‘Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries’ Category

St. Patrick or Patrick the Christian saint

September 4th, 2012 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries, Church History, Eminent Christians

When judged from the vantage-point of the New Testament, the entire medieval project of elevating some Christians to the status of “saints” is an illegitimate undertaking. In that yardstick of Christianity, all believers are “saints,” set apart for God and declared holy by virtue of union with Christ. A number of these “saints” were, of course, remarkable Christians. Though not worthy of the elite status accorded by the medieval Church, they are still men and women with whom we should be acquainted.

Take Patrick of Ireland, for example. A visit to New York City this past winter involved, as it often does when I go to Manhattan, a brief visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The Christian after whom this imposing neo-Gothic edifice is named would be amazed at a lot of what goes on in this church: the Mariolatry, the votive candles for the dead, the statues (his own among them!)—how far removed from the Nicene Trinitarianism that Patrick took to Ireland.

While history has been enormously generous to Patrick—a patron saint celebrated by millions every March 17, for instance—it has also obscured the real man, who is found in one place: his two genuine writings, his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In these texts we see a man overwhelmed by the grace of his calling to be a minister of the gospel and a missionary to the Irish at the very edge of all the world that Patrick, a Romano-Brit, knew.

Get hold of those texts. Read them and be changed by his passions and his convictions.

The Cappadocians and creating culture

June 19th, 2011 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

Recently, my family and I had a tremendous vacation in Sarasota. Among the things I did, this one with my daughter Victoria, was to go downtown Sarasota, where I found in a fabulous bookstore, Parkers, on Main Street, a cloth copy of the gem by Jaroslav Pelikan: Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (Yale University Press, 1993), in which he powerfully dissects the way the Cappadocians created a Christian culture for their day. I had a paper copy: it was great to get a cloth copy. For this book is a gem—and not simply because I am into the Cappadocians. It is extremely instructive.

Wherever Christians gather over the course of time, they create a culture. This is inevitable since we are culture-creating creatures. And if we are not alert and vigilant, we will adopt the regnant culture of our society. Either we Christians are about transforming culture or it will transform us.

Case in point: the substitution of Mothers Day and Fathers Day for Pentecost and Trinity Sunday à la my recent post.

Learning from St Patrick

March 18th, 2010 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

Lest anyone think I forgot St Patrick’s Day, I did wear green on the day (some friends urged me to wear orange, and one even black!!). But I wore green, which was also Jonathan Edwards’ favourite colour and, Edwards was convinced, was God’s favourite colour. No comment on that! I did offer some St Patrick’s Day ideas before the day, like praying for the Irish. But also here is an excellent word on Patrick from my Dean, Dr. Moore: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Saint Patrick . A lot to learn here!

We believe in the Holy Spirit

March 4th, 2010 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed is the capstone of the doctrinal development of the Ancient Church as it relates to the Trinity. From a creedal standpoint what is unique about this text is the elaboration of the article about the Holy Spirit, which confesses the full deity of the Spirit by focusing on who he is—he is “Lord” and the One who proceeds from the Father—and what he does—he is “the Giver of life,” physical and especially spiritual, and the inspirer of those who wrote the Holy Scriptures. He is thus worthy of our heart’s adoration and worship along with the Father and the Son. And as such he must be fully God. The roots that gave rise to this confession are fully biblical ones, found first in passages that implicitly affirm him as God for he does what only God can do (e.g. Luke 1:35; Acts 10:38; Matthew 12:28; Hebrews 9:14; Romans 8:10–11; 1 Corinthians 12:3; 2:10­–12; 2 Corinthians 3:6, 17–18) and then in Scripture texts that rank him alongside the Father and the Son, so again implying his deity (Titus 3:4–7; 1 Corinthians 12:4–6; 2 Corinthians 13:14; Revelation 1:4–5; Matthew 28:19). The later expansion of this article of the Creed in the early Middle Ages by Latin-speaking theologians and churchmen, namely the assertion that proceeds “from the Father and the Son”—what is called the “Filioque”—is a biblically motivated assertion for it seeks to affirm the central truth of the New Testament that the Holy Spirit is always the Spirit of Christ (see Romans 8:9; 2 Corinthians 3:17).

John Gill and Basil of Caesarea

February 25th, 2010 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries, Baptist Life & Thought

Ove the past few weeks I have been sourcing patristic citations from Basil of Caesarea mostly (but today also Gregory of Nazianzus) in John Gill’s The Cause of God and Truth, and I cannot find any of them! It has been an extremely frustrating experience.

Gill is citing these Fathers to defend the perspective that the so-called five points of Calvinism have a much earlier heritage than the Reformation and post-Refomation theologians. Methdological concerns aside, it appears that Gill at times made paraphrases from the writings of Basil. I have been combing through the Greek and am so frustrated with coming up with not one quote that I can confirm in Basil’s corpus.

Thankfully, one of my PhD students, Steven Godet, is working on this very matter, and will provide answers!

Addendum (added Feb 26/2010): Have actually found three or four citations in the past three hours. Generally ok, but some of the quotes are paraphrases.

The Ancient Church Fathers: senior partners in a conversation

February 27th, 2009 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries, Baptist Life & Thought

I vividly remember a conversation in the early 1990s I had with a person transitioning from Fundamentalism to something further to the left theologically. It was, for me, a defining moment. The topic of the Nicene Creed had been raised and this individual stated that such a document was of no authority in his life since it was written by men and had no divine input.

Such a statement then and now strikes me as both arrogant and false. It fails to understand the profound biblical import of the document concerned. Also at one fell swoop, the entire cast of characters in the history of the Church is disposed of and all that matters is the individual’s own mind and his or her Bible. Of course, I know where this person was coming from: nuda Scriptura, which is essentially an exaltation of autonomy at the expense of all tradition that ultimately leads to a radical individualism well-nigh indistinguishable from a Paine or Emerson—well, the individual would have given this caveat, a commitment to biblical authority. Essentially, though, his view was crafted in the same crucible that saw the rise of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons and the entire nineteenth-century reaction against a learned ministry.

The inimitable Victorian Baptist Charles H. Spurgeon, though, well answered this errant position: “It seems odd, that certain men who talk so much of what the Holy Spirit reveals to themselves, should think so little of what he has revealed to others.” [Commenting and Commentaries (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1876), 1].

And, if I were to have that discussion today, I would ask the person to ponder these wise words of J.I. Packer: “Tradition–is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it. I am bold to say that evangelicals, even those of Anabaptist polity, should be turned by their own belief in the Spirit as the Church’s teacher into men of tradition, and that if we all dialogued with Christian tradition more we should all end up wiser than we are. [“Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today”, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 25 (1982), 414].

How then to read the Ancient Church Fathers in whose era the Nicene Creed was framed? As Evangelicals who adhere to the Reformation principle of sola Scriptura (something quite different from nuda Scriptura), we cannot read them as authorities alongside Holy Scripture. But we cannot utterly discard them either. Rather, just as the Bible admonishes us to honour the aged among us, so we need to consider the Fathers as senior conversation partners in our theological task—as Packer says, “not infallible, but neither…negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard” them.

Where to Start in Reading Patristics

April 13th, 2008 Posted in Ancient Church: 2nd & 3rd Centuries, Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

I was asked by one reader (www.letmypeopleread.blogspot.com ) about where I would recommend beginning a reading programme in the Fathers. Here is my brief reply. (And thanks, brother, for the great question).

I would start with Robert Louis Wilken, The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Then: Christopher A. Hall, Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1998). Finally, a third book that is a gem, but not easy is Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition. A History of the Development of Doctrine. Vol. 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600) (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1971).

And do not forget getting into the Fathers directly. Start with Augustine, Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1961) [this is the translation I like, but there are others]. Or read through an excellent collection by Steven A. McKinion, ed., Life and Practice in the Early Church. A Documentary Reader (New York/London: New York University Press, 2001). Another favourite of mine is Basil of Ceasarea, On the Holy Spirit, trans. David Anderson (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimirs Press, 1980).

For a good overview of the period, see the relevant pages in Tim Dowley ed., Introduction to the History of Christianity (1990 Rev. ed.; repr. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995) and for the key leaders, see John D. Woodbridge, ed., Great Leaders of the Christian Church (Chicago: Moody Press, 1988). The latter is regrettably out of print, but second-hand copies can be gotten easily. I have also had published Defence of the Truth: Contending for the truth yesterday and today (Darlington, Co. Durham: Evangelical Press, 2004), which deals with theological challenges faced by the Ancient Church.

I did blog on this back in 2006: see WHAT TO READ OF THE FATHERS?

Why Seek out the Fathers

April 8th, 2008 Posted in Ancient Church: 2nd & 3rd Centuries, Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

A dear friend, John Clubine, recently passed along to me a couple of pages from The Berean Call, 23, No.3 (March 2008), an article by T.A. McMahon entitled “Ancient-Future Heresies.” There are a number of things in the article with which I would wholeheartedly agree. But at one point the following is stated:

“…it takes very little scrutiny of men like Origen, Ireaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Cyprian, Justin Martyr, Athanasius, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Augustine, and others, to see their flaws, let alone their heresies. For example, Origen taught that God would save everyone and that Mary was a perpetual virgin; Irenaeus believed that the bread and wine became the body and blood of Jesus when consecrated, as did John Chrysostom and Cyril of Jerusalem; Athanasius taught salvation through baptism; Tertullian became a supporter of the Montanist heresies, and a promoter of a New Testament clergy class, as did his disciple Cyprian; Augustine was the principal architect of Catholic dogma that included his support of purgatory, baptismal regeneration, and infant baptism, mortal and venial sins, prayers to the dead, penance for sins, absolution from a priest, the sinlessness of Mary, the Apocrypha as Scripture, etc. It’s not that these men got everything wrong; some on certain doctrines, upheld Scripture against the developing unbiblical dogmas of the roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, overall they are a heretical minefield. So why seek them out?” (p.4).

John Lukacs, a marvelous historian, has recently said that one of the reasons why we need to do history is that there is so much bad history out there. And this paragraph is a case in point! Much of what is said here is out and out erroneous, some of it needs nuancing and parts of it are right. It would take a book to respond adequately, and a blog is probably not the best place in engage in developing an adequate response.

But suffice it to say this: the paragraph ends with a very erroneous statement and a very important question. The deeply erroneous statement: “overall they are a heretical minefield.” Wow! There have been some in the past who argued thus, but they were usually ones who disagreed with the Reformation impulse and felt that the entire history of the church between the Apocalypse of John and the Reformation was an utter wasteland. Best to forget it all and start anew.

This was not the view of the Reformers, who felt that the Fathers of the Church could aid them in the Reformation needed in their day. Not that the Reformers believed everything that the Fathers wrote. They tested all against Holy Scripture. But they did believe that the Fathers more often supported them than they did their Roman Catholic opponents.

The question: “why seek them out?” Because the Reformers like Calvin and Cranmer and Knox believed that the Fathers were important witnesses to biblical truth and they bore witness to the grace of God at work in the Church.

Scripture for Hilary of Poitiers

April 4th, 2008 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

Some great words from Hilary of Poitiers (c.315-367/8), whom I have long desired to study more and even write a biography of him:

“The Apostle, who instructs us on many things, also teaches us that the Word of God must be treated with the greatest reverence, saying “whoever speaks, [let him speak] as uttering the oracles of God” [1 Peter 4:11]. For we ought not to treat Scripture with a vulgar familiarity, as we do in our ordinary speech; rather, when we speak of what we have learned and read we should give honor to the author by our care for the way we express ourselves… Preachers, then, must think that they are not speaking to a human audience, and hearers must know that it is not human words that are being offered to them, but that they are God’s words, God’s decrees, God’s laws. For both roles, the utmost reverence is fitting.” [Tractatus super Psalmum 13.1 (CCSL 61:76, ll.1-6, 21-24)].

Discovering John of Damascus

September 14th, 2007 Posted in Ancient Church: 4th & 5th Centuries

Church history is endlessly fascinating. For one, it is populated by remarkable individuals, many of whom I hardly know and whose lives beckon and promise wisdom and inspiration. Such a one is John of Damasacus, the eighth century theologian. I knew the name of course, but until a few weeks ago when I began preparing for a talk at Sola Scriptura’s Toronto conference on Islam, I really knew next to nothing.

I have significant disagreements, of course. His rebuttal of iconoclasm, for one. But what a deft responder to Islam. He isolated one of the central issues of Islam, central, that is, to its self-identity: Islam’s rejection of the Trinity. Allah has no son and no associates. John, who read Arabic and the Qur’an in Arabic, saw this clearly and responds accordingly.

A delight to find and read.