In response to my last post, William asked how we expect people to present ancient/medieval/early modern — historic — Christianity ‘in modern or po-mo parlance’. This is a good question. We have to admit that there is a remove between ourselves and the pre-modern world, first of all. We have much in common with our forebears in the faith, being human and Christian and all that.
But our educational background, our educational system, our politics, the religion of our non-Christian neighbours, the philosophy of the surrounding culture, what art is — these things are different.
Two approaches to groundwork, then.
First, acknowledge the difference between us and St Augustine and discern accurately and lovingly our surrounding culture — the spiritual but not religious, people who actually like Brutalist architecture (or claim to, anyway), the hedonists, the perfectly happy agnostics and atheists, as well as groups that include both Christians and those who have yet to know Christ — feminists, vegetarians, Republicans, New Labour, the French.
What are these people’s desires and aspirations? For those who reject Jesus, why? What do they think of Him?
Then, if you know the Great Tradition, you can speak its truths in ways that will make sense. What does that look like? It looks like the Gospel as your close friends would like to hear it.
This sort of approach is what Robert E. Webber did with his ‘Ancient-Future’ books, consciously trying to use patristics to speak to postmodernity.
The other is almost the opposite. I, personally, gravitate towards this. Simply try to make the doctrines and practices of the ancients comprehensible. Ask yourself, ‘Why does this matter? What exactly is this doctrine saying?’ Rewrite a doctrinal statement in your own words. Or learn the ancient languages and translate the texts for yourself. Having digested them, try simply to talk about them as a normal human being. (This is hard for me — I am not normal.)
This second approach is more like Christopher A. Hall’s three books from IVP, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshiping with the Church Fathers or Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, that simply try to be straightforward introductions to the Church Fathers.
A bit like both is Chris R. Armstrong’s Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians.
These books could be recommended to friends, parishioners, study leaders, whomever. Start a patristics study group and use one of these as an entry point. Or you could run a seminar for your church, like I did for Nicosia’s Greek Evangelical Church in 2013.
For me, though, I’ve always enjoyed grappling with the texts themselves. I really appreciate the books above and how some of them ushered me into the world of patristic thought. But in the end, people like me don’t want to see congregations reading books about the Fathers and medieval theologians, or about spiritual disciplines. We want to see fellow believers enriching their lives with the ancient, medieval, early modern texts themselves, and applying spiritual disciplines to their own lives.
To this end, one might need a budget and a bit of discernment. Or a good research library! Because I think annotated translations and commentaries being used by study groups are the next step. The naked text, as in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, can be hard to digest. Newer translations with footnotes or endnotes are extremely valuable. We use these for the Bible (and Homer and Cicero), so why not for the ancient and medieval inheritance of Christianity?
Of course, we’ll never agree with everything the ancients say. This is life. But if we aren’t seeking to be rooted and nourished by the living God as He has acted in and through his Church for the long centuries leading up to now, we will find ourselves caught up in all the fads of contemporary thought.
This final point is one that Thomas C. Oden made in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy — all of his best, radical ideas from when he was a liberal turned out to have already been done by the Fathers.