Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (2): Evangelicals have a deeply problematic tendency to read early church history through a reformation lens.

(See first post in this series here)

Evangelicals, like all Protestants, tend to define themselves in terms of Reformation distinctives, which has its pros and cons. I think the Reformation (re)discovered important theological and biblical truths and rightly called for a reform of the Catholic Church as it then stood in Western Europe. However, it also had the consequence that Protestantism continually defines and locates itself as a movement over/against Roman Catholicism. If Catholicism ended, what would Protestantism be?

It also had and continues to have a debilitating effect on Protestant scholarship more broadly, and Evangelicalism in particular. That is, it has made the Reformation period both normative and norming for historical theology. This is seen, for one, in the fact that those who teach, write on, and interpret Patristics within Evangelical institutes and for Evangelical audiences are often (a) those whose specialty is Reformation history, and (b) Systematic theologians.

Not, of course, that those trained in other disciplines can never or should never dare to comment or produce scholarship, but taken as a whole, it skews Patristic studies by evangelicals in a certain direction. One in which the ‘normal’ view of things is shaped by those trained in 16th century theology, history, and 20th century concerns. There is a real danger of anachronism here, that we would read Early Church Theology not on its own terms, not in the context of Late Antiquity, but subject to our own agendas, and our own colonialising narratives, as we try to make a history of early Christianity fit our doctrines of, for example, decline and reform, or Pristinism, and so on.

Asking questions like, “Where is justification by faith in the early church?” or “What evidence is there for penal substitutionary atonement in the Fathers?” are valid questions. But they are not the right questions to start with. They reflect our concerns, and in particular they reflect our concerns as shaped by 16th century ones. They are second-order questions, and if you ask them first, you distort early Christian theologies by (mis)leading the witnesses. Better by far, it is, to attempt to enter into the historical context of those believers, and attempt to understand what they wrote, and what they did, on their own terms, in the matrix of how they themselves articulated it.

How does this contribute to a lack of Evangelicals in Patristics? In three ways, as I see it. Firstly, if Reformation and Systematics researchers can do the job, why bother training Patristics scholars? (I’ll have more to say on this in my next post). Secondly, if you continually explain and mine the field of Patristics in service to other agendas, there’s no value in Patristics per se. It’s a means to other ends, and those ends dictate where students will place their studies, and how the evangelical context ‘values’ Patristics. Thirdly, simply doing Patristics well will involve a partial rejection of this paradigm of evangelicalism, which is going to lead into my fourth post.

2-track and 3-track revision strategies

Last week I shared a simple strategy for reading, by grouping your reading in section of three units, and advancing one unit at a time, thus ensuring you read each unit three times over.

This week I have another strategy to share, which is similar in process, in that it’s designed to encourage multiple repetitions of the same material. I use it for more traditional type textbooks or other materials, rather than straight reading material. In fact, I’m using it with a French for Reading book I’m working on.

So, say we’re working through a textbook, and we reach chapter six. Once we start chapter six, our new material, we incorporate a revision portion to our studies, starting back in chapter one. So now we’ve got 2-tracks to our study – new material moving from chapter six forward, and revision starting from chapter one and moving forward. The revision material is/should be far enough back that it’s feeling familiar, not overly difficult, and not too time-consuming. So it shouldn’t be as taxing to go through it, and it should be consolidating that information.

Generally, I’d say keep the pacing the same – so by the time you hit chapter ten, your second-track hits chapter five. Then, if you like, you can add a third track, beginning back at chapter one. So now your third-track of revision is much further back in your course, and should feel super-easy (hopefully!).

You can, of course, increase the pacing of the revision sections, to catch up to the new material. If you do that, then you can start new “revision tracks” as the older ones catch up to your new material. This will provide even more opportunity for revision.

This is also a good strategy for students who are finding new material difficult, but don’t want to fall further behind. Treat your “new material” track as a light preview/introduction and take some of the pressure of yourself from learning it completely. Then, the second time you hit that material, that can be the occasion for really wrestling with it and solidifying it. And then, the third time through will be revision.

Obviously, there is nothing new or amazing about this, and neither is it limited to languages! But it’s a strategy I find useful and I thought it worth sharing.

Why aren’t there more Evangelicals in Patristics (1): Some Evs aren’t sure there were any Christians between Paul and Luther.

Recently on twitter I suggested a number of reasons why there are relatively few Evangelicals involved in Patristics as an academic field. I felt that it wouldn’t be a waste of time to expand some of those thoughts into more considered reflections (as did Brandon Smith)

Saying that, these are big generalisations. There are evangelicals in patristics, and there are obviously exceptions to my observations. Moreover, I write from a particular perspective; I observe American Evangelicalism primarily from a distance, and the term “evangelical” itself can be a problematic nomenclature. However, I’d rather deal with caveats post-factum.

One of the reasons there aren’t many evangelicals in patristics is because of a strong, prevailing tendency among evangelicals about who counts as a Christian and how the Church History story ‘goes’. Those tendencies is that (a) only people with a genuine personal converted faith in Jesus Christ are Christians, (b) failure to articulate a doctrine of justification by faith alone contradicts (a), (c) that after the New Testament the church ‘fell’ and lost its genuine grasp on a salvific doctrine of faith, and (d) that doctrine, and so genuine belief, was only rediscovered at the Reformation (or worse yet, the birth of your denomination!).

If you read history like this, and you do theology like this, then you can understand why, even if evangelicals don’t say this, they may well act like it’s true – that there were New Testament believers, and then there were Roman Catholics (because protestants tend to read themselves over against Roman Catholicism), and they all believed in justification by works, and then there was the Reformation. So why would we bother doing Patristics when it’s just reading the works of Roman Catholics we know are a priori wrong anyway?

The problems in this ought to be painfully apparent, and if you’re reading this you’re almost certainly predisposed to agree with me anyway. Nonetheless, let me articulate the fundamental flaws in this way of thinking.

  1. This is very poor historiography. It doesn’t take seriously the history of the early church, it doesn’t engage early Christian theology, it refuses to engage or else prejudges everything between 90 and 1517 AD.
  2. This is a poor theology of God’s sovereignty and of the church. Do you really think that the Church disappeared for 1500 years?
  3. It renders Protestantism a historically groundless de novo movement.
  4. It severs all connection with conciliar Christianity. That is, why would you affirm the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, and the Chalcedonian Definition, if you thought they were penned by heretics?
  5. It turns Justification by Faith alone into “Justification by an explicit mentally-assented doctrine of Justification by Faith alone”; which is Protestant’s Gnosticism. If you think that justification is by faith, then you cannot make a criterion of that to be an explicit knowledge and affirmation of that same doctrine a salvific requirement without undermining your own doctrine. This, by the way, is the grounds on which evangelicals can engage in genuine ecumenism.

Evangelicals have a strong, related tendency to think of Patristics as “Catholic” or “Orthodox”, which is a half-truth at best. It is true that within those traditions, a higher degree of importance and authority is placed on early church authors. And it is true that the academic landscape of Patristics has, in the past, generally been dominated by scholars coming out of those traditions. But it is not somehow “exclusively” their dominion, despite what some apologists out of those traditions claim, and despite how evangelicals themselves distance Patristics from theology.

Reading in 3s

This was mentioned to me by a student recently in a small group class that I am kind-of mentoring, and I think it’s worth adapting and sharing. The original idea, or at least where the student got it from, is Daniel Wallace, here. It’s the idea that you should translate each chapter of the New Testament three times, and rotate chapters in and out of rotation.

Now, I don’t really think you should be translating, I think you should be reading passages at a level you can comprehend with just a little bit of help. But I do think this idea has a lot of merit. Here’s how I’m implementing it in my own readings: the rule of 3s (see also Where Are Your Keys technique: Three Times)

So, say I’m reading a text, like Ørberg’s Roma Aeterna (which I happen to be. Everyone raves about the first book, Familia Romana, and for good reason, but the second book might be even more well-thought out than the first, for different reasons). I decide that reading 3 pages of text is enough for each reading session (i.e. each day or so), and so I read like this:

Day 1: Pages 1, 2, 3.

Day 2: Pages 2, 3, 4

Day 3: Pages 3, 4, 5 etc..

This is a really helpful reading strategy for comprehension and for repetition. After you “get-going” in a text, 2/3 of your reading will be re-reading. So you get a chance to tackle that material two extra times before leaving it behind. It should be easier those times, right? So you’re getting repetition, and slightly spaced repetition, but you shouldn’t be getting bored or overwhelmed, because you’re moving forward.

Also, your new material for the day is contextualised. You don’t have to pick it up and wonder where you were and what was going on. You create your own lead-in to the new section of material.

You can do this on a page level, or multiple pages, or sections, or however your text is divided and however you want to carve it up. Just remember that you’re probably better underestimating your ability to get through text, than being gung-ho ambitious at the start. You can always scale your reading up, but if you start with overly high expectations you may end up giving up rather than scaling down.

This is one approach I’m trying for extensive reading with a few texts I’ve got “on the slow burner” at the moment. Try it out and let me know how it goes for you.

From a recent talk on the creeds

Creeds originated as a confession of faith for believers to express their core convictions, especially in the context of instruction for, and the practice of, baptism. They took the essential elements of the Christian faith, as taught and held by the church consistently across the world, and framed that around a trinitarian structure that expressed belief in the God of the Scriptures, and a narrative frame that retold the Gospel story in its salvific significance.

And yet, Creeds were not static eternal mysteries which proclaimed a timeless, unalterable truth. They arose in specific historical contexts, shaped by local forces. No single person or council ever sat down and made the Apostles’ Creed what it is, but a process of some 650 years. The Nicene creed was shaped by a council, and that was something new and unique. And yet it too was specific – a test of orthodoxy to exclude and destroy Arius and his theology. They never imagined themselves to be promulgating a creed for the ages. Nor is the Nicene creed as they wrote it what it became. Similarly, and even more so, the Creed of Constantinople was not the Nicene creed revised, was once more a product of its occasion, and never intended to even displace the Nicene creed. Indeed, for more than 70 years it remained dormant, until produced to great effect at Chalcedon. Nonetheless, it gained wide acceptance and became the creed that simultaneously united, and divided, the great church East and West. For it too was not immune to alteration, with the filioque clause driving a small, but significant, wedge between the two great traditions.

The significance of the creeds thus lies not in what their framers thought they were doing – as if the bishops in each situation sat down to write a creed of eternal and lasting significance and authority – but in what their inheritors thought them to have done. For it is how creeds are received, that turns them from the occasional to the timeless. Christians throughout the ages treasured these creeds as expressing inalterable truths of the Christian faith.

And here lies the great value of creeds, if we are willing to hear it. That their value lies not in some carved in stone form, but in their carefully guarded content. For creeds mark out what has been, and remains, worth guarding well – the deposit of faith. Creeds from the 4th century onwards were born in controversy and set forth the convictions of their authors – this is true, and that is not. To depart from the historic creeds of the church is not justifiable as “well, they are only temporary documents made for specific occasions”, but is to abandon the very core of Christianity as we have received it. To paraphrase one memorable lecturer of mine, you can decide that the Nicene creed isn’t Biblical, but you won’t end up with Christianity! The Christian faith is a credal faith.

Thoughts on copyright and ancient texts in modern editions

What exactly is the copyright status of ancient texts in modern editions?

Nobody knows and most of us are too afraid to find out. I’m not a lawyer, and this is not a legal opinion, but it is an opinion about legal matters. Also, copyright legislation differs from country to country, and I am speaking more generally.

Personally I’m of the view that copyright is a bad way to solve the problem of protecting authorial rights, creatives’ incomes, and intellectual property. I am all for authors having rights, creatives generating income for their labour, and intellectual work being rewarded, I am unconvinced that intellectual property law is the best way to do it. Particularly, the analogue of intellectual property to real property is problematic, in that theft involves the deprivation of a good from someone, and copying by definition does not involve theft, but replication.

Nonetheless, we are all living with copyright regimes at the moment, the question is whether they apply to ancient texts. The initial answer would seem to be “no”, because all those texts are well out of the time allowed for copyrights, and have fallen into the Public Domain. Aristotle’s right to protect his work does not persist down to this age.

And yet, ancient texts appear in modern editions – edited volumes put together by textual critics who attempt to present something like (a) a critical edition best conjecturing the original text (with necessary caveats about discussions in the field about what ‘original text’ means, and whether this is even possible/desirable), or (b) an edition edition best conjecturing a single manuscript or a manuscript family, where the author isn’t trying to necessarily construct (a).

Almost every modern edition I’ve seen claims a copyright. On what basis?

Most jurisdictions allow that a derivative work can gain copyrightable status on the basis of creative work, but not on the basis of mere labour, however intensive. The question then becomes, is textual criticism sufficiently ‘creative’ to constitute a new work?

I would argue no, it cannot be on the basis of the purpose of textual criticism itself – to present a text that isn’t new, that doesn’t deviate, that attempts to best faithfully represent what it believes the prior text to be. While textual criticism can, indeed does, involve creativity in decision making, it ought not involve authoring new content ab initio.

This seems to be the finding that occasioned Roger Pearse’s blog post of 2014 on the topic, though I have no follow up on that French case.

To be clear, this view would only apply to the actual text of the ancient work, not to apparatus and critical material, which are indeed copyrighted. Nor am I implying that editorial work is not difficult, laborious, involving intelligence and education, and worthy of decent payment. Copyright is not the answer to that, and it does disservice to those desiring to work with ancient texts.

There are more egregious problems with copyright on ancient texts. I want to close with mention of two glaring ones that irk me particularly. The first is BHS, at least some editions, which claim to basically follow a single text, the Leningrad codex, of the Masoretic Text of the Old Testament. To the extent that an edition preserves and presents a single manuscript, it cannot be copyrighted or copyrightable – reproduction of a text does not create a copyright. Claiming that it does is intellectually dishonest and probably fraudulent.

The second is digitisation. Digitisation is an expensive, laborious, and surprisingly time-intensive task to do. But it does not create copyrights. One notable database of ancient texts, actually more than one, claims not merely to control usage through licensing and Terms of Service (which are other, legally legitimate, but sometimese morally dubious ways to control what users do with texts), but copyright-holder status over its texts, including texts which are clearly in the public domain such as the Migne Patrologia volumes. Digitisation definitely does not count as creative labour, and does not create a copyright for the digitiser. This is fraudulent.

And yet, this is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Copyright law is big business, is mired in modern concerns that are equally problematic for other reasons, and gets expensive very fast for those found guilty of infringement. To put some of these claims to the test requires financial backing to take them to court, and a willingness to risk academic censure. Simply put, few people who care about these issues are in a position to put this to the test.

The solution, though it is hardly that, is to work around these problems, editions, and institutions. To produce truly open-access texts that are not locked up under copyright, but are freely usable by the scholarly community at large. To do that, too, requires funding, but at least funding that will go into creating usable resources for subsequent generations and not fueling legal fights that may achieve nothing short or long term.

Some rambling thoughts on an ideal ancient languages classroom

A response to Fran’s comments here.

I don’t think anything I have to say here is particularly new, from my perspective, in that I haven’t changed my views that much in the past couple of years. An old but still valid post on this topic is here.

I’m convinced pedagogically, and experientially, that an ancient languages class ought to major on comprehensible input and communicative methods even if the main orientation of study at a macro level is the reading and interpretation of texts. The not-as-traditional-as-presented Grammar/Translation methodology does not produce good readers of texts, except almost accidentally among those who do enough G/T to get a relatively large among of ‘exposure’ to comprehensible input.

It does produce students, among those who survive, capable of commenting on texts using grammatical jargon. This is not totally useless, but teach grammar and you produce grammarians.

Meta-language discussions (linguistics/grammar) I would want to (a) teach in the medium of the language itself, (b) teach in (English/other) separately to the language classroom.

I do think there’s a difference between seminary settings and college/university/other settings. That primarily has to do with time available to students for languages, and scope of their target texts. Seminary students primarily want to read a very limited corpus (e.g. the New Testament), which is understandable but problematic (from a language perspective), and they have more restricted time (a Greek course sitting precariously amidst myriad other commitments). Students in, say, a classics program (or parallel situation, but I’ll stick to rambling about Classics for now) ought to do a lot more language, a lot earlier, and shift their upper level courses into using the target language as medium of discussion.

What else would I want to say? I don’t think it’s true that most teachers of Greek at theological colleges have only one year of actual Greek study. Based on my analysis of staffing practices, Greek is almost always taught by New Testament lecturers with PhDs in New Testament. The problem there is not lack of Greek, but that how much Greek you need for a PhD in New Testament is surprisingly limited.

I don’t do enough communicative work in my own limited teaching, partly my own failings, partly due to the fact that I predominantly tutor students enrolled in other people’s programs who need to conform to those expectations not my own. I do think with a free hand, a radical overhaul is worth it.