Monday, January 26, 2009

Sulpicius Severus, Life of St. Martin 25


Since we had heard about his faith, life and virtue at that time and we burned with desire for (meeting) him, we took up the pleasing journey to meet him. At the same time, since our heart was burning to write his life, we sought to learn in part from him how much as he could be asked and we learned in part from those were with him and knew him. (2) In fact, at that time, it was not possible to be believe with what humility, with what kindness he received us. He congratulated us very much and rejoiced in the Lord because he was held so important by us, for whom we took up a journey and sought him. (3) Miserable me- I almost don't dare to confess it- when he thought me worthy to invite us to his holy banquet, he himself brought water for our hands. In the evening, he himself washed our feet for us. Nor did we have the firmness to struggle against and oppose him. In this way, I was overcome by his authority so that I thought it wrong, if I would not have given in. (4) His conversation with me was about nothing else than the necessity to give up the allurements of the world and secular burdens so that, free and unencumbered, we would follow the Lord Jesus. He threw in the most outstanding example of that man, Paulinus, famous to us in the present time about whom we made mention above, who after casting aside the greatest wealth and following Jesus, he almost alone in his times, fulfilled the precepts of the Gospel. (5) It was he who we must follow, it was he, he shouted, who must be imitated: and that the present time was blessed with the proof of such great faith and virtue, when a rich man, who possessed much, by selling everything and giving it to the poor, made possible by his example what was impossible to achieve. (6) Truly, how so much gravity was there in his words and conversation! How great was his dignity? How acute, how effective, how ready and easy was he in solving scriptural questions! Since I know many don't believe at this point- obviously I have seen those who do not believe me when I report these things, I call on Jesus and our common hope to witness that I had never heard about such great skill, such good and pure conversation from that lips of anyone. (8) How trifling this praise is in comparison to Martin's virtues, save only that it was astonishing for an illiterate man that he did not lack this gift.


With this section, we're beginning the home stretch for this Life. Just as in classical biographies, Sulpicius is finishing his hagiography with a consideration of the character of his subject. What is more, in this chapter, he is reinforcing his claim for special authority in the Life of St. Martin by emphasizing his personal meeting with St. Martin. Given that historians and biographers gave special authority to eye-witnesses and personal autopsy, Sulpicius' discussion of his meeting with St. Martin and his community is a significant one. It suggests that those who wish to scoff at the details of his Life of St. Martin are on weak ground because Sulpicius has good evidence for what he has already spoken about. Given his frequent references to his sources, all this chapter does is make this claim explicit.

In St. Martin's behavior to Sulpicius, we find the familiar pattern of Martin's identification with Jesus which is so complete that the Jesus who is in Martin causes him to act in imitation of Him. Thus, we see him serving Sulpicius and washing his feet. Similarly, we find him a formidable exegete, even though he is illiterate. In St. Martin, we find a person who has connected with God inwardly to such a degree, that he begins to echo him outwardly which, I think, is the point of the scriptural parallels in the stories about St. Martin in this life.

The Paulinus mentioned in this passage is likely St. Paulinus of Nola, who, after the death of his son, was baptized and began to distribute his extensive fortune around 390 AD. This decision was widely acclaimed, especially in Western monastic circles. He was later ordained bishop of Nola around 403 AD and corresponded with such Christian leaders as St. Martin, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. The tone of this passage would seem to suggest an early date in Paulinus' life, so, perhaps the early 390s. This would establish Sulpicius' visit with St. Martin as occuring around then.

Part of me would like to stop there with this chronological point, but I think that would be ignoring the elephant in the room right now: both St. Paulinus' giving away of his worldly goods and St. Martin's approval. I think it important to plumb the depths of what makes me uncomfortable. After all, we're not talking about just tithing ten per cent here (which I'm not sure we're quite doing yet) or that we are stewards for what God has put in our hands (but we DO get to enjoy it while we're alive, don't we, Lord?), but the simple and literal obedience to Jesus' advice to the rich young ruler to give away all that he has and follow Jesus. Now, that is scary, especially to someone who lives in a highly consumerist society like ours. Examples like St. Paulinus or St. Martin or even modern monastics make me want to look for loopholes and ways of saying that I can get away with more possessions than I need. What I wish for is someone to reassure me that I can be rich (and as someone living in Canada in comparison to most of the rest of the world, I'm rich) and somehow obey Jesus on this point.

What I would like is to know how much is enough to take care of my family and how much is too much. I really don't know. Living in Toronto is expensive and we're on one income right now. Yet, I want things-books mostly, but other things: a nice house, a car, all the accoutrement's of suburban life-, so I don't know how to decide what is needed and what is not. Examples such as St. Paulinus and St. Martin don't let me get away with easy answers. I'm just not sure what to do with the hard answers.


Saturday, January 24, 2009

Patristic Carnival XX- Call for Submissions

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XX. This month, we're back here at hyperekperissou.

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 January 31st and the postings will be up by the week of February 10th. .

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


Friday, January 16, 2009

Why Christians can't leave history alone?

This week, April DeConick has been reflecting on the different projects of theology and history. That is, theology "attempts to take old authoritative texts and read them doctrinally, with the big question at stake: what does this text say to me about my life as a Christian?", while history is a "pursuit that wants to know what happened in the past". That is, true enough. The concerns of theology and history as fields of studies are different and, if only for clarity, we need to remember this.

Yet, what interests me about this post is Dr. DeConick's perplexed reaction to the Christian practice of treating such things as the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus and the miracles of Jesus as historical fact. Again, one can sympathize with this perplexity because all three of these are, historically speaking, pretty improbable events. History, especially ancient history, rests firmly on assessing the probable reconstructions of past events, so improbability tends to disturb historians and cause them discomfort. To me, this demonstrates the limits of history and of human understanding, but doesn't necessarily rule out the action of God which can and, traditional Christianity would claim, did act exceedingly improbably, if there was a need. I don't think this will comfort Dr. DeConick because this really isn't a historical statement, but rather a theological one.

Ultimately, my intention with this post isn't to argue with Dr. DeConick or anyone else about the priority of history over theology when reading the various canonical and non-canonical Gospels. I recognize that the intellectual honesty of many historians who argue against the priority of canonical over non-canonical texts in explaining early Christianity. While I disagree with them, I hope that I'm aware of when I've placed myself on a historical/theological limb in claiming such events as the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus as historical events; that is, events which actually happened pretty much in the way that the canonical gospels lay out. My historical proofs for these 'absurd' claims are flimsy at best, but, ultimately, it comes down to trusting these canonical sources not just as theological sources, but as historical ones. That may strike many of my readers as hopelessly naive, but, ultimately, as I've discovered in my apprenticeship in Classics, many decisions around historical reconstruction are based on how far do you trust this or that source. One's answer to that question will determine what version or versions one is likely to use as the basis for one's reconstructions. In the case of the canonical vs. non-canonical materials, Dr. DeConick and I disagree, so, as a result, our reconstructions differ. I can live with that because I really don't know how to adjudicate between these different reconstructions.

Yet, that begs the question of why can't Christian theologians just mind their own business and leave historians to do the history of early Christianity. Let history and theology do their own things. My answer to this question is that traditional Christian theology cannot abandon history because the notion that God intervenes in history is central to its theology ; first in the history of Israel, second, in the life of Jesus and, third, in the life of the church. Christians cannot divorce history from theology for the simple reason that their whole theological system falls apart if they do.

Take the doctrine of the Incarnation as an example. Now, here is an exceedingly improbable event: the God of the universe, somehow, becomes a human baby and spends a short lifetime as a human before being executed in a particularly nasty way. Never mind such mundane supernatural events as the virgin birth, how is this supposed to work historically? When has this happened before? Never. Which is rather the point, isn't it. This is a one-off and dramatic personal intervention of God into the world, designed to start putting it to rights. Sure, there will be a followup, but that just hasn't happened yet. So, how are we supposed to talk about a historical parallel or about historical probability. Yet, this is crucial to explain how God is putting the world to rights again and in explaining God's plan to save humanity and Creation. Ultimately, without an incarnation of God into historical time, there can be no resurrection and, without a resurrection, as Paul notes, our hope is in vain.

I have, of course, opened myself to the criticism that, just because something is theologically necessary, doesn't make it historically so. That is correct, but what I was trying to demonstrate wasn't the historical truth of the Incarnation in such a way that non-Christian scholars will acknowledge it, but rather why Christians simply cannot accept the divorce of theology and history which Dr. DeConick (and others beside her) recommend. Yes, Christians (and not just contemporary ones either) make historical claims which are exceedingly hard to prove. Yes, sometimes Christians overstate their claim. But, ultimately, asking Christians to accept this divorce is asking them to change their theology, not just their history, which is asking rather too much.

In this sense, whether Dr. DeConick realizes it or not, the suggested divorce of theology and history isn't a theologically neutral statement. That is, while I certainly agree that both Christian and non-Christian historians have to respect the same rules of evidence and rigourous historical method, a demand to separate theology and history is a demand to deny one's own spirituality. Respectfully, I decline to do that because I cannot afford the spiritual damage which I know will follow. That, I agree, isn't going to impress secular scholars, but I hope they will understand that what they are asking for something that Christians cannot do; set aside a search for God working in history.

So, ultimately, the answer to the question in my subject line- why Christians can't leave history alone?- is quite simple- they can't. Too much rides on a God who works in history. That is theology, of course, but, I am bold to say, it is also history.


NB: I've gone through and cleaned up some of the language in this entry which was written rather too hastily and edited rather too little. If I've missed any errors, let me know. (19/01/09)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Patristic Carnival XIX- December, 2008

Happy New Year and welcome to Patristics Carnival XIX. I hope all of you had a blessed Advent and Christmas season and as we move into the Epiphany season, let's look at the last month's patristic offerings.

New Under the Tent: New Patristic Blogs And Announcements.

Michael Bird on the Euangelion blog announces the Call for Papers of the Second British National Patristic Conference.

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

greg on the Philosophia blog deals with some answers about some basic questions about the Fathers.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog features a Christmas reflection.

Roger Pearse on his self-named blog discusses some of the legends around what the Chronicon Pascale says.

Lindsay on the Female Impersonator blog discusses how difficult it is to dis-entangle patristic insights from their male-gendered language about God and follows up with a post musing on what not using father-son language for God would look like.

Thos on the Ecumenicity blog analyzes the dispute over the date for Easter between Polycrates of Ephesus and Pope Victor I as indicative of orthodox-catholic controversial debate.

XRSe on the tantricmagus blog features an essay by Christopher Etter on non-violence in the early Church.

VC on the Synodos blog considers, in part three of a series, St. Ignatius' views on Real Prescence in the Eucharist.

David Jensen on itsjustdave's Catholic Blog considers St. Maximus Confessor's views on the primacy of Rome.

Justin Richter on The Way into a Far Country blog considers whether the Church Fathers' opinion on justification really matters, discusses St. John Chrysosthom's view of justification,

David on the He Lives blog considers the millenial 'day' and Adam's death according to the Fathers.

Drake on The Weight of Glory blog considers tradition and Scripture.

Father Matthew Jackson on the priestmatthewjackson blog offers a sermon on the occasion of the Orthodox Feast of the Holy Forefathers.

The Blog which is all about the RCiA features a discussion of the patristic basis for mystagogy and its application in today's Catholic Church.

Polycarp on The Church of Jesus Christ blog continues his discussion of Tertullian's On Modesty with parts VII, VIII and IX.

Beth B on the Luke 10:27 blog considers monoergism, Presbyterians and the Eastern Orthodox.

mlcullwell on the John 1:1 blog discusses the Early Church, the Trinity and the Oneness Myth.

Rick Brannon on ricoblog considers some parallels beween First Timothy and the Similitudes in the Shepherd of Hermas.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews

Steve on Triablogue considers some contradictions of the Catholic concept of unanimous consent of the Fathers as the basis of an authoritative argument.

Evan on the clavi non defixi blog gives a list of books included in the Centre for Early Christian Studies' (Australia's premier department for things patristic) series on the Fathers.

Pr. Stephan on the Patristica blog features a review of J. . Petruccione (ed.), Nova et Vetera. Patristic Studies in Honor of Thomas Patrick Halton

Reformed Reader on the Reformed Reader blog features a review of M.W. Holmes' edition of the Apostolic Fathers.

Rich Leonardi on the Ten Reasons blog offers a brief review of Pope Benedict's book on the Fathers.

Erma on the Christian Books: Church History blog reviews Robert Webber's Ancient-Future Worship: Proclaiming and Enacting God's Narrative .

Nick Norelli on the Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth blog reviews Edward R. Hardy's Christology of the Later Fathers.

Eric Sowell on the Archaic Christianity blog considers the first chapters of Ramsey MacMullen's Voting About God in the Early Church Councils, considers St. Augustine's views on the Seputagint,

Kevin Edgecomb on the biblicalia blog reviews the second edition of Frank Williams' translation of the first book of the Panarion of Epiphanes of Salamis.

Tim Trautman on the Army of Martyrs blog reviews Henry Chadwick's, The Early Church.

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

No items this month.

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

The NT Administrator on the Nicene Truth blog offers a patristic catena of pre-Augustinian Marian citations.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations and Summaries

Seumas MacDonald on the Compliant Subversity blog features a summary of Tertullian's Trinitarian work, Against Praxeas, a summary of Novatian's de trinitate,

The Celesital Fundie on The Patristic Page blog features a translation of Theodore of Mopsuestia's Commentary on the Nicene Creed (translated by Alphonse Mangani)

On this blog, I feature the next installment of Sulpicius Severus' Life of St. Martin.

The Talmudic Tabernacle: Christianity and Judaism in the Ancient World

Kevin Edgecomb on the biblicalia blog continues his series on Jacob Neusner's Oral Torah with parts 13, 14 and the epilogue.

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Tony Chartrand-Burke on the Apocryphicity reports on the Secret Mark session at the SBL.

April DeConick on The Forbidden Gospel blog reflects on the Judas forum at SBL, on a 'Judas' gem, discusses the dating of ancient sources, and discusses an article she wrote on Valentinian sex.

That's it for the patristic month that was. If you can be a host for the next carnival, let me know.