Friday, September 26, 2008

Hunting Heresies in the Fathers

I don't normally rant much. I argue. I consider. I think out loud, but, really, I'm not so much of a ranting type of blogger. Perhaps my blog would attract a greater audience if I did, but that isn't necessarily the kind of audience that I want to attract. But, still, once in a while, we all rant, so I'm going to use some of my ranting quota up today.

What I'm going to rant about is the tendency that some theologically trained people have to play 'hunt the heresy' when they're reading a Church Father. That is, they look for, they hunt for some indication that x or y Church Father isn't really orthodox as we think, but really expresses a heretical view which would later be condemned. The earlier the Father, the easier this is, of course, because the earlier Fathers didn't know about the increasingly defined boundaries of orthodox doctrines like the Trinity or complicated theological issues like it, so their more fuzzy expressions on these issues open them up to condemnation post facto.

So, we see Justin Martyr accused of ditheism and/or subordinationism. Or, we see Gregory Nazianzus accused of proto-Nestorianism. And so on, and so on, and so on.

This isn't to say that the Fathers didn't make doctrinal mistakes. To take two extreme examples, we still read Tertullian and Origen, even though we know that some of their ideas weren't exactly within orthodox bounds in their day, much less our own. Tertullian's extreme temperament led him to rigid views about asceticism and prophecy which drove him from the orthodox church. Origen's passion for Platonism (I note, a passion second only to his passion for the Bible) led him to accept certain Platonic positions he would have been better to have avoided. I don't think there is any Father I've read that there hasn't been moments when I've shaken head at something which wasn't quite on. That is inevitable in anybody we read. We don't agree with everything that anyone reads. As a blogger, I wouldn't expect everyone who reads me will agree with everything I've ever said.


Holy anachronism, Batman! If we look at the development of doctrine, we can see a process of greater explanation and clarification over time as the Church dealt with challenges and questions from outside and inside the Church. That was inevitable and good because it means that the tradition was (and is) dynamic; responding to problems by explaining further. Doctrine didn't fall from the skies or sprang out of the apostle's foreheads fully formed. It developed in response to problems posed the Church over time.

If we understand this development of doctrine, how could we note expect earlier Fathers to express themselves on a given doctrine in a less clear way than later Fathers, who recognized different challenges than their predecessors? We can't, of course. The Church Fathers were quite bright, but they weren't soothsayers who could look into their ecclesiological crystal balls and discover what the future Church would define as heretical. It is anachronistic to expect the same precision in a Justin Martyr as we find in an Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria. This seems to be a straightforward historical insight, but, apparently, there are a fair number of people who don't get this.

So, why do we keep these heresy hunts going? One (largely innocent) reason is that some writers are playing 'Name that Heresy' as a way of showing their theological knowledge. One can show their erudition by being able to label a heresy by its true name. Given the huge number of heresies out there (particularly the Trinitarian ones), it is often a considerable achievement to name the right one, much less discover it in a previously unexpected place. Of course, this kind of heresy hunt is something of an intellectual pissing contest, since it really is intended to show off the extent of one's theological knowledge against all challenges. That is, admittedly, vanity, but, perhaps, we can comfort ourselves that these contests don't mean that the contestants are attacking a particular Father per se or even orthodoxy, but are merely showing off. Its not good, but it need not be subversive.

A second less innocent motive is heresy hunting in the context of inter-denominational apologetics and polemics. In this kind of heresy hunt, we see writers (often, but not always Protestant) search the Fathers in order to find something wrong in what they are saying. What they are doing in reading the Fathers isn't reading them to understand them or to take insight from them, but rather they are reading them the way that a lawyer reads a hostile brief--they are looking for dirt and evidence to beat the other side with. There is an implicit violence in some apologetics and polemics because the desire isn't always to debate and persuade, but to intellectually beat the opposition into submission. Either we manage to silence them by repeated out-of-context quotations across the head or we make it very clear that they are just too stupid to know when they've been whupped. The net result, however, is rather different because we usually wind up with both sides beating their intellectual chests and declaring themselves the victors, while more neutral observers scratch their heads at all the fuss.

What bothers me about this particular use of the Fathers or even this style of apologetics is not only that it is entirely pointless, but it actually is spiritually damaging. When the Bible warns us about vain arguing and enjoins us to build each up in faith, it didn't mean intellectually cudgel each other until our voices are raw and nerves jangled by the anger and the heat (not light) generated. If we do this, we miss what the Fathers can teach us and the good things they say because we are always looking for the negative and the useful, not for the positive and beneficial things we can learn from these great teachers. This is a breakdown of charity, more than anything else, and the fact that we are talking about charity to long dead writers, doesn't change the fact that that is how we are called to act towards other Christians, live or dead.

A last reason to hunt heresies is much more insidious and damaging. This heresy hunt seeks to prove the Fathers, those bastions of orthodoxy, were, in fact, crypto-heretics (by the standards of previously chosen definition of rigid (usually modernist) orthodoxy, we can challenge the claim that orthodoxy ever really existed. Instead, we can present is as a later construct, used against alternative Christianities by later, oppressive churchman, whose real interest were institutional and venal.

This is a much more worrying motivation for this game than the previous one. The first motivation for 'the Name that Heresy' game is vain, but not necessarily malicious. The second is perhaps malicious (against another group of Christians), but isn't intended to undermine Christian claims about Jesus. In this third type of heresy hunt, there is an agenda here that I think we, as Christians need to challenge. The logic of this position is to deny the existence of an apostolic and orthodox faith and discredit orthodox Christian beliefs. The spiritual damage done by this position, I don't think, needs to be explained.

Now, to be rational again, I'm not saying that we don't identify heresy when we see it. We are called to speak truthfully to each other, so if we see each other moving in a spiritually damaging direction, we are supposed to try to point them out. If we accept that heresy is spiritually damaging, we need to discern it and to point it out in love, but firmly. That is perhaps why I can get worked up to write a rant on this issue. Heresy is rather too serious a spiritual issue to trifle with and it bothers me when we throw around accusations vainly, uncharitably and tendentiously.

So, what I'm saying is that, while you read the Fathers, read with discernment by all means, but remember history and remember charity. If a Father expresses himself in a fuzzy way, assume the most orthodox construction you can. If he is in error, chalk it up to human frailty and move on. For that matter, perhaps we should do likewise with each other as well. Assume orthodoxy as much as you can, point out error and move on.


Monday, September 22, 2008

Book Review: Mark Husbands and Jeffrey P. Greenman, eds. Ancient Faith for the Church's Future

I've been wanting to read this book for a few months- ever since I learned about the 2007 Wheaton Theological Conference at which the papers included in this volume were presented. Patristics geek that I am, I would dearly have loved to have been at this conference. That wouldn't have worked with either work or my finances, but a guy can dream. After all, a gathering of the leaders of the evangelical ressourcement doesn't happen every day.

However, short of actually being there, these papers are a good substitute. They are divided into four parts- a general section about the ressourcement itself and its limitations, a section on patristic exegesis, one on recovering the social practices of the early Church and one on the theology of the early Church. As an epilogue, there is a paper by Jason Byassee on the Emergent Church's connection to ancient Christianity. It is, of course, difficult to discuss all these articles on an one-by one basis. Besides, you really should read them because they are all, in their own ways, excellent. So, what I propose to do is to highlight each section and how the articles contribute to the discussion.

In the first section, Evangelical Ressourcement: Retrieving the Past with Integrity, deals with the more general issues around evangelicals and the Fathers. The articles by Christopher Hall and D.H. Williams both consider this ressourcement- its promise and its dangers. There is, of course, plenty of both. The evangelical ressourcement has given evangelical theologians more resources to understand our faith and to return to a way of taking the Bible seriously without getting wrapped up in the modernist dilemmas of propositionalism and academicization of theological discourse. Yet, we have to be careful not to make an idol out of the Fathers either. The Fathers have their flaws and we have to be aware of them as we seek to learn from them. Brian Daley gives an insight into the Roman Catholic experience of ressourcement in the middle part of the last century.

The second section, Reading Scripture: The Setting and Promise of Patristic Exegesis, deals with how the Fathers read the Bible. In many ways, patristic exegesis is the entry point for most evangelicals into reading the Fathers. Given the importance of the Bible among evangelicals and a recognition that privatized and individualized readings of the Bible may not serve evangelicals in this post-modern world, a look back at how the Fathers read the Bible is a natural evangelical starting-point. Michael Graves' article deals with the argument that the Fathers merely employed pagan literary methods to the Bible and, hence, can be dismissed as using non-Christian methodologies. Graves acknowledges that these methods were used, but argues that their fusion with Christian theological readings makes patristic exegesis a uniquely Christian endeavor. Peter Leithart seeks to defend the four senses of Scripture popularized by readers of Augustine as a powerful exegetical and pastoral tool to interpret Scriptural stories such as David and Goliath. Nicholas Perrin presents a fascinating discussion of how Irenaeus' criticism of the Gnostic theology bears a striking resembled to Lyotard's criticism of the modernist conception of knowledge.

The third section, The Social Practices of the Early Church: Missional Witness, deals with translating the practices of the early Church into the life of modern Church. Christine Pohl's article on hospitality emerged out Pohl's interest in community and how the early Church practiced it. One of the strengths of the early Church was its understanding of how important hospitality was, so Pohl's article remains relevant for our practice at a time in which many churches are trying to recover this important Christian practice. George Kalantzis examines the issue of the poor in St. John Chyrsostom's Lazarus homilies. What I found striking, as a classicist, is Kalantzis' emphasis that John's sermons argued for an abandonment of the quid pro quo relationship of ancient patronage in which the poor were excluded from help because they could do nothing in return to a relationship in which the poor are helped without questioning fitness or what we can gain by it. This is, of course, very Scriptural, but the challenge to the practice of patronage which was a fundamental social structure in the classical world is a striking one. Alan Kreider's discussion of evangelism in the early Church turns on the question of how it managed to grow when, far from holding seeker services and accommodating to the culture, the church had five year long catechuminates and closed services. Kreider concludes that it was the perception of the lives of the early Christians which encouraged this astonishing growth of the Church. The logical lesson we can take from this argument is that, if our lives matched what we taught in the Gospels the same would happen. I think there is much to that, although I think we have to keep in tension that there were many who saw Christians very differently than its admirers and who were prefectly willing to slander it. By itself, our conduct does, hopefully, attract people to us, but we also have to recognize that we will face slander and mis-representation just as the early church did.

The last section, Theology of the Early Church: Worship, Christology and Politics, is rather a mixed bag. John Witlivit's paper on formal prayers in the Early Church unpacks ancient prayers as a theological resource. Paul Kim's discussion of St. Cyril of Alexandria's Christology and the concept of the apatheia of God challenges the recent stress on the ability of God to suffer. I have to admit that I was skeptical when I saw this in the table of contents. I have tended to think that a lot of the theological infighting in the fourth and fifth century would have been avoided if some early Christian writers hadn't gotten so hung up on a Platonic philosophical concept like the apatheia of God. Kim's article made me reconsider that rather lazy assumption. I'm still not sure what to do with the concept, but I can see that that concern wasn't all futile theologizing. D. Stephen Long's article on the theological politics of St. Augustine challenges the view that Augustine endorsed a view of politics that abstracted it from Christian ethical and theological criticism.

Concluding this volume, Jason Byassee offers a valuable critique of the Emergent Church movement which has been one of the forces behind the evangelical ressourcement. Byassee takes the Emergent Church seriously, but, I think rightly, takes it to task for its theological fuzziness.

For those who are interested in the evangelical ressourcement, this set of papers reveal the depth of the evangelical engagement with the Fathers and the promise of this return to the sources of Christian thinking about Scripture.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Patristic Carnival XVI- Call for Submissions

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XVI. This month, the carnival is back here at hyperekperissou this month.

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

The last day of submission will be September 30 and the postings will be up by the week of October 5th. .

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


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 22


(1)Frequently, the devil, while he was trying to deceive the saint with a thousand stratagems to harm him, used to attack him in plain view in very different appearances. Sometimes, he used to appear transformed into the appearance of Jove; many times as Mercury; often even in the appearance of Venus and Minerva. Against them, Martin, although terrified, used to protect himself with the sign of the cross and the help of prayer. (2) Many conversations were over-heard in which a crowd of demons scolded the saint with their insistent voices, but knowing that all these things were false and useless, the saint wasn't moved by their opposition. (3) Some of the brothers even bear witness that they heard a demon cursing Martin with insistent words (asking) why he had received back some of the brothers inside the monastery, who had abandoned their baptismal vows through different errors, after they had repented. He set out the crimes of each of them. (4) Martin, contending with the devil, answered back constantly that the old sins were cleansed by the conversion to a better life and that, through the mercy of the Lord, those who ceased sinning were absolved of their sins. Against the devil who said that criminals had not right to grace and that there could be no clemency from the Lord for those who lapse even once, Martin is reported to have shouted out these words: (5) "If you, miserable one, would cease from the pursuit of men and repent of your deeds either now or when the day of judgement is near, I am truly confident in the Lord Jesus Christ, (and) I would promise His mercy." O what a holy boldness in his dutifulness for the Lord, in which although he was not able to take on the authority, he showed his feelings. (6) Since this conversation about the devil and his schemes arose, it did not seem beside the point, albeit not concerning Martin directly, to report what was done because there is some portion of virtue in Martin and a worthy deed was entrusted rightly to the miracle of memory as a cautionary example, if some such thing should happen somewhere a second time.


In many ways, this section represents a high point of St. Martin's dealings with the devil as well as a striking section on St. Martin's attitude about repentance and conversion. This is spiritual warfare in its truest sense: St. Martin is contending directly and openly against the devil himself, after the conventional distracting deceptions. This is, of course, intended to imitate Jesus' own matching of wits against the devil after his baptism, but this contest has a rather different feeling and one that I think should be seen in the context of St. Martin's reputation for gentle remedies for sin as opposed to overly rigourous ones. The tone of grace is strong in this passage which is among the more comforting in this Life.

What I find particularly interesting in St. Martin's confrontation with the devil is that the devil's argument is exactly that of rigourist Christians from the previous centuries. We know that, as early as the Shepherd of Hermas (2nd century) that there were Christians who believed that any lapse after baptism was unforgivable. This impulse is behind the ecclesiological heresies like Novatianists and Donatists applied the logic implied in this position in the aftermath of persecutions to exclude those who did not accept martyrdom, but either sought to avoid it by flight or deceit or openly apostatized even when under torture or the threat of death. There was a long and venerable history of the kind of ethical position proposed by the devil.

What's more, we can see how such a position would be useful for the devil. If we preclude the possibility of repentance and mercy, any mistake or sin would be enough to convince the believer that they are God-forsaken, so why would one bother with returning to God and the Christian life, if you were damned anyways. There is a kind of black and white extremism implied by this position that is convenient in a world where even the saints must learn to set aside their sins and learn to imitate Jesus. If the Church is a school for sinners (an image popular among the Fathers), we are seeing an application of a zero tolerance policy towards sins whose consequences would be to empty the church, not fill it.

Yet, St. Martin's response isn't to go to the opposite extreme. Yes, he definitely defends the power of God's mercy and his grace to heal the sinner and bring him back to God. That is a necessary defence, given Scripture and the emphasis on God's grace and on his mercy which is found there. He, even, shockingly extends that grace to the devil himself, if the devil were to open himself up to it by asking for it. That is always shocking and scandalous to a world which seeks vengeance for wrongs, but it is the logic of grace in a Christian context. We often prefer to see the evil suffer and the good prosper. And we're often annoyed when the evil escape their suffering at the last second. Yet, so many of Jesus' parables and teachings emphasize that God's forgiveness is extended to all, if they ask for it.

Yet, Martin doesn't make the modern Christian error of assuming that, if God forgives everything, that we don't need to do anything else. Notice that Martin emphasizes the importance of repentance and of acknowledging that one has acted wrongly in God's eyes and turning for that wrong. For St. Martin, it is the conversion of his wayward brethren and that they ceased sinning that opens up God's mercy and saved them from God's wrath. Similarly, even for the devil, it is turning from his sins and ceasing his pursuit and perversion of humanity that opens up for him (even him!) God's mercy.

That is, of course, the rub, isn't it? Our own pride tends to rebel against admitting our wrongs, so it is often easier to believe that other people are the reason why we behave the way we do. Or that what we did wasn't really wrong. St. Martin's answer to the devil is the answer of orthodox Christianity: God's mercy and grace is for everyone, but we have to admit that we are sick before we submit ourselves to treatment and are healed. There is hope in that belief, but a hope that we have to be willing to accept before we can experience the benefits of it.


Saturday, September 06, 2008

Patristics Carnival XV- August, 2008

Welcome to Patristics Carnival XV! It has been a busy and controversial month, what with Nancy Pelosi's comments on abortion and Augustine which stired up a firestorm among patristics-literate Roman Catholics. I hope you enjoy the offerings!

New Under the Tent

Roger Pearse (of Thoughts on Antiquity fame) launched his own self-named blog this month. Look especially at the articles on scanned books on, on the availability of the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum, especially the works of St. Cyril of Alexandria in that collection, on hunting for Christian Arabic sources, on ancient theosophies, and on a curious version of Josephus' Testimonium Flavanianum from a Christian Arabic writer. This is definately a patristic blog to watch and should be on the blogroll of anyone interested in patristics.

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

No entries this month.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog discusses Marcus Aurelius' persecutions and the effect it had on the Church.

Jason Engwer on Triablogue discusses Roman Catholic claims that the early Church Fathers bore little resemblance to evangelicals.

I usually don't include reposts of articles (although I make exceptions), I was sufficiently intrigued by this critique of the use of the Fathers by the Watchtower Society (i.e. Jehovah's Witnesses) to justify their position against blood transfusions.

Brett Stroud on The Theology of Skittles blog discusses St. Gregory Nazianzus controversy against the Eunomians.

The budding theologian on his self-named blog reprises a philosophy paper he wrote on Heresy and Orthodoxy in part one and part two.

humblemonkey on the No Such Thing as Silence blog argues that, until the 6th century, the Christian Church held an inclusivist/universalistic view of salvation. Yes, you read that right. I took a double take as well.

Robert on the Black Cordelias blog discusses tradition, the Fathers and Scripture against a Calvinist interlocutor.

Jeff Vehige of the St. Peter Canisius Apostolate blog considers St. Greogory of Tour's account of the Assumption.

Jay Rogers on The Forerunner blog defends the argument for a 2nd century New Testament canon.

Andrea Elizabeth on her self-named Word Press blog discusses Plato and Father John Romanides’ Patristic Theology.

The Principium Unitas blog discusses the Didache on the Church.
Taylor Marshall on the Canterbury Tales blog discusses Irenaeus, apostolic tradition and tradition.

Bret Saunders on the Per Caritatem blog discusses St. Augustine, the French post-modernist Jean-Luc Marion and ressourcement.

James Kelley on the Orthodox Patristics blog discusses St. Athanasius on whether God can do evil.

nebulaO on the About Mormonism blog compares the Mormon concept of exhaltation and the patristic teaching on theosis.

Ben Johnson on the Western Orthodoxy blog discusses Nancy Pelosi's suggestion that St. Augustine taught that life didn't begin until the third trimester, using a more broad patristic catena.

Maureen on the Aliens in This World discusses the Latin and context of the St. Augustine passage quoted by Nancy Pelosi.

Irenaeus on the Catholidoxy quotes the now infamous Nancy Pelosi interview in which she mentioned St. Augustine, and offers commentary and a wider patristic catena.

Michael from Texas on the To and Through St. Vlads blog discusses an introduction lecture on patristics by Father John Behr.

Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength analyses Jewish content in the Gnostic Gospels and finds that they don't use much.

JCHFleetguy on the Brain Cramps for God blog discusses the canonization of the Scripture, also favouring a 2nd century canon.

bfju on the Black Cordelias blog discusses the Early Fathers on Purgatory.

Eric Sowell on the Archaic Christianity blog discusses non-violence in the Early Church.

Philip Sumpter on the Narrative and Ontology blog discusses B.S Childs and the problem of Jewish and Christian appropriation of the Hebrew Testament, republishes Christopher Seitz's recommended reading for understanding figural reading of Scripture, and continues his discussion with consideration of the relationship between the New Testament and the Old Testament. Ther are several other articles in this series, but they seem to focus on Biblical Studies issues more than patristic ones, so I didn't directly link them. Yes, I know that is an artificial distinction, but I have to draw a line somewhere.

Thos on the Ecumenicity blog reflects on the 2nd century view of the role of bishops.

Tim Trautman on the Army of Martyrs blog discusses the development of doctrines and the Council of Nicaea.

Father Z on the What Does The Prayer Say? blog discusses St. Augustine's bones. He also has extended coverage of the Nancy Pelosi controversy.
On this blog, I discuss the irony of historical/critical scholarship.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Bob Thune on the Coram Deo blog discusses St. Clement of Rome and the lessons he learned from him. He follows up with a consideration of St. Justin Martyr's legacy.

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

David Waltz on the Articuli Fidei blog presents a brief catena on the perils of private judgement.

Dr. Keaton on the Dr. Keaton's Questionable Content blog offers a brief sampler of patristic thoughts.

Taylor Marshal on the Canterbury Tales blog offers a patristic catena against Nancy Pelosi's comments on abortion and the Fathers.

William Pelletier on the Woodside Bible Church blogs offers a patristic catena on the age of the Earth.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations

Fr. Stavrophoremonk Symeon on the Oblation blog begins a series on St. John Cassian's Conferences with parts one and two.
On this blog, I continue my series on Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin.

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha