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Augustine of Hippo: Confessions, Letters, and City of God

Saint Augustine of Hippo, by Jacob Jordaens, ca. 1650.

Augustine of Hippo lived from 354 to 430, largely in North Africa where he served as a bishop for nearly thirty-five years. Augustine was a prolific author of theological treatises, sermons, and correspondence with significant figures across the Roman and Christian world. We will begin our reading with two of Augustine’s most famous works, the Confessions and the City of God.

Introductions to Augustine’s life and influence are abundant online. The standard academic biography is Peter Brown’s. A short and highly accessible introduction to Augustine, with an interesting argument on his cultural setting, is Justo Gonzalez’s The Mestizo Augustine.

Confessions

Augustine’s most famous work is The ConfessionsThe Confessions are an autobiographical account of Augustine’s life, beginning with his earliest memories and taking the reader up to his baptism and a mystical experience of God with his mother. In its final books, The Confessions also include theological reflections on Creation and the Book of Genesis. The work is the first autobiography in western history, and it has been enormously influential in shaping the western sense of self. (On this point, see Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self.) But it is not an autobiography in exactly the form one might expect. It takes its title, The Confessions, from its structure, since the book is a long prayer of confession to God, in both the sense that it acknowledges Augustine’s sins but also in the sense that it confesses faith that God was directing his path. The work contains some of Augustine’s most well-known phrases, such as “our hearts are restless till they find rest in you” (book1), “return to your heart” (book 4), and “Descend that you may ascend, and ascend to God” (book 4). Where much of the work that we have read feels as ancient as it is, many readers find Augustine to be fresh and modern.

That easy familiarity with the text that many readers discover does much to explain the continued appeal of this book, but it also can lead readers astray. One assumption that readers make about the book is that it is a conversion narrative of the sort that they have encountered in the Book of Acts describing Paul’s conversion and then (leaping over a couple millennia) in their own religious experiences. Certainly many readers point to Augustine’s encounter in the garden where he reads the epistles as Paul as a kind of conversion experience. (As an aside, note that that scene happens in a garden, as does the first couple chapters of Genesis.)  The Confessions, however, describe many conversions that Augustine experiences. While reading, it may be worthwhile to note the moments where Augustine turns in his confessions, and what is at stake in each of those turnings. These include Augustine’s conversions to philosophy (book 3), to Manichaeism (book 3), to Catholic Christianity, to neoplatonism (book 7), to asceticism (book 8), to a mystical experience of God (book 9).

There are no shortage of translations of the Confessions. We heartily recommend Maria Boulding’s translation for the New City Press edition of Augustine’s works. Another good modern translation is Garry Wills’s translation for Penguin Classics. Readers looking for a scholarly text in Latin should try James J. O’Donnell’s edition published by Oxford, which also includes two volumes of commentary. Or you may prefer the two volumes (vol. 1, vol. 2) of the Confessions in Latin and English in the Loeb Classical Library.

Letters

After reading Augustine’s autobiography, we’ll gain another perspective on his life through reading his letters—around 270 total. The Confessions largely end with the death of Augustine’s mother Monica, before Augustine assumed the roles for which he became well known as a preacher, pastor, and polemicist. The letters shed light on how Augustine interacted with friends, resolved disputes between congregants, and admonished those he saw going astray.

In 1969, Johannes Divjak rediscovered an additional thirty letters dictated by Augustine. Those letters are not included on our current reading schedule, as there are no public domain versions available. But readers interested in these further glimpses at Augustine’s ministry may wish to consult the editions listed below.

The Loeb Classical Library has an edition of selected letters from Augustine. The full series, including the Divjak letters, are available in hardcover from New City Press’s twenty-first century translation of the works of Augustine: Letters 1-99, Letters 100-155, Letters 156-210, Letters 211-270 and Divjak.

City of God

Next to the Confessions, the City of God is Augustine’s most well-known work. Augustine wrote his masterpiece of political theology in response to the sack of Rome in 410. The work represents an extended meditation on the causes of the rise and fall of Rome, the ways in which political and spiritual societies interact, and the mysterious progress of the heavenly kingdom in the midst of political crisis.

Even today, entire branches of theology, political ethics, and constitutional theory—sometimes gathered under the term “political theology”—vigorously debate the application of Augustine’s City of God to modern politics. For a useful and clear overview of the various positions on Augustine’s thought, see Michael Bruno’s Political Augustinianism. A landmark work in this area is R. A. Markus’s 1989 book Saeculum, which argued that City of God helped to create a secular, de-sacralized arena of politics. Since Markus’s work, scholars have disputed whether Augustine’s thought is really compatible with secularization, and if so, whether that’s a virtue of his thought. Some approaches view Augustine as offering helpful advice to citizens no matter their religious orientation, for instance Eric Gregory’s Politics and the Order of Love. Others find Augustine presenting a distinctively Christian way to engage in political life, for instance Charles Mathewes’s A Theology of Public Life. For a complex treatment of both these views, see Oliver O’Donovan’s loosely related trilogy, Resurrection and Moral Order, The Desire of the Nations, and The Ways of Judgment.

There are several modern translations of the City of God. The daily readings link to the public domain text by Marcus Dods. New Century Press’s twenty-first century translation of Augustine has a two-volume paperback edition of City of God. R. W. Dyson produced a lucid, readable translation for the Cambridge History of Political Thought. And Penguin Press offers a very affordable modern translation by Henry Bettenson.

Hippolytus

This week we will finish reading Origen and begin reading Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170–236). With Hippolytus we begin the fifth volume of the Ante Nicene Fathers, and as it happens, Hippolytus will take us to the end of the first year of reading down to the day.

Biography

A statue discovered in Rome in 1551 and identified as Hippolytus

A statue discovered in Rome in 1551 and identified as Hippolytus

Hippolytus flourished at the beginning of the third century. Some date his birth to around 170, though this detail like so many others in his life is uncertain. Hippolytus wrote in Greek, not Latin, and he may have been lived for a time in Alexandria or Asia Minor. It is possible that he was a disciple of Irenaeus, with whom he shares a theological affinity. Hippolytus was most likely a presbyter—that is, a priest, but also a leader tasked with the governance of the church under the authority of the bishop—in Rome under Popes Victor I (r. 189–199), Zephyrinus (r. 199–217), and Callixtus I (r. 217–222/23). Some ancient but not contemporary sources refer to Hippolytus as a bishop, variously of Rome, Porta, Bostra, or of an unidentified place.

But it is likely that Hippolytus was not actually a bishop, but an anti-pope. Beginning during the reign of Zephyrinus, Hippolytus become involved in controversies over Christology and church discipline, taking the side against the bishop of Rome and most of the church. He was a particularly bitter opponent of the deacon Callixtus, whom he later described as “a man cunning in wickedness, and subtle where deceit was concerned, (and) who was impelled by restless ambition to mount the episcopal throne” (Refutation of All Heresies, 9.6–7). Hippolytus accused Callistus of bribing, flattering, and manipulating Zephyrinus during his life, then succeeding him as bishop of Rome after his death. It is possible, though uncertain, that Hippolytus allowed himself to be elected as a bishop of the opponents of Callixtus and so set himself up as an anti-pope.

The grounds of the dispute between Callixtus and Hippolytus were many. Callixtus was willing to restore lapsed Christians, even those guilty of grave sins, to clerical office; Hippolytus favored a rigorous church discipline with little room for restoration (in this respect, not unlike the Donatists later). Callixtus was accused of allowing re-married Christians to be priests or deacons; Hippolytus thought this scandalous. Hippolytus writes that during Callixtus’s episcopate, “second baptism was for the first time presumptuously attempted by them,” a charge perhaps related to disputes over who could be readmitted to the church. Callixtus apparently permitted marriages between slaves and free Christians; Hippolytus regarded these unions between social unequals, which did not have the sanction of civil law, as mere concubinage. Of course, since we have only Hippolytus’s side of these accusations, they must be viewed critically and with uncertainty.

By 235, Hippolytus had been exiled to Sardinia by the emperor of Rome, where he died. The legendary account that comes down to us from Prudentius that he died by being drawn between horses is certainly untrue, and is probably based on the mythical Greek figure Hippolytus, about whom Euripedes wrote a play. At some point he must have been reconciled to the bishop of Rome and the Catholic Church, because his body was returned to Rome and buried by the Christians. He was honored as a saint by the Western church, but because his writings were in Greek rather than Latin, he was primarily remembered by the Eastern church.

Theology

The controversy between Hippolytus and Callixtus was highly theological. As the writings of all early Christians attest, heresies and schisms were everywhere in the third century, and one problem that was troubling the church at Rome was the problem of accurately stating the doctrine of the Trinity. Hippolytus accused Zephyrinus of being soft on, and Callixtus of holding outright, the heresy of modalism, which emphasizes the unity of the Godhead to the exclusion of distinguishing between the Father and the Son. For this reason, the heresy is sometimes called patripassianism, since it makes the impassible Father suffer on the cross with Christ. Callixtus in turn accused Hippolytus of being a bi-theist, that is, of making so firm a distinction between the persons of the Trinity as to render the unity of God meaningless.

Hippolytus held to a theology of the Logos, like that of Irenaeus, Justin, and other authors that we have read, though he tended to disdain pagan philosophy. Hippolytus distinguished between the Word as the rational principle in the mind of God, and the Word as the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. Hippolytus thought of the Father and Word as distinct to the point that he thought of the Word as subordinate to the Father. By the standards of clarity possible a century and a half later after the Councils of Nicea (325) and Constantinople (381), his method of distinguishing between the Word and the Father must be regarded as inadequately precise and at various points misguided. But his writings on this topic are chiefly useful for demonstrating how the church over several centuries came to clearly teach the doctrine of the Trinity.

The legendary martyrdom of Hippolytus

The legendary martyrdom of Hippolytus

Works

We will primarily be reading Hippolytus’s book Refutation of All Heresies, with some fragments from his biblical commentaries and other apologetic works. Hippolytus wrote many works, some of which survive only in fragments or in translations into languages other than Greek, and for many of these texts the attribution is contested.

The Refutation of All Heresies is a work in ten books, of which book 1 and books 4–10 survive. The work is a systematic refutation of different heretics, beginning with the Greek and Egyptian philosophers, then continuing through to the Gnostics in the bulk of the book. This book is important to historians of philosophy because Hippolytus preserves fragments of works that would not otherwise be known. The book is important for our purposes as an apologetic text, as one answer to the recurring question of the relationship between the church and philosophy, and also for its positive statement of Christian doctrine in book 10. The central argument of the work is that heretics owe more to pagan philosophy than they do to the revelation that is in Jesus Christ. In taking this position Hippolytus is much closer to Tertullian in his opposition to philosophers than Justin, who was a himself a philosopher, or Clement of Alexandria, who thought the Christian was the true gnostic.

An especially intriguing work—though the authorship is disputed—is The Apostolic Tradition, written around 215 and not re-discovered until the nineteenth-century. This work describes the liturgy as it functioned in Rome, including prayers offered during the sacraments. The work also describes the three-fold offices of the church: bishop, presbyter, and deacon. Because of Hippolytus’s association with this work, other canons of church law have also been attributed to him, often wrongly. We will not be reading The Apostolic Tradition at this juncture, because the document was discovered too late for our nineteenth-century editors, but interested can easily find a copy of the text online.

Further Reading

Hippolytus has been neglected by scholars compared to the other fathers that we have read. Alistair Stewart-Sykes has edited a text with commentary of the Apostolic Tradition for the excellent Popular Patristics Series from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. The text of a different edition of the Apostolic Tradition is also available online. For the difficult problem of the authorship of Hippolytus, see J. A. Cerrato, Hippolytus Between East and West (Oxford, 2002).

Origen

origen

Icon of Origen

From the Latin West we now return to the Greek-speaking East and begin reading from one of the most influential fathers of Alexandrian school, Origen, who lived from around 185 to 255. Origen was a skilled textual scholar and prolific writer of theology and biblical commentary. Though some of his theological speculations garnered criticism in later ages, Origen’s ideas—and his style of interpreting scripture allegorically—strongly influenced many of the other fathers of the third and fourth centuries.

Biography

Origen was born to Christian parents, and his father was likely killed in the same wave of persecution that led to Clement’s martyrdom. Origen was well-education and well-traveled, and after Clement’s death he established a catechetical school in Alexandria similar to the one Clement had run. Origen’s fame as a teacher attracted the attention of the wealthy courtier Ambrose of Alexandria, who under Origen’s guidance gave up his Valentinian faith and joined the orthodox fold. Ambrose became life-long friends with Origen and financed the copying and distribution of Origen’s works. We thus have Ambrose to thank for many of our readings. After falling out with the bishop of Alexandria, who objected to an irregularity in Origen’s ordination, Origen relocated to Caesarea of Palestine in 232 and re-established his school there. Though Origen persevered unscathed through the major persecutions of Severus (192–203) and Maximus Thrax (235–38), he was caught and tortured during the Decian persecution (249–53) and died a couple years later from his wounds.

Perhaps owing to his notoriety and the theological and ecclesiastical controversies he provoked, a number of colorful stories circulated about Origen during his life. Eusebius, for instance, reports the story that Origen would willingly have gone out to suffer persecution along with his father in 202, but could not leave the house because his mother hid all of his clothes. Eusebius also reports that as part of his rigidly ascetic personal discipline, Origen castrated himself. Scholars are divided on whether the great proponent of allegorical interpretation would have actually taken a passage like Matthew 19:12 so literally, or whether the rumor came from Origen’s detractors in Alexandria.

Works

"Origenes," in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

“Origenes,” in Numeros Homilia XXVII, Schäftlarn Monastery (ca. 1160)

We will return to some of Origen’s exegetical writings at the end of Year 2. For now we will be reading the dogmatic work On First Principles (De Principiis) and the apologetic work Against Celsus. The De Principiis, written at Alexandria, is an early instance of Christian systematic theology—that is, it aims to lay out the foundation of the Christian faith, not to attack any particular heresy or defend any particular disputed point of orthodoxy. It proceeds in its four books to treat on the doctrine of God, the material world, man and free will, and scripture and methods of interpretation.

Against Celsus, written towards the end of Origen’s life, is—like similar apologetics from Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian—a careful, point-by-point refutation of the writings of Celsus, a scornful Platonic philosopher. Whereas the other apologists often combated apostates and heretics, to argue against an unbeliever Origen liberally included references to Greek literature and Platonic thought, which provided a rational grounding to Christian faith.

Theology

Origen’s theology is grounded in a high regard for both scripture and ecclesiastical tradition. Though Origen has been justly criticized for resorting to allegorical interpretation too often in his exegesis, he nevertheless was a skilled grammarian and textual critic, whose regard for the inspiration and authority of scripture made him one of the most brilliant early scholars of scripture. His famous Hexapla replicated Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible side by side for comparison, and Origen’s views on the New Testament canon largely accorded with the list of twenty-seven books that would be established in the fourth century. The De Principiis opens with the affirmation that “as the teaching of the Church, transmitted in orderly succession from the apostles, and remaining in the Churches to the present day, is still preserved, that alone is to be accepted as truth which differs in no respect from ecclesiastical and apostolical tradition. Origen followed this rule closely in his writings, frequently citing scripture or apostolic tradition.

A fragment of Origen's Hexapla

A fragment of Origen’s Hexapla

Three strands of Origen’s thought were gradually enlarged upon by Origen’s closest students and condemned as the Origenist System at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 554, though Origen himself was not anathematized by the Church. First was the principle of allegorical interpretation. While the rules of interpretation—essentially that scripture must be interpreted in a manner worthy of God—may have been unobjectionable, in the application made by Origen and his later followers, a number of Old Testament passages that offended Greek culture in late antiquity were interpreted beyond recognition.

As Origen was one of the earliest Greek thinkers to tackle the subject of the Trinity in his theological writings, his language was occasionally less precise than what fourth-century orthodoxy would demand. In later years both Athanasius and the Cappodocian Fathers (Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzus) would defend Origen’s orthodoxy, but Origen’s terminology was nevertheless employed by some who insisted on an essential difference between the Father and the Son.

The most controversial view—and one clearly entertained by Origen in the De Principiis-–concerns the origin and destiny of rational souls. Origen postulated that though God created everything, he created from eternity. In other words, there was no fixed moment of time at which God began creating. This eternal creation included all rational souls, some of which became angels and some demons, while the rest of the pre-existent souls waited to be born into fleshly bodies. On the other side of eternity, Origen, like Clement before him, affirmed a belief in apokatastasis, a final restoration of all in Christ, including the unregenerate. How strongly Origen held these views is unclear: many of his exegetical writings contradict his musings from the De Principiis, and Origen later flatly denied that he believed the devil would be ultimately restored.

Alternate Editions and Further Reading

Readers hoping to understand Origen without the encumbrances of nineteenth-century translation may wish to consult G. W. Butterworth’s translation of On First Principles and Henry Chadwick’s Contra Celsum. The Paulist Press has produced an anthology translated by Rowan Greer that includes the fourth volume of De Principiis.

Those interested in the details of Origen’s theology may be interested in Han Urs van Balthasar’s systematically anthologized edition of Origen’s writings, Spirit and Fire, translated from Bathasar’s German by Robert J. Daly.

For further reading on Origen’s life and thought, see Joseph Trigg’s study or Ronald Heine’s Scholarship in the Service of the ChurchA particularly nuanced study of Origen’s allegorical method of interpreting scripture is History and Spirit by Henri de Lubac, S.J.

Clement of Alexandria

Icon of Clement

Icon of Clement

The life and career of Titus Flavius Clement mark the ascendancy of Alexandrian theology. Whereas Clement’s contemporary, the sarcastic Latin lawyer Tertullian (whom we read next) famously asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the Alexandrians answered that pagan philosophy had a vital role to play in bringing the world to Christian faith. For better or worse, Clement had an almost reckless confidence that pagan philosophy was the underpinning of Christian truth, so that Christ fulfilled not only the law of Moses but also the myriad attempts of pagan thought to discern the immutable nature of all things true, good, and beautiful.

Biography

Clement was born to wealthy pagans in Athens sometime in the middle of the second century. Given the breadth of learning displayed in his writings, he was undoubtedly well traveled. We learn from an autobiographical brief in Stromateis 1.2 that his education under a variety of teachers took him from Greece to southern Italy to Egypt, where his career as a student of Christian philosophy seems to have begun upon meeting Pantaenus (c. 180), the master of the catechetical school in Alexandria at that time. (Clement’s intellectual pilgrimage is reminiscent of that of Justin  Martyr). The learned circles of Alexandria at the time melded Hellenistic and Judaic religious sensibility, which is evident in Clement’s thought. Clement became the master of the Alexandrian school around 190. According to tradition, Clement suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Septimius Severus sometime after 203.

Clement was the teacher of Origen (whom we will read later), the third-century Egyptian prodigy who popularized the Alexandrian approach to theology, in particular its exegesis. Clement failed to attain to universal acclaim in later Christendom despite his martyrdom. His pupil Origen  suffered posthumous condemnation at the second council of Constantinople in 553, and the eclecticism of Clement’s theological works led Photius of Constantinople to criticize them sharply in the ninth century. Clement all but disappeared from western calendars by the seventeenth century, having achieved little recognition except among the non-Chalcedonian churches of the east, such as the Coptic church.

Clement thus stands as a threshold figure, representing a passage from the era of the apostolic charism of theological intuition and the vigor of the apologists to an age of intellectual acuity and precise theological definition. In Clement, we finally begin to see Christianity “plunder the Egyptians,” taking pagan philosophy captive and turning it to its own purposes, which culminated in the first three general councils and the formulae of Nicea ratified at Constantinople.

Works

Clement is best known for three principle works: the Protrepticus (“Exhortation to the Greeks”), the Pedagogus (“The Instructor”), and the Stromateis (“Miscellanies”). In addition, “Who is the Rich Man who Shall be Saved?” is a surviving work of Clement’s, written to exhort some of his wealthier Christian students not to despair over their salvation, and to maintain a disposition toward riches in keeping with that taught in the gospel. There are numerous “lost” works by Clement, the one worth mentioning being the Hypotyposes, or “Outlines,” which, according to Photius, was an “impious” work of esoteric speculation about the heavenly hierarchies.

The Exhortation to the Greeks is a polemic against pagan thought. Clement here strives to demonstrate the utter undesirability of pagan religion and theology, and to encourage his Greek audience to abandon the ignorant worship of malignant and misanthropic deities  in favor of the worship of the true God of Christianity. The Instructor is a reflection of somewhat less consequence, which focuses on the practical elements of Christian discipleship. Here we see Clement not as a polemicist but as a tutor, schooling his audience in the basics of  the moral life and Christian piety.

The Miscellanies is a work of tremendous scope and varied interests; it seems to be more a sketchbook of thoughts than a theological treatise with a unified intention. Nevertheless, it is from this work that we encounter Clement’s overall theological perspective.  The work is an attempt to develop a Christian gnosticism. The Miscellanies, therefore, brings Clement more fully into view as a metaphysician and speculative theologian.

Theology

The most noteworthy element of Clement’s theology is his belief that philosophy is as divine a preparation for the gospel as the law and the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. Strom. 1.5, 20). Whereas many of Christendom’s most prolific writers, such as Tertullian and Hippolytus, had been trying to pin heresy on the influence of Greek philosophy among Christians, Clement sees in philosophy the prospect of a “preliminary cleansing” which prepares students to receive the faith. So we see that Clement’s eclecticism did have a conservative purpose: not to sow pagan tares in the midst of Christian wheat, as it were, but rather to till the soil of paganism such till it was capable of finding its fulfillment in Christ. Hence, Clement proposes a version of “gnosticism” that is quite Christian: theology is the culmination of a course of study which ascends the heights of mystical truth by way of the pedagogy of pagan thought.We must note that for Clement, the successful student will outgrow the pedagogue: therefore, Clement’s eclecticism is best understood not as an affirmation of the efficacy of paganism to convey the truth, but rather as an affirmation of the gospel to make better sense of paganism than paganism can make of itself.

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

Clement of Alexandria, engraving from Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecz by Andre Thevet (1584)

In speculating about apokatastasis, or “restoration,” Clement is the first known Christian writer to refer to the fire of hell as a purifying fire, a “wise fire that penetrates the soul” (Strom. 7.6). So it is that the wrath of God is understood by Clement as remedial, even therapeutic: “God does not take vengeance, which is the requital of evil for evil, but he chastises for the benefit of the chastised” (Strom. 7.16). The chastisement of divine wrath is intended as an aid in the divine therapy of man’s deification, the end toward which knowledge (gnosis) is most expedient. For knowledge of God presupposes conformity to God’s very self, and conformity to God is the sum of salvation. According to Clement, it seems that all rational beings, by virtue of their rationality, when they encounter the divine substance in the form of a consuming fire, will invariably somehow be brought to genuine gnosis, to conformity to divine truth, in the end. While the universalist implications of this teaching would be condemned in 553, we will see the idea of apokatastasis recur in the writings of several other eastern church fathers, particularly Gregory of Nyssa.

Finally, Clement may be credited as an early proponent of the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (cf. Strom. 1.27). It is not necessary to develop this point very much, as Origen is the Alexandrian exegete most notable for his allegorical interpretations. Let it suffice to say that Clement’s use of Scripture is influenced by his bent towards metaphysics, yet, as is most common with early Christian allegory, his conservative method results in very little overt mishandling of the biblical texts.

Alternate Editions and Further Reading

There has been a re-publication of the ANF translation in an affordable volume edited by Paul A. Boer. The Loeb Classical Library has published a critical edition, both in Greek and in English, of the “Exhortation to the Greeks,” “The Rich Man’s Salvation,” and a fragment titled “To the Newly Baptized” (trans. G. W. Butterworth). Complete editions of Clement’s three major works might easily be found distributed by smaller publishers individually, but substantial excerpts and helpful commentary can also be found in the Library of Christian Classics volume Alexandrian Christianity (ed. Henry Chadwick) and in Henry Bettenson’s The Early Christian Fathers.

Eric Osborn has published a study of Clement’s synthesis of the apostolic faith and classical philosophy in Clement of Alexandria (Cambridge, 2008), and the series of Oxford Early Christian Studies has published an interesting Orthodox take on Clement’s apophatic mystical theology, Clement of Alexandria and the Beginnings of Christian Apophaticism. Also, for an enjoyable apologia for the Alexandrian allegorical method as well for the eclecticism of Alexandrian fathers such as Clement and Origin, see John Henry Newman’s The Arians of the Fourth Century, a dated yet pertinent work regarding Alexandrian dominance at the creative edge of Christian theology.

 

Irenaeus of Lyons

Irenaeus of Lyon

Irenaeus of Lyons

Our next Father is Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 130 – c. 200). He is a well-known figure for various reasons: until the discovery of the Nag Hammadi documents, he was one of our major sources for ancient ‘Gnosticism’ (and his descriptions have been largely proven accurate); he is the first clear, conscious defender of the fourfold Gospels (no more, no less); he gives us many variations on the ‘Canon (or Rule) of the Faith’ which are precursors to the later creeds; he is an early exponent of the Apostolic Succession; and, while continuing Justin the Martyr’s logos theology, he gives a vibrant and exciting account of Christus Victor atonement theory and the theology of recapitulation (anakephalaiosis).

Biography

Irenaeus hailed from Smyrna in Asia Minor, where he grew up under the authority and teaching of the Apostolic Father Polycarp. At some stage he emigrated to Gaul where he settled in Lugdunum (today’s Lyons, France). Christianity was strong in many Asian communities, but not so in Gaul. Around 177, he lived up to his name on an embassy from Lyons to Rome where he pleaded against the excommunication of Montanists (whom we’ll study in more detail when we read Tertullian). Irenaeus was elected episcopos of the community in Lyons as successor to the martyred Photinus.

During his epsicopate, he produced his theological works and also wrote a letter to a Roman episcopos named Victor, once again urging an irenic approach to disputes, this time in the dispute over the date of Easter called the Quartodeciman Controversy, the details of which we will study in our reading of Eusebius’ Ecclesiastical History.

Irenaeus died around the year 200. Our first reference to his martyrdom is Jerome (347–420), Commentary on Isaiah 17.64. Even later is a tradition recounted by Gregory of Tours (538–594), living in Merovingian Gaul, that the Pope of Rome sent Irenaeus on an evangelistic mission to Lyons, at which he was widely successful (contrary to many of Irenaeus’ own references to the un-Christian barbarians amongst whom he lives).

Works

Irenaeus’ greatest work is his five books Against Heresies, directed principally against Gnostic teachings. A second work by Irenaeus, Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, was discovered in Armenian translation in 1904, after the ANF series was compiled. The latter work is thus not on our reading calendar, but we encourage anyone interested to read the Proof, found either in the public domain, or in the works referenced below.

Theology

Irenaeus is best known theologically for his views on atonement, the theory of recapitulation and Christus Victor theology (or the ‘Classic View’ of atonement, vs. the ‘Latin’ or ‘Juristic View’). Taking up Justin’s vision of the logos (inspired in turn – of course – by John 1), Irenaeus sees Christ as existing before the Incarnation as the eternal Word of the Father, who put the universe into place and governs it.

This Word took on flesh as part of God’s ongoing revelation to the human race. Had Adam and Eve not fallen, the Word would have become Incarnate anyway, for humanity was on a trajectory of development and growth into godliness (theosis) from the beginning. However, since Adam and Eve did sin through the deception of the serpent, Christ’s incarnation takes on a redemptive role. Not only does he become a human to show us more of God; he becomes a human to save us from sin, death, and the Devil.

Christ, the Incarnate Word, comes to undo what the first disobedience did. Therefore, just as sin began with a disobedient woman (Eve), the recapitulation-atonement begins with an obedient woman (Mary). Just as sin was perpetuated by a sinful man who was God’s son, so would it be stopped by a sinless Man Who is God’s Son (Jesus).

The Incarnation is a cosmic event and an irruption of the power of God into human history. By living a full, human – yet sinless – life, Jesus transforms all of human life. And when he, the only just man on earth, dies an unjust death on the cross, he destroys the power of death, as demonstrated by his triumphant resurrection and subsequent ascension. Because of the Incarnation and the drama of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, those who put their faith/trust in him with a determination to live holy lives are saved from their sins and the death that accompanies them, being given power over the devil.

This is a short recapitulation of recapitulation that does not do the theory justice. Good thing we’re going to read Irenaeus in the coming weeks!

This theology is played out against the backdrop of his battle, his polemic, against those whom he sees as having deviated from the true faith handed down from the apostles, the various groups termed ‘Gnostic’ as well as the Marcionites. At all times, we should see his statements of the Rule of Faith and Apostolic Succession and the Fourfold Gospel within their second-century, polemical context, and not to seized upon and misinterpreted with twenty-first-century assumptions.

Alternate Editions

There exists only one complete translation of Against the Heresies, and we shall be reading it (although Paul and Sara Parvis with Dennis Minns are working on a new one). However, there is a newer translation of Book 1 in the Ancient Christian Writers translated by Dominic Unger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar’s The Scandal of the Incarnation compiles a hundred pages of thematically arranged excerpts.

Proof of the Apostolic Preaching has been translated for the same series; another translation is John Behr’s for St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series.

For the keen and skilled in ancient languages, the entirety of Against the Heresies only exists in Latin translation. Two editions are worth noting: Contre les hérésies, ed. A. Rousseau, L. Doutreleau, C. Mercier, and B. Hemmerdinger, 10 vols. Paris: Cerf, 1965-1982 (with French translation); and Epideixis: Adversus haereses, ed. N. Brox. Fribourg, Switzerland: Herder, 1993-2001.

Further Reading

Robert M. Grant, Irenaeus of Lyons in Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series provides a decent introduction to the material, and Dennis Minns, Irenaeus: An Introduction is well worth reading.

For the extra-keen, I recommend two studies that have been my matrix for Irenaeus’ theology. One is the popular-level book by Robert E. Webber, Ancient-Future Faith, and the other is the classic modern work by Gustav Aulén, Christus Victor.

For those really interested in the rule of faith, do not forget J. N. D. Kelly’s classic, Early Christian Creeds. For evangelicals, see Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams, Evangelicals and Tradition.

Justin the Martyr

Icon of Justin Martyr

Our next author, Justin, lived from about A.D. 100 to 165 and was thus a contemporary to most of the Apostolic Fathers from whom we just read. Justin, however, had no direct contact with apostles, and so he is often classed with Irenaeus and Athenagoras (whom we will read next) as one of the early apologists—a defender (ἀπολογία) of Christian belief to the outside world.

Biography

Most of what we know of Justin’s life comes from his own writings, so we will encounter biographic details as we read. Though Justin was born in northern Palestine, he was a Gentile who was well educated in Greek language, literature, and philosophy. After finding dissatisfaction with Stoic, Aristotelian, Pythagorean, and Platonic philosophers, Justin converted to Christianity, strongly influenced by the bold and gracious witness of Christian martyrs.

Justin ever thought of himself as a philosopher, and after his conversion he continued to wear the distinctive robes of a philosopher and set up his own school of philosophy in Rome, where he defended his faith both in writing and in oral debate. After one such debate during the reign of Marcus Aurelius, Justin’s opponent Crescens, a Cynic, denounced him to the Roman authorities, who beheaded him along with several of his companions. From the transcript of the trial, Justin retained the honorific appellation “the Martyr.”

Works

Justin wrote his First Apology while in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138–161), to whom the work is addressed. The apology defends Christians against the charges of atheism (based on the Christian refusal to worship the gods of Rome) and of ritualistic brutality (based on rumors surrounding the Eucharist). Justin’s detailed explanation of Christian belief and ritual offer a fascinating glimpse of early church worship.

Justin Martyr, engraving from André Thevet, Les Vrais Pourtraits et Vies Hommes Illustres, 1584

Justin addressed a Second Apology to the Roman Senate, from which only fragments survive.

Justin’s other major work is his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, composed in the 130s. Although the early church historian Eusebius believed the debate to be a real event with a historic rabbi from Ephesus, more recent scholars are inclined to think the dialogue is merely a literary device Justin used in order to lay out his argument that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled Messianic prophecy (although a recent work by Timothy Horner revives the argument for the historicity of Trypho).

For the other works included in our collection, Discourse to the Greeks, Address to the Greeks, On the Sole Government of God, and On the Resurrection, Justin’s authorship is highly doubtful. Only On the Resurrection has any real chance of being originally written by Justin, and only fragments of that work remain. Like the spurious epistles of Ignatius, however, these works are nevertheless examples of early Christian writings, as each was composed around the turn of the third century.

Theology

Justin’s Apologies and Dialogue neatly map out the two cultural poles through which early Christianity navigated: the philosophy of the Greeks and the religion of the Jews, and aspects of both are captured in the concept of the Logos, the foundation of Justin’s theology.

Justin Martyr stained glass from the Church of St. Mary the Great, Cambridge (Credit: Lawrence OP / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND)

Logos (λόγος) is often translated word in English versions of the New Testament, most prominently in John 1:1–14 (a cherished text during this season of Advent). The Greek term carries a much broader meaning, however, akin to the English term rationality. In Stoic strands of Greek philosophy, the Logos was understood as a rational force that ordered the universe and was present in every human being. During the time of Christ, the Alexandrian Jew Philo likewise employed the term, explaining the Logos as the “reason of God” through which the universe was created.

Justin is clearly familiar with Stoic philosophy of the Logos and with the Apostle John’s additional teaching that the Logos was personally identifiable with God himself yet also fully tabernacled in a particular human being. Justin recurs often to the doctrine of the Logos to puzzle about how Christ the Logos could be both God and yet distinct in some way from the Father. He also uses the concept to argue against the Greek philosophers that Christianity, rather than representing just the religion of the poor and ignorant, is actually the highest and greatest of all philosophies.

As the Dialogue makes clear, Christians in the second century continued to wrestle with their relationship to Judaism. In arguing for the incarnation of the Logos to Trypho, Justin quotes liberally from the Septuagint (a translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), and he argues that Moses and the prophets foretold one who would set aside the law of the Jews and replace it with a law that was superior, universal, and eternal—the law of Christ.

Justin also quotes from what he calls the “memoirs of the Apostles,” identified at one point in the Apology as the “gospels.” Justin clearly relies on John’s teaching about the Logos, and he draws at length either on the other three gospels or on a single volume that harmonizes them (similar to Tatian’s Diatessaron, which we will read). In his Dialogue, Justin assumes their authority, treating them the same as the passages he cited from the Old Testament Scriptures.

Alternate Editions

If you happen to reside near a well-endowed academic library, you may have access to the Oxford Early Christian Texts volume of Justin’s Apologies, which represents the best of recent scholarship on the Greek manuscripts and presents the Apologies in a Greek-English diglot.

For those simply seeking a more modern English translation, Thomas Falls provides a useful volume covering all of Justin’s writings, including the apocryphal works. Falls’s work on the Dialogue has recently been updated in a new volume by Thomas Halton.

Other recent translations of the Apologies are Leslie William Barnard’s for the Ancient Christian Writers series, and E.R. Hardy’s for Early Christian Fathers, a volume that includes most of the Apostolic Fathers literature and a selection from Irenaeus (our next reading) in addition to the First Apology.

The Apostolic Fathers

Saint Polycarp, seventeenth-century engraving by Michael Burghers

We begin our reading with the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, the traditional name for the authors of the oldest extant Christian literature outside the New Testament. This diverse group of writers—several of them anonymous—lived and wrote during or shortly after the time of the apostles themselves, and their writings reflect a concern for church authority after the passing of Christ’s first disciples.

Biography

The Apostolic Fathers whose names we know were all leaders in the early church, and some corresponded with one another. Clement led the church in Rome during the late first century. Origen (whom we’ll read later this year) speculated that he may have been the Clement named by Paul in Philippians 4:3, but no details of his biography are known. Polycarp was the bishop of the church in Smyrna for several decades around the start of the second century. He was a central figure who helped Christians navigate the perils of state-sponsored persecution, and he died a martyr at the age of eighty-six years old. Ignatius, a close associate of Polycarp, led the church in Antioch. In his letters Ignatius expresses an almost macabre yearning for martyrdom, perhaps attempting to steel himself for inevitable persecution or overstating his example to his flock. Ignatius was indeed martyred in the early second century during the Emperor Trajan’s reign. Finally, Papias presided as bishop of Hierapolis. A contemporary of Polycarp and reputed (by Irenaeus) to be a disciple of the Apostle John, Papias authored a popular work that exists only in small fragments today.

Places of origin and destinations of the Apostolic Fathers’ writings (Rome excluded)

Virtually nothing is known about the author or recipient of the Epistle to Diognetus or the so-called Epistle of Barnabas. The former is the earliest recorded instance of Christian apology (defense of the faith), while the latter takes up the issue of Christianity’s relationship to Judaism, engaging in the sort of allegorical interpretation of scripture that became popular in Alexandria in the following centuries. Eight other letters attributed to Ignatius were not actually written by him, but because they were written in or before the sixth century, they are included in our reading as a useful example of later Christian arguments against heresy.

Works

Clement’s sole surviving work is his Epistle to the Corinthians, which he wrote probably during the 90s to deal with many of the same problems that the Apostle Paul had addressed in the church.Likewise, only one letter of Polycarp’s survives, the Epistle to the Philippians, written apparently after the Philippians requested that Polycarp instruct them on the topic of righteousness. The letter mentions the recent death of Ignatius, thus dating it in the early 100s.

Icon of Ignatius of Antioch

Ignatius wrote his seven authentic Epistles while traveling under armed guard to Rome to face martyrdom (again, in the early 100s). In the ANF edition, we recommend giving closer attention to what are called the “shorter” versions of the epistles. Modern scholars know these as the “middle recension” and regard them the authentic epistles. The “long” version is a later interpolation, perhaps by the same person who wrote the spurious epistles, while the Syriac versions reflect a later, shorter redaction (now called the “short recension”).

The fragments from Papias come from his work Expositions of the Sayings of the Lord, written around 130. The Epistle of Barnabas likely comes from the first half of the second century, the Epistle to Diognetus from the second half.

Several works that properly belong to the literature of the Apostolic Fathers are not on our schedule for these first few weeks but will appear later (largely because they were discovered and translated as the ANF was being compiled in the nineteenth century). Those works include II Clement, the Didache, fragments from Quadratus, and the Shepherd of Hermas, all of which will be further introduced when we come to them in our reading.

Theology

Although the need to define themselves against the traditions of Judaism and the scrutiny of an increasingly aggressive state occupies some of their attention, a central theme running through the writings of the Apostolic Fathers is the search for church unity and authority, especially when direct appeal can no longer be made to one of Christ’s original apostles. For Clement and Ignatius, the office of the bishop is critical to resolving this problem. By apostolic appointment (in Clement’s view), or by his position as the representative of God in the church (in Ignatius’s view), the bishop is cloaked with authority to heal divisions within the assembly and to constitute the unity of the church.

A Vision of the Trinity, painted around 1735 by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Because Archbishop Clemens August commissioned the painting, Tiepolo depicted his namesake Clement of Rome as the one beholding the Trinity.

In this vein, internal strife and division within the churches attract much more attention than external threats of persecution or false philosophy. “Harmony” [ομονοια] is a key recurring term in Clement’s epistle, and Clement actually invokes the harmonious governance of Rome as a positive example for the church. Ignatius impresses on his readers that unity is the distinguishing mark of the true faith, while Polycarp instructs the Philippians that righteous belief is inseparable from righteous behavior, and the church must therefore be “joined together in the truth” as well as in “blameless conduct.”

One of the more fascinating elements in this search for authority is the light the Apostolic Fathers throw on the developing New Testament canon. In regulating Christian harmony, these writers clearly recognize and draw on the authority of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Genesis, Psalms, Proverbs, and the prophets. While none of the Apostolic Fathers explicitly discusses the possibility of new scripture, each exhibits familiarity with texts that would eventually form the New Testament canon. Clement appears to consciously follow Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as a model. Polycarp and Ignatius both appear familiar with the epistles of Paul and, in the latter case, the gospel of Matthew. The boundaries of what may constitute sacred writings are not yet at all clear, however. Papias comments on the writing of Matthew, John, and the Revelation, all the while alluding to a larger oral tradition of Christ’s acts and teachings, only a part of which was written down (cf. John 21:25). Polycarp draws equally upon Clement’s Epistle as he does the writings of Paul, and he may well have been the one who first compiled the letters of Ignatius, perhaps with the intent to preserve sacred writ. As we read the Apostolic Fathers it should, however, become clear why later Christians ultimately retreated from including their writings in the New Testament canon.

Alternate Readings

For readers looking for a more modern translation of the Apostolic Fathers, we’ve already mentioned the work of Michael W. Holmes. Holmes has produced a parallel Greek-English edition as well as a less expensive English-only text.

Another recent translation is Maxwell Staniforth’s for Penguin Classics’ Early Christian Writings series.

Among the other patristics series we’ve recommended, see Bart Ehrman’s two volumes for the Loeb Classical Library, Francis Glimm’s volume for the Fathers of the Church, or volume 1 and volume 6 of the Ancient Christian Writers. These works also contain lengthier critical introductions to the Apostolic Fathers, with bibliographies.

How to Learn a Tradition: Daf Yomi and Patristics

A page from the Vilna Talmud

The opening page of the Vilna edition of the Talmud (Berakhot 2a)

One of the things that gave us the idea to try to organize this reading group was learning about daf yomi, a plan for studying the Talmud. My knowledge of Talmud is scanty: I’ve read the Penguin edition for an overview, and I’ve read tractate Berakhot in the Steinsaltz edition, along with some introductory works. I also owe a debt to a friend who took some time to explain a page of Talmud to me, and thus the basics of Talmud study. (Before I read some of the Talmud, I never understood what the Psalmist’s phrase, “Oh, how I love thy law!” really looked like.) In my brief excursion, though, I learned that one way many Jews study Talmud is through daf yomi.

In the daf yomi reading plan, the student studies one folio page front and back (daf) per day (yomi) of the Babylonian Talmud. Since the Talmud has 2,711 folios, the student can read the entire Babylonian Talmud in seven and a half years. If you read the Talmud in the Steinsaltz or Schottstein editions, which are translated into English with commentaries that explain the brief statements of Mishna and Gemara, you’ll read about seven or eight large pages per day. The idea for daf yomi came from the Polish rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923. Since then, daf yomi has gone through almost twelve cycles.

Borrowing the idea of daf yomi, we wanted to come up with a comparable reading plan for Christians. The nearest thing to the Talmud for Christians is the writings of the church fathers. Seven pages per day in the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers leads to a seven-year cycle for reading a very large selection of the Christian fathers.

It’s not just the technique, but the idea of education behind daf yomi that we want to borrow, because daf yomi is a brilliant idea for educating a large number of people in a tradition. As I see it, these are the educational principles that are attractive:

  1. Learning comes from reading a foundational body of texts. You could learn from reading modern books, but there is a better way. The foundational texts are perpetually fresh, and those primary sources can be as foundational for your faith as they were for the tradition. Though the foundational texts are ancient, they are likely more accessible than modern works.
  2. Learning is therefore broad and varied. Both Talmud and the works of the church fathers are broad works encompassing a tremendous variety. They cover every topic relevant to the practice of your religion: theology, history, liturgy, apologetics, biblical commentary, and devotion, to name a few. While you could and perhaps should become an expert in some narrowly defined aspect of the tradition, it is of first importance that you become broadly educated in your whole tradition, just as life is lived as a whole and not as parts.
  3. Learning is a conversation. The first thing a beginner in Talmud (like me) notices is that the work is a conversation taking place across centuries; you can even see it in the design of the Talmud page. In Mishna, rabbis discuss the Oral Torah; in Gemara, rabbis discuss the debates in Mishna; Rashi comments on Mishna and Gemara; the Tosafists debate with Rashi; the student discusses it all with the teacher. The works of the church fathers are a conversation too: Jerome and Augustine send some heated letters back and forth; the tracts and polemics of the fathers are addressed to one another as well as to non-Christians. This conversation continues even to the present, and by studying these foundational texts, you are invited to participate (see #7).
  4. Learning is manageable. Most people are not students or scholars, and therefore do not have the opportunity of devoting their entire day to study; even fewer of us are scholars of patristics. Ideally, everyone would have the privilege of an in-depth, sustained, formative period of study at some point in their life, as the fathers demanded of their catechumens. But what we all need is a way to continue our study in a way that can fit into the rest of our lives. That’s why we’ve settled on seven pages per day (which will likely not feel manageable at first, but will become so).
  5. Learning is routine, habitual, disciplined. Discipline is the only way to learn anything, and discipline usually means routine and habit. That is why the reading is daily, and why we’ve recommended that you attach the habit of reading the fathers to some other habit, like daily prayer. Christianity is by its nature a discipline. Learning by routine and habit is thus a way of learning not just about Christianity, but of practicing it.
  6. Learning is accretive. A manageable daily portion multiplied by many days leads to a great accumulation. Slow, gradual accretion is the way of wisdom.
  7. Learning is communal. You will learn more and be more likely to succeed in being disciplined if you learn in a community. We’ve set reading the fathers to a calendar so that anyone, anywhere can be reading the same texts at the same time. That’s also why we’ve recommended that you find a study partner—a spouse, a friend, a pastor, a fellow churchgoer—with whom you can study and discuss.

Will you join us? Here is how to start reading.

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