Book Review - Volumes 3 and 4 of the Ancient Christian Doctrine Series

[amazon 0830825339 thumbnail]Previously, we have reviewed volumes 1 and 2 of the Ancient Christian Doctrine series from IVP. This series of five volumes is a commentary on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The commentary in each volume is drawn from writings from the patristic period of church history: AD 95-750. Among the purposes of the Ancient Christian Doctrine series is “showing how the new ecumenism is today being nourished and renewed by the ancient ecumenical consensus” (p. vii). For those who bristle at the mention of “ecumenism” (a word sprinkled liberally throughout the book’s editorial matter), Oden takes care to contrast “the true meaning of ecumenism” as found in the Fathers versus “a century of often dubious modern ecumenical experimentation” (p. xiv). Oden, at the forefront of the paleo-orthodoxy movement, unsurprisingly states that the “ancient faith is the rightful patrimony of all global Christians today, whether Protestants, Orthodox, Catholic or charismatic,” adding that “there is a dawning awareness among Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox laity that vital ecumenical orthodox teaching stands in urgent need of deep grounding in its most consensual classic Christian sources” (p. xv). While not agreeing fully with Oden’s statement, I believe there is an uneasy awareness among Christians that biblical illiteracy is on the rise and that fewer Christians understand and are able to articulate foundational doctrines. This series does indeed do much to inform readers of these foundational doctrines, grounded in Scripture, and illustrating that truths we accept today as self-evident were often arrived at only through much thought, deliberation and interpretation, and often as a result of a heretical challenge (e.g., Arius’ denial of the Trinity).

See the previous reviews of volume 1 (We Believe in One God) and volume 2 (We Believe in One Lord Jesus Christ). This post will give a brief review of volumes 3 and 4, and next week a final post will cover volume 5 and wrap up the analysis of the entire series.

Volume 3 – We believe in the crucified and risen Lord

Mark J. Edwards is the editor of volume three, titled We Believe in the Crucified and Risen Lord. This volume covers the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed from the statement “For our sake he was crucified” to the statement “And his kingdom will have no end.” Or, it should be said, this volume is intended to cover that section of the Creed. On the whole, this was a disappointing contribution to the series. In many places I was left with the impression that this was not the book Edwards wanted to produce. If true, I wish the series editors would have conceded to such a request.

Edwards openly questions the motives of those composing the creed. Edwards seems to think that the cross and resurrection of Christ are only mentioned to drum up tourism to Holy Land attractions (pgs. 24, 100). Therefore it is not too surprising to see him in several places deemphasizing the role of the physical sufferings of Christ.

Nevertheless, there is some value in this contribution. First, Edwards has done his own translation on most of the quotes he provides. Other volumes in the series (and most of the works in IVPs various “Ancient Christian” series) rely on older English translations that frequently come off as dated: even when they are revised or updated. Edwards’ fresh translations allow the Fathers to be heard without the static of out-dated language. Edwards also offers lengthy citations. This is helpful for those who desire a little more context to quotations. Edwards is still, as it were, sculpting something out of gold—even if it is not exactly Michelangelo’s David. The prospective buyer is advised to consult the “Outline of Contents” on pages 182-184. If you would like to gain greater knowledge of patristic thought on those topics you should consider purchasing the volume. If, however, you desire greater insight into the background of the creed itself you should probably pass on volume 3.

Mark J. Edwards is tutor in theology at Christ Church and university lecturer in patristics at the University of Oxford. Among his publications are Neoplatonic Saints, Origen Against Plato, John Through the Centuries, Constantine and Christendom, and Culture and Philosophy in the Age of Plotinus. He also served as the volume editor for Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, New Testament volume 8 of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture.

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Volume 4 – We believe in the Holy Spirit

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Volume 4, We Believe in the Holy Spirit edited by Joel C. Elowsky, simply shines. The first two, and final four chapters of the book provide an invaluable supplement to any study on the Holy Spirit. College and seminary professors as well as pastors who are teaching on the Holy Spirit will find their teaching greatly enriched by this volume. The Holy Spirit has often been the most neglected member of the Trinity. This was no less true in the 1st-4th centuries than it is today. Yet this volume demonstrates the thinking of the fathers on the Holy Spirit was deep even if their speaking was not long.

Even the weakest part of the work is valuable. Elowsky devotes nearly 200 pages to expositing the phrase “the giver of life”: exploring the Holy Spirit’s role of life-giving through creation, repentance, justification, theosis, and sanctification. A considerable number of the quotes have no specific mention of the Holy Spirit, but focus on the work of the Father or Son. Such portions nevertheless fill in the lacuna left by the lack of such treatment in volume 3 where the discussion probably belonged.

For evangelicals or fundamentalists, the most challenging part of the book will certainly be the chapter on theosis. Elowsky probably goes astray in trying to incorporate such a chapter as background to this portion of the Creed itself, but it is a valuable contribution to one of the purposes of the series: that of fostering discussion between East (Orthodoxy) and West (Romanism and Protestantism). If the discussion of theosis, or deification, could start where Elowsky begins it, a greater understanding could be reached. If theosis was understood as only “an ongoing process of sanctification by which we, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, become more and more conformed to the image of our God and Father in which we were originally created” there would seem to be little ground for disagreement. Understood as such, theosis is simply the Eastern way of saying “glorification.” One problem, though, is that the Orthodox teaching on the subject does not limit itself to the inheritance of incorruptibility and immortality.

Elowsky’s final chapter shows that he is sensitive to modern questions. Does the Holy Spirit still give the gift of tongues? This is neither a new question; nor one that has not been addressed. Fundamentalists will finish this book with a smile as they read the final section extolling the authority of Scripture.

The Rev. Joel Elowsky (Ph.D., Drew University) is associate professor of theology at Concordia University Wisconsin.

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