In the News: Muslims (and Christians) in Early Medieval France

Our latest news item is a BBC story about the discovery of a Muslim burial site at Nimes in southern France.  You might be thinking, “Um… wait a minute, CHEF — that says Muslim burial site, not Christian.”  Well done, perceptive reader — that’s correct!  🙂  But it does impact Christian history because of what kept the Muslims of that time in southern France, namely, the armies of people like Charles Martel.

As the story indicates, Muslim armies had crossed the Pyrenees from Spain (whither they had previously come from North Africa) in the early 700s, and they were threatening to occupy even more of Western Europe.  The pivotal event that’s usually named in historical surveys is the battle of Tours in north-central France (732), at which Charles’s armies repelled the Umayyad forces.  Historians have wondered what would have happened if the Muslim armies had prevailed that day.  Would there have even been what we know as the “Christian Middle Ages”?

As it happens, there were still Muslims in southern France for years — there was even a battle at Nimes, where these burials were found, in the later 730s — but ultimately, the Christian Franks under Charles Martel (and his grandson, Charlemagne) ruled “Gaul,” which became what we know as France, with almost no Muslim presence until the modern day.  By contrast, of course, there were Muslim kingdoms in Spain all the way until 1492 (yes, that year), and there were smaller groups of Muslims even after that.  In other words, while we hear about the Pyrenees every summer in the context of the Tour de France, in the Middle Ages they provided a much more significant boundary: between Christian Gaul and Muslim Spain.

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Athanasius: Introduction, and Life of Anthony (Part 1)

Welcome to our May reading group selection!  (For the rest of the summer reading schedule, see this link.)  Athanasius of Alexandria is a really interesting figure from the early church, especially among folks who study early Christian doctrine.  We’ve got a couple of his writings on deck for this month — one text that is theological, and one that’s a narrative.  First, we’re going to read his Life of Anthony, a story of an early monk in the Egyptian desert.  Then, after that, we’ll read his On the Incarnation, a theological treatise on why Jesus became human.  Let’s start with a little about Athanasius, so we are all on the same page.

Athanasius of Alexandria

Athanasius was born in the late 200s and lived until the year 373.  He is most famous for having been the “Patriarch” of the Alexandrian churches for nearly 50 years.  A lot of people think he was an instrumental figure in the Council of Nicaea (325); however, while he did attend, he was only a deacon and didn’t have a whole lot to do.  But, when he became Patriarch three years later, he devoted a considerable portion of his adult life to defending the statement of faith that was developed at Nicaea, a version of what we call the “Nicene Creed.”

In fact, Athanasius so passionately defended that set of beliefs (especially about the right way to understand Jesus’s (the Son’s) relationship to God the Father), that he was exiled multiple times when the Roman emperor happened to disagree with his position or find him a nuisance.  One of the texts that most clearly articulates Athanasius’ ideas on this topic is his set of Orations Against the Arians, which you can read in an old-fashioned translation at this link.

Athanasius’s Life of Anthony

But this month we’re starting with something related but different: his Life of Anthony, the famous monk from Egypt.  I’m reading the translation by Robert C. Gregg, in the edition that’s part of Paulist Press’s “Classics of Western Spirituality” series (which is great, by the way).  In this book, Athanasius tells the story of Anthony’s adult life, focusing especially on his adventures as a spiritual ascetic, living further and further away from other human beings, yet being apparently unable to escape fame for his spiritual exploits.

As the introductions to the book note, Athanasius does actually include a fair amount of theological material in the book, in that the depiction of Anthony’s dependence on Jesus is clearly shaped by Athanasius’s beliefs that the Son was fully God, just like the Father.  But the text has been far more influential in its depiction of the rigors of the spiritual life.  Indeed, we know that it was translated into multiple languages within just a few decades of its writing (that’s fast in the ancient world).  St. Augustine of Hippo, in his celebrated autobiography (called Confessions), describes how a translation of this text into Latin helped bring about his own conversion to Christ.  The images of Anthony, fighting against various demons, devils, and temptations, have been fodder for both artists (see above) and those seeking deeper spirituality for hundreds of years.

The First Part of the Text

Today I’ll just share some thoughts on the first part of the text.  First, it’s appropriate for us to be reading this text for our own profit.  Athanasius says at the beginning that his addressee apparently is attempting to “measure up to or even to surpass” the monks in the “discipline of virtue.”  He intends to help accomplish this goal by sharing the story of Anthony, in response to his audience’s request, and he acknowledges that Anthony’s life has been a “profit and assistance” for himself as well.  This opening reminds me of the books of Luke and Acts, where the author tells “Theophilus” that the things written there were to strengthen him in his belief, at whatever stage that may have been.

Second, I find the beginning of Anthony’s story compelling.  After telling us a bit about his background as an Egyptian Christian (ch. 1), Athanasius quickly moves to his late adolescence (or early adulthood).  By that point (ch. 2), both of his parents had recently died, leaving his young sister and the family’s lands (they were reasonably affluent) in his care.  But Anthony was used to going to church, and one day when he did so, he heard the Gospel text from Matthew 19: “If you be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”  According to the story, Anthony immediately did exactly that: he gave his lands away, sold his movable goods and gave the proceeds to the poor, and kept only a few things aside for his sister.  But then he went to church again and heard the Gospel text that reads “Do not be anxious about tomorrow”… and so he gave away to the poor even the things he had kept back.  He put his sister in a convent so that she could be raised well, and then he turned himself over to a life of ascetic discipline.  This immediate obedience to the Gospel reminds me of the story of St. Francis, who did something very similar in obeying a word he received in church.

Finally, Athanasius does not wait very long to get going on an aspect of this text that is rather disconcerting to many modern readers: unambiguous descriptions of demonic activity, both in Anthony’s mind and actually in apparently material ways — things he can see, hear, smell, and touch. First, in ch. 5, Athanasius writes, “The devil … attempted to lead him away from the discipline, suggesting memories” of various things to which he might be attached.  Later in the chapter, the devil “undertook one night to assume the form of a woman,” so that Anthony might be led astray by lust.  In ch. 6, there is a famous and controversial image of the devil taking on the likeness of a “black boy”; as many commentators have noted (see here and here for two examples), this image may suggest racism, the blackness of sin, a temptation toward homosexual behavior or pederasty, or all of these!  Many modern readers find this kind of language quite foreign, if not repellent.  Don’t we live in an enlightened age?  Don’t we no longer believe in such superstitions?  Maybe.  But the Hollywood box office suggests that there is still a latent belief in such things — and maybe people are on to something.

That’s it for today.  Here’s a pair of questions to consider: Which commands of Jesus do you find it easy to obey?  Which have been hard for you?  Why do you think this is so?

Image credits: (the icon of Athanasius) and (detail of Lucas van Leyden’s Temptation of Saint Anthony, and Michelangelo’s Torment of Saint Anthony)

Suggested next click: Life of Anthony, Part 2

In the News: Catholics and Orthodox

As many of you know, there has been an official division between the Eastern and Western churches — later known as the “Orthodox” and “Roman Catholic” branches of Christianity — since the year 1054.  The separation actually began much earlier, but that’s the date people point to.

Pope and Patriarch KyrilThere have been glimmers of hope for reconciliation here and there (see this link and also this one, for just a few of the important events that have happened over time), but the two groups have never achieved full unity.  But just today, CNN posted a story about Pope Francis’s plan to meet the “Patriarch” (that is, the head) of the Russian branch of the Orthodox church.  The meeting is to take place next week in Cuba, during Patriarch Kyril’s planned visit to Cuba.  The story is a nice one for us, as it refers to multiple events in church history!

This kind of story warms my heart significantly.  I come from a branch of Christianity that has always said that we value church unity… but we haven’t done a good job of letting our actions match our words.  But I’m convinced that, in this century, we will find our similarities to be MUCH more important than our differences.  Let us remember Jesus’ prayer to the Father in John’s Gospel: “…that they may be one as we are one.”

So, a set of questions: What do you think?  Are you hopeful?  Pessimistic?

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Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho: Part 2

Well, it’s already my last post on Justin Martyr, and today I’m going to share some more thoughts about the second part of Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho.  In my first post about this work, I noted how there are three main sections to the text.  Here I’ll talk about the second, which starts at chapter 48 and focuses on arguments that Jesus really is the Messiah, and the third, which starts at chapter 109 and emphasizes how Christians are therefore the true recipients of God’s promises.

You won’t be surprised to learn that these parts contain a LOT of quotations  — and a lot of really long ones! — of the Old Testament.  And of course, it’s not surprising because of both the audience (it’s a dialogue with Jews, and the Old Testament is our common ground of Scripture) and Justin’s writing habits (we saw in the First Apology that he is quite capable of building his arguments off of the Old Testament prophets).  Also, as was the case in the First Apology, Justin quotes a lots of texts that are quite familiar to us (for example, multiple chapters on Psalm 22 [the one that starts “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]) as well as some that are much less familiar in discussions about Jesus (like an extended discussion of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah).

But what else do we see in these two sections?

The Bible and the Holy Spirit

Because I think a lot about Christian attitudes regarding the Holy Spirit’s role in the production and interpretation of the Bible, I forget that some Jews also believe that God’s spirit was working in the prophets.  Justin assumes as much in chapter 55, when Trypho challenges him to prove “that the prophetic Spirit ever admits the existence of another god” (i.e., in the Scriptures).  It’s a point of common ground that I don’t always remember.  (See also ch. 114 for another discussion of the Spirit’s activity in Scripture.)

Also, many modern readers will appreciate Justin’s attitude about the “perfection” of Scripture.  At one point (ch. 65) he absolutely rejects the idea that any one part of Scripture could contradict another part, presumably because God was speaking it through God’s spirit!  Rather, he says there are confusing parts, then we need to rethink our interpretation.  Incidentally, you may know that Christians in the ancient world did not all agree on the former point; famously, Origen argued that confusing parts of Scripture were actually put there on purpose by the Holy Spirit — to make us think and dig more deeply into the spiritual riches that surely lay beneath the surface.

Finally — and happily, for those of us who think that we aren’t that good at discerning the meaning of Scripture — Justin also believes that God gives us special gifts in interpreting the Bible (ch. 119).  This belief is not as developed at the later idea that it is actually the Holy Spirit (i.e., God in God’s own essence) who empowers our interpretation, but the seeds of that later idea may be here.

The Bible and the Jews

I was not aware that apparently some ancient Jews and Christians argued about the reliability of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament.  In ch. 68 (and elsewhere), Justin alludes to a practice of denying that a particular passage was in the Hebrew whenever Christians made a point from the Septuagint.  I don’t know how much to trust Justin’s characterization, but it suggests that at least some of the Jewish-Christian arguments over Scripture were arguments over translation and textual criticism.   (Note: there are parallels here to Muslim-Christian debates over whether Christians falsified the Bible to emphasize the divinity of Jesus, as many Muslims argue.)

By now we are used to Justin using the Bible to make some harsh claims against the Jews.  Multiple examples appear in this last part of the text, for example, his ch. 123, where he says that the Jews fulfill a hard word from Isaiah — that they are not only not wise or understanding, but even sly and treacherous!  One wonders how Justin’s dialogue partners reacted here.  Probably not well.  But later in that section, Justin does still betray the belief that the Jews can actually come to a belief in Jesus — they aren’t wholly lost.  And in fact, that is where the Dialogue ends — with Justin wishing his interlocutors well, expressly hoping that they will come to the Way of Jesus through their continuing search for wisdom.

Surprising Arguments

Every once in a while, Justin just makes an argument that is surprising.  One example of “surprising” meaning “lame” can be found in ch. 87, where Trypho asks about Christians’ applying Isaiah 11:1-3 (“There shall come forth a branch out of the root of Jesse”) to Jesus.  Specifically, Trypho asks about the part that says that the “spirit of God shall rest on him,” thus resulting in various spiritual gifts.  Trypho asks how Jesus could acquire these if, as Christians say, he had the Spirit from his conception and thus already possessed them.  As part of his response, Justin says that the Spirit’s “resting” on Jesus referred to his “ceasing” or “stopping” to be among the Jews, only to re-emerge among the Christians.  I find this wholly implausible — I think he’s just getting a shot in at the Jews!

But there are also parts where “surprising” equals “thought-provoking.”  Earlier we saw Justin refer to Jesus as God’s “angel” and a “lord” of human beings (e.g., ch. 61), and we might have wondered what that meant in terms of Jesus’s divinity.  In ch. 127, then, Justin gives us a bit of a clue.  He refers there to passages in the Pentateuch where “the Lord spoke to Moses” or “God went up from Abraham.”  In doing so, he says that we “should not imagine that the Unbegotten God Himself” (sic) descended or ascended from any place.”  He seems to think that God “the Father” lives in heaven and only there, and that for God to come to earth, God would require some kind of mediator.  This belief, of course, gives credence to the idea that Jesus is divine, in that he is God-come-to-earth, but Justin starts from who and what God is in God’s essence to help us understand the “theophanies” of the Old Testament.

Don’t forget that next month we’ll be reading two works by Athanasius.  I’m going to start with his Life of Antony, which you can try to buy online or get at your library.

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Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (4th edition)

Shelley Plain LanguageIn my review of Mark Noll’s Turning Points, I mentioned that that book is one of just a couple that I would recommend as a good first book to read about church history.  Another that would make that very short list, especially for evangelical readers, is Bruce Shelley‘s Church History in Plain Language.  I have taught from this book multiple times, and it has much to commend it, especially to an evangelical audience.

This book was first published in 1980 by Word Publishers (of Bible commentary fame) and now is produced by Thomas Nelson (who bought Word a while back).  From its first edition, the text seems to have represented Dr. Shelley‘s class notes.  This provenance manifests itself in two primary phenomena: the excellent story-telling approach that Shelley takes to his subject, and his rather idiosyncratic, laissez-faire approach to citation and quotations (more on both of these below).

In fact, for many readers it is Shelley‘s story-telling that is most attractive.  My students consistently report pleasure at this aspect of the book, as it helps them remember the characters that Shelley sketches so vividly.  Obviously, in an introductory textbook, one cannot tell all the stories, but Shelley does devote significant portions of chapters to such luminaries as Augustine, Pope Gregory I (“the Great”), Martin Luther, and John Wesley.  His descriptions truly jump off the page; in his hands, the people in question are not just two-dimensional characters, but instead they are full-bodied people that the reader can identify with.  It’s easy to imagine how these stories were originally an absorbing part of class lectures.

That said, it isn’t just people that he focuses on; there’s a nice balance of events and movements, too.  When you read the book, you learn a good bit about lots of different elements of church history, all of which can be augmented by further research into deeper specifics.  Given Shelley’s own personal commitments — he’s a conservative evangelical Protestant — it’s not surprising that there is more depth on the Protestant side than the Catholic; one example of this is that Shelley devotes a full chapter to each of the Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed, and Anglican branches of Protestantism.  But the Catholic story is not left aside; readers learn about 17th-century controversies, the 19th-century attitudes that led to the proclamation of the Pope’s infallibility, and the amazingly important council of the 20th century called Vatican II.

The fourth edition does represent something of a new stage in the book’s history.  Since Dr. Shelley died in 2010, his colleague R. L. Hatchett took over the latest version.  The modifications included a new foreword, some extra charts and figures to help comprehension, and a revamping of the last part of the book.  The final four chapters of the third edition became the last three chapters in fourth, and the changes are good.  One chapter is devoted to the mixed-up situation for Christians in the “West” (North America and Western Europe), and another is for how things look in the rest of the world, where Christianity is largely booming.  The final chapter tells some stories that illustrate those insights and dovetail nicely with the rest of the book.

The strangest thing about the book, as I noted above, is Shelley’s odd practice regarding quotations and citations.  He notes in his Prologue that he acquired thousands of quotations in his preparation for classes; he then says that he tries to cite his “major quotations” at the end of the book.  But wait!  Aren’t we supposed to cite ALL of our quotations?  Isn’t non-citation what we call “plagiarism”?  The answers, of course, are “yes.”  And in fact, I’ve found at least two places where he missed some quotations — whole paragraphs that come from one of the books that I know Shelley used, since he cites it elsewhere.  I may be naïve, but I don’t think that Shelley was trying to do something dishonest; sadly, he ends up doing so accidentally.  (By the way, this phenomenon is why I think he built the book from class notes; I assume quotations became part of those notes over time, and then they ended up in the book.)  (Also, in case you’re wondering, I have contacted Thomas Nelson about this issue, but multiple conversations have ended in silence on their end.)

So, to sum up, some pros and cons:



  • Very readable; easy to follow the writing and the story
  • Excellent breadth of coverage, from the 1st to the 21st centuries, including all branches of Christianity
  • Story-telling approach is very attractive; readers get a sense of the humanity of some important figures in church history
  • Helpful maps, timelines, sidebars, and charts
  • (For Protestant readers) An emphasis on the Protestant branch of Christianity


  • Black-and-white copy is a bit old-fashioned; the lack of images is a disadvantage in our contemporary world that is so used to a plethora of pictures
  • A relative lack of depth on some of the more marginalized parts of Christianity, such as the Orthodox and other aspects of the “Christian east”
  • Difficulty in tracking down the sources of quotations and ideas; plagiarism can make the reader question the reliability of the narrative or presentation

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