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.