"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Church in the Square

Though the Coptic Church is of course the indigenous church of Egypt, there are other Christian traditions extant in the country, not least Roman Catholics and evangelicals. What was striking to me in visiting Coptic churches the first few times now twenty years ago was the evidence of clear borrowing of certain practices from North American evangelicals. One such evangelical church in Cairo is the object of a book set for release later this spring. 

The American University of Cairo Press just sent me their latest catalogue, and included a book set for release in May of this year: Anna Jeanine Dowell, The Church in the Square: Negotiations of Religion and Revolution at an Evangelical Church in Cairo (Cairo Papers in Social Science) (AUC Press, 2015), 112pp.

About this book we are told:
In the wake of the January 25, 2011 popular uprisings, youth and leaders from the Kasr el Dobara Evangelical Church, the largest Protestant congregation in the Middle East, situated just behind Tahrir Square embarked on new, unpredictable political projects. This ethnography seeks to elucidate the ways that youth and leaders utilized religious imagery and discourse and relational networks in order to carve out a place in the Egyptian public sphere regarding public religion, national belonging, and the ideal citizen. Evangelical Egyptians at KDEC navigated the implications of their colonial heritage and transnational character even as their leadership sought to ground the congregation in the Egyptian national imagery and emerging revolutionary political scene. The author argues that these negotiations were built upon powerful paradoxes concerning liberal politics, secularism, and private versus public religion, which often implicated Evangelicals in the same questions being raised in public discourse concerning Islamist politics and religious minorities.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Languages and Cultures of Eastern Christianity III: Greek

Nearly four years ago now, when word first emerged that Ashgate was going to start this series, I posted notice of it and have since drawn attention to some of the earlier volumes. It remains the sort of indispensable collection of volumes that any serious and self-respecting library devoted to Eastern Christianity must have. The latest volume, just published after Christmas, is edited by Scott F. Johnson, whose previous works, including my interview with him, may be found here. This latest volume is Languages and Cultures of Eastern Christianity: Greek (Ashgate/Variorum, 2014), 480pp.

About this book we are told: 
This volume brings together a set of fundamental contributions, many translated into English for this publication, along with an important introduction. Together these explore the role of Greek among Christian communities in the late antique and Byzantine East (late Roman Oriens), specifically in the areas outside of the immediate sway of Constantinople and imperial Asia Minor. The local identities based around indigenous eastern Christian languages (Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, etc.) and post-Chalcedonian doctrinal confessions (Miaphysite, Church of the East, Melkite, Maronite) were solidifying precisely as the Byzantine polity in the East was extinguished by the Arab conquests of the seventh century. In this multilayered cultural environment, Greek was a common social touchstone for all of these Christian communities, not only because of the shared Greek heritage of the early Church, but also because of the continued value of Greek theological, hagiographical, and liturgical writings. However, these interactions were dynamic and living, so that the Greek of the medieval Near East was itself transformed by such engagement with eastern Christian literature, appropriating new ideas and new texts into the Byzantine repertoire in the process.
Introduction: the social presence of Greek in Eastern Christianity, 200-1200 CE;
Sextus Julius Africanus and the Roman Near East in the third century, William Adler;
Ethnic identity in the Roman Near East, AD 325-450: language, religion, and culture, Fergus Millar; Bilingualism and diglossia in late antique Syria and Mesopotamia, David Taylor;
The private life of a man of letters: well-read practices in Byzantine Egypt according to the Dossier of Dioscorus of Aphrodito, Jean-Luc Fournet;
Dioscorus and the question of bilingualism in sixth-century Egypt, Arietta Papaconstantinou;
Palestinian hagiography and the reception of the Council of Chalcedon, Bernard Flusin;
The Christian schools of Palestine: a chapter in literary history, Glanville Downey;
Embellishing the steps: elements of presentation and style in The Heavenly Ladder of John Climacus, John Duffy;
The works of Anastasius of Sinai: a key source for the history of seventh-century East Mediterranean society and belief, John Haldon;
Greek literature in Palestine in the eighth century, Robert Pierpont Blake;
Greek culture in Palestine after the Arab conquest, Cyril Mango;
Some reflections on the continuity of Greek culture in the East in the seventh and eighth centuries, Guglielmo Cavallo;
From Palestine to Constantinople (eighth-ninth centuries): Stephen the Sabaite and John of Damascus, Marie-France Auzépy;
The Life of Theodore of Edessa: history, hagiography, and religious apologetics in Mar Saba monastery in early Abbasid times, Sidney Griffith;
Why did Arabic succeed where Greek failed? Language change in the Near East after Muhammad, David Wasserstein;
From Arabic to Greek, then to Georgian: a life of Saint John of Damascus, Bernard Flusin;
Greek - Syriac - Arabic: the relationship between liturgical and colloquial languages in Melkite Palestine in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Johannes Pahlitzsch;
The liturgy of the Melkite Patriarchs from 969 to 1300, Joseph Nasrallah;
Byzantium's place in the debate over Orientalism, Averil Cameron;

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Theophilos and Iconoclasm

As I have noted on here repeatedly in the past few years, iconoclasm has become a topic of great interest to many scholars if the number of recent and wide-ranging studies of it is anything to go by. Much of this is driven by research at Birmingham University in England and from other English scholars.

Another hefty study was recently released: Juan Signes Codoñer, The Emperor Theophilos and the East, 829-842: Court and Frontier in Byzantium During the Last Phase of Iconoclasm (Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies) (Ashgate, 2014), 518pp.

About this book we are told:
 Modern historiography has become accustomed to portraying the emperor Theophilos of Byzantium (829-842) in a favourable light, taking at face value the legendary account that makes of him a righteous and learned ruler, and excusing as ill fortune his apparent military failures against the Muslims. The present book considers events of the period that are crucial to our understanding of the reign and argues for a more balanced assessment of it.The focus lies on the impact of Oriental politics on the reign of Theophilos, the last iconoclast emperor. After introductory chapters, setting out the context in which he came to power, separate sections are devoted to the influence of Armenians at the court, the enrolment of Persian rebels against the caliphate in the Byzantine army, the continuous warfare with the Arabs and the cultural exchange with Baghdad, the Khazar problem, and the attitude of the Christian Melkites towards the iconoclast emperor. The final chapter reassesses the image of the emperor as a good ruler, building on the conclusions of the previous sections. The book reinterprets major events of the period and their chronology, and sets in a new light the role played by figures like Thomas the Slav, Manuel the Armenian or the Persian Theophobos, whose identity is established from a better understanding of the sources.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Baker on Bulgakov

The recently ordained Greek Orthodox priest and scholar Matthew Baker was killed Sunday night in a car accident, leaving behind a wife and six young children.

After an e-mail correspondence going back several years, I finally only met him last October in Brookline when OTSA met at Holy Cross. I do not therefore pretend to know him well, but as a young father myself I am saddened at what an unspeakable loss this is for his family--to say nothing of the academy. It was clear he had a brilliant future ahead of him, and I was settling down to look forward to many years of fascinating books and articles from him in which we would learn, and re-learn, much to the edification of us all.

He was, I gather, driving home after Vespers on the Feast of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. I was taken aback therefore to learn, when I went through back issues of Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, to discover one of the reviews Fr. Matthew wrote was of the recently translated works of Sergius Bulgakov, Relics and Miracles: Two Theological Essays (Eerdmans, 2011). As the publisher puts it about this book, "Both essays are suffused with Bulgakov's faith in Christian resurrection — and with his signature 'religious materialism,' in which the corporeal is illuminated by the spiritual and the earthly is transfigured into the heavenly."

Herewith I reprint Fr. Matthew's review of this book, which I was pleased to be able to publish in Logos 53 (nos. 3-4) in the Fall 2012 issue (pp. 353-358). May his memory be eternal!

This book represents another installment of translator Boris Jakim's prodigious efforts to make the works of Fr. Sergii Bulgakov available to English-speaking readers. Having given us the three volumes of his major trilogy, O Bogochelovechestve, Jakim turns his hand back to Bulgakov's shorter works. This publication collects two such essays: “On Holy Relics (In Response to Their Desecration)” and “On the Gospel Miracles.” Jakim renders Bulgakov's lyrical but often difficult prose in a highly readable English. The result is a volume possessing both dogmatic interest and devotional appeal.
            The first essay, “On Holy Relics (In Response to Their Desecration),” written in 1918, reflects the circumstances of its composition. Bulgakov takes the Bolshevik desecration of sacred treasures as an occasion for dogmatic reflection on the nature of saints' relics. Significantly, 1918 was also the year of Bulgakov's ordination to the priesthood. Compared with his voluminous abstruse speculations of the previous year, The Unfading Light, one glimpses here a more chastened, levitical sensibility, conscious of its responsibility as steward of the mysteries and guardian of the depositum.
            Recent scholarship has been deeply impacted by Paul Valliere's picture of Bulgakov as a model of “liberal Orthodoxy” (Valliere's phrase), to be distinguished from the neopatristic theologians' more contra mundum attitude towards secular modernity and their supposed “hegemonic traditio-centrism.” Whatever the significance of this characterization, the present work reveals its limitations. One is reminded of a certain Anglican clergyman who, upon meeting Bulgakov in the 1930's, described him as staunchly “conservative.” While Bulgakov's theologizing here is certainly “contextual,” it is not accommodationist. The communists attacking the Church are “God-haters,” “satanical gangsters,” filled with “the spirit of the Antichrist.” Marxism is an ersatz religion, masquerading “under the banner of democracy and socialism,” its “chief – and even unique – religious engine” being “hatred of Christianity.” The whole essay is marked by an acute recognition of the demonic at work in history, particularly under the guise of ideology. Assaults on the Church are “lessons,” posing “questions that demand our answer” – but an answer requiring an “internal opposition” on the part of Church theology.
            In the same connection, the essay offers interesting insights into Bulgakov's views on the hermeneutics of doctrine. Bulgakov resists any reduction of binding dogma to explicit conciliar definitions. Perhaps reflecting St. Basil's understanding of dogmata as the total complex of “unwritten habits” (ta agrapha tōn ethōn) passed down in the Church, Bulgakov stipulates that the Orthodox belief regarding holy relics is a “dogma” which “has not been the object of any special deliberation, but, like many important dogmas of the Church, it has been accepted through the Church's practice.” Above and beyond the arguments of scholars, “the incontrovertible authority” remains “ecclesial tradition and the ecclesial consciousness.” Speaking of the verification of relics, Bulgakov writes: “All 'reasons' are only occasions for the crystallizations of the ecclesial consciousness, which, strictly speaking, does not even require them.” Destruction of the relics demands that theologians rouse themselves from a “low level of dogmatic consciousness” to “find – first for ourselves and then for the whole community – clear and fundamental answers.”
            Insisting that “all things are organically connected in the Church teaching, and that it is impossible to remove a single part of it,” Bulgakov is concerned to show how relics are connected with the fundamental truth of Christ's incarnation and his deification of man. He does this by way of a rich account of anthropology, sacraments, death, and sainthood, drawn from reflection upon Scripture and the practical piety of the Church. It is interesting to note, for instance, how Bulgakov's treatment of the death of saints reflects an understanding found also in many contemporary accounts of holy elders: the death of a saint is a voluntary act, in which the holy soul willingly departs the body.
            The essay also reflects a deep engagement with Kantian philosophy. Bulgakov rejects Kant's sharp dualism between noumena and phenomena, proposing rather, like Vladimir Soloviev before him, “a positive doctrine of phenomenality as the sacrament of the noumenal.” This allows Bulgakov to admit that not all saints' remains display signs of physical incorruptibility – some simply decompose – while also insisting that incorruptibility is inherent in all relics, beyond the limits of scientific verification. This “antinomy” is resolved by way of eschatology: the saints' remains are not the relic, but its phenomenon; the noumenon is the resurrected body, the “seed” of which is present with the remains.
             In Kantian terms, the whole relic is never an object “for us,” within the limits of this world. However, given the inseparability of phenomena and noumena – distinguished but united – we venerate the remains as relics. Bulgakov draws analogies here with the Eucharist, the sacrament of Christ's resurrected body. Like the Eucharist, relics are “broken but not divided”: the whole relic – and thus, the person of the saint – is present in the smallest particle. Bulgakov concludes: “the question of the veneration of holy relics . . . like all cultic questions . . . is indissolubly connected with the very essence of the Christian faith. To deny holy relics is to deny the power of Christ's Resurrection, and those who deny them are therefore not Christians.”
            The second piece here, “On the Gospel Miracles,” was written in 1932, the same period as Bulgakov's Lamb of God. Like that volume, to which it is perhaps best read as an appendix, this essay is a work of Christology. Bulgakov's stated aim is an understanding of “human activity” in relation to the work of Christ, by way of an interpretation of Christ's miracles in light of the dogma of the Fourth and Sixth Ecumenical Councils. Christ's miracles reveal for us the fullness of human possibility: finitum capax infiniti. In his effort to show that Jesus' miracles are fully and properly human acts – not just attributable to divine nature alone – Bulgakov offers a brilliant review of the miracles of the Old Testament, showing how each of the miracles of the God-man finds a parallel in wonders performed by the Israelite prophets (though always, he is careful to stress, in cooperation with divine grace). That Elijah raised the son of the widow in Zarephath, and Elisha raised the son of the Shunammite, is proof that even Christ's miracle of raising Lazarus was not a work foreign to human nature and its powers.
             Miracles are, then, a key expression of the “spiritual causality through freedom” governing human action, a principle which Bulgakov contrasts with “mechanical freedom through necessity.” This distinction, drawn from Schelling's Naturphilosophie but traceable back to Kant's second Critique, appears also occasionally in Florovsky (e.g., “Evolution und Epigenesis,” 1930); in more tacit form, it may also stand behind Zizioulas's interpretation of the Father as “cause” of the Godhead (precisely where Bulgakov would not admit “causality” of any kind). Like Florovsky, Bulgakov employs “causality through freedom” as a synonym for creativity. Bulgakov, however, shows a much greater stress on how this free creativity is exercised within the “given” order of created “nature” and its “laws,” as the entelechy of immanent potencies. Miracles “do not revoke natural laws but fully conserve them.” Informed readers will find here in Bulgakov a conception of nature and freedom starkly different from the one popularized by Zizioulas, with the latter's notion of personhood as a transcendence of the constraint of nature, unmoored by any reference to natural moral teleology.
            It might be argued, moreover, that in some ways Bulgakov approximates a notion of nature closer to that of the Greek Fathers than the concept Zizioulas claims to derive from the Cappadocians and St. Maximus. Bulgakov's robust conception of natural law hearkens back to St. Basil the Great's idea of the nomos physeos ordering creatures towards God. And though hardly acknowledged in 20th century appropriations of St. Gregory Palamas, the insight Bulgakov epitomizes with Aquinas' maxim, Gratia naturam non tollit, sed perficit, also finds support in that great hesychast Father.  Bulgakov's characterization of man as “a natural agent who perceives and awakens the reason of nature, and employs this reason for his own purposes – for the humanization of nature” further recalls at once St. Maximus the Confessor's concept of the logos physeos and its modern development by Dumitru Staniloae and, presently, Nikolaos Loudovikos.
            This point must not be overstressed, however, for these two more recent theologians offer both a stronger patristic support and a much-needed critical corrective to the metaphysical underpinnings of Bulgakov's teaching on natural teleology. Unlike the first essay in this volume, “On the Gospel Miracles” shows traces of the sophiology that caused Bulgakov so much trouble. “Creation is the implanting of the divine, sophianic principles of the world into nothingness,” an act which “establishes the domain of the extra-divine existence of these principles,” making the world “the extra-divine being of the divine principle, the creaturely Sophia, identical with the divine Sophia in her foundation, but different from the latter in the mode of her existence.” This statement can be explained by reference to Bulgakov's longer trilogy: where most Orthodox theologians, following the Greek Fathers, would draw a two-fold distinction between divine essence and logoi and, more sharply, between the uncreated logoi of creation and created nature itself, Bulgakov conflates all these categories, identifying the “sophianic principles” or logoi at once with created substance and with divine nature. Created nature, with its inherent entelechy, is an amalgam of divine “seeds” and the nothingness into which they were deposited; creation is thus a “mode” of divine being. This ultimate identity of divine and created stands also behind this essay's rather strident charges of “Monophysitism” and “Apollinarianism” in St. John of Damascus: though rightly insisting on the single personal agency of the God-man in all his “works,” the principle of sophianic identity leads Bulgakov to resist any distinction of certain works or energies as proper to the divine nature, qua nature.
            More approachable than his longer, more controversial works, this volume should appeal to readers of diverse backgrounds. Perhaps the strongest impression left by the book is its thorough sense of what Bulgakov calls “religious materialism.” Those familiar with the better-known work of Alexander Schmemann and his theological re-reading of Feuerbach (“man is what he eats”) will recognize an obvious source here in Bulgakov's sacramental counter-attack upon atheistic materialism. Some Roman Catholic readers may also be reminded of the “Christian materialism” of the founder of the prelature of Opus Dei, Josemaría Escrivá, and his teaching about “passionately loving the world,” sanctifying every walk of life and work in the name of Christ – a comparison already now explored by one Orthodox writer, Evgeny Pazukhin, author of a Russian biography of the Spanish priest, as well as by a member of that prelature, Alexandre Dianine-Havard. Protestant readers will be challenged by Bulgakov's basic claim: that iconoclasm is inconsistent with a Christocentric faith, and that this faith requires an especially “high” estimate of the possibilities of human nature under divine grace.
            In an unpublished interview of his later years, Fr. Georges Florovsky, a sharp critic of Russian sophiology, expressed his disagreement with the two 1935 condemnations of Bulgakov by Moscow and ROCOR, which he saw as politically motivated: in his view, the reports on which both were based were “wrong” in that they simply considered “phrases” apart from “context” and without analysis of the “principle” of Bulgakov's “system.” After the passing of nearly 80 years, even those who, like Florovsky, maintain reservations toward a full rehabilitation of Bulgakov as a “canonical” Orthodox theologian have reason to welcome the publication and study of his corpus, allowing Bulgakov's own voice to be heard. At the very least, such study promises a deeper understanding of the currents and controversies which shaped so much Orthodox theology in the last century. Bulgakov's strong but largely covert presence, palpable in the thought of distinct and more widely revered figures as Staniloae and Sophrony Sakharov, calls to mind St. Gregory Nazianzen's words regarding Origen: “the whetstone of us all.” With this recognition, as well as for its own inherent strengths, this volume is highly recommended.

Matthew Baker,
Fordham University

American Evangelicals and Assyrian Nationalists

Robert Taft once said that few people ever read church history on its own terms: instead they plunder the past for present felt political purposes. This forthcoming book would seem to confirm that, showing the ransacking of the past in service of a modern nationalist identity: Adam Becker, Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism (University of Chicago Press, 2015), 440pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Most Americans have little understanding of the relationship between religion and nationalism in the Middle East. They assume that the two are rooted fundamentally in regional history, not in the history of contact with the broader world. However, as Adam H. Becker shows in this book, Americans—through their missionaries—had a strong hand in the development of a national and modern religious identity among one of the Middle East's most intriguing (and little-known) groups: the modern Assyrians. Detailing the history of this Christian minority and the powerful influence American missionaries had on them, he unveils the underlying connection between modern global contact and the retrieval of an ancient identity.    

American evangelicals arrived in Iran in the 1830s. Becker examines how these missionaries, working with the “Nestorian” Church of the East—an Aramaic-speaking Christian community in the borderlands between Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire—catalyzed, over the span of sixty years, a new national identity. Instructed at missionary schools in both Protestant piety and Western science, this indigenous group eventually used its newfound scriptural and archaeological knowledge to link itself to the history of the ancient Assyrians, which in time led to demands for national autonomy. Exploring the unintended results of this American attempt to reform the Orient, Becker paints a larger picture of religion, nationalism, and ethnic identity in the modern era.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

What Happens After Death?

This weekend, as noted earlier, I am in Waco, Texas giving a lecture as part of the Wilken Colloquium named in honor of Robert Louis Wilken. The theme this year is eschatology. I am giving a lecture alongside Brian Daley, some of whose earlier works I noted here. He and I, I gather, are the Catholic representatives while our evangelical colloquists (the Colloquium being run under the auspices of the Paradosis Centre for evangelical-Catholic dialogue) include Todd Billings and Jerry Walls.

Walls, whose earlier collection on eschatology was noted here, has a book published just this month: Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory: Rethinking the Things That Matter Most (Brazos, 2015), 240pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
Will heaven be boring? How can a good and loving God send people to hell? Is there such a place as purgatory? If so, why is it necessary, if we're saved by grace?

Questions about the afterlife abound. Given what is at stake, they are the most important questions we will ever consider. Recent years have seen a surge of Christian books written by people claiming to have received a glimpse of the afterlife, and numerous books, films, and TV shows have apocalyptic or postapocalyptic themes. Jerry Walls, a dynamic writer and expert on the afterlife, distills his academic writing on heaven, hell, and purgatory to offer clear biblical, theological, and philosophical grounding for thinking about these issues. He provides an ecumenical account of purgatory that is compatible with Protestant theology and defends the doctrine of eternal hell. Walls shows that the Christian vision of the afterlife illumines the deepest and most important issues of our lives, changing the way we think about happiness, personal identity, morality, and the very meaning of life.
My own lecture, for those who are interested, is entitled "Eschatology and Funerary Practices Today: Byzance après Byzance?" It surveys a good deal of recent Western scholarship critical of reformed funeral rites in the West today as being, inter alia, inadequate expressions of orthodox eschatology and often tools of very shoddy pastoral psychology also. I then critically review the Byzantine funeral rites to see how they fare before making some practical suggestions at the end.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What's More Than Communion?

As I've mentioned before, I'm going at month's end to Baylor University in Texas to give a lecture at the Wilken Colloquium, this year devoted to the theme of eschatology. Later this summer a new book will emerge that also treats this theme in the context of the work of two major theologians, Western and Eastern, of our time, viz., John Milbank and John Zizioulas: Scott MacDougall, More Than Communion: Imagining an Eschatological Ecclesiology (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 288pp.

About this book we are told:
Scott MacDougall offers a proposal for recovering the 'more' to communion and ecclesiology to aid in imagining a church not beyond the world (as in Zizioulas) or over against the world (as in Milbank), but in and for the world in love and service. This concept is worked out in conversation with systematic theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Johannes Baptist Metz, and by engaging with a theology of Christian practices currently being developed by such as Dorothy C. Bass and Craig Dykstra. The potential for the church to become a vehicle for love and service can be realised when it anticipate God's promised perfection in the communions between God, humanity, and the rest of creation.
Zizioulas' and Milbank's theologies of the church are both marked by an overly realised sense of the impending end of the world (eschatology). As a result, their theology fails to acknowledge the potential for good the time-frame a theology of eschatology can have on influencing how people act. This focus on the impact of the ending of the world is further connected to both theologians' devaluation of material creation and history, privileging of institutions, the restrictive and closed concept of the church, and reduction of ecclesial practice essential to eucharist. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Cyril of Alexandria's Commentary on John

Whatever his failings in the realm of inter-personal relations (if the Church in Alexandria had an HR department as bothered by busybodies as most organizations today, you can bet Cyril would have been written up during his annual evaluation as "divisive" and "extremist," which things could well be said of most if not all Church Fathers!), there is no denying his significance to the development of early Christian doctrine. Set for release in May is another translation of one of Cyril's works: Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on John, vol. 2, David R. Maxwell, trans. and Joel C. Elowsky, ed.,  (IVP Academic, 2015), 400pp. 

About this book we are told:
Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 378-444), one of the most brilliant representatives of the Alexandrian theological tradition, is best known for championing the term Theotokos (God-bearer) in opposition to Nestorius of Constantinople. Cyril's great Commentary on John, offered here in the Ancient Christian Texts series in two volumes, predates the Nestorian controversy and focuses its theological firepower against Arianism. The commentary, addressed to catechists, displays Cyril's breathtaking mastery of the full content of the Bible and his painstaking attention to detail as he offers practical teaching for the faithful on the cosmic story of God's salvation. David R. Maxwell provides readers with the first completely fresh English translation of the text since the nineteenth century. It rests on Pusey's critical edition of the Greek text and displays Cyril's profound theological interpretation of Scripture and his appeal to the patristic tradition that preceded him. Today's readers will find the commentary an indispensable tool for understanding Cyril's approach to Scripture.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pity Origen

As the incomparable Sir Humphrey Appleby says to Prime Minister Jim Hacker in one of the most brilliant British comedies of the 1980s, "half of them are your enemies, and the other half the sort of 'friends' who make you prefer your enemies." How often I have thought of that line when thinking of besotted figures such as Origen or Evagrius, as I have noted several times on here. Their so-called friends and followers did them no favors in many ways, and may in fact in some cases have been worse than outright enemies.

Forthcoming this spring is another book that examines the condemnations attached to Origen, and the role that others played in getting Origen into trouble: Krastu Banev, Theophilus of Alexandria and the First Origenist Controversy: Rhetoric and Power (Oxford UP, 2015), 256pp.

The publisher tells us that some of the virtues of this forthcoming book are that it:
  • Presents a contextualized literary-historical approach and offers new insights into the life and reputation of Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412)
  • Examines the Festal Letters of Theophilus and identifies the importance of classical rhetorical theory as a methodological tool for the interpretation of relevant historical data
  • Focuses on the so-called First Origenist Controversy, the condemnation of Origen in AD 400 in Alexandria, and the punishment and expulsion of his monastic followers from the Egyptian desert
The publisher further blurbs the book thus: 
In the age of the Theodosian dynasty and the establishment of Christianity as the only legitimate religion of the Roman Empire, few figures are more pivotal in the power politics of the Christian church than archbishop Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412). This work examines the involvement of archbishop Theophilus in the so-called First Origenist Controversy when the famed third-century Greek theologian Origen received, a century and a half after his death, a formal condemnation for heresy. Modern scholars have been successful in removing the majority of the charges which Theophilus laid on Origen as not giving a fair representation of his thought. Yet no sufficient explanation has been offered as to why what to us appears as an obvious miscarriage of justice came to be accepted, or why it was needed in the first place. Kratsu Banev offers a sustained argument for the value of a rhetorically informed methodology with which to analyse Theophilus' anti-Origenist Festal Letters. He highlights that the wide circulation and overt rhetorical composition of these letters allow for a new reading of these key documents as a form of 'mass-media' unique for its time. The discussion is built on a detailed examination of two key ingredients in the pastoral polemic of the archbishop - masterly use of late-antique rhetorical conventions, and in-depth knowledge of monastic spirituality - both of which were vital for securing the eventual acceptance of Origen's condemnation. Dr Banev's fresh approach reveals that Theophilus' campaign formed part of a consistent policy aimed at harnessing the intellectual energy of the ascetic movement to serve the wider needs of the church.
The Table of Contents:

Part 1. Theophilus of Alexandria and the Origenist Controversy
1: Historical Background
(a) Distant Prehistory
(b) Immediate Prehistory
2: Theological Issues
(a) Theophilus' Origenism and the Evagrian Heritage
(b) The 'Elusive Anthropomorphites' at the time of Theophilus
3: The Anti-Origenist Councils of AD 400
(a) Violence in the Desert
(b) The Condemnation of Orige
Part II. Background for the Analysis of Theophilus' Rhetoric
4: Classical Rhetoric and Christian Paideia
(a) Rhetoric and the Early Church
(b) Mass Persuasion in the Fifth Century: The Case of Theophilus' Festal Letters
(c) Jerome and Synesius on Theophilus' Letters
5: Classical Rhetoric: Theoretical Foundations
(a) Aristotle's Art of Rhetoric
(b) The Progymnasmata Tradition
(c) The Hermogenic Corpus
Part III. Analysis of Theophilus' Rhetoric
6: Rhetorical Proofs from Pathos, Ethos and Logos
(a) Emotional Appeal
(b) Ethical Appeal
(c) Logical Appeal
(d) Theophilus' Teachers
7: Rhetorical Proofs from Liturgy and Scripture
Part IV. Monastic Reception of Theophilus' Rhetoric
8: The Value of Monastic Sources
(a) Rhetorically Important Themes in the Apophthegmata
(b) The Ambiguous Place of Heresy
9: The Image of Theophilus in the Apophthegmata
Review of the Argument and Epilogue

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Early Christian Listening

We have been seeing more attention paid in the scholarly world to the role of the senses in particular, and the body in general, in Eastern and early Christianity. Moreover, we have been discovering, especially in Evagrian and other early monastic literature, certain practices of spiritual insight and guidance that would not again be "discovered" and popularized until the advent of Sigmund Freud and the birth of modern psychology. One example of this from nearly a decade ago now is the work of the Orthodox historian and theologian Susan Ashbrook Harvey in her fascinating book, Scenting Salvation: Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination.

Then in 2013 Carol Harrison published a book whose paperback edition is forthcoming later this spring: The Art of Listening in the Early Church (Oxford UP, 2015), 320pp. Christianity, of course, places great emphasis on message, good news, teaching, and preaching: but to whom? What of those who hear this message? How do they listen? What is involved in the process of listening?

The virtues of this book, according to the publisher, include:
  • The first book to consider hearing in the early Church: Rhetoric, or the art of speaking, in the ancient world, has received a great deal of attention; the art of listening has been almost totally ignored.
  • Demonstrates how the art of listening influenced early Christian practice (catechesis, preaching, prayer) as well as theological reflection.
  • Uses cognitive science, contemporary philosophy, cultural anthropology, and musicology, in addition to theological reflection, to demonstrate that listening is best understood as an art rather than a matter of the rational capture of information.
  • Opens up a new approach to early Christian thought and practice which gives a place to the role of the silent listener (human and divine) and examines their role in influencing what is said/written.
About this book the publisher says:
How did people think about listening in the ancient world, and what evidence do we have of it in practice? The Christian faith came to the illiterate majority in the early Church through their ears. This proved problematic: the senses and the body had long been held in suspicion as all too temporal, mutable and distracting. Carol Harrison argues that despite profound ambivalence on these matters, in practice, the senses, and in particular the sense of hearing, were ultimately regarded as necessary - indeed salvific -constraints for fallen human beings. By examining early catechesis, preaching and prayer, she demonstrates that what illiterate early Christians heard both formed their minds and souls and, above all, enabled them to become 'literate' listeners; able not only to grasp the rule of faith but also tacitly to follow the infinite variations on it which were played out in early Christian teaching, exegesis and worship. It becomes clear that listening to the faith was less a matter of rationally appropriating facts and more an art which needed to be constantly practiced: for what was heard could not be definitively fixed and pinned down, but was ultimately the Word of the unknowable, transcendent God. This word demanded of early Christian listeners a response - to attend to its echoes, recollect and represent it, stretch out towards it source, and in the process, be transformed by it.
The Table of Contents:
Introduction: Voices of the Page
First Impromptu: The Other Side of Language or listening to the voice of Being
I: An Auditory Culture
1: Listening in Cultural Context
2: Rhetoric and the Art of Listening
3: Images and Echoes
II: Theme and Variations
4: Catechesis: Sounding the Theme
Second Impromptu : Playing ball: the art of reception
5: Preaching: Variations on the Theme
Third Impromptu: Singing the blues
III: From Listening to Hearing
6: The Polyphony of Prayer
7: From the bottom to the bottomless

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Eastern Biblical Scholarship

2015 marks the bicentenary of the birth of one of the leading biblical scholars of the nineteenth century, Constantin von Tischendorf. In preparation for this event, a new book has just been published discussing his life and legacy: Stanley E. Porter, Constantine Tischendorf: The Life and Work of a 19th Century Bible Hunter (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015), 176pp.

About this book and its central figure the publisher tells us:
Constantin von Tischendorf was a pioneer. He existed in an age when biblical studies as we know it was being formed, when the quest for forgotten manuscripts and lost treasures was being undertaken with no less zeal and intrigue than it is today. It was Tischendorf who found, and preserved, the oldest extant version of the complete bible that we know of, the so-called Codex Sinaiticus, which he discovered in poor condition at St Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, in 1846.

With the discovery of the Codex Tischendorf, and others, was to take the study of biblical texts further than ever before, through linguistic methods, and attention to the most ancient sources available. In many ways Tischendorf was a father figure of the modern Historical Critical Method.

In this short biography, Stanley E. Porter, himself one of the most respected scholars of the New Testament and Koine Greek currently writing, gives a portrait of Tischendorf's life and work, together with an annotated republication of Tischendorf's influential work on the Gospels.

Published to celebrate Tischendorf's bicentenary, in 2015, this volume will be a must for those seeking to understand how the study of biblical manuscripts began, and to understand the man who discovered the oldest version of the bible as we know it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Maximus in Your Handbag

As I have noted before, we live in a happy time when studies continue to pour forth on Eastern figures and topics, especially the Fathers. Thus we have seen a long parade of books about Maximus the Confessor over the last decade and more, as I have noted several times on here.

Now in May we will be treated to a rich collection, in the ongoing series of Oxford Handbooks: Pauline Allen and Bronwen Neil, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Maximus the Confessor (Oxford, 2015),624pp.

The merits of this book, according to the publisher, include:

  • Integration for the first time Maximus' of works and thought into the history of his life in the politically troubled times of seventh-century Byzantium.
  • Contributions from thirty of the foremost scholars in the field.
  • An interdisciplinary work covering one of the most discussed figures in contemporary studies of Byzantine theology, philosophy, and the history of the seventh century.
  • Includes updated date list of Maximus' works, allowing the reader to see his full oeuvre at a glance and in chronological order.
The publisher further describes the book for us thus:
Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662) has become one of the most discussed figures in contemporary patristic studies. This is partly due to the relatively recent discovery and critical edition of his works in various genres, including On the Ascetic Life, Four Centuries on Charity, Two Centuries on Theology and the Incarnation, On the 'Our Father', two separate Books of Difficulties, addressed to John and to Thomas, Questions and Doubts, Questions to Thalassius, Mystagogy and the Short Theological and Polemical Works.
The impact of these works reached far beyond the Greek East, with his involvement in the western resistance to imperial heresy, notably at the Lateran Synod in 649. Together with Pope Martin I (649-53 CE), Maximus the Confessor and his circle were the most vocal opponents of Constantinople's introduction of the doctrine of monothelitism. This dispute over the number of wills in Christ became a contest between the imperial government and church of Constantinople on the one hand, and the bishop of Rome in concert with eastern monks such as Maximus, John Moschus, and Sophronius, on the other, over the right to define orthodoxy. An understanding of the difficult relations between church and state in this troubled period at the close of Late Antiquity is necessary for a full appreciation of Maximus' contribution to this controversy.
The editors of this volume provide the political and historical background to Maximus' activities, as well as a summary of his achievements in the spheres of theology and philosophy, especially neo-Platonism and Aristotelianism.
The table of contents:

Part One. Historical Setting
1. Life and Times of Maximus the Confessor, Pauline Allen
2. An Updated Date-List of the Works of Maximus the Confessor, Marek Jankowiak and Phil Booth
3. Byzantium in the Seventh Century, Walter E. Kaegi
4. Maximus, a Cautious Chalcedonian, Cyril Hovorun
Part Two. Theological and Philosophical Influences
5. Classical Philosophical Influences: Aristotle and Platonism, Marius Portaru
6. The Foundation of Origenist Metaphysics, Pascal Mueller-Jourdan
7. Theological and Philosophical Influences: The Ascetic Tradition, Marcus Plested
8. Dionysius Areopagite and Maximus the Confessor, Ysabel De Andia
9. Mindset (γνώμη) in John Chrysostom, Raymond J. Laird
10. Augustine on the Will, Johannes Borjesson
11. Divine Providence and the Gnomic Will before Maximus, Bronwen Neil
Part Three. Works and Thought
12. Exegesis of Scripture, Paul M. Blowers
13. Maximus the Confessor's Use of Literary Genres, Peter Van Deun
14. Passions, Ascesis, and the Virtues, Demetrios Bathrellos
15. Christocentric Cosmology, Torstein T. Tollefsen
16. Eschatology in Maximus the Confessor, Andreas Andreopoulos
17. The Mode of Deification, Jean-Claude Larchet
18. Spiritual Anthropology in Ambiguum 7, Adam Cooper
19. Mapping Reality within the Experience of Holiness, Doru Costache
20. Christian Life and Praxis: The Centuries on Love, George Berthold
21. Liturgy as Cosmic Transformation, Thomas Cattoi
Part Four. Reception
22. The Georgian Tradition on Maximus the Confessor, Lela Khoperia
23. Maximus' Heritage in Russia and Ukraine, Grigory Benevich
24. The Impact of Maximus the Confessor on John Scottus Eriugena, Catherine Kavanagh
25. Maximus the Confessor's Influence and Reception in Byzantine and Modern Orthodoxy, Andrew Louth
26. The Theology of the Will, Ian A. McFarland
27. Maximus and Modern Psychology, Michael Bakker
28. Maximus the Confessor and Ecumenism, Edward Siecienski
29. Reception of Maximian Thought in the Modern Era, Joshua Lollar

Friday, February 13, 2015

Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

Oxford University Press yesterday sent me a flyer in the mail alerting me to the fact that they have just released a paperback version of Marcus Plested's Orthodox Readings of Aquinas

When this superlative and wholly welcome study first emerged two years ago in hardback, I reviewed it here, and interviewed Plested here.This is precisely the sort of careful, discerning scholarship that we need, and all the reviews I have seen have been extremely laudatory, and rightly so. Never again should anyone from the East be allowed to slag Aquinas or "the scholastics" until and unless they have read this book from an important Orthodox scholar.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Primary Texts on Christian-Muslim Relations

Presidents, popes, and other "celebrities" seem to think that, ex officio, they are authorized and even magically qualified to unburden themselves of incoherent and illiterate eructations about the Crusades (the same tiresome, fourth-hand, fifth-rate comic-opera presentations one has been hearing forever) and the messiness of Christian-Muslim relations down through the centuries. Perhaps in their retirement or spare time they might allow themselves to be schooled in some of this history on which I have remarked frequently. Perhaps too they might bestir themselves to pick up one of these forthcoming publications, about each of which I shall have more to say in the weeks ahead. It is always, always recommended that one read primary texts rather than the versions that make their way too often into historical accounts, which, especially in the hands of apologists, are too-often tendentious and twisted. Treat yourself, therefore, to one or all of these new volumes:

Jarbel Rodriguez, Muslim and Christian Contact in the Middle Ages: A Reader (University of Toronto Press, 2015), 456pp. 
About this book we are told:
This collection of over 80 primary source readings explores the complex history of Muslim and Christian relations from the seventh to the fifteenth century. With particular focus on the Mediterranean world, and incorporating the works of Byzantine, Jewish, Muslim, and Latin Christian authors, the documents help readers to understand the nature of conflict and contact between medieval Muslims and Christians. They reveal a history of warfare, piracy, and raiding, typically along religious lines, but also a history of commerce, intellectual exchanges, and personal relationships that transcended religious differences.
Many well-known sources are included, as well as lesser-known sources that have never before been translated into English. In collected form, the sources provide a holistic overview of the complex historical relationship between Muslims and Christians.
The second volume, from Michael Phillip Penn, is of especial interest to Eastern Christians: When Christians First Met Muslims: A Sourcebook of the Earliest Syriac Writings on Islam (University of California Press, 2015), 280pp. 

About this book we are told:
The first Christians to meet Muslims were not Latin-speaking Christians from the western Mediterranean or Greek-speaking Christians from Constantinople but rather Christians from northern Mesopotamia who spoke the Aramaic dialect of Syriac. Living in what constitutes modern-day Iran, Iraq, Syria, and eastern Turkey, these Syriac Christians were under Muslim rule from the seventh century to the present. They wrote the earliest and most extensive accounts of Islam and described a complicated set of religious and cultural exchanges not reducible to the solely antagonistic. Through its critical introductions and new translations of this invaluable historical material, When Christians First Met Muslims allows scholars, students, and the general public to explore the earliest interactions of what eventually became the world’s two largest religions, shedding new light on Islamic history and Christian-Muslim relations.
Finally we come to a book set for release later this spring: Charles Tieszen, A Textual History of Christian-Muslim Relations: Seventh-Fifteenth Centuries (Fortress, May 2015), 224pp.

About this book the publisher tells us:
The question of Christian-Muslim relations is one of enduring importance in the twenty-first century. While there exists a broad range of helpful overviews on the question, these introductory texts often fail to provide readers with the depth that a thorough treatment of the primary sources and their authors would provide.
In this important new project, Charles Tieszen provides a collection of primary theological sources devoted to the formational period of Christian-Muslim relations. It provides brief introductions to authors and their texts along with representative selections in English translation. The collection is arranged according to the key theological themes that emerge as Christians and Muslims encounter one another in this era.
The result is a resource that offers students a far better grasp of the texts early Christians and Muslims wrote about each other and a better understanding of the important theological themes that are pertinent to Christian-Muslim dialogue today.
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