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Yet Four Weeks Remain

Four weeks from this Sunday is the beginning of Advent, the start of the Christian year, and the beginning of our reading program. We’ve been on hiatus since the summer months, but you can expect to see increased activity on the site in preparation for getting underway.

If you’ll be joining us in reading the fathers, I encourage you to take a look at the “start reading” page, which has helpful suggestions about how to get the books and keep up with the calendar. Let me emphasize just two of those ideas. First, if you’re serious about undertaking this reading program, now is the time to get some discipline in your life. (Isn’t that the key to almost everything?) Second, you’re more likely to continue reading, and likely to learn more, if you have a partner to discuss the readings with regularly. So now is the time to persuade a friend to join you.

Just four weeks till we begin with Clement of Rome.

Clement of Rome

Clement of Rome (fl. 92–99)

 

St. Anthony on the Dangers of Prayer, Sixteen Centuries Before “The Screwtape Letters”

This week I attended a series of meetings on prayer. The speaker mentioned that prayer can lead to spiritual danger, a point that reminded me of the Life of Antony.

The Life of Antony (Vita Antonii) is the best known of the hagiographies, or lives of the saints, from the early church. Written by Athanasius sometime around 357–58, the book is a biography of Antony, or Anthony, one of the founders of Christian monasticism. Antony was an Egyptian Christian who, like many in his day, led a life of asceticism and prayer. Antony became known for being the first ascetic to live in the wilderness. Both because of his example and because of persecutions, many “desert fathers” lived in solitude or small bands in the wilderness. The Life tells of Antony’s life of prayer in the desert and his wrestling with demons. His temptations are described in great detail, so that the temptation of Antony became a common feature in Western art, such as in this allegorical painting by Hieronymus Bosch (click for full size):

Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of Saint Antony

Hieronymus Bosch, Temptation of Saint Antony

The Life of Antony is one of the two foundational texts of Western monasticism. (The other is the Rule of St. Benedict.1) Though highly valued by the medieval church, Protestant reformers scorned the text for valuing monasticism and for its accounts of the supernatural. Twenty-first-century readers, no matter whether Protestant or Catholic, are likely to read the text incredulously.2 At a minimum, however, I think any reader can take the descriptions of Antony’s temptations as a description of the dangers encountered by people who take prayer seriously. Just as C. S. Lewis wrote the introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, so Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is a kind of retelling of the Life of Antony.

Here is a section of the text when Antony was living in the tombs before going to the desert (para. 8–10):

Thus tightening his hold upon himself, Antony departed to the tombs, which happened to be at a distance from the village; and having bid one of his acquaintances to bring him bread at intervals of many days, he entered one of the tombs, and the other having shut the door on him, he remained within alone. And when the enemy could not endure it, but was even fearful that in a short time Antony would fill the desert with the discipline, coming one night with a multitude of demons, he so cut him with stripes that he lay on the ground speechless from the excessive pain. For he affirmed that the torture had been so excessive that no blows inflicted by man could ever have caused him such torment. But by the Providence of God—for the Lord never overlooks them that hope in Him—the next day his acquaintance came bringing him the loaves. And having opened the door and seeing him lying on the ground as though dead, he lifted him up and carried him to the church in the village, and laid him upon the ground. And many of his kinsfolk and the villagers sat around Antony as round a corpse. But about midnight he came to himself and arose, and when he saw them all asleep and his comrade alone watching, he motioned with his head for him to approach, and asked him to carry him again to the tombs without waking anybody.

He was carried therefore by the man, and as he was wont, when the door was shut he was within alone. And he could not stand up on account of the blows, but he prayed as he lay. And after he had prayed, he said with a shout, Here am I, Antony; I flee not from your stripes, for even if you inflict more nothing shall separate me from the love of Christ. And then he sang, ‘though a camp be set against me, my heart shall not be afraid.’ These were the thoughts and words of this ascetic. But the enemy, who hates good, marvelling that after the blows he dared to return, called together his hounds and burst forth, ‘Ye see,’ said he, ‘that neither by the spirit of lust nor by blows did we stay the man, but that he braves us, let us attack him in another fashion.’ But changes of form for evil are easy for the devil, so in the night they made such a din that the whole of that place seemed to be shaken by an earthquake, and the demons as if breaking the four walls of the dwelling seemed to enter through them, coming in the likeness of beasts and creeping things. And the place was on a sudden filled with the forms of lions, bears, leopards, bulls, serpents, asps, scorpions, and wolves, and each of them was moving according to his nature. The lion was roaring, wishing to attack, the bull seeming to toss with its horns, the serpent writhing but unable to approach, and the wolf as it rushed on was restrained; altogether the noises of the apparitions, with their angry ragings, were dreadful. But Antony, stricken and goaded by them, felt bodily pains severer still. He lay watching, however, with unshaken soul, groaning from bodily anguish; but his mind was clear, and as in mockery he said, ‘If there had been any power in you, it would have sufficed had one of you come, but since the Lord hath made you weak, you attempt to terrify me by numbers: and a proof of your weakness is that you take the shapes of brute beasts.’ And again with boldness he said, ‘If you are able, and have received power against me, delay not to attack; but if you are unable, why trouble me in vain? For faith in our Lord is a seal and a wall of safety to us.’ So after many attempts they gnashed their teeth upon him, because they were mocking themselves rather than him.

Nor was the Lord then forgetful of Antony’s wrestling, but was at hand to help him. So looking up he saw the roof as it were opened, and a ray of light descending to him. The demons suddenly vanished, the pain of his body straightway ceased, and the building was again whole. But Antony feeling the help, and getting his breath again, and being freed from pain, besought the vision which had appeared to him, saying, ‘Where wert thou? Why didst thou not appear at the beginning to make my pains to cease?’ And a voice came to him, ‘Antony, I was here, but I waited to see thy fight; wherefore since thou hast endured, and hast not been worsted, I will ever be a succour to thee, and will make thy name known everywhere.’ Having heard this, Antony arose and prayed, and received such strength that he perceived that he had more power in his body than formerly. And he was then about thirty-five years old.

The entire book is short, and could be read in an hour or two. But if you’re only going to read one more passage, read Antony’s advice to the other Christians in the desert on prayer, temptation, and spiritual battles (para. 16–43).

Why Read: Amy Cavender

[This is the second post in our series on why readers are reading. The author, Amy Cavender, is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and an assistant professor of political science at Saint Mary’s College. If you are interested in contributing a similar post (details here), please send us a note. —LAM]

An icon of Constantine, Helena, and the True Cross

Constantine, Helena, and the discovery of the true cross

When I first learned about the “Read the Fathers” project, I was immediately intrigued, and it didn’t take me very long to get signed up and to add the first year’s reading schedule to my calendar.

Why? What on earth would interest me in reading the works of the early Church Fathers?

Partly, it’s curiosity. I enjoy learning about matters religious, and I’ve not read the Fathers—so signing on for the project means I get to read something new, in an area that interests me.

But there’s more to it than that. The Church Fathers are part of the heritage that belongs to us as Christians, just as, for instance, the American Founders are an important part of the heritage that belongs to citizens of the United States. It certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the Founders’ works to be a good American citizen. Still, it’s worth knowing something of the history of the Founding if one wishes to understand what the United States is all about. Familiarity with the Founders’ written works provides an even deeper understanding of the American project.

I see the project of reading the Fathers similarly. Of course one can be a good Christian without knowing much about Church history or being familiar with the writings of the earlierst generations of Church leaders to follow the Apostles. But one’s understanding of and appreciation for Christianity in all its richness can be enhanced by both. That, far more than mere curiousity, is what’s prompted me to sign up.

An Introduction to the Confessions on the Feast of Augustine

St Augustine of Hippo (354–430). Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1645–50.

Today the liturgical churches of western Christianity commemorate the life of Augustine, bishop of Hippo and doctor of the church.1 At our home we are having a feast tonight because our hearts have been made glad in the gospel of Jesus Christ, which we have come to understand better because of Augustine.

The first book I read from the early church was Augustine’s Confessions—a common choice, since the Confessions are almost certainly the best known book from Christian antiquity. One could even make the argument that no book (in the western world, at least) has been more significant in shaping the way that modern people think about the self.2 The book takes the shape of an extended prayer, in which Augustine confesses his sins and acknowledges God’s goodness. And yet Augustine also intended this work as a confession ‘not unto Thee, my God; but before Thee unto my own kind, even to that small part of the human race who may chance to light upon these my writings.’ (2.3.5)

The entire work is rich both in explaining Augustine’s life viewed from faith and in confessing the God in whom he believed. Indeed, the theological richness of the work might be summed up in a phrase from another of Augustine’s works: Deus est qui deum dat’, ‘God is he who gives God’ (On the Trinity, 14.26.46). In the Confessions Augustine detects and acknowledges how God revealed himself even throughout Augustine’s waywardness and false belief, because ‘Thou has formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.’ (1.1.1)

And so I point you to four well-known and particularly insightful passages in the Confessions.

First, Augustine gives a clear-eyed explanation of the sinfulness of sin. In one passage, he describes stealing pears, though he had better pears of his own and only fed them to swine. (The parallels to the story of the fall in Genesis are not accidental.) Oliver Wendell Holmes dismissed the passage, writing, ‘Rum thing to see a man making a mountain of robbing a pear tree in his teens.’ But Augustine explains that to sin is to replace the love of God with the love of sin for its sinfulness. (Read 2.4 and 2.6.)

St Monica (331--387)

St Monica (331–387)

Second, the Confessions are noteworthy for their rich descriptions of Augustine’s human relationships, none of which is described with more detail and feeling than his relationship to his mother, Monica. In book 3, Monica has a dream that her son, who has become a Manichean heretic, will come to the true faith, symbolized in the dream by a wooden ruler which represents the ‘rule of faith’, or the creedal faith of the catholic church. She also pleads with a bishop to intervene with her son, whose word she takes as a prophetic utterance: ‘It is not possible that the son of these tears should perish.’ (Read 3.11 and 3.12.)

Third, both Monica’s dream and the bishop’s word come to pass when Augustine converts. In what is perhaps the most famous passage in the Confessions, Augustine describes how he heard a child’s voice in the garden saying, ‘Take up and read, take up and read’, and read from Paul’s epistle to the Romans. (Read 8.12.)

Fourth, in the Confessions Augustine expresses a kind of piety in which the believer returns to his heart, on which is written the law of God, and there finds God. In looking into one’s heart, one imitates the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘Return to your heart, O ye transgressors, and cleave fast unto Him that made you. … Descend that ye may ascend, and ascend to God.’ It is nearly impossible to overstate the importance of this passage for ‘heart religion’, which is the hallmark of most of Western Christianity from before the time of the Reformation, including Christians writers from such diverse traditions as Philipp Jakob Spener and Nicholas von Zinzendorf (Pietism), Jonathan Edwards (evangelicalism), and Ignatius of Loyola (Catholicism). (By the way, notice the heart that Augustine is holding in the portrait at the top of this post. The heart, which is aflame with love, transforms the mind and points to veritas.) (Read 4.12.)

If you plan to join us in reading the fathers of the church and want to read something before we officially begin, or if you do not intend to take on the full course of reading but would to read one book, I commend to you Augustine’s Confessions.

Why Read: Megan V.

[This post is the first in what we hope will be a series of posts by readers explaining why they want to take on reading the church fathers. Megan V. draws from Mark Noll, Augustine, and T. S. Eliot to explain what has brought her to patristics. If you are interested in contributing a similar post (details here), please send us a note. —LAM]

A tree through a dirty window

 And He spoke a parable unto them. (Luke 18:1)

In an old country house, there was a window that looked out on a tall tree. The house’s owner would come and look through the window at the tree.  He could see the tree clearly, from its roots to its crown, because the window was kept clean and clear. Then the owner died, and no one came to the house for seventy years. No one cleaned the window, and it grew very dusty. Spiderwebs crisscrossed its surface. At last, a young woman came to the house. She reached the window and looked out, but the grime that covered the window after seventy years so obscured the tree that she could see only its shadow.

Just so, I have come to realize that the two thousand years between the early church and the contemporary one obscure (and sometimes even distort) my sight of the Christian faith. As seventy years covered the window with dust and cobwebs, so twenty centuries have covered the faith with so many political maneuvers, crusades, national re-awakenings and reformations, and even benign changes in the church service or Bible reading that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between biblical doctrine and recent historical tradition. Ultimately, this is the reason why I am planning to read the Fathers: to see more clearly how Christianity was meant to be experienced, which is not necessarily how we experience it today.

Last spring, I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It was Noll who pointed out to me most clearly that what some people would consider ‘simple biblical truth’ (120) is in fact a recent invention, made popular by its historical and cultural contexts.

For example, I was raised premillenialist, and so as a child I assumed that believers way back to Paul accepted this position because it was ‘simple biblical truth.’ Not so. Premillenialism is popular in part because evangelials leaned heavily on its doctrines in order to cope with the massive social changes in 1800s America, such as increasing secularization and the Industrial Revolution. Timothy Weber suggests that “the premillenialist view of the future provided both a blessed hope and a way of understanding why things were going so badly. There [was] an ironic comfort in knowing that centuries ago, the Bible predicted this mess.” (qtd Noll 120). Its theological truth aside, there is no doubt that premillenialism was emphasized as important Christian doctrine partly because it spoke to an important emotional need two hundred years ago.

To take a less-doctrinal example, consider the chapters and verses added to Scripture. Noll points out that readers who rely on these for Bible study risk confusing actual biblical truth with human interpretation, necessarily added along with chapters and verses in the 1500s (134). To stop reading and start reading at what are sometimes arbitrary and always human divisions of God’s word is about as useful to good interpretation as chopping Michaelangelo’s David into twenty pieces for art appreciation. What was meant to be appreciated and understood as a whole is subdivided into so many little pieces that the original meaning is sometimes lost altogether. I re-read Galatians several years ago, and, finishing the book in a single sitting, I saw more clearly than ever before the stress Paul lays on Christian liberty. Yes, reading Galatians a few verses or chapters at a time is often more practical, and the verses were added for a legitimate need: the need to locate passages of Scripture easily and quickly. But their legitimate purpose does not change the fact that the chapter-and-verse divisions are a historical tradition, one which not only helps but also hinders believers’ ability to understand their faith.

In giving these examples, I am not trying to convince you to give up a belief in premillenialism or to seek out a Bible in which the chapter and verse divisions have been erased. To argue theological truth or hermeneutical practice is far beyond the scope of my post! No, my hope is point out that history does not wash over us, like waves over a rock, and leave us unchanged. Christian practice has been adapted and re-adapted to meet the particular needs of the moment, again and again within the last two thousand years. Yes, much crucial doctrine has been left intact, but there are also areas in which our understanding has been, like the tree through the dirty window, obscured and distorted by the grime of history.

So, I am back to my original point: In an attempt to ‘clean the window’ and see Christian practice without its historical detritus, I plan to read the early church fathers. Like the house owner who saw the tree through the clean, clear window, the church fathers saw the church grow up in its original cnotext, free of endless historical permutations. No, they were not necessarily closer to God or better able to interpret Scripture than we by virtue of the century in which they lived; we too are ‘guided into all truth’ by God Himself. Yes, the Church Fathers also experienced their faith through culture, but this is a problem that cannot be escaped until Heaven; this side of Paradise, all experience is through culture and time. The Church Father’s culture, not ours, was the original one to Christianity and so the one in which the events and practices and messages of the early church should be understood.

But these limitations should come as no surprise and do not undermine the importance of reading the Fathers: We have been warned that we will understand our faith only ‘through a glass darkly’, and in light of such a warning, it should be our goal to see as clearly as possible. It was the Church Fathers, not us, who stood at the window before it was made dirty by time and saw through it as clearly as human eyes can see. It is the Church Fathers, therefore ,who can help us clear our own vision of the contaminations of historical shifts and see our faith clearly. To read the Fathers is to ‘unweave, unwind, unravel’ the accumulated cultural shifts and confusion of the last two thousand years and see our faith in its appropriate setting, and our God in the culture to which He originally revealed Himself.

 

* Image courtesy of Flick user thisreidwrites // Creative Commons licensed

Why Do *You* Want to Read the Fathers?

A number of people have written to us to say that they are planning to read the church fathers. We’ve asked a few of them to write a brief (or not so brief) blog post explaining why they plan to join the reading group. We assume the reasons are as varied as readers.

If you would like to explain why you plan to read, please send us a note and we’ll be glad to consider your post. The post can be as short as 100 words, or whatever length suits you.

We’ll run the first post from one of our readers on Monday. We hope to hear from you.

Patristic Theology Is for Everyone

Gregory of Nyssa

Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335 – c. 395)

Our modern era tends to see theology—especially the kinds of theology that the fathers loved, such as the doctrines of the Trinity and incarnation of Christ—as recondite, elitist, and (most damning of all) irrelevant. But this is a modern idea. Instead, thinking about theology can and should belong to all believers.

Here is a well-known passage from Gregory of Nyssa about popular discussions of theology. “Gregory of Nyssa describes the unending theological arguments in Constantinople at the time of the second General Council [A.D. 381]:”

The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask “Is my bath ready?” the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing (On the Deity of the Son [P.G. xlvi, 557b]). 1

If you read the fathers with us, you too can make the theological tradition of the church your own. And since we will be reading Gregory of Nyssa, you might even learn better answers than the Constantinopolitans!

Read the Fathers Now Available on Facebook

Read the Fathers now has its own Facebook page. All blog posts and daily readings will appear on the page, and visitors are encouraged to comment and discuss the readings there. If you would like to show your support for the project, or signal your participation in the upcoming reading cycle, please head over to Facebook to subscribe to Read the Fathers.

In addition to Facebook, you can follow Read the Fathers on Twitter or subscribe directly to the calendar of readings on Google Calendar and iCal.

Google Calendar for Read the Fathers Now Available

Thanks to the labors of Amy Cavender (@acavender), we now have a Google Calendar available with the reading schedule for the first year. You can subscribe to the Google Calendar directly, or you can import the iCal version into programs like Apple’s iCal, Microsoft’s Outlook, or other calendar programs.

Thanks, Amy!

The Study of Patristics in Nineteenth-Century America

The latest issue of Church History includes a review of Duke professor Elizabeth A. Clark’s book Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011). The review is online (subscription required, unfortunately).

Founding the Fathers might be of interest to readers of this blog since it gives the history of six American historians of the early church, among them Philip Schaff, an editor of the collections of the church fathers we’re using for Read the Fathers. For me, the book combines three interests: patristics, nineteenth-century American religion, and the development of the study of religion into an academic profession. I haven’t read it yet, but I hope too.

Here is the publisher’s description:

Through their teaching of early Christian history and theology, Elizabeth A. Clark contends, Princeton Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School, Yale Divinity School, and Union Theological Seminary functioned as America’s closest equivalents to graduate schools in the humanities during the nineteenth century. These four Protestant institutions, founded to train clergy, later became the cradles for the nonsectarian study of religion at secular colleges and universities. Clark, one of the world’s most eminent scholars of early Christianity, explores this development in Founding the Fathers: Early Church History and Protestant Professors in Nineteenth-Century America.

Based on voluminous archival materials, the book charts how American theologians traveled to Europe to study in Germany and confronted intellectual currents that were invigorating but potentially threatening to their faith. The Union and Yale professors in particular struggled to tame German biblical and philosophical criticism to fit American evangelical convictions. German models that encouraged a positive view of early and medieval Christianity collided with Protestant assumptions that the church had declined grievously between the Apostolic and Reformation eras. Trying to reconcile these views, the Americans came to offer some counterbalance to traditional Protestant hostility both to contemporary Roman Catholicism and to those historical periods that had been perceived as Catholic, especially the patristic era.

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