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J. Warren Smith

Professor of Historical Theology
Divinity School
Duke Box 90967, Durham, NC 27708
047 Langford, Durham, NC 27708


J. Warren Smith, Associate Professor of Historical Theology, is interested in the history of theology broadly conceived from the apostles to the present, but his primary focus is upon patristic theology. His book, Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa (Crossroad, 2004) is a study of Nyssen’s ascetic theology as the intersection of his anthropology, soteriology, and eschatology. Central to this project is Nyssen’s view of the sublimation and transformation of human emotions and their role in his theory of epectacy, i.e. the soul’s eternal movement into God’s infinite and eternal being. The impetus behind the book was Dr. Smith’s concern for the question of realized eschatology: how can we in the present age live into the eschatological reality inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection? His recent book, Christian Grace and Pagan Virtue: The Theological Foundation of Ambrose's Ethics (Oxford, 2010), examines how Ambrose's interpretation of Paul and his understanding of sin's corruption of human nature and of baptismal regeneration provides the condition for the Christian's cultivation of virtue. The larger thesis is that Christian ethics can never stand apart from theology, specifically the soteriological role of grace in healing human nature and equipping the Christian for the life of virtue.

Dr. Smith’s current project is an outgrowth of his work on Ambrose's theology. Having examined Ambrose's theological foundation for the possibility of the virtuous life, Dr. Smith examines how the theology transforms early Christian conceptions of virtue. This project, tentatively entitled Transforming Greatness: Ambrose, Augustine, and the Perfection of Virtue, traces the Christian critique, appropriation, and adaptation of the Aristotelian ideal of the Great-Souled or Magnanimous Man.   Since Aristotle, the concept of the magnanimous or Great-Souled man was employed by Classical and Hellenistic philosophers to describe individuals who attained the highest degree of virtue. So naturally when early Christians drew on the language of Classical and Hellenistic virtue theory to speak of the Christian moral life, they also used the language of magnanimity. Yet the pagan language of virtue and magnanimity could not be appropriated whole cloth; the ideal of the magnanimous man had to be baptized so as to conform with the Christian theological understanding of righteousness. Transforming Greatness is a work in the history of Christian theological ethics that examines how Ambrose's and Augustine's theological commitments influenced their different critiques, appropriations, and modifications of the language of magnanimity. Thus the project engages patristic scholars interested in the development of Christian theology, philosophers and constructive theologians, such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jennifer Herdt, who work in the field of virtue ethics, and Classicists interested in the Christian transformation of pagan culture.

Research projects on the horizon: 1) "Not as those without hope": Toward a Christian Theology of a Death and Consolation will be a constructive project that brings into conversation patristic and contemporary theologians on the nature of death and hope in order to understand how Christian may live in the shadow of death and confront the death of loved ones in a way that reveals the distinctiveness of a life lived in hope of the resurrection.   2) Plato and Christ: Platonism in Early Christian Theology will examine the significance of the tradition called "Christian Platonism" and is significance for Christianity in a post-modern age.

Dr. Smith is also a United Methodist minister from the North Carolina Annual Conference. He lives in Durham with his wife, Kimberly Doughty, who is a school social worker, and their children, Katherine and Thomas. His interests outside of Duke Divinity School include hiking, studying the American Civil War and 19th century British history, and ACC basketball (men’s and women’s).

Current Appointments & Affiliations

Professor of Historical Theology · 2021 - Present Divinity School

Education, Training & Certifications

Duke University · 1999 Ph.D.
Yale University · 1990 M.Div.
Emory University · 1986 B.A.