Friday, July 17, 2009

Ancient Christian Faith Initiative

Once in a while, something comes to my attention which really must be shared. Today, I got an e-mail from Tim Becker of the Ancient Christian Faith Initiative, a ministry with the aim of opening up the wisdom of the Church Fathers for today. Their aim goes beyond merely the academic and wants to reveal to the wider Church the riches of the patristic era as a way of revitalizing Christians today. You can see why I'm excited by this. If you aren't, listen to Tim Becker's introduction on the home page and you soon will be.

The Ancient Christian Faith Initiative is based in Pittsburgh and has been offering courses there since spring. So, if you're in Pittsburgh, take full advantage of these seminars ($120 for the course) Frankly, I'm envious.

If you aren't in Pittsburgh, the ACFI (sorry, just had to abbreviate this) offers an online version which includes a 45-50 minute lecture (weekly), a lengthy pastoral reflection and interaction/feedback on the blog for the course. All this for 60 dollars, besides the books (which you'll want anyway)! This is an excellent chance to learn more about the Fathers from two very qualified teachers.

This is an initiative which deserves to spread and to inform the practice of the whole Church. I know I'm considering the the online version of fall seminar on the Pillars of the Church.


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Call for Submissions- Patristics Carnival XXVI

Welcome to Patristic Carnival XXVI. This month, we're over at Compliant Subversity. Thanks Seumas for taking on the Carnival for this month. If there are any other people who would like to host, let me know through the dedicated e-mail given below.

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 July 31 and the postings will be up in the week of August 3rd.

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


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Joshua and the Promised Land

Over the last few weeks, I have been thinking about biblical interpretation. Reading a book on St. Jerome as a biblical scholar and another dealing, in part, with St. Justin Martyr's approach to the Old Testament has put those issues to the forefront. Scriptural interpretation is, of course, central to both St. Jerome' and St. Justin Martyr's theological projects. Yet, this is scriptural interpretation of a very different sort from the interpretations that we are used to these days. It is richer in many ways, but quirkier. I've blogged about this subject before, but it has always struck me that my discussions of theory, while useful to a degree, need application. So, that is what I propose to do in this post.

This week, I've started reading through the Book of Joshua- not the most studied book of the Bible, of course, but that makes it more of a challenge. What I'm going to try is to frame a discussion about Joshua 1-7- the beginnings of the conquest of the Promised Land by Joshua, son of Nun. As the basis of my exegesis, I will be using the classic fourfold senses of Scripture originally formulated in the patristic era, but applied more consistently in the mediaeval period.

Let me emphasize a few things before I proceed. First, I don't claim any authority in making this exegesis. This is only a trial by an admitted amateur. Second, while I'm only making a trial of this exegesis, I sincerely doubt that I am the first to come up with it. Third, I welcome input, especially if you think I'm reading the passage wrongly. I haven't done extensive research or commentary searches, so the chances that I'll screw something up, especially in the historical area, are great.

So, let's start with the literal level. The Book of Joshua opens up right where the book of Deuteronomy ends- with the death of Moses . Immediately after Moses' death, God, as promised to Moses, calls Joshua to lead the Israeiltes across the Jordon to take possession of the Promised Land. God tells Joshua to be strong and courageous (three times- Joshua 1, 6; 1, 7; 1,9) and that the inhabitants of the land will not be able to stand against them (Joshua, 1,2-9). Joshua sent spies to spy out the land and they found themselves welcomed in Jericho, one of the major cities in the Promised Land, by Rahab the prostitute. The King of Jericho discovered that Israeilites had entered the city and were staying with Rahab. He demanded that Rahab hand over her guests, but she lied that they had already left. She, then, makes a deal with the spies that, when Jericho would be captured (she has no doubts about this), she and her household would be saved. The spies agreed and gave her a sign (a scarlet cord tied around the window through which they would escape) so that her house would be bypassed in the general destruction (Joshua 2). The spies escaped and returned to Joshua. Joshua, then, led the Israelites across the Jordon dry shod- the Ark of the Covenant holding back the onrushing waters until the Israelite army passed through the river bed (Joshua 3-4). As ordered by God, the Israelites all were circumcised at Gilgal and God announced that he had rolled away the reproach of Egypt (Joshua 5). The Israelites, then, attacked Jericho. For six successive days, the Ark of the Covenant and the Israelite army circled the city. On the seventh day, they circled it seven times, the priests made a trumpet blast and the walls of Jericho collapsed. The Israelites captured the city immediately. They killed all its inhabitants except for those with Rahab as agreed. Rahab was allowed to accompany the Israelites with her household (Joshua 5, 13- 6, 27).

There is much here to comment on in the literal level, including, as it does, historical explanation (grammatical parsing of Hebrew is beyond me). We could talk about the political structure of the region before the Israelite invasion which, looks to me, to be based on a series of city-states with no really clear central authority. Jericho appears to be one of the more important of these city-states. We could talk about the size of the Israelite army and its nature as a group of Aramaic desert nomads seeking a permanent home. We could talk about the episode with Rahab as reflecting the hospitality codes, since the demand of the King of Jericho to hand over her guests was in clear violation of that code. There are parallels to this kind of breach of hospitality and its importance, especially in the story of Abraham. Most of these would demand more research and knowledge than I currently have, but, I think, it suffices to point out the directions that a literal-historical analysis could pursue and leave those more learned than I to flesh it out.

On the tropological level, we look for the moral lessons that this passage offers. There are, I think, several lessons that we are meant to draw from this passage, but I want to focus on what I think is the main one. I think we are supposed to contrast the reliance on God of Joshua and this new generation of Israelites to the faithlessness of the previous generation. Time and again, the previous generation failed to have faith in God's saving power which led to a series of incidents of mistrust and apostasy. Even Moses was implicated. This explained the fact that all from that generation including Moses were not considered worthy to enter the Promised Land. However, Joshua's and the Israelite's reaction to God's call to lead his people across the Jordan (Joshua 1, 2-9) is simple acceptance and obedience (Joshua 10-18). Furthermore, they do exactly what God tells them to do, even if it might have seemed unusual like taking the Ark of the Covenant into the Jordon River and going in circles around Jericho for a week. The result is that they are unstoppable and Jericho (and, ultimately, all the Promised Land) fell.

The allegorical level, I think, offers rich possibilities. What struck me most about this section of Joshua is how similar they are to the Exodus story, but with an important difference. The call of Joshua (Joshua 1, 2-9) bears a marked resemblance to the call of Moses to save his people at the burning bush (Exodus 3) with the notable exception that Joshua didn't argue. The sending of the spies (Joshua 2) echoes Moses' sending of the spies with the exception that the news from the spies was encouraging and the people didn't panic and disregard God's promises of assistance (Numbers 13-14). The crossing of the Jordon (Joshua 3-4) recalls the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 13, 17- 14, 31) with the exception that it is the Ark of the Covenant which causes the waters to hold back. The circumcision at Gilgal(Joshua 5, 1-12) recalls the consecration of the firstborn males of Israel in the aftermath of the last plague in Egypt (Exodus 13, 1-16). The rescue of Rahab (Joshua, 2; 6, 22-25)) recalls the Passover (Exodus 12, 1-30), although it is not the angel of the Lord who destroys just the firstborn, but the Israelites themselves as agents of God who destroy the whole city. I know that these parallels aren't in chronological order, but I don't think that matters for what I think is going on here.

The general picture in this rather jumbled picture is a re-casting of the Exodus story in which the rebellion and lack of faith of the earlier generation of Israelites is replaced by the obedience and faithfulness of the new. In each of these cases, key moments in the Exodus narrative are played out and the new Israelites react in concert with God. As a result, there is no surprise they are successful where the previous generation failed. This new Israel is now deserving of the Promised Land through their obedience to the God of Israel. I think this is made clear when God announces, in the circumcision at Gilgal, that the stain of Egypt was now removed (Joshua, 5,9). This is a very different generation to that of its fathers.

If we extend this allegory further, we can see this contrast as an allegory of how humanity deals with God. Many of us call on God in an emergency as the first-generation Israelites did throughout their sojourn in the desert, but baulk at the truly risky work of faith or relax and disregard God when things are better. This makes us double-minded and faithless because we simply don't have the sticking power. God is faithful- as we see in the Exodus narrative. He continually saves His people as he covenanted, despite the disobedience of that people much of the time. Yet, this people only inconsistently do His will and, thus, don't reach the Promised Land (which I think we can take as standing for entering God's Kingdom or resurrected).

The second-generation Israelites are a different breed. Here we find obedience and faith in God's promises. The result: they enter and take possession of the Promised Land. Now, I want to be careful here and emphasize that this is no prosperity gospel. It isn't a question of being holy enough and enjoying the benefits in the here and now. If we accept the Promised Land as an allegory of entering God's Kingdom or the resurrected life, we rightly remove this from material prosperity to spiritual health. Yet, the point I'm making is that, unlike the previous generation, this second generation believes God's promises, acts to fulfill them and, as a result, experiences them.

This last point, of course, links us to the anagogical meaning of this passage. If we accept that the Promised Land is the resurrected life, we, also, find ourselves discussing how does one achieve spiritual salvation. The Book of Joshua here emphasized the importance of faith in God's promises and obedience to His commands as the way that the second-generation Israelites succeed in occupying the Promised Land. If, we follow the allegory I set out above, we also find that the way to God's Kingdom is also through faith in God's promises and obedience to His commands. Central to this is the person of Jesus and his teachings. It is, I think, striking that the Exodus story has, since the early days of the Church, has been taken as an allegory of salvation through Christ. If that is so, this re-cast Exodus in Joshua is also pointing to this same salvation and with the virtues we need to arrive at it.

I hope this exegesis makes sense. I was hoping to link Rahab in more closely because she is, after all, a distant ancestor of Jesus (Matthew 1,5), but I just couldn't see how to do it. Constructive feedback is, of course, welcome.


Monday, July 06, 2009

Patristics Carnival XXV

Well, here is the twenty-fifth installment of the Patristic Carnival. Enjoy!

New Under the Tent: New Patristic Blogs And Announcements.

This isn't so much a new blog as the relaunch of an old one. Josh McManaway moves away from Blogger and his old title, New Testament Student to Wordpress and The Son of the Fathers blog. This blog shows considerable promise as a patristics blog, so welcome to the world of patristic blogging, Josh.

Front Gate: Introductions to the Fathers

Nothing new this month.

The Midway: Articles on the Fathers
Mike Aquilina on The Way of the Fathers blog discusses the Ancient Christian Faith Initiative in Pittsburgh, announces the Catholic Heroes of Faith video series whose first video deal with St. Perpetua.

Polycarp on the Church of Jesus Christ blog considers the patristic willingness to combine the female Wisdom with the male Logos. He follows up with a consideration of gender and the Holy Spirit in which he examines the gender used by several patristic authors. He also considers the pivotal role that Proverbs 8 had, especially the link of Sophia with Jesus in the Arian controversy. As a continuation of his series on the Arian controversy, he examines a letter by Arius and his Egyptian supporters to Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. He also considers the influence of Numenius on St. Justin Martyr's trinitarian theology.

Seumas MacDonald on the Compliant Subversity blog published a huge series on patristic trinitarian thought, including a very handy index! You'd think he was preparing for an exam. Oh, right, he was and it sounds like it went well. Congratulations, Seumas!

James Pate on his James' Thoughts and Musings blog considers St. Augustine and his views on the deutero-canonical books, especially on the books of the Maccabees. He follows up with a consideration of whether Judaism in the Diaspora or in Palestine had the deutero-canonical works and why Christians would adopt these works if they didn't. He considers Numenius' concept of the Trinity and the question of whether it influenced or was influenced by Christianity. He discusses how several Church Fathers distinguished between divination and prophecy. He considers Tertullian's understanding of the injunctions that priests should be the 'Husband of one wife' in Leviticus 20-21. He briefly discusses the notion that Genesis 1-3 was not interpreted literally until the 19th century. He considers Clement of Alexandria's views on Marcion, the divinization of humanity, Christian sects and substitutionary atonement. He discusses Origen's views on the fall of pre-existant humanity and follows up with a discussion of Origen's universalism. He discusses Dionysius of Alexandria's view that the Book of Revelation was written by the heretic Cerinthus. He analyses Hippolytus' views on recapitulation and soteriology. He analyses what the epistimological basis of Christianity is with consideration of patristic evidence. Phew, it just makes me tired listing them. For those who are interested, James also has several interesting posts on ancient philosophy as well as commentary on media. Be sure to check below for his discussion of rabbinic sources.

Matt on the grace and peace blog commemorates the Council of Nicaea, the First Ecumenical Council.

Stanford Gibson on the A Fiercer Delight and a Fiercer Discontent blog sets out eight thoughts on St. Clement of Rome with a modern context in mind.

Jason Engwer on Triablogue considers why evangelicals are unwilling to accept the expanded Old Testament canon including an argument that there was no firm consensus on these book in the patristic era.

Father Milan Medakovic on the VONMEN blog publishes a sermon on the Fathers of the 1st Ecumenical Council.

TurretinFan on the Alpha and Omega Ministry blog considers the reliability of the oral tradition in early Christianity with St. Irenaeus's writing as a test case.

C. Baxter Kruger on the Baxter's Ongoing Thoughts blog discusses St. Irenaeus' view of the Incarnation as a foil to today's 'Western deistic legalism'

Nick Norelli on the Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth considers how to pronounce some patristic names- complete with reader participation.

Dave Armstrong on the Biblical Evidence for Catholicism blog discusses John Calvin's rejection of the Letters of Ignatius in the light of Catholic-Protestant apologetics. Nice new look to the blog, by the way, Dave!

vorjack on the Unreasonable Faith blog discusses competing patristic teachings about marriage and their mixed effect on the position of women.

Matthew Bellisario on the Catholic Champion blog considers the teachings of St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus and St. Jerome on free will in light of Reformed Protestant views on predestination.

Jennie Letchford on the Little Miss Giggles blog shares a school speech on how the canon of Scripture was established. It is good to see a teen interested in issues like the canon.

Deidre Richardson on the Men and Women in the Church blog considers two assumptions about the role of women in the early Church.

Daniel Egan on the Bible Tidbits blog discusses patristic testimony about Mary as the New Eve.

nhiemstra on the Flotsam and Jetsam blog considers the effect of a dependence on translation had on the understanding of the Old Testament including a section on the patristic era.

The Beggars of the King blog considers the evidence for the Trinity in the Bible and the Fathers.

Jared Cramer on the Scribere orare est discusses a current Episcopal controversy through a discussion of St. Irenaeus' view of recapitulation.

David Waltz on the Articuli Fidei blog considers the relationship between Scripture and tradition in the early Church Fathers.

Ben Blackwell on the Dunelm Road blog highlights several new translations of St. Cyril of Alexandria's writing and discusses St. Macarius on Galatians 5-6.

On this blog, I consider how St. Athanasius' example is used polemically in Anglican controversies.

The Marketplace: Book Reviews (and other media)

Josh McManaway on the Son of the Fathers blog reviews Christopher Hall's book, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers.

Aaron Taylor (I think) on the Logismoi blog gets a hot tip from his 5-year old daughter and reports on his new purchase, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology, 2nd ed., by Fr John Anthony McGuckin. He highlight Father McGuckin's entry on St. Macrina as a tribute to Macrina on the A Vow of Conversation blog who retired this month (God bless, Macrina!)

Jeffrey C. Waddington on the Feeding On Christ blog considers resources for Reformed Christians for approaching the Church Fathers including the Ancient Christian Commentary series and the new Ancient Christian Doctrine series (I hadn't heard of this one!)

Exhibition Place: Biographies of the Fathers

Jean M. Heimann on the Catholic Fire blog discusses the life of St. Ephrem Syrus.

Aaron Taylor on the Logismoi blog discusses the life of St. Justin Martyr on the occasion of his Orthodox Feast Day.

James Woodward on his self-named blog discusses the life and theology of St. Cyril of Alexandria.

The Rodeo: Patristic catenae

TurretinFan on the Thoughts of Francis Turretin blog sets out a patristic catena on the Atonement.

deartheophilus on his self-named blog publishes a patristic catena on Christians and how to deal with wealth and the poor.

The In Communion blog features a patristic catena dealing with the Beatitudes.

The Foreign Exchange Tent: Translations and Summaries

Nothing new this month.

The Talmudic Tabernacle: Christianity and Judaism in the Ancient World

James Pate on his James' Thoughts and Musings blog considers the Talmud's non-literal teachings on the 'eye for an eye' passage in Exodus 21,24. He , also, considers the rabbinic attitude to human nature and evil in contrast to Middle Platonism.

The Apocryphal Aisle: Christian Apocrypha

Nothing new this month.

Well, that is it for this month. Stay tuned for the next Patristic Carnival, hosted next month by Seumas MacDonald at Compliant Subversity. Thanks, Seumas for taking this on this month.


Thursday, July 02, 2009

St. Jerome and Allegory

I have to admit that I struggle with allegory. There is no doubt that there are many allegorical readings which bring light to difficult passages. There is also no doubt that even biblical writers like Paul used it. But, it has never sat comfortably with me. It hasn't because it has always felt like cheating to me- a way to avoid the hard passages. There is no shortage of Christian writers in the past or in the present who use allegory this way. For example, Origen frankly admitted that he used allegory to explain passages which were so offensive to his and other people's sensibilities that they couldn't possibly be taken literally. This is the reason why I'm always a little uncomfortable with the Alexandrian Fathers and why my wife occasionally teases me about being an Antiochene. To some degree, she has a point.

Yet, it is important to remember that even the Antiochenes used allegory (or typology), even though they preferred historical and grammatical exegesis. Allegory is useful, but I've always felt that there has to be some strict controls on it or else it becomes a way of avoiding the hard passages or for making Scripture say what we want it to say. I'm sure many of my readers will recognize these self-serving allegories and will recognize just how it is to counter it, if we don't agree how to limit allegory.

So, you'll understand why this passage by Jerome, quoted by Megan Hale Williams, The Monk and the Book, struck me this afternoon. It comes from St. Jerome's commentary on Habbakuk:

"The historical sense is narrow, and it cannot leave its course. The
tropologogical sense is free, and yet it is circumscribed by these laws, that it
must be loyal to the meaning and to the context of the words, and that things
strongly opposed to each other must not be improperly joined

What works for tropology (the figurative sense of Scripture which includes, but it isn't limited to, allegory) works for allegory. Allegory is necessary because the historical sense is so limited (it is classed as a variety of the literal level), but it needs controls. St. Jerome sets limits which I think work. Ultimately, if the meaning and context don't match, the allegory becomes non-sensical. If they do, the allegory becomes an important tool. It makes sense to me.