Monthly Archives: July 2009

An absolute bit of rubbish in the Chronicle

K.L. Knoll, professor and chair of the Religion Dept. at Brandon University, has written an article entitled, “The Ethics of Being a Theologian.” What does an ethical theologian do, according to Dr. Knoll? “I simply request that theologians fulfill basic ethical obligations, such as the affirmation that theology is not knowledge and must position itself apart from those academic disciplines that try to advance knowledge, such as history, anthropology, religious study, and (perhaps especially) the natural sciences.”

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The hermeneutical practices of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and their implication for Christology

JohnChrysostomNPThat’s easily the longest title I’ve ever had for a post, particularly what is going to be such a short post. I’ve been studying for my final in Latin and haven’t had much time to post lately. However, I’ve been reading John J. O’Keefe and R.R. Reno’s “Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible.” This book is a rarity; instead of dealing with the development of dogma or the underlying philosophy of a patristic author, the book is solely focused on analyzing the hermeneutical practices of the Fathers. It is an introduction to the way the Fathers read Scripture and an invitation to do the same. This has been a neglected element of patristic scholarship. They note that “were we to put the often-read doctrinally oriented treatises next to the volumes of largely unread patristic commentary and homily, the latter would dwarf the former.” (4)

A great many people are familiar with Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, or Augustine’s Confessions, but too few take the time to read the texts that actually make up the bulk of patristic literature: commentary. In chapter three of their book they discuss the Christological reading of the Fathers. “The ideal interpretation is the most elegant and comprehensive. For this reason, a general theory of the data, something like a ‘total reading’, serves as a scientific goal.” (25) This “total reading” is a Christological reading of the text that accounts for all the data. They quote Ignatius in his Letter to the Philadelphians (8:2) saying(ἐμοὶ δὲ ἀρχεῖά ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς Χριστός) “To my mind it is Jesus Christ who is the original documents.” (27) They then add that “the central role of Jesus is clear in Ignatius, and it comes to dominate the patristic exegetical tradition.” (28) This, of course, is clear in the New Testament where various institutions and persons are given a fresh explanation in the light of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection.

So, what does this have to do with anything? As I read the book and think about the numerous books on Christology in the early Church, I can’t help but notice the lack of scholarship concerning the Christ-centered hermeneutics of the Fathers and what this tells us about Christology. Can we gain insight by observing not only what the Fathers said, but how they arrived at that point after their reading of the Scriptures? Has anyone already written on this?


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Augustine, the Manichees, and providing a ready defense

In his Confessions, St. Augustine tells us about the Manichees and their inability to answer a man named Elpidius.

Even before I left Carthage, I had listened to the speeches of a man named Elpidius, who used to join in open controversy with the Manichees, and I had been impressed when he put foward arguments from Scripture which were not easy to demolish. I thought that the Manichees’ answer was weak and, in fact, they were chary of giving it in public and only mentioned it in private to adherents of the sect. They claimed that the books of the New Testament had been tampered with by unnamed persons who wished to impose the Jewish law upon the Christian faith, but they could produce no uncorrupted copies. (V, 11, R.S. Pine-Coffin’s translation)

This passage piques my interest for a couple of reasons. For one, I too am guilty of “preaching to the choir” instead of “providing a ready defense to all who ask” on more questions than I can remember. It’s easy to surround oneself with people who are likeminded and all pat each other on the back.

Secondly, this interests me because of my interests in the transmission of the New Testament. Augustine suggests that the Manichees could find no copies of the Scriptures that were “uncorrupted”. One would imagine the Manichees could have altered some of the NT documents to suit their needs – I wonder why they didn’t.

Third, this passage is interesting because it convinces me even more that Ecclesiastes is right – there is nothing new under the sun. Studying Church history is interesting in that so many things seem to repeat itself. So many expressions of Christianity that arose in antiquity find themselves in modernity, just under new names. Arguments used by the ancients are used by moderns.


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Catholic Bible Dictionary Review


A big thanks to my friends at St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology for this copy of the Catholic Bible Dictionary , published by Doubleday and edited by Scott Hahn.  This volume has been many years in the making and I’m so thankful to finally see it in print. In the preface, Dr. Hahn notes that, “[m]ore than a generation has passed since the appearance of the last major Catholic Bible dictionary.” (x) Indeed, he notes that despite all the tools available to the laity, that “biblical literacy – among all Christians – is not advancing, but declining.” (ibid). Thus, the necessity for this kind of volume is evident.

Some of those who have contributed to this volume include Brant Pitre (of Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of Exile fame), John Bergsma, Curtis Mitch (from the Ignatius Study Bible series), and more.

The book is extremely attractive and the type is easy to read, which is nice considering it’s 1008 pages long. Though I don’t spend a great amount of time reading dictionaries, I find this one particularly readable. The articles are lengthy enough to give one an adequate background on the matter, but clear enough for anyone to find value in this volume. The lay person and scholar alike, as well as Catholic or not, will benefit from this dictionary. Entries on books of the Bible follow the outline of:

I. Authorship and Date
II. Contents
III. Literary Features
IV. Purpose and Themes

The maps and indeces in the back are also very handy. I would recommend this volume to anyone, but in keeping with the mission of the St. Paul Center, I would especially encourage the laity to buy this volume. Any lay person who is serious about reading the Bible will find this extremely advantageous in their studies.

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Happy Birthday Jean Cauvin

Being that yesterday was Jean Cauvin’s birthday, I decided to share a really nice photo I took with him years ago. Oh, those were the days….


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Ancient Name Pronunciation

Nick Norelli wrote a post awhile back on “patristic pronunciation” in which he asked his readers about their preference for both “Cappadocians” and “Augustine”. Both ways that he presents are fine, I think. However, the other day in Latin class I thought about a name that nobody pronounces correctly (and if they did, they’d probably be laughed at). Who says “Cicero” the right way? Nobody. “Kickero” would sound ridiculous to our ears.


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Elizabeth Clark’s most recent article in Journal of Early Christian Studies

I was introduced to Elizabeth Clark’s work last year through some friends at Duke and I’m sad that I had not begun to read her much earlier in my academic career.  Her book, “The Origenist Controversy” is a real masterpiece when it comes to understanding theological disputes in antiquity.

Her most recent article in JECS is absolutely fascinating. Entitled, “Contested Bodies: Early Christian Asceticism and Nineteenth-Century Polemics”, it discusses the work of two 19th Century Protestant authors, Isaac Taylor and Arthur Cleveland Coxe, specifically focusing on their opinion of asceticism in the Roman Catholic tradition. Neither of the two had a very high regard for “Romanists” and their asceticism. Clark notes that they “lauded domesticity, nineteenth-century style, as a supremely Christian virtue.” (285) Though both equally committed to their anti-Catholic views, they took wildly different approaches in denouncing asceticism by using the Fathers.

Taylor’s approach was to scandalize the reader by citing authors whom he believes will engender “disappointment, perplexity, and alarm.”(286, quoting Taylor). Trying to counter Newman’s efforts to make the Fathers mainstream, Taylor hopes to scare away his readers from the “monkery” of celibacy and ascetic living.

Coxe, on the other hand, uses a different tactic by seeking to claim the Fathers for himself. Indeed, he tries to prove that the Fathers espouse a sentiment much closer to 19th Century Protestantism than the Roman Catholicism of his time. Clark notes that Coxe even claimed for himself the title “Catholic” in his writings, saying that ‘”‘Catholicity’ is a quality that ‘Romanism’ has forfeited.”(298) Coxe tries to explain the rise of asceticism as a natural outgrowth of Christianity’s “abhorrence of pagan abominations”. (302) The practice of asceticism was to Coxe a temporary establishment only fitting in that particular time of Church history. Clark states that, “early Christianity, in Coxe’s view, did not establish asceticism as a mode of life that would obtain for the future; rather, it could be ‘explained’ by time and circumstances.”(304)

Taylor’s approach is not as interesting to me as Coxe’s is. There was a sense, I believe, in Patristic scholarship that the Fathers belonged only to the spiritual heritage of Catholics and Orthodox. Robert Louis Wilken noted in an interview that long ago it was thought the only thing Protestants and Catholics had in common was the Bible, but now (some) Protestants are seeing the common ground in the first 5 Centuries of Christianity. He noted that at UVA, most of the students coming to him to study the Fathers are actually Evangelical. Of course, if he would delay his retirement and if I could get in to UVA, I’d be happy to come study with him so he could even up the Catholic/Evangelical numbers. Alas, I digress. Coxe’s approach is interesting because while he claims the Fathers for himself, he interestingly has to edit their texts fairly heavily, or give “elucidations” to their true meanings. This is a common complaint by readers of Schaff’s edition of the Fathers published by Hendrickson.  I find that an interesting problem all throughout the history of Christianity – people who claim a text agrees with them but have to edit it in order for that to be true.

Do read the article, it’s very good. Virgina Burrus also has an article in this volume that is excellent.


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I’m now a quarter of a century old…

Where is my cane? Today is my 25th birthday. I imagine I’ll spend the day under a blanket, eating soup, watching Matlock and yelling at kids on my lawn.

I bought myself a couple of birthday gifts last night. They are:

Yves Congar, O.P.,The Meaning of Tradition. Congar’s books are genius. I read his larger “Tradition and Traditions” and loved it, so I’m looking forward to this smaller work.

J. Patout Burns’, Theological Anthropology (Sources of Early Christian Thought) . I was introduced to Burns’ work through his essay in In Dominico Eloquio: In Lordly Eloquence: Essays on Patristic Exegesis in Honor of Robert Louis Wilken. I don’t own any books in this series, so I wanted to see if they’re worth it.

William A. Jurgens, Faith of the Fathers (Three Volume Set) . Though the set doesn’t cost a ton of money, I’ve put off buying it and figured this would be a fine occassion to indulge myself. However, I’ve been working for Americorps for the last year and if I complete 901 hours of community service (something I’m very close to doing) I get an educational stipend that I believe I can use towards books. If I can, I’m going to buy the entire Ancient Christian Writers series!


After I wrote this post my girlfriend gave me one of my gifts: Warren H. Carroll’s, The Cleaving of Christendom (A History of Christendom, Vol 4). The text weighs in at around 744 pages, so I’ll be reading this one for awhile. I already own Vol 1 and she bought me Vol 2 last year, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. I skipped Vol 3 to cut straight to the Reformation.


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