Archive for the ‘Early Christian Writings’ Tag

Farewell to Glasshampton / Books I have read while here   Leave a comment

I am getting ready to leave Glasshampton. God willing I will be back sometime next year.  For my final blog post of this retreat I thought I would list the books I have been reading while here:

From the library at Glasshampton:

  1. The Bible (New Revised Standard Version – Anglicized Edition)
  2. Norman Autton (1967) “The pastoral care of the bereaved” SPCK – My father died 1 month ago and I was interested to learn more of my own, my mother’s and my brothers’ anticipated journeys of grief
  3. Jeffery Satinover (1995) “The empty self – Gnostic and Jungian Foundations of Modern Identity”, Grover Pastoral Series, Grove Books – The title attracted me when scanning the library because I have always preferred Jung to Freud and find the Gnostics and the whole early church history of deciding what was orthodox and what heresy fascinating.  Surely we all have an interest in Identity, at least our own if not in the general sense.  I referred to this booklet in my blog post on Solitude.
  4. Brother Anselm (2002?) “Memories” Self Published – bought from the monastery shop for £2. -A lovely 10,000 word memoir of a friar, now in his mid 80s about his family and his life in the Society of Saint Francis.  It was good to get to know Anselm a little while on retreat.
  5. Richard Rohr (2005) “From Wild Man to Wise Men – Reflections on Male Spirituality” St. Anthony Press – I borrowed this book because another guest had mentioned the author as an interesting Franciscan writer and I had not heard of him before.  I only had time to dip into the book but I do believe there needs to remain in the church a space for a distinct male spirituality as many churches become feminised because fewer men than women now attend church.
  6. Kathleen Raine (1970) “William Blake” Thames and Hudson – I got this out of the library just because I love Blake; his art, poetry and mysticism.  Interestingly he was cited in the Satinover book above.
Then from home I brought and looked into the following books:
  1. Vernon Staley (1893, reprinted 1993) “The Catholic Religion” Mowbray – A standard text for me on Christian orthodoxy that I have brought on most retreats.  I used it in preparing for my confession.
  2. Sinclair McKay (2010) “The Secret Life of Bletchley Park” Aurum Press
  3. Anon (2015) “The Nikon Camera Book” Imagine Publishing Ltd.
The last two I brought because I find in important to have some non-religious reading while on retreat.  I also brought a novel with me but did not start it.
I finish writing this blog post in a pub near New Street Station in Birmingham.  I am breaking my journey, people watching and enjoying a beer.  Returning to the wider world is as much a part of the retreat experience as the mini-pilgrimage to the place of retreat.  In some way my senses are assaulted by the noise and bustle of a big city and I notice the female presence in the world particularly after four days in almost exclusively male company.  If I wasn’t married and didn’t feel my work was a vocation perhaps I could be a monk but that is not my calling.  Until sometime next year that is the end of my retreat.
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Further Reflections on Clement and Ignatius: Authority and Doctrine   Leave a comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Why this blog post

In the previous posts in this series on Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch I did not discuss much a key theme in both of their writings that was highlighted in Daryl Arron’s book.  That it is authority and doctrine in the church. Here I mean authority over the body of the church’s teaching not discipline of the behaviour of individuals.   In fact, this theme is inherent in the very title of Arron’s book “The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe Today“.

My thoughts were directed to think about this further by two events this week.

Firstly, a friend posted a link on Facebook to a London talk by Joseph Atwill, author of “Caesar’s Messiah”.

Then, wanting something to eat my dinner in front of one evening, I watched a repeat of an old TV documentary I saw years ago on the Gnostic and other non-biblical Gospels. [Discovery Channel, “Lost Gospels”]. (I have seen better documentaries covering the same ground e.g. the BBC documentary of the same title presented by Pete Owen Jones.)

Personal Reflections

I am not going to discuss Atwill’s writings in any detail here. (I am preparing a separate blog post on the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth). However, Atwill’s hypothesis (he would put it stronger than that) is that Christianity was a fabrication of the Flavian Imperial Roman dynasty (69 to 96 CE) to help suppress Jewish revolt.  There is plenty of discussion of this on the WWW with some scholarly debunking from biblical and historical scholars of both Christian and non-Christian standpoints.

What Atwill’s claims made me think, in light of my reading about Clement and Ignatius, was how difficult such a fabrication would be and how unlikely an explanation it is for what we know about the first century or two of Christian history.  Both Clement and Ignatius show the lineage of the Christian message from Jesus, to the apostles and then to them who are the next generation of Christian leaders.  It is important in their understanding of the handing down of authority.  Indeed there is a whole web of characters mentioned both in the canonical Bible and other early Christian writings.  Many of these like Ignatius were martyred because of what they believed and taught.  Not many people would be martyred for what they think to be a fabrication.

This blog series is not a set of apologetics, for what the church (or different parts of it) have taught and thought through history, but a recording of personal reflections on reading or re-reading through a selection of that.  Nor, should it be apologetics for what I believe at this point in time, but the record of a personal reflective journey.  I am going to have to keep reminding myself of this as I do here.  Hence I ended the theme of the previous paragraph where I was tempted to research into details of source documents and earliest extant manuscripts etc.

The existence, in addition to the canonical ones, of numerous other gospels, in fragment or complete versions,  is indicative to me of this period following Jesus’ life where numerous people, in different groups, were groping with the questions of who was Jesus and what meaning did he have for them.  A few of these gospels, are possibly contemporary with Clement and/or Ignatius but most are thought to be from later in the 2nd through to the 4th century CE. Of course much of the teaching, and discussion at this stage would have been oral and we have no record of it.  It is in this context we have Clement and Ignatius being concerned about unity and false doctrine and noticeably in Clement’s writing love (or arguments about doctrine not showing love).

My reflection at this point was how did they discern what they considered to be true or false doctrine, and more relevant to this exercise how do I?  For myself, firstly this is not a simple black and white issue.  Perhaps a better expression of such questions would be:

  • “What is the truth in that?”

Truth for me, – how shall I phrase it?, let’s say – about matters of the divine and his/her interaction with creation, is sublime and of necessity often only understandable allegorically.  I use the term , without defining it, “poetic truth”.

A key part of the process of “discernment” for me is working through tensions in my world view.  A process I recently captured in a phrase that jumped into my head (I think I have coined it):

Now, I have been subject to decades of Christian teaching from different traditions, from people who I think honestly with St. Paul would say “what I received I passed on to you” [1 Cor 15:3].  I imagine this being very much how Clement and  Ignatius thought of their roles as Bishops in their respective churches.  However, certainly since my early teen years, and probably before, this has been received by me with a questioning mind.  How does this bit fit with that other bit of Biblical or Church teaching?  How does this fit with my scientific or historical understanding of the world?  What about these insights from other religions of philosophies?

My wife would tease me that I think too much and more seriously ask about my relationship with God as opposed to my thinking about Him.  There is some wisdom in that.  However, for me a key factor in that relationship is this continual thinking though my understanding.  Sometimes this thinking is stormy, and the cognitive dissonance remains for a long time.  However, I usually find a place of rest with the thoughts that reminds me of an Old Testament account of the one of the prophet Elijah’s encounters with God:

And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.
[1Kings 19: 11-12, RSV]

Ignatious of Antioch   1 comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Biographical details/context

As well as the book by Daryl Aaron this series is framed around, I have consulted two main sources for a summary of what is known about Ignatius: the Wikipedia entry and the 1913 edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (made available online by New Advent).

Ignatius was born in Syria (poignant given the current civil war there) , between 35 and 50 CE.  He is thought to have converted to Christianity at an early age and to have been martyred, between 98 and 117 CE, by being thrown to wild animals in the Coliseum in Rome.  He was a disciple of John the Apostle (the most theological of the gospel authors). He was appointed Bishop of Antioch (then a major trading city in Syria) possibly by St. Peter. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus first got the name Christians (Acts 11:26) which was probably initially a term of abuse.  Together with Clement of Rome, previously written about, he is considered one of the 5 Apostolic Fathers fo the Church.

Writings

Following his arrest and during the long overland journey to Rome he wrote seven letters; six to established churches and one to his friend Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna.  (Other letters in later collections are thought to be spurious.)  These writings are principally pastoral letters.  However, Arron quotes Roger Olsen:

“It may be fair to say that these letters contain the first real theology in Christianity [beyond the apostles own writings]”

English translations of Ignatius’ writings are available online via Early Christian Writings.

I read first his letter to Polycarp which is mostly encouraging his friend and fellow Bishop and arranging for a replacement for himself as Bishop in Antioch to be selected and sent.  He uses analogies familiar form Paul’s letter’s: the Christian as athlete and the Christian virtues as the armour of God.  His letter to the Romans is difficult for me to empathise with. It is mostly about his welcoming his anticipated martyrdom and asking the Christians there to do nothing to prevent it. (I cannot imagine what they could do.)

In Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians the themes that Arron highlights are more evident.  This includes the role of the Bishops (and other church leaders) in preserving unity and warnings against false teachers and false doctrines.  He addresses the big theological theme of the early centuries of the Church: the nature of Jesus Christ.  To quote from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, Chapter VII:

There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible, even Jesus Christ our Lord.

Arron asserts that while stating that Christ was God, Ignatius’ greater concern was that Jesus was genuinely human.  This was to counter a prevalent “Christological heresy” of the time Docetism.  Docetism claimed that Jesus only appeared to be human.  Quoting from Ignatius’ letter to the Trallians (Church at Tralles, now Ayden in modern Turkey):

CHAPTER IX,–REFERENCE TO THE HISTORY OF CHRIST.

Stop your ears, therefore, when any one speaks to you at variance with Jesus Christ, who was descended from David, and was also of Mary; who was truly born, and did eat and drink. He was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate; He was truly crucified, and [truly] died, in the sight of beings in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth. He was also truly raised from the dead, His Father quickening Him, even as after the same manner His Father will so raise up us who believe in Him by Christ Jesus, apart from whom we do not possess the true life.

CHAPTER X.–THE REALITY OF CHRIST’S PASSION.

But if, as some that are without God, that is, the unbelieving, say, that He only seemed to suffer (they themselves only seeming to exist), then why am I in bonds? …

CHAPTER XI.–AVOID THE DEADLY ERRORS OF THE DOCETAE.

Flee, therefore, those evil offshoots [of Satan], which produce death-bearing fruit, whereof if any one tastes, he instantly dies. For these men are not the planting of the Father. …

Personal Reflections

A caveat

I am going to confine my writings about the reflections I had while researching Ignatius of Antioch to thoughts about the nature of Jesus Christ.  Firstly, a caveat:  I am not trying to persuade anyone to my point of view, nor do I need to.  However, I want to be honest about the understanding I have come to (been led to?) over nearly 50 years of thinking about these things.  I certainly do not want to put a stumbling block in anyone else’s way.  I have come to love the phrase “journey to and with God“, and it would be grossly arrogant of me to think that someone elses journey should go through the same waypoints as mine. Further, my world view is complex.  In trying to sum up my thoughts in a few paragraphs I could easily, though simplification, lead others to misunderstand me.  If what I say is a stimulus or a help to you take it; if not set it aside.  [I think I should copy this caveat to the introductory page to this series.]

The nature of Jesus

Firstly, I have no problem accepting that Jesus of Nazareth was a historical person.  I think anyone, theist, atheist or agnostic who spends a little time looking into this would come to that conclusion.  There are fragments in existence of the Biblical gospels dating from the 2nd century CE (100-150 years after Jesus’ death) [see Wikipedia].  Compare this with the works of Julius Caesar (approx. 100 years before Jesus) where the earliest manuscripts in existence date from the 9th century CE [see summary in blog post by Roger Pearce].  Then there is the non-christian references to him and key facts of his life and death in the writings of the Jewish / Roman historian Josephus (b. 37 CE d. after 100 CE).  Then there is the rapid growth and spread of the “sect” that became Christianity led by those who claimed to have been his disciples while he was alive; many of whom subsequently died for their beliefs about him.  So the historical existence of Jesus and  Ignatius’ assertion that Jesus was fully human presents me with no challenge.  Of all the heresies I may be guilty of Docetism is not one of them.

I have long seen a loose analogy between the theological deliberations throughout church history and my own faith journey (although the order is different).  I characterise the first 300 years or so of church history as one when it wrestled with the nature of Jesus.  (More of this to come in this series of reflections).  For the church this culminated in the setting forward of the Nicene Creed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE.

I know I had questioned things through my teenage years.  I had certainly noticed that the prefered title for Jesus in the Gospels was “Son of Man”.  However, it was from my mid-twenties that this issue really came to dominate my thinking and more generally where I was spiritually.  By this time I was a least some of the time attending an Anglican church where the Nicene Creed was part of the liturgy.  So, I would say these words asking myself “what do I mean by this?“; and sometimes I could not say them at all:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven,

was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and was made man.

This state of sometimes wrestling with, sometimes sitting with, this questioning lasted at least 10 years.  Then it came to be less important.  There was a more sublime truth underlying this thinking and form of words which I might simply express as follows:

  • God is love
  • God seeks relationship
  • God forgives
  • God is completing His creation

The mechanism of this, the human groping in the dark with theological/philosophical explanations, often led to complexities that were obstacles, rather than, pointers to God.

I will not be shying away from some of these complexities as this series progresses, but that seems a fitting place to end this post.

More reflections on Clement of Rome   Leave a comment

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Why this blog post

Yesterday’s post on Clement of Rome followed the structure I have assumed I will take for this series that is based on the book the I am using as a framework [“The 40 Most Influential Christians Who Shaped What We Believe Today” by Daryl Arron].  I relied very much on Daryl Arron’s selection of key points from Clements writings. I have decided to go back to the original source and see if the same things stand out for me.  I won’t be able to do that extensively for later theologians where much more of their writings have come down to us complete.  However, in Clements’s case the only writing definitively attributed to him is the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians. [Other translations are available online but the one linked to is the one I read.  Early Christian Writings seems a comprehensive online resource and they link to different translations and associated writings about Clement.]

Reflections on the First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians

My first impression was that in style this epistle is very similar to those of Paul included in the New Testament.  Its form of greeting and signing off were very similar as was the way he praised them for their past before taking them to task with what he was concerned about.  The style of argument is similar in part to the Epistle to the Hebrews  (author unknown) in the New Testament, where Clement builds on successive examples from the Old Testament.  He then goes on to exemplify from Christ and “the most recent spiritual heroes”. One theme I noted was envy or jealousy as a source of problems in the church. This takes us back to the 10 Commandments but it was interesting that Clement didn’t specifically cite those.  This might have stood out for me because, as admitted in the introductory post to this series, part of my motivation for this project is jealousy for my wife’s current biblical studies. This quote from Chapter XIX resonated for me:

Wherefore, having so many great and glorious examples set before us, let us turn again to the practice of that peace which from the beginning was the mark set before us; and let us look stedfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to His mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions, of peace. Let us contemplate Him with our understanding, and look with the eyes of our soul to His long-suffering will. Let us reflect how free from wrath He is towards all His creation.

I have described in earlier blog posts how God for me is firstly and most importantly creator and sustainer of the universe. I am also a pacifist and conflict averse (although some at work might doubt that!)  He also appeals to the peace and order he sees in the universe that is consistent with the scientific understanding of his day [Chapter XX]. There is an amusing (to me) allegorical reference to the phoenix in Chapter XV which he clearly believes to be real and cites details of its supposed life-cycle. Clement makes numerous appeals to holiness and purity of living. A quote from Chapter XXX addresses some of my besetting sins:

Let our praise be in God, and not of ourselves; for God hateth those that commend themselves. Let testimony to our good deeds be borne by others, as it was in the case of our righteous forefathers. Boldness, and arrogance, and audacity belong to those that are accursed of God; but moderation, humility, and meekness to such as are blessed by Him.

Despite these appeals he is clear in expressing his understanding that justification comes though faith not works [Chapter XXXII]:

And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Chapters XL and XLI seem to indicate a continuation of Jewish religious practices.  Galatians 2 reports the confrontation between Peter and Paul over issues of whether certain Jewish practices should be maintained in the church but I am not aware of how quickly or uniformly religious practice in the early church became distinct from Jewish practice of that day. It is interesting that Clement refers to sacrifice in Jerusalem but the temple there had been destroyed probably 25 years before his epistle to the Corinthians was written.

The crux of the Clement’s motivation for writing this epistle is probably summarised in this quote from Chapter XLVII:

Why are there strifes, and tumults, and divisions, and schisms, and wars among you? Have we not [all] one God and one Christ? Is there not one Spirit of grace poured out upon us? And have we not one calling in Christ? Why do we divide and tear to pieces the members of Christ, and raise up strife against our own body, and have reached such a height of madness as to forget that “we are members one of another?”

Sadly that can be a question that can be asked over and over again through the rest of church history and will be reflected in some of the theological writings I will meet in this project.  As a teenager I experienced a split of the local church I was part of then and in some ways still carry the scars of that experience.  I have tended to rationalise these splits to myself by recognising that the church is made up of flawed human beings.  However, I have also delighted in significant signs of the bringing together of disparate parts of the church over the last 30 years at both personal and institutional levels.  My own spiritual journey has spent time in and drawn from many different traditions in the church (and some beyond).

Clement, in echo of Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 13, spells out the cure for this situation [Chapter XLIX]:

Love unites us to God. Love covers a multitude of sins. Love beareth all things, is long-suffering in all things. There is nothing base, nothing arrogant in love. Love admits of no schisms: love gives rise to no seditions: love does all things in harmony. By love have all the elect of God been made perfect; without love nothing is well-pleasing to God. In love has the Lord taken us to Himself.

In all my intellectual juggling with issues of faith down the years I have come to accept that these things are peripheral. I hold that the most profound text in the Bible is probably 1 John 4:8

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

Clement of Rome   3 comments

[This post is part of a personal reflective journey through Christian theology.  An introduction to this project was given in the first post of this series.]

Biographical details/context

Clement was one of the early leaders of the church following on from the apostles (those who had actually known Jesus).  A useful summary with further references is found on Wikipedia. He is one of what became known as the Apostolic Fathers of the church.  It is interesting that in the early centuries of the church his works were considered by many as “authoritative” and it was not to the C4th that the cannon of the New Testament became fixed into the form we have today and without any of his writing.  (As an aside I think more Christians and those interested in religious thought should learn about how the Bible came together.  I want to explore more of the books left out of the cannon but have only done so to date through some quotes in modern texts.)

Writings

Although the term Trinity had not come into use by this stage Clement used the form “Father, Son and Holy Spirit”.

Like Paul, Clement wrote a letter to the church at Corinth and about 40 years later was still concerned with some of the same issues of unity and leadership. Clement argued for what would subsequently be known as Apostolic Succession. That is, Jesus appointed the apostles they appointed the subsequent bishops and elders and so on. Hence authority was passed down and respect and obedience was due to these leaders. (I am avoiding discussion of the meaning of the different Greek terms for the roles of church leaders that would become issues of difference and disunity especially post the Protestant Reformation in the C16th. Looking ahead on the list of theologians there will be plenty of this to come later in these reflections.)

Clement was the first to suggest what would subsequently become the distinction between the Clergy and the Laity. He did this extrapolating from the Old Testament and the roles of Priests and Levites for long periods of Jewish history.

Personal Reflections

Trinity

Much more discussion of the Trinity will come with later theologians especially Athanasius and Arius. Because the Trinity has been a major area of “wrestling” for me I will set aside my personal reflections on it until then. (For those who can’t wait I am probably a heretic here!)

Church unity and leadership

One of the challenges for the early church was that Jesus did little if anything to establish a “religion” or an organisational structure for what became the church.  We have accounts in the Gospels of him sending out 70 (or 72) disciples in pairs [Luke 10].  Then his commissioning address to Peter [Matthew 16:13-20] where he renames Simon as Peter – “the rock on which he will build his church”. (The Greek word used for church here is ecclesia (literally that which is called out and formally the political assembly of citizens of an ancient Greek state).  Jesus of course gave many teachings about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.  However, as far back as I can remember into my childhood or teen thinking these seemed to me to transcend the church (local, denominational or global).  I could go off on a long reflection on Jesus’ Kingdom Teachings here.  They are mostly expressed in parables and probably represent the core of his teachings.  They have been much debated and preached about down the centuries.  However the salient point here with reference to Clement and the early church, is they express spiritual principles not organisational structures and means of governance.

To my view, despite Peter’s commissioning (see above), and the fact that Peter commissioned Clement, it is Paul that dominates the New Testament teaching about the church.  I often think that this gets in the way of absorbing and putting into practice Jesus’ teachings.  Jesus’ teaching are usually so simply expressed but so challenging to apply to ones life.  Some examples of this:

  • You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
    Matthew 5:37-41
  • The parable of the Good Samaritan ending with the exhortation “Go and do likewise” Luke 10:25-37

Where as Paul’s teaching is often expressed in the convoluted legalese of his background as a Pharisee e.g.:

Further I consider that Paul is susceptible to the cultural biases of his age, e.g. in in his attitudes to women, where as Jesus’ teachings seem largely absent of these although of course  he used culturally relevant stories to illustrate his points.

Priests and Bishops or a Priesthood of all Believers?

I am not going into a long discussion of this at this stage.  It will doubtless come up again when we get to the Protestant Reformation theologians.  It is just interesting for me to note that the concept of “laity” and hence the concept of what might be termed church professionals emerges with Clement. I was brought up in the tradition of the priesthood of all believers.  I certainly believe we can all be used to mediate God to one another.  However I have also come to value the sacramental.  Things that mark out actions that express the sacramental as special are important to identify them as such.  I do not believe in “magic” but in saying that a priest has to consecrate the bread and the wine at mass/communion/breaking of bread* is one way of making it out as special.  I have no problem in holding these perspectives together but recognise they present challenges for some.

[* select your preferred term]