Thanks to those of you who voted in my Lent book poll. The results are in, and the winner is The Philokalia, Vol. 1, with 6 votes. Runner up is Living Wisely with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall with 5 votes. Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer only got one vote, which tells you something about the audience of this blog, I guess.
I am also interested in reading all three recommendations, each different in its own way:
Hans Boersma, Scripture As Real Presence
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship
Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way
In 2018, setting aside what I read for work, I’m trying only to read books I own and not buy new ones, and I don’t own any of these or need them for work (although I could probably justify Boersma’s at some level), so, d.v., they’re on hold for 2019!
Let’s see what wisdom I meet in the rest of The Philokalia, vol. 1.
Okay, folks, it’s Lent in a week. What should I read this year? I am pondering Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer, making progress with The Philokalia, Vol. 1, or Christopher A. Hall, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers. Here’s my first-ever blog poll:
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.)
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.
I thought I’d re-post this here, a long-lost piece from 11 November 2007 that I referred to in my most recent post. My thoughts have probably shifted and matured in 10 years. At least, I hope they’ve matured. They’ve definitely shifted — I would retract some things I say about Nestorius, and I definitely reject Jenson’s reading of Leo. But this fresh discovery of ancient Christianity and the excitement it brought me is worthy of remembrance…
And so, between walking and reading, and sitting in St. Alban’s Square reading, I had my mind blown away.
My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson, whose essay “With No Qualifications: the Christological Maximalism of the Christian East”* (I told you it was light reading) delved into the depths of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.
He said nothing especially revolutionary–this is, in fact, the whole point of the book. Indeed, what he did was merely articulate what I already know to be true. What he said resonated with my spirit as well as with the universe and the revelation of Holy Scripture. Yet he articulated truths that are so rarely articulated and so rarely articulated well, and thus my brain is thinking about this and meditating and whirling and wanting to tell you–all of you!
So: Jesus is Lord.
And there is only one Lord–Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of all things, the One Who exists from everlasting to everlasting, the Holy God, the King and Ruler of ALL–who is perfectly holy and perfectly just and perfectly loving and perfectly perfect and wholly God and wholly other and beyond all and in all and through all and all of it.
Jesus is Him.
And when we say, “Jesus is God” — or, rather, “Jesus is the Son, and the Son is God,” (17), we are to say unequivocally. There is no mincing of words as with Nestorianism (that sounds awfully a lot like some of the freaky weird “esoteric” Christianity out there as found in Tom Harpur):
the Son so “inhabits” Jesus that the man Jesus is a temple wholly transparent to his presence, or that the Son is so personally “conjoined” with Jesus that from our point of view they cannot be told apart, or that they too will be in fact one person at the End, after the suffering is over. (18)
And sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters. I agree with Jenson, Pope Leo missed the boat, too [2017:I disagree with Jenson on this now]. Leo’s theology is what one of my undergrad profs described succinctly as follows: Jesus is like a marble cake. Leo says (and this is an actual quote from the Tome of Leo, which I think is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library somewhere):
Each nature is the agent of what is proper to it, working in fellowship with the other: the Word doing what is appropriate to the Word and the flesh what is appropriate to the flesh. The one shines forth in the miracles; the other submits to the injuries. (19)
To skip over a large amount of the following controversies, the truth as I believe it is to be found when one reads the Scriptures and applies his mental faculties to them, when one finally admits to the entirety of the claim that Jesus is Lord is as follows, to quote Jenson:
the man Jesus, exactly as his personhood is defined by the life story told in the Gospels, is the one called the Son, the second identity of God. Jesus is the Son, with no qualifications. (22)
Thus, finally, what sort of blew my mind away was when Jenson applied this to the reality of who God is. Whoever the Gospels reveal Jesus to be, is exactly who God is–not just in character. Thus:
Mary is the Mother of God. Unus ex Trinitate mortuus est pro nobis. [One of the Trinity died on behalf of us.] One of the Trinity is a Palestinian Jew who came eating and drinking and forgave sin and prophesied implausible glory. Jesus saves. These and more sentences are the great metaphysical truth of the gospel, without which it is all religious palaver and wish fulfillment and metaphorical projection. Jesus really is Lord because he is one of the Trinity, and that is our salvation. (22)
Like I said, nothing new–indeed, St. Maximus the Confessor was saying these things in the 600s (some of his works are available through the St. Pachomius Library), and people were believing them from the Apostolic Age, and have believed it until now–”‘Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies!” (Charles Wesley). This is the reality that causes The Bridegroom, an icon of Christ bound and crowned with thorns and stripped of all but the mocking purple robe and the stalk (hyssop?), my favourite icon, because it speaks a very profound truth about Who God Is. He suffers with us. He died for us.
In ways we cannot fully express with words, the eternal God, coeternal and consubstantial Father and Son, has human flesh as part of Him, while still maintaining His transcendence, His otherness, His holiness, His perfection, His immutability! Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is crowned and throned in Glory and Eternity, with real flesh and bone because He took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, He set aside His glory out of love in order that we could know Him and be saved from sin and death! And so the Man Jesus is the Word, the Son. He is God–wholly God, entirely God, with no ifs ands or buts–no qualifications.
But these truths are not always so starkly and boldly stated.
They do leave us Protestants with some uncomfortable phrases. Like “Mary the Mother of God.” I’ve always been a fan of, “Mary, the mother of the human fleshly part of Jesus, the mother of Jesus’ human nature.” But Jesus, God the Son, kept that flesh when He ascended. He is not some ethereal Spirit, He has, is flesh! He took that flesh born from the womb of His mother and made it part of the Divine Nature. The Word took on flesh and pitched His tent among us! In a very real way, although Jesus is pure, preexistent, eternal God from everlasting to everlasting, Mary is God’s mom. But that’s not really what blew my mind.
Merely the simple, hard, earthy fact that Jesus with dirty feet, whom I love, whom I exalt, whom I praise, adore, extol, worship, point to, is, in fact, in Heaven ruling the Universe. And His hands are still scarred, along with His feet, His side, His brow. His heart broke for us. And He took that heart to Glory.
And it also messes with our ideas of God being transcendent. God the immutable was hungry. God the perfect pooped his swaddling cloths. God the holy thirsted. God the wholly other wept at the death of a friend. God Himself got tired and slept. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. In a very real, very orthodox, and extremely unheretical way, God was human. And when He left us to carry on His mission on earth, He kept that flesh, glorifying it and perfecting it.
Some of my other light reading recently was a book called The Trivialization of Godby Donald C McCullough. In this book the author discusses how the church in the West has placed God off to the side and put up some pretty nice-looking golden calves in His place. He then discusses how we are to topple the golden calves, and how God Himself topples them, and what the foundations of our thinking really ought to be.
One thing that really stood out for me was his insistence on awe and wonder as necessary for our relationship with God. We need to realise that God is bigger than everything, that God is beautiful, that God is beyond our total comprehension, and that God loves us. And since God loves us unequivocally, He bridged the divide that our wickedness created between us and Him and came as a Man. Therefore, our thinking about God begins in agnosticism — we just don’t really know, and then it always moves through Jesus, through the God-Man, to find out who God is.
And so I’ve tried praying and thinking through that paradigm: I know nothing. God is hugemongous. And Jesus, being God, is His perfect revelation.
So this essay by Jenson was absorbed by me quite willingly. I recommend it highly.
*The random numbers (in brackets) represent page numbers from the essay, which is found in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall, ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 13-22.
I have previously posted about the fourfold sense of Scripture here and here. Among the spiritual senses, we find typology. Typology, as you may recall, is when we see events, items, and persons in the Old Testament as prefigurations of New Testament theology. It is distinguished from allegory as allegory is when we see parallels in events in the Old Testament not only of the New Testament but also of our own spiritual journey. Thus, an allegorical reading of Genesis 3, while not denying the real Fall of humanity, will say that this is the story of Everyman.
Typology, on other hand, sees a moment as a single flash of the greatness of the fulfillment of the promises in Christ and the Church — Melchizedek is a type of Christ; the flashing sword in Eden is a type of Mary; the crossing of the Red Sea is a type of Baptism, Jerusalem is a type of the heavenly city, and so forth. I have already posted on Noah’s Ark as a type of Mary.
This approach to Scripture is never meant to entirely supplant the literal or historical meaning, something even its most famous proponent, Origen, acknowledges. Yet it seeks to see with spiritual eyes a new, different layer of meaning. Since the purpose of Scripture is to reveal to us the things of God and empower us to lead godly lives, I see no difficulty in this way of reading Scripture.
Indeed, many see this way of reading the Bible as a way forward for western biblical interpretation. Sebastian Brock writes:
the typological approach to the Bible as found in the Syriac (and of course other) Fathers is essentially a fluid one, refusing to be contained by dogmatic statements on the one hand, or considerations of modern biblical scholarship and its findings on the other. Indeed, one wonders whether this approach does not offer the openings of a via tertia for twentieth-century western Christianity in its dilemma when faced with the liberal critical approach to the Bible that to many seems purely destructive, on the one side, and a distastefully fundamentalist approach on the other. (p. 188)*
Now, one may argue that there already exists middle ground between liberal criticism and fundamentalism, but the idea of typology as being part of that middle ground is not a bad idea. With typology, we are able to say, “Indeed, the points of the liberal’s modernist critique may be valid, and the doctrinal concerns of the fundamentalist are also worthy of consideration, and with typology I am able to honour both.”
Suddenly, Scripture is not limited to a single, literal meaning at every turn of the page. Through prayerful consideration and the reading of other spiritual books, the Holy Spirit can guide us to spiritual truths about ourselves and the Gospels that perhaps we would never have thought of if shackled to the liberal/fundamentalist approach.
Typology can be beautiful and can stir the thoughts of the reader, as we see in Brock on Ephrem the Syrian:
Ephrem’s highly allusive poetry, shifting almost relentlessly from one set of symbols to another, makes considerable demands on the reader who, above all, if he is to appreciate Ephrem to the full, must know his Bible as well as Ephrem did. Much of this typological exegesis will appear to modern readers as forced, or it may even be described as ‘wrong’, but I think it is misleading to speak of this kind of exegesis in absolute terms of ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’. The very fact that quite often one finds side by side two pieces of typological exegesis which are logically incompatible when taken together, seems to be an indication that what is being offered was never meant to be the ‘correct exegesis’, such as modern biblical scholarship likes to impose, but possible models which are held up, and whose purpose is to make meaningful, and give insight into, some aspects of a mystery that cannot be fully explained. (185-186)
If we remind ourselves that our doctrine of the Trinity is smaller than the Trinity, that our Christology is a feeble attempt to encapsulate in words the wonders of God Incarnate, if we keep in mind the smallness of ourselves and our doctrines about God in the Face of God Himself, then typology and its difficulties make a certain sense — God is ultimately incomprehensible and a great mystery. Ought not His self-revelation to the world to be filled with wonder and beauty?
Now, most of us probably aren’t reading to do our own typologies, for it is a way of thinking that is foreign to us. Here are some places to begin:
Typology in Action
The Orthodox Study Bible. The NT of this study Bible has been out for a long time, and a couple of years ago they released the entire Bible, Septuagint and NT. Its footnotes provide us with a primarily typological reading of the OT, so it can stand alongside most Protestant study Bibles that give us the literal account and thus bring us deeper into the spiritual world of the Word.
The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This series of commentaries gathers together selections from the Fathers on the entirety of Scripture. A great many, though not all, patristic passages herein provide a typological understanding of the Scriptural passage at hand.
Ephrem the Syrian, referenced by Brock in the second passage above, has a number of works translated at the CCEL; there is also a volume in the Classics of Western Spirituality Series from Paulist Press and another of the Hymns on Paradise in the Popular Patristics Series from SVS Press. His hymns on the incarnation are especially beautiful, as I’ve noted on this blog before; he takes your mind in worship to places it has likely never gone before.
Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses, mentioned here before, is worth a read, combining both the allegorical and typological readings of Scripture after giving the straight historical reading of the text. The same translation exists in the Classics of Western Spirituality series as well as in the HarperCollins Spiritual Classics; the latter has a less extensive introduction but is also cheaper.
Origen of Alexandria is the most famous of the exegetes who apply “spiritual” methods to Scripture. His Commentary on the Gospel of John provides an introduction to his method of reading Scripture. I’m still working on Origen, myself, so I do not know what else of his to recommend.
Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. This book deals with the Four Doctors of the Western and the Four Doctors of the Eastern Church and how they read Scripture, including space devoted to Origen and Diodore of Tarsus. Space is thus given to the more spiritual readings of Scripture that lead us to typological understandings. This is a popular level book, geared towards pastors and students.
de Lubac, Henri. Medieval Exegesis: The Fourfold Sense of Scripture. This monumental work, a product of the Ressourcement that began in the 1950s (not ’20s, sorry), taking up three volumes in English, will give you all you want to know about Patristic and western Mediaeval approaches to the reading and interpretation of Scripture. This is a work of scholarship, but the rewards are no doubt hefty for those who persevere to the end (I have yet to do so).
*S. Brock, “Mary in the Syriac Tradition,” in Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, ed. Alberic Stacpoole. Pp. 182-191.
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!