J. Warren Smith

Professor of Historical Theology, Director of the Th.D. Program


047 Langford

Duke Divinity School
Box 90968
Durham, NC 27708-0968


B.A., Emory University
M. Div., S.T.M., Ph.D., Yale University

J. Warren Smith, 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 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.

Having examined Ambrose's theological foundation for the possibility of the virtuous life, Dr. Smith turns to the question of how this theology transforms pagan conceptions of the highest level of virtue. Ambrose, Augustine, and the Pursuit of Greatness (Cambridge, 2020) 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. Pursuit of 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.

He is currently working on a volume for Eerdman’s Publishing that traces the development of theology from the Apostolic era with Ignatius of Antioch to the high-water mark of Byzantine thought with Maximos the Confessor, entitled Early Christian Theology: A History

Beyond that Dr. Smith is turning to a project, tentatively entitled Plato and Christ: Platonism in Early Christian Theology, that will examine the significance of the tradition called "Christian Platonism" for Christianity in a post-modern age.

He lives in Durham with his wife, Kimberly Doughty, who is an EC resource teacher, and their children, Katherine and Thomas. His interests include playing with his English bulldog, walking in the Western NC mountains, painting military miniatures, reading Victorian literature, watching history and science documentaries, and studying U.S. and British diplomatic and political history.


In October 2003, Crossroad Publishing Co. released, Passion and Paradise: A Study of Theological Anthropology in Gregory of Nyssa, by J. Warren Smith. Visit Amazon.com to purchase Smith's book.

North American Patristic Society


  • Elizabeth Clark, The Origenist Controversy The Cultural Construction of an Early Christian Debate.
  • Brian Daley, The Hope of the Early Church: a Handbook of Patristic Eschatology.
  • Rowan A. Greer, Christian Hope and Christian Life Raids on the Inarticulate
  • Johannes Zachhuber, Human Nature in Gregory of Nyssa Philosophical Background and Theological Significance
  • Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and Its Legacy
  • Michel Barnes, The Power of God: Dynamis in Gregory of Nyssa’s Trinitarian Theology
  • John Behr, The Nicene Faith
  • David Dawson, Christian Figural Reading and the Formation of Identity
  • Paul L. Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of The Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought
  • Martin Laird, Gregory of Nyssa and the Grasp of Faith: Union, Knowledge, and Divine Presence
  • Margaret M. Mitchell, The Heavenly Trumpet: John Chrysostom and the Art of Pauline Interpretation
  • Robert Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought
  • Frances M. Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of the Christian Culture

Recommended Reading on Ambrose:

  1. Marcia Colish, Ambrose’s Patriarchs Ethics for the Common Man
  2. John Moorhead, Ambrose Church and Society in the Late Roman World
  3. Craig Satterlee, Ambrose of Milan’s Method of Mystagogical Preaching
  4. Daniel Williams, Ambrose and the End of the Nicene-Arian Conflict

Selected Publications

  • "Youth Ministry in American Methodism's Mission," Methodist History vol.19, no.4 (July 1981) pp.224-230.
  • "Macrina, Tamer of Horses and Healer of Souls:Grief and Hope in Gregory of Nyssa's De Anima et Resurrectione," Journal of Theological Studies, NS, Vol. 52, pt. 1 (April 2001) pp.37-60.
  • “Suffering Impassably’: Christ’s Passion in Cyril of Alexandria’s Soteriology,” Pro Ecclesia Vol. 11, no. 4 (Fall 2002) pp.463-83.
  • “John Wesley’s Growth in Grace and Gregory of Nyssa’s Epectasy: A Conversation in Dynamic Perfection,” Bulletin of the John Rylands UniversityLibrary of Manchester 85.2-3 (Summer and Autumn 2003) 347-58.
  • "'A Just and Reasonable Grief': The Death and Function of a Holy 'Woman' in Gregory of Nyssa's De Vita Macrinae" Journal of Early Christian Studies 12.1 (Spring 2004) pp.57-84.
  • Passion and Paradise: Human and Divine Emotion in the Thought of Gregory of Nyssa (New York: Crossroad Publishers, 2004)
  • “Martyrdom: Self-Denial or Self-Exaltation? Motives for Self-Sacrifice from Homer to Polycarp A Theological Reflection,” Modern Theology 22.2 (April 2006) pp.169-96.
  • “The Body of Paradise and the Body of the Resurrection: Gender and the Angelic Life in Gregory of Nyssa’s De hominis opificioHarvard Theology Review (forthcoming in April 2007)
  • “Augustine and the Limits of Pre-emptive and Preventive War,” Journal of Religious Ethics (forthcoming, Spring 2007)
  • “Justification and Merit before the Pelagian Controversy: The Case of Ambrose of Milan” Pro Ecclesia (forthcoming Spring 2007)
  • "Ambrose, Paul, and the Conversion of the Jews," Ex Auditu 25 (2009): 175-98.
  • "Desire." In The Brill Dictionary of Gregory of Nyssa, edited by Lucas Francisco Mateo-Seco and Giulio Maspero; translated by Seth Cherney (Leiden: Brill, 2010).
  • Christian Grace and Pagan Virtue: The Theological Foundation of Ambrose’s Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • "Cappadocian Fathers." In The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Ian McFarland et al. (Cambridge University Press, 2011).
  • "The Trinity in the Fourth Century Fathers." In Oxford Handbook on the Trinity, edited by Giles Emery and Matthew Levering (Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • "Divine Ecstasy and Divine Simplicity: The Eros Motif in Pseudo-Dionysius's Soteriology." Pro Ecclesia 21.2 (Spring 2012): 211-27.

Papers at Academic Conferences

  • Aug. 2006 “In or Out of the Body: Ambrose’s Account of Paul’s Mystical Ascent on the Third Heaven” at the Boston College Colloquy in Historical Theology
  • May 2006 “Natural Capacity or Gift of Grace: Ambrose’s Conception of Fides in the Patriarchal Treatises and De Paradiso” at North American Patristics Society
  • Nov. 2004 “Augustine and the Limits of Pre-emptive and Preventive War,” American Academy of Religion, San Antonio, Texas
  • June 2003 “John Wesley’s Growth in Grace and Gregory of Nyssa’s Epectasy: A Conversation in Dynamic Perfection,” at John Wesley: Life, Legend, and Legacy, (Wesley Tercentenary Conference, University of Manchester, Manchester, England)
  • Nov. 2002 “The Body of the Resurrection and the Body of Paradise: Gender, Sexuality, and the Angelic Body in Gregory of Nyssa’s De Hominis Opificio” at The American Academy of Religion, Toronto, Canada
  • Aug. 2002 “The Hope of Holiness: The New Creation according to Gregory of Nyssa and John Wesley,” Oxford Institute of Methodist Studies, Christ Church, Oxford
  • Nov. 2001 “Impassible Suffering: Christ’s Passion and Divine Impassiblity in Cyril of Alexandria,” at American Academy of Religion, Denver, CO.
  • May 2001 “Augustine’s Reading of Psalm 51 and the Transmission of Concupiscence,” at The North American Patristics Society, Chicago, IL.
  • May 1998 “Macrina, A Breaker of Horses: The Problem of Grief in Gregory of Nyssa’s De Anima et Resurrectione” at North American Patristics Society, Chicago, IL.

Book Reviews

  • Learning Theology with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall Church History 72.3 (Spring 2003) pp.645-7.
  • Ambrose’s Patriarchs Ethics for the Common Man by Marcia L. Colish, Pro Ecclesia 15.3 (Summer 2006) pp.358-62.
  • Nicaea and its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology by Lewis Ayres, Modern Theology (Spring 2007)

Other Publications (non-academic)

  • “Too Racy for Bible Study” Christian History Issue 80 (2003)
  • The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: Evangelical Propaganda?” United Methodist Reporter, December 2005
  • “New Life through Resurrection” in Youth and Faith ed. Fred Edie (forthcoming)

Recent Courses

  • HistTheo 399 “The Moral Theology of Ambrose of Milan”
  • HistTheo 220 “Virtue and Virility: Christian and Non-Christian Conceptions of Masculinity”
  • CH 13 “Early and Medieval Christianity”
  • HistTheo 215 “History of the Alexandrian School: Philo to Cyril”
  • HistTheo 308 “Greek Patristic Texts”
  • HistTheo 223 “Theology of the Cappadocians”
  • HistTheo 318 “Topics in Patristic Theology: Latin Trinitarian Theology in 4th and 5th Centuries”