Links: The Patristic Period

The Muratorian Canon — This is an early (the first extant?) list of authoritative books for a particular community.  It’s interesting to read, and although there is some debate about how early it is, I think the most common dating is safe — around the year 200 AD/CE.  Notice that already the writer is talking about what books are “accepted” and what ones are “rejected.”  Notice also the interesting category he discusses toward the end: that a certain book (in this case, the “Shepherd” by a guy named Hermas) is good and should be read, but not in church.  Clearly, that book is helpful but is not on par with the “canonical” books that will become the New Testament.

The Epistle to Diognetus — This text is a second-century letter that nicely illustrates early Christian attitudes toward the world around them.  Notice especially chapters 5-6 of the Epistle, where the author clearly articulates the distinction between Christians and everyone else.  The reason I give you this text is that it helps illustrate the mindset that could be questioned in the situations regarding the martyrs.  Are Christians really that separate from the world?  We need strong leaders to guide us when we fall.

Clement of Alexandria on Philosophy — Here are a few selections from Clement’s work.  In terms of his high opinion of Greek philosophers, notice how he says about halfway down the page that Plato can speak “as though divinely inspired.”

Irenaeus on Bishops — This is a text from the second-century Christian writer Irenaeus, in his writing Against Heresies.  What’s interesting to me is Irenaeus’ perspective on the importance of the bishops in preserving apostolic teaching and connecting back to those early days.  He wrote this against some Gnostics whom he accused of inventing “new teaching,” which was a bad thing in those days.  Notice that, for Irenaeus, the bishops are important for doctrinal reasons, not so much power reasons.  This text connects nicely with our reading about bishops.  However, because Irenaeus was writing his text (called “Against Heresies”) against those Gnostics, he’s also interesting if you look at that material, too.  If you want to explore more on Irenaeus, you might start with something like this link.

The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity — This text from the early third century will help illuminate the material on persecution.  It is a “martyrdom account” — a narrative purporting to tell the story of a Christian martyr.  In this case, the text is especially interesting because it both concerns women and also seems to come (in part) from the actual hand of one of them — the noblewoman Perpetua.  If you are interested in other martyrdom accounts, the other most famous one is that of Polycarp (died around 150 AD/CE), which you can read at this link.

Tertullian’s On Spectacles — This text comes from the early-third-century writer Tertullian, and is the first extended argument we have from a Christian writer about why Christians shouldn’t attend gladiatorial games.  Notice the various kinds of arguments Tertullian uses.

Origen — Origen was a hugely important early biblical scholar from the third century.  Here is a slightly long, oddly-formatted site that has lots of good information about him.  Notice especially his three-fold method of interpreting Scripture, which includes both literal and figurative (or”spiritual”) interpretations.

Origen on Scripture — Here’s a sample of Origen’s writings, and in fact, it’s among his most famous material.  Scroll down to section 11, and read sections 11-16.  You will get a sense of Origen’s discussion of Scripture, his idea that the Spirit is the divine author of Scripture, and that we can sometimes look for the “literal” meaning of Scripture (the “flesh” of Scripture) but other times its allegorical or symbolic meaning (its “soul” or “spirit”).  He is very tuned in to a devotional way of thinking about Scripture.

Origen’s Hexapla — One of Origen’s major contributions to biblical scholarship was his so-called “Hexapla” (which, being translated, means “six-fold”).  This site probably has way more information than you want, but the top portions of it give you a good sense of what the Hexapla was about, contained, and may have looked like (approximately).

More on Cyprian — If you are interested in reading more about the third-century African bishop Cyprian, this site will help.  It includes discussion of his two most important treatises for this chapter, namely, “On the Lapsed” and “On the Unity of the Church.”

Apocryphal Gospels — Wikipedia has a nice article on the New Testament apocryphal texts – that is, texts that are not included in the New Testament, despite containing reflection on Scriptural topics and sometimes being ascribed to Scriptural authors.  Most of these were written several decades after the New Testament books.  For perspectives on alternative stories of Jesus, see the “Gospels” section in the linked article.

How to Make a Papyrus — This is an interesting site and slideshow about modern folks making papyri like the ancients did.  How time-consuming!

Codex Sinaiticus Online — This site is the online home for the digital version of Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth-century manuscript of the Bible that is *hugely* important for helping textual scholars establish the best text of the Bible.  This site is explorable and is the result of years of work by many folks.

Jerome — Jerome was a very important early biblical scholar who flourished in the late fourth century.  He was the one who translated the Bible into Latin, in what became known as the Vulgate translation.  This translation was the Latin Bible used by Catholic Christians all over the world for 1,500 years.  Here’s a little more about him.

A Sample of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History — Eusebius is often called the “father of church history,” and this text gives you a little flavor of his work.  It deals with some early issues in the church; for the famous section describing the (fictional) correspondence between Jesus and Abgar, see this link.

Constantine and the “Sign of Christ” — This is a cool site that shows the emergence of Constantine’s use of the Christ-symbol (sometimes called the “Chi-Rho,” after the first two letters of the word “Christ” in Greek) by means of coins that he had minted, and then with those of his successors.  Nice commentary, too.

Images of Constantinople — Here is a source for images of Constantinople.  It can give you a better sense of the ancient city founded by Constantine.  Incidentally, some of our Leipzig study abroad students have visited Istanbul, which means they’ve seen the (former) churches of Hagia Sophia and Chora.

Selections from Arius’s Writings — Here is a portion of Arius’s writing, as it was quoted by Athanasius in one of his texts.  Notice the contrasts he draws between “God” and the Son — very stark!

Athanasius’s Easter Letter — Athanasius’s letter of 367 is the text that contains the first record of our 27 New Testament books.  This site gives the pertinent excerpts.  Note that Athanasius calls Hebrews a letter written by Paul – that was the common belief in those days, and it continued for many centuries afterward.

Gregory of Nazianzus on Analogies for the Trinity — Here is a selection from a text by the Cappadocian father (mentioned toward the end of the chapter) Gregory of Nazianzus on the Holy Spirit.  It’s a late-19th-century translation, so the English is rather Victorian.  At the very end of this text — sections 31-33 — he discusses two different analogies for the Trinity and also their weakness.  It’s a nice counterpoint to our attraction to some of those analogies.

Athanasius’s Life of Antony — We have read some about monks in the early church.  This is a narrative about the most famous early monk — Antony of Egypt — written by Alexandria’s most famous bishop.  Here is the text in full, after a good bit of prologue, should you want to read some of it.

Celibacy in the Early Church — On a related topic, many early Christians saw celibacy as an important part of their Christian discipleship.  Here are some quotations (in rather awkward, dated translation) that back this up.

A Summary of the “Rule of St. Basil” — Here is a summary of the monastic “rule of St. Basil,” an early guide for the monastic life in a monastery (that is, with others, and not living alone somewhere).

A Prayer to “Baby Jesus” — This is a moderately ridiculous clip from Will Ferrell’s movie Talladega Nights (with a bit of inappropriate language — please excuse it), but it connects nicely with the controversy between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, who argued about Jesus’s humanity and divinity.  Nestorius did not go with the idea that the divine nature could be born of a woman — he would not have liked Will Ferrell’s language of “dear baby God.”  He would have agreed with Grandpa Chip — “he was a man; he had a beard!”  I assume Nestorius would have seen the intra-prayer conversation as indicative of what can happen when one sees Jesus however one wants.

Thumbnail image credit (John Chrysostom):

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the medieval period)

Democracy and Church Life

voteWhen we study Christianity in the modern world, we sometimes study aspects of Christianity as a whole, while at other times we focus on this or that denomination.  We also deal with the ways in which the great diversity of modern culture shapes a Christianity that has truly “gone global.”

In thinking of modern American Christianity, we have number of denominations to deal with, but also the phenomenon of democracy.  We might tend to think that democracy is mainly a political or cultural aspect of our culture, but in fact, it has impacted church life in HUGE ways, not least in the Churches of Christ, the denomination of which I am a part — as well as its larger branch of Christianity, sometimes called the “Stone-Campbell movement.”  (Click here for a reference work on the movement.)

Democracy is something that is relevant for us is that nearly all of us have encountered it in church life, whether or not we’ve actually noticed it.  Consider this: have you ever (or always?) attended a church service in which someone who was not an “ordained minister” was free to, for example, give the spoken meditation or prayer over the Lord’s Supper, and/or to distribute the bread and wine/juice at that celebration?  What about preaching?  The reading of Scripture?  Are those activities restricted to the ordained/commissioned ministers of your church, or are they available to a wider range of congregants?

To get a sense of what’s going on here, let’s cast our minds back to the Reformation as it was expressed in England, to the conflicts between the Puritans and the English government, and to the Great Awakenings in North America.  As you will remember, for most of Christian history – including in English-speaking countries – most of the people who have had “jobs” in Christian worship have been ordained ministers.  “Regular people” participated in the pews, but they did not typically take leadership roles.  So why have things changed so much?

nathan-hatch1I was not aware of the magnitude of this change until about 10 years ago, when I read a book by a historian named Nathan Hatch.  That book, called The Democratization of American Christianity, was published in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Yale University Press.  There, Hatch looks at five Christian groups that came to prominence in the 1800s in America – i.e., post-American-Revolution.  These groups include the Methodists and Baptists in America, the African-American churches, the Mormons, and the Stone-Campbell movement (which, again, led to the Churches of Christ).  Hatch’s thesis is that the democratic impulses present before, during, and after the American Revolution, caused a widespread belief that “common people” have a rightful access to some of the “jobs” and opportunities previously held only by society’s elite.  These jobs included holding political office, gaining higher education, and (most importantly for us) leading in churches.

Now, I’m convinced that Hatch is right, and I also think that there was something more going on here – a sociological component.  Many of these church groups flourished (or found fertile soil) on the American frontier of the time – on and beyond the Appalachian mountains.  And it’s true that, in these remote places, with low population density, it was difficult for ordained ministers from established denominations to reach the local Christians on a regular basis, thus making it more necessary to have non-ordained folks available to do the “jobs.”  But Hatch is right in saying that there was also a certain ethos – freedom and democracy were in the air, and that air pierced the walls of the churches.

So, this is an obvious example of a current practice in churches that has a very clear set of roots in church history.  But there’s also another plank to this platform, and that lies in the Enlightenment.  Hatch points out five ways in which the Enlightenment influenced these churches, and I’d like to connect a couple of these with a couple of manifestations in our church life:

First, folks at this time in these movements believed and taught that all people (not just the elite) have been endowed with reason.  Further, they bought into the Enlightenment emphasis on individual autonomy, that each individual person had a responsibility to discover and follow God’s ways, using their reason.  In church life, we see those beliefs in things like Sunday school (people can be taught about spiritual things), the encouragement for everyone to read their Bibles independently, and the desire for individual Christians to use their God-given gifts to bless others, even in public worship, no matter their “ordained” status.

gravitylounge-711478Second, they believed that, just as nature had laws that could be discerned by reason (e.g., Newton’s “discovery” of the law of gravity), so God’s ways might also have laws, e.g., in how a church should be run.  Further, they saw the universe as an orderly and harmonious organization, and they saw the church in the same way.  If a church is focused on its leaders, then there is not as much harmony as a place with many, many people involved.  More involved individuals means more potential tension, but it also means a greater potential for exhibiting the church as a harmonious whole, as God desires it!

So, friends, the next time you see a variety of people leading worship in your church, or students leading worship in your school chapel services, you might remember where that impulse came from.  And, if you’re so inclined, you might give God thanks for the many gifts he gives his children, and for the ways in which the Holy Spirit brings God’s family into harmony.

Image credits: , and (edited)