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)

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 2)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  We are finishing up Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will in today’s post.  In the first post I introduced the text, described the person to whom the text was addressed, discussed a couple of issues related to the various translations of the text, and made some introductory comments on a variety of topics.  Today’s post will be more focused: in addition to making some miscellaneous comments, I’ll be looking at the overall message of the treatise, especially considering its theological ideas and the implications of Luther’s own position and the one that he is attacking.  Let’s dig in!

What Luther is Trying to Say

So, as I discussed in the first post, this text is quite long.  The length of the treatise, along with the amount of polemic embedded in it, can make it hard to really get to the meat of what Luther’s trying to say.  But, in a nutshell, it seems to be this: humanity’s “Fall” has so damaged us, that we basically have no such thing as free will at all anymore — unless you mean freedom to do evil.  Luther had begun to articulate this position in prior years, especially in his conflicts with the Popes, and it seems to grow from his sense of the importance of justification by grace alone.  For the believer, though, Luther says, “if God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion,” and we are thus able to do good.

Now, Erasmus had offered a moderate view in his initial response to Luther’s preaching.  He certainly acknowledged the problem of the “Fall,” but he said that it merely weakened our wills.  In other words, the problem of sin is that it makes it more difficult to do the things that God has commanded of us — not impossible, just more difficult.  But Luther rejects that position as essentially “wimpy” — as though Erasmus wasn’t willing to go “all the way” to a full rejection of free choice in any matter related to salvation.  Luther does occasionally allow for some amount of free will — but only insofar as it enables us to do the evil that is implanted in us by the “Fall” (see, for example, section 25).   If you want a MUCH more thorough explanation of both men’s arguments, you can check out this resource; it’s got a lot of great detail on both Luther’s and Erasmus’s texts.

Why Luther is Making This Argument

There are several reasons that Luther is making this set of claims.  Some are theological presuppositions that he holds, which I’ll get to in a moment.  But there’s a more pressing, historical reason: the medieval church had held a cooperative view of salvation for centuries.  Through a variety of means, the church had taught that God and humans work together for our salvation — God does God’s part (e.g., sending Jesus, giving us the church, etc.), and we do our part (being baptized, living good lives, etc.).  The most famous example is in the situation regarding indulgences that Luther had rejected so strongly.  And he was right about the danger therein: while millions of Christians today still hold a view like this, we can sometimes believe that we can “earn” their salvation in some way.  Luther was strongly aware of this danger, and he wanted to do away with it completely by making us depend entirely on God’s work in Christ for our salvation.

But beyond Luther’s own life experience, he also held some theological ideas really strongly — ideas that (in his mind) meant that humans couldn’t possess any amount of free choice toward their own salvation.  These included the following:

  • Scripture is abundantly clear in its pronouncements, and it doesn’t need any fancy interpretive strategies to understand it (see especially sections 3, 35-36, 38).  (Since Luther thinks that Scripture agrees with him, then Erasmus is [in Luther’s mind] kind of foolish for not being on board, too.)
  • God is unbelievably powerful and has an immutable will (see, for example, secs. 8-9 on God’s will, and sec. 93 on God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge).  Obviously, Luther is reading Scripture here, but he is also thinking of that “merit industry” that characterized medieval Christianity in the West.  If we can earn merit, then that might take away from God’s power to save.  If we want to emphasize God’s power, then it behooves us to reject any claims of power for ourselves.
  • As a result, God’s actions are efficacious — they get something done.  If we believe that God is working in the world, then that accounts for the good that the saved do, and it accounts for the evil that the unbelievers do.  (This is an interesting argument, found in section 84: when God acts, something happens, and if unbelievers are only predisposed toward evil, then God’s motive action will result in evil-doing… but it’s because of the unbeliever’s prior disposition, not because God is at fault.)
  • God chooses the church — we don’t choose ourselves.  One of God’s sovereign actions is to choose the saved.  Obviously (Luther would say), we don’t choose to be part of God’s family — that’s a gracious gift of God — and so it also must be true that we can’t resist God’s choice, weak as we are.  The result of this belief that is the members of the “true church” — the “elect” — are only known to God (sec. 34), and so we can’t try to earn our way in.
  • As the corollary of God’s magnificence and might, human beings are pretty weak and foolish.  We see this in sec. 38, where he argues that the reason so many intelligent people have misunderstood the Scriptures is that, because of sin, our hearts are darkened.  Also, in sec. 52, Luther follows Paul in rejecting the arguments of “human reason.”  We need to depend on what he sees as the clear pronouncements of Scripture, rather than leaning on our own weak wisdom.

What Luther is Rejecting

Holbein-erasmusDeep stuff, huh?  Let’s come at this from one more angle, and hopefully we’ll have a good sense of the overall picture.  One last way to think of this problem is to ask what Luther is rejecting in Erasmus’s ideas, and why.  As I see it, there are a couple of reasons that Luther himself keeps coming back to — Luther thinks Erasmus’s ideas aren’t found in Scripture, and he is working from a very “black-and-white” sense of the world, which leaves no room for ambiguity.  But what we find in the work much more often are what Luther sees as the problematic implications of Erasmus’s argument.  Here are just a few of them:

  • If we have free choice toward our own salvation, then that means we should do works that direction… which suggests that God’s grace isn’t enough for that salvation (section 7).
  • If we aren’t aware or certain of what God is doing for us and our salvation, then we miss opportunities to give God the glory and praise that God deserves (secs. 7, 12, 28), and we could suffer the anxiety of a guilty conscience, uncertain of our salvation (sec. 164).
  • If we have such a high opinion of ourselves, then we can think that God doesn’t care about our actions, thus encouraging us toward greater sin (sec. 23) — maybe even thinking that God is basically asleep while we sin (sec. 81)!
  • If we think our works help save us, then we are usurping the proper role of grace and the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (sec. 44, where he invokes the Pelagian heresy as a parallel).
  • If we aren’t deeply aware of our own sin, then Scripture loses its power as a beautiful source of comforting words (sec. 62).
  • And perhaps most troublingly: if we think that we are “good,” then we might be tempted to think that we don’t need Jesus as savior — or that maybe only a part of us needs Jesus as savior — then we essentially render Jesus weak, superfluous, or even unnecessary.

Some Reflections

This post is already pretty long, so I’m going to restrict myself to just a few evaluative comments.  First, when I read this text, I find myself attracted by the deep devotion to Scripture that Luther clearly possesses; that’s a feature of the movement of which I’m a part, too, and so I applaud that emphasis.  Second, I fully agree with his desire for us to lean fully on Jesus as our Savior; it’s way too easy for us to look to other things to save us, when Jesus is really the only one with power to save.  And finally, I need to hear his call to humility; if I depend on my own works (even just subconsciously), I can become proud and end up depending on myself.

That said, I have some quibbles with Brother Luther — a number of which have to do with his comments and ideas about Scripture.  First, while he does hold a very high view of Scripture (woo!), and while he does think it’s clearly understandable (errr…), he also has a very “flat” view of it — that is, he seems to think that all Scripture is essentially the same, and he doesn’t account for genre very well.  For example, he treat texts from the Psalms, Genesis, and Paul in essentially the same way: looking at what the writers said, without asking why they said those things.  Second, I think Luther is simply wrong that — at least on this topic — Scripture speaks with one voice.  Erasmus tried to make that point, and Luther brushed it aside, but I think that was because the latter had already decided his conclusion and was forcing the Scriptures to back it up.  For example, in section 46 and following, Luther considers a passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 15.  In my mind, this text is an excellent example of a passage that absolutely does tell us we have free will, and it must be considered alongside texts in Romans 9-11 that suggest otherwise.  But Luther brushes it aside, twisting the passage to make it say what it doesn’t say.  What’s frustrating is that that’s exactly what he accuses Erasmus of doing — in his whole section about “tropes” (secs. 77 and following).  Pot?  Meet the kettle.

If you haven’t guessed from the previous comments, I’m not convinced by Luther’s arguments.  Now, I grew up an Arminian, and I remain one today — but for more reasons than just preserving my heritage.  I believe we have free choice because of what I see in Scripture — the calls to repentance, the narratives of conversion, the commands to act in certain ways (even from Paul!), etc.  But I also believe because of my life experience.  Sure, some parts of our lives seem pre-determined (by “fate,” chance, our circumstances, social conditioning, etc.), but in so many other areas, we actually have choices.  I don’t think that’s a part of the “Fall” — I think it’s how God wants the world to be… because that’s how God’s world and salvation are arranged.  And unlike Luther, I think that’s good news, because it lets us choose to be in a relationship with God, rather than God forcing Godself on us.  Maybe that’s my American love of freedom talking, but I’d like to think it’s a theological position, informed by Scripture, theology, and experience

So (if you’re still reading by this point), feel free to do a couple of things.  First, if you want to go deeper on this text, check out this article, which contains reflection on the Bondage of the Will and also meditations on contemporary Christianity.  Second, weigh in!  What arguments have been most important for you in thinking about the difficult problem of free will and determinism?  I’ll look forward to your comments!

Image credits: (for the PlayMobil Martin Luther action figure), (for the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger), and (for the Frozen meme)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 1)

Greetings!  I’m so glad you’re here today, checking out another of the CHEF’s reading guides.  This time around we’ll be considering Martin Luther’s famous text The Bondage of the Will, in two posts.  I’ve already dealt with his 1520 treatise Freedom of a Christian in two other posts; the first one introduced us to Luther and that text, and the second one went into more depth and provided some supplemental resources.  Now it’s time to consider his 1525 work on free will and determinism.  Let’s dive in!

luther celebrating mass

Introduction to the Text

In terms of its content, this text is really fantastic in a lot of ways.  There’s TONS of meditation on Scripture, a lot of discussion about the nature of God and humanity, and some good thinking about the church.  You might have guessed those topics already if you know something about Luther’s common points of emphasis.  That said, I think there is also a primary theme here that is not obvious from the title of the text or from common perceptions of Luther.  Incidentally, this was also the case with Freedom of a Christian, which is certainly about freedom; however, a theme that is just as important there is the faith in Christ that gives rise to that freedom.  Here, the text capably considers our will’s bondage to sin, but I would argue that another primary theme is the sovereignty of God (cue applause from our Calvinist brothers and sisters). This theme is why I chose the image above from the excellent Luther movie, starring Joseph Fiennes (pictured) in the title role: we always want to keep in mind that, in this text, Luther wants us to have our eyes pointed “up to heaven,” so that we can find the God of our salvation.

The reason we need to keep this theme in mind is that other aspects of the text can be pretty depressing, because in it Luther engages in a lot of polemic, especially ad hominem attacks against his conversation partner, Desiderius Erasmus.  (In fact, if we took out all the polemical materials, the work would be a lot shorter.)  You see, the year before Luther wrote his text, Erasmus (incidentally, one of the smartest dudes of the whole Reformation period) had written a text called the Freedom of the Will.  There Erasmus had responded to some of Luther’s views, saying that the problem of free will is a seriously knotty one, and that there have been a whole range of views.  However, he says, based on Scripture, it seems that humans do enjoy at least some element of free choice, especially in turning away from sin and sinful things.  You’ll notice what many commentators have noted — that Erasmus accepted Luther’s standard desire to discuss the matter on biblical terms alone.  However, Luther was apparently shocked by Erasmus’s conclusions, as we’ll see.

The translation I am reading is a brand-new one by Volker Leppin, based on the one by Philip S. Watson in Luther’s Works, vol. 33.  This new translation appears in Fortress’s Annotated Luther series, as a single fascicle and as part of the second volume of that series.  I must here say that, unfortunately, this publication is only of an abridged version of the text.  Besides the shame of not having the entire text at our disposal in that one book, it is also unfortunate because Fortress does not indicate anywhere in their marketing materials that the volume is lacking a significant portion of the text.  The only place one learns of it is in a brief note at the end of the book’s introduction, where no rationale whatsoever is given for the editorial choice.

EDIT: Since the original writing of this post, I have had good conversations about this problem both online and at a conference with Will Bergkamp, Fortress’s publisher.  He graciously accepted the criticism while also sharing that he trusted the judgment of the series and volume editors — that the abridged version adequately represents the whole while remaining brief enough to match the other volumes in the series.  Hopefully, they will update their marketing materials to reflect that fact.  Regardless, if you want the entire text, perhaps this translation by Packer and Johnston would be better.  Alternatively, you can get this book by Rupp and Watson that has both Erasmus’s and Luther’s texts published together.  Or, in the meantime, you can do like I’m doing — fill out what you can get ahold of with this much older, online translation.  (Incidentally, I’ll be using the section numbers that are found there to indicate places in the text.)

Notes, Especially on the First Part of the Text

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am not a Reformation specialist.  As a result, the things I notice in this text may seem a bit more random.  So, I’ll present them in the form of bulleted mini-paragraphs.  Feel free to add to them in the comments!

  • First, I notice that, as long as this text is, it seems rather well-organized.  That’s partly related to the conventions of the time, but it’s also because Luther is responding to a prior text by Erasmus.  In other words, a good part of Luther’s organizing schema is provided by Erasmus — answering (usually attempting to refute) him point by point, considering the same biblical texts, etc.  You can find a brief outline of the text at the bottom of this link, or a much more extensive one at this link.
  • Second, as I mentioned above, there is a lot of polemic in this text.  Some of it is directed at Erasmus himself — or maybe rather his text — which Luther calls by the term “Diatribe.”  Other critiques are directed at the “Sophists,” by which Luther seems to mean traditional Catholic theologians following the model of Scholastic theology.  If you’re a conflict-avoider like me, that feature of the text may put you off.  But I will say that Luther seems to really relish the argument, in that it forces him to put forward his best thinking.  Erasmus’s brilliance pushes Luther to really think through his views.
  • Another interesting feature of the text — not present nearly so much in Freedom of a Christian — is Luther’s repeated use of classical images and analogies.  The Fortress edition’s annotations point out a number of these, which is great for us non-classicists out there.  But just to give you one example, and a sense of the scope of things: in the introduction to the text, we already have references to Greek athletics prizes, Scylla and Charybdis, and Proteus. The translator says in his introduction that here we are seeing Luther trying to show off his humanist education by pointing to classical sources.  In other words, we might say that Luther wants to show that he can “hang” with Erasmus intellectually.  I don’t know if people thought he succeeded.
  • Not surprisingly, given what we know of Luther’s theology (and theological method), the text is completely suffused with Scripture.  While we see a Pauline focus (especially Romans and Galatians, which he knows so well) that is typical for Luther, we also see him interact with texts all across the canon — many of which were passages that Erasmus had discussed, which forced Luther to interpret them.  Many evangelicals today would consider this text a good model of trying to let the Bible serve as the predominant source for our theological discussions.
  • On a related topic: when I read the text, I get the sense that we are dealing with a couple of different theological “personalities,” if I might say it that way.  First, you have Luther, who clearly wants to base everything on Scripture.  Then you have Erasmus, who in sections 2-3 seems like he’s much more unwilling to simply give up church tradition; he’s wrestling with his rationality, Scripture, and the church Fathers (see this video primer on the “Wesley Quadrilateral” for the model of decision-making I’m referring to).  Further, Luther seems to want clear answers to a pretty deep question, while Erasmus is more willing to be “agnostic” about the topic in question — to not know for sure.  Luther reports Erasmus as believing that not all things in Scripture are clear.  While Luther rejects this premise, it seems that Erasmus embraces it.  In my opinion, these two differences made it really difficult for these guys to come to agreement.
    • Something I was surprised to find in the text is a whole series of what we sometimes call “false binaries.”  I was surprised to find them, because Luther is famous for rejecting the false binary of a human being as either a sinner or as someone justified — he said that we can both at the same time.  But, in the Bondage of the Will, we repeatedly encounter black-and-white views of a whole variety of things!  For example, in sec. 36, we hear that the question under discussion is either clear and Christian, or it is obscure and non-Christian.  WHAT?!?  In sec. 62, he diametrically opposes those who support free will and those who “insist on grace and the Holy Spirit.”  And then, as the text nears its rhetorical climax, the false binaries pile up on one another: secs. 120 (what is virtuous before humans is utterly worthless before God), 133 (supporting free will and supporting God’s mercy and justice), 147 (everything we do is either righteousness or sin — “righteousness if faith is present, sin if faith is absent”), and 163 (following the Johannine literature, there are two kingdoms in this world — one of God, one of Satan).  I gotta say: I don’t buy any of these false binaries, but Luther sure uses them a LOT!  There’s a lot that I admire in this text (as I’ll discuss next post), but this aspect is not one of them.

I think I’ll stop here.  The second post will be devoted primarily to the arguments of the text, so if you’re just getting started reading, I hope that this one gets you going.  In the meantime, something to consider: What is a Christian belief you hold that is mainly based on Scripture?  What’s one you hold that’s primary based on your experiences in life?

Image credits: (the image — edited by the blogger — from the Joseph Fiennes Luther movie), (for the book cover), and (for the excellent icon representing conflict)

Suggested next click: Bondage of the Will, Part 2

The Venerable Bede: Ecclesiastical History (Part 3)

As we get to the middle of the (college) summer, it’s time for our last post on the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, before we move on in July to two important works from Martin Luther — The Freedom of a Christian and The Bondage of the Will.  So far I have made some introductory comments and discussed Book I, and then I’ve dedicated a second post to Books II and III.  The focus for this post will be Bede’s Books IV and V, with some comments related to the work as a whole.  You’ll hopefully learn more about how and why Bede has been such an important figure in English church history!

Important Elements in Books IV and V

  1. Caedmon and Cuthbert.  These last two books contain virtually all the information we have on two important British figures: the English poet Caedmon (whose “call” gave the famous Christian music group their name) and the monk and bishop St. Cuthbert.  Caedmon’s story is told in IV.24, and it includes the only extant poem that we have from Caedmon — a song in praise of God the Creator.  Interestingly, Bede notes that Caedmon’s singular gift seems to have been his ability to “translate” passages of Scripture into English verse, once they were explained to him; note that he did not sing in Latin, and that he did not have his own education.  But he seems to have written LOTS of songs, even if only our one survives.  Cuthbert’s story is related in IV.27-29, with stories of miracles occurring via his relics in IV.30-32.  He is another of Bede’s model bishops, as Wright notes, joining the ranks of Augustine of Canterbury, Aidan, and Chad.  Like these others, Cuthbert leads not only by word but also by deed, and he is deeply humble.  Toward the end of his life, Cuthbert foresees his own death and tells others of its imminent occurrence; this gift of foresight recurs in Bede’s narrative, typically as an indication of the holiness or innocence of its recipient.  All in all, Cuthbert is a model of Christian virtue, as Bede also makes clear in a separate text — his poetic Life of Cuthbert (which you can read at this link).
  2. lindisfarne gospelsThe Importance of Scripture.  Something that has been true of Books I-III, but that I’ve mostly saved until now, is the immense importance of Scripture to Bede.  Something that modern readers are sometimes surprised by in reading ancient authors is their intense interest in and command of Scripture.  That’s true of Bede as well.  In some places, it’s quite simple, in that his characters quote Scripture (e.g., Bishop Chad’s quoting of Psalm 18 in IV.3).  Then, there are places where Bede uses Scripture to help his readers understand what is happening in the narrative, like Ecclesiastes 3 to explain Chad’s impending death in IV.3, or 2 Corinthians 12 to explain Ethelburga’s sickness in IV.9.  There are places in his text where he sees what’s happening in England as a continuation of biblical history (for example, IV.25, where the sinful members of a monastery do not follow the contrite example of the Ninevites in Jonah 3, and thus are destroyed by fire, or the very end of the text in V.23, where Britain is one of the islands that give thanks at the remembrance of God’s holiness, from Psalm 97).  At other times, he places words of Scripture into the mouths of his characters, as in his narrative of Cuthbert in IV.28, where Cuthbert remembers the commands of Jesus.  At still other places, he compares his subjects to biblical characters, as in his comparison at V.8 of Archbishop Theodore to the godly men of the past, following Sirach 44.  The big point is this: when one steps back and looks at the work as a whole, one sees that it is suffused with Scripture.
  3. Bede the Historian.  We have seen throughout the text that Bede is a careful historian, and that care manifests itself in a variety of ways.  That feature continues in this last part of the text, with Bede’s general intention to tell the story of the English church in chronological order, while also illuminating some important personalities.  He shares first-hand (e.g., IV.32) and second-hand accounts (e.g., IV.3) of various events, almost always naming his sources (like Abbot Berthun, who is the source of miracles described in V.2-4).  He also notes written records that he has consulted, as in IV.7 about various miracles.  In IV.5, he preserves the decisions of the Council of Hertford (AD/CE 673), and he preserves a conciliar letter from the Synod of Hatfield (AD/CE 680) in IV.17.  While Bede often focuses on “great men,” he also reveals a certain sense of obligation regarding other good stories, as in the case of of IV.16, where he tells of two young princes who convert to Christianity just before being executed.  Finally, he doesn’t hesitate to reprint material from still other sources, like gravestone epitaphs in V.8 and V.19, or books about the Holy Land in V.16-17.  Finally, he ends his text with a “how are things with Christianity in England now?” in V.23 and a chronological summary of the whole book in V.24.  He’s careful and helpful!
  4. Christian Controversies.  As we saw in the second post on Bede, he is very interested in the conflict between Celtic and Roman traditions, especially on the date of Easter and the proper monastic haircut.  And there continue to be places where Bede shows interest in various differences between Christian groups.  For example, when Theodore (of Greek heritage) comes to England to serve as Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope sends along an abbot to support him, but also to make sure that “he did not introduce into the Church which he was to rule any Greek customs which conflicted with the teachings of the true Faith” (IV.1).  Then, toward the end of the text, in V.19, Bede tells the story of bishop Wilfrid, who apparently represented the English churches at a synod in Rome that was part of the Monothelite controversy.  Finally, in V.21, Bede reproduces a letter from Abbot Ceolfrid to the king of the Picts in what is now Scotland; that letter contains lengthy reflections on the Celtic-Roman questions about Easter and the tonsure — a nice recap of Bede’s own position on those matters!  As we see throughout the text, Bede is a historian, but he is a historian with commitments about how things should be done, and he is not afraid to make those clear.
  5. Platonic View of Death.  A feature of the text that caught me off-guard — in that I had noticed it in the first three books — was Bede’s repeated descriptions of death as a type of liberation from the body.  In IV.3, a plague means that “death freed many members of the reverend bishop’s church from the burden of the flesh.”  Later in that section, the bishop himself dies, which Bede describes as that “his holy soul was released from the prison-house of the body.”  In IV.9, we hear of one nun who is “set free from the body” and of another named Tortgyth who is “delivered from the burden of the body.”  Then, in IV.14, an epidemic strikes the island of Britain, and while many people are saved from it, one young boy is “set free by death.”  By the time of Bede, traditional Christian teaching had connected Neoplatonic ideas about the body and soul (let me know if you have a better link) with some of the things that Paul says in his letters, such that the body was viewed as a hindrance to the proper spiritual activity of the soul; this view is perhaps most famously expressed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act III), where the lead character speaks of death as shuffling off “this mortal coil.”  Certainly, Bede’s views are also influenced by his monastic background, since we know that medieval monks often saw the body as the soul’s opponent, one which must be purified (or even punished) by penance.

Well, it’s time to wrap up Bede.  We’ve seen a lot of interesting things, and hopefully you’ve come to understand him and his text more fully.  The shame of it all is that we haven’t even been able to touch of everything of interest: we’ve totally left aside the story of Willibrord (the great missionary to the Frisians, described in V.10-11) and Bede’s comments here and there about church music in England.  I haven’t said much about Bede’s many comments (some subtle, some overt) about monastic life at the time, or the many miracle stories he includes throughout the text.  Further, I haven’t even discussed how Bede TOTALLY OMITS ST. PATRICK!  (You can read more about that at this link.)  For these and other omissions, I can only apologize for the brevity of this format, point you to Wright’s book, and encourage you to keep researching on your own!  In the meantime, a set of questions to conclude:

If you were to tell the story of Christianity in your denomination and part of the world, how would you do so?  What would you emphasize?  What would you leave out?  What parts of Scripture would you connect with?

Image credits: (the illumination of Bede), (the detail from the Lindisfarne Gospels), and (for the image from Vesalius of death contemplating death)

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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.

Image credits:, and

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