Saturday, December 22, 2007

Merry Christmas

As I'm off to Winnipeg for the holidays, I wanted to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I hope that all of you will spend a wonderful holiday with family and friends.

There will, of course, be a blogging hiatus for the holiday break until I get back. I'll be able to monitor the blog from the Paris on the Prairies, but I won't be writing anything notable. We'll be back next year with Patristics Carnival VII.

Christus natus est!


P.S. We often go along this stretch of the highway to see relatives. I hope that it isn't this bad when we do!

Patristics Carnival VII

Patristics Carnival VI will be right here back at hyperekperissou. So...

The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be December 31st and the postings will be up later by the week of January 7th. .

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival 10

Welcome to the 10th Christian Reconciliation Carnival! I've enjoyed hosting and hope you enjoyed the topic for this month.

For those of you who don't remember it or who need a reminder, the question I posted was:

How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD)help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?

I'm afraid I didn't see many answers, but the two that I did see I thought were excellent ones. My own take on the subject appears here.

Mark Olsen on the Pseudo-Polymath blog writes an excellent critique of the question and my optimism. His points about the barriers to the use of patristics for ecumenical purposes are well-taken, but I hope there may still be some room movement. Certainly, Protestants, especially evangelicals, have moved quite a bit towards hearing the patristic voice in a way that they've never done.

Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog sees the use of patristics in ecumenical circles as a way to de-bug the code of our common faith, both to work out how we got here and what may have gone wrong in how did. This is an interesting metaphor, although I would characterize patristics, at its best, as a running commentary on Scripture. But, then, I was a classicist in a former life, so am more comfortable with commentaries than computer code. Same idea though, I think.

General Reconciliation links.

Mike Olsen on the Pseudo-Polymath blog analyses modern attempts at reform and makes suggestions about avoiding the mistakes of past reformers.

Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog discusses Luther's view of Real Prescence and its connection to the omniprescence of God.

Darrel Pursiful on the Dr. Platypus blog discusses the Taize community and a reflection of Brother Roger, the founder of the community, about the need for all Christians to exchange the gifts of our traditions.

T.M. Moore on the First Things blog offers the results of his study of Mary with the Evangelical and Catholics Together project. In this entry, Moore discusses the blessedness of Mary.

David Moore on the JollyBlogger blog discusses the common devotion to infighting in blogsphere.

John on the Notes from a Common-Place Book blog calls our attention to Ethiopian Orthodoxy.

Wei-Hsien Wan on the Bumi Dipijak blog discusses St. Maximos the Confessor's attitude to theological controversy and his attempt to be as charitable to his opponents as possible as an example of how we should also conduct our own theological controversies.

Bird on The Thinklings blog declares his commitment to ecumenism and his refusal to believe on Christian group has a monopoly on truth.

Well, that's it for this 10th Christian Reconciliation Carnival!


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Patristics and Christian Reconciliation

Today's entry is my attempt to answer my own question for the Christian Reconciliation Carnival, namely:

How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD)help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?

To some degree, part of my project on this blog has been to try to answer this question and I don't think I've quite solved the problem (surprisingly, since no one else since the Reformation has either), but here are my current thoughts on the issue.

First, I have to concede that the use of the Fathers and of Early Christianity has not been the source of Christian unity for a very long time. One of the running polemical battles in and since the Reformation has been the conflicting vision of what the Early Church was as a way of justifying either the status quo or justifying the reforms suggested by the Reformers. Sometimes Catholics are surprised to hear the degree to which the Protestant Reformers were concerned with the Fathers and the degree to which they quoted them. Luther and Calvin were particularly active in this patristic interest. Certainly, Luther was, at heart, an Augustinian, although he tended to stress rather different aspects of Augustine's program than the Catholics did. Similarly, Calvin was well able to quote the Fathers at length. Catholics, of course, exploited the catholic language of the Fathers and the clear respect for the Roman church which most Fathers displayed.

These polemics, of course, continue. Protestants are accustomed to assume some kind of breaking point in the early Church, when the 'Romish' error really took root and corrupted the pure Church (which looks, unsurprisingly, like the Protestant church). Those breaking points are things like the introduction of philosophy into theology with Origen, the Constantinian revolution and such things. Before this period, Protestants could take the practices and the writings of the period seriously. After that period, all was lost.

Catholics are accustomed to assume that everything said in the patristic era backs them up. That means, all too often, the assumption that the references to the catholic church are, actually, references to the Roman Catholic Church. It also tends to mean an assumption that the respect granted to Rome translated into some kind of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

Now, if we added the Eastern Orthodoxy, of course, we'd have another polemical vision of the early Church; one that wouldn't be far from the Roman Catholic one, but differing largely in the degree of respect that the church should give to Rome. Yet, we have to recognize that all of these polemics retain both truth and distortions. Indeed, if we are to move to reconciling Christians in a real sense, we need to have a second look at these visions, return to the sources and figure out where we have been right and where we've misconstrued in our hope to score points off each other.

This means that the answer is ressourcement , that French word which signials a return to sources. Of course, this term was first used by Roman Catholic theologians from the middle of the last century to mark a return to the sources of the Roman Catholic faith, most notably, the Fathers. Much of the vigour both in patristic study and in the Roman Catholic faith over the last fifty years has been due to this ressourcement.

What is more there are distinct signs of a Protestant, especially evangelical, ressourcement from the 1990s. The efforts of such Protestant theologians as D.H. Williams, Thomas Oden, Robert Wilken and many others have created what could only be called the rise of a breed of catholic evangelicals; evangelicals who retain all the marks of the evangelical tradition, but who are influenced by the ecclesiology, christology and theology of the Early Church and, directly or indirectly, the Fathers. The efforts of these theologians have led to such projects as The Ancient Commentary on Scripture series and the Evangelical Ressourcement series from Baker Academic.

More encouragingly, these efforts at ressourcement among evangelicals (and Protestants, in general) have gone hand in hand with an ecumenical interest which has sought to bridge the divides between Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions. One of the products of this interest is the 'Emerging' Church movement which has been catching the interest of younger evangelicals and which has sought to apply a catholic ecclesiology and understanding of the Christian past to an evangelical setting. Now, there are problems with the Emerging Church model, of course, but its use of the Christian past to unite, rather than divide is a positive model for how we might use the Christian past for those interested in Christian Reconciliation.

Ultimately, we can't know how this ressourcement will affect all of the great traditions of Christianity. What is encouraging in this movement is that there has been an equal interest in the Fathers and the Christian past and in making sure that, this time, the past unites us. There is, of course, no question of papering over our differences or pretending that we don't have much to divide us. However, we share a past together and it is in understanding this past that gives us a chance to come together again, accepting our differences, but celebrating our similarities.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

An Interesting Proposal from Logos Software

Mike Aubrey has passed on some interesting news that Logos Software is thinking about digitizing Migne's Patrologia Graecia. For those who don't know it, Migne's PG is, arguably, the most comprehensive attempt to pull together all the Greek Fathers and remains the best text for many patristics texts. Even if new editions are out, the Migne text remains an important resource. Needless to say, digitizing Migne would be a helpful resource for patricists, even if amateurs, I suspect, will find the price for the product steep, especially because it seems targetted to libraries and institutions.

Anyways, more information at Mike's blog en epheso


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Christian Reconciliation Carnival 10

I've agreed to host another carnival for this month, the Christian Reconciliation Carnival; a carnival devoted to ecumenical questions and our prayers for the (re-)unification of the Christian Church. The deadline I'm proposing for submissions is December 19th (that, I know is a bit tight, but I'm going away on the 23rd, so need time to put this together).

My proposed topic is:

How does our understanding of Early Christianity (here defined as the apostolic period to the end of the patristic age c. 750 AD)help or hinder our efforts at Christian Reconciliation?

Please submit entries or nominations to by December 19th and I expect to post by the end of the week.


Sunday, December 09, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin, 16

Here is the new installment of the St. Martin story by Sulpicius Severus.


Truly, he had the gift of curing people so that almost no sick person came to him who did not immediately receive back his health. This is apparent in the following example: (2) A certain girl from Treveris (Treves) suffered from a serious paralysis so that, for a long time, she did not make use of her body at all. Half-dead in all parts of her body, she trembled with scarcely a tenuous breath. (3) Her relatives were standing near in only the expectation of her funeral, when suddenly it was announced that Martin had come to that city. When the father of the girl found this out, he rushed about to breathlessly beg for (the life of) his child. (4) By chance, Martin was in the entrance of the church. There, with the people and many of the other bishops looking on, the old man, howled and embraced Martin's knees, saying "My daughter is dying from a miserable illness and because that death is very cruel, she lives only by her spirit, now her body is almost dead. I ask that you come to her and bless her: For I am confident that her health must be recovered through you. (5)Martin, dumbfounded by that speech, was struck dumb and retreated, saying that this was not something of which he was worthy, that the old man erred in his judgement, that he (Martin) was not worthy to be the sign through whom the Lord would show his power.

Weeping, the father vehemently pressed Martin and begged that he visit his dying daughter. (6) He, forced to go by the surrounding bishops, descended into the house of the girl. A huge crowd awaited him before the doors to see what the slave of God would do. (7) First, he took up those familiar arms of his in this type of situation, he stretched out and prayed alone. Then, gazing on the sick girl, he asked for olive oil to be given him. When he blessed her, he poured the force of the holy liquid on the girl's face and immediately her voice returned. (8) Then, gradually, each of her limbs began to live through the contact with him (it?). Finally, she got up with firm steps as the people bore witness.


This is the opening of a new section about St. Martin's cures and miracles as opposed to his successful and somewhat miraculous campaign against rural paganism in his region. In this section, the parallels we should be seeking are the biblical ones, especially of Jesus' own healings and miracles. This is in keeping with the stress with any saint's imitation of Christ in that, by their imitation of Christ, these saints share some of the power of Christ for healings and miracles.

I think the pattern we're using here for this miracle is the daughter of Jairus story found in both Mark, 7, 21-43 and Luke 8, 41-56, of course without the encounter with the woman with the issue of blood which is woven into this story by the Gospel writers. The parallels are striking:
1. Both Martin and Jesus come to town and are immediately accosted by a desperate father asking for a cure for his dying daughter
2. Both girls are very near death and past the ability of doctors to save
3. Both Martin and Jesus pray in the room with the girl who is miraculous raised to full health.

Of course, there are significant differences, but these differences are, I think, instructive. First, Martin hesitates to go because he doesn't believe he has the power to effect the cure. He only goes because he is pressed by the various bishops with whom he was meeting in the city. This hesitation, of course, is to show Martin's humility and recognition of the limits of his own power. This humility is the mark of a saint and it is very important that Martin not too closely emulate Jesus. At least, if he emulated Jesus' clear confidence in healing, we would think St. Martin arrogant enough to equate himself with Jesus, with God. Furthermore, we know from the Desert Fathers that humility is the very thing that demons and devils cannot endure, so St. Martin's humility is the mark of his sanctity.

Second, the girl in the St. Martin healing isn't dead just yet. While raisings from the dead are a tradition in hagiographical writings, they are usually the culmination of one's healing career, not the beginning of it. If Sulpicius should have introduced such a healing at this point, all the other cures would seem rather an anti-climax. So, as far as composition goes, we have a rather less spectacular healing to start with.

Third, Sulpicius is rather more sensationalistic here than the Gospel Writers. This is in keeping with the rhetoric of the age, but it does put the lie into Sulpicius' claim to be a not particularly polished writer. Perhaps the pathos in this and other scenes might strike one as a little garish and gruesome at times, but that was the style of the age.

Fourth, Sulpicius clearly portrays in this episode the ancient practice of using annointing with oil in healing. Indeed, while Jesus prayed and brought Jairus' daughter to life, Martin prays only as a preparation for the annointing of the sick. Sulpicius describes this procedure as being St. Martin's accustomed arms to battle illness. The military metaphor is, of course, striking for this former soldier-saint, but also indicates the importance of this practice of annointing the sick. Note especially that the healing seems to follow the flow of the oil over the body of the girl.

A last translation note for the Latinists in my readership. The following clause gave me pause when translating:

tunc paulatim singula contactu eius membra vivescere,

I translated this passage as
Then, gradually, each of her limbs began to live through the contact with him

This would suggest that the healing is following St. Martin's touch. I wonder, however, if the contactu eius should be understood as referring to the oil. Grammatically, I think, both would work, but which works better, I wonder.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Patristics Carnival VI

December 3rd: Edited because this is Patristics Carnival VI!
Happy Advent! And welcome to Patristics Carnival VI (without a fancy graphic: just couldn't work out how to transform God Fearin's graphic from PC V!)! It's been a couple of months since I last posted (for which I thank the two previous hosts, especially because I was in a bit of sleep-deprived haze!), so it is nice to be back. I'm going to recover my old structure (for fun). So here we are: Patristics Carnival VI

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

Nothing in this category this month.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog reports on Pope Benedict's address on St. Maximus of Turin, St. Jerome, St. John Chyrosthom, St. Martin of Tours, St. Jerome again, Jerome again, St Ephrem Syrus.

First Apostle on the First Apostle blog features an article on Gregory of Nyssa and how his view of the Trinity argues against the current liturgical practice of naming the Trinity: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Carl Olson on The Insight Scoop (from Ignatius Press) features a report on Pope Benedict's address on St. John Chyrosthom.

John on the Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog reports on Pope Benedict's address on St. Jerome.

Father Chadius on the Hermeneia blog featurs a discussion on St. Gregory the Great and patience.

Scrape on the
Legendary Truth Blog discusses the interplay of patristic exegesis and theology as presented by Donald Fairbourn in an article in the Westminister Theological Journal.

Scott Carson on the An Examined Life Blog features a discussion of Christianity and Platonism. . This is a response to Taylor Marshall on the Canterbury Tales Blog which suggested that Neo-Platonism has a Christian origin Hmm. I wonder.

Rob Bradshaw on the Early Church blog posts G.L. Prestige's Bampton Lecture on Origen.

God-Fearin Fiddler on the God Fearin' Forum features excellent discussions of St. Irenaeus as the bridge between East and West, St. Irenaeus' doctrines in his own words and early Christians and the Sacrifice of the Mass.

I also offer some thoughts on the Church Fathers and Judaism at hyperekperissou

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

Veritas on the Is the Catholic Church the One True Church? blog gives a mostly patristic catena on the question of the authority of the Catholic Church as opposed to Protestantism.

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Nothing in this category this month.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews
Rick Brannon on ricoblog features a series on Hubertus Drobner's book, The Fathers of the Church. Part one has been finished. I look forward to future reflections on this book.

Steve Ray on Steve Ray's Blog reviews Brian Litfin's Getting to Know the Church Fathers. I'm not sure if I quite agree with his conclusions about the new evangelical/Protestant interest in the Fathers. This trend has longer legs than I thought it would.

Paul Smith Jr. on the Gazizza blog continues this discussion of Litfin's book.

Well, someone liked Litfin's book. Mike Aubrey on the ev epheso blog gives an extensive and favourable review of Litfin's book.

This blog, hyperekperissou, featured two reviews: Ronald Heine's book on the Church Fathes and the Old Testament and Bart Ehrmann's Misquoting Jesus.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations

I continue my series on Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin at hyperekperissou.

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Tony Chartrand-Burke on the Apocryphicity blog features a pre-SBL discussion of modern heresy hunters at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting this year, a SBL report and a discussion of Apocrypha anti-Gospels.

April DeConick on The Forbidden Gospels blog discusses whether scholars should write for a popular audience (as she did in her new book on the Gospel of Judas), her reactions to the Judas book panel at the SBL, her contribution to this same panel and her bemused reaction to being called a conservative.

I hope you enjoy this month's offerings. If there is anyone wanting to host December, let me know. If not, I'll be hunting down new hosts for the new year!


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Church Fathers and Judaism

If you hang around patristic circles for any time, you will find someone who will object to the Fathers collectively because of their attitude to Judaism or women or such groups. Nor are these protests entirely without a point. We cannot expect the Church Fathers to be free from the prejudices and cultural blindness of their period, so, predictably, individual Church Fathers can be depended on to say things to which, today, we would take offense, if one of our contemporaries should say it. Part of this is because the rhetoric of the age was rather more polemical in tone than we would countenance in our rather bland, but serviceable civil discourse today. And, yes, part of it was the moral failings of those Fathers who were sinners, just like the rest of us. That sounds presumptuous, of course, but, if not even Paul could not rely on his own righteousness, I don't know anyone else who could. The last I checked the only sinless man was Jesus, so is it a stretch to say that his saints were also sinners, even if they were seeking sanctification in imitating Jesus to the best of their ability?

These thoughts particularly came into my head because, over the last few weeks, I've been reading R. Kendall Soulen's God of Israel and Christian Theology. Soulen examines the theological issue of how Christians have dealt with the God of Israel from the early patristic age (St. Justin Martyr and St. Irenaeus) to the Englightenment (Schliermacher and Kant) to Barth and Rahner. His main aim was to examine the impact of supersessionism on our beliefs about the God of Israel and his people in the aftermath of the Holocaust. His discussion of St. Justin and St. Irenaeus is, I think, illuminating, if disturbing for a patristics enthusiast living in this post-Holocaust world.

What he argues is that Justin and Irenaeus were instrumental in working out how to reconcile the Hebrew Testament with the Christian narrative, later expressed in the New Testament writings (which had not yet fully formed into a canon yet). He notes the appropriation of the Hebrew Testament, especially the prophetic writings, away from its historical connection with the people of Israel towards allegorical and typologically pre-figuring of Christ. That is, the story of Israel becomes the story of Christ pre-figured, while the story of the Church is the story of Christ in real time. In that sense, the experience of Israel as a people is superseded by the story of the Church in Christ. Israel in its carnal reality becomes obsolete and replaced by the spiritual reality of the Church. The most the Jewish people could be would be a noble ruin of a previous covenant. This would be defined as economic supersessionism in that the obsolescence of Israel is an essential feature of God's economy of redemption for the world.

Soulen, then, goes on to describe a more overtly anti-Semitic form of supersessionism: punitive supersessionism. This form of supersessionism, also found in Fathers like Justin and Irenaeus, goes beyond pronouncing Israel obsolete, but it openly argues that the Jewish people reject God in Christ and, thus, have been rejected by God. The persistent accusation levelled against the Jewish people that they were Christ-killers and such like comes from this form of supersessionism. Of course, after the Holocaust, this virulent form of supersessionism has been discredited and very few Christians would countence this kind of theological position.

What Soulen establishes for us is that the outlines of these two forms of supersessionism can be found in the 2nd century Fathers who most determined how we read Scripture: Sts. Justin and Irenaeus. He also points out that this settlement is very different from Paul's image in Romans about the Gentile church being a graft onto Israel and the understanding that Paul had that Israel will eventually turn to its Lord (Romans 11). He also notes that the economic supersessionism of the Fathers is later intensified by Enlightenment and post-Englightenment thinkers who wanted to expell all particularist elements of relligion from Christianity in order to enforce its claim as a universal, 'reasonable' religion.

This tendency towards supersessionism in this context explains the almost Marcionite tendency in mainline denominations (especially those with strong liberal leanings) to dismiss the Hebrew Testaments as merely law and, hence, useless for Christians who, like the New Testament church, are a people of grace. It also explains how and why the churches of Hitler's Germany so easily accepted the anti-Semitic measures of that government, even to the point of Holocaust. They simply had no resources to resist the formulation that Judaism could safely be removed from Christianity because they were already doing it.

The problem, of course, is what to do about this problem of supersessionism. It is, of course, easy to condemn punitive supersessionism, but economic supersessionism remains a more seductive and insideous problem. It is especially difficult because the Gospels clearly show Jesus re-interpreting passages of the prophets as evidence of his mission and, ultimately, of his death and resurrection. In that sense, the Fathers who look for Christological types in the Hebrew Testaments are really only emulating their Lord in how to read the Hebrew writings. Christianity very much tells its story by co-opting Israel's story as our own.

The question that remains for me at this stage is whether Christians can return to the settlement of Paul which saw Gentiles miraculously participating in the story of Israel as grafted branches? After all, did not several prophets suggest that, in the days of the Messiah, that the nations would worship the God of Israel? This approach, I think, would change the way that we would read the Hebrew Testaments, but also how we interact with the children of Israel today. Can we honour the faithfulness of God's people today, while continuing to maintain that they will come to accept their Messiah, Jesus Christ, in God's due time?

I can't yet answer these questions fully, but I think they are the directions in which we need to work, if we expect to re-interpret our relationship with the God of Israel, the Hebrew Testament and the Jewish people. May we have the wisdom to do just that.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Book Review: Bart Ehrmann, Misquoting Jesus.

Early last week, I finished Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus, a book which attempts both to popularize a discussion of textual criticism of the Bible and, I think, to raise serious questions about how we read the Bible in today's world. Generally, it was well-written, but that was all the more exhausting because I really felt I had to watch Ehrman all the time or he'd perform a pretty slight-of-hand on his audience without anyone really realizing.

The first warning to watch was in the introduction as Ehrman describes his own personal journey of faith and how it interacted with his studies in the Bible and textual criticism. Ehrman's early faith journey was spent in fundamentalist and evangelical circles in the course of the 60s and 70s. This meant his vision of the Bible was to emphasize its inerrancy and its verbal plenary inspiration. That meant that every single word, letter and punctuation mark had to be both absolutely correct and inspired. The problem was that, as he continued his studies in the Bible at the Moody Bible Institute, Wheaton College and Princeton, he discovered that there were many, many textual issues with the New Testament, so he started wondering how this inerrancy could work. Not a bad question in its own way, but deeply problematic for Ehrman.

Before I read even this far, I realized that Ehrman hadn't so much changed his mind about inerrancy and verbal plenary inspiration, but rather he has switched polarity. Since his former conception of Biblical authority couldn't work in the face of what he had learned, he rejects any possibility that the Bible could be authoritative, but rejects it as a merely human document no different from those ancient documents of Jesus' era and after. He is every much a literalist as he was in his Moody days, he has just rejected what that literalism teaches.

This should raise cautions about how we read this book, not because he's wrong about there being real textual issues with the Bible, but because his tendency is to oppose traditional readings or theology. As far as the textual criticism, he's right quite often, but there are times where I wonder about his argument. Here are just a few of my concerns.

One of the things that bother me is Ehrman's repeated contention that Christian scribes before Constantine were likely distinctly sub-standard. He bases this on a discussion in which he describes the dubious literacy of two scribes in Egypt and concludes that, since documentary evidence suggests that Christians were distinctly lower class as a rule and, according to Celsus (a prominent pagan opponent) under-educated (p.38-41). He, then, uses this contention to tar early Christian readings at several points throughout his book. Yet, this contention needs an examination. Celsus' evidence is suspect because he is hardly going to favour Christians; both given his enmity to Christians and his privileged cultural status which might engender intellectual elitism. Furthermore, we have to remember that literacy wasn't necessarily impossible even among slaves. What is more, given that copying was a technical skill (moderately lucrative, but not outrageously so-roughly 2 drachmas for a letter in the reign of Claudius), it is entirely possible to see freedmen involved in this activity, possibly at a high level. I know of no studies to back me up, but I suspect that the degree of literacy may not be entirely class-bound.

A second concern occurs in his passage dealing with theological 'corrections' to the text, Ehrman consistently argues against the majority, traditional reading of Scripture as fixing passages which might seem to back heretical interpretations. He employs the well-known rule of following the lectio difficilior on the principle that a scribe is unlikely to fix something which makes perfect sense. I don't want to say this principle is incorrect, but I see no a priori reason why it has to apply here. It is just as possible that some of these passages which support these heretical positions were inserted into the text by heretics and simply recognized as erroneous in the majority of our manuscripts. I see no reason to assume orthodox correction in the majority of cases. This doesn't apply to those cases in which a gloss may have crept into the text.

What worries me about Ehrman's book is that it feeds into the tendency in our culture to want to see the Bible's authoritativeness weakened. This tendency can be seen even in Christian circles and it worries me. You don't have to be a fundamentalist to believe that Bible is authoritative in Christian discourse; the standard to which we check our theological positions against. This naturally leads to a discussion on authority in the Bible which is rather another discussion. The task of textual criticism in this conception is not to tear apart our reading of the Scriptures, but, rather, to try to establish the text as clearly as possible. One of the things that Ehrman doesn't emphasize is that the job of the textual critic of the Bible is made easier by the sheer number of manuscripts. A classicist would kill for the textual tradition of the Bible. This isn't to say that there aren't an awful lot of errors in that tradition, but sheer number of errors doesn't signify much. They just prove humans copied it.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Patristics Carnival VI

It looks like Patristics Carnival VI will be right here back at hyperekperissou. So...

The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November, 2006 and my additions in August, 2007.

The last day of submission will be November 30th and the postings will be up later in the week of December 2nd. .

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (


Sulpicius Severus, The Life of Martin, 15

Happy St. Martin's Day! As it is the feast day of St. Martin (and the Patronal festival for the church I attend), I figure that this is a good time to translate some more Sulpicius Severus, even if it is rather short section.


I will report on even what happened in the district of the Aedui, where, while he was overturning a temple in much the same way, a furious multitude of rustic pagans rushed at him. When one of them, bolder than the rest, attacked him with a drawn sword, after he threw back his mantle, he supplied his naked neck to be struck. (2) The pagan did not delay striking, but when he raised his right arm higher, he fell on his back. Thrown into confusion by divine fear, he prayed pardon. (3) That incident was not dissimilar to when someone wanted to strike Martin with a knife while he was destroying an idol. As he was making the actual blow, the knife was struck from his hands. (4) Most of the time, however, when rustics spoke against him so that he would not destroy their altars, he soothed their pagan hearts with holy words so that, having had the light of truth shown to them, they overturned their own temple themselves.

We have reached a transition section as we move away from miracles performed on St. Martin's cleansing of the countryside around Tours from pagan altars and temples. Here we have two murder attempts supernaturally prevented. This is in line with the stories which emphasize St. Martin's invulnerability. It also underscores the often violent resistance of pagans in the area of Tours to the Christianization of the countryside.

The final line underscores ability of St. Martin to soothe and convince the general population to drop their pagan ways. Whatever else we say about St. Martin, it does seem he has the humility and prescence to persuade all but the most stubborn pagan to convert.

The next section seems to deal with miracles involving various cures, so changes focus away from the countryside. More on that next month.


Saturday, November 03, 2007

Patristics Carnival V is up!

Patristics Carnival V has just hit the Net. Run, do not walk to theGod Fearin' Forum for this month's offerings.

Besides. God Fearin' created a very cool graphic for this carnival which I am plotting to steal (Heh, heh, heh!)

Seriously, God Fearin' has done a great job! Enjoy!

Also, if someone would like to host the next carnival for December, please let me know in the next week or so.


Book Review: Ronald E. Heine, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church.

I just finished Ronald Heine's book, Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church, this week. Heine's book is part of the Evangelical Resourcement series from Baker Academic. I haven't read the other books, but I intend to hunt them up in the next few months. The series, of course, is part of the growing interest in the Church Fathers by conservative evangelicals which has spawned such projects as the Ancient Christian Commentary series and a multitude of books including the most recent entry from Brazos, Bryan Litfin's, Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction. .

I am, of course, heavily influenced by some of the big names in the movement, especially Christopher Hall, who really got that ball rolling in the late 90s. The first book on the Fathers I ever read was Hall's book on Reading Scripture through the Fathers, so Heine's subject is familiar. Of course, Heine's interest is more narrowly focused on the Old Testament which presents challenges and issues rather different from those of the patristic treatment of the New Testament. The attempt to read the Old Testament through the eyes of Christ was, of course, one of the major concerns of the Fathers, especially the earliest ones. It is still a task that we continue with, especially in the light of the Holocaust and the reassessment of Christian historical and theological stances to Judaism which followed that horrific event.

Understandably, much of the reaction of contemporary scholars to the patristic treatment of the Old Testament has been to highlight moments of insensitivity or outright anti-Semitism in the Fathers. No one, I think, can deny either of these issues. The stance of the Fathers to Judaism was inherently polemical which made sense because the two had very different readings of the Old Testament which are impossible to reconcile. The result was bitter controversy over readings which, in the style of all intellectual controversy of the day, degenerated quickly into accusations of bad faith and dishonesty on both sides. When the Christian view became backed by the Imperial government (which, in its pagan form, had been hardly pro-Jewish), Judaism began to suffer.

Yet, these same Fathers also establish our reading of the Old Testament in ways that people just don't remember. Heine goes through the way that this reading evolved by looking at the Fathers on such subjects as the Law, Exodus, the Prophets and the Psalms. Each of these presented similar problems because the Christian reading had to be established and defended, sometimes even against the literal sense of the passage. This is where much of the theory about allegory, typology and such like evolved because, otherwise, the Old Testament is a tough sell to Christians. This effort was, of course, started off by Jesus Himself in His explications of various texts as referring to His own coming. The Fathers, however, spend a lot of time working out how the re-reading started by Jesus could be applied through the Law, Prophets and Writings.

Heine's book is valuable for those unfamiliar with this approach and feeling that contemporary approaches are, perhaps, a little lacking. Given the general neglect of the Old Testament and the feeling among many Christians that they really don't know what to do with this series of writings, Heine's contention that the Fathers may be good guides in reading these difficult books should be welcomed. The Fathers, despite their very human failings, have shown themselves to be masters in biblical interpretation. We could definitely have worse guides.


Sunday, October 28, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 14

Here is this month's installment of St. Martin's life.


He showed not less virtue in the same work at almost the same time. For when he set fire to a very old and famous altar to a certain man, fireballs were carried by the wind to a nearby, nay, attached house. (2) When Martin turned around, he climbedrapidly, placing himself opposite the advancing flames. Then, in an astonishing way, you would have truly perceived the fire twist back against the force of the wind so that, indeed, the elements was seen contending among themselves. Thus, by the virtue of Martin, the fire burned where it was ordered. (3) However, in that village, whose name was Leprosum, when he wanted to overturn a temple very rich in the superstition of its religious practices, a multitude of pagans resisted him so that he was driven back not without injury. (4) Thus, he withdrew to a nearby place. For three days, clad in a goat's hair garment and ashes, fasting and praying there, he prayed to God that, because human hands were not able to overturn that temple, divine virtue would demolish it. (5) Then, two angels, armed with spears and shields in the garb of heavenly military service, suddenly presented themselves, saying they were sent by the Lord so that they might put to flight the rustic crowd and bring protection to Martin so that no one would hinder him while the temple was destroyed. Therefore, Martin returned and he faithfully completed the work which he began. (6)Returning to the temple, with the crowd of pagans watching and growing quiet, he destroyed the profane building to its foundations and reduced all the altars and statues into dust. (7) When they saw this, the rustics, after they understood they had been struck senseless and terrified by divine approval so they would not fight the bishop again, nearly all believed Jesus was Lord, shouting openly and confessing that the God of Martin must be worshiped and the idols, which were not not able to appear for themselves or for others, must be neglected.


Here we have another incident of Martin's de-paganization campaign in the rural areas around Tours, complete with miraculous, nature-defying interventions. I have to admit that the Latin was getting a little weird, especially in the description of the first fire. I suspect that Sulpicius was trying to compress this incident and the Latin syntax suffered. At any rate, the description is obscure and I'm really not sure what to do about it except show it in all its obscurity. Presumably, what happens is that the fire didn't spread to the adjacent building, despite the fact that the wind should have caused it to. Presumably, this is a similar kind of natural miracle effected by St. Martin's prayer and, here, Martin's desire to prevent innocents from getting hurt.

The second story is more striking. There are two interesting elements to this story. First, the fact of Martin's repulse in his first attempt against the temple at Leprosum. This is interesting evidence for the resistence to the Christianization of the countryside under Martin. What is even more remarkable is that Martin doesn't seem to be trying to achieve his aim of eliminating rural paganism with imperial military support. When he is repulsed, he doesn't run back to the capital of his province and call in the troops to avenge his defeat. Rather, he turns to prayer and gains heavenly support. This raises questions about how supportive of Martin's efforts were local political and military authorities. This is possibly an unanswerable question, since we don't know to what degree Martin even wanted the help, but it is one that should be asked.

Second, the account of the two heavenly soldiers seems not only appropriate to a soldier-saint, but also, I think, recalls the 12 legions of angels which Jesus says in Matthew he could have called in, if he was that kind of Messiah (Matthew, 26,53). The details are, of course, Roman (hastati and scuta are the quintessential weapons of the legions), It is striking that the angel-soldiers don't strike, they merely intimidate the crowds into allowing the destruction of their temple. This strikes me as interesting from a Christian pacifist rule, partly because see soldiers here and partly because they don't use their weapons. What, I wonder, is the nature of that heavenly army alluded to here?

And I wonder what John Howard Yoder would think.


Saturday, October 20, 2007

Classics and Patristics

I am, by training, a classicist. I was reminded of that on Friday because I went to a lecture on Homer, back into the particular section of the local ivory tower which currently houses the Classics department. I felt I was back on familiar ground because I had spent some years at this particular department, but felt unfamiliar because of all the things that have changed over the seven years that I've been away. I enjoyed the talk and found some useful tidbits for my own teaching, as well as some grist for this particular blogging mill.

What I've been thinking about in connection to this re-entry into the Classical world was the relationship between my training in this field and my current interest in patristics. I am something of an autodidact when it comes to patristics (and, for that matter, the more general field of theology of which patristics is a part). That is, in my many years in university (15 years all told; 8 of which were post-graduate), I only took one course on a patristic author. That course was something of a Beginners Intensive Augustine taught as a historical topics course, so not exactly taken from a theological standpoint or even a linguistic one. So, I'm not sure that counts.

Of course, my classics training has proven to be incredibly useful in my autodidactic approach to patrology. My understanding of Latin and Greek, my familiarity with the various types of anciliary modes of criticism (textual, form, source etc) and specialized skills (epigraphy, papyrology, etc) and the basic historical/literary background of the classical period has proved invaluable as I've entered the thickets of patristic learning. All of these skills have given me invaluable shortcuts in pursuing my patristic enthusiasm.

Still, being back in a classics environment continues to remind me how different a world classics is. You'd think it wouldn't be. After all, patristics and classics both inhabit the same time and places, so have so much overlap that you'd think patrologists and classicists would be talking all the time. The truth is, however, that the relationship is strained. Classics, by its very nature, focuses on the literature, history, philosophy of the non-Christians and is, thus, uncomfortable with what is going on among the Christians. Many classics scholars would be more than happy to forget the Christians were there or, if they should be so rude as to obtrude into their historical vision, to condemn Christians as narrow-minded, ignorant fanatics who couldn't appreciate the art, beauty and nobility of the classical ethos. It shouldn't strike anyone as odd that many classicists dismiss Christianity and find their comfort in the classical world. Nor should it surprise anyone that Christians sometimes find Classics departments rather uncomfortable and frustrating places in which to be Christians.

Still, this division between patristics and classic is, at once, appropriate and artificial. It is appropriate because, for a long time before Christianity's future triumph, declaring oneself a Christian was to separate with the mass culture of classicism. Refusal to sacrifice effectively removed one from the political sphere. Distrust of paganism removed one from the literary sphere. Thus, in a real sense, Christian literature before Constantine operated with different rules and appealed to very different audiences than more mainstream authors. Mind you, we'd still have to work in the inevitable economic/social status as determines of who read what, but I doubt we'd find many non-Christians reading, say, Tertullian. If we did, it might only to look for ammunition to convince Christians to stop being so obstreperous.

Yet, it is still an artificial division, even before Constantine, because Christian writers were concerned with how Christians related to the culture around them. They were often seeking to explain Christianity to non-Christians in culturally understandable ways or in interpreting the culture to Christians in a theologically understandable way. One couldn't quite separate oneself from the mainline culture then any more than we can do it now. In that sense, patrologists can't do with a good understanding of the classics.

That, of course, is the irony of the patrologist's relationship with classics. At the end of the day, the patrologist needs the classicist rather more than the classicist needs them. The classicist can still ignore the patrologist and the Christians of his era and suffer comparatively little distortion. Yet, the patrologist (and the Christian today) has to engage with the dominant culture, even as it critiques it.


Saturday, October 13, 2007

Origen For Babies; Or, Why Biblical Hermeneutics isn't Child's Play

Last weekend, my son Ian and I were reading the Philocalia of Origen (I even have the picture to prove it, as you can see!). We were studying it quite hard when my son turned to me and said "ba, ba, nggnngggg, ba, ba, ba, bababa" which I took to mean "Daddy, I'm not quite sure I quite understand Origen's biblical hermeneutic". And I said, "You know, my son, I'm not sure I am either". To which my son answered, "Ba, bababa, ba buh buh, buh, babababa gaaaaa", which I took to mean "Then, why don't you blog on it, Daddy?" So, as per my son's instructions, here we are.

Origen's importance in the whole field of biblical interpretation, of course, is difficult to underestimate. We know that he wrote extensively on the books of the Bible, both in the form of homilies and in commentaries. We also know that this interpretative method and theological approach profoundly influenced those after him, Church Fathers and heretics alike. In many ways, love him or hate him, he was the theologian whose opinion was sine qua non in most exegetical and theological discussions, especially in the Greek East. While his unique blend of Christian teachings and Platonic philosophy led to his near-condemnation in the fifth and sixth century, many of Origen's exegetical approaches and ideas survive in the writings of such Fathers as St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory Nyssa and many others.

Origen's approach to biblical interpretation is based, first and foremost, on his firm belief that every single line, letter, jot and tittle of Scripture has meaning and is directly inspired by God. In isolation, this comment would not be amiss among the most extreme Biblical literalists today, but we must be very careful to note that Origen does not mean the same thing as these modern literalists do. He doesn't view the Bible as a mine for a series of quasi-scientific proofs, nor does he, indeed, privilege the literal/historical level of interpretation. He doesn't dismiss it, but he clearly thinks that sole reliance on this level would tend to distort the 'true' meaning of Scripture and blind the reader to the 'real' meaning of Scripture. This, he argues, is precisely what happened to the Jews, who read the Bible far too literally. This led to their misinterpretation of the injunctions of the Law such as kosher eating, Sabbath and a myriad of distinctive Jewish customs as literal instructions of how to live and their failure to understand the clear prophetic foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus Christ.

Instead of this approach, Origen recommends a 'spiritual' approach in which he suggests we use allegory, typology and other methods to try to understand what was really going on and how to bring it into application for the Christian believer. This means that, in addition and not necessarily in opposition to the literal meaning, other levels of meaning may be employed to explain and make it possible to apply that meaning to one's Christian life today when it counts. Nor is this 'spiritual' approach haphazard in that the symbolic system which undergirds it isn't usually unique to Origen, but rather traces its descent back to the Bible and through the earlier Fathers. This approach (as Ronald Heine, the author of the other book I'm reading, points out), is congruent with the kind of meditative reading used by priests and pastors to make Scripture applicable to the lives of individual believers. It is only our post-Enlightenment obsession with historical (narrowly defined) source-mining which causes us to look askance at the techniques and approaches of a more spiritual approach.

Yet I have to admit that Origen's approach to the Bible isn't without problems. It does bother me when he comments that sometimes the literal level of a passage is simply impossible and then turns to an allegorical explanation to get out of the problem. It bothers me when he imports Platonic philosophy in such a way that it trumps Scripture. I'm not alone, of course, given the Origenist controversies that I've already alluded to.

Nevertheless, no one can deny the influence of Origen nor even that his attempts to explain Scripture showed industry, learning and insight so that we in the Church cannot quite dismiss his exegesis out of hand. Like many brilliant people, where Origen is right, he is brilliantly right. Where he is wrong, he's brilliantly wrong. His brilliance hasn't been questioned. His soundness has sometimes been.


Thursday, October 11, 2007

Patristics Carnival V

We have a new host for the Patristics Carnival V, featuring posts from this month. God Fearin' Fiddler at the God Fearin' Forum blog will be hosting.

The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November and my additions in August.

The last day of submission will be October 31th and the postings will be up later in the week of November 5th. . (NB: Amended October 14th)

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (

Thanks for God Fearin' for volunteering for this month!


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Patristics Carnival IV is up!

Our intrepid host for this month, Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog, has the new Patristics Carnival IV up. There are a lot of interesting entries. Enjoy!

If there is anyone interested in hosting next month, please let me know in the next few days. Meanwhile, think about your entries for Patristics Carnival V.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 13

Here is the latest installment to the Life of St. Martin


Likewise, when Martin had destroyed a very old temple in a certain village and he advanced to cut down a sacred pine tree which was nearby the altar, a priest of that place and the rest of a mob of pagans began to obstruct him. (2) When they also grew silent, as God ordered while the temple was destroyed, they could not endure the tree being cut down. Martin warned them sincerely that there was no religious obligation to a tree. Rather they should follow God whom Martin served and it was fitting for that tree to be cut down because it was dedicated to a daemon. (3) Then, one of them who was bolder than the rest aid "If you have any faith in your God whom you say you worship, we ourselves will cut down this tree. You, catch it while it is falling. If the Lord is with you as you say, you will, you will escape (harm). (4) Martin boldly confident in the Lord, promised he would do it. The whole mob of pagans agreed to this type of arrangement and thought it an easy sacrifice of this tree, if they would destroy an enemy of their rites in its fall. (5)Accordingly, since that pine was leaning to one side in such a way that there was no doubt on which side it would fall after being cut down, Martin was bound to that place where it was decided by the decision of the rustic that no one doubted the tree would fall. (6) Therefore, they began to cut down their own pine with great joy and happiness. A crowd of Martin's admirers was present a short distance away. Then the pine gradually began to nod and, about to fall, to imitate its own ruin. (7) The monks grew pale at distance and terrified with their own danger and lost all their hope and faith, awaiting only the death of Martin. (8)That man, bold in the Lord, waited, when the pine feel and gave a crack, with his hand raised, made sign of safety as the tree fell and rushed down on top of him. Then, truly, just as you would think would happen in a type of whirlwind, it fell in a different place so that it almost felled the rustics who were standing in that place. (9) Then, after shouting to heaven, the pagans were stunned by the miracle and the monks wept with joy. The name of Christ was proclaimed in common by all. It was agreed on that day that salvation came to that region. For there was almost no one from that huge mob of pagans who did not believe in the Lord Jesus, desiring the imposition of hands and setting aside the error of their impiety. Truly, before Martin, few, indeed almost no one received the name of Christ. it became so strong by Martin's virtues and example that soon there was no place there which was not filled with crowded churches and monasteries. For when he destroyed an altar, at once he built there either churches or monasteries.


This passage continues to feature St. Martin's conflict with the pagan practices so prevalent in the countryside of Gaul. For the last three chapters, we see St. Martin's tactics become increasingly intentional and provocative. In section 11, he was merely concentrating on suppressing a insufficiently attested (and, ultimately, demonic) martyrs cult. In section 12, a chance meeting with a pagan funeral procession gives St. Martin the opportunity to show his power over both the demons worshipped by pagans, but, even, his power over nature itself in inhibiting the movements of the pagans he encounters. Here, St. Martin is beginning to seek out pagan altars in order to destroy them and the cults which belong to them. This progression (whatever our opinion about the miracles attached to this story) suggest an escalating campaign to Christianize the Gallic countryside around Tours. The successes noted here suggest that it began to work to an unprecedented degree.

This, of course, leaves aside the questions of the miracles which play such a role in these stories. Modern history, notoriously, has problems with miracles stories for the excellent reason they are exceedingly improbable. This is rather the point, of course, because, if St. Martin only did what was expected he would have been squished by this tree. More to the point, these miracles represent the power that St. Martin has over the pagan gods which were his (and Jesus') real opponents. As I noted in earlier comments, I really don't know that I can prove these miracles using historical methods because they are unprovable. Yet, in faith, I have to also, in all honesty, say that nothing is impossible for God.


Saturday, September 22, 2007

Origen and Living Tradition

I've started reading the Philocalia of Origen, a compilation, presumably made by St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, of some of the better bits of Origen's theological works. Origen, of course, has an ambiguous reputation in the history of the Church. It is impossible to deny his influence on the development of Christian doctrine (both good and bad) in the East. It is impossible to deny his genuinely helpful insights into Scripture, informed both by his extensive understanding of the Bible and by his richly intellectually curious mind. Many of the answers to the various conundra of the Old and New Testaments can be traced right back to Origen's careful exegetical work on almost every book of the Bible.

Yet, Origen's reputation was badly sullied in the third century, when anti-Origenist theologians attacked the great thinker. What was more, many of these attacks were entirely warranted because there are times when one wants to ask Origen if he is a Platonist or a Christian. His universalism, his fondness of the language of the Platonic Ideas and his belief in the pre-existence crossed the line for the Church and, along with is self-castration, cost Origen a good deal of his reputation and, incidently, any chance at canonization as a saint.

This ambiguity can be seen in an ancient preface to the Philocalia which is clearly influenced by this later anti-Origen feeling in Christian thinking. This preface (whose authorship I don't know, but would love it if someone could tell me) clearly dislikes Origen and is, as a result, uncomfortable with the attestation of this collection to the efforts of St. Basil and St. Gregory; those two stalwart defenders of orthodoxy in the later 4th century. The problem, in the eyes of this early preface, was that this attribution seems supported by a letter by Gregory the Theologian (I think this is Gregory Thaumaturgus) which explicitly states that St. Basil and Gregory made this collection). This letter is found in the old manuscript of the Philocalia from which the current manuscript tradition is copied. The editor of this preface doesn't dispute that this letter was written or that this is the collection which was made. What he does claim is that pro-Origenists have inserted clearly heretical passages into this otherwise 'orthodox' and doctrinally pristine collection by the two Cappadocians.

This particular example of textual criticism strikes me as a little forced. It is entirely based on the fact of the two Cappadocians exemplary orthodoxy and the insistence it must agree with the concept of the orthodoxy of the editor's day. Many today would find nothing remarkable in this insistence and would be disturbed by any suggestion that St. Basil and St. Gregory liked Origen too much. I suspect that behind this disturbance of the Christian tradition as static and closed. This conception of tradition, comforting to conservatives and maddening to liberals, is a mistaken one.

The conception I'm referring to is the idea that tradition is, by nature, static, a checklist of propositions which have always been in force and much be checked off in their entirety to satisfy one's place in the tradition. This particular modernist caricature has had a long life and it continues to impose upon any discussion of what tradition is. Conservatives are eager to 'prove' the doctrinal purity of an earlier time (just as this ancient editor did) and, thus, to defend it in the present. Liberals, rightly, see these attempts as forced and they spend their time proving the 'deviations' from the norm of the tradition which just goes to prove that there was no precedent for the tradition as it exists. Whether one is seeking to prove the truth of a tradition or disprove it, what these two approaches have in common is a tendency to see tradition as static.

I've already discussed my view of tradition here. I will take the liberty of quoting myself, so I don't have to go over the same ground:
A tradition, in my view, is a relatively coherent body of thought which is characterized both by a narrative featuring a coherent group of people and how they believe they fit in the world and by a running conversation or commentary over time about how this narrative should be interpreted and appropriated by the individuals in that community. It is not calcified belief, but rather must be dynamic as it encounters both internal and external challenges to its status as a truthful narrative. Indeed, the moment that it becomes calcified tradition, with little relation to what is going on in the world or with its followers, it loses it coherence and its ability to explain the world. What follows is that this tradition rapidly loses its appeal and, ultimately, its following.

How does this apply to Origen and the Philocalia? What we have to recognize is that no tradition emerges fully formed from the head of a creator, but rather it forms and develops over time. In its early stages, a tradition is fuzzier and less defined than it would become. That means there was more latitude for deviation, but that, as the implications of individual deviations become clear, they may be accepted as more or less acceptable. This leads to great definition of the tradition and the retrospective judgement of earlier figures, who could not be expected to have known how the tradition has developed or will develop fully. If a tradition is living, it is forced to deal with both its internal debates and its encounters with other worldviews. Part of that process is refinement, but it can lead to a splintering of the tradition, if the narrative which underlies the tradition should seem to be inadequate to the task of explaining the world. It can also lead to the very ambiguities that Christians face in dealing with Origen.

In his day, Origen was extremely controversial, but there were few who did not reckon him as inside the orthodox tradition. They might challenge him on many of his assumptions and his Platonism, but there seems to have been a general recognition that, deep down, Origen recognized the Bible as the basic authority in Scripture (not Plato) and that his resort to Plato was an effort to engage the wider culture.
Origen had his share of detractors and enemies, but, in his day, he was not considered heretical, so much as problematic.

Later anti-Origenists, after having seen the effect that Platonized Christianity had on the great heresies of the 4th century like Arianism and the Christological heresies, felt that Origen's allegiance to Plato was in conflict with his allegiance to Christ. The central differences is the degree to which Origen complied with the rules of the tradition as defined or re-defined by the Church. As a result, we have the problem faced by this ancient editor, who retrojects the developed orthodoxy after these conflicts and cannot see why Origen had such an influence on his theological heroes, St. Basil and St. Gregory. Yet, what we have seen happen is the movement towards greater definition on the question of how much Platonism is too much Platonism in theology. Origen, by this time, crosses the line, but there is enough of his work which does not, but he is left in a very ambiguous position.

This means that, for us, the problem posed by Origen is how much did he stay faithful to the narrative of Christianity in its traditional form and to what degree does he continue to do so, given his Platonic departures. I'm not sure to what degree I can answer that, largely because I haven't even finished the Philocalia, much less read as much of Origen as I could. Even if I had, given the massive amounts of his writing that haven't survived, I doubt I could come up with a conclusive statement.

Yet, the test I would propose is the same one I would propose for any other theological writer, Church Father or not: how well does he stay faithful to what the Bible teaches. That is, of course, opening a whole new can of worms, given the differences of opinion on what the Bible teaches or even whether it teaches anything coherently. Personally, I think both questions can be answered more or less concretely, partly because, otherwise, we Christians would be unable to claim to have a coherent tradition and partly because I think that tradition is still the best explanation of how the world works. This last comment, I think, is the subject of a whole new set of post and, given that my nine and a half month old son is happily tearing our den apart as I write, I must end this discussion here.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Patristics Carnival IV

The fourth edition of the Patristics Carnival will be hosted by Weekend Fisher over at the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog. The guidelines remains the same as Modest Proposal entry back in November and my additions in August.

The last day of submission will be September 30th and the postings will be up later in the week of October 1st.

Remember you can offer submissions on the carnival site or the dedicated e-mail (

Thanks to Weekend Fisher for taking this one. If there are other prospective hosts, please contact me.


Friday, September 14, 2007

St. John Chrysostom and the Problem of Wealth

As my sidebar has noted, I've been reading sermons of St. John Chrysostom dealing with wealth and poverty. These sermons focus primarily on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, but this is really only the starting point. This is St. John at his best; passionate, eloquent and rigorous. It is bracing stuff, especially when read in the modern West where even the working class are richer than anything than St. John would have dreamt of. In the ancient world, there was virtually no social safety net (short of what Christians, Jews and some voluntary associations could give) and little or no sense about what to do about the poor. Indeed, there was, then as now, a tendency to blame the poor. I wonder what is the difference between viewing the poor as accursed and setting up snitch lines for welfare fraud?

St. John is uncompromising about his attitude to wealth. That is, of course, part of what got him into trouble in Constantinople, when he castigated the rich of the imperial capital for their excesses even to the point of attacking the empress. That didn't win him friends, but I doubt if he was interested in doing that. His attitude to wealth is not the reflexive assumption that anyone who is rich is corrupt which is the implication of many poverty activists out there. Rather St. John insists that any wealth we have we hold in trust for God and for doing God's service. That is, if we are spending more than we need on ourselves and not helping those who are in poverty, we are being truly bad stewards.

His example, par excellence, is the rich man in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Matthew), who neglects a desperately poor man begging at his door, but pleads that the same poor man be sent to relieve his torments in Hell or prevent those future torments of the rich man's relations. As St. John points out, this rich man has been an atrociously bad steward and he is suffering the consequences of it. His implication is that this is what will happen to those who prosper and gain riches without recognizing that they are only holding it in trust for God.

One of the striking elements of these sermons is St. John's image of sin as illness and that Scripture is one of the healing instruments which God uses. As John points out, Abraham's contention that the rich man's relatives wouldn't listen to a resurrected Lazarus if they didn't listen to Moses and the prophets underlines the importance of Scripture and our predecessors in faith. There are sufficient guides to how to behave, but we have to submit to the treatment that God administers through them. That treatment can be painful, but its benefits cannot be underestimated.

As I've been reading these sermons, I keep thinking about our finances. Like many new parents in our city, we are struggling to work out how to buy a house and run a household on, effectively, one income. It is easy to bemoan the fact that I can't go out as much as we'd like, buy books as much as I'd like (that is very much one of my vices) and what not. We can feel very poor. Yet, if I look around, I have to admit that we are fairly rich: we have an apartment, enough food and a goodly amount of possessions (including books!). And that gets me thinking how good a steward I am. I wonder what St. John would say, if we had him over.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Patristics and Early Christian Studies

This is a patristics blog. Of course, this should not come as a shock to any of my readers and, indeed, they might well wonder why I should make such an obvious observation. The reason is that I've been thinking over the past few weeks about the nature of patristics and its place in the intellectual universe which is dominated by (but not coterminous with)the modern academic world. In that world, despite the clear revival of interest among some Christians, patristics is a distinctly unfashionable discipline. Of course, neither is theology and, given the connections between patrology and theology, this is not a coincidence.

The reason for patrology and theology's lack of cultural cache is, ultimately, that they really don't fit well in the intellectual culture of our day. That intellectual culture is dominated by, but not coterminous with, the university which tend to have a very different intellectual stance to the subject matter of patrology and theology and, as a result, tends to see these disciplines as throwbacks to a less enlightened time. Instead, they deal with the subject matter of theology through Religious Studies departments and patrology through Early Christian studies. What Religious studies and Early Christian Studies have in common is their stance that the scholar's proper stance to his subject should be an objective one. That is, that it is very important for the scholar in either of these fields to set aside any of their own beliefs about God and faith in order to act as the classically liberal observer of facts and data. In its heart of hearts (and despite much post-modern posing in humanities departments), the academic world is still very modernist in its assumptions and it makes the assumption that this vulgarly scientific mindset is the only valid approach to these and other subjects.

Now, don't get me wrong. I've been trained in an academic setting and I value that training. The products of the research of academia are impressive intellectual achievements and have further our understanding in most fields immensely. What does annoy me about this mindset is that it presumes that it is the only way to think that is valid. I have no problem if someone decides to analyse something in this way--the results are often rewarding and helpful enough in advancing our understanding in historical and other fields to justify continued research in this mode. Yet, I would argue that theology and patrology have contributions to make as well. What I find problematic is that it is never entirely certain what we are doing history (or talking about God) for, if all we are doing are being observers of the 'facts'.

Theology and patrology represent is an inversion of the common academic approach. That is, its stance is within a living faith tradition in which the contributions of one's predecessors are developed and amplified in order to increase one's understanding of a worldview which differs substantially from the tradition behind modern academe. The concern of a patrologist is to ask questions about how the Fathers thought in order to provide resources to evaluate and re-evaluate our theology within the Christian church today. It is not to add to the database of some kind of abstract history-as-it-was database whose purpose is both unclear and, hence, represents, at best, a body of interesting reading and, at worst, unconnected (and, hence, trivial) antiquarian lore.

Patrology, as a result, is profoundly and truly counter-cultural in a way that Early Christian studies (for all its posing) cannot be. Early Christian studies is very much at home in the dominant intellectual culture of our day because it adopts the modern academic approach without question. Furthermore, it participates in the modern culture wars between religion and secularism with a decidedly slant to the latter. It can't help it. If one's job as a scholar is to check one's theology, faith and beliefs at the door, this is to say that they are, ultimately, irrelevant to one's scholarly discourse and to communal discourse as whole. And, after all, is this not the assumption of Western secular cultures--that religion (and not just Christianity) is, at best, irrelevant to our common life and, at worst, is a threat to it (by fostering division).

This, I think, explains the whole spate of books dealing with the historical quest for Jesus which have been coming out regularly at Easter and Christmas because they should be understood as counters to the religious pronouncements perceived as central to the Religious Right which do regard religion as an important aspect of our communal life. I have my problems with the Religious Right (more in its selectivity of causes and less than salubrious alliances, than in its right to political activity), but it is hard not to see the often gleeful 'de-bunking' of Jesus' divinity implied in the continuing alternative gospels craze on in the Jesus' tomb excitement as implying a slap in the face to religious conservatives. Not that there is a conspiracy to do this, but, rather, that we are educated in our modern Western secular culture to study early Christianity this way and, if it should annoy the Religious Right, that is good as well.

The justification of patrology's counter-cultural status is that it very clearly isn't interested in either validating the modernists assumptions of secular culture nor is it interested in trying to defend Christianity in the way that the Religious Right does. Patrology gives us a window to a completely different tradition and, hence, culture to that of the world around us. The same amount of care and intellectual effort can be used in patrology as in any modern university, but it is done so with different assumptions and different restrictions. The patrologist contributes to a different counter-culture-traditional orthodox Christianity- and, as a result, cannot help but to clash with those in a more 'academic' setting.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Patristics Carnival III- August, 2007

Front Gate: Introduction to the Fathers

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers offers an introduction to the Fathers (and Mothers) in four parts (Part One, Two, Three, Four). For all of those who don't quite know where to begin, this is a good place.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

chrysostomos on the Patristically Speaking blog make a brief, but effective plea to read the Fathers and the Reformers.

Dr. Claude Mariottini isn't a fan of patristic style typology and he tells you why.
Exhibition Place: Biographies on the Fathers

Steve on Triablogue challenges an attempt to re-date Paul's letters using Marcian's revision of the canon. The Food Tent: Book-Reviews on patristic books

Carla on the Carla Nayland Historical Fiction blog discusses Bede and the use of his sources. Yes, Bede (barely) falls into the patristic period.

Jeff Martin on the What's Wrong with the World blog discusses St. Augustine and his concept of infancy in the Confessions.

Patrik Hagman on the God in a Shrinking Universe blog gives an account of the 15th International Patristics Conference in Oxford in July. Roger Pierce ....

Josh McManaway on A New Testament Student blog discusses the importance of reading the Fathers while studying the New Testament. A sentiment close to my heart.

Doug on the Metacatholic blog reacts to McMabaway's blog and discusses the case for an ordained priesthood in the NT and the some very early Fathers.

James Siemeens on The East And West blog continues his discussion about Theodore of Tarsus and his influence on the British church.

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog discusses the connection between keys in Isaiah and Matthew in St. Ephrem, reports on Pope Benedict's discussion of Basil, Pope Benedict's comments about St. Gregory Nazianzus , discusses St. Augustine, and finishes off with Pope Benedict's comments on St. Gregory of Nyssa.

Kevin Edgecomb on the biblicalia blog discusses the regula fidei and reminds us of the story of St. Eustochius.

God Fearin' Fiddler on the God Fearin' Forum blog offers us a brilliant parody on Protestant use of Church Fathers. . And I, a Prot, even thought it was funny!

Ben Smith on the Thoughts on Antiquity blog publishes another in his canonical lists series on the canonical list of St. Epiphanius and a discussion of patristic citations on the cherubim.

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Orycteropus Afer on the Aardvark Alley blog features a biography of St. Augustine.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews

Matthijs den Dulk on the NT Today blog reviews Stanley E. Porter & Gordon L. Heath's The Lost Gospel of Judas: Separating Fact from Fiction (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007)

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

Kacy on the Meandering Home blog features a catena on Scripture and authority directed against sola scriptura.

The Symphony of Scripture offers a Protestant catena and commentary on the subject of transsubstantiation.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog reviews Daniel A. Keating, The Appropriation of Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria .

The Dyspraxic Fundamentalist on The Patristic Page posts his translation of Pseudo-Dionysius' Mystical Theology.

April DeConick on The Forbidden Gospels blog notes Sebastian Brock's book on the Bible in the Syriac tradition

The Apocryphral Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Tony Chartrand-Burke on the Apocryphicity blog features his final five misconceptions about Christian Apocrypha and reflects on Christian Acocrypha palimpsests.

April DeConick on The Forbidden Gospels blog notes some recent correction in the the readings of the Gospel of Judas, , discusses the scholarly tendency to divide up groups within Judaism and Christianity.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 12

In this excerpt, we see Martin encountering a funeral procession and demonstrating his exceptional power over people, even if he did so by mistake.

It happened later, while he was on a journey, he encountered the body of a certain pagan which was being carried to a tomb with superstitious funeral rites. Seeing the crowd of those accompanying it, he stood aside, not knowing what was happening. Since he was half a mile off, it was difficult to distinguish what he saw. (2)Nevertheless, because he saw the rustic company and the linen cloth thrown over the body fluttering about as the wind was blowing it, he thought that an unholy rite of sacrifices was being performed. It was the custom of Gallic rustics to carry around the image of demons, covered in a shroud in a miserable madness. (3)Lifting the sign of the cross against them, he ordered the mob not to move from the place and they should set aside their burden. Here, in an astonishing way, you would see that they stood still at first just as rocks. (4)Then, when they were struggling to move forward with the utmost effort, they were able to accomplish nothing more than to whirl around in a ridiculous circle, until, beaten, they set aside the burden of the body. Astonished and looking at each other in turn, they silently thought about what had happened to them then. (5) When that blessed man discovered that it was the throng of a funeral procession, not of accursed (gods), raising his hand again, he gave them the power to leave and to raise the body. Thus, when he wished them to stand, he compelled them to do so. When it was pleasing, he allowed them to leave.

The first thing to note here is that this passage is continuing the theme of suppressing the rural pagan practices that were characteristic in St. Martin's Gallic setting. Here he is isn't even seeking out a confrontation, but, in a chance encounter, he seeks to confront what he thinks is a pagan religious procession in action. This should emphasize how important this activity was for Martin, whose fame rests, in a large part, on his efforts to Christianize the countryside around Tours; an effort which was incomplete throughout the Western Empire. The countryside was notoriously slow to adopt Christianity and much of Martin's activities was concentrated on this effort.

Second, we have to deal with what is actually happening here. What St. Martin thinks he's dealing with is a sacred procession in which a god is carried around the countryside, possibly for fertility rites, possibly as protection against death. I lean a little towards the second because the confusion with the funeral rites may suggest that a chthonic deity is meant here. Still, given the close link between underworld gods and fertility gods, I don't think this is a given. The similarities in the rites are interesting.

Third, we see another demonstration of St. Martin's powers in the vain struggle of the people in the procession to proceed. The almost funny spectacle of the members of the funeral procession whirling around in circles is a vivid image, but it demonstrates St. Martin's power (through the grace of God) to control the outside world and people. This continues the theme of wonder-working that we've already seen in St. Martin's story and will continue to follow it as we go.

As a query, I wonder if there is a biblical or patristic story about a prophet or holy man halting a procession like this. I can't recall anything that is really close.