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.


Thursday, August 16, 2007

Book Review-Mike Aqulina, The Mass of the Early Christians

A few months ago, a copy of Mike Aquilina's 2nd edition of The Mass of the Early Christians came my way. I was happy to see it on several levels, but largely because I've been reading his blog, The Way of the Fathers, ( must read for all patristibloggers) for just over a year and corresponding with him for about as long. He also has been a strong supporter of this blog and I was happy to read more of his writing in a conventional form.

In this book, Aquilina tackles the origins of the Mass (or Eucharist, as I would say). The perspective is Catholic (that isn't surprising, given the term Mass used), but I was please to see Mike's irenic style throughout. He considers the practice of the Mass from the first Pentacost to the Council of Nicaea (and Cyril of Jerusalem as a coda). The books breaks down into four parts: first, a historical introduction which includes a fascinating section connecting Jewish worship and the Christian liturgies connected to the Mass; the testimonia of the Fathers themselves, along with some pagan and heretic testimony; substantial excerpts of Cyril of Jerusalem as representative of the post-Nicene tradition; and a creative exercises to bring the early Christian Mass to life. Aquilina's style is clear, accessible and a pleasure to read.

In its basis, this is a source book and the issues addressed by the excerpts are traditional Catholic ones: Real Prescence, liturgical action, the concept of the priesthood, relationship to heretical and schismatic Christians. The result is a very clear enunciation of the patristic evidence for the Catholic view of the Eucharist. As an Anglican who believes in the Real Presence (even if I'm not sure I want to go quite all the way to transubstantiation), I find much in common with the testimonies cited.. Given the interest of Anglicans in the Liturgical Renewal program in the last century, this is not an unusual position. I do wonder how a more, say, Calvinist Protestant would select his sources on the topic, but that is just an idle thought.

I encourage my readers to seek out this new edition of The Mass of the Early Christians. For my Catholic readers, it is a valuable connection to the Catholic liturgical tradition and its patristic justification. For non-Catholics, it is an excellent and accessible account to the Catholic reading of the Fathers and tradition. Either way, you will enjoy your time with this book.


Monday, August 13, 2007

Patristics Carnival III

Okay, folks, it is time for you to get together your submissions for Patristics Carnvial III. Remember the guidelines from the Modest Proposal post and the alterations I made last time.

The last day of submission is August 31st and I expect to get it up in the course of September 3rd.

Please also remember that I'm looking for help with the carnival, so if you might be intersted in hosting it, let me know. Or I'll come looking for you!


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Towards a Protestant Patrology

One of the things I've been amused to notice in my ten month career as a patristiblogger is the surprise I get from my Orthodox and Catholic readers that a Protestant is interested in the Fathers at all. I don't blame their surprise because I know that many Protestants have rejected the need to look at the history of the Church between, say, the apostolic era and Luther hammering the 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg (or, in more extreme cases, the establishment of one's own particular sect). Patristic authors, in this view, mark the beginning of the corruption of the Church in late antiquity and the Middle Ages.

I am, however, an Anglican, which, in itself, should explain my interest in the Fathers because we have a long tradition of considering ourselves both Protestant and Catholic. What that means varies according to the particular Anglican being addressed, but, for me, it means that I am Protestant to the Reformers had the right idea in their ideas about many things including their subordination of tradition to the authority of Scripture. And I'm just Catholic enough to think that tradition is an important aid in helping to read Scripture properly. For me, the Fathers represent a recovery of tradition, but one which must be subordinate to Scripture.

Now, I'm not arguing sola scriptura strictly here, but rather something closer to prima scriptura. That is, Scripture is uniquely authoritative, offers a unified worldview and can be interpreted within its own confines without the medium of outside authorities. Any theological proposition, whether our own or that of the past, must be referred back to Scripture in order to discern whether it is, in fact, appropriately considered a Christian position. That has led to some Protestants rejecting the Fathers (and anyone else before the Reformers), but I don't think it needs to. So, what I want to do is set out some points about what a Protestant Patrology might justify itself or look like.

The Reformers were influenced by the Fathers

The fact that many of the Reformers knew their way through the Fathers and were willing to use that knowledge comes as a surprise to many non-Protestants. I understand that, but the record is clear that many Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, not only recognized a debt to the Church Fathers (especially Augustine), but used their understanding of these Fathers as a tool to cut through what they perceived as the tangle of late mediaeval tradition. Some of this came out in biblical scholarship, but, by far the most popular use of the Fathers, was the polemical use in the characterization and appropriation of the values of the early Church, in establishing precedents for Reform practices such as priesthood of all believers, rejection of the episcopal system of church government, even infant baptisms and in trying to establish just when the Church slide into corruption. Now, whether one agrees with their conclusions or not (I apologize to my Roman Catholic readers for the tone of the above argument, but I was trying to give a sense of the tone of the Reformers on these issues), we can see the Reformers were interested in patristics, even if only for polemical purposes. That does suggest to Protestant today that, perhaps patristics isn't an un-Reformed interest, after all.

The Fathers are relentlessly Scriptural

Contrary to that strong Protestant trend to dismiss as human tradition any non-Biblical writer, my reading of the Fathers has brought me to see how intensely steeped in the Fathers were in Scripture. Just read a Father or two and what one carries away is the impression of a way of writing theologically whose expressions and images constantly allude to and appropriate Scripture in the way they argue and are constantly concerned with interpreting Scripture in such a way that make a direct connection to one's own life. The Fathers had a high view of Scripture and tended to view it as intelligible, often through interpreting particularly difficult passages by reference to other more sure passages of Scripture. This should sound vaguely familiar to any Protestant reader because this seems to be what Luther was driving at when he declared his slightly hyperbolic slogan, sola scriptura. For the Fathers, Scripture was authoritative and coherent on its own, even if they used tools (drawn from the same source, the apostolic tradition) such as the Rule of Faith) to guide the interpretation of it.

BUT: The Fathers can be wrong

At this point, I may have shocked some of my Roman Catholic and Orthodox readers for a moment, but, I hope, that if they think about it, they have to recognize that this recognition of the fallibility of the Fathers has been understood in their own tradition by referring the teachings of the Fathers to the magisterium (for Catholics) or the patristic consensus (for Orthodox) before deciding on the orthodoxy of a given statement. Sometimes a Father is insufficiently precise, given later doctrinal formulations, because he hasn't been challenged by heresy or schism to speak more precisely. Sometimes a Father is just out and out says something that is wrong, when it is tested against Scripture or tradition. Thus, we get Fathers like Tertullian and Origen who say a lot of right things, but must be handled with care because they also say some just wrong things.

For the Protestant, the filter to decide whether a particular statement is right or wrong is, ultimately, Scripture. Implicit in this statement is a belief that, while the meaning of the Bible is always static, our understanding can be affected by our sin or sloth and sometimes something that a culture or cultures decide is okay is suddenly recognized as not truly supported by Scripture. Mind you, this is proven by reference to Scripture, not through outside standards like experience. In a sense, this is what another Reformation slogan, semper reformanda, is getting at because there is a recognition that we, as Christians, have to continually challenge our own reading of Scripture to make sure that we aren't engaged in a case of self-delusion in our (mis-)reading of the Bible. The Fathers can help us in that because they are reflective of a culture without the same assumptions or blindnesses as ours (they had plenty of their own), but their own statements are subject to the same evaluation before we accept them in their entirety.

I'm quite sure that I haven't plumbed the depths of this topic, but this seems a good place to stop and ask for feedback. What other issues should a Protestant consider in his or her patrology?


Monday, August 06, 2007

Patristics Carnival- July, 2007

I'm back from a busy trip to Winnipeg and a rest from blogging. As my July 20th post noted, I decided to change the format of the patristic updates away from a weekly roundup to a monthly roundup. That works better for my own time and allows for the expansion of the Carnival idea to include other hosts (if you want to be a host for a future Carnival, e-mail me from my profile.

Please note that any entries I accept must be written within the month indicated. It is not enough to tag an old entry and send it in as has been done. Also, please remember to send me entries because the only suggested entry was an old one from 2006 which I did not include in this edition for the above stated reason.

You will also notice some format changes within the Carnival. I've decided to eliminate links to mere quotes of patristic authors, largely because, while these are edifying on their own, there are far too many of these for me to keep track of. Instead, I'm focusing on articles which do something with the patristic material. I've given more categories to structure these, as you'll notice below.

To commemorate all these changes, I've done some template changes to a minimalistic approach. I expect to add some graphics/pictures and more links as time goes on.

So, on to the Carnival!

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

No introductions this month.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Brandon Watson on the Siris blog reviews the impact of the negative evaluation of the Victorians on the reputation of St. Cyril of Alexandria.

Bret Saunders on the In Alcuin's Shadow blog features a discussion of several opinions on the formation of the canon with commentary from a Protestant point of view.

On the same blog, Tim Enloe discusses the contrast between the pagan and Christian concepts of the Roman past and how this debate shaped patristic thought. This is an interesting and enlightening attempt to get at the relationship between classical culture and Christianity inspired by R.A. Markus.

reynor on the cafe theology blog posts Pope Benedict's catechetical address on St. Basil the Great.

Melinda on the Stand to Reason blog exhorts us to remember the Christian past, starting with St. Justin Martyr.
Oswald Sobrino on the

Catholic Analysis
blog features a book review of Christian Initiation and Baptism in the Holy Spirit by Fr. Kilian McDonnell and Fr. George T. Montague which features patristic evidence on baptism.

K.B. Enthusiasmos on the Mere Orthodoxy blog discusses the need for evangelicals to recover tradition in parts one and two.
Exhibition Place: Biographies on the Fathers

Michael Hidalgo features St. Polycarp of Smyrna in his Heroes of the Faith series.
The Food Tent: Book-Reviews on patristic books

Alice C. Linsley on the Just Genesis blog features a discussion on St. Ephrem's handling of Genesis. . She continues with a discussion of St. John Chyrsosthom's handling of Lamech in part one and two.

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Father's blog features an interview with him conducted by the Catholic Servant on Pope Benedict's catechetical lectures. Also, continue to check in on Mike's useful links to resources and other discussions.

God Fearin' Fiddler on God Fearin' Forum discusses the contact points between Montanism and Pentacostals, discusses papal authority and Pope Victor and answers my criticisms on the same subject.

Ben Smith on the Thoughts on Antiquity blog continue his series on canonical lists with the Canon of Athanasius.

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae
Coemgenus on the Catholic Apologetics of America blog features a catena on the Early Fathers and the Catholic Church.

mattymoho on the matty's moorish grotto blog features a patristic catena on reincarnation. Some are a bit of a stretch.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations
John F. Hobbins on the Ancient Hebrew Poetry blog features St. Augustine's use of the Psalsm followed up with translations of Psalms from Latin and Hebrew versions.

Kevin Edgecomb on the biblicalia blog continues his translation series on the sayings of the Desert Fathers with St. Agathon and again.

The Apocryphral Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Justin Halter on The Truth Shall Set you Free blog features a discussion of Gnosticism and connects it with liberal theology today. Perhaps this is a bit of an unfair comparision? For a good balance, see the April DeConick and Tony Chartrand-Burke articles below.

April DeConick on The Forbidden Gospels blog has had a busy July with an extensive series of discussions. Among her topics are a review of the BYU Studies on the Gospel of Judas, a series on why the non-canonical gospels make people uneasy (in parts one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine)and a series on Nag Hammadi's impact on culture in parts one, two, three, four). All of these are well worth reading, although I would hasten to add Dr. DeConick's positions, while scholarly, will not necessarily please those committed to the canon as we have it from the Fathers.

Tony Chartrand-Burke on Apocryphicity weighs in on April DeConick's discussion on why Christian apocrypha makes us uneasy and discusses the first five of his ten arguments of why Christian anti-Christian Apocrypha apologetics get it wrong (and recaptulates here)

I think that is for the carnival. The next carnival for August will close on August 31st and by about September 3rd. If anyone is interested in hosting, please e-mail me and we'll work out times. I'd appreciate help with the hosting, if anyone can lessen my load.