Tag Archives: iranaeus

Book Review: Early Christian Thinkers edited by Paul Foster (IVP)

Many thanks to IVP Press for providing this review copy

Title: Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures
Edited by: Paul Foster
Price: $23.00 (Amazon Link)

There is an ever-growing interesting into early Christian history and the Church Fathers. This interest is two pronged: Many are seeking to understand the rise of Christianity and another related group is interested in the interpretive method of these early Christian thinkers. These are not new categories but the larger interest of a younger generation is growing. It is difficult to dive into these early writings without understanding the context of the writers life situation and other writings. This book finds its niche in providing a scholarly overview of these writings and the impact it had on later Christian writings. This is why this book, Early Christian Thinkers is a needed addition to the plethora of introductory resources of the early Church.

As it is with literature, all writing builds and is related in some ways to other similar (and not so similar writings) writings. This volume seeks to show “the way in which these early Christians, while being rooted in their own cultural contexts, made innovative contributions towards developing Christian thought, theology, and piety (xi).” Many of these contributions to early Christianity are intertwined with other Christian thinkers and are responses to others outside the faith. This collection of essays successfully shows the development of the writer, the importance of his/her writings for the Christian faith, and the effects it has on later Christian writers.

The book is laid out in twelve distinct chapters covering the following early Christian thinkers:

  1. Justin Martyr (Paul Parvis)
  2. Tatian (Paul Foster)
  3. Irenaeus (Denis Minns)
  4. Theophilus of Antioch (Rick Rogers)
  5. Clement of Alexandria (Judith L. Kovacs)
  6. Tertullian (Everett Ferguson)
  7. Perpetua (Sara Parvis)
  8. Origen (Rebecca Lyman)
  9. Cyprian of Carthage (J. Patout Burns)
  10. Hippolytus of Rome (Ulrich Volp)
  11. Gregory Thaumaturgus (Michael Slusser)
  12. Eusebius of Caesarea (Timothy David Barnes)

Each chapter seeks to give a paragraph length introduction, a short biography, an overview of the writings, theology, legacy, and a concise bibliography. Overall, most of the authors successfully wrote within this context. The essays by Lyman (Origen) and Kovacs (Clement of Alexandria) were especially insightful. Lyman’s portrait of Origen was fair and even-handed in giving an overview of his life and the controversies surrounding his writings. Kovacs gives a helpful overview of Clement’s theology by summarizing it in five key ideas:

  1. What is the purpose of human life?
  2. Who is God and how can he be known?
  3. How is the revelation of scripture to be understood?
  4. What is God’s plan for human salvation?
  5. How are believers to become perfect?

I was also excited to see the inclusion of Perpetua’s writings. Often in introductions to early Christian thinkers a female presence is neglected. The essay was interesting and insightful but it did seem out of place for this volume. Each other essay shows how the persons writings and thought were unique and influenced other Christian thought. But with this essay it is more of a biographical sketch of the author and her theology. The essay concludes by saying, “If Perpetua is not the early church’s greatest theologian, what she has going for her is yet something fairly rare: we have convincing portraits of both her family and her public life, and they add up (109).” This conclusion sums up the essay, a fine biography of the life of Perpetua but lacking in the influence she had as an early Christian thinker.

There was one particular essay that did not seem to fit the purpose of the book, Tatian by Paul Foster. In this essay Foster seemed to focus an unduly amount of time on text critical issues in Tatian. This seemed out of place within the context of the rest of the essays, which rarely focused on text critical issues of the writings. When others did mention them it was concise and to the point. The essay still has redeeming qualities though. Foster provides several helpful charts showing some of the content of Tatian’s writing. His section on whether Tatian was a heretic is insightful too. He concludes that most likely Tatian’s writings were not “unorthodox” at the time and some of his followers later formed unorthodox doctrines that Tatian was linked to.

The bibliographies of most of the works are especially helpful for the student and scholar. The bibliographies were often times broken down according to each work and then a select list of monographs concerning the writer. It is difficult for beginning students to know which works/translations to consult for academics and this provides a helpful guide.

Overall, I would recommend this book to any student that has an interest in early Christian thought. The essays written found the niche needed, they were neither to short and basic or too narrow focused on singular issues. I found myself understanding the writings of each of these thinkers better and with an eye towards the context that they are writing in. The bibliographies are especially helpful for the student or scholar wishing for sources of their works. I think that students who are interested in reading the writings of any of these early Christian thinkers would do well to first consult the relevant essay to understand the life and context of the writer. For students interested in the history of interpretation this book is a valuable read in order to better understand and utilize the writings of this era for interpretation today.

Related: See Brian Leport at the Near Emmaus blog give his thoughts on each chapter here.

Sanctified Vision: Christ is the End of the Law and Prophets

The Church Fathers writing is like a beautifully crafted mosaic. The end product is a masterpiece of colorful imagery and complex design but the starting points are often disconnected and a mystery to the outsider. A mosaic artist generally begins with solid pieces of stained glass that are then broken and reassembled to create the mosaic. An artist can look at this glass and visualize the end product and carefully piece together the glass to create a masterpiece. As a person who is not an artist I can not see the end from the beginning. Sure, I can look at a finished product and trace back how they created this but given just the glass this would be impossible to recreate without instruction.

This is how the Church Father’s exegesis often seems to people. The end is a beautiful masterpiece that is theologically rich but when we begin to see the process they took to get there we are puzzled. Just at looking at broken stained glass and wondering how the artist got from here to there we study the Church Father’s writing and are confounded. We may be able to connect the dots but it is a mystery to explain the hows and why. How they got there is not the road we expected. This chasm is created by years of church history, competing philosophies, and new methods make this gap difficult to cross. This is the gap that O’Keefe and Reno wanted to cross in their book Sanctified Vision. They wanted to begin with the broken stained glass and figure out the methods of creating the end product. This will be the first of several posts tracing and summarizing some of their findings in examining the interpretive methods of the Church Fathers.

Christ is the End of the Law and Prophets

In chapter 2 of their book they begin to lay out the framework of the Church Father’s exegesis. To the early church Christ was the key to all interpretations. He is the telos of Holy Scripture and without him much of the Bible is a mystery. They point out that the Fathers and three basic guides to interpretation: hypothesis, economy, and recapitulation.

First, for the Fathers the hypothesis is the “gist of the literary work” (34), which in the case of Holy Scripture, Christ is the key. We need to understand the overall plan of the Bible and that it is all consummated in Christ. The Fathers argued that a heretical interpretation was one that did not understand the literary plan of scripture and would take various details to create their own doctrine. Iraneaus provides an example of a “clever reader” by taking portions of the Illiad and Odyssey and creating a distorted picture from the text that is not true to the hypothesis (or gist) of the literary work.

“The clever reader rearranges the verses to exploit certain names and images. The illustration Irenaeus provides, the rearrangement of the veers yields a lament about Hercules rather than an epic about Achilles and Odysseus. Homer’s raw material is used to construct a poem based upon an alien hypothesis that is false to the thrust or hypothesis of the Homeric epics from which the verses are taken.” (36)

From this hypothesis the Fathers see that the Bible has an economy or “a structure or plot that allows us to discern the flow of the narrative” (37). By having a correct hypothesis you can construct the proper economy of the text. “The divine economy is clearly taught by the church…proper interpretation of scripture must both presume and discern the sequence of events that are ordained by God” (38). The scriptures don’t need proven that they are God’s word, rather this is assumed, and it is the Christians job to put together this true story. For Iranaeus, “the coming of Jesus Christ is the decisive event that clarifies the divine economy. The scriptures anticipate future events” (38).

Finally, the recapitulation (or “final repetition, summing up, drawing to conclusion”) of scripture is Christ. He is “the Logos of the Father, the logic or purpose in and through which the whole divine economy is conceived and implemented” (39). For example:

“Adam does not fall in an abstract sense. His obedience comes from the fruit of the tree, and from that tree comes death. Jesus Christ recapitulates this scene, though now in the key of righteousness rather than sin. Christ’s obedience triumphs over sin by his death upon the tree of the ross, and the fruit of that tree is life.”(39)

Therefore, Holy Scripture was written by God, which gives it a hypothesis or purpose of the Bible and from this we can construct a good economy that recapitulates in Christ. This provides us with a starting point in understanding how the Father’s viewed the Holy Scripture when they say that all texts lead to Christ. They were less worried about human authorial intent but saw that God, the author of scripture, had the telos of the scriptures to be Christ.

Every work contained in the sacred books announces with words, reveals by the facts, and establishes by example the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ who, sent by his father, became a man, being born of a virgin by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is, therefore, he who, throughout this present age engenders, washes, sanctifies, chooses, separates out, and redeems the church in the true and manifest figures of the Patriarchs: by the sleep of Adam, by the flood of Noah, by the blessing of Melchizedek, by the justification of Abraham, by the birth of Isaac, and by the servitude of Jacob. Through the entire unfolding of time, in a word, the assembly of the prophets, serving the divine economy, gave us knowledge of his coming incarnation.

— Hilary of Poitiers cited on p. 43