Sometimes theological controversy is … theological

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

I often find myself in situations where I feel a bit awkward, or naive, or as though I had missed something in my own readings as a historian of ancient Christianity. Wisdom tells me to keep quiet; or, hey, write an anonymous blog post so no one will know it was me, right?

For example, I recently heard a scholar state the fact that the problem in the Pelagian Controversy was that wealthy laypeople were doing their own ascetic thing in their homes separate from the authority of the bishops.

I admit to not having reviewed all of the evidence of the Pelagian Controversy, and not having thought much about it for a few years. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a controversy that starts in Rome but has its fiercest opponents in North Africa can’t simply be about power. And if Pelagius and his supporters are seen as threats to the local bishop, why does Pope Innocent I at one point actually exonerate them from heresy?

Regardless of which side you support in this debate, it is also clear that there are substantive theological differences between St Augustine of Hippo and the Pelagians, especially Julian of Eclanum. To reduce it to power politics requires a certain kind of extreme cynicism that I cannot accept.

Now, I don’t imagine that the bishops of Late Antiquity were always grand heroes seeking the true good and spiritual health of the world. Nor do I imagine that, when they were seeking the spiritual good of others, their methods were those of which I would approve.

The coercion of Donatists as approved by St Augustine, for example, is a bad idea. Similarly the legal restrictions against heretics, pagans, and Jews, largely supported by the bishops, are not the way a free and just society lives. By the grace of God, Christianity has largely rejected such coercive methods, and need never have used them. But ideology and power make for a dangerous combination.

Nevertheless, to imagine that Augustine vs Donatism (or vs Pelagianism or vs Manichaeism) is simply about him trying to get more power in the hands of North African ‘catholic’ clergy is reductionist to the extreme. It goes hand in hand with the sort of unintellectual anti-clericalism that must be espoused by people who have never actually spent quality time with clergy. I have met both on the same day, sometimes in the same person.

If we want to create a properly nuanced view of the history of Christianity in the Late Roman and Early Medieval worlds, we need to be open to sincerity as well as politicking. St Cyril of Alexandria, for example, is notorious as one of those ‘bad people’ who went to war against his fellow bishops to try and keep his own episcopal see in a position of power and prominence. He did. It’s true.

Yet on what grounds did Cyril attack Nestorius? On Christological grounds that, if you read Cyril’s pre-Nestorius writings, you will realise he already believed. And if you read his theology, you’ll realise that his is a brilliant mind to be neglected at our loss. We need not agree with how he went about things, and we may acknowledge that part of the animus against Nestorius was due to shifting balances in geo-ecclesiology — but, based upon his theological writings and biblical commentaries, Cyril was honestly opposed to the theology of Nestorius.

Or take St Caesarius of Arles and his attempts to root out practices in the countryside that he consider ‘pagan’ or ‘superstition’. It is perfectly likely that the local people did not think these practices were incompatible with their Christian faith. They may have seen some things as non-religious and others even as part of Christianity as they understood it. However, we need not move immediately to, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices and religious expressions because he wanted a monopoly on religious power.’ Is not as easy to say, ‘Caesarius opposed these practices because he believed they were spiritually dangerous to his flock‘? I can assure you, when I witnessed a young M.A. student suggest this to senior scholars, he got patronising shakes of the head and blank stares before they moved the discussion elsewhere.

When I mention such ideas, people query my ability to judge sincerity.

What about their ability to judge insincerity?

Why straight to cynicism? Why the reductionism of all theological and pastoral activities in Late Antiquity to ecclesiastical power politics, of bishops trying to consolidate all power in themselves?

Consider the fact that many Christians in Late Antiquity — bishops, monks, educated laypeople — believed that heresy spelled eternal damnation, right alongside paganism and Judaism, and maybe we’ll have a different view of their activities. Again, we can disagree with their measures without having to disagree with their goals and without assuming them to be ‘bad people’ or ‘bastards’ or simply out to gain power.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. And sometimes theological controversy is actually theological.

Quick thoughts on the injustice of grace

Image from the Orthodox Church in America

A call for papers passed through my inbox recently for a conference entitled ‘Divine (In)Justice in Antiquity and the Middle Ages‘. In my perversity, I immediately thought about this sublime post by Fr Aidan Kimel over at Eclectic Orthodoxy, St Isaac the Syrian: The Scandalous Injustice of God. If you’re pressed for time, I recommend that you skip my post and read Fr Aidan’s.

Anyway, I thought it would be a laugh to submit a paper to the conference about the injustice of divine grace in St Isaac the Syrian (‘of Nineveh’, d. 700) — to challenge our ideas of what it means when God is ‘unjust’. Generally speaking, when folks say that God is ‘unjust’, they really mean that God allows ‘bad’ things to happen to ‘good’ people. My paper, inspired by Fr Aidan and giving him full credit (of course), would use St Isaac to question this idea of just and unjust as well as bad and good in relation to divine-human relationships.

Upon further thought and reading the call for papers more closely, I decided that it wasn’t such a good idea — I can’t read Isaac in the original Syriac; I have yet to read his complete works; blog posts by Fr Aidan are the only secondary material I’ve read. The groundwork for me to produce an academic paper on St Isaac the Syrian is too great, even if the seed of a thesis exists. And I have a feeling that seed is correct.

Nevertheless, as I brough to the fore on my posts about St Augustine of Hippo and medieval Cistercians on divine love (here and here), God goes far beyond justice in His dealings with the human race, according to the teachings of historic Christianity. Whether one believes in apokatastasis as do St Isaac and Fr Aidan, God — the overwhelming Trinity that is, in His essence, agape, dilectio, love — loves us more than we can ask or imagine, and that love has overflown and continues to overflow in the divine action with regard to the human race.

Remember, as we were taught in Sunday School or heard from an evangelist on the street, the human race is fallen, broken, twisted, diseased, suffering. One glance at footage shot by drones in Homs, Syria, will show you that. One look at the clubbing scene in Glasgow on a Saturday will show you as well. Having turned our backs on God, and being ourselves ultimately ex nihilo, we are headed for destruction without God (see St Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation).

God loves us, so He comes to save us. Justice, which is balance (I always quote Ra’s al Ghul from Batman Begins for that), means that ‘bad’ things happen to ‘bad’ people. No one is good, no one is righteous — not one (Cf. Romans 3:12; Psalms 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:0).

Yet when we were God’s enemies, Christ died for us so that we might become the friends and children of God, heirs of the universe. This is absolute, overpowering love, agape at its deepest and truest.

It is also, by the ancient understanding of justice (in a judiciary sense, typically a retributive idea), unjust.

All of this, of course, has been said better and more beautifully by St Isaac the Syrian.*

[Insert plug for Late Antiquity here.]

*Also said by the Newsboys, ‘When you get what you don’t deserve, it’s a real good thing. A real good thing.’

Initial reflections on Volume 1 of Gregory the Great’s letters

The top of St Gregory's crozier
The top of St Gregory’s crozier

This morning I finished reading the first volume John R C Martyn’s translation of Gregory the Great‘s letters. This covers Books 1-4. Gregory the Great was Bishop of Rome 590-604, and he left behind a significant corpus of writings — sermons, The Book of Pastoral Rule, the Dialogues (which are hagiographical), and letters. The Pastoral Rule is one of the few Latin patristic texts both translated into and widely read in Greek from a very early age.

Over 800 of Gregory’s letters survive. This is considerably more than any previous pope. Indeed, one of my catch-lines about Leo the Great (pope 440-461) is that more letters survive from him than from any other pope before Gregory, and for Leo we have a corpus of ~170 items. Unfortunately, I am not clear about how Gregory the Great’s epistolary corpus stacks up against later popes in terms of quantity. My apologies.

As a result of this massive corpus of missives, we have a much better sense of who Gregory is than of the other incumbents of the Roman see. We have many more avenues to access his thought on a range of issues. We see what sorts of things he was interested in, we see what sorts of things he believed, we see what sorts of people he knew. Gregory thus stands in sharper relief than any other Late Antique Bishop of Rome.

Now, when we say these things, we have to remember that, while Gregory undoubtedly unique and had his own strengths, it is not necessarily the case that his correspondence was unique as a body of documents. The mediaeval papacy was not suddenly born in the year 590. Gregory is but one step in a long process; what makes his letters unique is their quantity, not necessarily their concerns or outlook.

Not always, anyway.

One final preliminary issue. The sorts of papal letters I read for my own research tend to be of interest primarily or only as sources for canon law. Although I believe that canon law, and papal letters in particular, is an often overlooked source for social history, it is still the case that the explicit interest of the pope at hand is canon law, and very often in broad terms. That is, Innocent I is interested in discussing monks and nuns who leave their monasteries whereas Gregory is interested in this one particular story about this one particular nun who got pregnant. Gregory’s letters, then, are universally recognised by historians as a major source for the history of the Early Middle Ages, in a way, sadly, that a lot of other papal letters are not always.

Gregory’s main correspondents are clergy — mostly bishops, but sometimes also deacons and priests — and officials or aristocrats. In Books 1-4, he writes to the Lombard Queen Theodelinda, for example, as well as the Byzantine imperial daughter Constantina. He writes to the deacon who manages the church’s landholdings and financial affairs in Sicily quite often. He writes to secular officials in Dalmatia and Africa.

His correspondents are in Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, Dalmatia, and North Africa, only occasionally in Gaul, although Frankish lands will feature more prominently in later books of the correspondence.

He writes about ecclesiastical abuses, about who is fit to be a cleric, about allowing Jews freedom of worship, about not allowing Jews to own Christian slaves or buy property from churches, about evangelising Sardinian pagans, about schism, about theology, about monks and nuns, about misbehaving sons of clerics, about people trying to sell off church plate, about people trying to found monasteries and how that’s a good thing, about people alienating property from its rightful heirs — about the range of human existence, basically.

I will go into some of the moments that piqued my interest next time. But it was worth the read, and I will get around to the next two volumes some day.

Pope Question: You say ‘Roman Bishop’ and ‘Pope’ – what do you mean?

pope clipartI was explaining to someone my upcoming research project into the sources of the earliest collections of papal letters recently, and this question came up. It’s actually a very good question, because it helps clarify what the person with whom you are speaking actually means by the terms. There is a certain kind of Roman Catholic, for example, who would say that not only are ‘Bishop of Rome’ and ‘Pope’ synonymous, the office of the Bishop of Rome has pretty much always been invested with the same authority and whatnot.

My answer was that, for my research, I use the terms interchangeably. However, it is more that I mean ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’ when I say ‘Pope’ than that I mean ‘Pope’ when I say ‘Roman Bishop/Bishop of Rome’. That is, I am conscious of a development in the office of the Roman Bishop and his role in ecclesiastical polity that means that ‘Pope’ Siricius (d. 399) and ‘Pope’ Innocent III (d. 1216) and ‘Pope’ Francis do not all have exactly the same job or role in the wider church.

John Moorhead’s 2015 book, The Popes and the Church of Rome in Late Antiquity takes the same tack, although Moorhead eschews the adjective ‘papal’ and noun ‘papacy’, with good reason. I choose not to because they are short words and everyone knows what they mean; instead, I frame my use of pope-related words at the beginning of my work so people know what is going on. Calling Leo ‘Pope’ is perfectly legitimate; therefore, talking of his papacy makes a lot of sense to me — although I can also see Moorhead’s perspective, trying to avoid clouding the issue of how the Roman Bishop’s role developed.

What is a ‘pope’? A ‘pope’ is a papa in Latin — a father. The term is used in the fifth century of bishops beyond the Bishop of Rome, although eventually it becomes restricted to said bishop in its usage. I am fairly certain no one ever legislated the term ‘pope’. It is also used in Eastern churches; hence the current Pope Tawadros II of the Coptic Orthodox Church. At St Sozomen’s Church, Galata, Cyprus, it is painted in a fresco on the exterior of the building; the fresco is of the Council of Nicaea, and the poor fifteenth- (sixteenth-?) century artist knew neither Pope Sylvester’s name nor the fact that he wasn’t even there, so simply painted ‘Papa Romis’ over his head.

It is a title of honour, originally used to esteem the person and activity of spiritual direction of the bishop. Therefore, even though Bishops of Rome in the late 300s and 400s were not the same sort of Pope as Innocent III, they are still Popes — and they still claim a primacy of honour. And Pope Leo the Great, in fact, even claims that all clerical ministry descends from Peter, and therefore Rome.

How the pope, in his role of Bishop of Rome, Metropolitan of Suburbicarian Italy, and holder of a primacy of honour, Patriarch of the western church, comes to be invested with universal jurisdiction and appoints all bishops is a different story. But to call someone ‘pope’ need not imply said jurisdiction or vision of the papal role.

Late Roman dress and church vestments

Last night while my wife was getting a haircut, I sat in the lobby of the hairdresser’s and looked at pictures on my phone, in particular pictures of Late Antique and mediaeval ivory carvings. Because they are magnificent. And beautiful. Scrolling through the photos from my various travels, I inspected this one for a while:

cropped fl felix 428This piece is in the best little (and free!) museum in Paris, the Bibliothèque nationale de France’s Collection de Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (BnF). It is one leaf of a consular diptych from Rome depicting Flavius Felix, consul in the year 428. Amongst the many ivory artefacts that strike my fancy, I love consular diptychs in particular. If I remember Alan Cameron, ‘The Origin, Context, and Function of Consular Diptychs,’*  correctly, these diptychs were given as unofficial gifts by consuls and other Roman officials to commemorate their holding of office, particularly the sponsorship of games.

I zoomed in on Flavius Felix’s diptych and looked first at the open curtain behind him, and his staff, and his clothes. And his clothes caught my eye. First, it was the presence of what looks like a stole or pallium (I do not actually know the correct technical term here, sorry). Then I observed that he is wearing a long, ankle-length robe underneath a short, possibly fancier robe. Lucky Flavius also has a fancy, embroidered garment surmounting it all. I’m not sure what it is; it does not much look like a toga. I’ve seen images of togas before, like what this Late Antique emperor in the process of apotheosis is wearing:

From around 402, in British Museum
From around 402, in British Museum

These garments of Felix’s all caught my eye, as the title of this post has given away, because they are reminiscent of traditional clerical vestments as visible in Eastern Orthodox and traditional, Latin use Roman Catholic churches. That same Parisian museum has this Greek icon of the second half of the 16th century as an example:

Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil
Sts Nicholas, Chrysostom, Basil

Here we can see the similarities in the dress between Felix and the three hierarchs, even if they are not perfectly mirrored.

Years ago, you see, a low-church, non-conformist friend asked where on earth clerical vestments even came from. I did some Googling, and a website somewhere (this was before 2004, so I’m not rehunting this site!) said that the origins lay in the vestments of Roman lawyers.

Now, I admit to not knowing about Roman lawyers and not taking the time to investigate more thoroughly. However, the evidence of this consular diptych suggests that ceremonial dress of the Later Roman Empire was the source for the ceremonial dress of the church. This makes sense, since the liturgy is meant to be an event of great splendour and worship of a God of splendour. As part of the enculturation of Christianity in Late Antiquity, the clergy took on forms of dress from the secular world just as the church adopted secular, Roman styles from architecture, art, poetry, etc.

To close, here are some other consular diptychs I’ve seen:

Leaf from diptych of Areobindus, Constantinople, 506 (Musée de Cluny)
Leaf from diptych of Areobindus, Constantinople, 506 (Musée de Cluny)
9th/10th-century western European imitation of a Late Antique diptych
9th/10th-century western European imitation of a Late Antique diptych, BnF, Paris
Leaf of diptych of Magnus, first quarter of 6th c, Constantinople (BnF, Paris)
Leaf of diptych of Magnus, first quarter of 6th c, Constantinople (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Theodore Philoxenus Sotericus, Constantinople, 525 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Theodore Philoxenus Sotericus, Constantinople, 525 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Constantinople, 517 (BnF, Paris)
Diptych of Flavius Anastasius Probus, Constantinople, 517 (BnF, Paris)

*Journal of Roman Studies 103 (November 2013), 174-207.

The Inheritance of Rome by Chris Wickham — my review available now!

So, although I do have an actual article somewhere out there in editorial limbo, my first real, live book review has recently made an appearance in the online St. Francis Magazine. The book I review is the second volume of the Penguin History of Europe, The Inheritance of Rome: Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham. I excerpt for you the opening paragraph, hoping you will go check out the whole thing!

Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome: Europe from 400 to 1000 is a tour-de-force of narrative history, bringing together scholarship from economic history, political history, military history, archaeology, literature, material culture, and other available evidence for the late and post-Roman
period not only in Europe, as the title claims, but in the whole Mediterranean world and the Middle East. Wickham starts us off by demolishing the grand myths of nationalism and modernism — the first that the states we see forming after Rome are the same thing as modern nation states that inhabit the same geographic space, the second that this was a ‘Dark Age’. Instead, he seeks to understand a transformative, influential period of history from the viewpoint of the men and women who lived it, not from any grand narrative, nor from a sense of inevitability. The story of this period as Wickham tells it is a good ride.

Geography of the Church Fathers

Roman Empire in Late Antiquity

Last night, it popped into my head to provide a list of the major Church Fathers by geography. One of the interesting things this list highlights is that East-West is not always a Greek-Latin division; Rome in particular was producing Greek-speaking theologians through the third century. I provide ‘major’ Fathers from the Ante-Nicene and Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers series region by region from West to East. They are provided in chronological order in each region. This choice does, alas, leave out Spain entirely despite Isidore of Seville, as well as many of the great ascetic writers of Egypt-Palestine-Syria. Nonetheless, it is a good sampling, and I have other things to attend to! Enjoy!

West

Gaul

  • Irenaeus of Lyons (from Asia Minor; Greek)
  • Hilary of Poitiers (Latin)
  • Rufinus of Aquileia (Latin)
  • Sulpicius Severus (Aquitaine; Latin)
  • Vincent of Lérins (Latin)
  • John Cassian (fr. East, lived in Egypt before Gaul; Latin)

Italy

  • Clement of Rome (Greek)
  • Justin Martyr (from Palestine, fl. also in Asia Minor; Greek)
  • Hermas (Rome; Greek)
  • Hippolytus (Rome; Greek)
  • Gaius (Rome; Greek)
  • Novatian (Rome; Latin)
  • Dionysius (Rome; Greek)
  • Ambrose of Milan (Latin)
  • Leo the Great (Rome; Latin)
  • Gregory the Great (Rome; Latin)

North Africa

  • Tertullian (Carthage; Latin)
  • Minucius Felix (Latin)
  • Commodian (Latin)
  • Cyprian of Carthage (Latin)
  • Arnobius (Latin)
  • Lactantius (fl. in court of Constantine; Latin)
  • Augustine of Hippo (Latin)

East

Greece & the Balkans (incl. Thrace/Constantinople)

  • Athenagoras of Athens (Greek)
  • Methodius of Olympus (Greek)
  • Jerome (fr. Latin Dalmatia, spent time in Rome before settling in Bethlehem; Latin)
  • Socrates of Constantinople (Greek)

Asia Minor

  • Polycarp (Smyrna; Greek)
  • Papias (Hierapolis, Phrygia; Greek)
  • Gregory Thaumaturgus (Neocaesarea; Greek)
  • Basil of Caesarea (Greek)
  • Gregory of Nazianzus (Greek)
  • Gregory of Nyssa (Greek)

Egypt

  • “Barnabas” (Alexandria; Greek)
  • Clement of Alexandria (Greek)
  • Origen of Alexandria (Greek)
  • Dionysius of Alexandria (Greek)
  • Julius Africanus (Greek)
  • Anatolius of Alexandria (Greek)

Syria-Palestine

  • Ignatius of Antioch (d. at Rome; Greek)
  • Tatian (fl. at Rome; Greek)
  • Theophilus of Antioch (Greek)
  • Eusebius of Caesarea (Greek)
  • Cyril of Jerusalem (Greek)
  • Ephraim the Syrian (Nisibis-Edessa; Syriac)
  • John Chrysostom (Antioch, Constantinople; Greek)
  • Sozomenus (Greek)
  • Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Greek)
  • John of Damascus (Greek)

Mesopotamia

  • Aphrahat the Persian (Syriac)

Unknown

  • Author of Epistle to Diognetus