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


Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Repentance in Late Antiquity

A number of years ago, Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies published a study of sacramental confession in the Christian East and the changes in its practice over the centuries. As I learned in the late 90s, when a grad student working for a professor (whose findings were eventually published as The Sacrament of Reconciliation: An Existential Approach), few sacraments have changed as much over the centuries as confession/reconciliation. Now, next month, a new book will emerge to examine some of those changes in a crucial period: Alexis C. Torrance, Repentance in Late Antiquity: Eastern Asceticism and the Framing of the Christian Life c.400-650 CE (Oxford Theology and Religion Monographs, 2013), 240pp. This book, the publisher tells us:
  • Provides an important re-assessment of the concept of repentance in Christian late antiquity.
  • Gives a fresh perspective on the forming of early Christian identity in terms of repentance.
  • Sets ascetic theology within the context of Scripture and other early church literature.
  • Supplies an interpretative framework by which the diverse meanings of repentance in early Christian texts can be better understood.
  • Furnishes the background for the concept of repentance as it developed in the Orthodox Church.
We are further told:
The call to repentance is central to the message of early Christianity. While this is undeniable, the precise meaning of the concept of repentance for early Christians has rarely been investigated to any great extent, beyond studies of the rise of penitential discipline. In this study, the rich variety of meanings and applications of the concept of repentance are examined, with a particular focus on the writings of several ascetic theologians of the fifth to seventh centuries: SS Mark the Monk, Barsanuphius and John of Gaza, and John Climacus. These theologians provide some of the most sustained and detailed elaborations of the concept of repentance in late antiquity. They predominantly see repentance as a positive, comprehensive idea that serves to frame the whole of Christian life, not simply one or more of its parts. While the modern dominant understanding of repentance as a moment of sorrowful regret over past misdeeds, or as equivalent to penitential discipline, is present to a degree, such definitions by no means exhaust the concept for them. The path of repentance is depicted as stretching from an initial about-face completed in baptism, through the living out of the baptismal gift by keeping the Gospel commandments, culminating in the idea of intercessory repentance for others, after the likeness of Christ's innocent suffering for the world. While this overarching role for repentance in Christian life is clearest in ascetic works, these are not explored in isolation, and attention is also paid to the concept of repentance in Scripture, the early church, apocalyptic texts, and canonical material. This not only permits the elaboration of the views of the ascetics in their larger context, but further allows for an overall re-assessment of the often misunderstood, if not overlooked, place of repentance in early Christian theology.

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