Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume 4, Tertullian (IV), Minicius Felix, Commodian, Origen

The fourth volume in the classic series edited by Philip Schaff combines the scraps of Tertullian's Montanist period, two short works by Tertullian's fellow North Africans Minucius Felix and Commodian, and the grand pre-Augustinian theologian Origen (also technically a "North African" in that he spent much of his life in Alexandria, but "Alexandria" is generally grouped with Eastern Christianity and, later, Eastern Orthodoxy, while "North Africa" refers to Latin writers in the Carthage area).


Since the entire last volume was devoted to Tertullian (reviewed here), I'll just give a brief note on each of his treatises here. I will say that if I didn't know the back story, I don't know that I would have picked up much of his Montanism from these works. To be sure, some of theme are more extreme than his previous writings; and to be even surer, this is a 19th century translation and much of the nuances may just be getting lost in the old-timey language. (If you haven't read any of these volumes, they often follow the 19th century device of intentionally antiquating their language so that it sounds like a 19th century parody of the 16th century. Which is annoying not just here but in much literature of the time.) I mean, the bits about the prophet Prisca was a bit of a giveaway that something else is going on with Tertullian, but even then he sticks mostly to Scripture and doesn't seem to rely too much on these extra prophecies (though of course any such reliance should make us hesitate). If you want to know more about this, the folks over at The Tertullian Project have got a great bundle of resources all gathered into one place...

I. On the Pallium
Here Tertullian makes the quite reasonable point that since clothing customs change over time, we ought not worry about wearing the pallium, even though such is not commanded in Scripture. He also gives what I hope is good-natured ribbing about even worrying topics like this:
Men of Carthage, ever princes of Africa, ennobled by ancient memories, blest with modern felicities, I rejoice that times are so prosperous with you that you have leisure to spend and pleasure to find in criticising dress. These are the 'piping times of peace' and plenty. Blessings rain from the empire and from the sky. (OTP, Chapter 1)
At least, I hope it's good natured--with Tertullian we can never be completely sure that he's not in full-blown cranky-old-man mode...

II. On the Apparel of Women
While we may in fact be able to wear whatever the local customs dictate, women are still required to be modest (men too, for that matter). Rather than extravagant opulence of the culture, we should remember that we are temples of the Holy Spirit and not to be made gaudy or falsely painted/covered with gold. And while I don't know that I'd go quite as far as Tertullian in condemning all makeup, I'm quite happy to admit that he condemns it with style and quotability:
Whatever is born is the work of God. Whatever, then, is plastered on is the devil's work. (OAW, Chapter 5)
III. On the Veiling of Virgins
The plain truth of Scripture is that women should be modest at all times, whether virgin or married. Human custom may dictate otherwise, but it's our job to rise above human custom and live in a way pleasing to God and worthy of our salvation.
Tertullian points out that tradition and custom grown from time, people, and geographic location:
For these, for the most part, are the sources whence, from some ignorance or simplicity, custom finds its beginning; and then it is successionally confirmed into an usage, and thus is maintained in opposition to truth. But our Lord Christ has surnamed Himself Truth, not Custom. (OVV, Chapter 1)
IV. To His Wife
Here, Tertullian argues that widowed women should not remarry, and that no Christian woman should ever marry an unbeliever. Rather, the widow should be content in her relationship with God and not seek for fulfillment in what God has taken away from her. While Tertullian doesn't go quite so far as to explicitly say "if God wanted you to be married He wouldn't have killed your first husband," it's certainly in the subtext...

V. On Exhortation to Chastity
Again, Tertullian tells us that one marriage is the limit! Any more than that and we're just giving in to lust. In this short work we also see the beginnings of the North African discussion of the will that eventually culminates with Augustine (though Tertullian is not nearly so good a thinker, and only touches on the subject in passing).

VI. On Monogamy
Yet again, one marriage is the limit (there's a clear pattern to those later works of Tertullian which have survived). This truth is hinted at in Scripture and solidified by a new movement of the Spirit amongst those who truly believe.

VII. On Modesty
There is no forgiveness for adultery or fornication after conversion. That is to say, there is no easy forgiveness. I suppose it's not surprising that Tertullian takes this extreme position after the big build up of "one marriage only." And yet, I don't think Tertullian is completely astray here either. His radical sexual purity seems to be based not so much on a granite temperament (though he certainly had that), as on a high view of virtue. So he opens the treatise:
Modesty, the flower of manners, the honour of our bodies, the grace of the sexes, the integrity of the blood, the guarantee of our race, the basis of sanctity, the pre-indication of every good disposition; rare though it is, and not easily perfect, and scarce ever retained in perpetuity, will yet up to a certain point linger in the world... (OM, Chapter 1)
VIII. On Fasting, in Opposition to the Psychics
The fasting practices of the Montanists are Biblical (especially along Old Testament lines), and clearly in accord with the Holy Spirit's guidance. And again, while I may not care much for Tertullian's actual conclusions, his desire to obey and his delight in the ordinances which we regularly and utterly ignore these days is at the very least convicting.

IX. De Fuga in Persecutione (On Flight During Persecution)
We must not flee persecution! It is ordained by God for our own good, and so we ought to stick it out. This short essay--though I disagree with it's overall claim, I think there are times when it is perfectly reasonable for a Christian to flee persecution--has some delightful reminders about the power of our salvation to overcome whatever the world can throw at us.
You are Christ-clothed, you who flee before the devil, since into Christ you have been baptized. Christ, who is in you, is treated as of small account when you give yourself back to the devil, by becoming a fugutive before him. (DFP, 10)
All this [the suffering of Christ] took place that He might redeem us from our sins. The sun ceded to us the day of our redemption; hell re-transferred the right it had in us, and our covenant is in heaven; the everlasting gates were lifted up, that the King of Glory, the Lord of might, might enter in, after having redeemed man from earth, nay, from hell, that he might attain to heaven.... Will you value, then, this free man at any price, and possess him at any price, but the one, as we have said, it cost the Lord--namely His own blood? (DFP, 12)
For as Christ laid down His life for us, so, too, we should do for Him. (DFP, 12)
I do hope this was Tertullian's last work (and it may not have been, the chronology is obscure), because I love the image of the champion of Christianity who fell into heresy coming back with a work like this challenging Christians to remain faithful to the end.

X. Appendix
If nothing else, this section proves that there is a long, venerable tradition of Christians writing terrible fiction. Or, as Elucidation I says, "These versifications... are 'poems' only as mules are horses." (166) The "Genesis" poem is kind of fun, but really you can skip this section and lose nothing. And no, Tertullian probably didn't write these--they're far too cheerful.

Minucius Felix

The Octavius
This "dialogue" (really two back-to-back monologues) is truly fantastic, and more than makes up for the drudgery of the preceding poetry. Minucius Felix lays out a litany of pagan objections to Christianity, and then responds to each. Every ancient challenge makes an appearance, from the charge of immorality (incest, cannibalism, midnight orgies, and, well, the rest) to the claim that fortune and nature truly rule mankind and the universe, not the Christian God.
Minucius Felix responds with a depth and intelligence that is truly impressive. I suspect that if we had more of his writings, he would be ranked with Origen as one of the colossal minds of the Ante-Nicene era. Just to give a sampling of his writing:
"[I grant the pagan argument that] man ought to know himself, and to look around and see what he is, whence he is, why he is; whether collected together from the elements, or harmoniously formed of atoms, or rather made, formed, and animated by God. And it is this very thing which we cannot seek out and investigate without inquiry into the universe; since things are so coherent, so linked and associated together, that unless you diligently examine into the nature of divinity, you must be ignorant of humanity. Nor can you well perform your social duty unless you know that community of the world which is common to all." (Octavius, Chapter 17)
"Now if, on entering any house, you should behold everything refined, well arranged, and adorned, assuredly you would believe that a master presided over it, and that he himself was much better than all those excellent things. So in this house of the world, when you look upon the heaven and the earth, its providence, its ordering, its law, believe that there is a Lord and Parent of the universe for more glorious than the stars themselves, and the parts of the whole world." (Octavius, Chapter 18)
"How beautiful is the spectacle to God when a Christian does battle with pain; when he is drawn up against threats, and punishments, and tortures; when, mocking the noise of death, he treads under foot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his liberty against kings and princes, and yields to God alone, whose he is; when, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced sentence against him! For he has conquered who has obtained that for which he contends... Thus the Christian may seem to be miserable; he cannot be really found to be so." (Octavius, Chapter 37)
"We despise the bent brows of the philosophers, whom we know to be corrupters, and adulterers, and tyrants, and ever eloquent against their own vices. We who bear wisdom not in our dress, but in our mind, we do not speak great things, but we live them; we boast that we have attained what they have sought for with the utmost eagerness, and have not been able to find." (Octavius, Chapter 38)
The Instructions of Commodianus in Favour of Christian Discipline, against the gods of the heathens

Aside from the odd eschatology on display here, I think Commodianus has given us a method that's worthy of attention, even if it needs updating for today. Basically, he walks through the heathen gods one at a time (Mercury, Jupiter, etc) and explains why they are not truly gods at all. Because so few people worship those gods these days, an updated version would give a brief overview of Islam, the Eastern gods, and the Animist deities. I'm not sure I'd want to do a one-to-one parallel with the things that Westerners tend to worship (science, progress, nature, ourselves, etc), since actual "divinities" are under consideration here. But it's still an interesting exercise and worth a quick read.


And, the one we've all been waiting for. Origen is by most accounts the greatest theologian of the early church prior to Augustine. Which... doesn't actually say much for the state of theology in the early church.
Okay, that's probably unfair. The church was still young and still working out the whole "what is our relationship with Greek philosophy?" thing, and we obviously have to be generous with them. And to be yet more fair (fairer?), some of this really was quite good. And some of it wasn't.

De Principiis
Most of that which wasn't is found in De Principiis, the first extant systematic theology and one of the major sources of the Origenist controversy of the 4th and 5th centuries, wherein much argument was had between major Christian scholars over whether Origen was an orthodox or heretical thinker. The controversy continues today to some extent, though by and large we accept him as a Christian while rejecting some of his more extreme thought.
Anyhow, De Principiis lays out Origen's view of the basics of the faith, including the nature of the Godhead, human nature, and the nature of creation. This edition is especially interesting since from time to time it will have the Latin version transcribed (and updated into better theology) by Rufinius in one column, and the remnants of the more speculative and (occasionally) heretical Greek in the other.
Where people get tripped up are places where Origen speculates on the pre-creation of souls, the idea that eventually all creatures will be redeemed after being purified in hell (hence the glimmerings of the idea of Purgatory), and the radical view of human free will.
And yet, for all its problems there are some worthwhile passages. Even if his theology can get a bit wonky at times, Origen clearly has a high view of Scripture and is trying his best to worship God with his mind accordingly. For example, I love how Origen talks about our attempts at theology:
Having refuted, then, as well as we could, every notion which might suggest that we were to think of God as in any degree corporeal, we go on to say that, according to strict truth, God is incomprehensible, and incapable of being measured. For whatever be the knowledge which we are able to obtain of God, either by perception or reflection, we must of necessity believe that He is by many degrees far better than what we perceive Him to be....
But it will not appear absurd if we employ another similitude to make the matter clearer. Our eyes frequently cannot look upon the nature of the light itself--that is, upon the substance of the sun; but when we behold his splendour or his rays pouring in, perhaps, through windows or some small openings to admit the light, we can reflect how great is the supply and source of the light of the body. So, in like manner, the works of Divine Providence and the plan of this whole world are a sort of rays, as it were, of the nature of God, in comparison with His real substance and being. As, therefore, our understanding is unable of itself to behold God Himself as He is, it knows the Father of the world from the beauty of His works and the comeliness of His creatures. (I.I.5-6)
Or again when he attempts to explain the Incarnation:
After the consideration of questions of such importance concerning the being of the Son of God, we are lost in the deepest amazement that such a nature, pre-eminent above all others, should have divested itself of its condition of majesty and become man, and tabernacled amongst men....
But of all the marvellous and mighty acts related of Him, this altogether surpasses human admiration, and is beyond the power of mortal frailness to understand or feel, how that mighty power of divine majesty, that very Word of the Father, and that very wisdom of God, in which were created all things, visible and invisible, can be believed to have existed within the limits of the man who appeared in Judea; nay, that the Wisdom of God can have entered the womb of a woman, and have been born an infant, and have uttered wailings like the cries of little children! And that afterwards it should be related that He was greatly troubled in death, saying, as He Himself declared, "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death;" and that at the last He was brought to that death which is accounted the most shameful among men, although He rose again on the third day. Since, then, we see in Him some things so human that they appear to differ in no respect from the common frailty of mortals, and some things so divine that they can appropriately belong to nothing else than to the primal and ineffable nature of Deity, the narrowness of human understanding can find no outlet; but, overcome with the amazement of am mighty admiration, knows not whither to withdraw, or what to take hold of, or whither to turn. If it think of a God, it sees a mortal; if it think of a man, it beholds Him returning from the grave, after overthrowing the empire of death, laden with its spoils. And therefore the spectacle is to be contemplated with all fear and reverence, that the truth of both natures may be clearly shown to exist in one and the same Being." (II.VI-1-2)
And, well, I think we can see why Origen can be forgiven his excessive speculations. So... I don't know that this is necessarily a place to start with the church fathers (or with Origen, for that matter), but it might be worth reading for someone looking to dig in a bit deeper to the theology of the patristic era. Just be sure to read it with a huge grain of salt ready.

Africanus to Origen/Origen to Africanus
These two letters raise the question of the canonicity of the "History of Susanna", a story attached to the book of Daniel in the Apocrypha. The short version is that Origen thinks this story should be in the Bible, and obviously I'm going to find it uncompelling (not least because I've read it and, well, it's definitely got a different feel that the rest of the book of Daniel). These letters are short enough that there's no reason to skip them, and I suppose they provide an interesting look at how Origen viewed Scripture in general, but beyond that there's not much worth taking up too much time here.

A Letter from Origen to Gregory
This short letter, on the other hand, is worth reading and dwelling on. Responding to a letter from Gregory Thaumaturgus, Origen argues that rather than shunning pagan philosophy, we ought to read it and mine it for absolutely everything that it's worth. Just as the Israelites spoiled the Egyptians of their gold on their way out, so we ought to strip the house of everything of value as we leave. This not only gives us nice stuff with which to decorate our own place, it recognizes the sovereignty of God over the pagans as well and shows gratitude for his work among them.
But lest we think Origen is selling out to pagan theology, he ends this short letter with a charge to Gregory to be sure to pursue the study of Scripture first and foremost. It must be the foundation of the Christian life, and if we're going to rebuild the things we've plundered from the pagans on top of it, we need to be sure that we are regularly asking, seeking, and knocking through prayer and devotion.
While I don't necessarily agree with all of this, I think it's an important argument and one that we Christians should spend a good deal of time reflecting on--especially in a world that is increasingly alien to the Gospel. What should we be taking from the culture, and what should we be resisting? There are no easy answers, but Origen at least gives us a place to start...

Against Celsus
Origen's response to the pagan writer Celsus is the primary work in this volume of the ANF, making up almost have of its ~700 pages. In it, Origen walks almost line by line through Celsus' criticism of Christianity (called True Doctrine or something along those lines) and provides a Christian response to each of the challenges thrown out therein. If you want a good summary of Celsus that is short and readable, check out the appropriate chapter in Wilcken's The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (a book you do need on your shelf--it's excellent!).
Basically, Celsus accuses the Christians of creating something new. Which is bad, because "new" is: contrary to the established practices of the world; offensive to the gods; a violation of tradition (Celsus especially focuses on Jewish tradition); and repugnant to true philosophy.
I am not going to go through Origen's response to each of Celsus' points, that would be tedious (as the whole thing can be if you try to read it through--there's a short summary at the end of the ANF volume that will give you the highlights). Instead, I think it's worthwhile to notice Origen's method--rather than responding with vitriol, or ignoring Celsus' actual claims, Origen carefully and patiently walks through each claim made by Celsus, explains it, points out where it goes wrong, and provides the Christian response. And although he at times takes Celsus to task for sloppy scholarship or confusing orthodox Christians with heretics, you never get the sense that Origen is about to burst a blood vessel in his eye (as I imagine had to have happened daily with Tertullian).

I do wonder if there is a lesson here for us (and this is legitimate wondering, not me saying "I wonder" and meaning "this is unvarnished truth"). Would it be worthwhile to take a book by, oh, a New Atheist, or a Muslim, or a Mormon, or whatever and walk through it with the patience and the thoroughness of an Origen and respond to its claims point by point? Or is that more trouble than it's worth? Not being much of an apologist myself, I don't know that I have a good answer to that.

So just what is Origen's response to Celsus? Again, I can't do justice to a ~350 page book in a thousand word review. In general, Origen claims that when Christianity is rightly understood, it is not really something "new" (the charge at the heart of all of Celsus' criticisms). It is rather the consummation of all of human existence, the pinnacle of wisdom, the life of true virtue, and the highest philosophical good made available to all of humanity. The two pronged response Origen most often uses is that if one looks at true believers (and Origen is quite concerned to keep heretics in a separate category), one will see both the virtuous life in the common people and the highest love of wisdom in the intellectuals. Our lives are ultimately our witnesses, which means it is incumbent on us to cling to the Gospel and shape our lives accordingly.

Overall, I don't know that Against Celsus is quite worth the time and energy it takes to get through ~350 double-columned pages. With that said, Origen's thought is worthwhile and does force further reflection on Scripture and the Christian life. It just might be better to pick up one of the many available abridgments and work with that instead.

In closing, a selection of quotes from Against Celsus. I suspect these do not do justice to the great thinker of Alexandria, but they were a few of the many I marked while reading through the text:

"Now this is our answer to his allegations, and our defense of the truths contained in Christianity, that if any one were to come from the study of Grecian opinions and usages to the Gospel, he would not only decide that its doctrines were true, but would by practice establish their truth, and supply whatever seemed wanting, from a Grecian point of view, to their demonstration, and thus confirm the truth of Christianity." I.2 
In response to the charge that Christians are always hanging about with sinners and criminals (and we all know that criminals always hang out with other criminals), Origen writes "A Christian... even though he invite those whom the robber invites [into his home, for dinner, etc] invites them to a very different vocation, viz., to bind up these wounds by His word, and to apply to the soul, festering amid evils, the drugs obtained from the word." III.60 
"And therefore, as those who expect the resurrection of the dead, we assert that the qualities which are in bodies undergo change: since some bodies, which are sown in corruption, are raised in incorruption; and others, sown in dishonour, are raised in glory; and others, again, sown in weakness, are raised in power; and those which are sown natural bodies are raised as spiritual. That the matter which underlies bodies is capable of receiving those qualities which the Creator pleases to bestow, is a point which all of us who accept the doctrine of providence firmly hold; so that, if God so willed, one quality is at the present time implanted in this portion of matter, and afterwards another of a different and better kind." IV.57 
"And as a husbandman performs different acts of husbandry upon the soil and its productions, according to the varying seasons of the year, so God administers entire ages of time, as if they were, so to speak, so many individual years, performing during each one of them what is requisite with a reasonable regard to the care of the world." (IV.69) .... "We have to say that, as we ourselves, when talking with very young children, do not aim at exerting our own power of eloquence, but adapting ourselves to the weakness of our charge, both say and do those things which may appear to us useful for the correction and improvement of the children as children, so the word of God appears to have dealt with... history. (IV.71) 
"So those who understand that God is light, and who have apprehended that the Son of God is 'the true light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world,' and who comprehend also how He says 'I am the light of the world,' would not rationally offer worship to that which is, as it were, a spark in sun, moon, and stars, in comparison with God, who is light of the true light." (V.11) 
"Now, if he imagine that the existence of numerous heresies among the Christians is a ground of accusation against Christianity, why, in a similar way, should it not be a ground of accusation against philosophy, that the various sects of philosophers differ from each other, not on small and indifferent points, but upon those of the highest importance?" (V.61) 
"God conceals Himself in darkness, as it were, from those who cannot endure the splendours of His knowledge, or are incapable of looking at them, partly owing to the pollution of their understanding, which is clothed with the body of mortal lowliness, and partly owing to its feebler power of comprehending God." (VI.17) 
"We say that the holy Scriptures declare the body of Christ, animated by the Son of God, to be the whole Church of God, and the members of this body--considered as a whole--to consist of those who are believers; since, as a soul vivifies and moves the body, which of itself has not the natural power of motion like a living being, so the Word, arousing and moving the whole body, the Church, to befitting actions, awakens, moreover, each individual member belonging to the Church, so that they do nothing apart from the Word." (VI.48) 
"For what reasonable man can refrain from smiling when he sees that one who has learned from philosophy such profound and noble sentiments about God or the gods, turns straightway to images and offers to them his prayers, or imagines that by gazing upon these material things he can ascend from the visible symbol to that which is spiritual and immaterial. But a Christian, even of the common people, is assured that every place forms part of the universe, and that the whole universe is God's temple. In whatever part of the world he is, he prays; but he rises above the universe, 'shutting the eyes of sense and raising upwards the eyes of the soul.' And he stops not at the vault of heaven; but passing in thought beyond the heavens, under the guidance of the Spirit of God, and having thus as it were gone beyond the visible universe, he offers prayers to God." (VII.44) 
"But we, while recognising the duty of thankfulness, maintain that we show no ingratitude by refusing to give thanks to beings who do us no good, but who rather set themselves against us when we neither sacrifice to them nor worship them. We are much more concerned lest we should be ungrateful to God, who has loaded us with His benefits, whose workmanship we are, who cares for us in whatever condition we may be, and who has given us hopes of things beyond this present life. And we have a symbol of gratitude to God in the bread which we call the Eucharist." (VIII.57) 
"Wherefore the world prevails only so long as it is the pleasure of Him who received from the Father power to overcome the world; and from His victory we take courage." (VIII.70) 
"We do take our part in public affairs, when along with righteous prayers we join self-denying exercises and meditations, which teach us to despise pleasures, and not to be led away by them. And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it [meaning military service]; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army--an army of piety--by offering our prayers to God." (VIII.73)

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