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...