Sadly, many months ago Read the Fathers came to an end. But the cycle of readings did not. Finally, you can find the spreadsheet of the readings to bring you to the end of Year 6. Year 7 was never put together. Click here. It is imperfect, for I never perfected it. But hopefully it will serve you.
Come study City of God with me!
Boy, it’s been too long since I blogged. Of the many thoughts in my head, what I most want to share is this: I’m teaching Augustine of Hippo’s City of God for Davenant Hall this coming term, starting the week of April 10 and running for ten weeks! The deadline to apply is March 29, so register at this link now!
Why study City of God?
Well, it’s a major, influential book. Not as influential as Augustine’s On Christian Teaching or On the Trinity, but from his lifetime until the 1500s, more influential than Confessions, and to this day, in some circles, still more influential than Confessions. This book was an instant classic. We even have a manuscript from within Augustine’s lifetime, if I remember aright. That’s pretty sweet. So if you’re interested in the history of Christian thought or intellectual history more broadly, then City of God should be on your radar. It’s an important work of theology that operates in multiple spheres…
Most notably, it’s a major work of political theology. What do you do when the imperium is no more? When Augustine was born, the Mediterranean was a Roman lake. When he died in 430, Spain and most of North Africa were out of Roman control, along with Britannia and, in different ways, different parts of Gaul. But, of course, City of God is bigger than Rome. This is part of its appeal. It turns our eyes from “earth’s proud empires” that “pass away” (to cite the old hymn) to God’s throne, to God, “King of King of kings, Lord of lords, the only ruler of princes” (to cite the BCP). This earthly city, ciuitas, is not our home. Our citizenship is elsewhere. What does this mean?
City of God, then, is not simply an apologia for Christianity when pagans blamed their turning away from the old ways for Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. It began as a commission of that sort and then grew and changed over the years, not merely asking, “Why aren’t the Christians to blame for the sack of Rome?” and asking, “What is the driving force of history, and how should we as persons and communities live in response?
Along the way, you get to read Augustine’s thoughts on the following (in the order they come to me):
- Roman history — a sort of “greatest/worst hits from Livy”
- The philosophy of history
- Platonism and other pagan philosophical schools
- Pagan gods
- The interpretation of the opening chapters of Genesis
- That which we call “mysticism”
- Foundations of moral/ethical theology
- Just War theory
- What is the chief end of war? (This is related to happiness)
- Capital Punishment
Come study City of God and read what Augustine has to say about these topics and more! Register here!
The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy
This January will mark two years I’ve taught for Davenant Hall. It will also be the first time in my academic career I have the chance to teach something for the second time — The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy. Ad Fontes recently published a piece of mine promoting the course. I hope you enjoy the piece — and maybe you or someone you know will sign up!
Here’s the intro — read the full article here.
Growing up in an Anglican church, we recited the Nicene Creed every Sunday—you know, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” I remember being quite surprised in confirmation class when I learned that the creed we recited at Holy Communion wasn’t actually the Nicene Creed but a later Creed, from Constantinople, with some added bits about the Holy Spirit. As I recall, I was a bit put out about this. Why didn’t we use the original? Why did we use some interloper masquerading as the Nicene Creed? Somehow, whatever lessons I got from confirmation class about why these two creeds exist just didn’t stick. I blame, of course, my teenage self. The priest who taught me was very good and a huge church history buff. I still talk church history with him to this day.
The question of my teenage self, setting aside the bizarre feelings that the Creed of Constantinople is an interloper, is a worthwhile question though: why do we have two creeds that we think of as the Nicene Creed? Isn’t one Nicene Creed enough? And why is the second such creed the one we use at Holy Communion?Read the full article on Ad Fontes
The fourth century: Bursting at the seams with ecclesiastical history
Here’s a YouTube video I made a while back about the fourth century. I’ll be teaching fourth-century ecclesiastical history for Davenant Hall this January in my course called “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy (325-407).” You can sign up for it here! And if you’re not sold that the fourth century is a wild time worth studying, here’s the video:
Bread in the Desert
Last night was a bit sad for me because it was the last session of my Desert Fathers course for Davenant Hall — “Streams in the Desert: The Christian Wisdom of the Desert Fathers.” We closed with Sts Barsanuphius and John, a pair of monastic fathers in sixth-century Gaza who left behind a corpus of 850 letters of spiritual instruction. Letter 170:
Question from the same brother to the Other Old Man [John rather than B.]. If a fantasy occurs to me by night and, on the next day, there is Holy Communion, what should I do?
Response by John
Let us approach with all our wounds and not with any contempt, as people who are needful of a doctor, and he who healed the woman with the issue of blood (Mt 9.22) will also heal us. Let us love much, that he may also say to us: “Your many sins are forgiven; for you have loved much” (Lk 7.47). When you are about to take Communion, say: “Master, do not allow these holy things to be unto my condemnation but unto purification of soul and body and spirit.” Then, you may approach with fear, and our Master, who is loving-kind, will work his mercy with us. Amen.Trans. John Chryssavgis, Letters from the Desert (SVS Press 2003), p. 93.
There’s a lot that could be unpacked from this letter from the Other Old Man, about grace and trusting in God and loving God and so forth. What I want to point out is the Holy Communion. As I said on the first episode of my and my brother Jonathan’s podcast, the Holy Communion is paradigmatic for the entire devotional life. And so in Ep. 170 of Barsanuphius and John it is likewise: It is about approaching, doing what you are able, and trusting in God to be merciful even when we are weak.
It is about the coming of grace.
Holy Communion is not often talked about in relation to the Desert Fathers. Usually, and understandably, we talk about their teachings on topics such as interior prayer, fasting, Psalmody, watchfulness, apatheia, hesychia, etc. In the selection of letters in this volume of Chryssavgis’ (who has also translated them all in two volumes for The Fathers of the Church series), Holy Communion comes up in five letters, to both communicants and celebrants. Ep. 241 is a beauty; I’ll quote only a bit:
The deacon serves like the Cherubim, and ought to be all eye, all intellect, with his intellect and thought looking upward, with fear, trembling, and doxology. For he bears the Body and Blood of the immortal King. He even assumes the face of the Seraphim in proclaiming the doxology and in fanning the hidden mysteries as with their holy wings, recalling through these wings their levitation from this earth and from things material, crying out ceaselessly with his intellect in the temple of the inner man (cf. Rom 7.22) the victory hymn of the magnificent glory (cf. 2 Pet 1.17) of our God: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth; heaven and earth are full of your glory” (Is 6.3).Trans. Chryssavgis, p. 107
The angelic allegory continues — this is what is recommended to someone serving at the altar in the role of deacon during the Divine Liturgy is meant to meditate upon. The liturgy is not just something we are doing here on earth — we join the host of heaven as we offer up the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. The angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven are worshipping with us. It is a deeply spiritual, powerful, mystical event, and God is present there to us and with us through the Holy Communion.
The desert tradition of spirituality is not, then, divorced from the common worship of the church in all ages. Now, it’s true that St Mary of Egypt went 40 years in complete solitude and thus didn’t received communion. And many of the hermits only received occasionally. But it’s also true that, say, St Simeon the Stylite went for an extended period living on nothing but Holy Communion! When the semi-eremetic communities emerged at Nitria, Kellia, and Sketis, the abbas of the desert all lived within walking distance of a common chapel. Even if they were hermits six days a week, the Desert Fathers, for the most part, got together for the assembly of the saints, the synaxis, and this was a service of Holy Communion.
They received communion at least weekly, and they believed in the Real Presence of Christ, as we see in the Sayings as well as in the discourses of St Shenoute of Atripe. The Sayings include a miracle story wherein one simple monk who doubted the veracity of the body and blood under the species of bread and wine had a vision of the priest offering him bloody flesh at Communion, and so came to believe in the Real Presence. And Shenoute is insistent about the reality of the bread as Christ’s body, sounding in many ways like St Cyril of Alexandria, with whom St Shenoute had contact.
They practised Holy Communion. They believed as did other Christians of the era both that it was truly the body and blood of our Lord and that it was a means of grace.
So, hopefully, this Sunday you will be able to engage in another aspect of Desert spirituality at your local parish church. And, like St Barsanuphius’ companion, remember that the angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, thrones, dominions, and powers are there, too, worshipping God with us.
In my last post, I talked about how I think I’m becoming a theologian because I’m not just reading theology for personal use or to teach church history but because, in January, I’ll be teaching theology at Ryle Seminary! “Theology 1”, in fact, covering “theology proper” — the doctrine of God and the Trinity plus creation and revelation. It’s a lot of stuff.
And so, naturally enough I’m reading Peter Lombard, The Sentences, Book 1.
Right? That’s normal, isn’t it?
Maybe — if you’re Stephen Langton (amirite?). But since I’m not assigning the Lombard to my students (it no longer being the year 1200), why him? Why not, oh, say, Herman Bavinck? I’m friends with some leading Bavinck scholars, after all. Or simply get back together with the Fathers? Or, given his current flash of light amongst online Protestants, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae?
Well, the simple reason is: Peter Lombard interests me, so I’m using this an excuse. He is upstream of Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure — and Stephen Langton. All of them used Lombard’s material, Aquinas and Bonaventure even writing commentaries on The Sentences like, well, almost every scholastic theologian beginning with Alexander de Hales. Lombard is also after one of my favourite Latin theologians, St Anselm of Canterbury (Langton, however, may be my favourite Archbp of C). And he’s contemporary with some of my favourite mystics, those early Cistercians Bernard, Aelred, William of St-Thierry.
As a historian of Christianity, this makes him interesting to me. He’s a piece of the puzzle whose shape and contours I want to know.
But that’s not the only reason I picked Lombard up off my shelf — after all, I’m turning into a theologian (in the modern sense — in the Evagrian sense it’s still a long term work in progress).
Why Peter Lombard is ultimately rooted in what The Sentences — all four volumes of it — is. Peter Lombard’s Sentences is not a modern systematic theology textbook. The majority of the text is quotations from theological authorities, most of them being Church Fathers. Actually, more precisely, most of them being St Augustine of Hippo, who accounts for 90% of the quotations — or sententiae chosen.
Besides St Augustine and the Bible, in Book 1 Lombard cites St Ambrose of Milan, Ambrosiaster, the Athanasian Creed, Boethius, Cassiodorus, the “Nicene”/Constantinopolitan Creed, a creed from a Council of Toledo, St Cyril of Alexandria, Didymus the Blind, Fulgentius of Ruspe, the Gelasian Sacramentary (I wonder if actually just the Roman Mass), St Gregory the Great, St Hilary of Poitiers, St Isidore of Seville, St Jerome, St John Chrysostom, somebody called Mediocre John, St John of Damascus, the Liber Pontificalis, Origen, Pelagius (!), and Syagrius.
The passages are usually about as long as a modern paragraph. They are excerpted from their source and then arranged topically. In Book 1, later users of The Sentences divided them into 48 groups called Distinctions. Alongside the sententiae Lombard has inserted his own analysis of particular problems that may arise or clarifications or summaries along the way.
These passages have been culled not directly from their authors’ works but from other, slightly earlier, similar enterprises, chiefly the wonderful canon law textbook we call the Decretum of Gratian, which is very similar but for canon law, and the Sic et Non of Peter Abelard. That is to say — Lombard is not choosing those passages from the Fathers that most support his argument, which is a valid thing to do and is what Peter Martyr Vermigli will do in On the Two Natures in Christ. Instead, he is choosing authorities who are already established in the tradition.
What he then does is produce a work that enables the reader, whether teacher or student, to work through these authorities and the difficulties they raise of one sort or another, and then come to a sound, orthodox conclusion with a deeper appreciation for the logic behind orthodoxy and a deeper knowledge of the authorities of the faith.
So I’m becoming a theologian. And I think to myself, what better way to strengthen my foundations than to work through this casebook of theological authorities for myself?
(I’m also going to read Bavinck because I’m assigning him.)
What do I mean, I’m becoming a theologian?
The other day, I took in hand a copy of Peter Lombard’s Sentences, photographed it, and tweeted:
But what, really, makes this different from any of the other times I’ve tweeted theology books?
What makes this different is why I’ve decided to get down with Lombard (and Bavinck, too, as it turns out). When I post a picture of (or even read) Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Vermigli’s Dialogue on the Two Natures in Christ, St Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Discourse, St John of Damascus On the Orthodox Faith, or any other theological book, I am reading or consulting that book for a few possible reasons:
- I’m teaching it or its author
- I’m researching something to do with it
- Personal edification
And, technically, none of the courses I have yet taught have been theology courses. Thus far, besides Classics (Latin, Greek, ancient history, Latin & Greek literature) I have taught church history/Christian history. My students at Davenant Hall do end up reading quite a bit of theology, usually (if you study with me in January, you’ll get to read theology by Sts Athanasius, Ephrem the Syrian, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary of Poitiers, Ambrose of Milan, and John Chrysostom! Sign up today!). But the purpose of my teaching is for them to understand those authors on their own terms and in their historical context.
So what’s different with Lombard and Bavinck?
This time, I’m reading theology to teach theology.
That’s right, in January, besides my teaching at Davenant Hall, I have the opportunity to teach the course “Theology 1: God and Creation” at Ryle Seminary in Ottawa, covering, as the course website says, “A systematic and biblical study of Christian theology proper, with special attention to the Trinity, God and Creation, and the nature and scope of revelation.” Now, the doctrine of the Trinity is, to a large degree, what my other course, “The Theological World of the Nicene Controversy” is about. So the content overlaps.
But it’s different to put together a course where you say, “Whom am I teaching? What period am I covering? What are the most important primary sources for my students?” versus one where you say, “What am I teaching? What doctrines do I need to cover? What theological principles related to this topic will my students need the most?”
And so: enter Peter Lombard.
(Why him specifically? I’ll get to that later, maybe.)
Catholic Anglican thoughts (again)
I think that perhaps one of the great problems with our society is that too many of us spend time thinking about our identities. For me, I spend time thinking about my religious identity. In particular, I often find myself feeling somewhat alone as a catholic Anglican — and not an Anglo-Catholic.
Like the majority tradition of Anglicanism, I embrace the teachings of the Fathers, the 39 Articles, the BCP, and what I’ve read of the Books of Homilies so far. I agree with Richard Hooker so much I wrote an essay recommending him for a real publication (as opposed to just another blog post). Moreover, I cherish the poetry of Donne, Herbert, and Guite, as well as the hymns of Charles Wesley and JM Neale. I recently called Lancelot Andrewes a saint, so there’s that in the mix, too!
Most of this doesn’t really make me much of “catholic”, though, does it? I mean, it mostly makes me an Anglican. I reckon John Wesley liked those things, too, except for the ones from after he died.
But what if I told you, despite spending 8 years as a Presbyterian, the only other church that seemed truly enticing was the Eastern Orthodox Church? That an Orthodox priest (now bishop!) once said that I am Orthodox in all but name? Although this actually isn’t true (I don’t seek saints to intercede for me [filed under: 39 Articles] or believe in tollhouses [filed under: umm…], to grab two really quick examples), I do have enormous respect for the Eastern Church and think that we can learn a lot from them in the West after a few centuries of Enlightenment and Romanticism under our belts.
So, yeah, I read St Sophrony, St Porphyrios, Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, Father Andrew Louth, The Way of a Pilgrim, and others in my devotional time. I love the Greek Fathers, and sometimes I think I’m a Palamite. Byzantine chant and Byzantine icons, yes, please. I love the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints John Chrysostom. Once when I was in a foul mood, I read the Divine Liturgy of Our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great just to cheer me up. And it’s beautiful and rich and makes anything from the West post-Vatican II (BAS and Common Worship, I’m looking at you) look like wading in shallow water when God has given us the skills requisite and necessary for surfing (or something like that).
I embrace the ancient and medieval heritage of the church — as interpreted through the 39 Articles and the BCP. Give me St Augustine. Give St Maximus the Confessor. Give me St Anselm and St John of Damascus and the Venerable Bede and St Benedict of Nursia and St Symeon the New Theologian and St Gregory of Nyssa and The Cloud of Unknowing and St John of the Ladder and St John of the Cross and St Bernard of Clairvaux and St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Basil of Caesarea and Origen of Alexander and St Athanasius of Alexandria and St Irenaeus of Lyons and Pope St Leo the Great and Pope St Gregory the Great and St Cyprian of Carthage and St Francis of Assisi and St Bonaventure and Stephen Langton and Julian of Norwich and Richard Rolle and Walter Hilton and Aelfric of Eynsham and Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl and The Dream of the Rood.
Give me the Ruthwell Cross. Give me Mt Athos. Give the Benediktinerstift Sankt Paul im Lavanttal. Give me St Paul’s in London. Give me Durham Cathedral. Give me the Durham Gospels.
Give me these things, clothe them in the music of Tallis or Purcell or Gibbons. I’ll kiss your icons. I once kissed the alleged crozier of St Gregory. Give me the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Give me a little incense.
Give me these things, for when I encounter these things, I find Jesus in them.
Most of all, then: give me Jesus.
And I find that Jesus is found in this catholic Anglicanism. I find him there better than elsewhere — whether because of my own temperament or something in the nature of the catholic tradition itself. But Jesus comes to me in the poetry of John Donne and the teachings of the Orthodox monks. He comes when I read Pearl and I am drawn up to him through the architecture of a place like York Minster.
IRL, one finds oneself with almost no Anglicans round about, and few digging deep into this.
But Jesus comes amidst them, anyway — of course.
This is part of the secret of the catholic tradition, that God is always right there waiting for you. If you can cultivate hesychia and find, by grace, some level of purity of heart, you will find Jesus wherever you are, and not just listening to Byzantine chant on Spotify or with fellow catholics on Twitter, but at your own local parish.
Watch out for him. He’s there. Pray the Jesus Prayer. Memorise a poem or two by John Donne. Like St Pachomius, see God wherever He is, especially in your brother in Christ. He’ll be there — he has promised he will.
Richard Hooker and Union with God
My latest YouTube video was made on the commemoration of Richard Hooker on November 3. In it, I discuss his Christology in relation to Chalcedon but most especially in relation to you and your union with God and participation in the divine life. Enjoy!
Endless distraction vs monastic simplicity
As you may see in the sidebar of this blog, I am on Twitter. I initially joined under my own name in 2017 as a means to have and control a public professional persona. This purpose remains, but, after starting to teach for Davenant Hall, this public persona has expanded to include some of my own personal religious views, including this blog. And, to be honest, this self-promotion is also aimed to hopefully gain a few students.
Twitter — and even a private Discord server such as we have for The Davenant Institute — can be a great way to meet people. I have expanded my army of friends, and I am happy for that. Twitter and other social media — Facebook, Instagram, etc. — can also be a great way to distract yourself. And be endlessly distracted.
Sometimes, it’s okay. I’m willing to concede that we need a bit of distraction sometimes. It’s part of relaxation and restoration, I think. Take your mind off the pressures of daily life by following, say, @red_loeb to see images from medieval manuscripts, to name just one example. There are some interesting, amusing, informative, entertaining Twitter accounts to add to your feed.
Sometimes, it’s less okay. Like, say, the vast eruptions that happened after the USA’s Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Or when you see some less-than-pleasant characters falsely characterising your own religious beliefs. Or when you watch, say, a video of a news presenter taking down a flummoxed pastor over hot-button cultural issues. You get this fire burning in you, sometimes. Or you can’t direct your energy where it should be (*glances at The Life of Saint Pachomius*), continually thinking about the assault you have levelled against your nous.
I once Tweeted that Twitter is like having your nous assaulted by all 8 Evagrian thoughts at once.
The monks of the Desert would not have appreciated something like Twitter. Tonight in my Desert Fathers course for Davenant Hall, I am teaching about Pachomius, the reputedly first abbot of a coenobium, of a monastery designed for communal living. The monks were meant to live undistracted lives. This meant that if any of them had to leave the monastery on business, they weren’t allowed to tell the brothers what they had seen or heard. If someone came to the monastery, the porter was the only person they were allowed to interact with. Tabennisi, the village where the first Pachomian monastery was founded, was an abandoned village. Even walks in the abandoned village were not allowed.
Elsewhere, of course, in the anchoritic literature, we hear of monks refusing to listen to news of the outside world. Or they ignore people from outside sometimes. They avoid talking, even if news isn’t the subject. Curiosity, even about ones family that was left behind, is considered dangerous.
The point of all this is to help cultivate a heart that is undistracted and undivided. The monk is someone who is single-minded. Monks are monomaniacs for God. They aren’t interested in the emperor’s doings. They aren’t interested in visits from the priests of the outside world. They aren’t even that interested in the inner world of their souls, except inasmuch as it can help or hinder in the raising up of the monk to God.
Now, Twitter is actually part of my livelihood, since tuition pays my salary. So I’ll stay there. But we all need to know when to logoff and unplug and sit, undistracted, pursuing God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The simplicity of the monks and their spiritual practices, I believe, can help us there.
For me, as you no doubt know, a major monastic practice has been the Jesus Prayer — listen to my and my brother’s podcast to hear some more!