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Primary Sources of the Ancient Church: Reflections

Posted Tuesday, January 08, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: TheologyChurch History  

Several characteristics appear throughout most of these primary sources. Most of the writers do not treat their opponents in a kind manner. For example, Cyril has strong words throughout his work for his opponent, such as the comment that a certain idea “is nothing but foolishness and stupidity, the frenzy of a crazed mind” (53). These writers treated theology with the utmost importance and worked very hard to convince others of the correctness of their viewpoint.

Another common characteristic is that the authors display a stunning acquaintance with the Bible. In the days before computers and the printing press, their knowledge of verses and ideas from diverse place in the Bible is very impressive. However, I sometimes get the feeling that they practice the same kind of procedure as I have heard too often in evangelical pulpits: the preacher has a great idea and needs to find a text to give authority to his idea.

The hermeneutics of these authors is a fascinating subject. They make some good arguments from contexts of which I would not have thought, although sometimes I would not make the same argument. Cyril argues against the conjunction idea of the incarnation by appealing to psalmic passages where the psalmist says he is bound to God. Since the psalmist is not thereby worshipped, then neither should the son who is conjoined to God. But since the son is indeed worshipped, the conjoining idea is wrong (73).

Many of the logical arguments used by the fathers were also somewhat suspicious in my ears. For example, Athanasius argues for the orthodox view on the basis of its lacking a specific name. As soon as a group gets a name (Arians, Marcionites, Valentinians, etc.), they have passed over into heresy. But a Christian is simply a Christian, because they follow Christ and not a person (64-65).

One of the greatest contributions of reading these authors is that we get a sense of the times and how people thought. Seeing Scripture and theology from other perspectives helps to show us blind spots in our own theology and understanding. While the effect is much more dramatic if we travel to other countries, a similar effect can be found by reading the primary sources in history. Part of this effect is seeing what kinds of beliefs are automatically assumed by them, such as the impassibility of God by Cyril (117). An underlying anti-Semitism can be seen on occasion, such as the reference by Basil to the Jews of Stephen’s time as “Christ-killers” (45). Basil assumes it is clear that salvation is through baptism. “How are we saved? Obviously through the regenerating grace of baptism” (46).  Basil assumes that slavery can be a good institution on occasion (80). The repeated references by Arius to Alexander as “Pope” was disconcerting at first (29). It is easy to forget that “Pope” was not always limited to the bishop of Rome.

In contrast to the previous thought, on the other hand, it is also interesting how some things never change. Even though many assumptions are different, many of the same battles are being fought today. For example, Athanasius records the various views of the creation of the world, which sound fairly similar to some of the battle lines today in that very area (26-27).

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