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.