Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Pangiotes K. Chrestiou, Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers. G. Dion. Dragas, transl.

One of the nice things about summer is that it gives me a lot of time to read, so that means that I have more books to review. The book that I'm reviewing today, Pangiotes K. Chrestiou's Greek Orthodox Patrology: An Introduction to the Study of the Church Fathers was something of a find as I was browsing the theological shelves at my wife's favourite theological library on campus. I don't often get a chance to read the Eastern Orthodox side of things, so I welcomed the chance to do so here. Eastern Orthodoxy is, after all, a rather different theological world from the Western traditions of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Yet, all three traditions (Protestantism, unfortunately, the least of these) have or are recognizing the continuity between themselves and the Fathers, so many of the questions which concern me on this blog concern the Eastern Orthodox world as well.

This book is the translation of the introductory part of Crestiou's Greek Patrology (1979) and allows us a glimpse into the Greek Orthodox view of the Fathers. I say, Greek Orthodox because the tone throughout this book is an emphasis on the importance of the Greek influence on Christianity extending even to the pre-Christian classical era (exemplified in Plato). Here we find the tradition of Moses' influence on Plato or the origin of Neoplatonism through the Christian born Ammonias cited without much comment. Both of these traditions have patristic origins, but not many Western trained academics would be willing to cite them without trying to distance themselves from them. For myself, I find both of these suggestions interesting, but I really don't know how you'd prove the connections implied.

Similarly, the section discussing the importance of Greek for the development of Christianity is striking in its implication that the only way that one can be orthodox is through the Greek tradition of the Fathers. The connection that Crestou makes between heresy and different languages is a case and point. He argues that the extension of Christian writing into different languages tended to be done by heretics, citing Tertullian, later in life a Montantist, in the case of Latin and Tatian, who started his own sect, in the case of Syriac. He doesn't note that both Tertullain and Tatian started off as orthodox and have left us orthodox writing which continue to be respected in patristic circles. I'm also curious to know how his non-Greek Orthodox coreligionists take his philohellinist position.

Another interesting element of this emphasis on the Greek tradition is an almost total neglect of both the Western and Eastern non-Greek traditions which are usually accepted as elements of most patrologies. Western writers are hardly ever mentioned and, when they are, usually they are mentioned with disapproval. Now, to an extent, this is fair enough. Given the striking ignorance of most Western Christians of Eastern Orthodoxy, a little turnabout is fair play. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, not all Western writers are out of the patristic canon in the East, so I'm not sure why these aren't mentioned. Perhaps my orthodox readers can enlightenment on this point.

The discussion of Church Fathers, while more limited geographically, is expanded in time by extending the patristic age to include the Byzantine period. This is not a common practice in the West, but it makes sense in the East because the sense of continuity with the patristic era is never really broken. Ecclesiastical writers even in the last years of the Byzantine Empire continued to see themselves very much in continuity with the Fathers in the more widely acknowledged limits of the patristic era (c.AD 70-750). The reason for the more narrow definition of the patristic era in most modern treatments appears to have been that, after St. John of Damascus, theological writers were more purely derivative and, hence, they didn't deserve the title of Church Father. I sometimes wonder if that isn't our own impoverished idea of tradition and our over-emphasis on creativity in theological writing that is blinding us. Writing in a tradition is more confining, but opportunities for originality appear when new problems are thrown at us and we struggle to figure out how to deal with them in the context of our tradition. The Hesychiast controversy in the 14th century is an excellent example of this kind of problem in Eastern Orthodox and it spawned a flowering of theological writings including St. Gregory Palamas and others who, eventually, prevailed, preserving the mystical tradition of Orthodoxy against their more rationalistic opponents. The fact that Palamas and other used the Fathers who proceeded them shouldn't change the fact that they were forced to do so differently than their predecessors had done before.

As a side note, the translation is generally a good one, but there are times when the vocabulary and style can be distracting; not so much wrong as odd. I suspect this is the survival of Hellenisms in the English, but this doesn't detract from the meaning intended.

As an overview of Greek Orthodox thinking on the Fathers, this is a book well worth reading. Be ready for the Greek slant, of course, but this is an good way to see the Fathers from a rather different angle than most of us are used to.


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Book Review: Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture?

The last few months I've been working through Baker Academic's Evangelical Ressourcement series and I've finally reached the latest book in the series, Craig D. Allert's A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon. This book is an interesting application of patristic studies to a quintessentially evangelical topic: the authority of the Bible. Or, to be more precise, the inerrancy of the Bible and the issue of verbal plenary inspiration. For those not familiar with the evangelical theological world, Dr. Allert includes a discussion of how to define that most shadowing theological sub-group, the evangelical and a good discussion of evangelical attitudes to the Bible and the process of canonization. In the course of this discussion, he reviews scholarship on the process of canonization and brings us up to date with recent scholarship on this question.

The gist of Dr. Allert's argument concerning the canon is that we can't really speak of a closed canon until the 4th century at the earliest. The arguments of Harnack and others (popular among evangelicals as well) that the canon was more or less closed by the second century can only be judged as premature because, while we can say that the books of what we recognize as the canonical writings were recognized as being peculiarly authoritative, the question of canon stayed either unasked or unanswered. Other writings retained authoritative status and the concept of a closed canon had not yet crystallized. His main point in emphasizing that this is the process of canonization was a slow one and has to be considered as an issue which the Church struggled with over, at least, three hundred years.

This latter point also emphasizes Dr. Allert's other main argument: the centrality of tradition and the Church in forming the Scripture. This is opposed to the commonly held evangelical view that the Scriptures are functionally separate from both tradition and the Church so that the proper province of interpretation was with the individual, not with the Church as a whole.

He also ends his book with an extended discussion about how this view of the canon would affect discussions and disputes about inerrancy which have plagued evangelical scholarship for some years. His contention is that the concept of inerrancy should contain within it a recognition of different genres, historical periods and other factors in order to help us interpret it more effectively. He argues that this should be considered consistent with the concept of inerrancy suggested in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Evangelicalism (a recognized, if not universally recognized, standard agreed upon in 1978).

While I characterize myself as an evangelical Anglican, I must admit that I really don't have a dog in this fight. The kind of rigourous inerrancy which Dr. Allert addresses in this book is not a part of my experience, except in a few encounters on internet bulletin boards. Dr. Allert's form of inerrancy makes better sense to me, although I would also fight shy of the term to avoid misunderstandings. Clearly, the Scriptures are authoritative, but equally clearly we need to interpret them. Furthermore, I also agree strongly with Dr. Allert that it is one of the peculiar jobs of the Church to interpret Scripture and help its parishioners to do so. I've seen what can happen when we try to interpret the Bible without the aid of the wisdom of the Church and it ain't pretty. Still, I do have a couple of caveats about this book.

First, I wonder if we aren't over-defining the term, canon. In canon studies, as presented by Dr. Allert, the term seems to be rather closely defined as a closed-canon. That is, a set of books to which none can be added or subtracted. Yet, as Dr. Allert points out several times, the Greek term canon wasn't not ever used this way, but rather seemed to apply to a set of something (anything, it seems). This makes me wonder if we aren't trying to impose a modern understanding of canon (the closed- canon) on a period when this was not understood. What I wonder is whether there is any contradiction about talking about the second century as producing a partially open canon. This, it seems fits the evidence and respects the idea that the canon wasn't really fixed until later. I wonder if our obsession with canon hasn't caused a distortion right off the bat- a distortion which, despite an effort to avoid it, is reflected in Dr. Allert's argument.

A second concern is Dr. Allert's use of the term, Scripture which is used as a middle term between strict canon and any old Christian writing. Dr. Allert defines Scriptures as being any writing quoted by a later Christian author. I wonder about this because I'm not sure it is sufficiently nuanced. I would add that it would be a writing considered in some way as authoritative. This keeps the door open to writings which were to become non-canonical, but were considered authoritative in some way. In that sense, the process of canonization may be considered to be a sorting of Christian writings into levels of authority, not just restricting what books may be read and how.

A last concern is a more technical one. On pp.153-5, Dr. Allert discusses the use of the term theopneustos in 2nd Timothy 3,16, common translated as 'God-breathed' or 'inspired by God'. The context of this discussion is Dr. Allert's argument against verbal plenary inspiration in which he argues that the Bible doesn't have a clear concept of inspiration. The use of this term in 2nd Timothy, it is argued, gives evidence for just that concept, but Dr. Allert disputes this assumption. He argues that this term is unclear because it is only attested once in the New Testament, so it is difficult to know just what was meant here. He further argues that attempts to use its etymology to elucidate that meaning can be misleading because the etymological origins of a word may be very different from the eventual meanings assigned to that word. This is true, but I don't think that we are as resourceless as Dr. Allert assume we are. After all, pneuma and its cognates (like theopneustos) are well attested in both Christian and pagan literature. The fact is that inspiration is a common meaning for pneuma and its cognates even in pagan literature, so the common translation of 'inspired by God' isn't that outlandish.

These flaws are perhaps understandable, given Dr. Allert's concern to challenge evangelical thinking on the Bible nor do should they cause this book to be discredited. Dr. Allert's book is an excellent discussion of the issue of canonization and an excellent application of patristic thinking to contemporary debates within evangelicalism.


Sunday, July 20, 2008

Patrology Online- Wrapup

Many, many thanks to those of you who took time to answer my questions on the state of patrology online. I was very pleased with the wide range of answers (some expected and some not)and the thoughtfulness behind them. There is a lot in them that we all should be reflecting on as we consider what we can contribute to the study of patristics online. That was one reason why I thought it would be helpful to ask the questions I did. Periodic group reflection, I think, can be very helpful.

Of course, I had another ulterior motive. Since the summer began, I've been trying to figure out where I can contribute to the patristics world. I am, as I've noted several times on this blog, an amateur (I hope in its true sense) in patristics and an autodidact while I'm at it. This isn't my day job, so my time for patristic study and writing is strictly limited. Detailed academic study just isn't in the cards for me because I neither have the time or the connections or the qualifications to write scholarly tomes. There is also the legitimate question about whether this is my gift or not. So, I really have to consider carefully where my gifts are and what I can do, given my time constraints and abilities.

With that in mind, here are my thoughts of where we are in the patristic field on line and where my thinking is about my own possible contribution.

First, where we are. A lot of work has been already done on making translations of major and many minor patristic writers available online. The result is that we frequently have multiple versions on these writers online and it is difficult to find an author in the main group of Fathers who does not have, at least, some of his writings online. The quality of the translations vary, but, usually, they're sound, if, often, somewhat dated in their style. This is, of course, one of the results of using older works whose copyright protection has lapsed. Usually, this isn't an issue, given that most people interested in the Fathers tend to be highly literate and able to handle the occasionally complicated prose of these translations. I do worry sometimes because I know the difficulties that my students in Classical Civilization have with translations of the same era and that this can be a barrier to some people from reading these very beneficial texts. This problem is slowly being remedied with various translations projects.

Texts are similarly in good shape, if not quite as good as translations. Latin texts are excellent, with most major Latin authors online. Greek is lagging slightly behind because it has taken time to regularize the posting of different scripts online. Still, Greeks texts are appearing increasingly and, if we could get away from the PDF problem alluded to by several commentators on last week's post, we'll make more progress. My impression of non-classical languages is that next to nothing is online, but, honestly, I really don't know the state of collections of texts for these languages.

Secondary literature and interpretation is lagging a bit, but is starting to catch up. Access to journals is potentially improving, but, usually, these are locked up in university databases which are increasingly, for copyright purposes, being restricted to members of those academic communities. If you can get an alumni access to a university library, it is probably at this stage worth the money, if you are an amateur. I note that tools for interpreting these texts are lagging behind, although one can use classics linguistic tools in a pinch.

Discussion and interaction online is also improving. The emergence of patristic blogging has helped the exchange of ideas and dissemination of news. This has been very helpful and I hope will improve over time.

So, that leads me to wonder what I can do to contribute to this work?

My opinion about this changes from day to day, but here is what I'm wondering. I'm thinking of the idea of an online patristic community along the lines of eLatin eGreek, eLearn which would eventually include explanations of what patristics is, reference resources to aid in the reading of the Fathers, links to texts and translations, discussion fora and whatever else we can come up with.

This is, of course, an extremely ambitious project and there is no question that I could do this alone. Where I see my talents coming into play is in creating and/or facilitating the creation of dictionaries, linguistic resources and, possibly, commentaries to aid in the understanding of patrisic texts. Clearly, this will not appear all at once, but there are engines for creating online communities and we could start relatively quickly.

So, as before, what do you think? I'm not committing to anything because I know that I need a lot more time to think and about how much time and energy I have and whether this is a good use of it. So, I'll ask for your prayers and your thoughts.


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Patristics Carnival XIV- Call for Submissions

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XIV. 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 July 31st and the postings will be up by the week of August 4th. .

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


Sunday, July 13, 2008

Patrology Online: What's Good and What Still Needs to be Done?

I was thinking I might try a change of pace this week. Instead of one of my essays, I want to hear from my readers on two basic questions. You can either answer in the comments or, if you like, write on it on your own blog. Just send me the link, if you chose the latter option.

Question #1:
What is the best site or resource online for the study of Patristics?

That is, what is that you find most useful for your reading of the Fathers? This could be anything from sites for texts, translations, background information or whatever, so long as it is patristic related.

Question #2:
What still needs to done in patristics online?

That is, what would you like to see added? Do we need more reference works (a new patrology on the lines of DIR (de imperatoribus romanis? Or what texts do we need translated (Photius' Biblioteca)? Or something else.

Let me know what you think.


Sunday, July 06, 2008

Origen, On Prayer 5-9

Our Origen series continues with a discussion on whether it makes sense to pray. Our online text starts at section three and continues to section four. As usual, I continue to use my St. Vladimir press text.

Here Origen is dealing with the question of whether prayer is superfluous or not. That is, certainly anyone can pray, but is God listening. This is, of course, a very contemporary issue which continues to be debated even within Christian circles. Origen rightly refuses to debate those who deny both God and providence because recognizes that there is really no common ground that would allow such a discussion to go forward. Of course, someone denying God will say that prayer is useless. If one makes that assumption, how could prayer have any use?

Instead, Origen affirms that he is addressing those who accept the existence of both providence and God, but set providence over God to the point that they'll argue that there is no point in prayer because God has already decided what He's going do anyways. So, we should just get over asking and accept what comes our way.

Of course, we moderns may be surprised at seeing evidence of such a position this yearly in the life of the Church. Normally, we would identify this position with some distortions of Calvinism that we've seen from time to time. While John Calvin didn't hold such a preposterous position, the concept of double predestination can present a theological bind which can be misinterpreted into exactly this kind of denial of the efficacy of prayer. There are people who think about prayer and wonder why bother?

Origen's answer is similarly familiar. He answers the argument by affirming the importance of free will without, necessarily, denying providence. His answer is to affirm that the 'rational' soul of the human has free will, but that God, being omniscient, has foreknowledge of all our free will decisions. Using this foreknowledge, he arranges these decisions in order to build up his ordering of the world. In a sense, what he's saying is that we all have free will, but God, because of his foreknowledge, already knows how to arrange things to the good of His Kingdom. In that sense, His foreknowledge is not the cause of action, but the response to it.

The impact on prayer is that, according to Origen, God already knows in what spirit we pray before we do. If we prayer 'foolishly' or perhaps, better, selfishly, God will disregard that prayer. He will not, in a sense, decide to use it in his ordering of the Kingdom. Similarly, if he prays wisely (that is, with a view to the good of others or of the Kingdom), God will listen to that prayer and use it to build up his ordering of the world.

Now, as a theological answer, this still feels incomplete, but, strictly speaking, my concern in this series isn't so much the theological details (this is, after all, only part way through Origen's discussion of prayer), but rather on how it relates to the real practice of prayer. It is on that level that I want to continue our discussion.

What Origen is setting out here is one of the several obstacles to prayer which is, I think, why it seems as alive an issue today as it did in the third century A.D. We humans have an amazing capacity to find reasons to distance God from us and this is yet another example.

To be very honest, I find this particular obstacle a tempting one. I struggle with a concept of a remote God who doesn't really intervene in the world around me, so prayer does sometimes seem a futile endeavor. Early on, in my vaguely theist days, I was very much tempted by the classic deist image of the "Great Watchmaker' who sets into motion this clockwork universe and stands back to watch it go. Here God is rational, coolly uninvolved with absolutely no stake in what goes on in this universe. His creation of the world was merely an act of skill and superior knowledge. This is not a God to worship or to prayer to. This is a God whose handiwork we can admire, but nothing more. For a long time, this was the God I recognized.

What is more, I can see why I held this concept of God. I wasn't really ready to dismiss God altogether because I think I did have a sense of this universe hanging together rather too coherently to be an accident. This was a belief in providence of a kind. Yet, I couldn't really see how God could be personal or involved in the world-much less me. And, I have to admit, that this deistic God was much more convenient- He didn't tell me what to do or how to be and whatever I did either didn't matter in the grand scheme of thing or was the way He made it to be. That is a real lift of responsibility and is alluring, if only from that point of view.

I also found out I was wrong. God has worked in my life in very particular ways and in ways that convince me not only that God cares about this messed up world, but that he is working to redeem it- and me- as we speak. God does have an annoying way of breaking into one's life when one least expects it and thank God he does. I know all too well how well I do when I try to take control of my life without God, without prayer. And it isn't pretty.

What Origen here is offering us is a way out of this particular objection to prayer. In that sense, his theology matters, even with the odd bit about the sun and stars having a will (testimony to ancient scientific and philosophical assumptions, but not particularly germane to our discussions here). Yet, the spiritual trap implied in this objection to prayer remains ever-present.


Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Patristic Carnival XIII is up!

Tim has put up Patristic Carnival XIII. It was a bumper month in Patristic land and Tim has worked very hard to get the whole plethora of blog entries. Enjoy!