Apologetics and theology

Medieval image of the Resurrection of Christ, seen in Vatican Museums

Over at Read the Fathers, we just finished Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 133 – c. 190; I do wonder about that name…), On the Resurrection of the Dead. Twice, at the outset of the work and at the ‘recapitulation’ in chapter 11, Athenagoras makes the point that defending the truth — in this case, that the dead shall rise — is less important than explaining it, that apologetics is of less value than doctrine. However, he notes that there is a place for defending the truth, since otherwise how can people come to grasp the doctrines?

This is an important thought, and one sometimes missed in certain circles. I am not making apologists themselves my targets here. From what I can tell, people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig do actually believe Christian doctrines, even if I take issue with Craig’s neo-apollinarianism. Nonetheless, based upon recollections from life as a teenager and undergraduate, many young people in the church never get beyond apologetics — proving that there is a God; arguing against evolution; arguing for the reliability of the Bible; etc., etc.

This is good as far as it goes — I agree with Little, you should Know Why You Believe. I also agree with, however, that you should Know What You Believe.

If apologetics passed for doctrine for some young people of my generation, perhaps it is no surprise that by the time we were thirty or thirty-five, many of my peers were no longer churchgoers or professing Christians or even basic theists. If your vision of who God is is supplied only by the cosmologial argument and not “fleshed out” (if you will) by the doctrines of the Incarnation and Most Holy Trinity, then how will mere apologetics stand up to the fierce polemic of some in this world, let alone the soft war waged upon us by comfort?

Athenagoras, for example, goes from arguing that there will be a general resurrection to why there will be, looking at the nature of humans, of God, and of justice. I have to admit that it is not the best treatment of the resurrection of the dead out there — so far, my favourite is Bishop Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ. Be that as it may, whether one prefers Michael Ramsey or Athenagoras, appreciating the resurrection of the dead and truly affirming it as a Christian doctrine (something we do in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds) requires more than just a defense that such a resurrection will take place.

To my mind, there are two main reasons for thinking about doctrine and theology. First, because it informs how we worship God. The second is like unto it, because it can inform how we live. Essentially, as Athenagoras says towards the end of On the Resurrection of the Dead (note that ‘Him who is’ is the Greek translation from Exodus of that I AM’, the second part of ‘I AM that I AM.’)

‘And we shall make no mistake in saying, that the final cause of an intelligent life and rational judgment, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees. -Translated by B.P. Pratten. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight

Rediscovering the Transcendent God: A way forward for the West

I recently wrote a post at Read the Fathers about Irenaeus and divine transcendence. Over there, I try to keep things a bit dispassionate. My main goal is to be a guide to reading the Church Fathers — who were they? what did they say? what do they mean? what was their context? Over here, on the other hand, my goal is also to go a step beyond that to ask:

And so what?

I broke my rule about dispassion in that post very briefly at the end, admitting as much, and writing:

There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.

Consider this. I was reading a news article not too long ago about the potentially amicable split in the United Methodist Church in the States. This article cited someone claiming that many millennials are leaving the church (not just the UMC but church in general) over concerns about gay/LBGTQ+ rights. The author made it sound like this was a cause for a majority, but given the ongoing haemmorrhaging of the Protestant mainline, there’s more to it than that. Apologies for not having kept track of this article to link to it.

So let’s look at both sides for a moment. When I mentioned to a pastor once about the church in Canada and the USA having lost its sense of God’s transcendence and this being a cause of church decline, he quickly set off in the direction of the declining mainline. I had to gently course correct him, because evangelicals are as guilty as the mainline, they just go about it differently.

We all tend to tame God. So if a lot of people who grew up in theologically and morally conservative churches are leaving over LGBTQ+ rights and issues, and not just going to liberal churches (some do, I admit; and some who do eventually slip away from the faith as well), somehow the God being preached and encountered at evangelical churches is not bigger than the wider culture.

We are not debating whether same-sex sex acts are sinful, nor whether the sacrament of holy matrimony should be restricted to heterosexual monogamy. I like avoiding trolls and so avoid this question on this blog. But let us, as a premiss for this thought experiment, take evangelical sexual ethics as granted. If a person finds that they are having trouble with this part of evangelical Christianity, leaving the Church, or least leaving the Christian faith, doesn’t strike me as an option if this person has also encountered the transcendent God.

If God is big enough, shouldn’t we be willing to hold unpopular opinions, or to spend time with Him — and even His people despite some discomfort?

It strikes me that if evangelical preaching of traditional sexual ethics is enough to drive churched people away, evangelicals haven’t been preaching enough Gospel, enough of the explosive truth that the untouchable, incomprehensible God Whose essence is unknowable came to us in the flesh in order that we might know Him. LGBTQ+ issues may be the presenting, conscious issue, but I suspect much more lurks beneath the surface when people leave.

Let us now consider the liberal churches, such as my dear, old Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada, it turns out, is in such decline that if rates of decline continue (which they probably will not), there will be no members in 2040. Now, to be sure, many of us who grew up Anglican don’t darken the door of an Anglican parish on a Sunday morning because we find Anglicans exhausting, LGBTQ+ issues aside. Nonetheless, if the author of the article was right, it strikes me that liberal Anglican churches and United Churches should be flourishing.

Instead, two of the Anglican parishes in my neighbourhood have merged, and I noticed that at least one of the downtown churches has closed its doors during the decade I was away. If people were leaving evangelical and conservative churches over LGBTQ+ issues alone, would they not say, ‘But Jesus is worth it, I’m going to the liberal Anglican or United Church down the road!’

I think, instead, people are going nowhere. Maybe some people try a more liberal church for a while. But both sides have their own special tamed gods to preach instead of the wild God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Haven’t we all met the God of being nice from both liberals and conservatives? Or the God of self-help/pop psychology? The genie God of Joel Osteen? The God of moralism and legalism? The God of ritual perfectionism? The God of feel-good emotions? The God of social justice?

Or that sort of preaching that doesn’t really need God at all, but is an interesting bit of religious thought/ethics/philosophy/literary criticism/psychology?

Now, I believe that Scripture and tradition teach a moral code, and that we can’t just avoid morality in our Christian walk. And I think love and justice for the poor, downtrodden, beaten, and bruised is part of a sound, biblical moral vision. And it’s probably a good idea to be nice. And that Jesus can bring mental and emotional healing to our lives.

But do you know what else the God of the Bible, the God of Irenaeus, the God of the Nicene Creed has done?

He made everything out of nothing. (By everything, I mean the entire, majestic universe, from quasars to the quantum realm.)

He made a bush burn without being consumed. (And talked out of it!)

He parted the Red Sea.

He also entered history as one of us. The Mighty God became a helpless baby!

After performing many miracles, this Mighty God died. (‘Tis mystery all — th’immortal dies!)

He trampled down death by death.

With the lightning flash of his Godhead, he broke the gates of Hades.

He rose from the dead.

He ascended to the heavens.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And He invites us, poor, broken, dying, dead sinners to join Him in glory.

Not because we deserve it. Just look at the world around you. Does any of us really deserve glory? Left? Right? Centre? Rich? Poor? Young? Old? Think about.

But God, the Creator of the Universe, loves us so much that He took on flesh and died so that we could be with Him.

Let me tell you, this is a God Who is so much more thrilling than “5 Steps to a Better Marriage” (however helpful that may be).

Are we preaching Him and helping others find Him?

This question is one reason I write this blog and read the Fathers (and manage Read the Fathers!). We need to encounter this God Whom so many others have encountered, and bring His light to the world around us. For many, reading Irenaeus or Basil of Caesarea or John Chrysostom or Bonaventure or Gregory Palamas, or least meeting their ideas, is a gateway to worshipping the wondrous, transcendent God.

Martyrdom

I have recently taken over as administrator of Read the Fathers. It’s not too late to join! It’s never too late to join, but it’s pretty easy just now. We started on December 1, and everything we’ve been reading has been short so far. Check us out! It’s only seven years of your life. 😉

This means a lot of my blogging energy is going there instead of here at the moment, such as my latest post, a bit of an introductory creature about martyrdom. I hope you enjoy it! Join the discussion. Join our reading group!

Martyrdom of St Margaret, Santo Stefano Rotondo, Rome, early 1600s

What ever happened to ‘Read the Fathers’??

If you’ve been putting up with me long enough, you will recall that last November on this blog I was gung-ho about an exciting new initiative called ‘Read the Fathers‘. This initiative is still ongoing (follow the link!), and hopefully will continue for another six years.  And last year, starting with Advent 1, I was into this. Sometimes ‘Read the Fathers’ passages would be discussed on this blog. Sometimes I would turn up there as a blogger as well.

And then, suddenly.

I wasn’t doing it anymore.

Somewhere during Clement of Alexandria (whose feast is tomorrow; saint of the week here) I started having trouble getting through the readings. And then I went to Germany, where my access to English books that I could take home with me was curtailed for a while as I awaited my student card — as well as books not on open shelving at the University of Tübingen. And I dislike extensive online reading.

And since I’m always reading something ancient or mediaeval anyway, I stopped.

Since April, I have read the Fathers. I’ve read much of St Augustine’s City of God. I’ve read the poems and letters of Sidonius Apollinaris, the History of the Vandal Persecution by Victor of Vita, the Creedal Homilies of Quodvultdeus, the Chronicle of Hydatius, the Chronicle of Victor of Tonnena, and On Repentance by Victor of Cartenna. Besides these fifth-century works (all from North Africa save Sidonius [Gaul] and Hydatius [Spain]), I read One Hundred Latin Hymns from Ambrose to Aquinas, ed. and trans. by P G Walsh and Christopher J Husch. I also read the early mediaeval letters of St Boniface (saint of the week here) and the late mediaeval Imitation of Christ by St Thomas a Kempis — not mentioning the various secular and pagan works from the ancient and mediaeval worlds that I also read.

But today I rejoin the ‘Read the Fathers’ bandwagon! I don’t know how long it will take me to fall off the bandwagon, but I’m trying. Today is a good day to join — we read Pontius’ Life and Passion of Cyprian. If today doesn’t work for you, try tomorrow when we begin Cyprian’s letters. And the great thing about letters is how easily you could jump in any day from here until we finish Cyprian’s letters on Christmas Adam (23 Dec).

Happy reading!

Lent: A good time to start to Read the Fathers

The Good Shepherd, Catacomb of Priscilla

I should have posted this before Sunday, when we started reading The Shepherd of Hermas in Read the Fathers, but I was too busy gawking at the art at the Uffizi and taking the train to Milan on Sunday. These things happen. Nevertheless …

Many people in Lent, rather than — or in addition to — giving something up, take something on. Some pray more. Some read more Scripture or focus on a particular book of Scripture. Some people read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book. Some people Read the Fathers.

This past Sunday would have been the ideal time to join us. We started reading the mid-second-century text called The Shepherd by Hermas. It’s not especially long, and neither are the daily readings (unlike with Irenaeus). It was very popular in its day, and many people thought maybe it should be in the Bible — as evidenced by its presence in the Bible codex called ‘Sinaiticus.’ But the Muratorian Fragment and a few others said that, while The Shepherd is a useful and interesting book, it is not Scripture.

It’s certainly an interesting read, and a window into a different side of second-century Christianity than Ignatius or Justin provides. This interestingness, with insights into our forebears in the faith is precisely what you can expect if you join (or re-join) us at Read the Fathers — where we are reading through most of the Fathers over seven years!

And Lent is the perfect excuse to start a good, new habit that you can maintain beyond Easter! This is how I’m using Lent this year, something I hope to blog about soon. You see, in Lent we are used to taking on something extra, used to refocussing our spiritual and mental habits. So, if you’ve always wanted to read through a lot of the Church Fathers, if you start now, you can into the habit and keep it going beyond Easter.

Things I’ve been up to re Justin and Irenaeus

I’ve been busy this week with preparations for my trip to Cyprus (I leave Saturday!) as well as with my regular research. Nevertheless, I have successfully written two posts at Read the Fathers. If you are interested, they are:

Justin and Christian Worship – In this post I discuss the importance of Justin’s First Apology for the history of Christian worship.

Irenaeus of Lyons – In this post I introduce Irenaeus’, his life, writings, and the major themes in his theology, with a strong emphasis on recapitulation.

Read them and enjoy! Hopefully something else will be forthcoming soon.

A piece I’ve written on Christian letter-writing

If you like things I have to say, I thought I’d let you know that I’ve written a post at Read the Fathers called, ‘Genres of the Fathers: Epistolography.’ I discuss what letters are, why Christians write so many letters, and what this shows us about early Christianity.

Because I want to promote Read the Fathers, I’m not reposting it at the pocket scroll. Go there to read it — I hope you like it!

A Passage from the ‘Epistle to Diognetus’ for Advent

Today, following the readings from Read the Fathers, I read the so-called ‘Epistle to Diognetus‘ for the first time. And therein I came across this passage which I find appropriate as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s coming amongst us at Christmastide:

And was his coming, as a man might suppose, in power, in terror, and in dread? Not so; it was in gentleness and humility. As a king sending his royal son, so sent He him; as God He sent him; as Man to men He sent him; and that because He was fain to save us by persuasion and not by compulsion — for there is no compulsion found with God. His mission was no pursuit or hounding of us, it was an invitation to us; it was inlove, not in judgement that He sent him. (ch. 7; Early Christian Writers, Penguin Classics, trans. Maxwell Stanforth, updated by Andrew Louth, p. 146)

Thoughts worth meditating on, no?

Read the Fathers!

The world of Patristics on the internet is always interesting, and today I learned of an exciting development that I fully endorse. Over at Read the Fathers, some people are organising an online community to go through a seven-year cycle of readings of the Fathers that will take you through most of the Ante-Nicene Fathers (ANF) and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (NPNF) series.

You are not committed to use the sawdusty versions of ANF and NPNF (but they are available free through the Christian Classics Ethereal Library), for the organisers have kindly let us know book.chapter.verse for each day’s readings, so you can find a better translation with more up-to-date notes based on a more recent critical edition for each of the Fathers. E.g. for Augustine, grab the Oxford World’s Classics translation of the Confessions. For Tertullian, a lot of it is as yet not updated, but the Apology and De Spectaculis are available in a Loeb volume. And, if my life follows the swiftest trajectory possible, by the time we reach Leo, you can read my translation of the letters! 😉

The commitment is seven pages per day. A lot, but not really. My fun reading is often 10 to 100 pages per day. And this will be far more profitable if more time consuming than briefer devotionals such as the (recommended) Ancient Christian Devotional from IVP. Here you’ll read entire works of the Fathers and get into the messy stuff — but through bite-sized, daily readings. This is why it will take seven years.

If you fall behind, pick up with that day’s readings (or at least a reasonable starting point). The organisers recommend you don’t play catch up, otherwise you will probably lose heart and abandon it all together. My former priest says the same thing about reading the Bible.

I cannot recommend this idea enough. The challenges and wonders and mind-stretching ideas that come from reading the Fathers are exactly what the pocket scroll is about. I started this blog not only to have a place to work through some ideas but as a place to encourage others to meet with the texts that have formed the Christian faith and made it what it is today to help bring them to a place of deeper faith in God, greater awe before Him, fuller strength in the face of trouble, truer holiness in a licentious society.

So go Read the Fathers.