Review: The Earliest Christologies, by James Papandrea

James L. Papandrea, The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016. 144 pp. $18.00 (paperback)

Kevin W. Wong, Wheaton College


            A student attending seminary or Bible college, with their incredibly condensed historical theology courses, might get the impression that Christology did not see much development until after Arianism: Forced to respond to this heresy, the Church had to then refine and test their theological definitions. However, in his book The Earliest Christologies: Five Images of Christ in the Postapostolic Age, James Papandrea challenges that impression by giving a survey of five different views of Christology in the postapostolic age. And while the reader is justifiably suspicious of an easy rubric with categories exhibiting firm, clearly discernable borders, Papandrea insists that these five views are rather points on a spectrum as emphases that grant us an interpretive matrix to judge family resemblances.


            Neither the book as a whole or its chapters are long, making this a convenient read. The introductory chapter outlines the need for this book: Most other studies focus upon the speculative cosmologies of the postapostolic age to the neglect of explicit treatment of Christology. Papandrea argues that an investigation focusing on Christology not only elucidates the rise of later heresies, such as Arianism, but it also clarifies our understanding of Gnosticism. For example, responding to Michael Williams and Karen King’s contention that scholars ought to rid of the term ‘Gnosticism’ since there was not a unified intellectual movement, Papandrea argues that shared Christological views unify this wide array of disparate beliefs into two major camps (20). Papandrea then offers several insightful principles by which the reader can better understand the five views he will describe. First, each view struggles with the dilemma between Christ’s apparent humanity and apparent divinity: To emphasize one nature is to challenge the other. All five views agree that we, humanity, needs a mediator for reconciliation, but disagree on what is meant exactly that Christ is the mediator and how he would obtain reconciliation. And finally, the five views are generated by different metaphysical assumptions about divinity: Must divinity be uncreated? Is divinity a categorical or degreed phenomenon? Does divinity entail immutability and impassibility?

The body of the book is dedicated to the five different views laid out in a spectrum: First, the two forms of Adoptionism on one extreme, then the two forms of Gnosticism on the other extreme, and finally the orthodox view in the middle of the spectrum. Each of these explanatory chapters share the same format of an introduction, a description of the view, a section on their major historical proponents and documents, then concluding with a summary and implications.

To preserve the immutability and impassibility of divinity, the two forms of Adoptionism maintain Jesus’ humanity and deny his divinity. The first view is what Papandrea calls Angel Adoptionism, the view that the human Jesus is adopted to be a son of God by being indwelt by the spiritual Christ, a created spiritual being—either an angel or something like it. The second view, Spirit Adoptionism, is similar except that the human Jesus is anointed by the Christ who is identical with the Holy Spirit. In this respect, the human Jesus is not unique at all among the OT prophets who were likewise empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Conversely, the two forms of Gnosticism preserve the immutability and impassibility of divinity by denying Jesus’ humanity. The first view under this school of thought is Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism. This group is unified by one of two beliefs: It is possible that Jesus had a body but that he was not really human or both Jesus’ humanity and corporeality were illusory. Docetism proper preceded Docetic Gnosticism and continued in its pure form after the emergence of the latter. Docetic Gnosticism is a syncretism that incorporated the Gnostic emphasis on secret knowledge and elaborate cosmologies with their complicated pantheon of deities. These two are put together in this chapter because of their shared Christology. The second view is Hybrid Gnosticism. This is also more of a collection of beliefs than a singular school of thought. Here, many doubted that Christ could suffer and die, but if he could it is only because he “puts on” or “bears” Jesus as a temporary garment shielding him, the cosmic mind, from the passion. Both versions of Gnosticism viewed the human body as something to be discarded rather than valuable. That then has implications upon ethics, leading to asceticism and neglect for the poor or outright hedonism.

The above four views are similar to one another in that they all distinguish between Jesus and the Christ in some way. Even the Docetism and Docetic Gnosticism view, for the reality is the Christ and the human Jesus is illusory. Salvation and resurrection are also skewed along with this dichotomy. For example, Papandrea argues that the salvation of humans is impossible on the Docetic views since it was not a human enacting atonement. Or for the adoptionist views, if one human being could by sheer effort gain favor with God, then so can all others, leading to a form of legalism. Further, an actual bodily resurrection may make no sense to these schools of thought

Thus the orthodox view, the Logos Christology, is unique in that it not only preserves the immutability and impassibility of divinity while insisting upon the authentic humanity of Jesus, but it also identifies Jesus and the Christ as one and the same person. This view is unique among all others for its acceptance of all Scripture and asking how it is all true rather than which ones are true. Historically a common objection from the orthodox to these other views is that the latter distorts Scripture by picking and choosing select texts. Additionally, this is the only view that has a true Incarnation since the union between the divine and human natures are permanent: The resurrection means Jesus comes back to life in a physical, human body. All other views are mere indwellings or inhabitations, and temporary ones at that. Further, salvation is secured for humans since it does not promote Jesus as a merely moral or spiritual exemplar nor is humanity something to be discarded by enlightenment.

Papandrea’s concluding chapter draws out several implications. First, why did the orthodox Christology win? The answer: Apostolic succession. One could easily discern which is the more faithful teaching by seeing whom the apostles favored as being faithful. Logos Christology also won out for being the middle way, of being capable of preserving both the divinity and humanity of Christ. It accepted all Scripture and asked how they can be true rather than which passages are true, embracing mystery in that regard. Further, he ties Christology with anthropology together: How one views Christ will ultimately affect how one views humanity. And finally, he traces the legacy of these views, showing them to be the precursors for later heresies, including those unwittingly accepted by the contemporary Church.


            As I am not a historian, I am not qualified to judge whether Papandrea’s research is accurate or not. I leave that for specialists. However, I do think I am qualified to comment on the conceptualization and communication.

First, Papandrea is fairly clear and thorough in his descriptions of the five views. The rubric that presents the features that distinguish one view from another along a spectrum is understandable and informative. He avoids using more traditional terms, such as ‘Ebionite’ or ‘Marcionite’ since these labels on their own are not informative of the exact nature of the problem and are often used as a catchall that blurs the distinctions between the groups (23), and instead uses his own, far more descriptive labels.

Further, the book is resoundingly thought-provoking, for the depictions of these various views confront the contemporary Christian and her various misconceptions, and even inadequacies. For example, depending on how it is parsed out, a Spirit Christology of the sort that we find in New Testament studies is a helpful corrective to the systematic theological tendency to abstract Jesus from both his humanity and Jewishness. He was a human empowered by the Spirit to do mighty works to fulfill the office of prophet. Yet, the views surveyed in this book is a warning against too much of an emphasis on such a view lest we deplete the divinity of Jesus.

Additionally, Papandrea’s analysis that the underlying Christological commitments informed the theological anthropology of the various proponents is to be praised. Too often theological anthropology is conducted without Christological consideration, as though Christ was not an important source of information for this doctrine. So Papandrea’s analysis that all five views bearing anthropological implications was insightful, if not also terribly uncomfortable. For example, if it is the case that Christ was not truly human and discarded the physical shell that was Jesus, then what is the chief end of humans like you and I? If it is merely to shed the mortal coil, what motivation do we have for supplying for poor, hungry bodies? Suddenly, certain contemporary eschatological views are not so attractive any more.

However, I have potentially two complaints concerning the rhetoric of Papandrea’s book, both relatively minor. The first complaint that might emerge among readers is the repetition of this book. It can be tedious to read and then re-read the descriptions of the views. Yet, as Papandrea is comparing views against one another to clarify and analyze, this may be unavoidable, especially for when the views are so similar as to be distinct only by a hair (compare the Gnostic versions portrayed above and you will find their conceptual distinctions to be only slightly different, even if their ethics were widely divergent).

The more substantial of my minor complaints is Papandrea’s occasion ambiguity of language. No author is perfect, least of all myself. But several examples come to mind where Papandrea could have been clearer for the sake of theological implications.

The first example is a conflation between indwelling and possession in the second chapter. In describing Angel Adoptionism, the view that the Christ is a spiritual being that comes upon the human Jesus of Nazareth, Papandrea rightly describes that “This is not an incarnation,” but curiously qualifies with the following: “but rather a possession—different from demon possession only because of the benevolence of the indwelling spiritual presence” (31). This seems confused, for possession seems to take a very specific connotation wholly unlike indwelling. The former has this sense that the possessor overrides the causal relations of the owner of a body. So if Legion were to possess poor Bob, Legion raises Bob’s arms in superhuman strength to overcome restraints—both human hands and chains. Legion may also thrust Bob’s body, against Bob’s will, into fire and water. Contrast that with our concept of indwelling. This seems to be empowerment, the shaping of character and the actualization of dormant or damaged capacities. It is the alignment of the human will with the divine will, a willing submission. Maybe such fine conceptual distinctions can be borne by Papandrea’s rubric of the one being malicious and the other being benevolent (a benevolent relationship would not override another’s causal relationships with her body, right?), but it would have been more conceptually satisfactory to not put these two in the same category and made distinct only by their underlying moral properties.

The second example is that Papandrea describes the Spirit Adoptionism—the view that Jesus is adopted as a son of God by being anointed with the Holy Spirit at his baptism only to have the Spirit depart at his crucifixion—as being neither an indwelling or incarnation, but rather only merely an inspiration or empowerment (35–36). Fair enough. But later, he describes a variation of this view by one Beryllus of Bostra who taught that it was the Father who indwelt Jesus. How much modification is there with Beryllus’ view? Is it merely that he swapped out the person of the Holy Spirit and inserted the Father instead? Or is it both that he swapped out the person of the Holy Spirit and inserted the Father instead and the relationship the Father has with Jesus is one of indwelling rather than inspiration/empowerment? No further description is given to clarify. Later on he returns to the language of anointing, inspiration, and empowerment (41) and concludes the chapter by highlighting that the Angel Adoptionism emphasized indwelling whereas Spirit Adoptionism emphasized anointing (42). This raises questions of whether someone’s (Papandrea’s or an editor’s) pen slipped in describing Beryllus’s view or if Beryllus made significant modifications.

The third example is where Papandrea contrasts the Logos Christology against the other four views concerning the unity of the person of Christ. Papandrea describes Logos Christology as “maintaining that the human nature of Jesus Christ suffered while the divine nature did not” (90). Such a minimalist description, however, invites questions: if the human nature suffers, does the person possessing the human nature suffer as well? Later, Papandrea explicitly states: “However, his divine nature participated in the incarnation to such an extent that it is legitimate to say that the whole person of Jesus Christ, divine and human, was born into the world through the womb of Mary and was made visible and tangible through his human body” (103), but it would have been useful if he likewise explicitly stated that the entire person is specifically involved in the passion as well. As it is for the virgin, so too is it for the cross.

The fourth example of ambiguity is when Papandrea traces the line from Gnosticism to modalism, he claims, “However, the modalist understanding of the Trinity claimed that the Father and the Son were one and the same, which effectively left no room for any real humanity in the Son” (121–22, and something similar on 123). I confess, I’m not entirely clear on this. How exactly is it the case that if the Father and the Son lack all distinctions and are completely numerically identical does that jeopardize the human nature that God assumes? I even returned to chapter four to see if he had made the conceptual maneuvers clearer there, but I did not see anything there.

Still, these examples are not fatal to Papandrea’s overall project. Still, I found reading this book to be quite enjoyable, surprising, thought-provoking, and educational. I recommend this book for any Christology course, as an assigned text for undergraduates or required background reading for graduates. I would even recommend it for adult Sunday School since many Evangelical churches I have participating in are good with presenting and exegeting individual biblical passages, but are not as adept at overall theological reasoning. Papandrea has done both the academy and the Church a service with this conveniently sized book.

My thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy.

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St Andrews Fellows in Science & Theology

From their website:

The St Andrews Fellows in Science & Theology is a multi-million-dollar project generously funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Its goal is to build on the past generation of work at the intersection of theology, religion, and the human and natural sciences by fostering a network of young scholars to create a new generation of research. The vision for this new generation aspires to innovate by:

  • Creating space for empirical study within departments of theology/religion, where science and religion are sometimes viewed as a sideline. This includes seeking to publish in mainstream theology journals, where work at the intersection of theology and science may so far be overlooked, as well as expanding the course catalogs of theology degree programs to include the topic.
  • Moving beyond the methodological questions that have sometimes delayed or even hindered genuine interdisciplinary work. Sometimes these worries have come from scientists, supposing cooperation with religious studies violates the norms of rationality; other times it has come from religious believers, supposing empirical science threatens orthodoxy or the Bible. Rather than focusing on methodological questions, we are interested in research that brings these disciplines together in productive and creative ways. To be credible, theology cannot ignore the products of empirical enquiry.

For more information about the Fellowship and how to apply, visit

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Conference: Love & Humility in Politics

Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought is hosting a conference on love and humility in politics on September 16th to 17th. Details for registration can be found here.

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Review: Forsaken, by Thomas McCall

Thomas H. McCall, Forsaken: The Trinity and the Cross, and Why It Matters (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012. 171 pp. $20.00 (paperback)

Kevin W. Wong



Many a theologian lament that the common Evangelical church-goer is biblically and theologically illiterate, particularly during the school year when colleges and universities receive a fresh crop of wide-eyed students who grew up on a steady diet of Bible stories and Sunday school sermons. Yet, those same theologians are hard-pressed to recommend good materials in order to aid the Church with its religious education, finding the majority to be either too superficial or too technical. So I am pleased that Thomas McCall tackles the intersection of several complicated theological topics with the church-goer in mind (as well as those newly minted college students).

Contrary to expectations one might derive from the blurb on the back cover, McCall’s book is not an analysis exclusively centered upon the Cry of Dereliction (Mark 15:34/Matt 27:46). Rather, McCall uses the Cry of Dereliction as an entry point into the underlying theological convictions that give rise to two competing interpretations: Whether or not the Trinity was ruptured at the crucifixion. The Cry of Dereliction is, then, a sort of heuristic to test our theology. So although certain portions of the book look as though McCall has strayed from the original topic of Christ’s quotation of Ps. 22 at the cross, it is only because he is analyzing the complex constellation of theological topics that calibrate our understanding of what is occurring at that event. So by McCall’s lights, the questionable interpretations of the Cry of Dereliction is less of a problem per se and more of a symptom of deeper problems.



The book’s structure is fairly simple and straightforward. All four chapters, with a slight exception for the third, follow a standard pattern: a summary and analysis of a theological topic related to interpreting the Cry of Dereliction, ending with a three-fold conclusion of what is to be rejected, what is to be affirmed, and why does it matter. The third chapter lacks the why does it matter section, but that may be because the fourth chapter seems to fill that role even though it has its own why does it matter section (perhaps one can think of this as why it really, REALLY matters—which is not entirely speculative given the topic of that section; see below).

In chapter 1, McCall lays the foundation of the investigation by surveying the lines of reasoning of major modern thinkers who take the Cry of Dereliction to indicate a breaking in the Trinity, most notably Jürgen Moltmann among the theologians and a plethora of familiar names among biblical scholars. McCall then contrasts that with a brief review of major historical figures—ranging from Athanasius to Aquinas to Calvin—demonstrating that the ruptured Trinity view is a recent phenomenon. But rather than merely appealing to tradition (i.e. we should believe it because it has always been believed), McCall builds an exegetical and theological case for rejecting this recent turn. He admits that the Son was abandoned in some sense, but it was not a breaking of his relationship to the Father. Rather, the Father and the Son, along with the Spirit, acts as one to achieve the atonement. The Father abandons the Son in the sense that the former sends the latter to suffer at the hands of humanity, but that does not mean that the Father cuts himself off from the Son or, worse still, actively participates in making the Son suffer.

And so in chapter 2, McCall focuses on rebutting that frequently held view that the Father poured his wrath out upon the Son. McCall carefully situates the wrath of God with the love of God, arguing that they are not in opposition to one another for a variety of reasons including divine impassibility and divine simplicity. Further, he argues that the operations of God are indivisible, meaning that none of the Persons of the Trinity can act in isolation from the other two. McCall then brings these two strands of argumentation to show that the Father did not then have wrath upon the Son as though the two were against one another, but rather that they are united in their enacting the atonement at the cross. Further, it is God’s love that enables the atonement rather than the other way around. McCall is sure to reiterate that God does in fact have wrath, but it is directed toward sin which blocks our access to him.

But if the Son’s crucifixion did not concern being subjected to the Father’s wrath, what was it about? McCall answers with the third chapter that the crucifixion was a victory, not a tragedy. The cross was always something planned, as part of the divine orchestration of history to save humanity—seen not only in the planning in the Old Testament but also and especially in that God the Father raises the Son back to life. Even though it was planned from the very beginning, McCall insists that we ought not say that the Father killed the Son, but rather it was humanity that did so. Finally, McCall contends that the crucifixion is a victory on two fronts: It provides satisfaction for past sins and provides a way to correct humanity’s disposition toward sin.

That two-sided victory is the topic for the final full chapter. McCall explicates the doctrines of justification and sanctification. Nothing he says here is unusual except that he situates them within Trinitarian theology, something church-goers might not be regularly exposed to. It is not difficult to come to a modalist understanding of the Trinity with the familiar theological tropes being endlessly rehearsed: The Father creates, the Son saves, the Spirit indwells. As though only one Person of the Trinity is active at a time. Instead, McCall argues that all three Persons are active at every stage of salvation. He ends by emphasizing that salvation is not merely a reality to look forward to, but it is a reality that we can and do experience now.

Should the reader still think all of this has been an exercise in speculative, theoretical theology, McCall ends his book with a personal testimony that reiterates to me what my beloved undergraduate theology professor, David Horner, has taught me and has rung true time and again: Ideas have consequences. They may not immediately manifest in one’s life, but once embedded, they significantly contribute to one’s character. McCall exemplifies this very conviction by sharing a touching story about the illness and eventual passing of his own father. Ought he to despair? No, because God’s nature and character is unbreakable, even unto how the three Persons relate to one another. That unmovable, unshakeable foundation provides the surest stability.



The virtues of this book are many, but I will highlight some of particular interest. First, as I said, this is not an academic book. That might sound like an odd praise coming from an academician, but it makes sense when we remember that far too often academic books are written (if not intentionally, then unremorsefully) to alienate non-specialists. And though theologians roll their eyes at the disdain for their field that they experience by the church-goer, they often do little to make it more accessible (admittedly, I am all too guilty of this as well). So I commend and am inspired by McCall’s efforts to convey such lofty theological concepts in a more conversational, though still challenging, manner. Still, McCall hopes that specialists would benefit from this book and I think a practitioner from the guild would. Not only is this a great book to introduce the myriad of theology topics—such as the Trinitarian relations, the operations of the Trinity, the atonement, divine attributes such as impassibility and simplicity—but the bibliography is a good resource for those wishing to pursue further research. So, happily, any reader from any level of theological sophistication should benefit from this book.

Second, especially since McCall’s target audience are church-goers, his incredibly condensed historical treatments are invaluable. Evangelical churches suffer from not engaging in the tradition enough. McCall does not merely quote these great thinkers, as though that were sufficient to win the argument. Rather he makes his own argument, showing that these thinkers are not obsolete or ignorant as we sophisticated twenty-first century folk are sometimes led to believe.

But alas, no book is perfect, not even this little gem. Thankfully, none of the book’s shortcomings are fatal. First, an irritation. Some of the names of authors have been misspelled in both the main text and the corresponding footnote. I do not fault McCall personally since a book undergoes multiple processes before its final manifestation in print. Any step along the way is the possible culprit from his word processor trying to autocorrect to a compatibility error between the word processor and a bibliographic software to a copyeditor not reading thoroughly. Still, this is an irritation that is easily remedied (I hear there’s this thing called a search engine; perhaps I should use it). I am more than certain McCall is embarrassed by it, whether his fault or otherwise, so I will not give specific examples.

Second, although I think his appeals to traditional figures are needed, one wonders how authoritative they can be without an accompanying justification for paying attention to those traditional figures. In his first chapter, he noted that giants in the Christian tradition were adamantly opposed to any breaking of the Trinitarian relations. But deviating from tradition would not faze many church-goers I know who have built their spiritual lives on the (unintentionally ironic) principle “No creed but the Bible.” McCall keenly anticipates this by reinforcing the thoughts of these great thinkers with biblical exegesis and theological reasoning. But he could have made some gesture to show that the tradition has something important to say and not just that we contemporary Christians just so happened to have agreed with them in some happy accident. This is not a major criticism, however, as any remedy that McCall might attempt at justifying the authority of church tradition would inflate his otherwise slim book. And it is not his particular burden to do so, since it is a common problem of Evangelical identity: How do we relate to the larger tradition? So any using his book must anticipate this sort of conversation to emerge.

Third, McCall sometimes reverts back to his academic prose. Although the majority of the book is fairly accessible, there are moments where I can imagine the church-goer being unnecessarily challenged or befuddled. For example, on page 71, as he elucidates why divine love necessitates impassibility, he then quotes Weinandy’s talk of “subsistent relations fully in act.” Although I know what that phrase means because of years of training in Christian higher education, this is not common Evangelical church parlance. And I think it is unnecessary for the point he is trying to make.

Still, this book is a worthy volume to purchase for use in Sunday school or as an undergraduate textbook. It is also a fine resource for seminary or graduate students needing some remedial reading to fill in gaps in their theological training. I highly recommend it and look forward to more work by Dr. McCall.

My thanks to IVP Academic for the review copy.

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CFP and Grant Opportunity: Claremont Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference

Forum Humanum Claremont Conference Grants 2017 Call for Papers

Each year the Claremont Annual Philosophy of Religion Conference brings together thinkers from different religions, traditions, and academic disciplines to discuss one particular theme in the fields of Religion, Theology and Philosophy of Religion. The theme of the 38th conference will be The Meaning and Power of Negativity. The conference will be held at Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California, on February 17-18, 2017. Speakers will include: Emil Angehrn (Basel); Stephen Davis (Claremont); Andrew Hass (Stirling); Thomas Schmidt (Frankfurt); Willemien Otten (Chicago); Nancy van Deusen (Claremont); Elizabeth Pritchard (Bowdoin); Halla Kim (University of Nebraska Omaha); Asle Eikrem (Norwegian School of Theology); Yuval Avnur (Scripps).

The Udo Keller Stiftung Forum Humanum (Hamburg) has generously provided 10 conference grants ($2200 each) to enable doctoral students and new PHDs (not earlier than 2012) to participate in the conference. The grant is meant to cover all expenses. Recipients will have the opportunity to attend the conference on Friday and Saturday and to present a paper (15 double- spaced pages) on the topic of the conference. To create space for the discussion of their contributions, a pre-conference seminar will be held on Thursday, February 16, on the same topic as the main conference. All grant recipients will be expected to participate in this seminar and introduce not their own but one of the other papers for discussion. Five papers will be chosen for publication along with the conference contributions in the Claremont Studies of Philosophy of Religion (Mohr Siebeck Tübingen).

We invite doctoral students and recent PhDs to submit a one page CV and a 5 page abstract of their proposed paper on the topic of ‘The Meaning and Power of Negativity’ (word, double- spaced, anonymous for blind review). For a more detailed description of the conference topic see Applications should be sent by email to

Prof. Dr. Ingolf U. Dalferth ( Department of Religion
Claremont Graduate University
831 North Dartmouth Avenue

Claremont, CA 91711

by August 31, 2016 (midnight Pacific time) . Please also cc Applications will be blind reviewed by an international committee of scholars. Recipients will be notified in October. Drafts of the papers are due by January 15, 2017.

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CFP: Conference on Theology and the Philosophy of Science

Concordia University of Edmonton has announced an upcoming conference entitled “Theology and the Philosophy of Science: Analytic, Scholastic, and Historical Perspectives,” to take place from October 14-15, 2016. There are still space available for paper submission. Details can be found here.

Deadline is August 25.

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Claremont Philosophy of Religion Conference and Grant

The Udo Keller Stiftung Forum Humanum (Hamburg) has generously provided grants of $2,200 each to enable students to participate in the international Claremont Philosophy of Religion conference held in Claremont, California every February. The theme of the Feb. 16-18, 2017 conference will be The Meaning and Power of Negativity.

This is an excellent opportunity for doctoral students to receive a grant, participate in the conference, and also have their contributions published. The application (due August 31, 2016) requires a one page CV and a 5 page, double-spaced abstract of the proposed paper. See the attached announcement for more details about the application and the conference. More information can also be found at and

(information courtesy of Trevor Kimball)

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