Review: Early Christian Writings

Early Christian Writings

Early Christian WritingsVarious, Translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Revised by Andrew Louth. New York: Penguin Classics, 1987.

Summary: A collection of early, post-apostolic Christian writings concerned with the organization, leadership, worship, conduct, martyrs, and doctrinal teaching of the nascent church.

How does a movement that survives beyond its earliest leaders begin to define the structures and practices and teaching that will sustain and order its life? The canonical scriptures of the New Testament give us some account of the very early stages of that project for what would become the Christian church as it spread throughout the Roman empire, narrated in Acts. Paul’s occasional letters articulate define core beliefs and apply them to questions of Christian practice and morality, particularly in this new situation of gatherings comprised both of Jews and non-Jews. The pastoral letters address church leadership, its tasks and character. Other letters by Peter, James, and John and the writer to the Hebrews also make sense of the work of Christ arising out of its Jewish setting and how these new communities live set apart lives in the world.

These nascent churches were still very much a work in progress. The writings in this collection reflect the next stage in the church’s development. They include the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians, seven epistles written by Ignatius enroute to martyrdom in Rome, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians as he faces martyrdom and an account of that martyrdom, the Epistle to Diognetus, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache.

A common concern in a number of these writings is the distinctive character Christians are to exhibit in the world in their love for each other, their abstinence from sexual and other forms of immorality, their generosity in giving and refraining from the love of money, and their faith. Clement and Ignatius and the Didache repeatedly emphasize obedience to the bishops and deacons who are to serve with diligence and care.

A number of these writings include calls to “stand firm” in the Lord. We hear how Ignatius regards his own impending martyrdom in Rome in his Epistle to the Romans:

“I must implore you to do me no such untimely kindness; pray leave me to be a meal for the beasts, for it is they who can provide my way to God. I am his wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth to be made purest bread for Christ. Better still, incite the creatures to become a sepulchre for me; let them not leave the smallest scrap of my flesh, so that I need not be a burden to anyone after I fall asleep. When there is no trace of my body left for the world to see, then I shall truly be Jesus Christ’s disciple.”

The account of Polycarp’s martyrdom includes his stirring testimony before the Governor:

“The Governor, however, still went on pressing him. ‘Take the oath and I will let you go’, he told him. ‘Revile your Christ.’ Polycarp’s reply was, ‘Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?’ “

These works taught early Christians how to face similar martyrdom, should it come. Polycarp also exemplified better sense than some, eluding captors when he could, but calmly facing them when he could not.

In the Epistle to Diognetus, we have an early example of a Christian “apologetic,” emphasizing the follies of both paganism and Judaism, the upright character of the Christian community, that functioned as the soul to the body of the world, the supernatural character of revelation, the mystery of the incarnation and a concluding section urging readers to faith. The Epistle of Barnabas gives us an early example of the allegorical reading of the Old Testament that reveals their spiritual meaning with the coming of Christ.

Finally the Didache gives us another example of Christian moral teaching defining the Two Ways (of Life and Death) and how those on each Way live. Much of these are concise exhortations, as relevant today as then. One example:

“Do not parade your own merits, or allow yourself to behave presumptuously, and do not make a point of associating with persons of eminence, but choose the companionship of honest and humble folk.”

After this first part on the Two Ways is an early example of a “Church Manual” with instructions on baptism, fast days (not on the same day as hypocrites!) and prayer, the Eucharist, welcoming itinerant Apostles and Prophets and distinguishing the genuine from the impostors, Sunday worship, local officials (bishops and deacons) and Eschatology.

There is much of profit here, in “overhearing” the order of early Christian congregational life, in understanding the early roots of practices we observe to this day, and in considering the faithfulness of these early believers and teachers. The Didache, for example, in its section on the Two Ways, offers a great rubric for personal examination of one’s life, especially, perhaps, before taking the Eucharist.

For many of us, our knowledge of the two millenia of church history is one of the biblical narrative of the earliest Christians, perhaps a bit of Reformation history, and little more. These writings give us a glimpse of those who followed the Apostles, and how they began to work out the theology, organization, and character of Christian life entrusted to them.

Review: Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers

Modern Orthodox Thinkers, Andrew Louth. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: Biographical sketches and theological summaries of some of the leading thinkers in the modern Orthodox Church from Russia to Paris to Mount Athos to England and the USand the significant role the Philokalia has played in Orthodox thought and piety.

Very simply, this is a “Who’s Who” among Orthodox thinkers. In twenty-one chapters, Andrew Louth, professor emeritus of patristic and Byzantine studies and an Orthodox priest, gives us sketches of the lives and theological contributions of twenty-eight significant thinkers within the Orthodox Church.

There are several things that keep this from simply being a disconnected collection of biographies. Foremost, perhaps is Louth’s appraisal of the significance of the Philokalia, a collection of texts published in Greek in 1782, translated first into “church Slavonic” in 1793, later into Russian in 1877, and more recently into English. The Philokalia represent teachings of a number of the early Church Fathers concerning contemplative prayer that provides the groundwork for the “hesychast” (quietness) movement. Louth states:

“It is my contention that the publication of the Philokalia in 1782 can be seen as marking a turning point in Orthodox theology, a move away from the defensiveness of early modern Orthodox theology – the theology of the so-called ‘Symbolic Books’ – to a more confident style of theology, based on the authentic sources of Orthodox theology, namely the Fathers of the Church. This movement of renewal had deep roots and led the Orthodox Churches out of the problems that dogged them at the end of the eighteenth century. It is difficult not to see St Nikodimos as preparing the Greek Church under the Ottoman Empire for the independence it was to achieve in the course of the nineteenth century, providing it with what was needed for its spiritual, liturgical and canonical or structural well-being. The path before it was to be long and hard, and there is still much to be done, as we shall see.”

This book begins with the publication of the Philokalia and a discussion of its significance and concludes with a chapter on Metropolitan Kallistos (Timothy Ware), one of the major translators of the Philokalia into English, and one of the most significant translators of Orthodoxy for Westerners.

The organization of the book is roughly chronological, but also follows a course through several countries as well as topics. Louth begins in Russia with poet and thinker Vladimir Solov’ev. Then he follows two generations of emigrés to Paris following the Revolution, the first including Florensky, Bulgakov, Berdayaev, Florovsky, Myrrha Lot-Borodine and Maria Skobtsova. The second generation included Paul Evdokimov, John Meyendorff, and Alexander Schmemann, the latter two key in the development of modern Orthodoxy in America when they left Paris to take positions at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary. The trail goes on to Romania, Serbia, Greece and England.

Along the way Louth also explores thinkers significant in Orthodox dogmatic theology (Staniloe and Popovic’) Neo-Palamism (Meyendorff), liturgical theology (Schmemann, Foundoulis, and Vasileios), patristics (Zizioulas and Romanides), the rich tradition of lay theologians (Sherrard, Koutroubis, Yannaras, Ramfos, Behr-Sigel, and Clèment) and the spiritual elders.

One of the things that is striking is the number of women included in the narrative and the other is the number of lay figures who play a major role in Orthodox thought, particularly Philip Sherrard, who in partnership with Metropolitan Kallistos helped translate the Philokalia into English. In many ways, the Revolution, far from destroying Orthodoxy, created a diaspora that resulted both in the missionary spread of Orthodoxy and the theological flourishing of Orthodox thought.

One thing that might have been helpful would have been a glossary of Orthodox terms. Non-Orthodox readers may find themselves at a loss confronting terms like “hesychia” or “Archimandrite” or “Palamite.” Louth does include a helpful bibliography following the chapters of the book including books both by and about the different thinkers. This, and his chapters on each thinker, provides a doorway to further exploring the makers of modern Orthodoxy.

This review summary makes this sound like just so many names, but what Louth does is bring these people to life, with photographs, biographies, and a focus on their distinctive theological contributions, often given to us in their own words. The Orthodox would contend that it is really the rest of us who have split off from them and that they represent a Christianity connected to both conciliar and patristic Christianity. The book acquaints us with how these modern Orthodox thinkers have appropriated these sources, including the collection of writings that make up the Philokalia, to address the spiritual concerns of modern men and women. In recent years, both Protestants and Catholics have been rediscovering these sources as well. Might the Orthodox have something to teach us of the love of God and neighbor, of how God might be encountered afresh in liturgy, in silence, and in life? Louth’s book might help us discover some of those to whom we may listen.

Review: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology

Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology
Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eastern Orthodoxy is largely unknown territory to me. Icons, mosaics, standing worship, the liturgy and prayers are not part of my experience. Andrew Louth gives us a clear and beautifully written description of this world rooted in the theological beliefs that give shape to Orthodox practice, which itself shapes Orthodox belief. In Orthodoxy, one believes what one prays.

Louth starts with the sources that inform Orthodox theology which include scripture, the Fathers, the Councils, and the liturgy. This last was illuminating to me in understanding that Orthodoxy is not simply rooted in the Seven Ecumenical councils but also in the Fathers and in the liturgical practice of the church.

Louth then walks us through a “systematic” overview of Orthodox theology, beginning with the doctrine of God, the creation, Christ, sin, death, and repentance, being human, sacraments and icons, time and liturgy and eschatology. His chapter on the Trinity was for me worth the price of admission as an example of both careful and reflective thought about the God to whom we pray. Under the category of creation, his exploration of the idea of sophiology, that creation came about through God’s work via Wisdom, a contested idea, was intriguing in terms of asking the question of what would be the nature of such a creation.

His treatment of Christology helps us understand how the Church as a whole came to understand what it means to affirm Christ as both fully God and fully human. Under sin, death, and repentance, the notion of ancestral, as opposed to original sin stood out as of interest–that instead of being responsible for Adam’s sin and sharing in it, we’ve inherited a sinful nature from the first couple. Regarding being human, he explores the notion of Sobornost, the community shaped around common, Conciliar belief and the notion of theosis, or the divinization that is our destiny, not that we become gods but that we are drawn into the being of God, fully reflecting God’s image.

The next two chapters explore some of the most distinctive aspects of Orthodoxy in its emphasis on the physical via sacrament and icon, and in the liturgy. Under this latter, the focus on how infinite space and timelessness are brought into the time and space practice of the liturgy helped me grasp the sense of mystery and wonder that accompanies Orthodox worship. Then his last chapter explores the last things. Most distinctive here were the discussion of how the eucharist brings the future into the present and his concluding discussion of damnation and the possibility discussed by Orthodox theologians like Timothy Kallistos Ware (as well as Rob Bell!) that the greatness of God’s love at least allows the possibility of a final universal salvation of all rational beings.

Reading this gave me a glimpse into the Orthodox world and an appreciation for the deep embrace of Orthodoxy of its adherents. I was reminded how much we share in common because of the shared affirmations of the Seven Councils. I was impressed that Orthodoxy has much to contribute to contemporary discussions of Trinitarian theology and the nature of God. The physicality of Orthodox practice challenges the latent gnosticism of much of Western Christianity. I was also aware of the places where we part ways including the concluding points of the book about universal salvation (which would not be embraced by all Orthodox).

What was most significant for me was simply to listen to this voice from within Eastern Orthodoxy that helped me understand the ethos and pathos of Orthodoxy as well as the logos of its doctrine. Louth, as well as theologians like Timothy Kallistos Ware have performed an important work in promoting understanding that might begin to heal this longest-standing divide in Christendom.

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