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Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

David Brakke, Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism (1995)

Thesis: “Athanasius’ embrace of ascetic Christians and their values strengthened his political position and helped him to build an Egyptian Church more dependent on the Alexandrian episcopate. . . . My goal . . . is to provide this oft-repeated picture of Athanasius and asceticism with a stronger historical foundation and a more precise understanding of how asceticism advanced Athanasius’ political programme” (13-14).

Ch. 1: “Chapter 1 studies Athanasius’ efforts to control the life of virgins [= female ascetics] in the city of Alexandria” (11) in order to isolate them from city life, and thus prevent them from associating with the Arians.[i] In fourth-century Alexandria, groups of Christian intellectuals attracted female ascetics, who, by eschewing sex (and, thus, marriage) had the leisure to study philosophy. Athanasius found this practice distasteful. He emphasized the female ascetics’ title of “brides of Christ,” arguing that, just like normal wives, they should remain cloistered in their homes, attending on their bridegroom (i.e., Christ) through prayer. Athanasius’ arguments about virgins fit in with his larger political program: he was attempting to refute the position of Hieracas, who said that marriage belonged to the era before Christ and that only sexual renunciants could truly be Christians. Athanasius, on the other hand, affirmed that both virgins and married people could be Christians. Likewise, Christian academies (the locus of Arian Christianity) had many women ascetics for members; in attempting to sequester virgins, Athanasius was trying to deprive the Arians of a large part of their support base while increasing the size of his own.

Ch. 2: “Chapter 2 turns to Athanasius’ dealings with the desert monks, the semi-eremitical monks of the Nitrian desert and the coenobitic monks of the Thebaid, and describes a strategy not of isolation, but of inclusion” (11-12), to win them over to his cause. In dealing with the Nitrian monks, Athanasius developed his idea that monastics and clergy should intersect—he argued that (the desert) monks should be subordinate to (the city-bound) clergy, and he appointed monks to clerical positions. He applied this framework in his dealings with the Pachomian monastic community: he brokered a truce between two Pachomian leaders, and he all but appointed a successor after another leader’s death. Finally, during his desert exile, he launched a literary campaign to rally the desert monks to his cause against the Arians—that is, arguing that they should stop being hospitable to everyone, regardless of theological commitments (a hallmark of monastic Christianity), and only recognize Athanasian Christians as real Christians. Broadly speaking, Athanasius believed that withdrawing into the desert (anachoresis) “did not sever [a monk’s] more basic tie to the wider Church” (139).

Ch. 3: “Chapter 3 outlines Athanasius’ spirituality and shows how it assimilates ascetic values into a vision that can also encompass ordinary Christians.” Where chapters 1 and 2 are social-historical in nature, this chapter is historical-theological.[ii] This chapter outlines how Athanasius de-emphasized philosophical meditation about God as a Christian spiritual practice, instead emphasizing (physical) asceticism. For Athanasius, asceticism was a virtue that all Christians—not just monks—should strive for. However, since Athanasius believed that the Church consisted of different kinds of people (e.g., monastics and non-monastics alike), this ascetic ideal found different practical outworkings; Athanasius believed all Christians could resist temptation and ward of the devil through prayers, vigils, renouncing some sex, food, and wealth, and studying the Scriptures—hallmarks of ascetic discipline. This limited ascetic program was an especially good fit for the wealthy Christians “whose allegiance to the Athanasian episcopate was the glue that held together the fragile earthly counterpart of the heavenly ‘single symphony in the faith’ that Athanasius so eloquently praised” (144).

Ch. 4: Deals with the Life of Antony, which “epitomizes Athanasius’ ascetic program in both its practical and theoretical aspects,” portraying Antony as “the perfect instance of human appropriation of the Word’s victory over sin and death,” as opposed to other fourth-century Egyptians, who cast Antony “as a spiritual patron, a teacher of wisdom, or a monastic party leader” (13). Athanasius claims to have met Antony several times; Brakke finds evidence that Athanasius’s claims to have been a student of Antony’s were exaggerated; Athanasius probably met Antony only once, and briefly, at that. Brakke then situates the Life of Antony within the broader fourth-century reception of Antony’s legacy, showing that Athanasius dramatically reworked the Antony tradition to paint a picture of his ideal monk (who was non-philosophical, anti-Arian, deeply ascetic, and loyal to the Athanasian episcopate), set up that ideal as a model to be imitated, and thereby consolidate support for his position over against those of his adversaries.

 

NOTES

[i] Brakke uses Athanasius’ terminology of “virgin” to refer to “female ascetics,” though he acknowledges that it is unsatisfactory. I choose to refer to them, by and large, as “female ascetics” or “women ascetics.”

[ii] Richard Valantasis, review of Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism, Journal of Religion 77 (1997): 293.

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The Intermediate State in the New Testament: History of Interpretation

The traditional doctrine of the Church, starting with the Fathers and running down through contemporary times, is that the souls of the dead do spend their time in an intermediate state. In the Apostolic Fathers, martyrs enter into a blissful state at death, to be consummated at the eschaton.[1] Of the Church Fathers, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa all taught the existence of an intermediate state, mainly because the soul, which is immortal, needs a place to go between death and the resurrection.[2]

The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that an intermediate state exists. Specifically, Catholic doctrine is that, at death, the soul is judged and sent to heaven, limbo, purgatory, or hell to await the final resurrection.[3] The doctrines of purgatory and limbo are, of course, peculiar to the Catholic Church, but the Reformers also held to the idea of an intermediate state, and some Protestants, along with the Catholics, declare it doctrine.[4] Thus, from the beginnings of the Church through contemporary times, an intermediate state has been traditional doctrine.

However, scholars are divided on whether the NT teaches an intermediate state. Some, such as Osei Bonsu, Oscar Cullman, and N. T. Wright, follow traditional doctrine and argue that the NT does, in fact, teach specific things about an intermediate state.[5] Others, such as Murray J. Harris and F. F. Bruce, claim, on the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, that the soul faces no intermediate state after death.[6] Finally, Karel Hanhart claims that the NT authors regarded the intermediate state as terra incognita and thus, by and large, were not very concerned with providing specifics about what happens after death.[7]

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1. See, for example, 1 Clem. 5:4, 7; 6:2; Mart. Pol. 2:7; Herm. Vis. iii.1.9-2.1. I owe these citations to F. F. Bruce, “Paul on Immortality,” Scottish Journal of Theology 24 (1971): 79, 88.

2. Athenagoras, Res. 12-15; Irenaeus, Haer. 2.34-35; Tertullian, Res. 14-17; Gregory of Nyssa, On the Resurrection of the Dead; Ambrose, On Belief in the Resurrection 21, 88. See also Ps.-Justin, Res. 8. I owe these citations to Osei Bonsu, “The Intermediate State in the New Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991): 169.

3. See, for example, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 13.463 and its many citations of Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma.

4. On the Reformers, see Luther, Letter to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1552; Calvin, Institutes 3.25.7. On Protestants, see, e.g., Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 32.

5. Bonsu, “Intermediate State”; Oscar Cullmann Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament (London: Epworth, 1958); N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

6. Murray J. Harris, “The Interpretation of 2 Cor 5:1-10 and Its Place in Pauline Eschatology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 1970), “2 Cor 5:1-10, Watershed in Paul’s Eschatology?” Tyndale Bulletin 22 (1971): 32-57, “Paul’s View of Death in 2 Cor 5:1-10.” (Pages 317-328 in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), Raised Immortal: Resurrection & Immortality in the New Testament (London: M & S Marshall, 1983); Bruce, “Paul on Immortality.”

7. Karel Hanhart, The Intermediate State in the New Testament (Franeker, Holland: T. Wever, 1966), 45-46, 104-105.

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An Apology for Mark’s Gospel?

I was reading the series “Was the Apostle Peter a Source for Mark’s Gospel?” over at Earliest Christianity (parts 1, 2, 3) this morning. In part 1, Tim quotes the oft-repeated refrain from Eusebius (quoting Papias, who quotes John the Apostle) about Mark’s authorship of the gospel attributed to him:

“And the elder [i.e. John?] used to say this: ‘Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed but had no intention of giving and ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statement in them.’” (Eusebius, Church History 3.39; translation of Michael W. Holmes)

It seems to me that John was making an apology for Mark’s gospel. Notice several implicit charges that this passage answers:

  • The events of Jesus’ life in Mark’s gospel are out of order: “Mark . . . wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ.”
  • Mark was not an apostle, so his gospel is not authoritative: “he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter”
  • Mark’s gospel doesn’t include enough on Jesus’ teachings: “Mark . . . followed Peter, who adapted his teachings as needed but had no intention of giving and ordered account of the Lord’s sayings.”

“Consequently,” John concludes, “Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statement in them.” In other words, don’t cast blame on Mark for the shape of his gospel; he was just following Peter! In fact, John asserts, far from being an untrustworthy source of teaching about Jesus, Mark’s gospel is actually an accurate and authoritative collection of Peter’s apostolic teaching.

The implications of all this, of course, are very interesting. First, it would mean that in the late apostolic era, Mark’s gospel was at least a little controversial for its scope and subject matter (mostly the Passion, rather than Jesus’ teachings). It also explains why later authors (like those of Matthew, Luke, and John) saw fit to expand on Mark, because they were unsatisfied with the scope of that gospel.

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My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy and heresy are interesting things.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that the limits of true Christianity are often inscrutable. That is, I’m willing to count not only the orthodox as true believers, but also many heretics, as well. I’m finding that this position is becoming increasingly hard to hold without some measure of doublethink. On the one side of things, the weight of church tradition stands firmly on the side of a sharp distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, with only the orthodox being counted as true believers. But on the other hand, the weight of church history stands firmly on the side of pluralism, because if only the orthodox are true believers, then no one is a true believer.

On the one hand, church tradition. Ever since Justin Martyr’s denunciation of Marcion in the second century, extending all the way to contemporary culture warriors, the church has had a strong tradition of heresy-hunting. This view makes sense for two reasons. First, in order for an ethnos (a “people,” which is the way the early Christians saw themselves — as a race) to be a true ethnos — that is, for all the members of the ethnos to share common practices — ethnic boundary markers must be in place. It must be very clear who is and who is not part of the Christian people. By necessity, that entails defining what is right practice (orthodoxy) and wrong practice (heterodoxy/heresy) and setting those up as religio-ethnic distinctives. Second, this view is the most scientific. According to the scientific method, a hypothesis is either right or wrong — there is no “maybe” in a rigorous description of how the world works. Likewise, since God is knowable and has revealed himself objectively, it is possible to determine exactly what modes of worship and service he finds acceptable and which he finds unacceptable. Therefore, we may distinguish very easily between right and wrong worship.

On the other hand, church history. Since 1054 CE, every Christian has been a heretic. (1054, of course, was when the Great Schism took place, with the Eastern and Western churches excommunicating each other.) To an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heretics. To Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox are heretics. To Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are heretics. Each subgroup of Christianity has claimed to be the only right way to worship God. The problem, of course, is that each side uses the same text (the Bible) to support their views, and each side is deeply convinced of their own superiority over the others. So, among the Christian churches, it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong worship.

Thus, the two sides rage inside me. It is intensely difficult to believe, based on church tradition, that there is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable worship, while also believing, based on church history, that it is impossible to know what that distinction is.

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A Foretaste of the New Life

“Early Christian preaching, however, was not based simply on the message of Jesus. Rather, it grew out of the conviction that the content of his message had been both validated and actualized through his resurrection from the dead. The powers which rule the present world-order had repudiated Jesus and slain him. But God had raised him up, and this meant that in him and for him the promised transformation of the world, ‘the life of the age to come,’ was already real. Furthermore, it meant that people could even now have a foretaste of that new life because the Spirit of God had, through Jesus, been bestowed on those who accepted him as the one in whom their own destiny was revealed and determined.”

Richard A. Norris, Jr., The Christological Controversy (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980), 1-2.

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