Helping people get rooted in old stuff

Christ the King at the centre, Notre Dame de Paris

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 FathersLearning 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.

The Strangeness of the Patristic Legacy: Saved by the Hermeneutic of Love

Let us, for the moment, restrict “Patristic” to the first five centuries, even though the likes of me push the boundaries to Sts. John of Damascus and Bede the Venerable in the mid-700s. As Phil noted in the comments to this post, setting out to read the Fathers for oneself can be a bit of a strange experience. Indeed, I am tempted to say “bewildering.”

This is unsurprising, given the fact that 500 years covers an immense span of history and the Mediterranean world covers a variety of cultures, no matter how Romanised or Hellenised many of the writers in question were. Even if we imagine those bits of the Patristic legacy that are more or less Graeco-Roman in outlook, reading them is not exactly the easiest thing one can do.

More than 1500 years separate us from these authors. They think in different categories much of the time. There is an uncomfortably strong undercurrent of misogyny in many of the Fathers, along with an uncomfortably strong feeling of Judenhass.* Even when we would probably agree with their morals, we find them thinking like Platonists or Stoics — or, at least, what looks to be Platonism and Stoicism in Christian garb.

For those with a Classical background, the Fathers are less jarring.

Without such a background, I would like to recommend a particular way of reading that would be especially good for the Fathers. This way of reading is what NT Wright in The New Testament and the People of God refers to as the “hermeneutic of love” rather than that of suspicion:

In love, at least in the idea of agape as we find it in some parts of the New Testament, the lover affirms the reality and the otherness of the beloved. Love does not seek to collapse the beloved into terms of itself; and, even though it may speak of losing itself in the beloved, such a loss always turns out to be a true finding. In the familiar paradox, one becomes fully oneself when losing oneself to another. In the fact of love, in short, both parties are simultaneously affirmed.

When applied to reading texts, this means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment. If it is puzzling, the good reader will pay it the compliment of struggling to understand it, of living with it and continuing to listen. (64, read the whole paragraph to get the idea; I hate long quotations on blogs)

The hermeneutic of love allows the Fathers to be strange; even to remain strange. But it says to them, “Ah, but you are my fellows on the journey with Christ! You are my brothers in the faith! You have experienced Him too, and your experience has in it wisdom to enlighten my own!”

This wisdom is sometimes hiding in places that need a lot of love to be unlocked, as in my occasional forays into demonology show us. However, the meaning of demonology for virtue, ethics, and the battle against evil in all its forms has been unlocked by a loving, attentive reading of Patristic hagiography.

With a good introduction and persistence, the Fathers become less strange — or, at least, more comprehensible. I promise that the more you bear with them, having adopted the hermeneutic of love, the less strange they become. If you are here and thinking that you’d like to check out an introduction to the Fathers, a good single-volume introduction that does not mince words and even has a reading programme at the back is Beginning to Read the Fathers by Boniface Ramsey.

*Lit. “Jew-hatred”, the German word for “anti-Semitism”; I picked it up from Dave Sim’s comic book of the same name and greatly prefer it because anti-Semitism is too antiseptic for the brutal evil that racial violence is.

The next step …

In “This Week in Patristics” for May 30 – June 4, Phil Snider ponders, “It does make me wonder what the next step is, now that we have so many competant introductions.” This is a good question. I, myself, have read a few good introductions of various types, such as Thomas C. Oden’s The Rebirth of Orthodoxy which is a call for mainline Protestants to rediscover the Church Fathers, Christopher A. Hall’s three volumes from IVP, Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith, and Boniface Ramsey’s Beginning to Read the Fathers.

One answer, of course (and I’m pretty sure Phil thought of this), is to read more and more of the Fathers. The Age of the Fathers contains an enormous volume of content, much of which is worth reading more than once, spanning the Mediterranean world and beyond, covering a multitude of genres both prose and poetic, and providing wisdom for many different aspects of our lives.

If the bigness of the Patristic world overwhelms you, I recommend working through something like Ramsey’s “Patristic Reading Program” as at the back of Beginning to Read the Fathers. I also recommend, if you’ve read a lot about the Fathers but not much from the Fathers, that you get Henry Chadwick’s translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions, the SVS translation of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, and the Penguin Classics edition, by Maxwell Staniforth and Andrew Louth, of the Apostolic Fathers called Early Christian Writings. These will give you a variety of different writings from East and West in different genres. You can move on from there based on what you found of interest.

If you are already reading the Fathers but are looking for guides, a good idea is to get a book of essays on Patristic themes. One of my first introductions to the secondary material on the Church Fathers was Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-orthodoxy in the 21st Century, ed. Kenneth Tanner and Christopher A. Hall, a collection of essays about patristic themes and the question of orthodoxy in today’s Church. A similar volume, also from IVP, was Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of conference papers on Patristic questions and their application to today’s situations.

Another, similar, idea is to find authors of series of books on Patristic questions, such as Robert E. Webber’s series that began with Ancient-Future Faith but also includes Ancient-Future Evangelism and Ancient-Future Worship. These books tend to point you towards others, both primary material and secondary sources, that may interest you.

I have a friend who is a missionary in Cyprus, and because St. John Chrysostom is such a big deal in the Greek Orthodox world, he got his hands on J.N.D. Kelly’s book Goldenmouth. If you are a Jerome enthusiast, Kelly also has Jerome.

Along similar lines to a modern biography/study of an ancient Christian figure is the Routledge series The Early Church Fathers. Who has caught your eye, but the bibliography seems too big? St. Leo? No problem! Or Severus of Antioch? Or Evagrius Ponticus? Or Ambrose of Milan? Or Cyril of Alexandria? Or Athanasius? No problem!

Alternatively, browse through a handbook to see what material there is. I realise that non-specialists with not a lot of time on their hands will be less excited by Daniel Hombergen’s The Second Origenist Controversy than I am, but handbooks also point you less weighty, more readable material along the way; there is Quasten’s multi-volume Patrology as well as Hubertus Drobner’s single-volume The Fathers of the Church. If a book looks like it will kill you from boredom, don’t be ashamed to put it down! The whole point of Patristics is edification and drawing nearer to Christ. We only have so many hours in our lives, so wasting time with boring or excessively long books that will profit us little is not to be recommended.

Finally, why not take your daily Bible readings and the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and read along that way? And if a passage is particularly striking, see if you can find it in context and find more Church Fathers and connexions that way. You will learn more about Scripture at the same time! To save time, for those who use the Revised Common Lectionary, the companion volumes Ancient Christian Devotional (Year A doesn’t specify the year, Year C is out, and I hope to see Year B by Advent) are aligned with the Lectionary. Also interesting may be Hendrickson’s Day by Day with the Early Church Fathers.

This is all for now, but even if you choose a single one of these, you will have taken an important step beyond reading introduction to the Fathers after introduction!

The Cult of the Cross: The New Tree of Life

Medieval Image of the Cross as the Tree of Life

One third-century image of the Cross worth considering from the literature surrounding the Cult of the Cross (previous posts here) is that of the Cross as a tree that brings life to the world.  Pseudo-Hippolytus proclaims in Paschal Homily 51:

This tree is my everlasting salvation.  It is my food, a shared banquet.  Its roots and the spread of its branches are my own roots and extension.  In its shade, as in a breeze, I luxuriate and am cared for.  Its shade I take for my resting place; in my flight from oppressive heat it is a source of refreshing dew for me.  Its blossoms are my own, my utter delight its fruits, saved from the beginning for my harvest.  Food for my hunger and well-spring for my thirst, it is also a covering for my nakedness, with the spirit of life as its leaves.  Far from me henceforth the fig leaves!  Fearful of God, I find it a place of safety; when unsteady, a source of stability.  In the face of a struggle, I look to it as a prize; in victory, my trophy.  It is the narrow path, the restricted road.  It is Jacob’s ladder, the passage of angels, at whose summit the Lord is affixed.  This tree, the plant of immortality, rears from earth to reach as high as heaven, fixing the Lord between heaven and earth.  It is the foundation and stabilizer of the universe, undergirding the world that we inhabit.  It is the binding force of the world and holds together all the varieties that human life encompasses.  It is riveted into a unity by the invisible bonds of the Spirit, so that its connection with God can never be severed.  Brushing heaven with its uppermost branches, it remains fixed in the earth and, between the two points, its huge hands completely enfold the stirring of the air.  As a single whole it penetrates all things and all places. (Trans. Boniface Ramsey, Beginning to Read the Fathers, p. 81)

Those looking for a Great Apostasy or papist idolatry need look no further.  Those, however, with a discerning mind, will see here the cross being a symbol for Christ, for his atoning work achieved for us on the tree.  What our foe intended for our ruin, an instrument of shameful death and destruction, has become for us the very source of life.  Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross 2000(ish) years ago, we can taste true life now and live forevermore after the Resurrection.

This is the message of the Cross, the point of the image of the Cross as the tree of life.

For those looking for other beautiful images of the Cross, check out the Dream of the Rood.