Posts tagged with: patristics

If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need. (Deut. 15:7-8)

As part of its annual summer program series, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary is producing a conference on poverty on Friday, May 31, and Saturday, June 1. The event, held on St. Vladimir’s campus in Yonkers, N.Y., is being produced in collaboration with the Acton Institute.

The event, which looks at the causes of poverty, how Christians should respond to the poor, and broad questions of social justice, is offered as a tribute to Dn. John Zarras, a 2006 SVOTS graduate who earned his M.Div. degree over a period of several years as a late–vocations student. Deacon John also served as a member of the Board of Trustees and the president of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Foundation.

If you register online before May 15, the seminary will waive the $50 registration fee.

Speakers include Jay Richards, author of Money, Greed, and God: Why Capitalism Is the Solution and Not the Problem and Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute; Susan R. Holman, adjunct lecturer at Episcopal Divinity School, senior writer at Harvard Global Health Institute, and editor of Wealth and Poverty in Early Church and Society; and Michael Matheson Miller, Acton Institute Research Fellow.

The Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black, an Orthodox Christian organization that provides information about “ancient Christianity and its deep roots in Africa,” is holding a conference Aug. 26-28 in the Detroit area. In a story in the Observer & Eccentric newspaper about the upcoming conference, a reporter interviewed a woman by the name of Sharon Gomulka who had visited an Orthodox Church several years ago on the feast day of St. Moses the Black (or sometimes called The Ethiopian). She watched “as white worshippers kissed the image of a dark-skinned man.” They were reverencing the image of the saint.

“I didn’t realize it was his feast day and I didn’t know about venerating icons. I had a paradigm shift of the many Caucasian people kissing this black man,” Gomulka told the paper. “And I began to question what kind of church is this? Who are these people that color does not seem to truly matter?”

Well, they’re Christians as she later came to find out. Historian Christopher Dawson reminds us in The Historic Reality of Christian Culture: A Way to the Renewal of Human Life (1960) that the Church’s origins in the Middle East and North Africa, and its expansion further East, points to its universal nature:

The Church itself, though it bears a Greek name Ecclesia, derived from the Greek civic assembly, and is ordered by the Roman spirit of authority and law, is the successor and heir of an Oriental people, set apart from all the peoples of the earth to be the bearer of a divine mission.

Similarly, the mind of the Church, as expressed in the authoritative tradition of the teaching of the Fathers, is neither Eastern nor Western but universal. It is expressed in Western languages — Greek and Latin — but it was in Africa and Asia rather than in Europe that it received its classical formulation. Greek theology was developed at Alexandria and Antioch and in Cappadocia, while Latin theology owes it terminology and its distinctive character to the African Fathers — Tertullian, Cyprian and above all St. Augustine.

While these men wrote in Latin, it was not the Latin of the Romans; it was a new form of Christian Latin which was developed, mainly in Tunisia, under strong Oriental influence.

Dawson’s reflections should not be taken as a mere historical curiosity. This history speaks to what the Church is, and has always been. All the more reason to be alarmed at the ongoing persecution of Christians in Egypt and the Middle East — communities that have in many case been continuously rooted in these lands since Apostolic times. The Christians in Kirkuk, Iraq, have been targets of bombers in recent weeks. “This is only happening because we are Christians,” said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako. “Maybe the people responsible want to empty the city of Christians.”

Historian Philip Jenkins in books such as The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (2002) and The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and How It Died (2008) has worked to deepen English-speaking Christians’ awareness of these ancient roots in places like Syria, India and China.

In a 2008 interview with BeliefNet.com, Jenkins was pessimistic about the hard-pressed Christian communities in the Middle East, whose populations are rapidly dwindling:

By far the largest change is in the Middle East, the region between Persia and Egypt. As recently as 1900, the Christian population of that whole region was almost ten percent, but today it is just a couple of percent, and falling fast. Particularly if climate change moves as rapidly as it some believe, the resulting tensions could reduce Christian numbers much further. Egypt would be the most worrying example here. Might that 1,400 year story come to an end in our lifetimes?

Europe is nothing like as serious an issue. The number of active or committed Christians certainly is declining, but the churches don’t face anything like what is happening in the Middle east. There is no plausible prospect of a Muslim regime anywhere in Western Europe, or of the recreation of the social order on the lines of Muslim law. Realistically, people of Muslim background will constitute a substantial minority of the European population, rather than a majority, and it is far from clear that most will define themselves primarily according to strict religious loyalties. European Christianity may be in anything but a healthy state, but Islam need not be its greatest cause for concern.

Matters are very different in other countries of Africa and Asia, where Muslims and Christians are in deep competition. We could imagine wars and persecutions that could uproot whole societies.

If there’s one thing that these Christian communities have experience with in the last 2,000 years, it’s wars and persecutions. Jenkins might be wrong about extinction, but there’s no question about decline. According to another estimate, the Middle East’s Christian population shrank from 20 percent to 10 percent during recent decades. Yet, the surest way to speed the decline, or realize extinction, is for the global Church to ignore the plight of their brothers and sisters in this part of the world.

More history from Jenkins, echoing Dawson:

During the first century or two of the Christian era, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia became the Christian centers that they would remain for many centuries. Christian art, literature, and music all originated in these lands, as did most of what would become the New Testament. Monasticism is an Egyptian invention.

By the time the Roman Empire granted the Christians toleration in the early fourth century, there was no question that the religion was predominantly associated with the eastern half of the empire, and indeed with territories beyond the eastern border. Of the five ancient patriarchates of the church, only one, Rome, clearly stood in the west. The others were at Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria – three on the Asian continent, one in Africa. If we can imagine a Christian center of gravity by around 500, we should still be thinking of Syria rather than Italy … Much early Christian history focuses on the Roman province known as Africa, roughly modern Tunisia. This was the home of such great early leaders as Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine, the founders of Christian Latin literature.

Tom Oden


In the forthcoming Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Thomas C. Oden. The interview mainly focuses on the importance and wisdom of the Church Fathers and their deep relevancy for today’s Church and culture. The content below however delves into Marxist liberation theology and the direction of Oden’s own denomination, The United Methodist Church. Some of the below portion will be available only for readers of the PowerBlog.

I’d like to add a short personal note about Tom Oden as well. His work and writings have been an immense blessing in my own life. His research was vital to my own spiritual formation in seminary and beyond. I have many friends and colleagues who would testify to the same. I still read his three-volume systematic theology as a devotion. It was a pleasure to spend time with him during this interview and his pastoral heart is every bit as big as his heart for scholarship.

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Thomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

Obviously Marxist theology peaked in the 70s and 80s, to a large degree. Is liberation theology as a Marxist construct on the decline? And if so why?

Marxist praxis has been since the Gulag’s of Stalin, the Great Leap of Mao, and the poor economy and police state of Cuba. By the Berlin Wall it was intellectually caput. But theologians were late in recognizing its vulnerabilities. That is because they were far too indebted to the basic moral assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic narcissism, absolute relativism, and naturalistic reductionism. The rapid decline of Marxist solutions was not recognized by many of its advocates, especially those in the knowledge class.

There are a number of different kinds of liberation theology, so if you’re asking about feminist liberation theology or black liberation theology, or more in a global sense of the liberation of colonized nations from Colonialism, those are all different questions.

I have a personal history of being slow to give up those illusions, but not as slow as many of my theological colleagues, still stuck in a pseudo-revolutionary dream. I was very deep into the socialist imagination until about forty years ago. I read a lot of Marx for 20 years before unmerited grace changed the direction of my life.

The Marxist vision of history is a deterministic one, an economic determinism that imagines it knows how history is going to turn out. It proved to be a very dangerous imagination. For Christians, the unfolding of universal history is guided by providence, but not so as to deny human choice. For a Marxist, that unfolding is due to an economic determinism which pits class against class. What you are trying to do in Marxism is raise the consciousness of the proletariat, in order that they will rebel against their oppressors. That basic model is easily seen analogously in most forms of liberation theology.

What I had to go through is a disillusionment of my Marxism. How did that happen? It happened by the recognition of the immense injustices created by Marxism. I’m talking about millions of people killed in Cambodia, one fourth of the population— a Marxist vision inspired in expatriate pseudo-intellectual salons in Paris.

When you actually look at the social consequences of Marxism, it is extremely hard to defend them. I found it harder and harder to defend them. The Marxist view of history is on the decline because it’s a historical failure. There are a few little pockets where it still pretends to be the future, as in Venezuela, which is mimicking Cuba. But look at Cuba. Cuba has already decided that communism doesn’t work after how many years now? Sixty sad ones. The Cubans are trying. They’re trying very hard, actually, to get their economy out of the box of a state operated system.

You are a United Methodist and have been a lifelong Methodist scholar. What do you think about the future of the United Methodist Church? I think a lot of conservative evangelicals hear negative things about the denomination as it relates to theological liberalism. But what are some positive aspects?

Many aspects are far from depressing. The liberal Protestants still have the Scriptures, their hymnody largely intact, and their confessional standards, which in my tradition are the 25 Articles of Religion and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. We still have our doctrinal standards. They are a part of our constitution. They cannot easily be tampered with.

There is obviously an awful lot wrong with our present liberal bureaucratic form of governance. Our question is really: What is there to be learned from this? I’m now working on a four volume work on John Wesley. I think the key answer is Wesley himself. Liberal churchmanship is like being a Lutheran and not having read Luther, or being a Reformed Evangelical and not having bothered to read Calvin. We have a lot of Methodists that haven’t even touched the great wisdom of Wesley. Now let’s tie in Wesley with the patristic tradition. Wesley happened to be at Oxford at a time when there was a great patristic revival going on. That means that these early Christian writings were being avidly read in Lincoln College at Oxford in their original languages. Wesley could easily read Clement of Alexandria in Greek, or Cyprian or Augustine in Latin. He brought all this wisdom with him to the evangelical revival of the 18th-century. He published a lay person’s version of the Ante-Nicene writers.

I think that most of the Methodist tradition and the Anglican tradition from which it came, and as well, I believe, the Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, are all experiencing the same kind of amnesia toward their own roots. In each of those cases, as in the case of Luther and Calvin and Wesley, all of these were far more grounded in the ancient Eastern and Western traditions of orthodoxy than in the contemporary church. So I want to see Methodists read Wesley. I also want to see them read the ancient Christian writers.

The core of the dilemma of liberal Protestant ecclesiology lies in our clergy and the seminaries that spawned them. The laity, on the whole has remained loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. They come and sing the hymns of the church and they listen, sometimes to bad sermons, sometimes to good sermons. But the laity’s faith hasn’t really changed. It’s the clergy’s faith that has grown weak, and after fifty years of living within the liberal seminary ethos, I charge that largely to the confusions that have occurred in the seminaries. More specifically the responsibility has been flubbed by the trustees of seminaries. The original benefactors of the seminaries would be shocked. Donor accountability is lacking. The bishops have defaulted on their major task of being the guardians of Christian doctrine. The doctrine they agreed to uphold in their ordination vows. They have created a problem that will take a long time to correct.

We do have already within the United Methodist Church, a lot of very active, significant movements giving resistance to the “church of what’s happening now.” I’m thinking of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church that began in 1993 and now has over 600,000 correspondents. It’s not something either the bishops or seminaries can ignore.

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Living In God's Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2009)

Like many, my first encounter with Orthodox theology was intoxicating. Here, finally, in the works of thinkers such as Vladimir Lossky, John Meyendorf and Alexander Schmemann and others I found an intellectually rigorous approach to theology that was biblical and patristic in its sources, mystical in its orientation and beautiful in its language.

But over the years I have found a curious lacunae in Orthodox theology.

For all that it is firmly grounded in the historical sources of the Christian tradition, Orthodox theology often lacks what Elizabeth Theokritoff in her book Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology calls “the practical application” that is central to patristic thought. “There is a temptation [for Orthodox Christians] to say, ‘Look, it’s all in the Fathers'” as if somehow this solves all of life’s problems (p. 253). However fidelity to patristic theology requires more than simply reading the Fathers. As the Fathers did in their own time, I must wrestle with the intellectual and practical concerns of the contemporary world with an eye to redeeming the time (see Ephesians 5:16).

Theokritoff wrestles with the cosmological and anthropological implications of Orthodox theology as they apply to contemporary concerns about the environment. In so doing she sketches out what I would call a theory of natural law grounded in the Scriptures, the Fathers and the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church. For many outside the Orthodox Church, and for not a few within, the notion that there even is an Orthodox understanding of natural law might come as a surprise. But such tradition exists and while Theokritoff does not use the term, her work is very much a work concerned with natural law.

Following St. Maximus the Confessor, Theokritoff argues that as a “‘bond of unity’ in creation,” humanity’s vocation “is progressively to unite the disparate aspects of the created order, and ultimately to unite the whole with God” (p. 31). For this reason, “It is necessary to accept that human beings are the cause of the world’s plight.” Unlike many in the environmental movement however, the author does not  take this to mean that humanity is a blight or a cancer on the enviroment. Rather she argues “that we are also God’s chosen instruments through which all things are to be brought to fulfillment in Christ” (p. 32).

That said, it is not all together clear to me what, if anything, are the author’s specific environmental goals. What, in other words, does she hope us to accomplish as we work to bring all things to fulfillment in Christ? And how, in a practical way, are we to accomplish this?

These are not trivial questions. And to assert, as she does, that it is “not the task of theology to come up with such solutions” is less than satisfying. This is doubly the case given that she thinks policies such as fair trade, population control, and reduced consumption and production in the West are appropriate Christian means of caring for the environment (p. 30).

On the last page of the book there is a trivial illustration of the author’s uncritical identification of the tradition of the Orthodox Church with her own preferred environmental policies. Rightly, as the author reminds us, “there is no path to the Kingdom except through a thousand ordinary, humdrum decisions.” But is it also true to say, as she suggests, that “recycling a sheet of paper . . . is a practical assent to [God's] plan of salvation. . . . [and] signals our willingness to be co-workers with the Almighty in bring his creation to the fulfillment for which it was made” (p. 265)? Maybe, but not necessarily.

While I disagree with author’s progressive politics and policies, it is important to note that Theokritoff offers her suggestions in a spirit of humility. As she writes, “there will sometimes be genuine differences among Christians about the practicalities of remedying various ills” (p. 30). True enough, but I do wish that the author had left her own politics completely out of the book or, having included them, she engaged those who disagree with her.

While we certainly ought not to minimize the seriousness of Theokritoff’s policy suggestions, — especially what I would argue are her misguided and very dangerous flirtation with population control — the real strength of the book is in her articulation of an Orthodox approach to natural law grounded in Scripture and the Church Fathers and embodied in Christian worship and the lives and witnesses of the saints. Living in God’s Creation offers us a rich cosmological and anthropological vision that has implications not only for the environment but also economics and politics and it raises themes worthy of further exploration and study.