Monday, April 20, 2015

Documents of the Christian Church by Bettenson and Maunder (Book Review #32 of 2015)

Documents of the Christian Church
This book compiles ancient and modern documents produced by the church and theologians marking historic points in the development of the Church (predominantly the Western Church and then British towards the end) into modern English. The editors have included a few notes on translation as well as very brief comments on the dates and historical context. But this is not a stand-alone history text, it's a supplement. My help in understanding the context came primarily from Cantor's Civilization of the Middle Ages as well as the ongoing History of the Christian Church podcast (currently through the Reformation) and to a lesser extent The Birth of Classical Europe by Price and Thoneman. R.C. Sproul's Are We Together analyzing Catholicism was helpful in understanding development of Catholic doctrine and some details about the various Councils and Papal bulls. I had also recently read Augustine's Confessions and City of God along with brief biographies of Luther, Calvin, and Aquinas in recent years that contributed help in some sections (as well as the The Swans are Not Silent biography sketch series by John Piper).

My quest to read and learn about Christian history comes from a conviction that we are far too ignorant of research, wrestlings, and conclusions reached by our ancestors 50 years ago, much less 500-1500 years ago. People have been interpreting and writing commentaries on Scripture since the second century but these are only rarely read by academics and their relevance never grasped by modern Christians. How did we reach the doctrines our denominations have today, and when did they begin to differ? How do we avoid repeating history if we're ignorant of it? We hear a lot about heresies and false doctrines, but could we recognize them if we read them in the original (the English translation of the original anyway)? Have you ever read Luther's Ninety-Five Theses or read Calvin in the original? If not, you may call yourself a Calvinist but unexpectedly find yourself more in line with Arminius' official positions than Calvin's.

But when you select the documents to include, how do you decide what makes the cut? How do you decide which portions are the most relevant? No editor can make everyone happy.

The first edition of this was published in 1967 (edited by the late Henry Bettenson). Part I looks at the record we have of the early church from fathers and secular sources to more theological writings up to the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The first documents in Section I are by the Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonius on the persecution of Christians circa 60 AD. The important correspondence between Pliny the Younger and Trajan regarding the trial and martyrdom of Christians in the second century, excepts of Justin Martyr's Apologia (c. 150), and Tertullian's writing against heresies cropping up give a picture into early church life.

Tertullian's comments (circa 200) on how Greek philosophy was corrupting Christian doctrine echo through to modern times:
"Away with all projects for a ‘Stoic,' a ‘Platonic' or a ‘dialectic' Christianity! After Christ Jesus we desire no subtle theories, no acute enquiries after the gospel..." (p. 7)

Clement of Alexandria offering a different take (c. 200):
"But it may be, indeed, that philosophy was given to the Greeks immediately and primarily, until the Lord should call the Greeks. For philosophy was a ‘schoolmaster' to bring the Greek mind to Christ, as the Law brought the Hebrews." (p. 7)

There is a lengthy excerpt from The Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 155) and Eusibius' rocrds of the persecution at Lyons and Vinne (c. 177) that show all was not well between Christians, the Roman state, and the locals offended by Christian custom and worship.

Eusebius' records are proof that Christian persecution had its intense and calm periods depending on the whims of the Emporors and their regional proxies. Christian worship was made legal under Gallienus and briefly under Diocletian before Diocletian changed his mind (c. 303). The Edict of Milan in 313 did not make Christianity the official religion of the state, as is often claimed, but rather granted everyone freedom to worship with Christians in somewhat of a favored status:

"When we, Constantine and Licinius, Emperors, met at Milan in
conference concerning the welfare and security of the realm, we
decided that of the things that are of profit to all mankind, the
worship of God ought rightly to be our first and chiefest care, and that
it was right that Christians and all others should have freedom to
follow the kind of religion they favoured; so that the God who dwells
in heaven might be propitious to us and to all under our rule." (p. 17)

Section II prints the earliest recorded Creeds from several sources. Section III the tradition of the Elders (like Papias, c. 130) about the Gospels and their authorship. Section IV the earliest writings on the person of Christ (Ignatius, Irenaeus, Athanasius, etc.). Translating from Greek to Latin involves dealing with subtleties in the language that muddled definitions.

Very helpful were the early documents,  statements by theologians, bishops, and councils on the various heresies, starting with Docetism (The assertion that Christ did not actually suffer in the flesh), the various forms of gnosticism, Nestorianism, and others. The editors provide brief explanations and definitions that are quite helpful.

Section VI reprints the battle between Pelagius and Augustine over human nature, sin, and grace. The Synod of Arles (c. 473) and "Semi-Pelagianism," etc. VII reprints the earliest records we have on the sacraments (c. 95) and the development of orthodoxy and a look at how the early church worshipped. Justin from 150 A.D.:
"And on the day which is called the day of the sun there is an assembly of all who live in the towns or in the country; and the memoirs of the Apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits. Then the reader ceases, and the president speaks, admonishing us and exhorting us to imitate these excellent examples. Then we arise all together and offer prayers; and, as we said before, when we have concluded our prayer, bread is brought, and wine and water, and the president in like manner offers up prayers and thanksgivings with all his might; and the people assent with Amen; and there is the distribution and partaking by all of the Eucharistic elements; and to them that are not present they are sent by the hand of the deacons. And they that are prosperous and wish to do so give what they will, each after his choice. What is collected is deposited with the president, who gives aid to the orphans and widows and such as are in want by reason of sickness or other cause; and to those also that are in prison, and to strangers from abroad, in fact to all that are in need he is a protector." (p. 73).

Clement of Rome's epistle to the Corinthians (c. 95) offer a good post-script on what happened long after Paul signed 2 Corinthians. The Didache is reprinted as well.

Some documents give a little context for the rise of the church authority in Rome, but it is evident from all the document histories that the Roman bishop increasingly gains power and influence. Irenaeus' chronicle of succession gives a timeline from Apostles to the Roman see of his day. Eventually we get to the development of Papal power and authority.

A nice addition is Xection X, which includes Christian inscriptions found in cemetaries and other places in the 3rd-4th centuries. Some of these give evidence of infant baptism.

Part II is 451 to the Present. It opens with the breach between East and West, and from there on the West is the primary focus of the documents. Charlemagne's relationship with Rome is chronicled in Section II, Section IV reprints the Condordat of Worms (1122) that ended the battle over investiture with Henry V. Various Papal bulls and correspondance with monarchs are preserved.

Section III looks at the various forms of Monasticism and the rules the orders of St. Benedict and St. Francis followed. Section IV looked at the controversy over using "secular" authorities to execute church judgments (the Inquisition). Section VI nicely reprints the apologetics of the Scholastics movement, and a tiny amount of Thomas Aquinas' work is reprinted.

"A monastery should, if possible, be so arranged that everything necessary—that is, water, a mill, a garden, a bakery—may be available, and different trades be carried on, within the monastery; so that there shall be no need for the monks to wander about outside. For this is not at all good for their souls" (p. 140).

Rule of St. Francis:
"As the wage of their labour they may receive corporal necessities for themselves and their brothers but not coin nor money, and this with humility, as is fitting for servants of God, and followers of holy poverty" (p. 143).

Section VII is "The Church in England Until the Reformation," which includes clashes between the monarchs and Rome as well as events leading up to the Magna Carta circa 1215. Wycliffe's condemnation (1382) is included. The Lollards, where were precursors to the Reformers, reached interesting "Conclusions." Among them, Christians following a government to war was sin:

"That manslaughter in war, or by pretended law of justice for a temporal cause, without spiritual revelation, is expressly contrary to the New Testament, which indeed is the law of grace and full of mercies. This conclusion is openly proved by the examples of Christ’s preaching here on earth, for he specially taught a man to love his enemies, and to show them pity, and not to slay them" (p. 197).

Sections VIII and IX deal with the Reformation on the Continent and England accordingly. The Bull Unigenitus of Clement VI, which established the sale of indulgences and outraged Luther is included, along with several of the Ninety-Five Theses (1517). 

From Luther's Two Treatises (1520):
"If the article of our faith is right, ‘I believe in the holy Christian Church,' the Pope cannot alone be right; else we must say, ‘I believe in the Pope of Rome,' and reduce the Christian Church to one man, which is a devilish and damnable heresy. Besides that, we are all priests, as I have said, and have all one faith, one Gospel, one Sacrament; how then should we not have the power of discerning and judging what is right or wrong in matters of faith?" (p. 217).

Luther's original prayer book and instruction to clergy is included as well as the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. These include what prayers to teach everyone, crossing one's self when praying, and other items (p. 221):
"Private confession, which alone is practised, though it cannot be proved from Scripture, is wholly commendable, useful and indeed necessary. I would not have it cease, but rather I rejoice that it exists in the Church of Christ, for it is the one and only remedy for troubled consciences. … The one thing that I abhor is the employment of confes-sion to further the despotism and the exactions of the pontiffs."

"On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen" (p. 224).

Section II has some brief excerpts from Calvin and the development of Calvinism, with this interesting comment from the editor on Calvin's Institutes (p. 236):
"Calvin’s genius was for organization rather than theological speculation."

From Calvin, who seems to be critiquing Augustine's view of God's foreknowledge and predestination (p. 237):
"No one who wishes to be thought religious dares outright to deny predestination, by which God chooses some for the hope of life, and condemns others to eternal death. But men entangle it with captious quibbles; and especially those who make foreknowledge the ground of it...By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he has decided in his own mind what he wishes to happen in the case of each individual. For all men are not created on an equal footing, but for some eternal life is pre-ordained, for others eternal damnation."

The Five Articles of the Remonstrants (Arminius) are printed in Section IV. The main difference "grace is not irresistible;" (p. 283).

"by no guile or violence of Satan can they be led astray or plucked from Christ's hands [John x. 28]. But for the question whether they are not able through sloth or negligence to forsake the beginning of their life in Christ, to embrace again this present world, to depart from the holy doctrine once delivered to them, to lose their good conscience and to neglect grace—this must be the subject of more exact inquiry in the Holy Scriptures, before we can teach it with full confidence of our mind...
Semipelagians admit the necessity of prevenient interior grace for single acts, even for the beginning of faith; and they are heretics in this, that they wish grace to be of such a kind as human will can resist or obey." (p. 284).

Later sections deal with the battles between Reformeds and Catholics, and the persecution that Reformed believers faced and various attempts to keep the peace:

"We forbid all our subjects, of whatever rank or condition, to take children of this religion, by force or persuasion, to be baptized or confirmed in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church; the same being forbidden to those of the so-called Reformed Religion, under penalty of exceptionally severe punishment. XXI. Books concerning this religion are not to be printed and exposed for sale save in towns and districts where the public practice of the said religion is allowed" (Edict of Nantes, 240).

Section X has documents from the Catholic Counter-Reformation, including the Council of Trent. Eventually, the Catholic Church works out the Doctrine of Immaculate Conception (that Mary was born sinless) and that the Pope is infallible (1870).

Section XI and XII deals with British churches from 1600-1900, the battle between the Puritans and Monarchists. Excerpts of original Presbyterian orders and Baptist confessions of faith are reproduced to highlight their distinctives. Baptists (323-324):

"Not only those that do actually profess faith and obedience unto Christ, but also the infants of one or both believing parents, are to be baptized. … Grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed to it, as that … all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated...Being thus joined, every Church hath power given them from Christ, for their well-being to choose among themselves meet persons for elders and deacons … and none have power to impose on them either these or any other...The way and manner of dispensing this ordinance, is dipping or plunging the body under water. It, being a sign, must answer the things signified; which is, that interest the saints have in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, and that as certainly as the body is buried under water, and risen again, so certainly shall the bodies of the saints be raised by the power of Christ."

I found George Fox's original 15 propositions of Quaker belief (Section XII) to be interesting and disturbing. I did not realize they held Scripture in such low esteem, it is subordinate to internal emotional revelation. Wesley's original Methodism as an attempt at reform of the Anglican church, which he considered himself a member of, is highlighted.

Many of the documents highlight the differences between the Anglican church and Rome. Roman Catholicism dealt with social problems as well, I found this from an encyclical of Leo XIII in 1891 against Socialism to be of note:
"The possession of private property is a right given to man by nature. … There is no reason why the directing power of the state should be brought in; for man is prior to the state, and therefore he must have had by nature the right to preserve his life and person before any community was organized..." (p. 291).

This fourth edition was updated in 2011 by Chris Maunder to include releases from Vatican II, the development of liberation theology and feminism, and how certain denominations addressed nuclear non-proliferation, AIDS, abortion, Jewish relations, New Age-ism, homosexuality, and the environment in the 1980s and 1990s.

Most interesting from the last chapters were Karl Barth and German theologians wrestling with resistance against Nazi Germany. The Barmen declaration is reproduced.

Maunder's choices and comments indicate he has no esteem for Baptists and other large denominations in America outside of Anglicans and Catholics, except when citing Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. He discounts the work and resolution of any non-ecumenical body except for British Methodists and Anglicans. Methodist resolutions on the New Age movement were deemed worthy to cite. I think Maunder's choices are unfortunate and detract from the book. Certainly less space could have been given these modern texts and more to the ancient, more consequential ones. Still, as Anglicans, Methodists, and Catholics retreat on certain social issues it's interesting to look back at these documents even from the 1990s and see how fast social change is happening.

In all, I give this work 3.5 stars out of 5. I recommend it as a reference on anyone's shelf.

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