John A. McGuckin on the Fathers for all believers

I’m not overfond of blog posts that are merely repostings of other people’s ideas, but I came across this the other night and I thought it was deep and true and of the moment. It’s from John Anthony McGuckin’s introduction to We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ, the second volume of IVP’s Ancient Christian Doctrine series, a series that is devoted to patristic commentary on the content of the creed; this volume is sort of a sourcebook or anthology on Christology (the third volume covers atonement and whatnot). He says:

It is one of the great tragedies of the current state of divided Christianity that this patristic literature is so little known by so many, or, worse, regarded as not a real heritage of the Protestant world, even though it might be of the Orthodox and Catholics. This treasure of the early church shines with the grace of the Spirit, and because of this it is the true catholic (that is, universal) heritage of all the churches of God. It is a lamp to light their way to a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Such a regained sense of apostolicity is, I suggest, the great agenda of the present moment: the true vision of what real ecumenism ought to be aiming for, in a time when the splintered confessions of Christianity need urgently to renew their hope that they can still come together in a single, even though richly stranded, harmony of the confession of the one Christ, the selfsame Lord who still reigns actively over hsi redeemed church. For those of us who profess ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism,’ it is not beyond our wit (at least if it is within our will) to confess also ‘one apostolic confession’ rooted and founded in the great tradition such as is so clearly represented in these volumes.

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 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!

Noah’s Ark & the Annunciation of the BVM

I think that the Feast of the Annunciation of the BVM is one of those feasts that a lot of low(er) Protestants avoid because BVM = Blessed Virgin Mary = obvious Papist connexions. This is silly. The Annunciation is the first feast of the earthly life of Christ. Furthermore, unlike, say, the Dormition (Assumption), the Annunciation is a biblical event. And we all know how much we Protestants love the Bible!

This Feast is on March 25, and I celebrated it by popping in at my local Orthodox Church and standing around through the Divine Liturgy (Eucharist). Not that I could receive the Sacrament, but it was good to be there.

One of the Old Testament readings for this Feast was the end of the tale of Noah’s Ark, where he sends out the dove. According to The Orthodox Study Bible:

The dove foreshadowed the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:10), who caused the Holy Virgin to conceive Christ in her womb, and the olive leaf speaks of the Virgin herself (Lk 1:35, Akath).

That abbrev. ‘Akath’ = Akathist Hymn. The Service of the Akathist Hymn is a beautiful service of the Orthodox Church that takes place over the first five Fridays of Lent, the full Service occurring on the final; the hymn itself was possibly composed by Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century. It is a hymn all about the Theotokos (Mother of God, see here for why that’s an important title).

Anyway, I noticed neither during the service nor later when I read through the Akathist hymn myself this particular piece of typology (on the fourfold sense of Scripture, read here). It was not, however, the first piece of typology I thought of.

In Noah’s Ark, as all good Sunday School children know, were the entire human race and all the living animals as well. In the belly of the ark (fun fact: the Greek for belly and hold are similar). These humans and animals were saved from destruction in the terrible Flood by taking refuge in the Ark.

The typology I thought of was that the BVM is like the Ark because she carried the salvation of the world in her belly as well — she carried our Lord Christ, God Incarnate, without Whom we would all be lost, inside her womb. The Annunciation, celebrated nine months before Christmas, is the starting day of our salvation, as the priest noted to us in his homily that day.

The Orthodox Study Bible confirms this, citing once again the Akathist Hymn. It, however, was not my first place to turn but my second. My first place to turn was the IVP Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, and there I found only typologies for the Ark as the Church, wherein the human race is saved. This typology also works.

Nonetheless, I like this old, forgotten way of reading the Bible. While I’ll never abandon the historical method, to have this more spiritual approach alongside adds greater depth to my reading. The Ark is the BVM. Cool.