Reflections on History and Theology

Category: Patristics

Understanding the Life and History of Eastern Orthodoxy

McGuckin, The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History - cover

For many Western Christians, Eastern Orthodoxy is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps ironically, calling Orthodoxy mysterious would be a kind of compliment, for mystery permeates Orthodox theology and practice. As John Anthony McGuckin, in his book The Eastern Orthodox Church: A New History* (Yale University Press, 2020; source: publisher), puts it, Orthodoxy “can be summed up in four simple words that can hardly be exegeted: the Mystery of Christ” (32). That this phrase cannot easily “be exegeted” emphasizes the mystery element of Orthodox faith in Christ and makes it all the harder to describe this concept in simple terms. Yet McGuckin does seek to explain the phenomenon of Eastern Orthodoxy in this new book. 

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Augustine on the Happy Life

The belief that all people have the right to pursue happiness is enshrined by the founders of the United States in the annals of American history and has been embraced as a way of life by their posterity. But Americans have no corner on the market of pursuing happiness; the belief is imprinted on the heart of every human. We all naturally seek our own happiness.

Of course, the ideal of happiness looks very different from one person’s mind to the next, which explains the wide variety of human experiences in the world. Some believe they will find happiness in indulgence, others in restraint; some believe they will find happiness in wealth accumulation, others in vows of poverty. And there are many shades of thinking in between.

To be sure, the pursuit of happiness is no modern invention. That is not to deny that cultures have differed over who they believe should have the right to obtain happiness, but that doesn’t negate the inborn human desire to obtain it. And long before Thomas Jefferson put the words “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” to paper, people like Augustine were reflecting on what it means to be happy.

Augustine explores what happiness looks like in his book On the Happy Life,* translated by Michael P. Foley (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019; source: publisher). This is the second book in the four Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students, friends, and family that took place after Augustine’s conversion but before his baptism. I reviewed the first of these dialogues, Against the Academics*, elsewhere on this blog.

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Augustine the New Convert on Skepticism in “Against the Academics”

Augustine of Hippo is known as one of the greatest theologians in Christian history. His Confessions continues to stand as one of the most influential works in Western culture and literature. It is in The Confessions that we follow Augustine’s remarkable journey seeking meaning, fulfillment, and truth, in which he explores pleasure and the religious ways of the Manichaeans but turns ultimately to the triune God of Christianity.

Augustine would go on to become a key leader in the church of his day and to bequeath a massive corpus of Christian writings to the church. Some of his less known and less read volumes are the Cassiciacum dialogues, a series of philosophical discussions between Augustine and some students and friends that were written down for publication. The dialogues took place after Augustine converted to Christianity yet before he was baptized, and thus, in the Cassiciacum dialogues, we get a rare glimpse of a thirty-two-year-old Augustine—before he was “of Hippo,” before he was great, and before he was a professional theologian.

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Augustine on Teaching and Salvation History

Augustine - Instructing Beginners in Faith CoverWe rightly remember Augustine as a renowned theologian and intellectual genius. He bequeathed to us a corpus that has shaped the foundations of the Western church. Works like The City of God and On the Trinity underscore his brilliance, and of course, his best-known work, Confessions, has resonated with readers in their personal experience for centuries.

It is also important to recall that this same Augustine was not an ivory-tower theologian or isolated writer disconnected from the day-to-day life of the people in Hippo. He was indeed a churchman, a priest who devoted years of his life to serving those under his care. And Augustine’s Instructing Beginners in the Faith (or De catechizandis rudibus) gives us a picture of this Augustine, a man who cared deeply about people coming to faith and doing the work of instruction that God might use to help bring them to that point. I want to highlight three aspects of the book here: the person of Augustine, his instruction in the art of teaching, and his emphasis on salvation history.

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John Chrysostom on Love and Marriage

As Valentine’s Day rolls around, advice on love can be found not only in the seasonal aisle of the grocery store but also in the writings of the ancient past. One notable pastor from early Christianity to treat the topic of love and marriage is John Chrysostom (ca. 347–409), the “golden mouth” preacher of Asia Minor. Chrysostom’s best preaching on marriage is captured in his On Marriage and Family Life (St. Vladimir’s Press, 1986), from the Popular Patristics Series (see also my discussion of Irenaeus’s On the Apostolic Preaching from the same series). This volume by Chrysostom includes six of his sermons on the topic of marriage—aimed toward both those seeking marriage and those already married.

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Irenaeus on Biblical Interpretation

Irenaeus - On the Apostolic PreachingHow did the early Christians interpret the Bible? Should their mode of biblical interpretation say anything to us about how to interpret Scripture today? We have much to learn from studying the history of biblical interpretation, a field that speaks to both the unity and diversity of exegesis among Christians. One of the earliest discussions of biblical interpretation that we have comes from Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 140–ca. 200), in On the Apostolic Preaching, also known as The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching.

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Ancient Arguments for the Resurrection

Cervo066As we reflect on the events of Holy Week, we are reminded that the theme of resurrection has long been a driving force for Christians throughout the history of the church. Just as Christians today seek to provide a defense for the resurrection—from apologists like William Lane Craig (Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?) to surgeons like William Miller (Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead? A Surgeon-Scientist Examines the Evidence)—so did Christians from the earliest centuries of the church.

Of course, one thinks first of the Gospel writers, who laid out the initial written accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. We can also point especially to Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 15 adduced evidence for Christ’s resurrection from the Scripture and early eyewitnesses, including Cephas (Peter), the twelve, and “five hundred brothers at one time” (1 Cor. 15:6). He highlighted the centrality of the resurrection as the lynchpin of Christianity: “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins,” for “[i]f in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17, 19).

But Paul—and all orthodox Christians to follow—believed that “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20). And thus we find a long history of defending both the reasonableness and the reality of the resurrection.

One early Christian in this tradition is Athenagoras, who wrote the second-century De Resurrectione (On the Resurrection), which you can read online at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. In De Resurrectione, Athenagoras lays out a reasonable argument in defense of the resurrection of the dead, responding to objections and offering positive supporting evidence.

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Lessons in Biblical Interpretation from the Early Church

Michael Graves - Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture in the Early ChurchFor evangelical Christians, reading the Bible represents one of the most basic aspects of the Christian life. As heirs of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, evangelicals elevate Scripture above all other authorities.

Yet even Martin Luther never intended that Christians should read the Bible alone. Luther owed much in his biblical interpretation to Augustine, and he cast the Reformation movement as standing in continuity with the early church.

Michael Graves, Armerding Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College, echoes Luther’s sentiment that Christians can gain much by interpreting Scripture in the light of earlier biblical interpreters in The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us (Eerdmans, 2014). In this volume, Graves guides readers into the ancient world of early Christianity by exploring the intersection of biblical inspiration and biblical interpretation. For the early church fathers, what are the “entailments” of affirming the doctrine of inspiration, as they all did?

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How Did We Get the New Testament Canon?

Charles Hill Essay Image

The origins of the New Testament canon have become a point of contention in our day. What hangs in the balance is the validity of the Bible as Christians’ authoritative guide in faith and life. Some have claimed that in the fourth century, the group with the largest army and political power chose what books to include in the New Testament. Charles Hill argues that it’s not so simple.

Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, Hill recently wrote an essay for Christ on Campus Initiative (a nonprofit with which I serve) that addresses this question in detail. His essay, “Who Chose the New Testament Books? Politics, Praxis, and Proof in the Early Church,” explores the historical evidence for the origins of the New Testament and presents a fuller picture than we hear in popular media.

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