We 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.
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.
How 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.
If you have not yet come across Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries (Baker Academic, 2017; source: publisher), I strongly recommend that you take a look. Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes have done a wonderful job of addressing a lacuna in patristic studies. Through a series of separate chapters, the authors examine the lives of Christian women in the period immediately after the apostolic age through the Post-Nicene period.
As one would expect, discussions of motherhood features throughout the Christian Women in the Patristic World. Motherhood is examined through the lives of Helena and Monica. As mothers to Constantine and Augustine, their critical role in the lives of their respectively sons are important case studies. However, just as significant is Pulcheria’s decision to pursue life as a virgin, rather than produce a possible heir to the Byzantine Empire. An ascetic life of prayer and holiness superseded not only motherhood, but also the giving birth to one within the imperial household.
As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!
1. Irena Backus, Leibniz: Protestant Theologian
Though best known for his philosophy, Backus offers a different perspective by examining Leibniz’s theology. Backus works through the relationship of Leibniz’s Lutheran theology and his philosophy, leading up to the Enlightenment.
The history of the church is long. Unfortunately, our modern reception often goes through a Marcionian filter that weeds out vast portions of our heritage. Particularly, the church fathers are neglected due to their unfamiliarity or refusal to fit nicely into our evangelical box.
Bryan M. Litfin’s Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction (Baker Academic, 2016, 2nd ed.; source: publisher) attempts to reverse this trend. The focus of the work is to introduce the church fathers to a wide evangelical audience. For Litfin, the key to understanding the church fathers is to look beyond just a doctrinal treatment of the fathers, but also to learn of their context and how they lived out their theology.
Have you ever wanted to know what people really think of you? What are they saying when you leave the room? What words are whispered when they think no one is listening? Well, if you are Paul, here is your chance.
Patrick Gray provides us with an interesting take on an important issue. Paul as a Problem in History and Culture (Baker Academic, 2016; source: publisher) reads like a behind-the-scenes look at everyone who ever said something bad about Paul. The work is a thorough analysis of the who’s who of Paul’s critics.
Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.
On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.
Augustine is a common source for any discussion of the Trinity. It helps that he wrote a book called On the Trinity. For good or bad, the consensus understands Augustine as a pivotal figure in early Trinitarianism, especially in a post-Nicene context.
The Donatist controversy is not discussed at quite the same level as Augustine and the Trinity, but is a common area of Augustine studies. Geoffrey G. Willis wrote on the issue, and the matter is addressed in any of the standard biographies. What we do not see often is a study that combines the two.
Adam Ployd’s Augustine, Trinity, and the Church (Oxford, 2015; source: publisher) falls in line with works on the relationship between the Trinity and the church. Examples of such studies are Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity and Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom. Ployd’s study is not a progression of Volf or Moltmann, for to do so would be anachronistic. Rather, Ployd takes a look at Augustine within his post-Nicene context.
John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology
Full disclosure, I am not a philosopher. Far from it. However, the history of philosophy has always been an interest of mine. Whether it was working my way through Frederick Copleston’s history or the intricacies of the Hamann-Kant dialogues, the history of philosophy has been a topic I regularly return to.
John M. Frame’s A History of Western Philosophy and Theology (P & R Publishing , 2015; source: publisher) is a reminder both of my love for the history of philosophy and my inadequacy as a philosopher. Frame provides a wide sweep of the discipline, yet detailed attention to key philosophers and philosophies.
This is all standard fare for a history of philosophy. What distinguishes this history is the author. Frame, known more for his work in theology, offers a uniquely Christian and theological perspective on the history of philosophy.
It is hard to imagine a single text more influential than the Confessions. Of course there is the Bible or the Declaration of Independence, but, Confessions rivals any text apart from divine revelation or nation forming documents.
Contributing to the allure of the Confessions is the autobiographical nature of the work. Not entirely an autobiography, the first half recounts Augustine’s life. Secondly, there is a diversity of disciplines which are attracted to the Confessions. One only has to look at Rousseau’s Confessions to witness these two factors.
These elements are also present in Augustine’s Confessions: Philosophy in Autobiography (Oxford, 2014; source: publisher). The perspective of these philosophers provides a welcome contribution to the study of Augustine’s Confessions.
When it comes to the origins of the ecclesiastical offices, established scholarship has long held episkopos and presbyteros as synonymous terms describing the same office. F. C. Baur’s understanding was established as the classic position in 1835. This position has become the standard, articulated in specialist and non-specialist literature alike.
Revisionist work has challenged the consensus to a limited degree of success. However, such studies have either failed to provide convincing evidence for their case or lacked widespread reception. That is, until Stewart’s The Original Bishops.
As 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.
A common placement of Gregory the Great (540-604) in his historical context has been to position him in the early stages of the medieval papacy. It has been argued that Gregory should be interpreted as the first medieval pope, initiating a trajectory which would develop over a number of centuries, and in many ways culminate in the Renaissance popes. As the first medieval pope, Gregory established the supremacy of Rome, laying the foundation for the institutional, political, and spiritual rule of the Roman Catholic Church.
In response to this assessment, recent scholarship has sought to better understand Gregory within his historical context. By bringing to light the continuity between Gregory and earlier periods of church history, it has been shown that the title of first medieval pope misidentifies Gregory in the wrong historical period. This is not simply a matter of semantics, but has great implications for the interpretation of Gregory’s theological, political, and literary endeavors as pope (590-604).