Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ANF VI: Gregory Thaumaturgus Metaphrase

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Gregory Thaumaturgus: Part I: Acknowledged Writings:  A Metaphrase of the Book of Ecclesiastes

If a "paraphrase" is a summary of a longer work, a "metaphrase" takes a shorter work and lengthens it. In this case, Gregory's Metaphrase of Ecclesiastes is related to, but not exactly the same as, a commentary. (The word "metaphrase" itself means a "literal translation," but that's clearly not what Gregory is doing here.) Gregory summarizes each idea in each chapter of Ecclesiastes in his own words, offering slight expansions and extensions where he thinks appropriate.

Does he succeed? Is this a good interpretation of Ecclesiastes? Well, yes and no. I think he does a good job with each individual idea in the book. You can take any single verse and compare it with Gregory's metaphrase of that verse and get a pretty good interpretation. Not that I've done this, mind you, just that nothing particularly jumped out at me as crazy wrong or off.
Yet, I think the overall feel of the text is somewhat misleading. It's true that Gregory seems to handle each individual idea well, but the whole picture he makes out of them has a different feel from Ecclesiastes itself. When I'm done reading Ecclesiastes, I walk away with a sense that life sucks and then you die, and the only small bright part might be that you can worship God, but there's the sense that even that might deep down be meaningless (but probably not, though everything else is). The sense Gregory gives us is that darn it, this is a pretty attractive lifestyle that you and I can live with a little bit of faith in God and hard work. Which I'm pretty sure is not the point of this bleakest of books of the Bible. It is wisdom literature, but in this case I think Gregory has confused Ecclesiastes with Proverbs.

With that said, it's still an interesting and worthwhile read. Just take it for what it's worth.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

ANF VI: Gregory Thaumaturgus Declaration of Faith

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Well, on the Volume 6 of this long, long series. And I think I'm not going to bother going every day through this, though I might start by hitting every individual text in the book--or at the very least every author. Then again I might not, we'll have to see how they hold up...

Gregory Thaumaturgus: Introduction; Part I: Acknowledged Writings:  A Declaration of Faith

Apparently, Gregory's title "Thaumaturgus" is not really so much a last name as it is a descriptor, just like John's "Chrysostom" means "silver-tongued," it's not a family name. He's no relation to the pagan orator Dio Chrysostom, other than in sharing his eloquence. Apparently a series of legends about Gregory as a miracle-worker grew up in the century or so after his death, and so the name "Thaumaturgus" got attached to this student of Origen. And while we (with the editors in the introduction) might question some of the stories about him, we can be thankful there's a fairly easy way to distinguish him from all the other Gregories in the ancient church--and of course we can be thankful for his faithfulness and skill in thinking carefully about the faith.

The Declaration of Faith is a pretty clear precursor to the later Creeds, and to that end it's worth simply citing in full. There's no reason not to read this and every reason to appreciate the solid orthodoxy of this part of the early church. (Source)
There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son.
There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal.
And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all.
There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged.
Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced.
And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Medieval Reading Recommendations

In good anti-Hipster fashion, I discovered this piece long after it was published over at the Gospel Coalition. In it, Gavin Ortland notes the occasional trend of Evangelical Christians to swim the Tiber and covert to Roman Catholicism, or the Bosporus and convert to Eastern Orthodoxy. Although it's not the point of the piece, he asks why this is happening:
What's causing this shift? While leaving room for the complex theological issues inevitably at play, I think one significant factor is the sense of rootlessness and restlessness many younger postmoderns feel today. At the heart of my generation is a profound emptiness—a sense of isolation and disconnectedness and consequent malaise. We're aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidity and substance. And it's driving many of us out of evangelicalism.
I think that perhaps he's being too generous. While this may be the publicly-stated reason, the root cause of all apostasy driving those who reject the Gospel is sin and there's no reason not to just say so in the first place. Yes, of course we have to go on a case-by-case basis when discussing individual salvation. And yes the Eastern Orthodox churches are not monolithic in the same way Roman Catholicism claims to be, so we can't make quite the same sweeping generalizations about them (check out Timothy Ware's book for a good overview of Eastern Orthodoxy). And yes this isn't the point of the original post. But it still needed saying...

Anyway, the point of my post is to quibble just a bit with Ortland's list rather than with his explanation. So I should probably get to that...

Ortland provides a place to begin reading theology from the Middle Ages, specifically he mentions the following works:

There is absolutely no doubt that this is a representative list of some of the best theology available between Augustine and Luther. You will certainly be well served by reading these slowly and carefully and being blessed by the wisdom of these Godly men.

But I would suggest that none of these are really ideal works to start with if you're truly new to the Middle Ages. And again to be fair, the category he outlines is that of books he believes "deserve a wider readership among contemporary Protestants." I certainly can't argue that Gavin Ortland thinks these are books that deserve wider readership--and I'm happy even to agree with him that they do need wider readership among Protestants and Catholics alike. Catholics after all have their own problems knowing history (I know less about the Orthodox, so I can't speak to how well they know their own traditions.)

That said, these books are all to some extent more advanced than I'd really be comfortable suggesting as a place to begin learning Medieval theology. Boethius and Anselm are both somewhat dense, arcane, and challenging in their subject matter; while Gregory's subject matter is something most modern Christians aren't used to handling. So as preparatory reading for Ortland's list, I offer this list of (mostly) easier and more accessible Medieval works.

  • The Venerable Bede: Especially his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, as in addition to being as much narrative as anything, it is a wonderful display of how two church structures of equal authority in the Middle Ages peacefully resolved their differences. (More here.His commentaries are also worth a look, though I really recommend starting with the History.
  • Bernard of Clairveaux's On Loving God. This is a devotional classic that stands the test of time very, very well. And while Bernard certainly made some serious theological blunders in his life (who of us hasn't?), this book is not one of them. 
  • John of Damascus: This is the point where my recommendations are subject to the same criticisms I gave to Gavin Ortland's above. If you're trying to catch up on your Medieval reading, you certainly shouldn't ignore the Eastern church. The problem is, most of the writings you'll come across there are just as dense, arcane, and obscure than anything Anselm ever wrote. What's more, they're often so hyper-spiritualized that they can end up being either useless or openly heretical. Really your best bet is to find a good history of the Eastern Church and read that, mining it for good writers and suggestions. (Leo the Isaurian has always been a favorite of mine--for his theology, not so much for his methods.) Nevertheless, with some caution and effort John of Damascus' On the Orthodox Faith is a possible starting place for learning about the Medieval Eastern Church. 
  • Photios: Like John of Damascus, Photios needs to be read with caution and care. But his Mystagogy of the Holy Spirit is a good guide to one of the biggest divides between the Eastern and Western churches.
    And again, I'll add the disclaimer that these need to be read with a good deal of discretion. A good rule of thumb is to read Timothy Ware's history (linked above) and latch on to the names and writings he lists as "Orthodox" but "too Lutheran" or "too Calvinist" or "loosely Anabaptist" as your best sources. But of course, all of those are long after the Middle Ages and so beyond the purview of this post...
  • Christine de Pizan: Treasure of the City of Ladies. This book is not strictly theological, so in that sense it doesn't fit the original post's goal of finding the Gospel in the Middle Ages. And yet, the author is clearly concerned with living well, and we can see that the root of the proposed lifestyle is morality clearly derived in part from Scripture.  
  • Heloise and Abelard: The Letters between these two individuals are spectacular--especially those written by Heloise after she realizes Abelard isn't interested in her. There's really no summary that can do justice to these two individuals, so I'll leave it to you to pick this up and read it. 

So there you have it. My own list of recommended readings from the Middle Ages. Hopefully no disrespect was shown to Gavin Ortlund--I am a fan of the Gospel Coalition and most of what they do, and his work in particular. And I am certainly a fan of encouraging exposure to church history, I just have some suggestions for places to start that differ from his...

Friday, April 17, 2015

ANF V: The End!

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5


So month later, I've finally finished the fifth volume in this beast of a series. Which means I've got what, 42 left to go? Something like that, anyway. This volume is mostly Cyprian, with a good deal of Hippolytus and Novatian thrown in (Caius gets a nod too). Since I went through this whole volume a few pages at a time, I won't make extensive commentary or quotation here. Instead you can click the link below if you want to see the whole thing, or the names above to see the individual writers.


I don't know if I'll perform an exercise like this again. This kind of daily reading/blogging takes a lot of time and I have several other writing projects I'm working on (including a bi-weekly series on Machiavelli and Hobbes available here). So this and the City of God of last year may have been a one-of. If I do come back to daily blogging through the church fathers, it will be this summer. But no promises.

Oh, and a review of the book itself. This volume is worth reading, just maybe not all of it. While these authors are by and large more accessible than those of previous volumes (which I assume is caused by a combination of translation and manuscript availability), the content gets a bit repetitive. And of course as with any of these volumes the theology and exegesis aren't always as great as they could be. Still, there is gold to be mined here as we watch these faithful Christians try to obey Scripture and stay faithful to the Gospel. Though we don't always agree with their interpretations or actions, we can always benefit from their wisdom and example.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

ANF V: Appendix on Re-Baptism

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Appendix: A Treatise on Re-Baptism by an Anonymous Writer

Once again we're faced with a work by that most prolific of writers, "anonymous." And once again we're back to the question of legitimate baptism. This time the dispute is over whether or not those who were baptized into the "true" church, and then left for a schismatic church (Novatian's, for example), and then return, need to be re-baptized. If not, will a simple "laying on of hands" by the pastor and elders suffice?
The author in a long passage points out that this question has really been settled, but because of contentious human nature we refuse to acknowledge the authority of the church and so once again the Scripture arguments need to be brought up. Which is a great thing to notice: even though the decision has been made, force is not the recourse. Instead the authority of Scripture and persuasion are the tools in question, and remain so for centuries yet to come in the church.

By and large, this treatise can be skimmed. There's nothing here that wasn't also in the letters from Cyprian, other than some more explicit expositions of Scripture on baptism (which were largely only hinted at in Cyprian's letters). As there, we might not be able to go along with the exegesis or some of the theological conclusions--especially those that dance near baptismal regeneration and the idea of a single, unified church as the only legitimate one--but we can certainly go along with the submission to Scripture and the idea that we ought to be doing church and administering the sacraments correctly. Interestingly, here baptismal regeneration is explicitly rejected, "lest on this principle we should believe that even Gentiles and heretics, who abuse the name of Jesus, could attain unto salvation without the true and entire thing [that is, without faith]."
The overall point is that in baptism we have a great deal of flexibility, so long as we are being faithful and solemn in our administration of the sacrament. In answer to the specific question, no re-baptism is required, since the water does not save and is not necessary in the strictest sense...

So, this is a fine one to read but not because there's anything new to be picked up here.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

ANF V: Appendix Against Novatian

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Appendix: Anonymous Treatise Against the Heretic Novatian

As the introductory notice points out, it's unclear who wrote this treatise (hence the "anonymous" bit in the title). It probably wasn't Cyprian but probably was a like-minded pastor, probably from North Africa.

I'm tempted to say that there's nothing new here that we haven't already seen in the letters of Cyprian and so you can go ahead and skip it. And that's true, so far as it goes. But although there are no new theological arguments in this short treatise, there are some turns of phrase that are simply too good not to read. Such as this one:
lo, there appeared opposed to me another enemy, and the adversary of his own paternal affections--the heretic Novatian--who not only, as it is signified in the Gospel, passed by the prostrate wounded man, as did the priest or the Levite, but by an ingenious and novel cruelty rather would slay the wounded man, by taking away the hope of salvation, by denying the mercy of his Father, by rejecting the repentance of his brother. 
As with Cyprian's letters, I'm on board with his concern for the integrity of the church. And I'm certainly on board with his respect for Scripture. But I just can't go along with either his exegesis (which: ugh) or his extreme view of church unity. You can split off into different local church and still be a part of the true church. I would rather that not happen, of course, but I would not condemn a body that holds to the Gospel just because it formed its own institution. This, for example, is simply too far: "For ye who were some time Christians, but now are Novatians, no longer Christians, have changed your first faith by a subsequent perfidy in the calling of your name." The fact is we have no record of them rejecting any of the core tenets of the Gospel, and so they are still Christians. That said, the author was there and I am not, so to some extent we should also give something of the benefit of the doubt to our sources.

So is this worth reading? Yes, but not because you'll get anything new out of it. Only because of the author's excellent way with words and imagery.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

ANF V: Appendix Baptism Controversy Records

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Appendix: Acts and Records of the Famous Controversy about the Baptism of Heretics

This passage can be read quickly, since it really is just a mini-table of contents pointing the reader to other places in this volume where this subject is dealt with.

Monday, April 13, 2015

ANF V: Novatian on the Meats IV-VII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: On the Jewish Meats IV-VII

In addition to each forbidden animal providing a sermon on sin (see the previous chapters), Novatian argues in the conclusion to the treatise that the OT dietary laws were provided to teach us self-restraint and the dangers of luxury.
Luxury is inimical to holiness. For how shall religion be spared by it, when modesty is not spared? Luxury does not entertain the fear of God; since while pleasures hurry it on, it is carried forward to the sole daring of its desires...
And although the specific tenets of those laws have now been overturned by the coming of Christ, the basic principles underlying them remains in effect. Now we understand that these laws are not fulfilled by a proper diet, but are fulfilled 1) in Christ and 2) in the holy life of a Christian, for "the meat, I say, true, and holy, and pure, is a true faith, an unspotted conscience, and an innocent soul." And again "God rejoices in our faith alone, in our innocency alone, in our truth alone, in our virtues alone. And these dwell not in our belly, but in our soul..."

The Gospel, at the end of the day, should call us to be temperate in a way that is consistent not with the external observations of the OT law, but with the life it called OT believers to live. That is, a life of moderation, generosity, and holiness dedicated to war against sin and love of God and neighbor.

This treatise is excellent, so read it!

Friday, April 10, 2015

ANF V: Novatian on the Meats I-III

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: On the Jewish Meats I-III

Whatever we ultimately conclude about either Novatian or the specific theology of this treatise, we can't deny that he simply drips with pastoral concern. He encourages the congregation to hold to the truth of Christ as found in Scripture, rather than being caught up in customs, superstitions, or other false beliefs imported from modern Judaism--which itself does not even know what its purer predecessor was about.

In these first three chapters, Novatian gives us a delightful little Biblical theology of food, walking through the development of God's plan for our palette. He begins with the tree of life, explains how sin led to first toil and cultivated grains, and then death and flesh. But then the law for the restraint of sin and the development of civilization and religion and the cultivation of worship of God divided flesh into "clean" and "unclean," not because of the inherent qualities of the animals themselves but because of the rational nature of man made in God's image.

Now, I do think Novatian's overall point is probably a good and accurate one. But I don't know that we need to join him in walking through the unclean animals and suggesting the vices they each represent that we are to avoid. Don't get me wrong, it's a lot of fun to do that, but it's hardly good exegesis.
Thus in the animals, by the law, as it were, a certain mirror of human life is established, wherein men may consider the images of penalties; so that everything which is vicious in men, as committed against nature, may be the more condemned, when even those things, although naturally ordained in brutes, are in them blamed.
Still, these chapters are fun, so don't skip them!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

ANF V: Novatian On the Trinity XXIX-XXXI

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity XXIX-XXXI

Moreover, the order of reason, and the authority of the faith in the disposition of the words and in the Scriptures of the Lord, admonish us after these things to believe also on the Holy Spirit, once promised to the Church, and in the appointed occasions of times given.
So simple a summary of the faith regarding the Holy Spirit, and yet full and rich and applicable to the more-charismatic and less-charismatic alike. In the last section Novatian defends the doctrine and Deity of the Holy Spirit, with a simple interpretation that manages to contain much truth while avoiding the errors that some of his contemporaries (*cough* *cough* Tertullian) fell into. The Holy Spirit is the Person of the Trinity who is with us now, strengthening, supporting, and sanctifying.

And yet, to say that the Godhead is three persons is not to say that there are three gods. Novatian ends his treatise by defending the unity of God as One rather than as three divinities. The last chapter on the relationship within the Trinity makes me wish I knew Greek, because while it makes sense and has some depth in English, I'm sure the Greek words and phrases have a theological depth that may not quite be carried into English. Of course if it was written in Latin, then I've no excuse but my own laziness... [shrug]

Overall, this treatise is worth reading, although as I've said along the way part of it at least can be skimmed.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

ANF V: Novatian on the Trinity XX-XXVIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity XX-XXVIII

These chapters continue the defense of the nature and person of Christ from Scripture, arguing against specific heretical claims and interpretations (mostly the Sabellians) and giving his own read. These chapters are fairly interesting, but again can be skimmed in good conscience. Novatian again defends the full Deity and the full humanity of Christ, balancing well these aspects of His person without wandering into any of the heresies that would later develop:
For we know that the Word of God was invested with the substance of flesh, and that He again was divested of the same bodily material, which again He took up in the resurrection and resumed as a garment. And yet Christ could neither have been divested of nor invested with manhood, had He been only man: for man is never either deprived of nor invested with himself.
Novatian really is an excellent apologist, whatever his ecclesiastical proclivities.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

ANF V: Novatian On the Trinity IX-XIX

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity IX-XIX

Continuing his discussion of the Trinity, in chapter IX through XXVIII, Novatian discusses the second Person,  the Song of God. He begins by clearly articulating the full Deity and humanity of Christ, contrary to the claims by pop-religious books that this wasn't settled until nearly a century and a half later.
For this Jesus Christ, I will once more say, the Son of this God, we read of as having been promised in the Old Testament, and we observe to be manifested in the New, fulfilling the shadows and figures of all the sacraments, with the presence of the truth embodied. 
Novatian is especially clear that Christ was fully a person, who came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls:
it is not the substance of the flesh that is condemned, which was built up by the divine hands that it should not perish, but only the guilt of the flesh is rightly rebuked, which by the voluntary daring of man rebelled against the claims of divine law. 
Novatian likewise argues powerfully for the Deity of Christ, largely using OT proof-texts. And while this has some value as an apologetic approach, it has more for us as Christians in showing us how the early church regarded the authority of the Bible. Specifically, to deny that Jesus is God is to deny the Scripture, while to deny the Scripture inevitably leads to denying the divinity of Christ. Which of course we see both truths in our own day as well.
But Christ promises to give salvation for ever, which if He does not give, He is a deceiver; if He gives, He is God.
He finds these arguments in both the New and Old Testaments, arguing that they are veiled in the Old Testament because humanity just wasn't ready to receive that truth yet--just as you want to wake up in dim light rather than in the full light of day...

While you could probably technically skim these sections without too much loss, I wouldn't recommend it. Novatian has some interesting arguments and fascinating reads on Scripture (which I don't always agree with, but so far have been always intrigued by). So I'd say skim it if you must, read it if you can.

Monday, April 6, 2015

ANF V: Novatian On the Trinity I-VIII

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian: Treatise Concerning the Trinity I-VIII

Loosely following the structure of the Creed, in this first section Novatian outlines the Divinity of God the Father. I won't go in detail through each of the eight "arguments" given in these chapters, I'll just encourage you to read these because they are excellent. For example, Chapter II gives us a wonderful articulation of Divine Providence:
And over all these things He Himself, containing all things, having nothing vacant beyond Himself, has left room for no superior God, such as some people conceive. Since, indeed, He Himself has included all things in the bosom of perfect greatness and power, He is always intent upon His own work, and pervading all things, and moving all things, and quickening all things, and beholding all things, and so linking together discordant materials into the concord of all elements, that out of these unlike principles one world is so established by a conspiring union, that it can by no force be dissolved, save when He alone who made it commands it to be dissolved, for the purpose of bestowing other and greater things upon us. 
Excellent, excellent stuff. There might be a slight tendency to over-allegorization at times, but that's a failing of the Church Fathers in general, and there's no reason to single out Novatian for criticism there specifically.

Friday, April 3, 2015

ANF V: Novatian Introduction

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Novatian, a Roman Presbyter: Introductory Notice

The editors associate Novatian with other fathers like Tatian and Tertullian, who were powerful witnesses to the faith but wandered into questionable doctrines and practices later in their lives. Perhaps not open heresy per se, but ideas and actions that today we would hesitate to associate with and then would have openly condemned.
And yet, that does not negate the good they did in contending for the faith. Novatian specifically, as we saw much of in Cyprian's Epistles, divided the church structure by opposing the election of Cornelius, and eventually holding a different view of baptism, polity, and holiness. In the last he was overly extreme, ultimately coming to an uncharitable view of Christian practice. And yet, he still held faithfully to the truth revealed in Scripture and may even have been martyred.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

ANF V: Caius Fragments

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 5

Caius the Presbyter: Fragments

As the Introductory Notice points out, Caius is a mostly unknown figure with many works attributed to him (most notably the "Muratorian Canon"), but none certainly his.
The fragments themselves are worth skimming, especially since the whole section is short and on having finished it you can claim to have read all or most of what we have from this shadowy apologist.
In these fragments, we see a concern for the supremacy of Scripture over tradition and claims to apostolic teaching handed down privately or personally. We see also the concern for orthodox Christology and a unified church around Christ.

So read and enjoy, it's short!