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.