In response to my last post, William asked how we expect people to present ancient/medieval/early modern — historic — Christianity ‘in modern or po-mo parlance’. This is a good question. We have to admit that there is a remove between ourselves and the pre-modern world, first of all. We have much in common with our forebears in the faith, being human and Christian and all that.
But our educational background, our educational system, our politics, the religion of our non-Christian neighbours, the philosophy of the surrounding culture, what art is — these things are different.
Two approaches to groundwork, then.
First, acknowledge the difference between us and St Augustine and discern accurately and lovingly our surrounding culture — the spiritual but not religious, people who actually like Brutalist architecture (or claim to, anyway), the hedonists, the perfectly happy agnostics and atheists, as well as groups that include both Christians and those who have yet to know Christ — feminists, vegetarians, Republicans, New Labour, the French.
What are these people’s desires and aspirations? For those who reject Jesus, why? What do they think of Him?
Then, if you know the Great Tradition, you can speak its truths in ways that will make sense. What does that look like? It looks like the Gospel as your close friends would like to hear it.
This sort of approach is what Robert E. Webber did with his ‘Ancient-Future’ books, consciously trying to use patristics to speak to postmodernity.
The other is almost the opposite. I, personally, gravitate towards this. Simply try to make the doctrines and practices of the ancients comprehensible. Ask yourself, ‘Why does this matter? What exactly is this doctrine saying?’ Rewrite a doctrinal statement in your own words. Or learn the ancient languages and translate the texts for yourself. Having digested them, try simply to talk about them as a normal human being. (This is hard for me — I am not normal.)
For me, though, I’ve always enjoyed grappling with the texts themselves. I really appreciate the books above and how some of them ushered me into the world of patristic thought. But in the end, people like me don’t want to see congregations reading books about the Fathers and medieval theologians, or about spiritual disciplines. We want to see fellow believers enriching their lives with the ancient, medieval, early modern texts themselves, and applying spiritual disciplines to their own lives.
To this end, one might need a budget and a bit of discernment. Or a good research library! Because I think annotated translations and commentaries being used by study groups are the next step. The naked text, as in the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, can be hard to digest. Newer translations with footnotes or endnotes are extremely valuable. We use these for the Bible (and Homer and Cicero), so why not for the ancient and medieval inheritance of Christianity?
Of course, we’ll never agree with everything the ancients say. This is life. But if we aren’t seeking to be rooted and nourished by the living God as He has acted in and through his Church for the long centuries leading up to now, we will find ourselves caught up in all the fads of contemporary thought.
This final point is one that Thomas C. Oden made in The Rebirth of Orthodoxy — all of his best, radical ideas from when he was a liberal turned out to have already been done by the Fathers.
I thought I’d re-post this here, a long-lost piece from 11 November 2007 that I referred to in my most recent post. My thoughts have probably shifted and matured in 10 years. At least, I hope they’ve matured. They’ve definitely shifted — I would retract some things I say about Nestorius, and I definitely reject Jenson’s reading of Leo. But this fresh discovery of ancient Christianity and the excitement it brought me is worthy of remembrance…
And so, between walking and reading, and sitting in St. Alban’s Square reading, I had my mind blown away.
My mind was blessedly cracked open and happily split by Robert W. Jenson, whose essay “With No Qualifications: the Christological Maximalism of the Christian East”* (I told you it was light reading) delved into the depths of what it means for Jesus to be Lord.
He said nothing especially revolutionary–this is, in fact, the whole point of the book. Indeed, what he did was merely articulate what I already know to be true. What he said resonated with my spirit as well as with the universe and the revelation of Holy Scripture. Yet he articulated truths that are so rarely articulated and so rarely articulated well, and thus my brain is thinking about this and meditating and whirling and wanting to tell you–all of you!
So: Jesus is Lord.
And there is only one Lord–Yahweh, the Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer of all things, the One Who exists from everlasting to everlasting, the Holy God, the King and Ruler of ALL–who is perfectly holy and perfectly just and perfectly loving and perfectly perfect and wholly God and wholly other and beyond all and in all and through all and all of it.
Jesus is Him.
And when we say, “Jesus is God” — or, rather, “Jesus is the Son, and the Son is God,” (17), we are to say unequivocally. There is no mincing of words as with Nestorianism (that sounds awfully a lot like some of the freaky weird “esoteric” Christianity out there as found in Tom Harpur):
the Son so “inhabits” Jesus that the man Jesus is a temple wholly transparent to his presence, or that the Son is so personally “conjoined” with Jesus that from our point of view they cannot be told apart, or that they too will be in fact one person at the End, after the suffering is over. (18)
And sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters. I agree with Jenson, Pope Leo missed the boat, too [2017:I disagree with Jenson on this now]. Leo’s theology is what one of my undergrad profs described succinctly as follows: Jesus is like a marble cake. Leo says (and this is an actual quote from the Tome of Leo, which I think is online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library somewhere):
Each nature is the agent of what is proper to it, working in fellowship with the other: the Word doing what is appropriate to the Word and the flesh what is appropriate to the flesh. The one shines forth in the miracles; the other submits to the injuries. (19)
To skip over a large amount of the following controversies, the truth as I believe it is to be found when one reads the Scriptures and applies his mental faculties to them, when one finally admits to the entirety of the claim that Jesus is Lord is as follows, to quote Jenson:
the man Jesus, exactly as his personhood is defined by the life story told in the Gospels, is the one called the Son, the second identity of God. Jesus is the Son, with no qualifications. (22)
Thus, finally, what sort of blew my mind away was when Jenson applied this to the reality of who God is. Whoever the Gospels reveal Jesus to be, is exactly who God is–not just in character. Thus:
Mary is the Mother of God. Unus ex Trinitate mortuus est pro nobis. [One of the Trinity died on behalf of us.] One of the Trinity is a Palestinian Jew who came eating and drinking and forgave sin and prophesied implausible glory. Jesus saves. These and more sentences are the great metaphysical truth of the gospel, without which it is all religious palaver and wish fulfillment and metaphorical projection. Jesus really is Lord because he is one of the Trinity, and that is our salvation. (22)
Like I said, nothing new–indeed, St. Maximus the Confessor was saying these things in the 600s (some of his works are available through the St. Pachomius Library), and people were believing them from the Apostolic Age, and have believed it until now–”‘Tis mystery all, th’Immortal dies!” (Charles Wesley). This is the reality that causes The Bridegroom, an icon of Christ bound and crowned with thorns and stripped of all but the mocking purple robe and the stalk (hyssop?), my favourite icon, because it speaks a very profound truth about Who God Is. He suffers with us. He died for us.
In ways we cannot fully express with words, the eternal God, coeternal and consubstantial Father and Son, has human flesh as part of Him, while still maintaining His transcendence, His otherness, His holiness, His perfection, His immutability! Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is crowned and throned in Glory and Eternity, with real flesh and bone because He took on flesh and pitched His tent among us, He set aside His glory out of love in order that we could know Him and be saved from sin and death! And so the Man Jesus is the Word, the Son. He is God–wholly God, entirely God, with no ifs ands or buts–no qualifications.
But these truths are not always so starkly and boldly stated.
They do leave us Protestants with some uncomfortable phrases. Like “Mary the Mother of God.” I’ve always been a fan of, “Mary, the mother of the human fleshly part of Jesus, the mother of Jesus’ human nature.” But Jesus, God the Son, kept that flesh when He ascended. He is not some ethereal Spirit, He has, is flesh! He took that flesh born from the womb of His mother and made it part of the Divine Nature. The Word took on flesh and pitched His tent among us! In a very real way, although Jesus is pure, preexistent, eternal God from everlasting to everlasting, Mary is God’s mom. But that’s not really what blew my mind.
Merely the simple, hard, earthy fact that Jesus with dirty feet, whom I love, whom I exalt, whom I praise, adore, extol, worship, point to, is, in fact, in Heaven ruling the Universe. And His hands are still scarred, along with His feet, His side, His brow. His heart broke for us. And He took that heart to Glory.
And it also messes with our ideas of God being transcendent. God the immutable was hungry. God the perfect pooped his swaddling cloths. God the holy thirsted. God the wholly other wept at the death of a friend. God Himself got tired and slept. He got angry. He laughed. He cried. In a very real, very orthodox, and extremely unheretical way, God was human. And when He left us to carry on His mission on earth, He kept that flesh, glorifying it and perfecting it.
Some of my other light reading recently was a book called The Trivialization of Godby Donald C McCullough. In this book the author discusses how the church in the West has placed God off to the side and put up some pretty nice-looking golden calves in His place. He then discusses how we are to topple the golden calves, and how God Himself topples them, and what the foundations of our thinking really ought to be.
One thing that really stood out for me was his insistence on awe and wonder as necessary for our relationship with God. We need to realise that God is bigger than everything, that God is beautiful, that God is beyond our total comprehension, and that God loves us. And since God loves us unequivocally, He bridged the divide that our wickedness created between us and Him and came as a Man. Therefore, our thinking about God begins in agnosticism — we just don’t really know, and then it always moves through Jesus, through the God-Man, to find out who God is.
And so I’ve tried praying and thinking through that paradigm: I know nothing. God is hugemongous. And Jesus, being God, is His perfect revelation.
So this essay by Jenson was absorbed by me quite willingly. I recommend it highly.
*The random numbers (in brackets) represent page numbers from the essay, which is found in Ancient & Postmodern Christianity, Kenneth Tanner & Christopher A Hall, ed. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002, pp. 13-22.
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.
Last night before bed I was reading the Ancient Christian Devotional for Year A, and the following quotations were part of the patristic commentary on Romans 8:26-39, pp. 177-178:
This text does not take away our free will. It uses the word foreknew before predestined. Now it is clear that “foreknowledge” does not by itself impose any particular kind of behaviour. What is said here would be clearer if we started from the end and worked backwards. Whom did God glorify? Those whom he justified. Whom did he predestine? Those whom he foreknew, who were called according to his plan, that is, who demonstrated that they were worthy to be called by his plan and made conformable to Christ. -Diodore of Tarsus, Pauline Commentary from the Greek Church
Not all who are called are called according to God’s purpose, for the purpose relates to God’s foreknowledge and predestination. God only predestined those whom he knew would believe and follow the call. Paul refers to them as the “elect.” For many do not come, even though they have been called, but no one comes who has not been called. -St Augustine, On Romans 55
Those whose intention God foreknew he predestined from the beginning. Those who are predestined, he called, and those who were called, he justified by baptism. Those who were justified, he glorified, calling them children: “To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Let no one say that God’s foreknowledge was the unilateral cause of these things. For it was not foreknowledge which justified people, but God knew what would happen to them, because he is God. -Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Interpretation of the Letter to the Romans
First of all, let it be said that Diodore was condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 for his Christology, not his teaching on predestination.
What I find interesting about this selection is that all three of them, even Augustine, corroborate the (Arminian) teaching of John Wesley, that the foreknowledge is the prerequisite to the predestination, thus not overriding our freewill.
I don’t know anything about the volume’s editor, Cindy Crosby’s, confessional allegiance. However, the General Editor IVP’s Ancient Christian Stuff, especially the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture whence the readings from the Fathers come in this volume, is Thomas C Oden, a United Methodist — and someone who would, obviously, follow Wesley’s teaching on this issue. Oden has also been known to put together things like The Justification Reader that present patristic seeds of Protestant doctrine without necessarily giving the other side a hearing. That is to say, the patristic witness given in these passages is not entirely balanced, and with Oden’s name on the cover, one is not necessarily surprised.
Not that I’m wishing to see predestination being published profusely — however, when so many Calvinists and Arminians get so worked up about the issue, it would be refreshing to see Protestant publications covering both sides at once.
This post can give some context for the period when I started blogging about ‘Classic Christianity’.
For several years, mostly since I realised that I liked the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) during university and was drawn to St. Francis, my personal devotional and theological life has been taking a journey, and I’m only just now becoming aware of what exactly this journey has been. It is a journey that actually began with discovering the “mere” Christianity popularised by C. S. Lewis, and then a sudden realisation that, while I believe that core of Christian truth (“orthodoxy”), I am hopelessly Anglican. I recently discovered the term “paleo-orthodox”, which I think applies to me.*
Palaeo-orthodoxy is a concept that has been championed by Thomas C Oden, whose book The Rebirth of Orthodoxy I read around Christmastide. The basic premise of palaeo-orthodoxy is that true orthodoxy is the consensual agreement of the Church catholic, and is best found in the first 1000 years of undivided Christian history. If we are to rediscover what it means to be orthodox, then mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox have to turn away from the latest fads and trends in theological and philosophical thinking and look back at what the prophets, apostles, saints, martyrs, and mystics have passed down to us. The implications of palaeo-orthodoxy are not germane to the discussion at hand, however.
This blog has reflected my turn to more traditional, catholic, palaeo- sources for my spiritual life and thought. We see this, for example, in posts about Church Fathers, quotations from the BCP (including a post that was basically cut-and-pasted from it), a discussion about Mediaeval missions and Ramon Llull, and my post about Christology. I have in mind future posts about the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Communion of Saints, Ephraim the Syrian, and who knows what else.
Nevertheless, I want to affirm something important before those other posts fly from my fingertips, before their voice may seem to crowd out everything else — perhaps so that their voice cannot crowd out everything else. While I believe that the rediscovery of what I call “classic Christianity” is important for an increased vibrancy in the Church and for the personal devotional and spiritual life of us pilgrims, I am very missional.
I believe that Christians have two primary duties, the first being: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. The second is like unto it: To love our neighbours as ourselves. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.
Or, to phrase it differently, I believe we are first and foremost to engage in worship. Worship God. Join in the song of Creation with the stars and the cherubim and the oceans and the Ethiopians and the Baptists and the trees of the field! Sing God’s praises! Join with those around the Heavenly Throne, crying day and night, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! Heaven and Earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the Highest!” Cry, “Alleluia!”
And then, loving and worshipping the God Who is Love and Worthy of all worship, we must overflow to tell our world about Him. This is commonly called “evangelism,” but I prefer my friend Rick’s thinking surrounding “discipleship” — not simply making converts, but bringing people to Jesus to a place where they are following Him and living in communion with Him, discovering their gifts, using their talents, and joining in Jesus’ mission of making more disciples. This is the second duty.
For we are all, each and every one of us, loved by God, more than we could possibly imagine. And we are justified by faith through the grace of God alone. None of the works we ever do will save us. All we need to be justified by God is a faith in Jesus, who is God Incarnate, God enfleshed, God pitching His tent among us, Who died that we might live, who took our sin upon Himself and reconciled us to God, satisfying the inestimable love of God the Father. Justified by our faith in Christ, we have a relationship with God the Father, and God the Holy Spirit is sent to dwell in and overflow us.
For this faith, this apostolic faith, to flourish we need worship, prayer, and the Scriptures. And community, no doubt, to encourage us when we are weak, to give a place to use our gifts, to correct us when we err, to provide a place of vibrant power where we can engage in the worship of the triune God.
When I say, therefore, “I am palaeo-orthodox,” I do not believe that incense, candles, icons, prayer books, liturgies, classic hymns, old theology, honouring the saints, the sacraments, the classic spiritual disciplines, et cetera are necessary for salvation (in the strict sense of justification). I am still evangelical in the classic sense, I think. But I do believe that those things are aids for spiritual growth, that they help keep us within the bounds of orthodoxy, wherein we are free to explore God and laugh with joy and question with our rational minds the truths of the universe.
We are spiritual beings, and our spirits must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are rational beings, and our minds must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are emotional beings, and our emotions must also be fed (I don’t how) and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
We are physical beings, and our bodies must be fed and conformed to the likeness of Christ.
What I call “classic Christianity”, then, is an attempt to find Christ in the saints throughout all the ages (this is to say, not simply the last 10, 20, 50, 100 years, but further and deeper and richer than they) and recapture disciplines and thought-patterns that will help me become more like Him, to know Him more, to worship Him more fully, to be conformed into His image, to live like Him, to think with the mind of Christ, and in all these ways join in the Song of Creation, praising God unto ages of ages.
It is not abandoning my charismatic and evangelical heritage by any means, for I still pray in tongues and believe that Scripture is God’s Word written, sufficient for salvation, but rather an attempt to unlock the treasurehouse of that heritage, the stores and riches of Christian orthodoxy throughout the ages so that as a missional, charismatic, evangelical, orthodox, traditionalist, sacramentalist, palaeo-orthodox, liturgical Anglican I can know Christ and make Him known to all the world around me, ever praising Him and singing:
We praise thee, O God; we acknowledge thee to be the Lord.
All the earth doth worship thee, the Father everlasting.
To thee Angels cry aloud, the Heavens and tall the Powers therein.
To thee Cherubim and Seraphim continually do cry,
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts;
Heaven and earth are full of the Majesty of thy glory.
-from Te Deum Laudamus, an ancient Christian hymn (Canadian BCP pp. 7-8)
* Except I’m an Anglo-Scots Canadian, so I prefer “palaeo-orthodox”.
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! 🙂
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!
You may have noticed that when St. Bede the Venerable was Saint of the Week on Wednesay that I mentioned his commentaries on Scripture being used in IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. This may seem more than a little odd, given that the Venerable Bede is, well, mediaeval.
Indeed, Bede is thoroughly and indisputably mediaeval. He was born in the 600’s and died in 735. The fiction of a Roman Empire existed in the West as Italy was nominally under the Emperor in Constantinople, but in reality the Roman Empire in the West was long gone, with no Emperor in Italy since 476. Justinian, the great codifier of Roman law and sponsor of the last flourishing of Classical art as well as the first flourishing of Byzantine art had died in 566. Barbarians had divided the West into a variety of kingdoms — Frankish, Anglo-Saxon, Visigothic, and so forth.
Bede is not ancient.
So why include him in the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture?
Those, such as Thomas C. Oden, who are calling for mainline and evangelical Christians alike to rediscover the Church Fathers and “paleo-orthodoxy” usually call us to the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought. Yet even Oden, general editor of IVP’s ACCS, knows that that isn’t really enough.
AD 500 is an acceptable cut-off point for the Classical world, although I’m willing to stretch it to Justinian’s death because of how monumental his reign was and how decidedly different the map of the world was — legally, artistically, politically — be the end of his reign. Yet if we cut of the age of the Church Fathers at 500, we’re missing Second Constantinople and its very important recasting of Chalcedonian doctrine into terms a Monophysite could hopefully reconcile with.
By cutting off the Age of the Fathers at 500, in the East, we’re missing Severus of Antioch and his brilliant statements of Cyrilline Christology in the 500’s. We’re missing St. Maximus the Confessor and St. John Climacus (saint of the week here) in the 600’s — one very important for Christology, the other for mysticism East and West — and St. John of Damascus (saint of the week here) in the 700’s — very important for his defence of icons and consolidation of orthodox doctrine.
In the West, we miss St. Benedict of Nursia and St. Gregory the Great in the 500’s — one vital for the development of monasticism and spirituality in the West, the other for biblical interpretation, conversion of the Germanic peoples, and pastoral concern — as well, of course, as Boethius and Cassiodorus, also very important and very popular Christian writers of the 500’s. We have to leave out Isidore of Seville from the 600’s — important for pretty much every idea under the sun (and beyond) throughout the Middle Ages.
Perhaps a temporal designation for “Church Father” does not quite work. The Eastern Orthodox do not do this, but instead consider the Fathers as a conceptual designation, thus including St. Simeon the New Theologian (1100’s) and St. Gregory Palamas (1300’s) as Church Fathers although they stand outside the Age of the Fathers.
Nonetheless, the idea of a Church Father tends towards the early, not the late, towards the ancient, not the mediaeval.
The Church Fathers are those who men* who have left behind a written legacy that is orthodox, who had a certain holiness of life, and who were part of the formation of Christian orthodoxy. So men like the Cappadocians or St. Augustine of Hippo who have laid foundations of theology that are so important that even today’s heterodox read them to gain insight, or those like St. Benedict and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who laid the foundations for monasticism and spirituality that are so important that our vision of monasticism would have been wildly different without them are easy choices for Church Fathers.
However, there is no ancient consensus, just as there was no mediaeval consensus, no Reformation consensus, and there is no contemporary consensus. What the early mediaeval and Byzantine theologians and spiritual writers provide us is a consolidation and synthesis of the patristic legacy.
Thus we get settlements over the date of Easter, the spread of Benedictine monasticism and Augustinianism in the West as well as a certain level of liturgical systemisation. By 735, the western church was inescapably mediaeval, but without the early mediaeval synthesists, the shape of the mediaeval church and beyond would have been very different.
In the East we have a similar story with Christology, icons, hesychastic monasticism and so forth in the early Byzantine world. By 749, with the death of John of Damascus, we have a thoroughly Byzantine church in the East.
Back to the Venerable Bede. What Bede provides us is the same thing any of the other Fathers provides us. He gives us a different perspective from today’s. He provides us an insight into an older form of orthodoxy and an older way of reading Scripture. He also gives us insight into the holiness of the people who lived in the age that forged our own orthodoxy and our reading of Scripture.
So, no, Bede isn’t ancient. But I believe that Bede is a Church Father and well worth reading, especially since he is the only Englishman whom the Church of Rome recognises as a Doctor of the Church!
*The “Church Mothers”, sadly, do not exist because most women in antiquity and the Early Middle Ages did not write. Our ancient Christian female writers are Perpetua (possibly), a few of the Desert Mothers (who are not so much writers as part of an oral tradition), and Egeria who left us a travelogue of her trip to the Holy Land in the fourth century. Sadly, the other holy women of this period did not leave us a written record, despite the high level of literacy amongst many of them.
Since yesterday was Bible Sunday (see my post here), I’ve decided to post a catena (Lat. for “chain”) of quotations about the Bible; it is not patristic, especially given the presence of Asimov of all people! If you want to read more of my thoughts about the Bible, I’ve got a list of posts at the bottom. Here we go (in vaguely chronological order):
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate on them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put is precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page but channels of grace into our hearts. –Origen
Wherever you go, always have God before your eyes; whatever you do, have [before you] the testimony of the Holy Scriptures. –St. Antony the Great
All of Holy Scripture is bound together, and it has been united by one Spirit. It is like a single chain, one link attached to another, and when you have taken one, another hangs from it. –St. Jerome
For my part I declare resolutely and with all my heart that if I were called upon to write a book which was to be vested with the highest authority, I should prefer to write it in such a way that a reader could find re-echoed in my words whatever truths he was able to apprehend. I would rather write in this way than impose a single true meaning so explicitly that it would exclude all others, even though they contained no falsehood that could give me offence. –St. Augustine
Constant meditation upon the holy Scriptures will perpetually fill the soul with incomprehensible ecstasy and joy in God. –St. Isaac the Syrian
If you do not love the blessed and truly divine words of Scripture, you are like the beasts that have neither sense nor reason. –St. Nilus of Antioch
Read this book. It contains everything. You ask for love? Read this book of the Crucified. You wish to be good? Read the book of the Crucified, which contains everything good. –Savonarola
The Bible is alive, it speaks to me; it has feet, it runs after me; it has hands, it lays hold on me. –Martin Luther
We owe to Scripture the same reverence that we owe to God. –John Calvin
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. –39 Articles of the Anglican Religion
Unity must be according to God’s holy word, or else it were better war than peace. We ought never to regard unity so much — that we forsake God’s word for her sake. –Hugh Latimer
Time can take nothing from the Bible. It is the living monitor. Like the sun, it is the same in its light and influence to man this day which it was years ago. It can meet every present inquiry and console every present loss. –Richard Cecil
The Bible was not given to increase our knowledge. It was given to change lives. –Dwight L. Moody
The English Bible, the first of national treasure and the most valuable thing this world affords. –King George V
Sir Arthur St. Clare … was a man who read his Bible. That was what was the matter with him. When will people understand that it is useless for a man to read his Bible unless he also reads everybody else’s Bible? A print reads a Bible for misprints. A Mormon reads a Bible and finds polygamy; a Christian Scientist reads his and finds we have no arms and legs … –Fr. Brown by GK Chesterton
The Character of the Christian’s experience of god is determined by the reality of God who has spoken his word and who continues to speak his Word. –John Woodhouse
I have found nothing in science or space exploration to compel me to throw away my Bible or to reject my Saviour, Jesus Christ, in whom I trust. –Walter F. Burke
The infliction of literalism on us by fundamentalists who read the Bible without seeing anything but words is one of the great tragedies of history. –Isaac Asimov
The church may not judge the Scriptures, selecting and discarding from among their teachings. But Scripture under Christ judges the church for its faithfulness to his revealed truth. –Montreal Declaration of Anglican Essentials
Classic Christianity never asserts either scripture against tradition or tradition against scripture. Rather, it understands itself as the right remembering of the earliest testimony of scripture to God’s self-disclosure in history. –Thomas C. Oden
Scripture became written in order that the events attested in preaching might be more accurately preserved and remembered. A written text was obviously more stable than an oral tradition, which might always be controverted by another alleged oral tradition. A text, if drafted faithfully, did not distort memory but stabilized it in writing. The written Word of canonized scripture was assumed to consistent with its anteceding oral expressions, and its transmission stood under the protection of the Holy Spirit, who accompanied the apostolic witness. –Thomas C. Oden
The Gospels were not just written to describe events in the past. They were written to show that those events were relevant, indeed earth-shattering, worldview-challenging, and life-changing in the present. –Tom Wright
God’s Word does not breed quarrels and divisions. It brings the simple truth and love of Jesus, who heals and unites. It brings salvation. –John Michael Talbot
the Bible is the unique, infallible, written Word of God, but the word of God is not just the Bible. If we try to dignify the Bible by saying false things about it — by simply equating the word of God with it — we do not dignify it. Instead we betray its content by denying what it says about the nature of the word of God. –Dallas Willard
The Bible is a finite, written record of the saving truth spoken by the infinite, loving god, and it reliably fixes the boundaries of everything he will ever say to humankind. –Dallas Willard
In the modern world we seldom looked at the Bible as a composite picture revealing a cosmic vision of the world; we were too busy with the details to see God’s narrative whole. We were too concerned with analyzing its parts, with literary criticism, historical verification, and theological systems. –Robert E. Webber
To suggest that only Christians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been and are capable of understanding the Bible is to deny the Bible’s universality — that it is addressed to all people of all times, not only to the learned of a particular time — and consequently to reduce Christianity to a kind of modern gnosticism. –Boniface Ramsey
A faithful reading of scripture . . . means that we seek to understand how the passages that we are reading at the moment, and the questions that we are presently asking, fit into this forgiving, healing, and life-giving drama that has been initiated by God himself. –Edith M. Humphrey
If you have the Spirit without the Word, you blow up. If you have the Word without the Spirit, you dry up. If you have both the Word and the Spirit, you grow up. –I never wrote down the name
Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.
The second great thing about Learning Theology with the Church Fathers (see original post) was the fact that it made me want to read more of the Fathers. I think this is what most good books about Patristics should do. Just as a book about the Bible should point us back to the Bible, a book about Homer to Homer, or a book about Tolkien to The Lord of the Rings, so books about the Church Fathers should make us ache, thirst, long, cry out for more. This book does that.
Chiefly, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers makes me want to read in full a number of the cited texts. Chief amongst these texts are St. Athanasius’ Orationes contra Arianos, St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ Theological Orations (on Sts. Athanasius and Gregory blowing my mind, read this), St. Augustine’s On the Trinity, St. Cyril of Alexandria’s On the Unity of Christ (I was destined to read this, anyway, given my interest in the Council of Chalcedon), St. Irenaeus’ Against Heresies, St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church. Not enough of us read enough of the Fathers, so anything that explains their teaching and whets the appetite for more is worth reading, in my opinion.
If you find yourself wishing to go forth, here are some thoughts:
-The Fathers of the Church at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library, including the Ante-Nicene Fathers and both sets of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. A very valuable resource.
–Monachos.net — Orthodoxy through Patristic and monastic study. This website has many interesting resources from the Eastern perspective.
-It’s probably a good idea, if you’ve read this book, to wrestle through some of the works that feature prominently herein and which you found yourself drawn to. Thus, for me, I think I should especially read St. Gregory’s Theological Orations, St. Cyril’s On the Unity of Christ, and St. Cyprian’s On the Unity of the Church.
-St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word of God. This book is short and readable. It presents some very compelling arguments for the incarnate Word (Jesus) being God, as well as giving the reasons why God chose to become a man.
-St. Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit. This is a wonderful book about the work and person of the Holy Spirit. St. Basil demonstrates that the Spirit is, indeed, God, using both Scripture and tradition, and then he discusses the Holy Spirit’s role in the Christian life.
-Pope St. Leo the Great, Tome to Flavian. This short work sets forth the doctrine of two-natures Christology, which is the accepted orthodoxy of all Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox.
-The Apostolic Fathers. These works are individually short. I have read First Clement, St. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Ephesians, and the First Epistle of Barnabas. They give us insight into the mind of the first generation of Christian thinkers after the Apostles, something to be valued greatly.
-Other Patristic writings worth starting off with that are not “theological” in the modern, Western sense, but in the sense that holiness can only be embodied and practised:
-St. Athanasius, The Life of St. Antony.
-St. Augustine, The Confessions.
–The Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
-Drobner, Hubertus. The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Hendrickson, 2007. This book is a “patrology.” As an entire book, it is not an introduction to reading the Fathers. However, it does provide concise introductions to most fathers and periods of early theological thought.
-Oden, Thomas C. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy: Signs of New Life in Christianity. HarperOne, 2002. In this book, Oden presents his vision of postmodern Christianity that is rooted in the premodern world of the first five centuries of consensual Christian thought, something he calls “paleo-orthodoxy.” He believes that a rootedness in the Fathers will root us within the tradition and the Scriptures and reinvigorate the life of the Church.
-Webber, Robert E. Ancient-Future Faith: Rethinking Evangelicalism for a Postmodern World. Baker Academic, 1999. This is the first volume of Webber’s “Ancient-Future” series.* Webber makes a similar basic argument as Oden about revitalising the Church for the future through the wisdom of the ancients, but his audience is evangelical whereas Oden’s is mainline. He begins the task of constructing a Christian worldview and life structured through the wisdom of the Fathers in response to the questions and new perspectives of the postmodern era.
*The others are Ancient-Future Evangelism, Ancient-Future Worship, and Ancient-Future Time. Lots of people recommend Ancient-Future Worship; I’ve never read it, myself.