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!

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Alexandros

The Council of Nikaia, St. Sozomen's Church, Galata, Cyprus. My photo.

Re-post from 2008.

Alexandros (the one nearest Konstantinos in the left-hand cluster) had presented his case before the gathering of overseers, explaining why Arios’ answer to his question was not acceptable. It had been long years since that fateful moment when the repercussions of Arios’ thoughts had come forth.

It all came out at the regular gathering of Alexandros and his elders. Alexandros took his role as overseer seriously. He knew that in earlier days the overseer would have been able to meet with the faithful individually. Now, though, the numbers of believers were too great, and that was the job of the elders under Alexandros’ charge. Nonetheless, he had had hands laid on him, and it was his threefold appointment to guide that flock, to uphold right teaching and theology, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper.[1] The elders did the last two things on a regular basis with most people for him. The Lord’s Supper was the normative occasion for worship, and at worship would the elders teach the people.

Thus, it was the responsibility of Alexandros to ensure that those into whose hands he had placed the spiritual health of his flock were teaching them the truth of the Anointed Jesus. It was also, he believed, part of the task of the overseer to pray with the elders and encourage them on their own spiritual journey. Alexandros took his spiritual authority and responsibility very seriously, for these were the matters of the greatest importance, never to be taken lightly.

And so they had gathered those long years before. After they had eaten the Lord’s Supper together, they sat down in a circle in the nave of the new basilica-style house of worship, serving the original congregation that Holy Markos had founded when he brought the Good News to Aigyptos. All eyes were upon Alexandros as he looked down at them.

“We believe in one God, and Jesus is the Word of that God, my brothers. As Holy Iohannes tells us, ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through Him, all things were made; nothing that has been made was made without Him.’[2] Many who read the book of Proverbs see in the person of Wisdom this same Word of God. If this is the case, how can it be that Wisdom says, ‘The Lord created me a beginning of his ways, for his works’?”[3]

Konstantinos had told Alexandros in a letter that this was where he went wrong; that asking such questions was itself impious — and Arios had been wrong to answer. They ought, Konstantinos had told them, simply to make peace with one another.[4] Konstantinos was a politician and a warrior, just barely redeemed from darkest superstition and still minting coins with the Unconquered Sun on them.[5] He did not realise the deep import of these questions as the theologians pondered God and meditated on His great glory. Furthermore, the Assembly’s beliefs rested upon Scripture. Coming to an understanding of difficult passages of Scripture helped believers remain strong in the faith; if one could not trust the Scriptures, one could very well turn back to the worship of the Unconquered Sun.[6]

Furthermore, the young elder Arios was present; Arios had formerly been mixed up with Meletios,[7] and some Meletians who had an axe to grind had told Alexandros that Arios was teaching some unusual things regarding Jesus’ divinity.[8] Alexandros wanted to be sure his preachers would preach the faith handed down; he wanted to be sure that the rumours about Arios were untrue. Arios had a reputation for being a good preacher and expounder of the Scriptures at the Baukalis,[9] the house of God where he tended the flock.

Then Arios opened his mouth and formed words about the Word. He was determined at any cost to keep Jesus the Word subordinate to the Father and to do it all in a combination of Neo-Platonism and Aristotelian divisions. The accusations of the Meletians were true.

“The verse from Proverbs means that there was when he was not, Father. The Word is the Wisdom of God, and this passage clearly states that the Wisdom of God is a created being. This makes sense, for as Origen taught, the Father, the Son, and the Spirit each have a separate hypostasis.[10] If they each have a separate hypostasis, then they are distinct beings. If they are distinct beings, then only one of them can be God. God the Father is that one God, and He will never share his glory with another, as it says in Isaiah. The Word and the Spirit are, thus, creations; they are like God the Father’s hands, active in the creation and preservation of the universe. But they are not God Himself.”

“If they are not God himself, why does Holy Iohannes say that the Word is God?” the blessed servant Athanasios[11] had asked.

“This is a good question. Holy Iohannes is being rhetorical here, my brothers. He is not being literal. The Word is given the word God as a title only; he is not literally God. Being a creature, he is capable of change, as are we all, but of his own free will He continues good so long as he wishes. He is capable of change even as we are, but God, foreknowing that he would remain good, gave him in anticipation the glory which as man and in consequence of his virtue he afterward possessed. God from foreknowledge of his works made him become what he afterward was.”[12]

“Could not all three of them be, um, different manifestations of God?” asked one young elder.

Many eyebrows had risen at that. Alexandros shook his head slowly.

“No,” said another, “for they are mentioned as being distinct persons by Jesus Himself in the Good News according Holy Matthaios when He tells us to plunge people into water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.[13] Therefore, since they all have distinct names, they are not simply manifestations of the one God. They are, as Arios noted, three hypostases.”

“Exactly,” said Arios. “And a difference of name means that there is a difference of substance. An apple is not a tree, is it? The Father is, thus, not the Son. If the distinction between apple and tree were false, we could give them both the same name. But if we call Father and Son by different names, they are not the same thing. And if they are not the same thing, and if the Father is God, then the Son cannot be said to be God in the same way. I do not deny that he is a divine being, but his divinity is not inherent to his being; his divinity comes from the Father and is only partial. He is not truly God in his substance and essence.”[14]

“You would dare say that the Anointed Jesus, the Word, the Son of God, whom the Scriptures themselves call God, is not eternal with the Father?” Alexandros had asked. He could say nothing more. He could not argue. He could only stare in shock at this man.

“Yes,” answered Arios. “As I said at the beginning, there was when he was not. The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. As he dwelt among us, subordinating his will — as, indeed, his own being was so subordinated — to the Father’s, he improved, he resisted temptation. This divine Word came to mediate to us the grace of God the Father, for creation itself, so weak, fallen, feeble, sinful, cannot endure direct relationship with God Himself.”[15]

“Well, we see that you do not believe that Jesus is fully God,” said Athanasios. “Now it sounds that as some semi-divine being enfleshed he is not fully human.”

“This is true,” said Arios, sitting tall.

“If He is not fully God, He cannot redeem us or save us,” said Athanasios. “If He is not fully human, He cannot live a perfect human life and serve as a ransom for many; He cannot offer us a model to live by. His perfection is useless if He is not fully man. His sacrifice is empty if He is not fully God. What you offer us cannot conquer sin. It cannot conquer death. All it can do is feebly tackle philosophers’ questions. The true Anointed One, however, can tackle the philosophers’ questions with might and strength, as well as standing astride sin and death. We eat the flesh of the real man, Jesus. We drink the blood of the real God, Jesus. He is alive, and He is eternal with the Father, true God of true God. I shall not quote the Scriptures to you, impious preacher. You have read them; you know them. Reread them and meditate upon them!”

Once Arios’ teaching became public, it spread beyond Alexandreia. Two years before Nikaia they had excommunicated him and condemned his teachings in Alexandreia. The next year, Antiokheia did likewise, also condemning Eusebios of Kaisereia as a follower of Arios pernicious teachings. And now they were at Nikaia to bring down Arios’ teachings once and for all.

Alexandros was drawn from his reverie by Alexandros of Byzantion, next to whom he was sitting.

“Alexandros,” he whispered, “what is your vote?”

“About what?” he asked, looking about at the assembled crowd.

“Do you agree that an overseer should be chosen by all the overseers of his province, with a minimum of three present if they cannot all make it, but the consent of the others being sent in by letter?”

“What?”

“The statement we’re voting on is: It is by all means proper that an overseer should be appointed by all the overseers in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent overseers also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place. But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.”[16]

“Sure. Yeah. Otherwise we’d have Donatos or Meletios all over again or something, wouldn’t we? There are rogue overseers in Aigyptos, men consecrated by Meletios.”

“Then raise your hand,” the overseer of Byzantion said, gesturing at his own raised hand. “Did you think I was just blessing everyone with this upraised arm?”

Alexandros chuckled and raised his hand to show his assent.


[1] Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (London, Peguin: 1963), p. 253.

[2] John 1:1-3.

[3] Proverbs 8:22.

[4] Eusebius, Life of Constantine. Averil Cameron and Stuart G. Hall trans. and commentary. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), p. 118.

[5] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London, Penguin: 1967), pp. 126-127.

[6] Chadwick notes that a bishop of Troy had done just that but fails to mention which one, p. 127. Emperor Julian the Apostate would do so as well.

[7] Meletius of Lycopolis was a schismatic in the early fourth century who was ordaining people in Alexandria against the current bishop’s wishes. His actions were dealt with at Nicaea as well. (For more, see the Catholic Encyclopedia)

[8] Hubertus Drobner, The Fathers of the Church, trans. Siegfried S. Schatzmann (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), p. 237. W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Peabody, Mass.: Fortress Press, 1982), p. 136.

[9] Drobner wonders if Arius’ church got its name due to its shape, a baukalis being ‘a sturdy earthenware vessel with a narrow bottleneck’, p. 236.

[10] You try to find a good English word for hypostasis. Drobner, 236.

[11] The chances of St. Athanasius being at the event in question are very slim; if he was there at all, his participation in it would also be slim.

[12] From the words “is capable…” onwards, quoting Athanasius quoting Arius as recorded by W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church, pp.135-136.

[13] Matthew 28:19.

[14] This development of Arius’ logic is from Gerald Bray, Creeds, Councils and Christ, (Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1989), p. 107.

[15] Frend, 135.

[16] Canon IV of the Council of Nicaea.

How are we to interpret the Bible?

I have previously posted about Biblical interpretation in “Killing Enemies & Bashing Babies on Rocks: Reading the Difficult Psalms” parts one & two and in “Layers of Meaning.” Today’s post is spurred on by yesterday’s.

Sam Harris argues in Letter to a Christian Nation that the Bible does not offer a clear statement of morality (p. 33).  He uses the expected argument by taking civil laws from the Pentateuch and saying that the injunctions to stone various people and sell as slaves to be evidence that the Bible does not direct people to live lives of compassion and love.  He further argues that Jesus himself bolsters the Law by saying that not one jot or tittle of the Law will be erased.  He also argues that eschatological statements about God’s coming judgement will also make people violent (pp. 13 & 14).

Harris acknowledges that Jesus does say some good stuff, although Confucius beat him to the Golden Rule.  I don’t imagine that the rest of the Sermon on the Mount would sit well with people like Harris.  It’s true that all humans, Christian and otherwise, could probably follow the bulk of the Ten Commandments with no need of their being written down; even certain primates do so.  But what Jesus calls us to is more radical than the Golden Rule, is bigger than the Ten Commandments — “Love your enemies,” “Bless those who persecute you,” “Turn the other cheek,” “If an enemy soldier forces you to march 1 mile, go a second,” “If someone steals your cloak, give him your tunic,” etc.*

How can we reconcile this apparently garbled account of morality?  Indeed, the Good Book gives us leeway to kill heretics or to forgive them if we read the way Harris does.

We must read it systematically.  If you approach the Bible expecting it to be garbled and unclear, you will be rewarded with a garbled and unclear text.  If you approach it expecting it to be capable of being clarified, you will find that you can produce a systematic morality and theology from the Bible.

Nevertheless, you could potentially create a heretical morality and theology.  You could end up a polygamous Mormon.  You could end up an Arian.  Depending on your translation, you could end up Jehovah’s Witness.  You could end up Nestorian, or Monophysite, or the average Anglican.

Where do we turn?  We must abandon any idea that sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself.  It does not.  And if sola scriptura means the Bible interprets itself, then sola scriptura is wrong.  Thomas C. Oden, in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy, remarks that the texts of the New Testament were written as a way of preserving the oral tradition that had been handed down from the days of the Apostles.  The spoken word is alive, but — as anyone who has played the Telephone Game knows — it is fragile and open to manipulation, both accidental and malicious.

When we look at the community that accepted the New Testament documents as being authoritative, we see that various factors are at play when these early Church Fathers interpreted Scripture.  The first factor was the “Rule of Faith” or regula fidei, Irenaeus’ (d. c. AD 202) account of which looks a lot like the Apostles’ Creed (see Chadwick, The Early Church, p. 44 and Webber, Ancient-Future Faith).  According to Irenaeus, the Rule has been handed down from the Apostles through their successor bishops.  Tertullian (AD 160 – 220) said that the Bible was to be interpreted by the Rule of Faith.  This is the first piece of the Patristic puzzle of biblical interpretation.

The second factor at play is the lens of Christ.  As Christians, we are worshippers of Jesus Christ.  He is the cornerstone of our faith.  It is his teachings that we are following.  Therefore, everything should be read in relation to Jesus.  I cannot think of a patristic source for this at the moment (my apologies), but the idea is, first, that Jesus trumps all.

The Sermon on the Mount sets the standard for our conduct.  Thus, no longer is eye for eye and tooth for tooth.  Lustful looks count as adultery.  Hatred is murder.  The behaviour of Jesus, as encapsulated in the Woman Caught in Adultery, is to be our exemplar.  Thus, no more stoning of homosexuals, heretics, and witches (burning isn’t allowed, either).  Tertullian says that in disarming St. Peter, Christ disarmed every soldier.  Worth a thought.  I admit to not knowing how it is that not one jot or tittle will be removed from the Law while at the same time Jesus gives us standards of living that run counter to enacting the civil punishments of the law.

However, I think that if we take a third principle, that the Old Testament (aka “Hebrew Bible”) is to be interpreted by the New, then things move forward.  The lens of Christ tells us that Jesus has taken away our sins on the cross, and Hebrews tells us that we no longer need the sacrifices and ceremonies of the Temple because of the Cross.  Thus, out go Jewish ceremonial laws.  We are also freed from them by Acts 10, when St. Peter has the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals which he is told to eat.  St. Paul in his many letters also shows us that we are free from living under the civil & ceremonial Law when he says that we are saved and live by faith, and that the law won’t save us.

However, since Jesus takes the moral standards of the law very highly, then we are stuck following the morals of the Old Testament law.  This will show us that, while we can’t stone people for being homosexuals, heretics, and witches, we know that we shouldn’t engage in the practices associated with them.

Thus, when we read Scripture, the Rule of Faith (the Creeds), Christ, and the New Testament should be used as our keys to intepreting the difficult passages.  The clearer should also be used to illuminate the obscure.  This was the way of the Fathers, and it should be the way we follow as well.

*This is the source for nonviolence as practised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  King got it from Gandhi who, contra Harris (p. 12), did not get it from the Jains but from Tolstoy.  Tolstoy got it from Jesus and the simple faith of Russian Orthodox peasants.