A little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners


Icon depicting the First Council of Nicaea.

Icon representing the Council of Nicea

Back in the late 1990s, when I was a doctoral student at Duke, they used to give us PhD hopefuls “preceptorials.” That meant you helped a senior professor in their courses, as a teaching assistant. The professor did the lectures, and you led discussion in weekly seminar sessions for the same course.

Digging through some old files the other day, I found this little talk I gave to a group taking Dr. David Steinmetz’s CH13: Church History to the Reformation, on the day of their first seminar session. Dr. Steinmetz taught in the mode of “intellectual history”: opening up to his students some of the more important, and often difficult, theological discussions that engaged the great minds of the early church.

This talk of mine is intended to give students who didn’t necessarily have any background in historical or theological studies some strategies to get through the experience of the course, and to learn and grow along the way. Part of it is in “talking ‘em off the ledge” mode, recognizing that the study of early Christian theology can look pretty arcane and intimidating. And part of it suggests some intellectual and practical strategies to get the most out of their studies. 

If I had to do the talk today, I’d make some changes–and indeed I do cover some of these things in my courses now. But other things I had forgotten, and will be reviving in my courses. So here it is: a “little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners”:

Principle:  To learn to write is to learn to read and think.  Reading with understanding—that is, thinking while reading or “active reading”—is a learnable, mechanical process.  Some of you have already learned it well, probably better than I have.  Others of you may be frustrated with the process, and feel you will never be able to sort through the fairly heavy material we’ll be reading in this course, and explain it concisely and clearly in your papers.

It can be done.  But there are a number of hurdles that must be crossed in order to do it.

1.   Assuming that we know already (and thus rendering ourselves unteachable).  This need not be egotistical—simply an assumption or bias of our pragmatic culture—seeking always to move straight to action, and not take the time to think carefully (me too!)

2.   The second hurdle: not recognizing technical language when we see it—and seeking to understand what specific terms meant for specific writers.  Take, for example, our first assignment—to write a paper on what “freedom” meant for Augustine.  To a white American, “freedom” takes on certain meanings which probably relate to the war of independence, the separation of church and state, and so forth.  To an African-American, certain other, more ambiguous or ironic meanings are probably added to the word “freedom,” having to do with forced migration, the use of the Bible to condone slavery, the civil war, reconstruction, and so forth. But to this North African, Augustine (who is actually a subject of Rome who just happens to live in N. Africa in the 4th and 5th c.), freedom has very different, very specific connotations.  Naturally it does, as his “thought world” is different from ours. We need to try to get over our own assumptions about the word “freedom,” and try to get inside his—difficult as that will be.

3.   The third hurdle also relates to this process of setting aside our assumptions and trying to get inside the assumptions of these centuries-old Christian thinkers.  This one is really more of a balancing act than a hurdle, because it involves doing two seemingly opposite things at the same time.  That is, we need both to respect the different thought-world of the writer, and to look for the deep, basic ways that that world and those assumptions has shaped our own thought-world.   Of course in some ways, overcoming this hurdle actually needs to be our FIRST step, because if we don’t believe what we are reading is relevant to today, we cannot be interested in it, except as sort of a museum piece or curiosity.  And that immediately kills our ability to think or write well about it.  Without interest and commitment, we will not and probably can not expend the mental energy necessary to figure out why these authors wrestle with the questions they do, and why they come to the conclusions they do.

So crossing the three hurdles we move from assuming that our own ideas about God and man (say, the trinity or Christ’s nature) are self-evident, and self-evidently right, end of discussion, that’s all we need to know, through a series of steps:

1.   The first step is to understand that we often don’t really know how our inherited theological ideas were formed, and may stand to learn something valuable from dead people who have shaped the thought of generations before us.

2.   The second step is to read these dead people with the awareness, from the very beginning, that their words carry a weight and meaning that is going to be unfamiliar to us, but which if we can begin to retrieve it, will unlock a whole world of thought to us.

3.   And the third step is to start slowly and with difficulty to compare what we believe today with the issues that they were struggling with then, and so begin to bridge their thought-world and ours.  THIS is the step that, if we do it well, will make writing these papers in our own words come almost naturally.

Now, I want to suggest a good question to ask, that will help keep us focused on our goal of relating these writers’ worlds to ours, so we can write intelligently and meaningfully about what we are reading.  Every time we sit down to read, and every time we get bogged down in some passage that seems particularly dry or dense, we need to ask:

Why do the writers we study care about the problems they write about?  What passion drives them to try to understand a certain aspect of theology?  We might call this a “relevance check.”  We have to assume that the things they reflected on were supremely relevant not only to them individually, but to the communities in which they worked and thought—and that these communities acknowledged the importance of their thought, and shared many of their presuppositions.  Also, we should try to remember that the generations that followed them, right up to today, have included people who also felt their thought, and the solutions they came up with, was important, and relevant.

Psychologically, our hardest task will be to steer between two “rocks”—and I am guessing that all of us get hung up on each of these at one time or another.  I certainly include myself here.  The first rock is (1) the inferiority complex that says that philosophy and theology are attainable only by “experts.”  The second is (2) the pragmatic American skepticism of a democratic “priesthood of believers” who believe that anything that is not obvious or reducable to a simple formula must be irrelevant to the practical living of daily life.

This IS “elite thought.”  It is thought by people with that rare combination of the education, the money, and the time to go into deep questions in complicated detail.  And we may hear in Steinmetz’s lectures this weird echo of elitism in the midst of good old democratic, egalitarian America.  And depending on our own personality, this may either remind us of all the times through our schooling that we’ve received the implicit message “you just can’t understand this—it’s too difficult for you,” or all the times as Americans living in a pragmatic popular culture that we have received the message “you know everything you need to know—and by the way, the thought of Dead White Males is not only irrelevant, but imperialistic.”

There is of course a third possibility—that by either being too intimidated or too busy “getting on with life” to learn, we in fact condemn ourselves to living with a shallow faith, and repeating old mistakes that have been brilliantly and helpfully dealt with by prayerful, committed “fathers” of the church—in ways that have truly over the years helped the church grow.  In other words, by ignoring these Dead White Male (DWM) strategies for coping with certain hazards implicit in Christian belief, we are cutting ourselves off from the strength and support of part of that “cloud of witnesses” Paul refers to.  We are, Wesley would say, in danger of knocking the leg of “tradition” off of the 4-legged stool of Christian life and thought, leaving only Scripture, reason, and experience.

Or to put it positively—as we rediscover for ourselves the thought of DWM theologians like Augustine of Hippo [oops! He was North African--unclear he wouldh have appeared "white" at all!], we open a source of strength and confidence and clarity for our own faith walks.

I hope we can rise in this section above both problems—I hope to help you to rise above them, if in fact they are getting in your way—that is, again, both the fear that we just can’t understand this stuff, and the cocky, perhaps sour-grapes attitude that, in any case, we can do without it, that it is irrelevant to modern life.  I want to help you, and myself, to get beyond these instinctive responses to this kind of “heavy” intellectual study of church history, and to really enjoy getting into conversation with these authors.

And I want you to understand, I really have fallen into both classes—the intimidated and the scoffers—and I think for that reason, T.A.’ing this class will be very good for me.  I certainly won’t lead these sessions and critique your papers as one “coming down the mountain with the tablets.”  I struggle every day especially with this question of relevance.  If you can’t show me how learning “A” can help me do “B,” my gnat-like attention begins to wander.  So let’s help each other out here.  Whenever something we read for one of these sessions penetrates one of our defenses, and sets off a spark  of interest in us, let’s grab that moment like a lightning bug in a jar, and bring it out in our papers and our discussions—to throw just a little more light on the path for the rest of us.

This study may turn out to be very difficult for many of us, including me.  It could be a huge, boring, irrelevant pain in the butt, if we never get over our hurdles.  But it could also be an exciting and revealing experience.  It could even be an experience of empowerment—that is, it could open up the history of theology for us in useful and confidence-building ways.  We may find ourselves walking through the stacks at the Divinity library after this course is over, and actually wanting to read some books that we used to think of as either too intimidating or too irrelevant to bother with.  I hope so—both for me and for you.  This I think is the most valuable thing that this course could give any of us—the hunger to follow up and continue the conversation with these “church fathers.”

By the way, I don’t mean to imply that we will inevitably find every aspect of everything we read sparklingly relevant to our ministries or our lives.  You know, there may be aspects that, no matter how hard we look at them, just seem quirky, passé, or useless.  That’s fine.  But we can’t START our study with that assumption, or we will learn nothing.  And I think as we go along, we will find more and more theological issues we might once have placed in this category of the irrelevant moving for us over into the category of the relevant.  At least I hope so!  Let’s be honest with each other.  Not every page and sentence is going to leap to life for us.  But some will, if we give them the time they deserve.

Now, about your papers.  When I go over them, and comment on them, I will be critical, but I hope kind.  I know this is a new experience for many of you, and will take some getting used to.  It may be intimidating; you may think you can’t write; you may be embarrassed or frustrated by these exercises.  However, I will make you a promise: If you show signs of really thinking about this material, I’ll get excited, and go out of my way and take extra time in order to help you capitalize on your interest and really work through the material in your thinking and writing.  If, however, I find that you are just regurgitating chunks of Augustine, which have apparently never come into contact with your mind, then there won’t be much I can do for you.

I do take this part of my duties as TA very seriously:  I take the time to offer as much help as I can in the margins of your papers.  But you need to meet me half-way, and show me that you’re making an effort.  I am far less concerned with issues of grammar and spelling and the rules of good writing (although I will deal with those too), than with whether you are thinking and writing, or just writing and writing.  If you are just writing and writing, then you will find my comments either few or brutal, or both, depending on my mood.  I will just not take the extra time to help you with the other stuff—the mechanics of presenting an argument; techniques for sorting things out on paper and stating them in helpful, clear, strong ways; and the academic protocols and etiquettes of grammar, spelling, and so forth.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you might want to check out this “little guide to Augustine’s thought on sin, freedom, and grace,” also from my days as a Duke preceptor.

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One response to “A little introduction to early Christian thought, for beginners

  1. Thanks Chris,
    I wish someone had said this to me at the beginning of my academic studies!

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