Relevant to my last post, here’s some undigested Justin Martyr (c. 150):
I will also relate the manner in which we dedicated ourselves to God when we had been made new through Christ; lest, if we omit this, we seem to be unfair in the explanation we are making. As many as are persuaded and believe that what we teach and say is true, and undertake to be able to live accordingly, are instructed to pray and to entreat God with fasting, for the remission of their sins that are past, we praying and fasting with them. Then they are brought by us where there is water, and are regenerated in the same manner in which we were ourselves regenerated. For, in the name of God, the Father and Lord of the universe, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit, they then receive the washing with water. For Christ also said, “Except ye be born again, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”1894 Now, that it is impossible for those who have once been born to enter into their mothers’ wombs, is manifest to all. And how those who have sinned and repent shall escape their sins, is declared by Esaias the prophet, as I wrote above;1895 he thus speaks: “Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from your souls; learn to do well; judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow: and come and let us reason together, saith the Lord. And though your sins be as scarlet, I will make them white like wool; and though they be as crimson, I will make them white as snow. But if ye refuse and rebel, the sword shall devour you: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”1896
And for this [rite] we have learned from the apostles this reason. Since at our birth we were born without our own knowledge or choice, by our parents coming together, and were brought up in bad habits and wicked training; in order that we may not remain the children of necessity and of ignorance, but may become the children of choice and knowledge, and may obtain in the water the remission of sins formerly committed, there is pronounced over him who chooses to be born again, and has repented of his sins, the name of God the Father and Lord of the universe; he who leads to the laver the person that is to be washed calling him by this name alone. For no one can utter the name of the ineffable God; and if any one dare to say that there is a name, he raves with a hopeless madness. And this washing is called illumination, because they who learn these things are illuminated in their understandings. And in the name of Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and in the name of the Holy Ghost, who through the prophets foretold all things about Jesus, he who is illuminated is washed. (First Apology, ch. 61)
In my latest YouTube video, I include a long quotation from Richard Hooker while discussing liturgical worship.
Hooker as quoted in the video:
The end which is aimed at in setting down the outward form of all religious actions is the edification of the Church. Now men are edified, when either their understanding is taught somewhat whereof in such actions it behoveth all men to consider, or when their hearts are moved with any affection suitable thereunto; when their minds are in any sort stirred up unto that reverence, devotion, attention, and due regard, which in those cases seemeth requisite. Because therefore unto this purpose not only speech but sundry sensible means besides have always been thought necessary, and especially those means which being object to the eye, the liveliest and the most apprehensive sense of all other, have in that respect seemed the fittest to make a deep and a strong impression: from hence have risen not only a number of prayers, readings, questionings, exhortings, but even of visible signs also; which being used in performance of holy actions, are undoubtedly most effectual to open such matter, as men when they know and remember carefully, must needs be a great deal the better informed to what effect such duties serve. We must not think but that there is some ground of reason even in nature, whereby it cometh to pass that no nation under heaven either doth or ever did suffer public actions  which are of weight, whether they be civil and temporal or else spiritual and sacred, to pass without some visible solemnity: the very strangeness whereof and difference from that which is common, doth cause popular eyes to observe and to mark the same. Words, both because they are common, and do not so strongly move the fancy of man, are for the most part but slightly heard: and therefore with singular wisdom it hath been provided, that the deeds of men which are made in the presence of witnesses should pass not only with words, but also with certain sensible actions, the memory whereof is far more easy and durable than the memory of speech can be. (Hooker, Laws, 4.I.3)
In the midst of a philosophical discussion online, a philosopher/theologian friend (who teaches the “great books” at university) stated, “Read Sophocles.” The point was that if one were to read Sophocles, the philosophical position being elucidated would become clearer.
This is a good use of the classics. I still remember my first encounter with Antigone in high school and the stichomythia between Haemon and his father Creon, preceded by Haemon’s speech, including these lines:
Whoever thinks that he alone possess intelligence, the gift of eloquence, he and no one else, and character too . . . such men, I tell you, spread them open — you will find them empty. No, it’s no disgrace for a man, even a wise man, to learn many things and not to be too rigid. You’ve seen trees by a raging winter torrent, how many sway with the flood and salvage every twig, but not the stubborn — they’re ripped out, roots and all. Bend or break. The same when a man is sailing: haul your sheets too taut, never give an inch, you’ll capsize, and go the rest of the voyage keel up and the rowing-benches under.
Lines 707-718, trans. Robert Fagles (English lines 791-803), pp. 95-96
As the remaining events of the play bear out, Haemon is correct. Creon, King of Thebes, (in case you still need to read the play) has decreed that his nephew Polyneices (son of Oedipus), brother of the titular Antigone, is not to be buried, but Antigone seems to have done so, or attempted to do so. And so he is going to seal Antigone alive in a tomb. This ends up with Antigone, Haemon Creon’s son, and Eurydice his wife all dead and Creon repenting — too late.
There are lots of noteworthy points made and speeches and it’s well worth a read.
And, as with any good tragedy, whether by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Shakespeare, or Marlowe, you learn a lot through the human drama as it unfolds.
What I am trying to figure out is whether or not this is the chief end of tragedy. I’m not saying my friend thinks so. Maybe no one does, but sometimes, when you read the people promoting the “great books” or “classical education” or the Greek and Latin classics, when they turn on the tap of their rhetoric to convince you that this is a worthy endeavour, it often feels as though — for that moment, at least — the reason is because there are “lessons” to be gained from Sophocles, that we can learn about philosophy from reading ancient poetry, and not just the explicitly philosophical like Lucretius, and that this is the most important reason people should read the greats.
Maybe this is because they are trying to convince skeptical parents and donors that this is a worthwhile endeavour. And maybe I’m misreading everything. And hopefully what I’m about to say will resound with them all.
Whatever lessons and whatever philosophy, ethics, politics, can be gained from reading Sophocles or Homer (and it can, as I have just demonstrated), the basic philosophical utility of the classics is not necessarily the number one reason to read them.
To take up the classically Christian cause of this blog, the monks who copied the Latin classics would likely disagree. I have not read Jean Leclercq, The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, for over five years, but as I recall, the Benedictines and Cistercians of pre-scholastic, monastic theology, read pagan Latin verse primarily for its beauty — chiefly Virgil, but also Ovid, Horace, Statius. This latter poet, as C S Lewis discusses,* was imagined by some in the Middle Ages to have been a crypto-Christian because of his portrayal of the gods. Philosophy was the schoolbook for philosophy (and they had more and more Latin Aristotle to read as time went on, directly from Greek, alongside Plato, and Calcidius and Boethius and Cicero).
Given that, theologically, they were steeped in Sts Augustine of Hippo and Gregory the Great, it is also worth noting that narrative fiction, such as Virgil or Sophocles or Terence (always a school text), was considered “lies”, so they would have read it (not Sophocles, given that he’s Greek) for the language, for its beauty and subtlety. The advice from St Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana to make your teaching beautiful as well as true (but, at the very least, true) was one they took to heart. And so they read the pagan classics.
As I say, I have no doubt that people in the great books and classical education camps are not reductionistic, and they certainly see the worth in reading something for its beauty. But it’s an important thought to keep in mind.
Let me close with an anecdote on this theme, then. Malcolm Guite visited Rome when he was still an atheist. And there, he encountered John Keats’ poetry and Keats House at Piazza Spagna. And through the sublimity of Keats’ poetry, God began to break through Father Malcolm’s unbelief and soften his heart, making him at least open to the possibility of God, although not yet a Christian.
And so we can find God in the beauty of the poets even without hunting for lessons in philosophy.
*C. S. Lewis, “Dante’s Statius,” Medium Aevum 25 (1956): 133–9.
My latest offering on YouTube complements yesterday’s blog post. Yesterday, I argued for the relevance of second-century Christianity for today. In my YouTube video, I argue for the importance of the second century as its own historical moment, highlighting six areas worth considering, the first three of which are intimately connected:
Many people are comparing our current cultural moment to the final decades of Roman rule in the western Empire and the first century or so thereafter (in order to evoke both St Augustine (d. 430) and St Benedict (d. 547) as guides). There are parallels. But some people are also putting forward the argument that we are living in a second-century moment, at least as far as Christianity in the wider culture is concerned.
This has its parallels as well.
First, the government isn’t really persecuting Christians in the West (despite what some of the fear-mongers will tell you). Instead, for the first time since 312, they frankly do not give a care what Christians believe and desire. We have become a non-issue for them. Although there has been a narrative created of the pre-Constantinian world being one of unrelenting persecution, for most of the second century, Christians were not systematically persecuted, and only occasionally. Persecution is a big hassle, so the government needs to have itself a goal before engaging in one.
Second, the religious map of the world around is becoming more and more pluralist. Now, this doesn’t mean we’ve arrived at the pluralist utopia promised back in the ’90s. No, people are not interested in Christianity as one equal option among many. They’ll express such an idea, but if your Christian conviction leads you step out of line on a specific issue dear to the culture’s heart, you’ll find out just how rigid and puritanical everyone still is. That said, the actual religious landscape is increasingly varied due to the unchurching of many white people on the one hand and the arrival of newcomers to the West who bring with them their own religion. When I lived in Toronto, I visited a massive, stone Hindu Mandir besides a little shopfront Buddhist temple. Alongside these are homegrown New Age manifestations and the organisation of humanism into a new religious movement. The religious landscape of the Roman Empire was itself a smorgasbord, as the excavations at Dura Europos show us (3rd-century Syria).
Third, the internal world of Christianity has been seeing (for quite a while) the return of old heresies, of Gnosticism both explicitly and implicitly. Gnosticism here can be defined as an impulse towards salvation through knowledge about facts and things, gnosis, as opposed to knowing God (which is a personal reality); an impulse towards esotericism, towards secret knowledge; an impulse towards dualism; a rejection of the material world as truly good; a deep spirituality that relativises the place of Christ and thus diminishes him — a cosmic Christ consciousness that I participate in is a lesser thing than Christ as God.
And besides these, versions of Pelagianism, Nestorianism, Arianism, and Apollinarianism are appearing. They may not be second-century, but their attempts to drown out the symphony of orthodoxy with their own discordant monotony is the same.
None of these parallels is exact, of course. As a historian, I could start pulling each one apart. But to the extent that they hold, what I think they can do is help us frame our attempts to be and make disciples of the living Lord Jesus in our cultural moment. And they also highlight the second century as a place for us to go in forging an ancient-future Christianity, as an important period for the sources of the ressourcement.
To that end, my friend Brian and I will be giving a series of lectures this fall specifically on the second century and how its resources can help Christians today.
I missed getting this post out time for Advent 2 — called ‘Bible Sunday’ in some circles because the Book of Common Prayer’s collect (at the bottom of this post) is a masterpiece about Scripture. Here’s a bit of St Ambrose for you:
The Divine Scripture is a sea, containing in it deep meanings, and an abyss of prophetic mysteries; and into this sea enter many rivers. There are Sweet and transparent streams, cool fountains too there are, springing up into life eternal, and pleasant words as an honey-comb. Agreeable sentences too there are, refreshing the minds of the hearers, if I may say so, with spiritual drink, and soothing them with the sweetness of their moral precepts. Various then are the streams of the sacred Scriptures. There is in them a first draught for you, a second, and a last. (Letter 2.3: To Constantius, A Newly Appointed Bishop)
BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
I was just made aware by Keith in the comments of this blog that there is a Patristics site aptly named Patristics. It is very visually appealing and swanky. Given its swankiness and the fact all of the blog posts are from 2016, I imagine that it is new.
This website wants to be for everyone, and in many ways it is, but its editorial choices betray the fact that its authors and editors are Orthodox. For example, on the Apostolic Succession page, only the successions of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem are listed; one would have thought that Rome, as one of the three ante-Nicene proto-patriarchates, would have made the cut. Thankfully, though, even if these guys are Orthodox, they aren’t the dytikophobic John Romanides kind, as seen in the well-balanced blog post about St Augustine of Hippo.
You can’t criticise people for having their own bias. I’m Anglican, after all, and it would be disingenuous to write from any other perspective.
As a resource for the Church Fathers, the goal of this website is to gather together Patristics sources in readable English. Not everyone likes ANF and NPNF or other Victorian translations out there; I like them well enough, but find them to be among the more difficult texts to read from a screen instead of a book. As far as comprehensiveness is concerned, the site is clearly still under construction; not only are the proposed authors few, but many still lack texts. This is not a criticism; undoubtedly it will grow over time. Putting proofread texts on the Internet takes time, and I am glad to see a website that seems to be taking the time required. As you wait for Patristics to grow, don’t forget my page on where to find various Church Fathers online!
That said, this website happily fills in some of the gaps in ANF and NPNF: The Didache, Patristic selections from The Philokalia (St Antony the Great, St Mark the Ascetic, St Isaiah the Solitary, ‘St'[?] Evagrius the Solitary, St John Cassian, St Nilus the Elder), Sayings of the Desert Fathers (the source of which is unattributed), St Maximus the Confessor, and St Isaac the Syrian.
Other content I appreciate are links to applicable podcasts (chiefly Ancient Faith Radio); it would be cool to see these expanded to include Catholic and Protestant podcasts and even YouTube videos. But that may be too much to organise for the administrators and could overwhelm users.
Besides the content of the texts, there is also a page listing different ancient heresies. One idea for expanding this is to link to both heretical texts and their ancient opponents. First, of course, the website should grow its database of Church Fathers.
These criticisms are put forward in love — this website is so aestethically pleasing that I would be very glad to see it succeed and grow! Hopefully the editors and engineers can take these comments graciously and apply them. 🙂
It is not immediately obvious how to reach your goal of reading the Fathers themselves while navigating the Church Fathers page, unfortunately. Nonetheless, some texts are there if you click on an author and then click once again in the left sidebar.
The text of 1 Clement, the only one of his texts available, is written in Victorian English, surprisingly. It is attributed to Daniel Loych, whoever that is — presumably one of the intrepid volunteers engaged in the usually thankless task of uploading content. The translation is the Ante-Nicene Fathers one by John Keith. Translator credits are essential.
This raises serious concerns for me — why do we need a new, sexy website to give us access to public domain translations already posted online by Calvin College at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library and New Advent? Is a third online version of ANF and NPNF really necessary? Is the market people who want sexy websites? Indeed, their homepage even states:
Many people struggle with reading archaic sentence structure. Our English versions are carefully worded to provide the most relevant understanding of ancient texts.
My other concern is the extent, but I hope that that will merely be fixed with time. The only Latin Fathers they provide are Tertullian, Hilary of Poiters, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo, and John Cassian. Missing Jerome is a bit of a blow, but if one were to start with any group of Latin Fathers, this would be it.
One proofreading concern is that hierarch is misspelled heirarch.
Texts I’d like to see. I am most interested in seeing readable, online editions on here — besides the authors in ANF and NPNF — of these monastic texts: The Rule of St Benedict, the ascetic corpus of St Basil, the Rule of Pachomius, The Life of Simeon the Stylite, and the hagiographical texts of Three Byzantine Saints (The Life of Daniel theStylite, The Life of Theodore of Sykeon, The Life of John the Almsgiver [but he’s not a monk]).
Non-monastic texts: Salvian of Marseilles, Romanos the Melodist, ancient liturgies, Prudentius, Paulinus of Nola, Eusebius’ Praeparatio Evangelii and Gospel Problems.
Apocryphal texts: I think it would be really helpful to make available apocryphal texts such as the Protoevangelion of James that are the sources for stories accepted by tradition.
Canon law: It would also be helpful to see some western canon law texts appearing; these are, however, available in NPNF2, vol. 14.
As I say, this is a swanky, visually appealing website. I look forward to watching its library of Patristic texts grow in time to come!
I just read a good piece by Thomas C. Oden (The Rebirth of Orthodoxy) that tells a bit about his journey from modernist neo-orthodox liberalism to postmodern paleo-orthodoxy entitled “Then and Now: The Recovery of Patristic Wisdoms“. He brings up some of the issues he mentioned in his book, noting that we will be forever spiritual children in the shallow end (my words, not his) if we do not rediscover the ancient Christian masters of spirituality and biblical exegesis.
He mentions how many of his friends from “then”, when he was a social activist who listened to the world around him to give him the agenda, ask him why he is not “on the street” engaging in social action. He says that his work of reading and writing is itself social action; by this work, he can change his mind to be more like God’s and the minds of others. In other words, our world will change if our worldview does. He writes:
No current moral issue is more deep-going than the acid destructiveness of modernity. No political project is more urgent for society than the recovery of classic Christian consciousness through the direct address of texts of Scripture and tradition. There is nothing better I can do for the moral dilemmas of our time than offer undiluted the ancient wisdom of the community of celebration.
I recommend this article if you’re curious about paleo-orthodoxy and one man’s journey into it and the hope that it offers us in these postmodern days.
Cassiodorus (c. 485-c. 585) spent the latter decades of his life, after a career in the civil service of Theoderic the Amal, Ostrogothic King of Italy and then an exile in Constantinople, running a monastery called Vivarium at his estate near Scolacium (Squillace; nice photos here). For the monks, he composed his Institutions of Divine and Secular Learning.
The Institutions begin by setting out divine learning. Cassiodorus was grieved that the study of the Divine Scriptures lacked a suitable programme of learning akin to what existed for secular learning, so he put this together. I think it is not a bad approach to Christian learning, although it would need updates in the reading list today! A lot of Christian learning is simply Bible classes/study with no overarching connections, or a focus on ethics/morality with little emphasis on really learning, or (in some places) study of the great writers and thinkers without study of the Bible.
Some people want to begin courses of Christian education with Plato, or with the Trinity. While I can get behind the second, the former is foolish. Cassiodorus begins with the Bible.
First, the Bible. Cassiodorus sets out in the Institutes the various divisions of the books of the Bible and what the most important commentaries are, including where to find Latin translations of the Greek Fathers. His commentators are the usual suspects — Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Basil, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Didymus the Blind, and Origen, who is recommended with cautions* — plus a copy of Pelagius on Romans which he had expurgated of heretical bits.
A benefit Cassiodorus’ monks would derive from these particular commentators is not just Bible knowledge — although certainly that — nor explications of difficult passages, but also Christian theology. The Divine Scriptures exist not for us to worship them but to show us the path to salvation laid out by One worthy of worship. Neither theology nor Bible study is an end in itself. If we were to adapt this program for life today, then modern commentators who seek such wisdom are the ones to choose, not simply those with brilliant academic insight and credentials.
After setting out the great Bible commentaries, Cassiodorus recommends consolidation of our knowledge. I think this task is to be carried concurrently with the above. First, he recommends introductory manuals to the Divine Scriptures, then learning the rules of elucidating the text; third, checking commentaries if something in the Scriptures is obscure; fourth, very careful reading of orthodox/catholic teachers; fifth, paying attention whilst reading the Fathers for when they mention specific Bible passages in wider discussions; sixth:
frequent discussion with learned elders; for in conversation with them we suddenly realize what we had not even imagined while they transmit eagerly to us the knowledge they have gained in their long years. (Inst. 1.X.5, trans. Halporn)
This recommendation is part of the ongoing programme of study. Always keep the words of the Holy Scriptures in mind, and seek wisdom on them in all places. One thing that I feel perhaps we lack in Christian education today is the contact with the living tradition of spiritual elders; instead, we spend our time with books (some, true, written by spiritual elders) or people with professional expertise — but something different is gained through conversation with wise elders. This, of course, can only be ‘built in’ to a program of Christian instruction by creating atmospheres where the elders are accessible to the disciples. But it’s probably (definitely?) of critical importance.
Third, the Ecumenical Councils. Having learned one’s Scriptures, Cassiodorus recommends the four ecumenical councils (Nicaea [325, creed here], Constantinople [381, creed here], Ephesus , and Chalcedon [451, definition of the faith here]). I find it intriguing that Cassiodorus wrote this after 553 but does not mention Constantinople II as a fifth such council. Anyway, the number accepted by East and West at least until the Reformation is now 7 Ecumenical Councils. Cassiodorus recommends them both for theology and the canons. Given the ongoing shifting and changing of canon law, I would say that their theology is more foundational for Christian education today than the canons — coming to an understanding of their definitions of the faith and theological issues, as well as the other historic definitions, the Apostles’ Creed and the so-called Creed of St Athanasius. The canons and dogmatic decrees of the Seven Ecumenical councils are online here.
For sola scriptura Christians who are possibly freaking out at this point, remember that the creeds are succinct summaries of Christian faith. As well, in the early Fathers such as Irenaeus (2nd c) and Tertullian (2nd-3rd c), there is a coinherence between the rule of faith, an oral tradition that evolved into the abovementioned creeds, and the Divine Scriptures. By studying the Creeds and the Councils in close succession to, or alongside of, the Scriptures, we are guiding both the students’ understanding of the Divine Scriptures and of the Creeds.
The next few chapters of the Institutions are about different divisions of the Holy Scriptures and then about how to correct one’s text. Perhaps a modern version would include courses on textual criticism and the history of transmission here? We no longer use manuscripts that we correct ourselves (which Cassiodorus says to do very carefully!), so his precise instructions here are not very useful.
After an encomium on the Sacred Scriptures, Cassiodorus then recommends study of theology. Here, he recommends some of the introductory texts on the faith by St Ambrose, as well as the more complex works on the Holy Trinity by St Hilary of Poitiers and St Augustine, then works on ethics and Augustine’s City of God. What would we add today? I would say some later Fathers, such as Maximus and John of Damascus. Aquinas? Palamas? Calvin? Luther?
After theology and ethics, Cassiodorus recommends Christian history. He lists the major writers of ecclesiastical history and their Latin translations. The study of Christian history is a good idea. I always highly recommend it. The difficulty for us is that we have about four times as much Christian history as Cassiodorus did. Thus, the study of it cannot necessarily be as imbued with the Fathers as the earlier sections. Perhaps, then, some of the best modern scholarship? Cassiodorus also recommends reading Josephus.
Great men Cassiodorus recommends. Next, the monk is to become acquainted with: St Hilary of Poitiers, St Cyprian of Carthage, St Ambroe of Milan, St Jerome, and St Augustine — but not to neglect living greats, such as Eugippius and Dionysius Exiguus. I’ve a feeling that most of these would have been covered by a careful following of the rest of the course.
Secular learning that is useful along the way. [This section edited.] Cassiodorus goes into secular learning most fully in Bk 2; in Bk 1, he recommends (biblical) geography and rhetorical studies. To these I would add a grasp of certain philosophical fundamentals. Of the disciplines Cassiodorus discusses, I would argue that these are the ones most likely to be missing from a standard education today.
Now, this is just Cassiodorus’ recommendations for sacred learning, for the training of the Christian intellect to understand the Bible and theology. What he leaves out in any detail is spiritual discipline. I imagine that someone following Cassiodorus’ program in conjunction with the disciplines of his contemporary Benedict or of Cassian a century and a half earlier would gain great knowledge both in head and heart. Because one can know all about the Bible and theology, but not know God. Update: Cassiodorus recommends Cassian to his readers.
I wonder if we could somehow help implement well-rounded Christian education like this not only for monks and theology students but for congregations as well? I know of some initiatives in some congregations; one of the theology PhD students who attends my church is organising quarterly sessions to teach biblical theology to the 20s-30s crowd, for example. It would also be great to see youth being taught more than a. apologetics, b. don’thavesexbeforemarriage.
*’Later writers say that he should be shunned completely because he subtly deceives the innocent. But if, with the Lord’s help, we take proper precaution, his poison can do no harm.’-Inst. 1.I.9, trans. Halporn
I have just launched a new page for this blog, ‘Church Fathers Online.’ Here I have listed online English translations of the Church Fathers of which I am aware. This page is the result of contemplating how to make the Fathers more accessible — and certainly making them available is part of that! Therefore, I decided to celebrate the growing availability of patristic texts to English writers by making a little page full of links to their writings. Enjoy!