read:

Christmas was not among the earliest festivals of the Church. Irenaeus and Tertullian omit it from their lists of feasts; Origen, glancing perhaps at the discreditable imperial Natalitia, asserts (in Lev. Hom. viii in Migne, P.G., XII, 495) that in the Scriptures sinners alone, not saints, celebrate their birthday...(Vol. III, page 724 in the 1908 printed edition)

I have a copy of Gary Wayne Barkley’s English translation of the above passage—the following selection is the germane portion to our topic at hand:

But Scripture also declares that one himself who is born whether male or female is not "clean from filth although his life is of one day.” And that you may know that there is something great in this and such that it has not come from the thought to any of the saints; not one from all the saints is found to have celebrated a festive day or a great feast on the day of his birth. No one is found to have had joy on the day of the birth of his son or daughter. Only sinners rejoice over this kind of birthday. For indeed we find in the Old Testament Pharaoh, king of Egypt, celebrating the day of his birth with a festival, and in the New Testament, Herod. However, both of them stained the festival of his birth by shedding human blood. For the Pharaoh killed "the chief baker,” Herod, the holy prophet John "in prison’” But the saints not only do not celebrate a festival on their birth days, but, filled with the Holy Spirit, they curse that day. (Origen, Homilies on Leviticus, trans. Gary Wayne Barkley; Catholic University of America Press – 1990, p. 156)

The above contribution is not the only time Origen commented on birthdays; from his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel we read:

And on birthdays, when the lawless word reigns over them, they dance so that their movements please that word. Some one of those before us has observed what is written in Genesis about the birthday of Pharaoh, and has told that the worthless man who loves things connected with birth keeps birthday festivals; and we, taking this suggestion from him, find in no Scripture that a birthday was kept by a righteous man. For Herod as more unjust than that famous Pharaoh ; for by the latter on his birthday feast a chief baker is killed ; but by the former, John... (Origen’s Commentary on Matthew, trans. John Patrick; Charles Scribner and Sons, 5th ed. 1906, ANF 9.428, 429)

Quite interesting…

Grace and peace,


Friday, December 25, 2020

Joseph F. Kelly – Catholic scholar and author of The Origins of Christmas


An online article—“The Birth of Christmas” (link)—by Joseph F. Kelly, that I had read a little over a week ago, prompted me to order a book referenced therein by the same author: The Origins of Christmas.

I received the above book earlier this week and finished reading it this morning. The book—as too the aforementioned article—validates a number of elements concerning Christmas that I had been taught as a child and young adult. The elements of which I speak include: Jesus beyond any reasonable doubt WAS NOT born on December 25th; speculation on when Jesus was born did not start until the 3rd century; from the writings of the 3rd century that have survived only one undisputed author mentioned Dec. 25th as the possible date of Jesus’ birth—Sextus Julius Africanus; Dec. 25th was most likely adopted by Christians in the 4th century to compete with/counter three pagan feasts—the cult of Deus Sol Invictus, that of the Persian deity Mithra, and the feastival of Saturnalia which honored Saturn, the god of prosperity.

From past experience, I suspect few Christians will take the time to delve into Dr. Kelly’s research. Personally speaking, I have spent a considerable amount of time studying the origins of Christmas, and to date, have found no substantial data to negate Dr. Kelly’s assessments.

Grace and peace,


Saturday, December 5, 2020

Proverbs 8:22 and Pope Dionysius of Rome

Back on December 30, 2015 I published a post that delved into the interpretation of Proverbs 8:22 by a number of Church Fathers (LINK). I opened the post with the following:

In the 4th century, one Old Testament text, Proverbs 8:22, became a heated point of contention during the Arian controversy. Interestingly enough, two of the factions involved in the debate—the pro-Arians and the pro-Nicene Church Fathers—introduced interpretations of the text that went against an almost universal understanding by the pre-Nicene Church Fathers who cited it. Though all three parties applied the passage to Jesus Christ, each did so differently. The pro-Arians believed the passage taught that the pre-existent Jesus was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) by God the Father. Some of the pro-Nicene Fathers believed that the passage was a reference to Jesus' human nature only, and had nothing to do with his pre-existence (for an early example of this interpretation see Athanasius', Expostio Fidei, circa 328 A.D. - NPNF - Second Series 4.85). Both of these interpretations ran contrary to the pre-Nicene Fathers who taught that the passage did in fact refer to Jesus' pre-existent causation by God the Father (to date, I have found only one explicit exception), while clearly rejecting the pro-Arian novelty that this causation was ex nihilo.

A bit later, I cited nine pre-Nicene Church Fathers’ understanding(s) of Proverbs 8:22. All but one of those CFs applied the passage to the pre-existent Jesus Christ. I would now like to provide one more CF who sided with the eight who constituted the majority—Dionysius of Rome. Athanasius, in his Defence of the Nicene Definition, provided the following from Dionysius:

“Next, I may reasonably turn to those who divide and cut to pieces and destroy that most sacred doctrine of the Church of God, the Divine Monarchy, making it as it were three powers and partitive subsistences and godheads three. I am told that some among you who are catechists and teachers of the Divine Word, take the lead in this tenet, who are diametrically opposed, so to speak, to Sabellius's opinions ; for he blasphemously says that the Son is the Father, and the Father the Son, but they in some sort preach three Gods, as dividing the sacred Monad into three subsistences foreign to each other and utterly separate. For it must needs be that with the God of the Universe, the Divine Word is united, and the Holy Ghost must repose and habitate in God ; thus in one as in a summit, I mean the God of the Universe, must the Divine Triad be gathered up and brought together, For it is the doctrine of the presumptuous Marcion, to sever and divide the Divine Monarchy into three origins,—a devil's teaching, not that of Christ's true disciples and lovers of the Saviour's lessons. For they know well that a Triad is preached by divine Scripture, but that neither Old Testament nor New preaches three Gods. Equally must one censure those who hold the Son to be a work, and consider that the Lord has come into being, as one of things which really came to be; whereas the divine oracles witness to a generation suitable to Him and becoming, but not to any fashioning or making. A blasphemy then is it, not ordinary, but even the highest, to say that the Lord is in any sort a handiwork. For if He came to be Son, once He was not ; but He was always, if (that is) He be in the Father, as He says Himself, and if the Christ be Word and Wisdom and Power (which, as ye know, divine Scripture says), and these attributes be powers of God. If then the Son came into being, once these attributes were not ; consequently there was a time, when God was without them ; which is most absurd. And why say more on these points to you, men full of the Spirit and well aware of the absurdities which come to view from saying that the Son is a work? Not attending, as I consider, to this circumstance, the authors of this opinion have entirely missed the truth, in explaining, contrary to the sense of divine and prophetic Scripture in the passage, the words, 'The Lord created me a beginning of His ways unto His works.'

For the sense of 'He created,' as ye know, is not one, for we must understand 'He created' in this place, as 'He set over the works made by Him,' that is, ‘made by the Son Himself,’ And 'He created' here must not be taken for 'made,' for creating differs from making. 'Is not He thy Father that hath bought thee? hath He not made thee and created thee?' says Moses in his great song in Deuteronomy. And one may say to them, O reckless men, is He a work, who is 'the First-born of every creature, who is born from the womb before the morning star,' who said, as Wisdom, 'Before all the hills He begets me?' And in many passages of the divine oracles is the Son said to have been generated, but nowhere to have come into being ; which manifestly convicts those of misconception about the Lord's generation, who presume to call His divine and ineffable generation a making'. Neither then may we divide into three Godheads the wonderful and divine Monad ; nor disparage with the name of 'work' the dignity and exceeding majesty of the Lord ; but we must believe in God the Father Almighty, and in Christ Jesus His Son, and in the Holy Ghost, and hold that to the God of the universe the Word is I united. For 'I,' says He, 'and the Father are one ;' and, 'I in the Father and the Father in Me.' For thus both the Divine Triad, and the holy preaching of the Monarchy, will be preserved." (NPNF - Second Series - 4.167, 168, bold emphasis mine – link to PDF; Migne's Greek text HERE.)

I found Dionysius’ statement that, "'He created' here must not be taken for 'made,' for creating differs from making” to be quite interesting…

Grace and peace,


Sunday, November 29, 2020

John Henry Newman’s, Arians of the Fourth Century

It has been about thirty years since I last read Newman’s Arians of the Fourth Century [1833 first edition (link); 1871 edition with added appendix (link)]. Though Arians was Newman’s first full-length book, it was the fourth of his books that I had read—An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, Apologia Pro Via Sua, and An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent being the prior three.

My current interest in Arians was precipitated whilst reading Rowan Williams’, Arius – Heresy and Tradition (1987, 2001 – Google preview). Williams wrote:

The modern critical study of the subject [i.e. Arius and Arianism] really begins with Newman’s justly celebrated essay of 1833, The Arians of the Fourth Century, a work many times reprinted, which exercised a formative influence on British scholarship in particular. Newman rightly claimed a degree of originality for his interpretation of the roots of Arianism… (p. 3)

Newman’s “originality” concerning “the roots of Arianism” was his belief that it was the theology of “the Church of Antioch” which was the primary source for Arius’ theology. He sharply contrasted this Antiochene church with the “Alexandrian church”. Newman’s contrast concerning these two churches is summed up by Williams in the following selection:

The Alexandrian church is held up, in contrast, as the very exemplar of traditional and revealed religion (ch. I, s. III, passim). So far from Arianism being the product of an unhealthy Alexandrian flirtation with philosophical mystagogy, and adulteration of the gospel by Platonism (pp. 7, 26), it is the result of a systematic refusal of true philosophy, a refusal of the wisdom that pierces the material veil of things, in favour of shallow materialism. In true Alexandrian (or at least Origenian) style, Newman regards certain exegetical options as moral and spiritual in character and effect. Antioch’s exegetical preference is no mere alternative within the spectrum of possible techniques: it is a spiritual deficiency. (p. 4)

Williams immediately follows the above summation of Newman’s assessment with a sharp critique; note the following:

One must charitably say that Newman is not at his best here: a brilliant argument, linking all sorts of diverse phenomena, is built up on a foundation of complacent bigotry and historical fantasy. However, setting aside for the moment the distasteful rhetoric of his exposition, it should be possible to see something of what his polemical agenda really is. The Arians of the Fourth Century is, in large part, a tract in defence of what the early Oxford Movement thought of as spiritual religion and spiritual authority. It works with a clear normative definition of Christian faith and practice, in which ascetical discipline goes hand-in-hand with the repudiation of Protestant biblicism (and Protestant rejection of post-scriptural development in teaching and devotion) and a commitment to the ‘principle of reserve’ a mystagogic approach to the faith in which deep mysteries could be concealed beneath simple forms and words and only gradually unveiled. (pp. 4, 5)

And in the next paragraph:

Newman’s version of the fourth-century crisis, then, rests upon a characterization of Arianism as radically ‘other’ in several respects. It is the forerunner of stolid Evangelicalism, Erastian worldliness (‘carnal, self-indulgent religion’), and—by 1874, anyway—the new style of university theology. (p. 5)

Williams' criticisms of Newman seemed quite harsh, and unfounded to me. I certainly did not discern the “complacent bigotry”, “historical fantasy” and “distasteful rhetoric” in my original reading of Arians. But then, given the fact that Dr. Williams is a highly respected patristic scholar, I wanted to see if I could find some basis for his assessments. Subsequent research revealed that Williams had written a lengthy introduction for the University of Notre Dame Press/Gracewing 2001 edition of Arians. On page XLVI, Williams wrote: “Newman regarded the book in later life with some real embarrassment” (Google preview). To support this assertion, he provided four references from the multi-volume project, Letter and Diaries of John Henry Newman. I have the first thirty volumes of this series, so I was able to look up all four references; and yes, it sure seems that Newman himself did in fact regard Arians with some real embarrassment”. Note the following:

TO W. S. LILLY – June 27, 1882

My dear Lilly,

I return with this letter your proof.[3]

The article is most singularly interesting and arresting.[4]

I think you praise my Arians too highly; it was the first book I wrote, and the work of a year, and it is inexact in thought and incorrect in language. When at a comparatively late date I was led to re-publish it, I should have liked to mend it, but I found that if I attempted it would come to pieces, and I should have to write it over again.

In saying this, I have no intention of withdrawing from the substance of what you quote from me; on the contrary, I hold it as strongly as I did fifty years ago when it was written; but I feel the many imperfections of the wording.[5]

Very sincerely yours, John H. Card. Newman.

[3] Lilly, who printed this letter in the Fortnightly Review (Sept. 1890). Could not remember what this proof was. [See page 434.

[4] This was ‘Sacred Books of the East’, DR (July 1882), pp. 1-32, reprinted in Lilly Ancient Religion and Modern Thought, London 1884, Chapter III.

[5] At the end of his article Lilly quoted with high praise from Ari. Pp. 81-6. (Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman XXX, p. 105)

It was John Nelson Darby’s Analysis of Dr. Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua (link) that prompted me to deeply ponder and reflect on my original reading of the book; Dr. Williams has now done the same for me concerning Arians of the Fourth Century.

Grace and peace,


Tuesday, November 17, 2020

An interesting nineteenth century prayer

The biographies/histories on Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright, Charles Finney, and Charles Hodge—four important figures of 19th century American Christianity—provided by Lynne Wilson in his 2010 dissertation [link], prompted me to look into other folk of 19th century American Christianity. One gent who caught my eye was Henry Grew [Wikipedia link]. 

At the beginning of his book, An Examination of the Divine Testimony Concerning the Character of the Son of God (1824), he provided the following prayer:

O LIGHT DIVINE ! O SPIRIT OF TRUTH ! beam on my dark mind, irradiate my benighted soul, to know him who is the joy of earth, and the glory of heaven. Open upon me the vision of truth, and shine into my heart, to give me the light of the knowledge of thy glory as it shines in the face of Jesus Christ. Rectify the errors of my understanding, and remove the coldness of my heart, by the overflowing of thy holy love. Oh, elevate my soul to the contemplation of the things which “the angels desire to look into;" the divinity, the humanity, the wisdom, power and love of that blest name which "is as ointment poured forth.” And while I am “looking unto Jesus,” encircle me with that holy radiance of truth which shall dispel all my darkness. O my God, what thou hast been pleased, in thine infinite love, to reveal concerning thy “beloved Son,” that mortals may have a glimpse of thy glory, grant me to know. I desire not to look into those “secret things” which belong to thee alone. It is my highest felicity to acknowledge, to love, and to adore thee as the incomprehensible source of all perfection, and to feel, that in thy sight I am less than nothing and vanity. But, O my Father , is it not my eternal life to know thee, “the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent?" Thou seest me encompassed with mine own infirmity, and with the diverse systems and traditions of erring men . Oh, call me away from these polluted streams to thine own pure fountain. Pity a poor worm of the dust that looks towards thee to direct his path, and in thine infinite condescension and mercy, grant me an understanding of that “wisdom of God” which the redeemed multitude shall celebrate to eternity, for thy dear Son's sake . Amen

Back to my studies…

Grace and peace,


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Joseph Smith's Doctrine of the Holy Spirit Contrasted with Cartwright, Campbell, Hodge, and Finney

Last week, I discovered Lynne Wilson’s dissertation—Joseph Smith's Doctrine of the Holy Spirit Contrasted with Cartwright, Campbell, Hodge, and Finney [LINK]. It happened almost by accident whilst I was checking some references from Matthew Brown’s, A Pillar of Light. Wilson’s contribution was not one of Brown’s references, but came up on the third page of a Google search. The title included three important figures of 19th century American Christianity—Campbell, Hodge and Finney—that I am quite familiar with, so I immediately downloaded the PDF, holding off on reading it until I finished Brown’s book.

From Wilson’s abstract, we read:

The dissertation is an historical-critical examination of Joseph Smith’s (1805-1844) sermons and writings from 1830 to 1844 to determine the scope of his doctrine on the Holy Ghost. Many biographers dismiss Joseph Smith as a product of his environment. Superficially, his thoughts on the Holy Ghost appear to fall within the mainstream of the enthusiastic outbursts of the Second Great Awakening, but a closer look shows that they are an abrupt and radical departure from the pneumatology of his day. To clarify the unique parameters of Smith’s pneumatology, it is necessary to place Smith's views in a historical context by examining the ideas circulating on the Holy Spirit in the early nineteenth century American Protestant thought. Smith’s views are compared to those of four of his contemporaries: Peter Cartwright (1785-1872) Alexander Campbell (1788- 1866), Charles Finney (1792-1875), and Charles Hodge (1797-1878). We examine these four men's use of the Holy Spirit from their sermons and other writings, and then compare them to Smith's interpretation.

I found Wilson’s dissertation to be quite informative. I suspect that even folk who are not particularly interested in Mormon studies will find value in this work. (The first 202 pages of the dissertation have a non-Mormon focus.)

Chapter 1 “Historical Context: Reactions to Revelation and to Mormonism”, “outlines two historical phenomena: a general early American religious interest in the Holy Spirit and a specific religious reaction to the rise and development of Mormonism in the early nineteenth century" (p. 13). Wilson starts with a look into a number of historical periods within America’s religious history, beginning with, the “Colonial (1620-1700)”, which included “immigrating Pilgrims, Puritans, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans, Catholics, and Anglicans" [pp.13, 14]. He moves on to “the “Enlightenment (1700s)” [pp. 15-17], and then draws attention to the, “First Great Awakening (1740s)” [pp. 17-20]—from this section we read:

The Puritans’ fervor waned in their progeny until a resurgence occurred between 1739 and 1741, known as the First Great Awakening. The charismatic British preacher George Whitefield (1714-70) ignited a religious renaissance to the thirteen colonies during his seven tours from Maine to Georgia...His enthusiastic sermons captivated tens of thousands, who followed with great religious commitment. A “spiritual new birth” or personal witness of the Holy Spirit was his core message. [pp. 17, 18]

Concerning Whitefield, I learned the following:

Whitefield sought the Spirit’s inspiration during prayer by incorporating lessons from the Imitation of Christ, a handbook on prayer, by Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471). [p. 18]

He then relates:

Equally as important as Whitefield’s revivals were Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758)  writings, calling Americans to seek the Spirit in a spiritual rebirth. Edwards, who became known as the father of American theology, emphasized the Holy Spirit working within humanity as “Spiritual and Divine Light immediately imparted to the soul by God.” [pp. 18, 19]

The next period is the “Revolutionary Era (1773-1791)” [pp. 20-22], which is then followed by the "Second Great Awakening (1801-1840)” [pp. 23-25]. This section provides the following extraordinary statistics:

Churches that emphasized a spiritual rebirth or witness of the Spirit before baptism grew the most dramatically during this time. Methodist membership rose from 4,921 members in 1776 to 130,570 in 1806. Similarly, Baptists grew from 53,101 in 1784 to 172,972 by 1810. These numbers are more significant in light of the fact “that the nation’s population did not even double during this interval.” [pp. 24, 25]

After the look into the above historical periods, Wilson then delves into the following topics: “Missionary Efforts”, "Training for the Ministry", "Volunteerism and Voluntary Societies", "Burned-over District", and "Reactions to Mormonism” [pp. 25-51]. The last section includes a survey of the anti-Mormon writings of three of the four Protestant contemporaries of Joseph Smith listed in the dissertation’s title: Alexander Campbell, Peter Cartwright, and Charles Finney.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the Methodist preacher, Peter Cartwright [pp. 52-80]. Chapter 3 is on the restorationist theologian, Alexander Campbell [pp. 81-118]. Chapter 4 focuses on, “arguably the greatest nineteenth-century conservative Presbyterian theologian", Charles Hodge [pp. 119-158]. Chapter 5 delves into, “the greatest revival preacher in the Second Great Awakening", Charles Finney [pp. 159-202].

Each of these four chapters has a “Biographical Sketch”, followed by an in depth, “Teachings on the Holy Spirit" section, and then ends with a concise “Conclusion". The chapters are excellent, giving readers an informative look into four important religious figures of early 19th American Christianity. Wilson has certainly ‘done his homework’ on these four men.

The titles of the final three chapters are self-explanatory. Chapter 6: "Joseph Smith Junior’s Biographical Background" [pp. 203-257]. Chapter 7: “Joseph Smith Junior’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit” [pp. 258-326]. And Chapter 8: "Comparing Smith with Cartwright, Campbell, Hodge, and Finney” [pp. 327-369].

Wilson discerned that all five men had a number of, “shared doctrines of the Holy Spirit". Note the following selection:

They all believed in the same Bible and shared biblical thought particularly in four areas: First, each man believed that God’s Spirit took part in creating the earth and humanity. Second, they understood that the Spirit assisted in applying the atonement or cleansing of sins. Third, they also all warned against false spirits and the dangers of being deceived by satanic influences. Fourth, they felt the Lord’s Spirit could commune with humanity, even though they differed on how that communication occurred. [p. 338]

Wilson immediately followed the above with:

On the other hand, the four religious leaders differed considerably from Smith in five major areas of pneumatology: Most notably, Smith did not limit the Spirit’s revelation to the Bible and professed to offer the world “new scripture.” Second, he did not believe in a Trinity that was ontologically one but viewed the Spirit in a Godhead of three separate personages. Third, he taught that obedient, baptized, church members could enjoy the constant companionship of the Spirit, termed: “the Gift of the Holy Ghost.” Smith used this idiom to refer to a special gift received via an ordinance administered through the laying on of hands by those who held a special “Melchizedek priesthood” or apostolic authority. Fourth, he enthusiastically embraced the gifts of the Spirit and believed all of them had been restored to the earth again. Finally, he claimed that the Holy Spirit of Promise sealed baptism and other ordinances dependent upon the obedience of each participant. [p. 339]

Wilson’s dissertation ends with five very useful appendices and a topical bibliography [pp. 370-549].

My overall assessment: an excellent contribution.

Hope at least some folk will take the time to read it…

Grace and peace,