Wednesday, August 19, 2015

ANF VI: Arnobius Against the Heathen

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Arnobius: The Seven Books of Arnobius Against the Heathen

While, as the introduction points out, we don't find much positive Christian doctrine in the work that makes up 130 pages of this 500 page volume, Arnobius' broadsides against pagan theology are as devastating as those launched by Augustine a century later. In fact, in some ways this book may be seen as a thoughtful precursor to the first books of the City of God.
Really, I probably should have blogged slowly through this instead of simply glossing it months after I finished the book, but the best I can say is that you should read it (slowly) yourself and enjoy the great wisdom therein:
Explain to us and say what is the cause, what the reason that you pursue Christ with so bitter hostility? or what offenses you remember which He did, that at the mention of His name you are roused to bursts of mad and savage fury? Did He ever, in claiming for Himself power as king, fill the whole world with bands of the fiercest soldiers; and of nations at peace from the beginning, did He destroy and put an end to some, and compel others to submit to His yoke and serve Him? Did He ever, excited by grasping avarice, claim as His own by right all that wealth to have abundance of which men strive eagerly? Did He ever, transported with lustful passions, break down by force the barriers of purity, or stealthily lie in wait for other men's wives? Did He ever, puffed up with haughty arrogance, inflict at random injuries and insults without any distinction of persons? And if He was not worthy that you should listen to and believe Him, yet He should not have been despised by you even on this account, that He showed to you things concerning your salvation, that He prepared for you path to heaven, and the immortality for which you long...
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius Fragments II

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius: Three Fragments from the Homily on the Cross and Passion of Christ and Some other Fragments of the Same Methodius

These last two sections are short and excellent. Again, it is unfortunate we don't have the whole of any of these works.
For the Word suffered, being in the flesh affixed to the cross, that He might bring man, who had been deceived by error, to His supreme and godlike majesty, restoring him to that divine life from which he had become alienated.
Truly excellent, read them all!

Monday, August 17, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius on the Palms

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius: On the Palms

This short work is unimpressive, but might as well be read given its brevity.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: "End of Discussion" by Ham and Benson


A confession: I resolved to give up reading books like this when I was an undergrad. After slogging my way through Hannity and Colmes and O'Reilly and Franken, I finally decided that I was done reading books that would be functionally useless (because out of date) by the time the paperback edition came out. But, for End of Discussion by Mary Katharine Ham and Guy Benson I broke that rule for the following reasons:
1) Free speech and public discourse are topics I'm interested in;
2) They asked for my opinion on the book, and hence appealed to my pride;
3) The book was free, on the condition that I write a review (but not necessarily a positive one—boom! you've been disclaimed!);
4) There is precedent for this departure from my normal practice.
And, I'm glad I broke my own rule in this case. Not because I think this book is going to stand the test of time—in that sense it fits in with the books listed above. Don't get me wrong, Ham and Benson seem eminently more reasonable and thoughtful than most who write these sorts of things (see those linked above as examples). But this is still a book dealing with a single issue and examples of that issue that are current right now, and almost certainly will not be twelve months from now.

Still, End of Discussion is interesting, well-written, and accessible. It is not eye-bulgingly paranoid or blindly ideological or any other of the extremes that conservatives can tend to run toward. For those reasons, and for the questions this book raises about free speech in public life, I am quite happy to have read it and quite happy to recommend it as an useful contribution to the present conversation over free speech. (And yes, I do agree with the authors that it is unfortunate that we even are having a conversation about a freedom that a decade ago was simply assumed.)  

Summary

The central argument of End of Discussion is obvious from the subtitle—it's about how modern liberalism would rather shut down opposition than engage it. The authors suggest that a tendency on the left has been "not to declare our words or actions offensive, which would be preposterous enough... but to slowly and steadily declare our very existence offensive." (pg 6) Rather than have an argument about—to use an example mostly from the 90s that doesn't turn up much in the book—the merits and demerits of affirmative action, the left has begun taking pernicious position of simply declaring opponents to the program to be 'racist' and hence not worthy of being engaged in public discourse.

Now, there are obviously groups we do that with all the time—no one is going to seriously invite the Klan to send a representative to a public debate on race relations. But even that's not the same thing as saying that we're going to use political or social power to punish someone for their beliefs, particularly someone who is in the mainstream (like conservatives) and not on the fringes of society (like the Klan). Ham and Benson quite rightly point out that this aggressive argumentation is not just a new form of speech, it's actively destructive to a core American freedom.

End of the Discussion is structured loosely like this:

  • ·         Introduction to the book and to leftist outrage (Chapters 1-3)
  • ·         Specific topics and places where we see this outrage, including:
o   Race (chapter 4)
o   University Campuses (chapter 5)
o   Feminism and gender issues (chapter 6)
o   Media (chapter 7)
o   Homosexual issues (chapter 8) Full props to one of the authors for having the courage to come out publicly in this chapter—in a footnote. And I say "courage" not because I think it's particularly courageous to come out these days. For that, you've got to look back to Andrew Sullivan and Ellen Degeneres who came out before it was culturally acceptable. But coming out as a homosexual conservative? That takes courage and, from what I understand, is one of the ways to get yourself shunned in the LGBT community. And of course, there are those on the right who will hear that one of the authors is homosexual and that will be for them, well, the end of the discussion.
o   And, uh... stand-up comedy (chapter 9) Okay, okay, this one is about what you can and can't say in public using stand-up comics as examples, but still...

  • ·         What to do about it as a thoughtful conservative (chapter 10)
So obviously, this is a pretty wide-ranging book overall.

Strengths:

End of Discussion has several things to recommend it. At the very least it is well-written and carries a good sense of self-aware humor throughout. This is necessary when writing about contemporary liberalism—the alternative is despair.

Even better, Ham and Benson are reasonably even-handed given their own biases and preferences—far more so than my previous experiences with these sorts of books had led me to expect. They admit failures of the right as well as of the left, and encourage dissent and disagreement with what they have to say. Sure, it's a book and not a blog post (hence no "comments" section) and therefore encouraging pushback functionally means nothing, but there is still some level of humility here that we don't often see in books about American politics.

Most importantly, I think they're right. And you don't have to take my word for it, there's a whole industry of old Leftists—mostly sixties radicals who would rather be tied to a car by their thumbs and be dragged around town than associate with conservatives—who are horrified that the next generation of liberals is taking seriously everything they said about getting rid of traditional American freedoms. Okay, so that's an ungenerous way of putting it. Perhaps a better phrasing would be to say "the radicals of the Sixties didn't see the direction their teaching would lead their leftist heirs, despite the continuous and loud warnings from their counterparts on the right. Now they're trying desperately to correct those errors before all the good things they worked for are lost." And there were good things being pursued by the New Left. But, as the most thoughtful respondents to their pursuit pointed out at the time, their method was ultimately destructive to their ends. When we combine this with instant national communication and the increasingly thin skins of Americans, we should be concerned about a serious threat to the freedom of our republic.

But, that's getting on my own hobby-horse and away from the book review. The short version of this section is: End of Discussion is a solid enough and well-written book.  

Weaknesses:

I said that one of the strengths of this book is that it's fairly even-handed, and I stand by that statement overall. But here and there some of their examples could have been used a bit more carefully. Just as one example, the recent hubbub at Marquette gets cited as evidence of the liberal attack on free speech on a college campus. Here's a much more balanced treatment. The short version is: the goings-on at Marquette weren't so much an example of "how liberals shut down conservatives on campus" as they were an example of "how absolutely everyone on campus can end up doing exactly the wrong thing."

A second weakness is, as I've probably said ad nauseam at this point, that this book isn't going to stand the test of time. Two years from now people won't be reading this as a great contribution to discussions of free speech, or even as a good historical summary. So, you know, weigh the value of that before you decide whether to pay Amazon $18 for it. I won't say this book isn't worth $18, just that for the same price you could buy eighteen books at a used bookstore, or a new copy of Augustine's Confessions and Howell Raines' My Soul is Rested and have enough left over for a good cup of coffee.  I like to think that the authors would agree with me on this, but I don't know them at all so I couldn't say for sure.

One last point that might merit some further consideration. It might be the case that modern liberals are not necessarily more intolerant of free speech than modern conservatives—it might be that they are just the ones in power right now. Were conservatives the ones currently dominating culture and politics, they might be curtailing free speech while liberals trumpet the First Amendment. Let's not kid ourselves about the seduction of power and the temptation to use that power to shut down people you disagree with. These are not one-sided enticements which conservatives are immune to.

With all that said, the weaknesses of End of Discussion certainly do not outweigh its strengths. I am happy to recommend it to anyone interest in the state of free speech in contemporary society.



Friday, August 14, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius on Simeon and Anna

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius: Oration Concerning Simeon and Anna on the Day that they Met in the Temple

This speech is excellent, if a bit overblown to modern ears at times. Unfortunately, we also begin to see something of what would become the Medieval worship of Mary. Fortunately, this does appear to be a later interposition rather than necessarily original to the time when Methodius actually lived.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius Fragments

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius Fragments

These are short and worth reading, if not necessarily breathtaking. It is unfortunate we don't have Methodius against Porphyry, given how much the early church seems to have feared what Porphyry wrote...

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius on the Resurrection

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius: From the Discourse on the Resurrection

This is an excellent little reflection on how the resurrection relates to the current reality of indwelling sin. Why is it that we must die and be brought back to life, rather than instantly being made perfect on conversion, especially given that we are declared perfect, even while sin persists? The reconciliation between our declared state and our current state is found according to Methodius in what will be our resurrected bodies. Unfortunately, we don't have all of this work. But what we do have is quite good and worth a read.
But the Son of God does nothing superfluously. he did not then take the form of a servant uselessly, but to raise it up and save it. For He truly was made man, and died, and not in mere appearance, but that He might truly be shown to be the first begotten from the dead, changing the earthy into the heavenly, and the mortal into the immortal.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius on Free Will

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius: Concerning Free-Will

As with most pre-Augustine writers on the topic of free will, Methodius is more distinguished for his piety than for his theology or his exposition of Scripture. Still, this short work is worth a read to get a feel for the world that Augustine inherited and had to respond to.

Monday, August 10, 2015

ANF VI: Methodius Banquet of the Ten Virgins

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Methodius: The Banquet of the Ten Virgins; Or, Concerning Chastity

While I don't necessarily agree with all the conclusions of this dialogue, it can hardly be denied that it is truly an excellent work. It is especially useful to compare it to some of the extremes the Western church later fell into as regards marriage vs. chastity. This dialogue is even more useful for us as Protestants who are perhaps not used to thinking of the role of virginity in salvation:
Wherefore God, pitying us who were in such a condition, and were able neither to stand nor to rise, sent down from heaven the best and most glorious help, virginity, that by it we might tie our bodies fast, like ships, and have a calm, coming to an anchorage without damage, as also the Holy Spirit witnesses. (IV.II)
Our salvation comes miraculously through the virgin birth. And while we are not saved by Mary's virginity or any nonsense like that, virginity was nevertheless a key part of the work of our Savior. There's a work to be done (but not by me) comparing this work on virginity with the excellent work by Thomas Shepard's Parable of the Ten Virgins.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

ANF VI: Alexander of Alexandria

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Alexander of Alexandria: Epistles on the Arian Heresy and the Deposition of Arius

These writings are wonderfully devotional reflections on the Arian controversy and its causes, effects, and management by the church. There are many reasons to read these, but especially pay attention to the emphasis given to the authority of Scripture over the claims of the church authorities (paragraph 10, pg 295) and to the nature of Christ's person and work relative to our sin.
For Christ, by dying, hath discharged the debt of death to which man was obnoxious.
Oh the new and ineffable mystery!
The Judge was judged;
He who absolves from sin was bound;
He was mocked who once framed the world;
He was stretched upon the cross who stretched out the heavens;
He was fed with gall who gave the manna to be bread;
He died who gives life.
He was given up to the tomb who raises the dead. 
Excellent, excellent stuff. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

ANF VI: Peter's Fragments

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Peter of Alexandria: Fragments

Short snippets of sayings and letters, this section is as worth a quick read as anything.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

ANF VI: Peter's Canonical Epistle with Commentary

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Peter of Alexandria: The Canonical Epistle with the Commentaries of Theodore Balsamon and John Zonaras.

This piece is interesting not so much for it's content (which is fine, even if it doesn't really stand out) as it is as a model of how the Medievals approached the Ancients. That is, the interplay between the original text and the Medieval commentators is interesting to observe and reflect on. While we modern Protestants tend to stick to expositing Scripture rather than other expositors, it's still worth thinking about whether we ought to more directly engage those whose writings we appreciate and learn from.

Monday, August 3, 2015

ANF VI: Peter's Genuine Acts

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Peter of Alexandria: The Genuine Acts of  Peter

This isn't so much about Peter of Alexandria as it is about Arius' backstory. And while we need to be somewhat skeptical (as with all ancient historical narratives), there's still some pretty good stuff here. Overall, this short work is fine and worth reading, especially the quite gracious and generous instructions on how to think about those who have fallen into the Arian heresy at the very end.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

ANF VI: Archelaus Disputation with Manes

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Archelaus: The Acts of the Disputation with the Heresiarch Manes

This lengthy work is a supposed record of a series of debates held in front of important public officials between the Pastor of Caschar in Mesopotamia and Manes, the founder of the Manichean sect. In the text, Manes and Archelaus travel around the region debating the role of the body in the salvation of the human being. Is the body inherently wicked, and so salvation has to do with shedding the body in favor of the "good" spirit, as Manes claimed? Or, as Christians claim, are both body and soul made good, but fallen and so in need of redemption? Clearly many points of core Christian doctrine are going to come in to play here, including creation, the fall, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. Even the doctrine of the Holy Spirit becomes relevant, since Manes claimed to be the Paraclete in person.

Though I don't think anyone would claim that we should read this as an actual direct transcript of an ancient debates (that's a literary form common in the ancient world, rather than an exact copy kept by a scribe of a debate between two religious leaders--though such debates did happen), this is still useful for seeing how Christian doctrine had developed in the farthest part of the Middle East. Over all, it's worth reading through, but don't bother getting bogged down--just skim over at a good clip.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

ANF VI: Pamphilus and Malchion

Ante-Nicene Fathers Volume VI

Minor Writers: Pamphilus and Malchion

These final fragments are interesting enough, but not really worth more than a quick skimming over.