The messy reality of Post-Constantinian church history, part one

Church history after Constantine is a messier affair than many would like to believe. On the one hand, there is something of a triumphalist reading that makes Constantine a saint and the triumph of the Church a Good Thing that brought great benefit to Christ’s people. This view is pretty quickly weakened by discovering the activity of the emperors who supported theology and legislation contrary to the Triumphant Church’s interests.

The other view, one raised by Jnana in the comments on my last post, is the idea that the True Believers went underground after Constantine, and (at least in the version I’ve heard) all we need to do to find them is follow the trail of blood left by the activities of the Catholic/Orthodox Church up to the Reformation. The best discussion of this view that I’ve read is by Baptist scholar D H Williams in Evangelicals and Tradition; it is popular amongst Anabaptists, Quakers, and low evangelicals such as Baptists, many of whom trace their spiritual heritage to movements of the radical Reformation who were persecuted by both Roman Catholics and the national churches of the magisterial Reformation such as Anglicans or Lutherans.

Neither of these views is entirely wrong.

But the truth is different.

I shall address in this series of posts the second view, although in addressing it, I believe the first shall receive some refutation as well. For a methodological point, I shall use the traditional/common English names for all of the groups discussed, even if some of them presuppose later developments or were never used by their own adherents.

What are the activities the post-Constantinian church engaged in that the believers of this persecution view are thinking upon? Obviously, persecution. The driving out of their churches of people with divergent views. At times, the use of violence against them.

My first point, then, is Paul of Samosata. Paul of Samosata was a Monarchianist in the 200s (that is, well before Constantine), and the people of his local church as well as a council of bishops deposed him for heresy. I bring him up because this sort of activity against bishops on trial for heresy is exactly the sort of thing Constantine was accused of introducing. I argue that this is the sort of thing the church would have been up to, anyway. What imperial favour did was enable them to do it in a much more organised way and with better resources. Excommunication and deposition of clerics is not a Constantinian development.

Furthermore, when we take Paul of Samosata in conjunction with the Gnostics, we realise that there were boundaries of orthodoxy before Constantine, even if the precise definitions of Nicaea were not yet hashed out. Irenaeus of Lyons’ book about Gnosticism is called Against the Heresies; people were concerned about what sort of doctrine was being taught to the members of the church and were trying to make sure that only pure Gospel truth was on tap — I imagine that Gnostic circles would have been up to much the same; to my knowledge, we have insufficient evidence on that point.

The Gnostics are my second point. If the church in the fourth century after 312ish were really bent on persecuting all of its enemies, one would think the Gnostics to be a prime target. It seems they weren’t. My theory about Gnostics in the fourth century is that, since the Empire was favouring catholic Christianity, most of them just converted (a lot like pagan aristocrats), and their religious meetings and leaders couldn’t maintain themselves in the face of the growing catholic Church. That’s my theory. More of a hypothesis, really.

Moving on, then, to the actual groups targeted by the Constantinian Church. When Constantine secured his position as Emperor in the West after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October, 312), one of the things he wanted to do was clean up the affairs of his new-found religion. So he got a council together to deal with the North African Donatist Schism. This council was headed by the Bishop of Rome, and Rome decided in favour of, for want of a better word, we would call catholic Christianity in North Africa — although doctrinally they and the Donatists are not too far apart.

The fate of the Donatists was to carry on for centuries as a separate church without imperial support, and eventually being targeted by the long arm of the law in the 400s until the Arian Vandals came in the 420s and completely changed the whole shape of North African Christianity by being far more systematic and violent persecutors of non-Arians than the catholic imperial church had yet been of Arians or Donatists. The religious landscape of North Africa is unclear to me after Justinian’s reconquest in the 500s; certainly, if the post-Constantinian church ever went underground, it was in North Africa after the Caliphate conquered in the late 600s.

The Arians were next. In 324, after defeating Licinius in civil war, Constantine found himself emperor of the entire Roman world. One of his early moves was to try and clean house in the eastern churches as he had in the West. When the presbyter Arius wouldn’t stop saying things that Constantine thought to be rather silly, a church council was put together to deal with the matter. They met at Nicaea and approved a doctrinal statement you can read here.

This statement of faith is one with which the groups who believe that the Nicene Church persecuted ‘true’ believers can get behind. It confesses the full divinity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ without qualification. Arianism, on the other hand, preaches that Jesus is not fully divine but only like the Father and that he exists entirely in time, which would make him a lot like us. Which was kind of the point, but the Nicene argument is that what we precisely need is someone who is not like us (although, like us at the same time; hence Ephesus I and Chalcedon/Constantinople II).

Then came … Athanasius?? And here’s where Constantine’s church policy gets really messy for all involved, and why imperial favour is not necessarily good for the Church. Arius claimed to have made a full recovery from his heresy to Constantine, but his repentance did not meet the requirements of his bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria (saint of the week here). So Athanasius, not for the last time, found himself in exile — Athanasius, the staunchest defender of Nicene Christianity, found himself exiled by an emperor who was promoting Nicaea. This is because Constantine’s church policy was mostly about keeping the peace and finding unity at prices sometimes too high for his bishops.

After Constantine

The first group persecuted by the imperial church after the death of Constantine in 337 was … well … Nicene Christianity. Constantine’s sons were not all gung-ho Nicenes, especially Constantius (who seems a nasty piece of work to me) who had Athanasius exiled again more than once. Indeed, it was about the rule of Constantius that Jerome made the remark, ‘The whole world groaned to find itself Arian.’

Debates ranged and things went back and forth for much of the fourth century between different kinds of Arians and different kinds of Nicenes and different levels of commitment on the part of the emperors. Eventually, in 381, under the Emperor Theodosius I, Nicene Christianity gained its victory at the First Council of Constantinople, whose version of the Creed I’ve translated here. Interestingly enough, one of the victims of politics-meets-church was Gregory of Nazianzus, a Nicene who felt that Constantinople I didn’t go far enough. He went from Bishop of Constantinople to Bishop of a Cappadocian Backwater in no time at all.

381 is a potentially important date. Around this time, Theodosius I promulgated his anti-pagan, anti-heretical laws that banned all sacrifices and removed the right to assembly and worship from heretical groups. To what extent such decrees were implemented is an interesting question, given that Justinian I (r. 527-565) hired John of Ephesus to clear up pagan activities in Constantinople. Earlier, in the 420s, Archbishop Nestorius went on his own heretic-hunt in Constantinople that endeared him to no one.

Next time: Groups targeted by the Church from the late 300s onwards.

Part three: Orthodox victims of imperial/secular governmental activity besides Athanasius.

Part four: Also, the Inquisition (Spanish an otherwise; did you expect that?). And thoughts on ecclesiastical-governmental relations at large.

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The heebie-jeebies about tradition

I’ve blogged about tradition a few times in the past, most recently this post hereTradition, or in Greek paradosis, is what is handed along, what is handed down. Usually, in Christian circles, we differentiate between the unwritten tradition and the Scriptures, although Cypriot Greek Orthodox priests do not; there is only tradition, of which Scripture is the primary and most important and authoritative part.

The rest of us, because of the Reformation, are aware of two forces acting upon how we do Christianity. In its widest sense, this force of tradition is enormous and unwieldy. It includes not just the ‘core’ in my more recent post about tradition as well as saints’ days (and the whole cultus of the saints), purgatory, the immaculate conception of the BVM, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, your mom, most of the liturgy/-ies, Romanesque architecture, Gothic architecture, icons, stained glass, particular translations of Scripture, and so on and so forth.

And when, in the Reformation, the western Church was abusing certain aspects of these traditions, such as manipulating purgatory to get people to purchase papal indulgences to raise money to build St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the question was posed, and answered, forcefully: Why are all of these traditions binding?

And it was determined amongst we ‘Protestants’ that no tradition that was not supported by the force of Scripture was binding. Thus, in the 39 Articles of the Anglican religion, we have:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation.
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.

Nonetheless, tradition is still a force at work within Protestantism, especially in the ‘magisterial’ Reformation (whose descendants largely reside in today’s mainline denominations: Lutherans, the Reformed incl. Presbyterians, Anglicans). Anglicans have bishops, priests, and deacons, and basically use a Reformed, English version of Sarum Use for the Lord’s Supper and the daily office. Only priests can consecrate at the Eucharist, only bishops can ordain priests and deacons. These are matters for which, despite perhaps Reformed Presbyterian outcries on the one hand and certain types of ‘Catholic’ voice on the other, Scripture does not lay down a clear, discernible rule.

So we follow tradition. These matters of church polity are not necessarily the central, core realities of the Christian faith. So how does one go about organising a Protestant church? Sort of like a mediaeval one, if you ask the Anglicans and Lutherans (though each group with its own modifications). This is the design of church governance handed down to us by tradition.

Tradition alone cannot be binding upon any Christian. For example, I believe that a robust theology of the incarnation leads at least to allowing icons, if not necessarily venerating them. But I do not consider iconoclast churches heretical; I do not think their souls are in danger of hellfire. Indeed, sometimes I worry more about iconodules and where their own emphasis lies in personal devotion.

Tradition is useful today when so many divergent readings of Scripture abound. The core of the tradition as found in the canon of the faith that I blogged about two posts ago is a lens of Scriptural interpretation that was in existence before the set limits of the canon of Scripture. As Baptist scholar DH Williams discusses in Evangelicals and Tradition, the two canons played off of one another as the church lived, worshipped, and meditated on the truth. That of the faith helped the church discern whether or not a text such as the Gospel of Peter was Scripture or not. The various documents of Scripture helped dictate the shifts in the canon of the faith that happened at Nicaea (325) and Constantinople (381).

With the various twistings of doctrine and ethics justified by logically valid readings of Scripture, whether being proferred to us by liberal Christianity, Unitarians, Christadelphians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, or agnostics, those of us who hold to an ‘evangelical’ view of how Scripture is to be read, we ‘conservatives’ need the ancient, central tradition to help us justify why our readings are more true than others’.

Beyond the canon of the faith, there are also traditional readings of Genesis and certain ethical issues regarding the law and Christian morality, that we find in a broad consensus of the orthodox Fathers, mediaeval writers, and Reformers (both Protestant and Catholic). So, when people come up with reinterpretations of moral commands, we need not abandon our vision either of sola scriptura nor of the old morality; for sola scriptura works best with tradition as a hermeneutical tool (famously, alongside reason and then experience as a last resort [to make Hooker’s three-legged stool Wesley’s quadrilateral]).

This, in brief, is how I feel about tradition right now and most broadly.

Evangelicals and Tradition: The Canon of the Faith

Greek Evangelical Church, Nicosia

Last Saturday morning, with the able help of a volunteer from the Greek Evangelical Church, I gave a seminar on ‘Evangelicals and Tradition.’ What I hope from this seminar is for evangelicals to be less … wary? afraid? of tradition but to develop the necessary skills of discernment to judge which parts of it are good, which are bad, and which are … adiaphora. Marginal. Not worth fussing over every time you meet an Orthodox or Roman Catholic Christian.

Following D H Williams’ lead in the very good book Evangelicals and Tradition: The Formative Influences of the Early Church, I started us off with a discussion of the history and usefulness of the Canon of the Faith, beginning briefly with the Apostles’ Creed as a summary of the Gospel that we, as evangelicals, claim to be attached to so fiercely. Then I gave a wee history of such things, starting with Justin’s proclamation at his martyrdom in the mid-100s and Irenaios’ ‘Rule of Faith’ of the late 100s, then moving on to baptismal creeds such as the Dêr Balyzeh Papyrus of the early 100s and Hippolytos of the early 200s:

When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, “Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?” 13And the one being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” 14He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. 15Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?”  16When each has answered, “I believe,” he shall baptize a second time.

17Then he shall ask, “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?” 18Then each being baptized shall answer, “I believe.” And thus let him baptize the third time. 19Afterward, when they have come up out of the water, they shall be anointed by the elder with the Oil of Thanksgiving, saying, “I anoint you with holy oil in the name of Jesus Christ.” 20Then, drying themselves, they shall dress and afterwards gather in the church. (From an online translation of Hippolytos.)

This led to a fruitful, I believe, discussion of how similar Hippolytos’ baptismal ceremony is the Orthodox ceremony — triple immersion and anointing with oil! I said that the Orthodox got this from the ancient days; it is a tradition that they have maintained since the earliest days of the Church. Perhaps one evangelical-Orthodox wall was weakened by that realisation.

From there, I brought forth the Nicene and Constantinopolitan Creeds of 325 and 381. The complaint could be made that the statements of 325 and 381 use non-biblical language, and that the Bible already teaches all of these things. However, as with Irenaios vs Gnostics who used Christian Scripture, so also in the battle against those who denied the divinity of Jesus. The argument was not over what was Scripture but how we understand it; so the Church came up with an interpretative lens, almost as old as the apostles themselves, drawn from Scriptural ideas and truths but using the language of Greek philosophy, to state unequivocally what the Scriptural and Traditional teachings about Jesus are.

And at the complaint that the Eastern Orthodox believe these creeds more than the Bible, I must protest. These creeds are but summaries of Gospel truth, created to meet a need that the Church had at that time. It is impossible to believe them more than the Bible. Ioannis Kassianos, a Romanian monk who lived for a time in Bethlehem then Egypt before settling in Marseilles, wrote this in the early 400s:

There is nothing wanting then in the Creed; because it was formed from the Scriptures of God by the apostles of God, it has in it all the authority it can possibly have, whether of men or of God. (De Inc. 6.4, NPNF trans.)

Another complaint I know of is that encapsulating the Gospel in such statements takes the life from it. This is a possibility—but it is a possibility even with the writings of Scripture, depending on how we use them. I prefer to view these statements of the centre of Christian tradition as fences or the boundaries of a playing field. We can say things they do not say, but if we say things that are counter to them, we find ourselves standing outside of the biblical, apostolic tradition that the Church has handed down to us as encapsulated in these creeds.

The purpose of all of this was to show how unchanging the central core of Christian tradition was throughout the ancient church, and how it is important for us today. Furthermore, when we go back to Irenaios, we see the importance of a central, unwritten Apostolic tradition that exists in tandem with the Scriptures, because the Gnostics, using the same Scriptures, claimed that their interpretation was the right one, and their unwritten tradition the true one. So what are we to do? Recourse to the Scriptures alone cannot save us when they, too, are using the Scriptures.

When most evangelicals think of tradition, we think of these ‘unwritten’ aspects of Christianity, we think of accretions adding up over time, we think of bishops, priests, and deacons, we think of saints and theologians, we think of stained glass, of Gothic architecture and Byzantine domes. In a very large, encompassing vision of tradition, these things are all part of tradition.

But what I hope to have shown here today is a core of tradition that remains very little modified over the centuries—that creed of 381 just discussed and on your handout is believed and affirmed by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, and Syrian Orthodox, the Church of the East from Iran to China and India, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, the Dutch Christian Reformed, and the Nicosia International Church. Here is an aspect of tradition that we affirm today which was affirmed long ago by the Christians of the later Roman Empire.

If we want to get involved with ancient Christians, we must take the long view of Christian history. And in taking this long view, the question that arises is whether any given development is faithful to Gospel belief and Gospel living—to the Tradition as discussed above and enshrined in the Bible, as we’ll see in my next talk.

The Christians before the year 500 determined that Gnosticism, Monarchianism, Arianism in its various forms, Pneumatomachianism, Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Manichaeism, Eutychianism, certain strains of Origen’s thought, and many others were deviations from the truth handed down from the apostles, the paradosis, tradition in its truest sense. And we today owe much to this ancient tradition.

The Rule of Faith

Throughout his works, Irenaeus of Lyons (born in Asia Minor, d. c. 200) has many statements that could be termed ‘credal’. For a discussion of many of them, check out JND Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, pp. 76 ff. Here’s the most famous:

For the Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, who made the heaven and the earth and the seas and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the incarnate ascension into heaven of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and his future manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father to sum up all things and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole huiman race in order that . . . he should execute just judgement towards all; that he may send spiritual wickednesses, and the angels who transgressed and came into a state of rebellion together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into the everlasting fire; but may, as an act of Grace, confer immortality on the righteous and holy, and those who have kept his commandments, and have persevered in his love, some from the beginning, and others from their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. (Against the Heresies 1.10.1, in A New Eusebius, pp. 111-112)

The basic outline of the creeds, Apostles‘ and Nicene, is here, as Irenaeus combines the old baptismal-type formulae of, say, the Didache with 1 Corinthians 8:6:

But to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we by him. (KJV)

Irenaeus proclaims that the whole church throughout the world believes this regula fidei, or ‘rule of faith’ (the Greek is lost). A regula is a rule as in a straight line or a ruler. The regula is a guide to the content of the faith. His multiple statements vary in wording and in how much Irenaeus puts in, but they never differ. This, for Irenaeus, is Apostolic orthodoxy, handed down to the churches through the Apostolic Succession (we looked at this here); it runs counter to his great opponents, the Marcionites and the Gnostics.

Some may wonder how widespread Irenaeus’ orthodoxy really was; I would wager it was common enough in Gaul (France) for him to be elected bishop of Lyons, common enough in Asia Minor for him to think it traditional. It was common enough in Rome for Justin’s regula to be about the same, as well as for Tertullian’s Carthaginian regula. It looks like earlier and contemporaneous eastern baptismal formulae as well.

What this means, friends, is that something that looks very much like orthodoxy pre-dates Constantine. It may not be as precise as Nicene orthodoxy, but it is part of the journey that leads through Nicaea to Chalcedon. Yes, there were competing ‘orthodoxies’ or ‘Christianities’ such as the various forms of ‘Gnosticism’ and the Montanists of last week and the Marcionites and the ‘Judaising’ elements (‘Ebionites’ and ‘Quartodecimans’) and, later on, Donatists and Meletians and Paul of Samosata.

It also reminds us that the Church has ever sought to keep itself aligned with Scripture and that lenses such as Creeds exist to help us read the Bible well. Some claim, ‘No Creed but Christ!’ But the Gnostics read many of the same Scriptures as us, as did the Arians, and they came to very different conclusions. How can we know what is the true deposit of the faith, how can we know our reading of Scripture is faithful?

Irenaeus, with his rule of faith, shows us. If we believe these things, we are on the right path. If you remain unconvinced, I recommend works by Baptist scholar DH Williams; the introduction to Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation is the quickest, accessible route to his thought.

If you are convinced, I hope you will not discard the creeds and their content, even if you tire of their exact wording. They help preserve an unbroken line of teaching that brings us to the very feet of the Apostles who walked with our Lord Christ.

Why should evangelicals read the Fathers?

The first reason I would like to consider within this topic is one given yesterday — so many of the core tenets of Christianity were forged, formulated, and developed in the first five centuries. If it is true, as DH Williams has put it (and as at least one friend of mine), that evangelicals have amnesia, then recovering the Fathers is an important step in recovering from this amnesia.

Let us consider simply the basic, basic issue of the Bible. It seems fairly straightforward to many of us — there’s the Old Testament, and there’s the New Testament.

Evangelicals all believe in the Bible as the authoritative revelation of God in the written word that demonstrates to us all that we need to find salvation and come to a living knowledge of him. Well and good. Yet if we look at the development of the collection of writings called the New Testament, we will find that the people who organically and through their own worship of God and prayer and seeking to work out the problems of the Faith were all, in fact, patristic — the Fathers.

People such as Irenaeus or Athanasius or whoever wrote the Muratorian Fragment or Justin Martyr or Tertullian were all alive and involved in the Church’s discernment process over which books claiming apostolic authority were truly authoritative. Others, such as Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, the text called the Didache, Hermas and his Shepherd, Polycarp of Smyrna (the Apostolic Fathers), are all from the same period as some of the later texts in the New Testament such as Revelation and 2 Peter.

These are people worth listening to, n’est-ce pas? Some of them may have known Apostles. Others of them were only one or two generations of leadership removed from the apostolic age. As interpreters of Scripture, can we get any closer to the apostolic age than the Apostolic Fathers?

Indeed, once we have an idea of what exactly is in the canon (the list of authoritative writings), how do we interpret it? Some evangelicals think that this is a very simple process that is solved by providing a solid historical-critical methodology. According to Moore College in Australia, with their method, even unbelievers can come to the right interpretation of Scripture.

Certainly, a framework for reading Scripture is needed if we to have some sort of agreement about it. The statement, ‘It clearly says in Scripture,’ is a hard one to say confidently. Irenaeus and Tertullian knew that we need a little more than Scripture for those moments when it is the interpretation of Scripture that is under consideration.

Whose interpretation do we take? The Gnostics’? The Montanists’? The Jehovah’s Witnesses’? The Prosperity Gospel’s? The Arians’? From at least as early as the second century (I would argue from the Apostolic Age), there has been a regula fidei that has helped guide us in the interpretation of Scripture. This is the core of the tradition of the Fathers, and is a fluid formulation that closely resembles the creeds (esp. Nicene and Apostles’).

The Fathers, read with the hermeneutic of love (discussed here) as well as with a critical yet prayerful eye can help us come to a healthy interpretation of Scripture. Read Athanasius on the Psalms or Origen on John or Chrysostom on Romans. You will get three notably different ways of reading, but each of them can enrich our understanding and use of Scripture in our lives.

As with the Reformers, the Fathers are to draw us back to Scripture and to the Triune God in His glory.

So why should evangelicals read the Fathers? Because evangelicals love Scripture, and so do the Fathers, and the Fathers can help us make sense of Scripture and deepen our knowledge and appreciation of it. That’s why.

Much of this post inspired by D H Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism.

Evangelical Ressourcement (To the Sources!)

I have written previously about the Roman Catholic Ressourcement as well as the related monastic ressourcement present in the publications of Cistercian Press. There is also transpiring in these transitional days from ‘modern’ to ‘whatever comes next’ (postmodern or hypermodern or post-postmodern or what-have-you) an evangelical ressourcement.

I am particularly interested in the evangelical ressourcement as someone who worships with the Free Church of Scotland (at a congregation that lists ‘Evangelical’ on its sign) who grew up in the charismatic, evangelical wing of the Anglican Church (complete with weekly Eucharist, beefy sermons, renewal meetings, youth camps, contemporary worship, classic hymns, and the Alpha Course) and who has a long association with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship (including one year of actual employment by said organisation).

This particular manifestation of ressourcement tends to say that the theological heritage of at least the first five centuries of Christianity — if not the period ending with the death of Bede (+735) or of John of Damascus (+749) — is the common heritage of all Christians, and not just of the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics. As Protestants, we believe in the Most Holy Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the authority of the Scriptures for life and doctrine, the centrality of Christ’s death and resurrection for human history, and other important doctrines — all of which were forged and formulated in the Patristic age.

I first encountered this ressourcement through the ‘paleo-orthodox’ camp that strives to revitalise the mainline through a return to the Fathers as well as the historic practices of prayer and worship found in the church’s tradition. The term was coined by Thomas C. Oden, and his paleo-orthodox vision is set out in his book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. In this book he calls mainline Protestants to rediscover the riches of the Patristic theological legacy and heritage common to all believers; he believes that only thus will we see a blooming of orthodox theology in mainline Protestant churches. Around the time I read that book, I also read Ancient and Postmodern Christianity: Paleo-Orthodoxy in the 21st Century, a collection of essays in honour of Thomas C. Oden, one of which started to revolutionise my thinking, although now that I’m a (sort-of) scholar I (of course) take issue with the author’s representation of Pope Leo I’s Christology.

I also went in search of evidence that I was not alone. Through Googling ‘paleo-orthodoxy’, I came across the blog Gloria Deo: Wesleyanglican ramblings. There you can read the musings of a United Methodist minister who is seeking to live faithfully the tradition that has been handed down to us through the Fathers, the Anglican tradition, and the tradition that grew out of Anglicanism via the Wesley brothers. From him, I found the Post-Evangelical wilderness of the late Michael Spencer, the Internet Monk, who is well-worth a read if you find yourself feeling a bit ‘Post-Evangelical’ and searching where to find land, air, and drinkable water.

The term ressourcement I first found in the IVP volume collecting conference contributions Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future, a collection of essays that seek to find wisdom in the Fathers to apply to today’s situation, seeking to help us escape from some of the wanderings and traps of this age. It is encouraging to see evangelical leaders seeking to find timeless wisdom in ancient texts. As a Classicist, I think this is a most sensible action!

IVP, under the watchful eye of Tom Oden, has produced probably one of the biggest aids to the Evangelical ressourcement, and that is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Consisting of 29 volumes, two of which cover the OT apocrypha, it is essentially a patristic catena on the whole Bible — that late-ancient and mediaeval form of Bible commentary where a series of short musings from the Fathers is arranged following the pertinent passage of Scripture. Now it is easy for pastors, Bible study leaders, as well as the average Christian with the money or access to a good theological library, to find out a lot (Oden would argue the mainstream) of patristic exegesis and thought on Scripture.

This series has companion volumes for this with smaller wallets and less ambitious designs — the Ancient Christian Devotional series. This is a three-volume set that gives the thoughts on the Fathers following the lectionary readings for years A, B, and C in the Revised Common Lectionary as well as two ancient/early mediaeval prayers for each week. I have used that for Year C and I quite liked it! I am using Year B right now, and it is also good, although sometimes I fail to see how the patristic commentary lines up with the passage at hand.

A few more things from IVP related to the Ancient Christian Commentary: Ancient Christian Doctrine and Ancient Christian Texts. The former is a five-volume series covering mainstream patristic thought on major doctrines of the Faith; the volumes are We Believe in One God, We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ, We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord, We Believe in the Holy Spirit, and We Believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. The Ancient Christian Texts series makes available entire patristic commentaries, with a focus upon texts as yet untranslated into English, although I would argue that some texts, such as John Chrysostom on Romans, are due for a re-translation!

IVP has also published three volumes by Christopher A Hall about the Fathers: Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (my review here), and Worshiping with the Church Fathers. These three together make an excellent popular-level introduction to the world of the Church Fathers.

Not that IVP is alone or even necessarily the frontrunner in the Evangelical ressourcement — these are merely those texts I am best acquainted with. Baker Academic has a series called Evangelical Ressourcement, and I am currently reading a sourcebook by DH Williams of patristic passages called Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation. Williams also has the volume of that series called Evangelicals and Tradition, and I am reading his book Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism as well. Whereas Oden is a United Methodist and Hall an Anglican, Williams is a Baptist, and is thus a very welcome voice in the midst of Evangelicals calling for a return to the theology and thought-world of the first five centuries of Christianity.

There is also Robert E. Webber’s Ancient-Future movement, and I know from glancing through iMonk’s commenters that many people have found his book Ancient-Future Worship very helpful in their walk as they find contemporary expressions of evangelical faith hard to deal with. I quite enjoyed Ancient-Future Faith as well, and hope that many will read that text which is inspired by Irenaeus of Lyons and seeks to bring Christus Victor into evangelical theology alongside (not instead of) more traditional western atonement theology as well as turning Cyril of Jerusalem for catechetical ideas.

I would include The Church’s Bible (reviewed by First Things here), akin to IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary but including longer passages and incorporating mediaeval commentary as well, but Robert Louis Wilken is now a Roman Catholic — I guess his project falls under the Catholic ressourcement instead! Yet it is still welcome and will no doubt be of great use to evangelical readers.

Of course, so far all we have here in this 1125-word post is a list of books with brief thoughts on them from me. A flurry of print is not necessarily a sign of activity in the Church. Nevertheless, I know of a few pastors who have made use of these resources in helping them think through the Scriptures and wrestle with the theology of the Church. I imagine there are more! 🙂

The path to orthodoxy involves ‘great peril to walk’

The Council of Nicaea, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus

Orthodoxy, that reasoned attempt to maintain in its whole the Apostolic Tradition as found in Scripture and the living life of the Church, is a narrow road, as we read in Leo the Great, Sermon 25:

Not only on works of virtue, not only on observance of the commandments lies that ‘narrow and difficult way leading to life,’ (Mt 7:14) but — along with these — on the path of faith. It involves great peril to walk, without stumbling, down the one path of sound doctrine among the dubious opinions of the unlearned and falsehoods which have the appearance of truth. It involves great labor and great peril to avoid every risk of deception when from all around snares of error set themselves in the way. (Trans. Agnes Josephine Conway and Jane Patricia Freeland for the ‘Fathers of the Church’ series)

To tread a path so perilous, how could it be naught but exciting, naught but thrilling, naught but a romance (in the mediaeval sense of the word). So thought G K Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. …

To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect. (In context at The Chesterton Society)

These images of the persistence of Orthodoxy fit well with what I was reading earlier today in D. H. Williams,* who argues — for ‘Free Church’ evangelicals (i.e. Baptist types) — that the Tradition of the faith is not opposed to Scripture as many think, but that Tradition and Scripture co-inhere, for Scripture informs Tradition and was formed in the same period as the Tradition.

Through the decades, centuries, millennia, the Church has responded to crises of belief from within and from without. She responded to the challenges presented her by pagans and Jews, by Gnostics and Marcionites, by Donatists and Meletians, by Arians & Pneumatomachi, Appolinarians & Eutychians, by Manichaeans and Cathars. At each turn in this road fraught with peril, she saw what lay ahead and through prayerful consideration and reasoned examination, she determined which of the paths ahead of her was the narrow road that leads to Christ.

Thus, Tradition is not only not opposed to Scripture, it is not dead. It is the living deposit of faith coming from the Apostles through the historic Church to our hands. We are entrusted with this faith, these truths, and must communicate them to our own age, responding to the dangers along the trail, both within the Church and out.

And as we do so in this reeling, rollicking ride, may we always truth in love (one without the other is neither).

*D. H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism: A Primer for Suspicious Protestants, 34-39. He draws on concepts of tradition from Alisdair MacIntyre.