Some thoughts on McGuckin, The Path of Christianity

I’ve recently perused John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (IVP Academic 2017). I’ve not read the whole thing — frankly, I don’t have time, since it’s 1145 pages long and much of it is not pertinent to my current research, whether patristic or medieval, nor to my upcoming teaching in the Autumn (Latin epic and Latin verse epistolography in Autumn, and Theocritus and Greek Mythology in January).

My first thought is: What on earth students could use this as a textbook for a one-semester course on first millennium Christianity? Its 1145 pages are large with a typeface that, while not minuscule, is not large itself. Maybe students at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia are of a higher calibre than what I’ve experienced. Maybe McGuckin doesn’t actually intend you to use the whole book as a textbook; but he does intend it to be useable as a textbook.

That said, a certain amount of text is taken up by readings. So maybe it would work if you didn’t assign a separate book of readings.

In terms of coverage, it is geographically broad, but most interested in patristic and Byzantine things. Nonetheless, it does reach as far East as China and as far South as Ethiopia. There is a whole section devoted to churches outside the Latin-Greek spectrum that takes up most of the attention in church history books. The volume is divided into two sections, one that is a diachronic study of the story of the church and doctrine, whilst the other is an investigation of particular themes. McGuckin’s advice is to read part one in order but to intersperse the chapters from part two along the way, in whatever order you please.

I read a good chunk of Chapter 13 (pp. 763-789), and this chapter I recommend heartily: ‘The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Early Church’. He takes to task the modern approach to biblical studies, arguing that the ecclesial way of reading Scripture was prevalent amongst all Christians prior to the nineteenth century. I always like this kind of thing, because is the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, then there are legitimate ways of reading it other than ‘how I read any other ancient text’, and it will also legitimately speak to us in different ways.

It seems patently obvious to me.

That’s why I do Latin and Patristics, not Biblical Studies.

The first chapter is also very good. He gives good coverage of the early movements within the Christian movement, and I would feel comfortable giving it to my students to read. His central thrust here is that the second century is one of the most important for everything that follows, and I agree.

I did not agree with every chapter I dipped into, I must admit. I think there’s more to Leo the Great’s Tome than McGuckin acknowledges, but I think most people miss what’s going on because the issue is not whether Leo is in step with the times or any of that, but, rather, cross-linguistic theology done by a Latin and the actual semantics of natura vs. physis. But most people don’t think about Latin Christology this way, seeing, as here, it as simply a re-statement of Hilarius of Poitiers and Augustine full stop. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading what McGuckin has to say here.

Likewise, I wasn’t sold on his interpretation of the Pelagian debate as manufactured by Augustinians and not actually a thing. My own position in this debate tends more towards the East, but given how much energy was expended in the initial Pelagius-Caelestius end, and then against Julian of Aeclanum, and later amongst so-called ‘Semi-Pelagians’ and ‘Augustinians’, I think something was happening here. Why is it confined to the Latin West? I’m not going to be reductive about every East-West difference, but I do suspect that gratia is not charis.

My final similar lament is simply a matter of a different reading of evidence for the Acacian Schism. McGuckin takes the standard line that it was over the Henotikon, but it is evident to me, at least, that from Gelasius’ standpoint, visible in his letters at length, it was Acacius entering into communion with Peter Mongus that was at least as important, if not more so.

Some of the translations of primary texts in the readers accompanying each chapter were a bit stilted.

In all, if you have some time, read the bits that interest you. If you have more time, read all 1145 pages. If have a lot more time, add the appendices on top.

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