Sunday, June 28, 2009

Book Review: Euan Cameron, Interpreting Christian History. The Challenge of the Churches' Past

I ran into this book rather by chance, as I was scanning the shelves at my theological library of choice. I think that there are, at least, two things that have just marked me as a historical geek in that statement, I know, but I am a sucker for historiographical discussions. I am even more of a sucker for attempts to figure out what it means to be a Christian historian. I have, of course, written on the subject and it is never very far in my writing. I am, in my heart, a historian, but one who is trying to figure out how to write history from a Christian worldview. There have been people on this blog who have argued that it is impossible to do (either you are a theologian or a historian, not both), but I strongly suspect that that is a unnecessary narrowness of vision. Euan Cameron's book is an attempt to confront these same issues and this is what interested me in it.

Dr. Cameron's book, after a short introduction in which he outlines his project, breaks into four sections. First, he gives a very quick outline of church history. He follows this section with a discussion of key approaches to church history, especially on the issue of change and diversity, over the ages from Eusebius to post-modern approaches. All this is followed by a section which review attempts at a theology of history by many theologians, ending with some final thoughts by Dr. Cameron on the issue. Dr. Cameron, of course, covers a lot of ground in these sections and, particularly, his focus on developing a theology of history are important because it is done far too little by Christian historians. I suspect that this is the Christian historian's equivalent to the aversion felt by most historians to theoretical approaches and the philosophy of history. Yet, it is a problem which begs for attention because, if anything is going to make us Christian historians, it is these kinds of theological considerations. How does one write as a Christian historian, if we don't reflect on just who God is and how He appears in history? Many try to do without this reflection, but the result is to fade into the more generalized background of academic history in general. What make us a peculiar people with a particular history, if I can get all Hauerwasian for a moment?

Central to this book is Dr. Cameron's historical vision. Dr. Cameron' historical approach centres on his consideration of diversity and change in history. That is, he attempts to steer between an absolutist, 'fundamentalist' approach which argues for only one 'true' Christianity in Church history (church history being the history of that one 'true' Christianity) and unrestrained relativism in which the no church, sect or denomination has any logical or theological priority. Instead, Dr. Cameron argues that every visible manifestation of Christianity is only a partial revelation of what the church is- the final manifestation of the Church being reserved for an eschatological time in the undetermined future. As a theology of history, this position is relentlessly Protestant, so I expect to see my Catholic and Orthodox readers rolling their eyes and muttering 'Not again....". Mind you, given my own hesitations about the whole Protestant visible vs. invisible churches, I find myself slightly uncomfortable. I say only slightly because I am a Protestant and I'm not sure that Luther wasn't expressing something useful when he coined these terms, even if I think the vulgar interpretation that this somehow lets us off trying to act like the Church in the here and now (rather than a hypothetical time in the remote future) has caused more harm than good.

The other striking element of Dr. Cameron's approach is the emphasis on change and discontinuity. In historical scholarship, there are two poles in how we approach historical data. One pole looks for continuity and attempts to chart change in light of a line of organic development. The other pole looks for discontinuity- the breaks and inconsistencies which characterize historical developments. Few historians are so extreme so as to stick to one of these poles solely, but they do tend to lean towards one or the other. My own tendency is to lean towards the former approach. Dr. Cameron leans towards the latter. That is, in order to avoid the 'fundamentalist' danger, he emphasizes the discontinuities of Christian history to the point that he tends to dismiss attempts to get at the 'essence' of Christianity as a misconceived approach. Thus, he criticizes such people (who I mostly like) such as Karl Barth, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Millbank and C.S. Lewis for presuming that there is an 'essence' that we can talk about. He is much more sympathetic to the heroes of the 'liberal' Christian- the Niebuhrs, Bultman because, at the end of the day, he shares a variety of historicism with them which breeds a mild form of cultural relativism in which a given cultural expression is not really in continuity with any other expression. I might be over-stating this a little bit, but it is where his thinking is leading. Now, that said, this is also the direction that most historians, both Church and secular, approach their subjects, so this is very much an expression of our times.

This is ultimately what I have found disappointing about this book. I confess that the reason I find this disappointing is because I tend to look for continuity, for essence. That means I'm swimming upstream historiographically. I okay with that, but I wonder how this book might have looked using continuity as a guiding principle.

That said, this is still a very worthwhile book. It opens up the issue of how Christian historians should develop a theology of history and it is worthwhile working with Dr. Cameron's ideas as a backboard to develop one's own. Its theology is liberal Protestant, but it is an erudite book which raises important historical, historiographical and theological questions. It is well worth the read.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Call for Submissions- Patristics Carnival XXV

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XXV. This month, we're still here at hyperekperissou. (If there is anyone, anyone, who'd like to host, let me know. Please!)

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 June 30 and the postings will be up in the week of July 5th.

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


Monday, June 15, 2009

The Use of A Saint: St. Athanasius and Christian History

While I was compiling the last Patristics Carnival, two posts, both posted on May 2nd, the feast day of St. Athanasius, caught my attention. First, Fred Sanders, an evangelical Protestant theologian teaching at Biola University, considered St. Athanasius' multi-front- ten, according to Sanders, but who's counting- theological wars. This is a classic conservative take on Athanasius, emphasizing the theme of Athanasius contra mundum in all its heroism. In this view, Athanasius was the stubborn theological warrior who continued to stand for what was right, despite almost universal imperial, ecclesiastical and theological hostility to his spirited defence of the decision made at Nicaea in 325 BC. While, ultimately vindicated, Athanasius was forced to stand alone for more than a generation, enduring imperial violence, no less than four exiles and endless vitriol aimed at him by his enemies. His resistance preserved orthodoxy in an age where heterodoxy was ascendant. Sanders' treatment of this theme is careful and scholarly, yet aimed at bringing out Athanasius' heroic qualities.

Sanders' article is contrasted by an article by the Rev. Laura Toepfer, an Episcopal priest, in which Athanasius' arguments against his opponents, the Arians, are analysed with an attempt to linking them used in current Anglican disputes. In particular, she notes that Arians claimed that Athanasius' term homoousios (of the same substance-which was at the heart of Christological issue which Arius raised) was unscriptural and against tradition. She notes that this is similar to the claims of the theological conservatives in the Anglican church and enlists St. Athanasius in the attempt to 'sort out this whole 'orthodoxy' thing'. The picture that is left for us is St. Athanasius as a theological innovator and his opponents, the conservatives of the day. In the context of Anglican-speak, there is strong implication that, since St. Athanasius proved right, the innovators in the Anglican Church today will also prove right as well.

My intention in drawing attention to these posts is not so much to condemn one or the other position. Neither position is precisely right or wrong. Nor do these two positions represent the sum total of ways to understand St. Athanasius' career or impact on how Christians think about their faith. A much more hostile view might emphasize the occasional riots caused by Athanasius' strongest supporters, the monks, or weave a conspiracy out of the court gossip that Athanasius was plotting with the usurper, Magnentius, to cut off Egyptian grain to Constantius' capital, Constantinople. Ultimately, both of these views represented are as positive as you can get, given the theological predispositions of the posters. The heroic churchman, defending orthodoxy against all comers, appeals to conservatives, who see Athanasius as setting an example of how to deal with a church culture which seems to have turned against the faith we have received. The bold innovator makes sense to liberals, who see themselves as boldly fixing the errors of the past, brushing past the erroneous traditionalists who quote faulty understanding of Scripture and tradition to support their untenable positions.

I should, of course, say that I'm more sympathetic to the first poster I cite than to the second. I think that the view of St. Athanasius as the theological innovator has a basis of fact, but it is rather overdone by the second poster (drawing, whether directly or indirectly, on Rowan William's Arius). I think this because Arius can only be considered a conservative only by assuming that Originism and Platonic Christianity was the sum total of tradition. That would, I suggest, be a faulty understanding of tradition which had, from the beginning, some real concerns with Origen and the influence of Greek philosophy on Christian theology. It would also ignore St. Athanasius' own debt to Origen. Athanasius drew on Origen, but he also drew on other streams of the tradition than that (his debt to St. Irenaeus is, I note, considerable). Still, I am a moderate conservative and an evangelical at heart, so it shouldn't be surprising that I would hold this position.

What I am trying to emphasize in this post, however, is that important historical figures such as St. Athanasius are much more complex than we necessarily remember in conventional treatments. Nor do I think it right to adopt too monolithic a view of anyone, whether that view was positive or not. It neither helps the cause of Christian history to white-wash a saint, or, conversely, to tar and feather them. I firmly believe that, if Christian history is to be taken seriously, we have to look with open eyes at the virtues and the sins of our saints. St. Athanasius was a brilliant polemicist, organizer and theologian, but he wasn't always scrupulous in his political tactics. Ignoring one or the other aspect of him will produce a distorted picture of a very important person in the life of the Church.

Ultimately, we have to remember our saints are men, not plaster statues. They strove to do right. They sometimes failed in ways that are obvious to us, but, perhaps, weren't so obvious to them. That doesn't make them any less of a saint. It merely makes them human. It merely makes them accessible representatives of what God's grace can do in our own lives.


Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Patristics Carnival XXIV

Well, here is the new Carnival for May. The posts are a bit uneven as far as my categories, but there is a lot of good reading!

New Under the Tent: New Patristic Blogs And Announcements.

David Neff on the Christianity Today Liveblog announces a new patristics program at Wheaton College, the bastion of evangelical thought.

The admin of the Opus Imperfectum blog reviews the 2009 North American Patristics Society conference amid many, many jokes about naps, NAPS and naps.

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

Brad Raburn on the Life's Journey according to Romans 15,13 blog considers the importance of the patristic period for historical theology.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers

Robert Gotcher on the Classic Catholic blog discusses the importance of orthodoxy through three examples from the Desert Fathers.

Polycarp on The Church of Jesus Christ blog comments on a letter of the Emperor Constantine to Archbishop Alexander and Arius asking that both to back off from their conflict, offers a similar commentary on a letter by Arius to Eusebius of Nicomedia in 318 AD, cites another fragment of Eusebius of Nicomedia to Arius and ends up with a discussion of a letter of Eusebius fo Caesarea to Euphatrion of Balanea.

Fred Sanders on The Scriptorium Daily: Middlebrow assesses St. Athanasius' contributions to the Church in ten different areas.

Laura Toepfer on The Infusion blog takes a rather different take on St. Athanasius by analysing the objections of Athanasius' Arian opponents and comparing them to the arguments of Episcopalian traditionalists today.

David on the He Lives blog discusses early Christian heresies as part of Church History series. He continues with a discussion of how the challenge of these heresies caused Christians to define the faith more closely.

Andrea Elizabeth on the Words, Words, Words blog consideres Athens and Jerusalem, comparing the relative importance of the Greek and Jewish strands within Christian thinking.

NTWebmaster on the Nicene Truth blog features an article by Anna Zhyrkova (Tel Aviv University) on St. John Damascene's discussion of the hypostatic union in the Fountain of Knowledge.

GS Don Morris on the Writing the Wrongs blog features an interview with Dr. Pieter van der Horst on the origins of Christian anti-Semitism.

Father Abe, CRS on The Splendor of the Church blog discusses the patristic evidence for the virginity of Mary.

David Burnett on The Time has been Shortened blog considers the patristic teaching on the Descent of Christ and its use of the 'Jeremiah Logion' as a major source for its defence.

Jason Engwer on Triablogue defends himself against a charge of inconsistency in his reliance on the Fathers as a defence of the canon. He continues with another consideration of apostolic authority and the NT canon. He continues his discussion about the messyness of the canon and asks why we should trust the Early Church's judgement on the canon.

Michael Svigel on the Parchment and Pen blog proposes Retro-Christianity as an antidote to rigid traditionalism and flaccid accomodation to the contempoary culture.

orrologion on the Metaphysics Definition considers Aristotelian Metaphysics, Arius and the origins of the Great Schism.

Shammah on The Rest of the Old, Old Story blog argues (from Tertullian) that the concept of apostolic succession was, in fact, more useful for Protestant apologetics than for Catholic.

Paenitit on the Paenitentia blog considers the challenge that patristic ideas about repentence have for us today.

John Mark Reynolds on the Scriptorium Daily: Essays previews the preface of his new books, When Athens met Jerusalem.

The Breaking Through To God blog considers Theophilus of Antioch, the first 'Christian' Trinitarian.

Roger Pearse on his self-named blog considers Bede's account of Theodore of Tarsus' exegesis about the depths of the sea in 2 Corinthians 11:25. He discusses Constantius II's anti-pagan legislation. He outlines the discovery of a manuscript of Origen and Didymus found in 1941 in Egypt. He investigates whether Firmicus Maternus was a Christian or not. He discusses St. Augustine on Attis and the Galli. He alerts us to a new Italian movie on Hypatia in which St. Cyril appears as a villain. He considers what to do about off-line Origen. He continues his discussion of the homilies of Origen.

Phil Sumpter on the Narrative and Ontology blog considers the Gospel of Nicodemus' exegesis of Psalm 24 and follows up with more ancient authorities on the same Psalm.

Mary on the Milk and Honey blog appreciatively considers the Fathers of the Church.

R.E. Aguirre on the regula-fidei blog considers David Yeago, Scripture and the Early Church in connection with the Protestant belief in sola scriptura.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews (and other media)

Kansas Mom on the Our Home on the Range blog reviews Cardinal Jean Danelieu's The Angels on their Mission which, as appropriate to a patrologist, discusses the patristic take on angels in depth.

Nick Norelli on the Rightly Dividing the Truth blog discusses three books which were influential on him: Larry Hurtado's Lord Jesus Christ, J.N.D. Kelly's Early Christian Doctrines and Letham's The Holy Trinity.

The Bryn Mawr Classical Review blog posts a review of Bernard Pouderon' Histoire de la littérature grecque chrétienne, 1. Introduction. Initiations aux Pères de l'Église. It also review Peter Brown's re-issue of Body and Society.

The Reformed Reader on his self-named blog commends A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christian Literature to those trying to find parallels between early patristic and the NT.

Katia on Katia's Esoteric Christianity blog discusses Nathaniel J. Merritt's Jehovah Unmasked: The True Identity of the Bible-God Revealed. As a warning, this is a neo-gnostic view.

John Sanidopoulos on the Mystagogy blog reviews Panagiotes K. Chrestiou's Greek Orthodoxy Patrology.

John G on the furtherandfaster blog reviews Jostein Gaardner's (best known for his philosophical novel, Sophie's world) novel, Vita Brevis: A Letter to St. Augustine- a book critical of St. Augustine's alleged attitude to sex because of his decision to live as a celibate.

R.E. Aguirre on the regula-fidei blog reviews Thomas Scheck's Origen and the History of Justification.

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Thomas on the Faith and Reason blog considers St. Polycarp of Smyrna's life and, especially, his reaction to scandal in the Church in part two of a series on St. Polycarp. His wife has also had their third child this month (which seems to have slowed down his blogging-funny that). Congrats, Thomas!

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

Nothing new this month

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations and Summaries

Nothing new this month

The Talmudic Tabernacle: Christianity and Judaism in the Ancient World

Nothing new this month

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Nothing new this month.

Well, that's it for the month. If you want to host the Carnival for June, let me know!



Sunday, June 07, 2009


It's been a busy month at at the Snider household, which, I think, will explain why there were next to no entries last year beyond the Patristics Carnival. Mind you, May is always busy for me because of the Ontario Student Classics Conference which I attend each year with some of my students. We prepare for this all year, but it makes for a busy month as we are usually rushing towards the conference date and, then, I spend most of the rest of the month recovering from the backlog of marking and paper work which is inevitably the result of such a time.

This May has been unusually busy, largely because I got hit with a nasty, nasty (non-swine related) flu around mid-month, which spread to my son and my wife. We are only now pretty much recovered. And, amid all of us getting sick as dogs, we bought our first house. Those of you who have bought a house know the running around with bids, sorting out mortgages and what not that buying a house entails. Add one or the other of us (and more frequently, both my wife and I) was fighting off a fever, and I think you'll see why I haven't posted.

Anyway, I haven't died yet. I'm back and there is a Patristics Carnival coming up this week. And, then, back to our regular pattern of posting (packing and moving house permitting).