Saturday, October 25, 2008

Why Heresy Matters.

A few weeks back, as I reflected on the comments for my entry on Hunting Heresy in the Fathers, I realized that I was opening myself up to the criticism that I was denigrating the importance of heresy by critisizing those who were trying to identify heresy where they find it. I don't think I was, but I wondered if I needed to do a companion piece on why it was important that we identify and, if necessary, confront heresy.

Heresy hunting has, of course, a bit of a bad name. Many people tend to remember heresy trials throughout history and the frequently grim executions which resulted from these proceedings. This kind of thing is exactly the kind of thing that anti-religious people like to mention when they're trying to argue why religion has been the author of oppression and violence over the ages. Nor are they entirely wrong because I honestly think that these trials were un-Christian, although I really wish that these critics would remember that the executions were the state's job and, while the Church can and should be critisized for colluding in the trials and for endorsing the use of violence, the state bears a responsibility in this oppression and violence which is only rarely acknowledged.

What is more, there has been something of a linguistic shift in the last few decades in the use of the word heresy. There was a time, not so long ago, that calling someone a heretic was fightin' words. It was, at any rate, an insult. Yet, these days, a lot of people call themselves heretics because they see this as evidence of the independence of their minds. Orthodoxy is seen as too narrow and oppressive, so heresy is fresh and pleasantly unique. In that sense, heresy is an exciting eccentricity, nothing more.

So, all this begs the question of why we should bother with heresy in this day and age. Either we risk being seen as a cold-hearted oppressor or as a narrow-minded kill-joy. So, why should we as Christians care about heresy? Surely, this isn't about keeping a clipboard with all the things we need to believe to check off as we listen to each other?

At the end of the day, dealing with heresy is about how our beliefs affect how we relate to God. This is something that the Fathers themselves realized. We all know that St. Athanasius critisized Arianism based on its soteriological implications: the effect of making the Word/Son a creature is that it removes our mediator with God and the benefits of the resurrection (especially with the doctrine of recapitulation which is so characteristic of eastern theology of the period). St. Augustine critisized Pelagianism because of its tendency towards perfectionism. St. Irenaeus critisized Gnosticism because of its spiritual elitism and dualism. The Fathers didn't stand around with a clipboard to tick off the spiritual faux pas of their followers, but they were ardently concerned with the spiritual health of those under their spiritual care. If heresy is a distortion, a disease affecting our perception of God, surely we should diagnose the problem and try to treat it.

Heresy distorts our image of God and that is the source of this problem which heresy engenders. I know, in my own life, that my affinity to Deism- the 18th century heresy that God created the world, but no longer directly intervenes in His Creation- was a stumbling block for a very long. At the root of my sympathy to this heresy was a tendency to see God as remote to my life and a willingness that this remoteness continue. By God's grace, I learned about a God who was involved in the world and was actively redeeming it from the mess that we've made of it. I learned about a God who cares about me and who actively redeems my life from the various mistakes that I've made in my life. From this perspective, Deism strikes me as being a barrier to a stronger relationship with God.

That is, of course, a very personal example, but I think it is no less valid because of that. Part of the Christian life is to seek closeness to God, so anything which prevents that is something we need to deal with- lovingly and gently, but firmly. Ignoring it would be spiritually harmful which would be inimical to Christian discipleship.


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Patristic Carnival XVII- Call for Submissions

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XVII. This month, the carnival is at Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength this month.

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

The last day of submission will be October 30 and the postings will be up by the week of November 6th. .

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


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Mike Aquilina, Signs and Mysteries. Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols

This is Mike Aquilina's, author of several popular patristics books like The Way of the Fathers, The Fathers of the Church and The Mass of the Early Church. , most recent offering and it is an excellent one. He is also the author of The Way of the Fathers blog- the sine qua non of patristic blogs. In Signs and Mysteries. Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols, Aquilina combines his interest in the Fathers with his fascination- demonstrated on his blog- with early Christian material culture. The combination in this book produces a unique resource and one which I would heartily recommend anyone, Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, purchase for their own libraries.

The format of the book focuses on chapters dealing with the images themselves; twenty-five all told in addition to one background chapter. Each chapter works out the origin of each image, considers the Scriptural connection, highlights what the symbol means in a Christian context, discusses notable artifacts employing the symbol and cites patristic and modern writers who explain the symbol. Just as importantly, Aquilina's superb illustrator, Marie Ravotti, has provided illustrations of many of these notable artifacts so that the reader can see as well as read about the symbols as they were employed in the early Church. The combination of text and image gives us an excellent resource for unlocking the common stock of Christian symbols which is the inheritance of all Christians.

Aquilina's writing is, as usual, lucid and easy to read. This is a hallmark of Aquilina's books which combine an easy-to-read style with careful thought and testing of the evidence. Aquilina rarely goes past the evidence and is careful, in this book, to note when an image could be ambiguous (used by more than just Christians) so that the reader will not make the elementary error of mis-identifying the use of, say, the ankh in a non-Christian context. Or we hope. Experts have made such errors as well.

Aquilina's main aim in this book was to create a symbology- a kind of key to the 'language' of Christian symbols and how they connect to our faith. This is a crucial task in our post-Christian environment in North America, where knowledge of the Bible and Christian symbols is minimal even among many believers, so many Christians wouldn't know a Christian symbol or what it means if it came out and bit them. Yet, we find ourselves in the West in the very peculiar position of being surrounded by Christian symbolism which has been disconnected from its original context and is in danger of being reduced to a kind of post-modern chaos of images and art. If we Christians want to reclaim our tradition, we have to learn again the symbolic 'language' of our art and literature. We need to remember that our Christian faith hasn't emerged fully formed out of God's forehead, but rather is the result of centuries of reflection, written and non-written, on the truth of our faith. Signs and Mysteries is an excellent resource in unpacking the meaning of this reflection.

This concern with symbology also warms my heart because it connects with my own theological sensibilities. One of the major influence on my theological thinking was a book I read several years ago: George Lindbeck's, The Nature of Doctrine. In that book, Lindbeck emphasizes the importance of doctrine as a 'grammar of faith'. That is, he argues that doctrine helps us speak about our faith intelligibly and meaningfully because it provides for us the 'language' of how to speak about God. Aquilina's book helps us with that grammar and connects it to the visual realm as well as the written. This is what makes it such a useful resource.

I heartily recommend this book for anyone interested in deepening their understanding of the 'language' of our faith. The language, I grant, has a Roman Catholic lilt to it, but not in such a way as to make it unintelligible to the Eastern Orthodox or Protestant reader. In fact, I plan to purchase a copy for the church library at the Anglican church I attend. It is too valuable a resource not to spread around a bit.


Friday, October 10, 2008

Patristics Carnival XVI- September, 2008

Well, it's finally done. Patristics Carnival XVI! Enjoy!

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

Nothing this month

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

malcolmxyz on the From The Outside In blog reflects on St. Ephraim, ecumenism and 'evil-doers' in an interesting application of a patristic author to a contemporary problem.

Weekend Fisher on the Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength blog discusses anniversary offerings for the dead in Augustine's Confessions.

indignus on the Scriptorium blog reviews the various web and live response to Nancy Pelosi's comments on abortion and the Fathers.

matthew on Matthew's Random Rantings looks back at the stages of his encounter with patristic authors over the last few years.

Sam Harrelson on his self-named blog speculates about what would have happened if Constantine had converted to Judaism rather than Christianity. He also reflects on the impact that the persecutions had on Christian identity.

VoxClamantis on the Fish Eater's Forum posts an interesting analysis of St. Augustine's complex attitude to women, written by Maureen McCew. I don't usually include re-postings of articles, but this one is definately worth reading!

Joseph Walker on the felix hominum blog reflects on St. Cyprian's Unity of the Church, with an eye to the Anglican ecclesial 'Time of Troubles' in several parts- Intro, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6 and part 7. The series actually started in late August and I missed it, but this is a must-read not only for Anglicans, but for all those who love the Church.

Damon on the How2BecomeChristian blog reviews the Mormon (mis-)use of the patristic concept of deification.

Paul Cat on the Alive and Young blog posts an activity connecting Scripture and the Nicene Creed for his Grade 8 Religion class.

Alex on the Your Own Personal Jesus blog reflects on St. Athanasius's On the Incarnation from an evangelical standpoint.

Eric Sowell on the Archaic Christianity blog reacts to some of the offerings from the last Patristic Carnival (XV) dealing with the canon, reflects on reading John's Protoevangelon in Greek, considers anti-Marcionite prefaces to Latin Bibles,

northwestsemitic on The Reformed Reader blog considers whether the Fathers are relevant to contemporary Biblical Studies in the view of Gerald Bray's book, Out of Egypt.

Ron Corson on the Adventist Media Response and Conversation blog reflects on Origen's theological legacy from an Adventist point of view.

Macrina on the Vow of Conversation blog reports on a conference dealing with St. Cyprian recently held in Amsterdam.

R. Scott Clark on the Heidleblog considers whether there was an apostolic hermeneutic of Scripture and whether we can imitate it. And I like the name of the blog.

Edward Moore on the Musings of a Christian Platonist blog considers patristic discussions about the Creator from a Platonist perspective.

Eastcoastdweller on the In Search of Isis blog meditates on the Didache and Martyrdom of Polycarp, with some reservations.

Father Ernesto Obregón on the OrthoCuban blog considers Scripture, Tradition and the Ecumenical Councils.

TurretinFan on the Thoughts of Francis Turretin considers the suppressed 'patristic' texts at Nicaea II.

Albert M. on the Labarum blog considers Nicaea II and the suppression of iconclast texts in response to the preceding blog entry.

John Uebersax on the Catholic Gnosis blog considers patristic psychology and its possible applications to how to quit smoking.

Peter Head on the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog takes notes on the Shepherd of Hermas

David Waltz on the Articuli Fidei blog considers soteriology in the Fathers.

Scott Bosse on The Pope Podcast blog outlines the life of Pope Victor I.

Roger Pearse on his self-named blog considers claims that 1000 Christian Arabic manuscripts were destroyed in World War II.

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog muses on rock music's patristic expert, Dion and discusses the authenticity of recent discovered Augustine sermons.

Philip Sumpter on the Narrative and Ontology blog discusses the patristic contribution of Andrew Louth, considered canon and the 'history of religion' and analyzed allegory and the problem of 'history'.

Tim Trautman on the Army of the Martyrs blog discusses apostolic succession and authority, considers Augustine's views on sacrifice and the martyrs and argues that heretical doctrines don't develop.

Polycarp on The Church of Jesus Christ blog discusses Justin Martyr (amongst others) and the scandal of factionalism in today's churches, considers Vincent of Lerins and why the Church determines interpretation of Scripture (from a Protestant slant), discusses why the Church is apostolic in three parts (part 1, part 2, part 3), discusses my posting on heresy hunting in the Fathers.

On this blog, I discuss the practice of hunting for heresies in the Church Fathers.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews

Nick Norelli on The Rightly Dividing the Truth blog provides an extensive review of John Anthony McGuckin's, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology

Kevin Edgecomb on the biblicalia blog reviews Mike Aquilina's new book, Signs and Mysteries. Revealing Ancient Christian Symbols. I still owe my review, forthcoming in the next month.

Jeff Miller on the Curt Jester blog reviews Mike Aquilina's new book, Signs and Mysteries.

Eric Sowell reviews Bart Ehrman's Lost Christianities.

On this blog, I review Mark Husband's and Jeffrey Greenman's collection of papers from the Wheaton Theology Conference in 2007, Ancient Faith for the Church's Future

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Stu on the What Matters to Me blog discusses the martyrdom of St. Polycarp.

Father Check on the Seek His Face blog discusses St. Jerome on the occasion of his memorial.

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

Polycarp on The Church of Jesus Christ blog features a refreshing patristic catena on modesty. It isn't just for women anymore.

mattymojo on the Uncle Matt's Discoveries offers a patristic catena on reincarnation, representing both pro and con sides.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations

On this blog, I translate another installment of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin.

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Nothing this month.

Well, that's about it for this month. Look for Patristics Carnival XVI over at Heart, Mind, Soul and Strength!