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Thinkers Outside the Box

Two recent volumes, by Paul Foster (ed.) and Pope Benedict XVI, help us remember that some thinkers do not fit into neat and tidy categories of scientific method, nor even of traditional Christian forms of theology.

Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures by Paul Foster (ed.). IVP Academic, 2011. 204pp.

Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church Through the Middle Ages by Pope Benedict XVI. Augsburg Fortress, 2011. 328pp.



It is right that any one beginning to narrate the formation of the world should begin with the good order which reigns in visible things. I am about to speak of the creation of heaven and earth, which was not spontaneous, as some have imagined, but drew its origin from God. What ear is worthy to hear such a tale? How earnestly the soul should prepare itself to receive such high lessons! How pure it should be from carnal affections, how unclouded by worldly disquietudes, how active and ardent in its researches, how eager to find in its surroundings an idea of God which may be worthy of Him!
—Basil, Hexaemeron, Homily I, 1; The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. VIII, 52)

The history of Christianity is a vibrant field, because it involves real people who lived out their faith in challenging times. Ours is not the only generation of Christians that has faced challenges in the marketplace of ideas. The church has always had to think creatively and present afresh its understanding of the Christian faith to the world. Paul Foster's edited work Early Christian Thinkers: The Lives and Legacies of Twelve Key Figures and Pope Benedict XVI's Great Christian Thinkers From the Early Church Through the Middle Ages are new offerings in the field of the history of Christianity.

Paul Foster brings together a wonderful collection of essays portraying key figures from the first three centuries of Christianity in Early Christian Thinkers. The inclusion of individuals who might not readily come to mind as important thinkers of their time makes this work especially distinctive. For instance, Foster contributes a chapter on Tatian, Rick Rogers writes about Theophilus of Antioch, Sara Parvis on Perpetua, and Michael Slusser on Gregory Thaumaturgus. Further, the choice not to include certain "usual suspects" (such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch) helps make this work a fresh look at the time period. All in all, this makes for an interesting study of early Christianity that provides the reader with a broad understanding of the diversity of thought that made up the movement. The book is both scholarly and accessible to students and readers who are interested in the thinkers and figures of early Christianity.

Pope Benedict XVI's Great Christian Thinkers from the Early Church through the Middle Ages is a tour de force work on over 70 Christian thinkers, broadly defined. It is a collection of addresses delivered to public audiences in Saint Peter's Square. The diverse portraits of church figures include bishops, theologians, teachers, missionaries, mystics, and monks. In this work, Pope Benedict XVI is not only professor but also pastor of the Roman Catholic faith as he leads the faithful through the centuries of church history, beginning with the "Heirs of the Apostles" and ending with "Mystics, Mendicants, and Scholastics of the Medieval Church." What is so delightful about Pope Benedict XVI's work is that he discusses many church leaders and individuals that a reader may not find covered even in a very good work on church history. The breadth of the collection of addresses gives the reader a more detailed glance at many of the key thinkers of the first 1500 years of the history of the church, including many Eastern Church figures not well known by western Christians, such as John Climacus, Germanus of Constantinople, St. Theodore the Studite, and Symeon the New Theologian. The choice to end the historical review of prominent thinkers at the Reformation makes this work distinctly Roman Catholic, and yet simultaneously inclusive for all Western Christians.

Although Foster's work focuses on just the first three centuries of Christianity, there is, of course, some overlap of material between Foster's and Pope Benedict XVI's works—in particular, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Cyprian, and Eusebius of Caesarea. But the differences in how Foster and Pope Benedict XVI handle each of these thinkers illuminate their distinct audiences and purposes.

Probably the best example of these differences can be found in Pope Benedict XVI's treatment of Eusebius of Caesarea, who is known as the first church historian. According to Pope Benedict XVI, the ancient church historian shows the "moral intention" of his work very plainly in Book I of his Ecclesiastical History. Seizing upon this idea of "moral intention," the Pope writes, "Historical analysis is never an end in itself; it is not made solely with a view to knowing the past; rather, it focuses decisively on conversion and on an authentic witness of Christian life on the part of the faithful. It is a guide for us too." Pope Benedict XVI goes on to quote Cardinal Jean Daniélou: "History has a hidden content. . . . The mystery is that of God's works which constitute in time the authentic reality concealed behind the appearances. . . . However, this history which he brings about for man, God does not bring about without him. Pausing to contemplate the 'great things' worked by God would mean seeing only one aspect of things. The human response lies before them." With his emphasis on the moral intention of the historian and human responsibility to respond to the works of God in history, Pope Benedict XVI is clearly addressing the faithful believers gathered to hear him in St. Peter's Square, unlike Foster, whose work is aimed primarily at the academy, particularly scholars and students. In his addresses the Pope practices this kind of historical moral intention himself and presents opportunities for his readers to respond in faith and love. Such a high aim as conversion through historical reflection is both refreshing and inspiring.

Foster's Early Christian Thinkers is a work with high aims as well, but different ones. While not seeking religious conversion from its study of twelve key figures from early Christianity, it does seek to promote a deeper understanding of the diversity of thought and practice in the early Christian era. For instance, the book delves into two thinkers who have been controversial and considered by later generations to be heretical—Tatian and Origen. According to Foster, each of them, as well as the other thinkers included, helped promote the development of Christian thought to varying degrees. Foster describes the larger purpose for these studies in the following way: "Thus, the 12 figures discussed are of value for contemporary study not only because of the historical lessons they teach but also perhaps more importantly because they provide ongoing insights into the manner in which robust doctrinal, ecclesiological and ideational differences can be negotiated." Whereas Pope Benedict XVI's approach to his topic emphasizes a view of church history that sees diverse thinkers as part of the same orthodox stream that is ultimately best defined as the Roman Catholic faith, Foster and the writers that contribute to his collection through their approach paint a picture of early Christian history that had diverse and sometimes incompatible visions of the Christian faith and ultimately were either accepted or rejected by their contemporaries or subsequent generations of thinkers. So while both books are working with the history of thinkers in Christianity and their ideas, the agenda of each brings different conclusions and emphases.

Both books' titles include the word "thinkers," though at first glance, "thinker" might not seem the most appropriate appellation for all the figures considered. Yet I would suggest that it is precisely this use of the term for individuals usually considered "visionaries," "mystics," or martyrs which opens up for the reader a deeper consideration of what precisely it means to be a "great thinker." As a seminarian attending a non-denominational seminary in Southern California, I was not met with an institutional agenda that drove the interpretation of my studies and theological reflection. That was a strength that I had sought and appreciated at the time. No one was telling me what to think, even though there was guidance on how to reflect "objectively" upon biblical and historical texts.

And yet as I read these two works by Foster and Pope Benedict XVI, I am struck anew with the gaps of my experience, and that perhaps I was not trained how to think as the Apostle Paul might put it—"in Christ" with a renewed mind (Eph. 4:23; Rom. 12:2). How can we train ourselves to think "in Christ" and to become great thinkers?

What strikes me as I reflect on these two books is that "thinking" is often too narrowly defined. For example, Foster summarizes the contributions of the key figures portrayed in his work when he writes, "So if they leave modern readers with one overarching legacy it is this: a call to engage one's intellect in the fullest pursuit of truth, in the confident hope that honest enquiry is always of the highest benefit for Christian faith." Foster seems to define the pursuit of truth solely in terms of one's intellect. Yet I propose that the evidence of Foster's book itself supports a much broader view of what it means to think than merely involving the intellect.

Consider Foster's inclusion of an essay on Perpetua. She was an early Christian martyr who received several dreams during her imprisonment. These dreams or visions were instrumental in Perpetua and her friends maintaining their faith in the midst of their trials, and they form for Sara Parvis the basis of our understanding of her theology.

Visions and dreams are not typically included in the academic compendium of resources for the Christian thinker. But should they be? What would the Bible be without visions and dreams? Thinking is more than rational cognition; it includes the ability to receive new thoughts that arrive through inspiration and sources not easily accessible to the human mind. The Christian movement is handicapped if we can only maintain a dialogue with the world in terms of the rational cognitive aspects of thinking alone. Thinking is actually much deeper and involves so much more of the human soul. Perpetua exemplifies the dynamic aspects of the Christian movement that were inspired by prophecies, miracles, and visions. This tradition was not lost after the Montanist movement was broken up by the ecclesiastical leaders of the late second century. It found new outlets in the monastic movement starting in the fourth century down through the middle ages.

Another aspect of these lives of great thinkers in the history of the church is the way that they lived and prepared themselves to think. For example, Clement of Alexandria, according to Judith L. Kovacs in Foster's volume, "urges his readers to a life in which moral discipline, intellectual training and imitation of the works of divine love go hand in hand." It is particularly the interaction with God in prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and other spiritual disciplines that prepared the minds of these great thinkers to think in new and fresh ways. The zeal of Origen in his pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of heavenly glory by Perpetua inspire us to consider more broadly the kind of life that is required in order to become a great thinker. Thus Pope Benedict XVI's inclusion of monks, mystics, and poets reveals the great wealth of spiritual and theological thinking in the church that one may not normally associate with the great scholastics of the Middle Ages. After reading these short vignettes one is both informed of the intellectual contributions and inspired by the lives of these great thinkers. We cannot escape the simple fact that the way we live impacts the way we think.

Both of these volumes help us reflect upon the nature of thinking through rigorous academic examination and pastoral exhortation—and they help us remember that some thinkers do not fit into neat and tidy categories of scientific method, nor even of traditional Christian forms of theology. Nevertheless, if we allow them, they can inspire us to consider the depths and heights of Christian thinking as it was meant to be.

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Grant Goble Grant Goble
Since 2007 Grant Goble has served as an Associate Pastor at Vision Christian Fellowship in Pasadena, California. ... read more »

Posted in Philosophy, Religion.

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