Some thoughts on McGuckin, The Path of Christianity

I’ve recently perused John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (IVP Academic 2017). I’ve not read the whole thing — frankly, I don’t have time, since it’s 1145 pages long and much of it is not pertinent to my current research, whether patristic or medieval, nor to my upcoming teaching in the Autumn (Latin epic and Latin verse epistolography in Autumn, and Theocritus and Greek Mythology in January).

My first thought is: What on earth students could use this as a textbook for a one-semester course on first millennium Christianity? Its 1145 pages are large with a typeface that, while not minuscule, is not large itself. Maybe students at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia are of a higher calibre than what I’ve experienced. Maybe McGuckin doesn’t actually intend you to use the whole book as a textbook; but he does intend it to be useable as a textbook.

That said, a certain amount of text is taken up by readings. So maybe it would work if you didn’t assign a separate book of readings.

In terms of coverage, it is geographically broad, but most interested in patristic and Byzantine things. Nonetheless, it does reach as far East as China and as far South as Ethiopia. There is a whole section devoted to churches outside the Latin-Greek spectrum that takes up most of the attention in church history books. The volume is divided into two sections, one that is a diachronic study of the story of the church and doctrine, whilst the other is an investigation of particular themes. McGuckin’s advice is to read part one in order but to intersperse the chapters from part two along the way, in whatever order you please.

I read a good chunk of Chapter 13 (pp. 763-789), and this chapter I recommend heartily: ‘The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Early Church’. He takes to task the modern approach to biblical studies, arguing that the ecclesial way of reading Scripture was prevalent amongst all Christians prior to the nineteenth century. I always like this kind of thing, because is the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, then there are legitimate ways of reading it other than ‘how I read any other ancient text’, and it will also legitimately speak to us in different ways.

It seems patently obvious to me.

That’s why I do Latin and Patristics, not Biblical Studies.

The first chapter is also very good. He gives good coverage of the early movements within the Christian movement, and I would feel comfortable giving it to my students to read. His central thrust here is that the second century is one of the most important for everything that follows, and I agree.

I did not agree with every chapter I dipped into, I must admit. I think there’s more to Leo the Great’s Tome than McGuckin acknowledges, but I think most people miss what’s going on because the issue is not whether Leo is in step with the times or any of that, but, rather, cross-linguistic theology done by a Latin and the actual semantics of natura vs. physis. But most people don’t think about Latin Christology this way, seeing, as here, it as simply a re-statement of Hilarius of Poitiers and Augustine full stop. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading what McGuckin has to say here.

Likewise, I wasn’t sold on his interpretation of the Pelagian debate as manufactured by Augustinians and not actually a thing. My own position in this debate tends more towards the East, but given how much energy was expended in the initial Pelagius-Caelestius end, and then against Julian of Aeclanum, and later amongst so-called ‘Semi-Pelagians’ and ‘Augustinians’, I think something was happening here. Why is it confined to the Latin West? I’m not going to be reductive about every East-West difference, but I do suspect that gratia is not charis.

My final similar lament is simply a matter of a different reading of evidence for the Acacian Schism. McGuckin takes the standard line that it was over the Henotikon, but it is evident to me, at least, that from Gelasius’ standpoint, visible in his letters at length, it was Acacius entering into communion with Peter Mongus that was at least as important, if not more so.

Some of the translations of primary texts in the readers accompanying each chapter were a bit stilted.

In all, if you have some time, read the bits that interest you. If you have more time, read all 1145 pages. If have a lot more time, add the appendices on top.

St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘On the Unity of Christ’

On the Unity of ChristOn the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

John Anthony McGuckin’s translation of St Cyril of Alexandria’s dialogue Quod Unus Sit Christus is a highly readable presentation of a text by the fifth-century Greek church’s greatest theologian. It begins with a helpful introduction that is refreshingly confessional — McGuckin, although he tries to set out ‘the facts’, also tries not to be anything other than what he is — an Eastern Orthodox Priest.

I, of course, read Cyril with Pope St Leo the Great always in mind. As I began this piece of anti-Nestorian polemic, I was thinking, ‘If I were a fifth-century western Christian, I would not see why this would conflict with traditional western conceptions of the nature of Christ at all.’ Indeed, at sompe places Cyril seemed to affirm that Christ was God by nature, others that he had a human nature. Later on, however, I was disabused of this notion when Cyril plainly stated that you could never say that Christ had two natures. I have a theory on that that will have to be fleshed out somewhere else, but in short it is: natura ≠ φύσις (at least not always).

Not that western Christological was ever something Cyril was concerned with. Rather, his sights were set on Nestorius, erstwhile (this text is from ca. 438) Bishop of Constantinople, now in exile in the desert. Whether Cyril is fair to Nestorius/-ianism, I cannot say. Certainly, some things Nestorius is recorded as having said would justify much of Cyril’s argumentation.

The two main concerns of Cyril herein are the theology of the ‘assumed man’ (assumptus homo) and two-person Christology. Both are associated with that group of theologians we designate with the short-hand ‘Antiochene’, the latter especially with Nestorius.

Throughout, the main position of Cyril comes home again and again: Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, is a single person (πρόσωπον). He is a fully united, complete personal entity. The man Jesus is the same person as God the Word Incarnate. God the Word did not take up to himself the man of the line of David, Jesus of Nazareth. God the Word actually took flesh and literally became the man Jesus. The implication of assumptus homo theology is that, even if God the Word is homoousios with the Father, somehow Jesus has still been adopted into the Godhead — and so the Incarnation is a sham and our salvation was wrought by a liar.

To take us back to mid-fifth-century (and beyond) concerns, Cyril is so convinced of the unity of persons that he actually says that you cannot say of any action, ‘This is human,’ or, ‘This is divine.’ All actions are of Christ. This, of course, goes against what Leo does in the Tome (Ep. 28), which is why so many easterners were opposed to it (so-called Monophysites).

However, although Cyril continually asserts that Christ has all the attributes of humanity, including a human soul, he denies substantial reality to the moments when He is at His most human, at his weakest — the Garden of Gethsemane and the cry of dereliction on the Cross (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). These were, essentially, play-acting on Jesus’ part so we could learn how to face suffering and not fall. Sadly, this sort of theology paves the way for some of the un-orthodox manifestations of the conservative Cyrillian camp (those ‘Monophysites’ again) in the decades and centuries to come.

Finally, although styled as a dialogue, as an example of that literary genre, this text is … well … it’s not Plato. Let’s leave it at that.

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St Nicholas vs Santa Claus

I am not, by and large, anti-Santa. But this morning, I’ve been re-thinking him a bit (and not my thesis that Santa Claus is Jesus) and have decided to now pit him against St Nicholas of Myra (saint of the week here), whose feast day was a week ago.

My inspiration for this comes from a few things in my Facebook feed this morning. First, a great piece called ‘Why My Family Says “No” to the Santa Claus Myth‘ over at Sojourners, which gives spiritual and economic reasons to reject raising your children with a belief in Santa Claus. In the article, Tara C. Samples explains that, while the myth of a jolly elf bringing children presents may have served a purpose in Christianity’s past (although I doubt it, and get the sense she does too), today it only serves to reinforce economic disparity, consumerism, and commercialism.

In fact, Santa Claus has so become the focus of this, the most popular (though not the chief) feast of the Christian year, that two, admittedly awesome, brothers who have had their photo taken with Santa every Christmas for 34 years are Viral Nova’s Christmas heroes. I mean, it’s a cool tradition, and I like the idea of doing geeky, ‘kid’ stuff well beyond the acceptable age limit. But, really — Christmas heroes?

So then I watched an allegedly ‘heart-warming’ video of Westjet employees staging a Santa to buy gifts for people flying from Toronto to Hamilton.* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] It probably would have been have somewhat heartwarming if Sojourners hadn’t already warmed my heart in a different way. Instead, all I saw was consumerism being celebrated in the modern-day feast of stuff. People were crying over cameras. A kid who looked around 10-12 got an Android tablet (which strikes me as irresponsible on Westjet’s part; the parents may have already got him one OR have had a good, non-economic reason not to). One family got a ginormous TV and were weeping. Lots of people who have watched this video seem to have cried over it.

The only gift I thought was really great was the gift of plane tickets home for one lady. That’s better than just more crap to fill your house with.

And I get it. A fairly sizeable corporation spent its advertising money on making people happy instead of yet another billboard. People got what they wanted. Mind you, these are all people who seem to fly between Toronto and Hamilton,* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] so — unless family sprang for their tickets (as lovely, generous families do) — they are unlikely to be especially destitute.

So, 400 words in, here we go. Santa Claus has taken over Christmas.

And, with him, the cult of buying, of shopping, of consuming, of stuff, stuff, stuff. I want a choo-choo train. I want socks and underwear. I want a big screen TV. I want a new camera. I want, want, want. Me, me, me.

I still believe in gift-giving. I think it a lovely, happy tradition when friends, family, and loved ones choose to bless one another in the form of thoughtful gifts that reflect on that relationship. You know, wives who buy their husbands underwear the Lenten shade of purple. Or parents who pay for tickets for their children to go to live musicals which otherwise they would miss. Or friends who buy you that book you were dying to have  but couldn’t justify purchasing. Or you find that oddity that perfect for that one friend.

Gift-giving is an expression of love and caring.

But the cult of consumerism has gone too far when people in atheist countries go Christmas shopping and commit suicide over it all. And this is where Santa Claus drives us, because when he becomes the focus of Christmas, the gifts become the focus of Christmas, and thus the shopping and the conspicuous consumption, and the reinforcement of the unjust economic systems that we are all part of and none of us does anything about.

St Nicholas is far better.

St Nicholas of Myra is a bit of a tough character to untangle historically. As John Anthony McGuckin explains in his fantastic lecture on the saint (which I can no longer find), at some point all the Nicholases were put on the same date in the Byzantine calendar. As a result, their stories sort of blended into one another and he became a legendary figure of superholy proportions.

Here’s what we can say about St Nicholas the Wonderworker as an example for us, whether legend or fact:

  • He was on the Nicene side of the Arian-Nicene debate. St Nicholas upholds orthodoxy.
  • He was born wealthy but gave it all up (like so many Byzantine saints) to become a monk. He gave his wealth to the poor.
  • He was called out of monasticism to become Bishop of Myra (southern Turkey today). He was selfless and served his community as his spiritual discipline, not retreating from the world.
  • He gave dowries to young women to save them from being sold into sex-slavery, thus combatting an unjust socio-economic system (even if he could not change it at large, he changed it for them).
  • He saved young people from drowning — once again, selfless sacrifice serving others.

Whom would you rather take as your inspiration this holiday season? An elf who reinforces our greed, instilling it in our children when very young, or a saintly bishop who gave up his wealth to dedicate his life to God and the service of the poor?

And then, let us ask ourselves: Are we seeking to live in the example of Christ, our king and leader, and his saints through the ages?

*Who flies from Toronto to Hamilton? Maybe Toronto was their layover. I hope so. Seriously, people. Take the GO Train. [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.]

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.