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Early Christian Thought and the Classical Tradition (1966)
by Henry Chadwick
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`Based mainly on the Hewett Lectures on early Alexandrian Christianity, delivered in 1962 at Union Theological Seminary [et al]' Includes index
Henry Chadwick was one of the great teachers of early Christianity in the 20th century. This book is a product of the best tradition of British scholarship, profound learning conveyed with a light touch and a judicious dose of wit. It is based on a set of four lectures Chadwick gave more than a half-century ago when visiting the U.S. As such, they are relatively accessible for the reader hoping to bootstrap his way into the field of patristics, the study of the Church “Fathers” (the writings so classified seem to all have been written by men). As the full title implies, these lectures focus on three authors notable for their engagement with the prevailing intellectual tradition of their time, Greek philosophy. It’s interesting to read his depiction of how these three early Christian thinkers strove to be both intelligent and orthodox. On the surface, it seems as if they took over the popular eclecticism of their time: Stoic ethics, Platonic metaphysics, Aristotelian logic. But Chadwick shows how, from the basis of Christian faith, they also engaged each critically. Theirs is clearly a project that has Chadwick’s sympathies.
Yet is was a project not without controversy among fellow-believers at the time, many of whom felt no need for this engagement. What Chadwick writes of Clement’s persistence in the face of opposition is true to some degree of Justin and Origen as well: “To deny that philosophy is God’s gift is to deny providence and the image of God in creation” (p. 43).
While many of their contemporary believers would have preferred to ignore questions raised by philosophy, those Christians of a more intellectual cast of mind were drawn to Gnostic systems, described by Chadwick as: “that somber and repellent theosophy in which Christian redemption is fused with a pessimistic interpretation of Plato, a dualism drawn from a hellenised version of Zoroastrianism, important elements from heterodox Judaism, the whole being mingled with astrology and with magic as the principal technique for overcoming the powers of fate” (p. 7). So here was a challenge of another sort, and each of the three writers discussed navigated between these two extremes.
Of these three, the one whose name might be most familiar to today’s readers might be that of Origen, who famously stirred up controversy by expressing the opinion during a debate with a Gnostic opponent that he didn’t even feel the devil was beyond redemption. Chadwick devotes the fourth lecture to a balanced, sensitive discussion of whether Origen can be defended from the 6th century dismissal of him as a heretic. He shows that the charge of heresy is in part because of theological definitions formulated after Origen’s death. Another point is that Origen lived in a tradition shaped by Plato and Philo; some of what was subsequently viewed as suspect in his thinking had simply been taken over from them. In other cases, some of the charges are based on a position Origen reports, but never identifies as his own; indeed, in some cases even argues against. Nevertheless, Chadwick does not simply exonerate Origen on these grounds. Instead, he ends with the observation that, in “assessing whether or not he is orthodox,” we find “we are continually driven back to the prior question: what is the essence of orthodoxy?” (p. 123).
While some of the controversies discussed in these pages belong to a long-bygone era, others remain surprising contemporary, such as the discussion of universalism. Some are a little of both, for example, the question of the difference between man and other animals: is it the difference between rational and non-rational, or are there degrees of rationality? The terms of the debate then and the examples used seem nonsense to us now, but the question abides.
It was also interesting to see how many of the criticisms of Christian faith that show up repeatedly on my Facebook feed go back to that far-distant time. We know this because Origen writes of his controversy with the most vocal critic, Celsus, and does so in such a way that inspires confidence that Origen has listened carefully and taken the views of his opponent seriously, yet also offered reasoned answers that would serve equally-well today.
When I rate a book by assigning stars, I normally reserve five stars for books that are not only great, but could be read with profit by anyone, no matter what their personal interests. Books for a more limited audience receive four as the highest from me. I went back and forth on my rating of this one. In the end, because of the one-sided, simple-minded memes lobbed back and forth in Facebook and other forums both by those who attack Christianity as well as those who defend it, I’ve decided to recommend this unreservedly.
Interesting Christian history of the marrying of the Greek culture with the Christian. Details the prominent Christians of the 2nd Century: Justin the Martyr, Clement and Origen. Some of the views are pretty fanciful while others are a reasonable combining of the acceptable views of Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics. The way Christians were able form their views with intellectual weight and carry the torch to proceeding generations. I as a Christian am indebted in many ways to these early saints
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Wikipedia in English (1)
The historian of western culture cannot travel far without discovering that the roots of many twentieth-century questions lie in the ancient dialogue between the early Christians and culture of the old classical world. This book takes three Christian thinkers: Justin, clement of Alexandria,and Origen, and shows what the debate looked like from the Christian side. It draws on the pagan critics of the church to illustrate the case the Christians had to answer. The examination of the Christian synthesis illustrates the extent to which penetrating criticism of the classical traditionwas combined with a profound acceptance of its humanism.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)230Religions Christian doctrinal theology Christianity, Christian theology
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