Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Recommendations in Early Christian Writing

A reader writes and says:
I am not a Catholic, but a Presbyterian. For some reason I'm very drawn to Catholic blogs, though I have no desire to become a Catholic (sorry). At any rate, I've been shoring up on my theological reading. I started with some CS Lewis, but then I felt I really needed a BACKGROUND. So I bought St Augustine's Confessions. It has been wonderful!

I know there is a wealth of early Christian literature, but I feel somewhat overwhelmed and unsure of what order to go in. I'd like to build upon what Augustine taught me. I'm also open to reading lit crit of these same authors. Of course Aquinas and Merton are on my "to read" list, but I don't want to skip around and become confused or overwhelmed.

In short: what do you recommend I read next?
While I can perhaps claim to have read a little more early Christian writing than the average bear (sadly, much of the bear population is still illiterate) I don't feel that I'm by any means an expert, and I suspect that some of our readers would be able to answer this question rather better than I could, so I asked her permission to answer the question partially in a post, and then open things up for readers.

My first thought is that Augustine's Confessions are are incredibly good place to start such a task. For my money, it's nearly unmatched in combining readability with some fairly deep theological and philosophical thinking. This makes suggesting follow-ons particularly difficult. Additionally, I'd warn that a lot of early Christian writing is not, at least to my experience, super-readable. I think I'd originally had the idea that early Christian writing would be fairly basic, and that you'd see a gradual increase in complexity up until the high middle ages when (according to stereotype) the Scholastics were calculating the number of angels that could dance on the head of a pin. This is now, however, how it works out. Christianity spread as Roman and Hellenistic civilizations were fusing in a cosmopolitan Mediterranean world, and the early Christians very quickly (well before Augustine) started looking at theological questions through the most advanced philosophical and scientific understandings of their day. Given that some of these are not only complex, but fairly alien to our modern way of thinking, this can make for some tough going, at least for a non-specialist like me.

A good place to start might be right at the beginning. There's a slim Penguin Classics book entitled Early Christian Writings which collects the Epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians, the Epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the Epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians and the Didache. These works are very, very early -- basically contemporary with the books on the New Testament -- but unlike some of the "other gospel" things that float around they were widely read and respected by orthodox Christians.

Only slightly later is St. Irenaeus (who lived from around 130 to 202 AD). His famous work is a defense of the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ against the Gnostic heresy titled Against the Heresies. There's a fairly readable, edited version of this put out by Ignatius in which Irenaeus' work is cut down a bit and organized thematically, published under the title Scandal of the Incarnation. (I found this fairly readable as a college sophomore. I haven't read the full version, so I don't know how it is by comparison.)

About 50 years later than Irenaeus is Origen -- who is an interesting guy but not terribly readable. Most of the Origen that I read utterly mystified me, but I did have a strong affection for his Commentary on the Song of Songs (a book length work) which is fascinating both as a window on the incredibly detailed way in which the ancients approach the scriptures -- very different from modern literary analysis, but not for lack of complexity -- and simply because you can see a great mind doing backflips for the sheer intellectual joy of it.

Only slightly before Augustine would be St. Athanasius, one of the great Fathers of the Church, and a leader of the Council of Nicea. One of his great works, which is fairly readable, is his On the Incarnation (this edition is fairly readable and features an introduction by C. S. Lewis.)

Rome was sacked during Augustine's lifetime, and you start to see some big changes in the tenor of Christian intellectual life, molded in part by the increasing changes in society. Working through Late Antiquity and into the Medieval period, I'd suggest the following as fairly readable and emblematic:

The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell provides a lot of stories about the early monastics in one easily accessible package.

The Rule of St. Benedict by St. Benedict is probably something of a must read both as a work of spirituality and because it is so influential on later Christian monastic history.

The Life of St. Benedict written by St. Gregory the Great gives a good feel for the practice and spirituality of the period.

Moving forward a good long ways (from the sixth century to the twelfth) you would probably want to read The Little Flowers of St. Francis (a collection of incidents and sayings of St. Francis written down by one of his friars) and St. Bonaventure's Life of St. Francis. These are both quite short and readable, and while not by any means deeply theological in the way that an Augustine or a Athanasius is, they give an intense feel for a type of spirituality which St. Francis embodied and which has remained with Christianity in various forms ever since.

You say Aquinas is already on your list, and working chronologically this is where he'd fit in. Maybe one of our readers could suggest a particularly good framing text. If you are reading parts of the Summa, I would particularly recommend questions 2 and 44 as dealing with "big questions" in an interesting way that gives you a good feel for how Aquinas works.

This is something I know I am into far more than most people, but I can't help putting in a good word for reading Dante's Divine Comedy, perhaps the greatest work of theological poetry ever written. Shake off any English-class idea that it's just a dour poem about how people Dante didn't like were being tortured, and as you read it try to focus on Dante's personal journey as he first recognizes the nature of sin in Inferno, then learns to replace it with virtue in Purgatorio, and finally comes to appreciate the types of perfection in Paradiso. It can help to read this together with C. S. Lewis' Discarded Image, which is about the medieval cosmological and philosophical world view. The notes written by Dorothy Sayers for her translation of Dante are also great in this regard, but unfortunately his poetry doesn't really hold up all that well. Bulky though it can be, reading her commentary along with some more successfully poetic translation can work well.

I get spottier as I get more modern, and it probably starts to depend a lot whether you're looking more for Christian practice and spirituality or more academically oriented theology.

Some possible choices I would recommend (without much explanation, as I'm running out of time) would be:

The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
Introduction to the Devout Life by Francis de Sales
Apologia pro Vita Sua by John Henry Newman
Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton


Christina said...

Having only skimmed the older stuff, I must say that Orthodoxy is one of my favorite books. It was while reading chapter 4 that I first began to fall in love with a God of joy who is younger than we are.

Highly recommend it. I'm currently "forcing" my book club to read it.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest Boethius' "Consolation of Philosophy" and Anselm's "Monologion" and "Proslogion" to bridge the gap between Augustine and Aquinas a bit.

Also, you can't go wrong with more Augustine: "On Free Choice of the Will" and "the Teacher" are good dialogues, and I think more readable than my Boethius and Anselm recommendations.

Banshee said...

I think St. Methodius (not the Cyril one, the other one)'s Banquet of the Virgins is pretty fun. Wisdom has a dinner party for her friends, and there's a lot of fun Christian parody of the secular Greek table talk books and dialogues. And there's a framing story that's also fun!

There's a lot of interesting stuff in St. Gregory of Nyssa's dialogue with his dying elder sister and teacher, St. Macrina the Younger. Like the relationship between Greek automaton toys and the existence of God. :)

Unknown said...

A couple other must-reads from the Fathers (I'm sure others would add more):

Justin Martyr
Basil the Great
Gregory of Nyssa
Gregory of Nazianzus

In terms of a single-volume overview of Catholic writers (with a taste of some of the greats), you can't go wrong with Fr. John Hardon's The Treasury of Catholic Wisdom.

Brandon said...

I second Anonymous's recommendation of Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy; if you're looking for readability, David Slavitt's translation is probably the best -- it's somewhat loose as a translation, but quite easy for reading. I regularly teach the Consolation to freshman college students from the somewhat harder (but more accurate) Relihan translation, and it has always been the favorite section of the course for a good portion of the class. It is quite literally one of the books every member of Western civilization should have read at least once in their lives.

And I also second Suburbanbanshee's recommendation of Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina. In general, in fact, I think one's best bet is to focus on hagiographies, especially hagiographies by saints (like Athanasius's Life of Anthony, or, stretching the term a little broadly, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England); stories are better starters than systematic treatises, and the nice thing about the really great classics is that they do get into the deep things.

With Aquinas I generally don't recommend people just jump into the Summa Theologiae; everyone does it, but I think it's backwards. The best place in Aquinas to start is with the expository sermons that were collected into The Aquinas Catechism; then move on to a Scriptural commentary like the one on Colossians (short but gets into big issues), and then, if one liked that, his truly splendid (but somewhat) commentary on the Gospel of John, or, if one liked the catechetical lectures better, the Summa Contra Gentiles (at least the first and fourth book), or both. Anyone who enjoys the Scriptural commentaries and the SCG can then easily handle the ST. I think most people don't have the background for reading the ST.

If one does want to dive into the Summa Theologiae anyway, I'd recommend an abbreviated course of reading, something like:

Part I
questions 1 & 2
qq. 5 & 6
qq. 33-38
qq. 44 &46

First Part of Part II
qq. 1-5 (Treatise on Happiness)
qq. 57, 61, 62
qq. 68-70
q. 71
qq. 90-108 (Treatise on Law, with only a few exceptions probably the most accessible part of the entire book)
q. 109

Second Part of Part II
(just any handful of things that look interesting)

Part III
qq. 27-59 (Treatise on the Life of Christ)
qq. 60, 61 & 65

Something like this would avoid most of the really technical sections in favor of sections any moderately well-read person would have most of the background for. Anyone with a good background in the Bible should be able to read most of the Treatise on Law or the Treatise on the Life of Christ without too much difficulty.

I could go on, but this is a very long comment.

Christopher Blosser said...

For those getting into the Summa Theologica, Peter Kreeft provides a good college level introduction in The Summa of the Summa -- "Kreeft selected those passages from Thomas that are intrinsically important, non-technical enough to be intelligible to modern readers, and most likely to be used in a class or by independent readers who want to study the Summa on their own. Kreeft's detailed footnotes explain difficult or technical passages and call attention to points of particular significance for the modern reader."

Anonymous said...

hi- I am the reader who wrote in to Darwin.

Thank you so much for these suggestions and thanks to Darwin as well! It looks like I have a very large reading list to get sorted out.

Better get started...

Darwin said...

I'd second Anon and Brandon on the readability of Consolation of Philosophy. I only left it off on the theory it was more in of a philosophical work.

Maiki said...

For a Dante Translation that I find poetically good and with copious notes that tie Dante's thoughts with passages from Aquinas, I recommend Anthony Esolen's translation (published by Modern Library)

Gail F said...

Brandon: Thanks for your suggestion on Aquinas! As someone who has tried to tackle the Summa several times -- including through other people's works, such as Kreeft's Summa of the Summa, I am going to try that approach and see if it works for me. I do love Aquinas but my brain needs a different approach!

To the questioner: I would go with any collection of writings by the Fathers -- the Penguin one mentioned above is a good start -- and then follow whatever interests you. Darwin is right, the earliest writers are hardly the easiest! They were coming out of a philosophical and theological tradition and education that is much more complex than ours. For a recent graduate class I had to read St. Basil the Great's treatise on the Holy Spirit -- the first thing ever written about the subject -- and then St. Ambrose's. St. Basil the Great was writing during the Arian heresy, when a lot of influential (and dangerous) people were saying that Christ and God were not the same; and his book was written to make you conclude that the were not only equal, but that they were also equal with the Holy Spirit. This was the first time we have it in writing by anyone! But he couldn't come right out and say it or he'd risk being murdered. Only about 20 years later St. Ambrose COULD come right out and say it -- and he does, at great length. These two treatises are really good and very interesting, but they are exhaustive, HARD reading, and a lot of the proofs are based on things we never even think about. St. Ambrose was, of course, the mentor of St. Augustine. In a way it is thrilling to read their books. But while "The Confessions" is like one long ecstatic prayer, stuff like St. Ambrose's "On the Holy Spirit" is hard theological work by a master, and you have to slog through it.

Restless Pilgrim said...

I would say that you could start by reading some of the shorter works online - that's how I began. Some of the translations are a little archaic though. A while ago I lead a study group through the letters of Ignatius and also of Polycarp's martyrdom. In preparation for this I merged some of the more accessible translations to create my own:

I've read a number of books from the "Ancient Christian Writers" series. They have some helpful endnotes, particularly if you like Greek ;-)

A good lot of my friends have enjoyed "Four Witnesses" as well.

Lastly, whenever anyone asks me about getting started with the Early Church Fathers, I always point them at Lawrence Feingold's lecture series:

"The Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body" - Epistle to Diognetus

berenike said...

Life of St Brigit
Another of life of the same

Autobiography of St Patrick

Lots more on that CELT site. There's a Penguin Classics edition of some Celtic lives (St Brendan is one of them, can't remember who else is in it) - worth a read.

I enjoyed Newman's Callista not least for his descriptions of North Africa in its days of prosperity.

I have begun Bede's On the Tabernacle, and there is a lot in it.

etc. ... :D