Book Review — Early Christian Thinkers

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Originally published in the Expository Times, this collection of essays edited by Paul Foster explores the life and thought of twelve pre-Nicene Christians. Many of these thinkers you would expect to see, such as Origen and Irenaeus. However, some of them may surprise you, such as Perpetua.

One of the strengths is that the variety of authors results in a less formulaic presentation from essay to essay. However, this also results in unevenness in the writing. Some of the essays were page-turners, while others were a chore to finish. Fortunately, there are only a few that were in the latter category.

Another nice feature of these articles is the juxtaposition of introduction and scholarly dialogue. Many articles give a clear statement of established facts, but also follow up by advancing scholarly opinions on more recent academic debates or textual analysis. For example, Rick Rogers proposes that Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolycus is more protreptic than apologetic in nature, and Paul Foster discusses the textual criticism surrounding the work of Tatian.

I was also pleased to see that many of the authors showed a connection between these ancient writers and contemporary thought, such as Denis Minns’s observation from Irenaeus that “written documents do not carry their own tools for interpretation with them” (42). That’s a good word for those who fail to realize that any interpretation (of Scripture or any other communication) relies on an interpretive framework.

I was excited to see the Perpetua included in the list. The introduction states, “Her inclusion among other figures is not due to the attempt to embrace the feminist agenda for its own sake, or to feign some other type of ‘trendiness'” (xv) and acknowledges that she “may not have been the greatest theologian” (xvi). However, Sara Parvis’s essay failed to convince me that Perpetua belonged in this collection of significant thinkers. There was just too much supposition and extraction necessary to make a solid case for Perpetua as a thinker.

All things considered, Early Christian Thinkers is a welcome contribution for those interested in a more scholarly introduction to the lives and legacies of a handful of early Christian theologians who have left their mark on the church and her theology.

– Reviewed by Adam Reece

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

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Science and the Early Church

Saint Augustine of Hippo, a seminal thinker on...

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“In Augustine’s influential view, then, knowledge of the things of this world is not a legitimate end in itself, but as a means to other ends it is indispensable.  The classical sciences must accept a subordinate position as the handmaiden of theology and religion—the temporal serving the eternal.  The knowledge contained in classical sciences is not to be loved, but it may legitimately be used.  . . .

“Does endowing scientific knowledge with handmaiden status constitute a serious blow against scientific progress?  Are the critics of the early church right in viewing it as the opponent of genuine science?  I would like to make three points in reply.

(1) It is certainly true that the fathers of the early Christian church did not view support of the classical sciences as a major obligation.  These sciences had low priority for the church fathers, for whom the major concerns were (quite properly) the establishment of Christian doctrine, defense of the faith, and the edification of believers.

But (2), low or medium priority was far from zero priority.  Throughout the Middle Ages and well into the modern period the handmaiden formula was employed countless times to justify the investigation of nature.  Indeed, some of the most celebrated achievements of the Western scientific tradition were made by religious scholars who justified their labors (at least in part) by appeal to the handmaiden formula.

(3) No institution or cultural force of the patristic period offered more encouragement for the investigation of nature than did the Christian church.  Contemporary pagan culture was no more favorable to disinterested speculation about the cosmos than was Christian culture.  It follows that the presence of the Christian church enhanced, rather than damaged, the development of the natural sciences.”

— David C. Lindberg in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, ed. Ronald L. Numbers, 16, 17.

Philosophy Word of the Day – Handmaiden Metaphor

Image via WikipediaClement of Alexandria (c.150-211/216).

 

“During the Middle Ages theology was understood to be the queen of the sciences, and classical learning, insofar as it was true, was theology’s servant or ‘handmaiden.’  The metaphor described the relationship between Greek wisdom and Christian theology.

“Quite early in the Christian era theologians had to come to terms with classical learning.  Almost inevitably there were tensions between Christian teaching and aspects of pagan thought, with St. Paul declaring on one occasion that the Gospel was ‘folly’ to the Greeks (1 Cor. 1:23).  Subsequently, the church father Tertullian declared philosophy to be ‘the parent of heresy’ (The Prescription against Heretics, chap. 7).  Some early Christian writers, however, stressed the value of pagan wisdom, suggesting that it was a ‘preparation’ for the Gospel (see, e.g., Clement of Alexandria, Stromata, 1.5, 1.7).  Tertullian was more positive toward philosophy than some of his more extreme statements might suggest.

“When Aristotelian learning was reintroduced in the West in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the question of the role of Greek philosophy and its relationship to Christian theology was raised again.  While there was some initial resistance to Aristotelian philosophy, by the middle of the fourteenth century it was entrenched in university curriculums.  Its predominant role in the universities was justified because it was said to serve the interests of Christian theology.  In this sense it served as handmaiden to the queen of the sciences, theology.”

— Heidi A. Campbell and Heather Looy, A Science and Religion Primer, 116-117.

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Biblical Studies Podcasts

It’s good to see some podcasts emerging in this area.  NT Gateway lists the ones below.  NT Pod especially has some interesting topics (e.g., “What is Redaction” and “Resurrection and After-Life in Paul”).

NT Pod

By Mark Goodacre. Regular podcast by the editor of this (NT Gateway) site on the New Testament and Christian Origins. Each podcast is a bite-sized 5-8 minutes long.

5 Minute Bible

By Tim Bulkeley. Five minute podcasts on the Bible, with special reference to the Old Testament, with archives going back to 2007. Many bite-sized blogs on a variety of themes from one of the pioneers of online academic Biblical materials.

Religions of the Ancient Mediterranean

By Phil Harland. 25-30 minute podcasts from Philip Harland of York University, Toronto, in several series, including Paul and his Communities (2007-8), Early Christian Portraits of Jesus (2008) and Diversity in Early Christianity: “Heresies” and Struggles (2009).

Jesus Films

By Matt Page. 5-10 minute podcasts offering reflections on several major Jesus films. From Matt Page of the Bible Films Blog.

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New Biblical Studies Book Reviews

St. Clement I was an apostolic father.
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The Review of Biblical Literature Blog has a long list of book reviews available on interesting-sounding books in biblical studies.  Here are a few of the most recent:


2009.04.41. Voris, Preaching Parables

Steven J. Voris, Preaching Parables: A Metaphorical Interfaith Approach
Reviewed by Ernest van Eck

2009.04.40. Thomas, Revelation 19 in Historical and Mythological Context

David Andrew Thomas, Revelation 19 in Historical and Mythological Context
Reviewed by David L. Barr

2009.04.39. Sugimoto, Female Figurines with a Disk

David T. Sugimoto, Female Figurines with a Disk from the Southern Levant and the Formation of Monotheism
Reviewed by Aren Maeir

2009.04.38. Spencer, … Lukan Galilean Ministry Speeches

Patrick E. Spencer, Rhetorical Texture and Narrative Trajectories of the Lukan Galilean Ministry Speeches: Hermeneutical Appropriation by Authorial Readers of Luke-Acts
Reviewed by Stephan Witetschek

2009.04.37. Sallaberger, Das Gilgamesch-Epos

Walther Sallaberger, Das Gilgamesch-Epos: Mythos, Werk und Tradition
Reviewed by Gerhard Karner

2009.04.36. Radner, Leviticus

Ephraim Radner, Leviticus
Reviewed by Leigh Trevaskis

2009.04.35. Perkins, Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era

Judith Perkins, Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era
Reviewed by Ilaria Ramelli

2009.04.34. Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts

Mikeal C. Parsons, Body and Character in Luke and Acts: The Subversion of Physiognomy in Early Christianity
Reviewed by Glenn E. Snyder

2009.04.33. Neusner and Avery-Peck, Encyclopedia of Religious and Philosophical Writings

Jacob Neusner and Alan J. Avery-Peck, eds., Encyclopedia of Religious and Philosophical Writings in Late Antiquity: Pagan, Judaic, Christian
Reviewed by Mark D. Nanos

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