Wise Guys, Eh: a book review.

My introduction to patristics came through the Desert Fathers. I picked up a book (I can’t remember if I read Helen Wadell’s or Benedicta Ward’s collection first) and discovered there compelling voices from another age. They were ethereal and strange, sometimes legalistic, but always thoughtful. They offered a compelling vision of the spiritual life. Since then I’ve read more widely the church fathers, exploring the saints of both the Christian East and West. Because their time was so different from our own, and not so different, I think they have a tremendous capacity to speak prophetically into our age.

5188Christopher Hall is an excellent guide to the thought world of the fathers. He is the associate editor of IVP’s Ancient Commentary on Scripture and his newest book is the fourth and final volume of his Church Father’s series (previously published, Reading the Bible with the Church Fathers, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers, and Worshipping with the Church Fathers).  While these other books examine the exegesis, doctrine and devotional life of the Fathers, Living Wisely with the Church Fathers digs into what the Fathers have to teach us about the good life  and ‘living with a well-ordered heart.’ It examines the moral teaching of the early church and their perspective of culture. This volume explores topics like:

  • Persecution and Martyrdom
  • Wealth and Poverty
  • War and Military Service
  • Sex and relationships
  • Marriage
  • Abortion
  • Entertainment

But Hall is not just interested in telling you what the fathers thought about these things.  He’s inviting us to engage in conversation with the church fathers and see what wisdom they have to offer us.  There are clear differences between their age and our own, but their outsider perspective gives them insights worth paying attention to.

For example, the global church today faces martyrdom and violence daily. In my comfy Western context, I am persecuted only when my barista tells me happy holidays and there is no Christmas tree on our holiday cup. After describing the Church Father’s experience of martyrdom and examining Origen’s theology of martyrdom, Hall points out how much of the world would benefit from the church fathers’ insights:

The church fathers’ own experience of martyrdom—I think of Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Cyprian and many others—will encourage and inspire those Christians in our modern setting suffering at the hands of groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram. The thousands of Christians who daily experience threats, violence, and death at the hands of persecutors have learned, in Susan Berman’s words, “that something matters more than life,” and a study of the church fathers’ thoughts on martyrdom can further and deepen this awareness. (54).

While Western Christians do not experience the threat of martyrdom, the church fathers call us, similarly, to have a prophetic stance in our allegiance to Christ:

If we recall that the central issue for the ancient martyr was not suffering but allegiance, things may clarify for the modern, Western Christian. Ancient martyrs suffered and died because they refused to bow the knee to the Roman demand to worship the emperor as a God. Early Christians realized—like many martyrs of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—that their primary allegiance and loyalty must be to Christ, not to the demands of competing political and religious ideologies.

In the United States the issue of allegiance—of ultimate allegiance—always faces the Christian, though it is often not recognized. Our difficulty in facing this problem clearly and honestly is surely related to the cultural pressure to remain loyal to American values—political, economic, and social—even when those values contradict or conflict with the values of Christ’s kingdom (56).

Similarly, the fathers’ attitudes towards wealth and violence, call us to a countercultural prophetic stance. Generosity to the poor, and moderation, proportion and discretion with wealth, stand in stark contrast to our commercial and materialistic age (88-90).  In America, veterans are valued because of their sacrifice and service to our country, but the early church opposed military service because of its inherent violence and Christ’s command to love our enemies. With Constantine and the writings of Augustine, views on the legitimacy of the military service shifted, especially as Christians became the dominant power in society (126-127). So here too, the fathers provide a perspective that is radically different from our own and gets us to re-examine some of our thinking on these matters.

Yet, sometimes the dialogue goes both ways. Hall did little to convince me that everything the fathers said and taught on human sexuality was good (chapter 4). They were all complementarians, majorly misogynistic (by today’s standards), and just uncomfortable with sex in general. Some of their presuppositions and prejudices, I am really quite happy to leave in the past. But they lived in an era, like our own,  that was full of both sexual license and brokenness. That they held up the paths of fidelity in celibacy and marriage as a way to train the passions and navigate toward a well-ordered, embodied life remains instructive for us.

Hall closes chapter 5, with a brief overview of the fathers’ views on same-sex relationships. “I do not know of a single church father who expresses approval of sexually active homosexual relationships. From very early documentation such as the Didache, to later writers such as Clement of Alexandria and Lactantius, opposition to same-sex relationships is uniform” (172).  Hall brings their prohibition of homosexual practice into conversation with our contemporary understanding of sexual orientation. He cites Wesley Hill who self-identifies as gay but is committed to a lifestyle of celibate singleness as a way which honors God’s design for human flourishing (174). Hall’s brief look at same-sex relationships won’t be satisfying for every reader, but with Hill as his example, he does demonstrate that it is possible to follow the fathers’ example in this area with integrity.

I found Hall’s articulation of the church fathers’ views on abortion fascinating (chapter 6). Hall describes the fathers as universally opposed to the idea of abortion on demand, and abortion as birth control (they also didn’t really like birth control).  The fetus was not seen by them as part of the woman’s body, but as a neighbor and developing image-bearer of God (189). Some, like Augustine, would allow for therapeutic abortions (though clearly, these are never ideal) (188, 189).  Hall writes:

From the perspective of the fathers, the status of the developing fetus as God’s image bearer was the overriding consideration in their ethical analysis of abortion and its consequences. They believed the fetus is a human being. Indeed, the developing baby is a dependent neighbor who is to be nurtured and cared for from the moment of conception by the entire Christian community. If the fetus is our neighbor, and if the heart of God’s law is love for God and neighbor, the canon law’s strictness and severity concerning abortion makes sense. To take innocent life—whether in war or in failing to protect neighbors who lack the ability to care for themselves, whether in the womb or outside it—is treated with appropriate seriousness by the ancient church.

So while the church fathers were clearly pro-life, their prohibition on militarism and violence meant that they were committed to a consistent pro-life ethic, from the womb to the tomb.

In chapter 7, Hall looks at the church fathers’ reaction against entertainment, particularly entertainment that was violent and sexually exploitative. Hall acknowledges their critique but also notes that good art can portray the beauty of relationships and sexual love or the sadness and horror of violence and brokenness. So Hall agrees with the fathers that we shouldn’t feed our appetite for sin with mind-numbing entertainment, but he isn’t as dismissive, as they sometimes were, of the Arts.

There is no substitute for reading the church fathers for themselves. Hall’s book isn’t a bathroom reader designed to give you a little trivia of a bygone era. Hall wants to send you back to Chrysostom, Augustine, Origin, Jerome,  Irenaeus, and Basil. This is designed, like the other books in the series, to show us the valuable contribution the church fathers have made to the life of the church, and invite us to sit down with them and talk.

Of course, the limits of a book like this is the thought of the fathers is simplified and generalized.  Hall covers a lot of ground in 236 pages, so he summarizes a few main thinkers on a topic and gives an overview of their context, but he does not have the space to delve too deep into their thought or works. The spirituality of the Desert Fathers is what first stoked my interest in patristics, but they are not much represented here (though certainly, they had quite a bit to say on sexuality, the passions and the pursuit of the good life).  So this is a good book, and suggestive, but it is an introductory one, appropriate for lay readers and students. I give this four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection:  I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review


A Christianity Immersed in Empire: a book review

It is fashionable, in some theological circles, to speak of the Constantinian compromise. Constantine’s victory (and conversion?) in 312 CE issued in an era of religious freedom for Christians which they previously had not enjoyed. But it also started the ball rolling in terms of the centralizing of the power of the bishops, and eventually Rome in the West, and led to doctrinal compromises as the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic church sought to accommodate itself to the demands of Empire.

9781626981942Wes Howard-Brook does not doubt that this trajectory toward Empire replaced the spirituality and prophetic critique of Jesus in the life of the Church. His previous book, Come Out My People! ( Orbis, 2010), was a reading of the biblical narrative which contrasted Jesus’ liberationist movement—the ‘religion of Creation’ called the Kingdom of God—with the religion of Empire—imperial readings of the Bible which wink at (state supported) violence and shave off Jesus’ radical, prophetic edge.  However, Howard-Brook doesn’t envision this shift happening within Constantine’s lifetime or afterward but sees the genesis much earlier. In Empire Baptized (Orbis, 2016), he traces the shift toward Empire (and creation abstracting & denying spirituality) developed in the writings of Christian thinkers in the 2nd to 5th centuries and the ways their thought still hold sway today.

In his first chapter, Howard-Brook provides an overview of the Roman imperial context,  its social and economic structures and religious life. In the next six chapters, he examines how the Christian movement developed along imperial lines, focusing his study on the cities of Alexandria and Carthage, Greek and Latin centers of Christian thought. Chapter two looks at these cities’ histories and their key Christians in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th Centuries.

In chapter three, Howard-Brook describes how the developing biblical hermeneutic of the Fathers, while rejecting Marcion and Gnostic readings, embraced a Neo-Platonism which abstracted physical life. This had the effect of weakening Jesus’ political and social critiques. Speaking of Origen, who held sway over the developing Biblical hermeneutic both East and West, Howard-Brook writes, “Origen (and the church around him) proclaims a “gospel” about a “soul” whose fate was separate from the body. Could a Jewish man like Jesus even understand what it meant? With this claim, any Christian concern for the human body, for the physical creation, and for the whole social-economic structure of society is put aside in favor of the question of the “soul’s fate in the afterlife” (88).

The rest of the book traces how Christian writers like Tertullian, Clement, Origen, Cyprian, Athanasius, Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine continued to abstract the Christian life from creation and physical life, while at the same time imbibing the cultural values of Empire (evidenced by a misogyny which paralleled Roman cultural values and unwillingness to challenge the status-quo).  Constantine does have a significant impact on the church, as bishops began to adopt ceremonies and raiments of the imperial court and revise their image of Christ along royal lines (i.e. icons of Christ as Lawgiver and Judge sitting on a jeweled throne) (198).

Howard-Brook does his homework and his book is thoroughly researched. Yet he does not offer here, a sympathetic reading of the Church Fathers (their voices most often mediated through secondary sources). He frequently faults the Fathers for the way they catered toward elites and the how they adapted their theology to fit their own circumstance (such as Jerome’s preaching against riches while assigning a higher place in the afterlife to ‘the Christian scholar’, 247).  Surprisingly, he does end up saying nice things about Augustine, the frequent whipping boy of all that is wrong in Western Theology. He describes him as a theologian who ‘took a path of moderation between the extremes promoted by others in his context’ (265), though of course, he goes on to fault him for his handling of the Donatists, his promotion of ‘state-sponsored violence,’ and Pelagius.

I enjoyed this book and I think Howard-Brook offers an important perspective on the development of Christian doctrine. Jesus did challenge the kingdoms of this Age in the way that later generations of Christians did not. There is a trajectory toward Empire, Neo-Platonism, and the status-quo in Church history. However, by profiling particular thinkers, through particular lenses, he is able to construct his narrative and parse the evidence in a certain way. He doesn’t highlight prophetic and counter voices to Empire throughout this period or pastoral aspects of his chief interlocutors. I wished at times he applied a more of a generous reading of the patristic period, though I appreciate the critique he levels and think it is substantive. I give this five stars. ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from SpeakEasy in exchange for my honest review.

Dogma & Greg: a ★★★★★ book review

I was interested in reading Brian Matz’s Gregory of Nazianzus because Nazianzus is the Cappadocian father whose works I am least familiar with (though I don’t want to feign expertise on the other two). In seminary I had the opportunity to read Basil, and read  a number of Gregory of Nyssa’s. The only Gregory of Nazianzus I read was his five Theological Orations  which I read for pleasure on my own time. They were interesting—witty, theologically erudite, and well crafted. However, I am no scholar and felt like the best way for me to get a handle on Nazianzus is to find a wise guide.


Brian Matz (PhD, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Saint Louis University) is the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Endowed Chair in Catholic Thought at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, Missouri associate professor of the history of Christianity. He wrote a dissertation on Gregory of Nazianzus at Saint Louis University (of which this text is partially adapted).  In this book, Matz provides a biographical sketch of Gregory (chapter one) before examining the importance of purification as a central theological motif for this Cappadocian (chapter two). Chapters three through six explore the theme of purification in four of Gregory’s orations (Oration 2, 45, 40, and 14). As part of Baker Academic’s Foundations of Theological Exegesis and Christian Spirituality (Hans Boersma and Matthew Levering, series eds.), this book has a particular eye for Nazianzus’s use of Scripture.

Matz argues convincingly that purification is the key to understanding. Chapter two of this volume,  provides a broad overview of Gregory’s preaching of purification (or spiritual healing). Matz illustrates Gregory’s terminology and his understanding of the practice and process of purification (i.e. self discipline, ascetical practices, cleansing the senses, acts of mercy, contrition, fasting, celebrating holy festivals, desire to know God, the purifying fire of difficult circumstance, baptism, the Eucharist and piety). He then describes the benefits of the purification of the soul: knowledge and contemplation of God, divinization, becoming a recipient of heaven, undermining evildoers and the devil, escape from the torments of judgement, esteem in the community, etc. Finally, Matz examines the role that pastors, the Spirit, and Christ play in leading a soul through the purification process in Gregory’s thought.

Matz’s discussion of the four orations illustrates how Gregory works out this theme pastorally (oration 2), in contemplation (oration 45), in his understanding of baptism (oration 40), and in care for the poor and vulnerable (oration 14). Most these orations are available to the general reader free online (or for a nominal fee on Kindle as part of Phillip Schaff’s Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers collection). Oration 14 can be found as part of Gregory of Nazianzus’ Select Orations (Catholic University of America Press, 2004). Not having access to the latter volume, I read the other orations in Schaff (in my case, through my Bible software program).

I really enjoyed this book and thought Matz did a wonderful job of walking the reader through Gregory’s exegesis. Nazianzus was less fanciful than Nyssa in terms of allegory, but made great use of the Canon (particularly found of the Psalms and Matthew, but drawing on a good swath of the biblical material). Like his Cappadocian counterparts, Nazianzus is Christological and Christocentric in his interpretation.

I give this book five stars and recommend it for anyone interested in a short, attainable introduction to Gregory. ★★★★★

Note: I received a Net Galley copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Worthy of God and Useful for Us: a book review

One of the challenges of biblical interpretation is the way that the Bible describes God. In some places in the Bible, God is above the heavens and there is none like him. In other places, God seems like any other earthly ruler–sitting on a throne,waging ware, standing, laughing, getting angry.  The difficulty of sorting out God’s godhood from his human descriptions has been an issue that theologians have wrestled with from the early centuries of Christianity. We have a lot we can learn from the Ancient theological approach to Scripture

Mark Sheridan is a Benedictine monk and vice rector and dean of the faculty of theology at the Pontifical Athenaeum of St. Anselm in Rome. He has written several monographs and edited the Genesis 12-50 volume of the ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture. In Language For God in Patrisitic Tradition:  Wrestling with Biblical Anthropomorphism, Sheridan examines ancient biblical interpretation, exploring what the church fathers have to teach us about reading Scripture and their theology of God.

One of the hallmark’s of patrisitc tradition is the commitment to interpreting the Bible in a manner “worthy of God”  and “useful for us.” Anthropomorphism and anthropopathism in the Bible, make God seem “too human.”  Sheridan demonstrates that the general patristic consensus was that God was wholly unlike humanity; however where the Bible involves human matters, ‘it carries the human intellect, manners and way of speaking’ (30). Thus the otherness of God is preserved, but the fathers had a way of parsing those places of scripture where God seemed all-to-human.

Sheridan’s eight chapters form a tight and compelling argument. In chapter one, Sheridan reads Numbers 23:19,”God is not a man nor as the son of man to be threatened,” in tension with Deuteronomy 1:31.” [He] carried you, as a father carries his son, all the way you went until you reached this place.” This illustrates the way in which the Bible talks about God differently, in reference to Godself and in relationship to us in the economy of salvation. Sheridan shows how the fathers picks up this distinction.

In chapter two through four, he illustrates the major influences on the patrsitic interpretive tradition. Chapter two explores the way the Greek philosphical tradition handled the capricious, too-human pantheon of gods in the Homeric epics. Ideas about what is ‘worthy of God’ in Plato, have their influence on the theological development of the church’s early centuries.  Chapter three describes the Hellenized Jewish interpretation of scripture (especially Philo) and they handled passages where God was too human and too passionate. Chapter four examines the New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament and the manner in which the patristic tradition saw their interpretive strategy in continuity with Paul and the gospels. Chapter five surveys major early Christian writers  and the various ways they employed the “worthy of God” strategy in interpreting the Bible. While there are differences between early theologians, and regions (Alexandria and Antioch in their approach to ‘allegory’), there is a broad consensus on what is worthy of God and what isn’t. Passages whre God ‘gets angry’ are placed inside a larger theological frame where God is impassible and divine emotional outbursts are merely connote the human experience of God’s wrath.

Chapter six highlights three cases which exemplify patristic interpretation: Genesis 1-4; Genesis 16 (the Hagar  and Sarah story); and the conquest narratives. The creation story (and fall) has a number of anthropomorphisms. Sheridan demonstrates the way ancient interpreters bracketed out any biblical interpretation that would be demeaning to God’s dignity.  The Sarah/Hagar story presented a different challenge. Because this story related Old-Testament saints behaving badly (i.e. Sarah and Abraham using and abusing Sarah’s slave), it was interpreted variously as an allegory or a morality tale. The conquest narratives were allegorized because of  patrsitic discomfort with the way God commanded the total destruction of the Canaanites (and what that implied about God’s character). Chapter seven shows how the Patrisic tradition handled he imprecatory Psalms.

Chapter eight, Sheridan’s final chapter, describes what he thinks modern interpreters ought to learn from our ancient counterparts. Sheridan holds up as sound, the patristic ‘rule’ of interpreting anthropomorphisms and difficult texts in a manner that is ‘worthy of God and useful to us.’ At various points our interpretations will diverge with patristics because we bring a different set of questions and assumptions to the text (i.e. ancient interpreters sought to defend the Bible against ancient mythos whereas modern interpreters seek to set the creation story with in the context of Ancient Near East literature). Yet Sheridan also challenges us to learn from patristics how to move beyond what the narrative of scripture describes to ask what it means for our lives (i.e. differences in contemporary and ancient approaches to Genesis 16).   At other points, Sheridan thinks that we ought to listen keenly to the questions that patristic scholars are asking. Contemporary evangelical scholars read the conquest accounts literally, seeking to minimize their destructive nature (i.e. hyperbole in the text, reading the destruction in Joshua alongside the gradual conquest in Judges, etc). Sheridan argues we have a lot to learn form the ways the fathers asked what divine conquest says about the character of God, and how to interpret these sections in a worthy manner.  He sees similar value in allowing patristics to inform our understanding of the imprecatory psalms (and how we are to pray them).

Sheridan offers a great overview of patristic interpretation and is incisive in his analysis of the way the ancient church interpreted scripture. The notion of interpreting in a manner ‘worthy of God’ seems a noble aim and certainly ancient authors as diverse as Origen, Tertullian, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Ambrose and Gregory of Nyssa each helped untangle anthropomorphisms for us.

Yet as valuable as I find this study and patristic interpretation I am not totally convinced. First off, and this may just be my evangelicalism talking, I am suspicious of where allegory ignores or replaces the literal meaning of the text. In pastrictic interpretation the literal meaning sometimes provides clues to the deeper meaning of the passage. At other times, the deeper, allegorical meaning is used to  replace or explain the literal sense away. I have less problem when the text is metaphorical in its anthropomorphisms (i.e. God walking in the garden, etc) but feel the rub a little more when a whole section of sacred scripture (like the Canaanite conquest) is spiritualized because the early interpreters saw this piece of Israel’s history as beneath God. I admit that the literal interpretation of Canaanite destruction opens up questions about God’s character and goodness that are difficult; yet I think employing allegory is too easy and too readily shirks the difficulty of wrestling with the text.  Additionaly, I worry about the ways in which the Greek philosophical tradition informs the patristic understanding of what is ‘worthy of God.’ I applaud the way the fathers  sought to guard the image of God from seeing God as a capricious person; however I am uncertain that ancient Christian understanding of Divine immutability always does justice to the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

My caveats name where I sit loose to some patristic conclusions, but. I think we have a lot to learn from them and Sheridan provides a great and accessible overview of their interpretive approach.  I would have found this a helpful book in seminary as I sought to untangle historic interpretation. This book is sufficiently non-technical for the the general reader. I give this 4.5 stars and recommend it for anyone interested in theological interpretation,  historical theology or spiritual exegesis.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

The Faith of Our Fathers: a book review.

There has been a  resurgence in evangelicals reading of patristic sources. The work of Thomas Oden, Ronald Heine, Peter Liethart, Hans Boersma and D.H Williams and others have called for a ressourcement which makes use of the Great Tradition. The value of patristic exegesis is a hot topic in the academy, but few works have given the words of the early church for popular consumption. James Stuart Bell and Patrick J.Kelly has just done that with theirt new devotional.

I have noted before the difficulty in reviewing devotionals. Reviewing a devotional after only having it for a couple of weeks, means that at best my thoughts on it are provisional. To know the true value of it, I would need to use the book daily for a time. Awakening Faith is a year long devotional and I haven’t had time to give a full assessment of its value. However I am fairly impressed by it. This is a daily devotional which culls together readings from patristic sources. Readings from sixty-nine different Church Fathers, from the first to the eighth century, challenge Christians to live out their faith in a compelling manner. There are theologically rich reflections and prophetic calls to holy living from everyone from Ambrose and Augustine to Zeno of Verona.

Awakening Faith is beautifully bound with a ribbon book mark. There are 366 readings from the church fathers, with  a scriptural reference at the head of each entry. This book looks good and the contents are pure gold.  I absolutely love it. However the book is limited in a couple of respects.

First, I wish that it reflected the church calender more. The daily reading format sets it apart from IVP’s Ancient Christian Devotionals (edited by Thomas Oden). Those volumes follow the liturgical cycle and draw together different patristic commentaries on the readings for each  Sunday. By contrast Awakening Faith is a daily devotional without an evident seasonal dimension. It is possible to start this devotional on day one reading each day until you finish the book (there are no dates are given for the readings). There are  specific readings for Easter and Christmas (and other holy days) but these are scattered throughout the book. This makes me wonder what the internal organization of the readings is. It is not straight forward. It tends to bounce back and forth from various topics.

Another limitation of this devotional is the lack of references. Each reading reflects on a passage and tells you the author. It does not tell from which of their works the reading was taken from or their context. Sometimes this is obvious. For example, Athanasius’ readings on the life of Anthony, came from the Life of Anthony. Prolific authors like Augustine, Basil the Great, or guys named Gregory are harder to track down. I would have appreciated a reference to the actual work at the end of each  reading. That way I could delve deeper into particular topics or authors.  This may just be my academic bent. I happen to love footnotes in everything I read and am miffed when I don’t see them. I do like that the indexes of this volume give me a bird’s eye view of each author and the scriptural content.

The selection of readings themselves are quite good. Here is a random selection of topics covered:

  • Basil the Great on the value of the Psalms (reading 10)
  • Tertullian on Prayer (reading 88)
  • Augustine on Martyrdom (reading 90)
  • John Chrysostom on standing firm on the rock of Christ (reading 121)
  • Ambrose on freedom in Christ through grace (reading 204)

. . .and much more. Bell and Kelly did a great job of selecting devotions for this collection (I just wish I knew where they were all from!). This is a great compendium of Christian thought. I happily recommend this book as either a daily devotional (as it is intended) or a bathroom reader (as I have been using it). There are beautiful passages here which are worth copying into your journal and I plan to use this book for years to come. I give it four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Zondervan and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Abba Give Me a Word: a book review

Visitors to the Egyptian and Palestinian wilderness in the fourth century, would ask the elder monks for ‘a word.’ The words given them, flowed out of the prayer and spiritual lives of the Desert Fathers. These words were collected into anthologies of sayings and circulated, allowing wider (and later) audiences to receive their ‘pearls of wisdom’ (introduction, xiv). These ‘words’ were echoes of the Word and reflected the prayer life, communal wisdom and understanding of scripture that came to us through the desert.

Enzo Bianchi is the founder of the ecumenical monastic Bose Community in Italy (founded in 1965, just after Vatican II). He is prior of this community and has published books on the spiritual life which have been translated into several different languages (Goodreads lists 30 separate entries for him, mostly not English).  In Echoes of the Word: A New King of Monk on the Meaning of Life, Bianchi draws inspiration from the collections of ‘words’ of the desert saints.  This too is a collection of words on various aspects of the spiritual life. Bianchi writes:

In these pages, then, I have sought to let myself be guided by the biblical and patrisitic tradition that has preceded and formed me in responding to the requests of those who continue to ask me, with sincerity and passion for “a reason for my hope” (see 1 Pet. 3:15). In this nonlinear but always directed journey, the reader will at times find him- or herself returning to terrain already traveled, but each time a different perspective is revealed,the point of view changes, a different choice is made at the crossroads. (Introduction, xv).

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, who writes the forward to this collection, says of Bianchi’s book, “I feel like I’m in the presence of someone who’s really alive. And it makes me want to go deeper–to tap into the same living water from which this abba drinks” (x). I had a similar experience reading through these ‘words’ Each of these 45 meditations consist of 3-5 pages, making this book appropriate for supplemental devotional reading.  I will not do Bianchi the disservice of trying to summarize the full contents of his book here, but allow me to share several insights that emerged for me as I mulled over his words:

  1. Bianchi describes the experience of the desert as a place where God speaks (as to the Israelites or Elijah). But this is liminal space–a places between places. We are not meant to settle in the desert.  Where my spiritual life has felt desolate, and I felt like ‘deserting,’ the challenge for me is to keep walking and trusting that God has a place for me. This is a poignant word for me right now, as I feel like I am at a stuck place.
  2. Several ‘words’ circle around the theme of vigilance, attention, listening, remembrance.  The spiritual life is about listening. It is about watching and waiting.  It is about cultivating attentiveness.  When I think of seasons where I’ve been adrift–spiritually, relationally, emotionally–it is times where I have not paid attention to God, to others and myself. Bianchi’s words exhort me to cultivate awareness and to listen well.
  3. Prayer is of vital importance.  This is basic Christian truth and Bianchi devotes a significant portion of this book to describing the inner dynamics of prayer.  Bianchi emphasizes God’s alerity (otherness) as much as he does God’s closeness. Yes, God is omnipresent and available to us, but the posture of listening in prayer (and in life) means that we are cultivating responsiveness to something outside ourselves. This is different than mere mindfulness, or the popular pantheism in some of the new spiritualities.  Prayer honors God’s otherness and so allows for the possibility of real and true relationship with the King of the universe.
  4. Our spiritial life has a direct real world impact on our relationships and communities.  In his first word, Bianchi quotes Maximus the Confessor, “Our divinization takes place when the divine love comes to dwell within us, to the point where we forgive our enemies as Christ did on the cross.  When is it you become God? When you are able like Christ on the cross, to say, ‘Father, forgive them,’ or even, ‘ Father, I give my life for them'” In later chapters, Bianchi describes loving enemies, humility, self-knowledge, solitude, community. Each of these are aspects of our communal life.  Our spiritual life is meant to transform all of life.
  5. Our experience of the spiritual life is bounded by limitations in the here and now: illness, old age, death.  This is part of what it means to be human. Communally we share in each other’s weakness. Theologically we have hope, even as we grown under our earthly tents.

This is a helpful collection of words. I find some ‘words’ more poignant than others, but do not doubt that if I inhabited a different spiritual season, other words would reveal their depths to me. This is a book to be read and savored and then re-read later. I plan to return to certain chapters later (i.e. I loved his summaries of the spiritual life, asceticism and Lectio Divina). Bianchi also does a great job of synthesizing patristic and monastic wisdom and applying it to today’s world. I warmly commend this book to anyone who seeks to deepen their spiritual growth. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I was not asked to write a positive review.

The Holy Trinity: Not What It Used To Be (a Book Review)

Stephen R. Holmes The Quest For the Trinity: The Doctrine of God in Scripture, History and Modernity (Intervarsity Press, 2012).

In the twentieth century there was a flowering of Trinitarian theology from such luminaries as Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, John Zizioulas, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Robert Jenson, Miroslav Volf, Leonardo Boff,  Cornelius Plantinga, Michael Rea, Brian Leftow and others.   While this so-called Trinitarian revival begins with Barth and best intentions (to rescue the doctrine of the Trinity from Liberal theology’s refuse pile) those that followed him took avenues which broke with the tradition.  Sometimes this was because scholars willfully lay aside earlier theological reflection, other times it is because they fail to appreciate the meaning and nuances of earlier theological discussions.

In The Quest for the Trinity Stephen R. Holmes, senior lecturer in theology at St. Andrews,  has written a short book which gives an overview of the contemporary approaches to the Trinity, and  sets it against the backdrop of the theological tradition.  Holmes basic premise is that the contemporary quest to recapture the doctrine of the Trinity, misunderstands and distorts the tradition (xv).  In his first chapter, Holmes sketches the contours of the ‘Trinitarian revival.’  In the chapters which follow, he walks chronologically through the history of the church, demonstrating the broad consensus of Trinitarian theology from the 4th Century councils until the Nineteenth Century.  Holmes presents and summarizes the writings of many of the theologians and thinkers who reflected on the nature of the Triune God.

This is a short book (232 pages) and therefore cannot necessarily  give a detailed analysis of  all twenty centuries of theological reflection. Yet Holmes demonstrates his thesis and illuminates significant details along the way.  Holmes is able to shows that the method and understanding of the Trinity had significantly changed in the modern period from what it was in the patristic, medieval or Reformation eras. For instance, when Holmes looks back on the Biblical texts which formed the basis of patristic reflection on the Trinity, he observes that many of the go-to-texts were from the Old Testament. In the modern period,  the Old Testament is treated as though it had nothing significant to teach us about the Christian doctrine of the Trinity because historical critical approaches trained us to read the Bible, solely through the lens of authorial intent.  Patristic exegetes were committed to reading the Old Testament Christologically and mined it for theological treasures.

Beyond method, Holmes demonstrates that contemporary approaches to the Trinity employ language differently than earlier approaches. In the fourth century debates, which culminated in the councils of Nicea and Constantinople, the language of personhood (hypostasis, persona) was employed to refer to the members of the Trinity. In contemporary theology, personhood is understood as fully personal, possessing will, intellect, personality. In the patrisitic period, personhood denotes a self-consciousness but the individual distinctions between persons is not stressed (there are not three I-centers). Rather the Cappadocian formulation affirms that the Triune God exists as one substance, trice over.  Likewise traditional theologians were committed to the ineffability of God, where modern theologians sometimes claim a fuller understanding of God’s nature.

One conclusion which Holmes makes that is controversial in some quarters is his assertion that Greek and Latin conception of the Trinity are in substantial agreement. My own theological training taught me that the model of the Trinity  in the East was a ‘Social Trinity model’ which stressed the inter-relation of the persons but in the West, the Trinity was understood in more psychological terms. Often the blame for the difference is assigned to Augustine for his ubiquitous influence on the West and his failure to understand the Cappadocians.  Against this Holmes asserts that Augustine was the greatest interpreter of Cappadocian Theology (122).  Holmes observes that, ” Augustine is held not to have understood the Cappadocian achievement, and to have stumbled through some metaphysical arguments which are best sub-Trinitarian when compared to the glories of the two Gregories. (130)”  Holmes finds unlikely that Augustine would present a radically different Trinity from the Cappadocians without knowing that he did. He asserts to the contrary:

If any explanation is offered to account for this extraordinarily unlikely state of affairs, it usually turns on a suggestion that Augustine’s grasp of Greek was at best partial, and therefore that he did not understand the texts that led to the Constantinopolitian settlement. Against this, we might note: that Augustine’s grasp of Greek was actually rather good, at least by the time he wrote De Trinitate, that there are several earlier Latin interpreters of Nicene theology whom he could have read, some whom we know he stood in close relationship to (e.g. Ambrose of Milan), and that no writer of the day accuses Augustine of misunderstanding Constantinopolitian Trintarianism. Further, my discussion of Hilary, above, has indicated just how dependent on Eastern categories his developed Trinitarianism theoloogy was. (130-1).

Nevertheless, differences in Eastern and Western Trinitarianism develop with the controversy over the filioque clause in the Nicene Creed (In the original creed, ‘the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father’, in the West the word’s ‘and the Son’ were added to the Creed. However this difference did not threaten the Church’s orthodoxy or catholicity; there was full communion for centuries between Christians on both sides of the debate(164).

Without  going into the details of every thinker Holmes profiled, I think he demonstrates well that Christians were united in their understanding of the Trinity until the 19th Century (when the ferment of the Reformation and enlightenment style rationalism prompted a decisive break with tradition).  You do not need to be an expert of the Trinity to read this book; however I think those who have followed the Trinitarian conversation will find this book most valuable.

Thank you to Intervarsity Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.