Oxford Patristics Conference – Thursday (Contd. 4)

In the afternoon I bunked off.  I really did.  There were three sessions on Chrysostom in Syriac, but I looked at the abstracts and the urge to go waned.  The sunshine called to me, and I went out instead. 

First I walked up to the Bodleian Library, and dropped into the admissions office.  My pass had expired, so I renewed it.  In the process I learned that the manuscripts and rare books department had been kicked out of Duke Humphrey’s library and were squatting in a basement room in the Radcliffe Science Library.  The phrase “seated three to a chair” was used.  Apparently the New Library building is to be demolished, and a brand new building constructed by 2015, in which “special collections” will be based.  The fate of the historic Duke Humphrey’s is unknown.  I heard all this with some scepticism.  The problem at the Bodleian has always been that not enough material is available on the shelves, and ordering material from the stack takes ages.  I do hope that all this work is not merely in order to improve the working conditions of the staff — which it seems certain to do –, but also improves the usefulness of the library to the readers.

Broad Street in Oxford, looking west

Then out, and along Broad Street.  The sun poured down and there were few cars and people walking in the road.  Blackwell’s bookshop is still there, but I didn’t go in.  So was Balliol College, of which we used to say, “C’est manifique, mais c’est n’est pas la gare”, parodying the observation of a French officer during the Crimean War on the Charge of the Light Brigade.

But it differed from my day in a couple of respects.  For instance, Thornton’s bookshop was gone, replaced by … some nothing shop. 

I made my way up to the Tesco Metro, which was killing the nearby Sainsburys.  There I bought a couple of rolls, evidently fresh, came out and started walking down towards the station.  I passed the market at Gloucester Green, which I never remember visiting in my student days, full of tatty stalls under striped awnings.  A shop selling Italian bread and with dried hams hanging up was nearby.

I was on my way to Oxbow books, in 10 Hythe Bridge Street.  Ahead of me, some blonde dolly bird was walking, evidently sightseeing, and eventually stopped to photograph the river.  The street itself was rather industrial, and Oxbow books occupied what looked like a converted office, up a metal stair.  There I bought the TTH translation of Hilary of Poitiers for less than £5, but nothing else.

Then back, sauntering in the sun, until I reached the Examination Schools where the conference is being held.  I had decided to attend one of the 4pm workshops, and hear the first paper, on the Pistis Sophia and astrology.  The links between ancient astrology and gnostic texts seem like a worthwhile idea to explore to me.  But the talk was incredibly technical, and required a lot of knowledge of both text and astrological jargon.  There was a lot of noise from outside as well.  After 10 minutes I gave myself mercy and slipped out.

My stand, with the Eusebius books on it

Then over to the marquee, and I sat at my stall for a while, working out what to do next.  But as I did so, Carol Downer came by.  Carol translated the Coptic for the Eusebius book.  It was nice to meet her for the first time.

The next step was to  go to a meeting of Evangelicals involved in Patristics (5:30-7).  This was taking place at Wycliffe Hall, at 58 Banbury Road, which is quite a step!  But I walked up there, passing the science labs in South Parks Road — where Cromwell once parked his cannon during the siege of Oxford, and the revetments used to be visible.  As a student I walked this route to lectures regularly.

There was a large turnout for the meeting, and rather too small a room.  Four speakers each said something about evangelicalism and patristics, mostly from an American point of view.  But as I listened, I began to become somewhat uneasy.  What I was hearing was, if anything, putting evangelicalism down.

If the word “evangelical” means anything, it means a bible-believing Christian, who has met Jesus and decided to make Him the Lord in his life and bases his life on the bible — that which the Lord taught, the apostles preached, and the scripture records, without the sort of additions that Catholics and Orthodox make, and certainly without the wishy-washyness of the liberal, who is always “progressing” and “enriching” and stuff like that, and whom Tertullian aptly describes in De praescriptione haereticorum

From behind my stand looking towards the St. Vladimir's Press stand

But the panelists, one and all, spoke as if evangelicalism was something to get away from, something that was only one part of the church, where people needed to learn about the “richness of other traditions”, and they saw patristics as a way to induce evangelicals to do this.   Lots of questions came from people boasting about how they were managing to get evangelicals to do this, by one method or another. 

Questions were asked for, and I put my hand up.  I pointed out that in Oxford 2 centuries a young evangelical started studying the fathers, and his name was John Henry Newman; and asked them what they thought the dangers were in evangelicals studying the fathers.  Newman and his colleagues, of course, all abandoned the faith of their youth and most ended up as Catholics or Ritualists.  But the panelists saw no problem, no danger.  Indeed their responses indicated that they thought that evangelicals “enriching” (i.e. changing, for the word means nothing else) their faith was a good thing.

In other words, these people were not evangelicals at all, but liberals, or rather heretics — people to whom opinions are really secondary and to whom conviction and sincerity is, if anything, amusing.  No other sort of person treats the faith once delivered to the saints, by which we live, and by which we will die if necessary, as something that can just be modified as seems convenient under cover of the sort of stale rubbishy phrases about “enrichment” (=change) or “diversity” (=change). 

By “evangelical” I suspect that they meant only the incidental cultural things that tend to be associated with what used to be called Low Church.  There was certainly plenty of the lazy sloppiness in arrangements, the overrunning of time, and the over-mateyness that is too common among Christians these days.  But that, to them, was I fear all that “evangelicalism” meant.  A certain Rob Bell, who has been accused of universalism, was mentioned approvingly, and the criticism he has received mentioned with a smile.  This, again, is not bible-based Christianity.

Any group that is centred around an ideology or a set of principles — rather than a social group — must define itself, in order to exist.  It must define what it is, and what it is not.  The attitude I found there was one of pure liberalism.  The Fathers were men.  Much of what they say is tosh, as is the case for all of us.  You don’t add the Fathers to the biblical teaching.  They may illuminate it for us, they may have interesting things to say or examples to offer; but at the end of the day they are not inspired. 

"Death-burger" van in front of All Souls

I walked back down the Banbury Road afterwards, rather annoyed to see  the Fathers being hijacked in this way.  It is useful, however, to know that the term “evangelical” in patristics means nothing.  What I did think, however, was that I ought to write an article on the Right use of the Fathers.  Indeed I think a book of that name exists somewhere.  Because using the Fathers to deconvert Christians into Churchianity is NOT what I do, or want to see.

I got back to my room, and decided that I would go to the organ recital this evening, from 8:30-9:45.  The theme was Bach and his influences, and it was held in Christ Church Cathedral.  It was getting dark as I set out.  In the evening Oxford becomes a different place, warm, inviting, with restaurants everywhere.  But the staple student emergency food, in my day, was provided by some mobile vans that appeared after dark.  These served beef-burgers — at least, it was supposedly beef — with lots of onions and greens, and were generally known as the “death burger vans” and supposed to serve rat meat.  Hygiene was probably a word that the owners could not spell.  I was amused to see, in Oxford High Street, the modern version of the same thing, offering kebabs etc.  I hope the standard is better.

Inside Christ Church cathedral at the organ recital

The recital was, in truth, tedious.  The pieces by Bach were good, but I did not find the rendition of them particularly inspiring, and the other pieces were dirge-like.  One, indeed, I could not help feeling was being misplayed, unless that composer really did introduce wavering notes and uneven intervals.

We exited with what I felt was probably relief all round.  I found myself following the distinctive figure of T. D. Barnes down the High Street from Carfax.  A side alley contained a sign “Carfax chippy”.  Well do I remember that dubious fish-and-chip shop where — personal experience — washing the potatoes before chipping and frying was optional.  It was still in business, amazingly.

Then back to the college annex.  It’s been a good day, and the room is quiet now.  Here’s hoping for sleep!


12 thoughts on “Oxford Patristics Conference – Thursday (Contd. 4)

  1. Re: Evangelicals & Patristics. Hearty agreement with you on this front.

    Enjoying your posts from the conference.

  2. “What I did think, however, was that I ought to write an article on the Right use of the Fathers.”

    Yes please.

    And thanks from me too, for your posts from the conference.

  3. Well, I think everybody ought to read the Fathers, but mostly because they’re fun and interesting. (Assuming that “godly and improving” are an important part of “fun”… but still, there’s little old ladies talking robots on the night before they die! What’s not to like?!)

    The only thing I have against any evangelical church’s non-use of the Fathers (in a serious way, as opposed to a “I disagree strongly, but whatever” way) is that nobody should be allowed to come out with that “trail of blood” stuff unless they can actually show that their denomination used to be First Church of Ebionites or something. But then, that’s how I feel about the Wiccan version of the “trail of blood” also.

  4. Thank you everyone for your feedback! I sold some books this morning, so am feeling rather “up”. It’s interesting how many people come and see you if you’re sat at a stall!

    Maureen, I don’t know the reference to the “trail of blood”? Would you clarify? We limeys don’t always know these stock phrases from the US (as became painfully plain to me at the evangelicals and patristics session, when people started talking about “Stone Campbell” churches, as if most of us would know what these were.

  5. Add my voice to the chorus for your idea: “Right use of the Fathers.” Newman or someone else said that someone who reads church history cannot remain a Protestant. I protest that sentiment. Evangelicals would be better evangelicals if they read and understood the Fathers. I dare say it would sharpen our corporate faith.

    Currently, I am posting snippets of Arnobius of Sicca on my blog to expose readers to this body of literature. I suppose some explanatory remarks would help–maybe on subsequent posts.

    As an aside, I noticed that someone from Oxford pinged a blog post of mine relating what Evagrius Ponticus had written on psalmody and prayer–perhaps someone at the conference.

  6. Well, there’s no reason you should know about it; it seems to be an exclusively American silliness.

    Back in the day, there was this theory (which was taught as historical truth in various Protestant groups – I think mostly Baptist-tradition ones, but I’m not clear on this) that true Christianity was in hiding and persecuted in every age, and that every possible dissident group was in fact a representative of true Christianity. And when I say “every possible”, I mean that these people were under the impression that Manichaeans and Gnostics were really representatives of that old-time religion. (And of course, that history lied about them.) Also, that all these groups had a direct connection down the ages, which finally was able to come out into the light in the US and in the particular church telling the story. This was called “the trail of blood” because of the blood of the martyrs, I think.

    There is some historical viability when it comes to US churches sometimes descending from various European dissenter groups of the early Reformation. It’s just the extension back all the way to Greco-Roman times that gets to be wishful thinking. (And of course, in its original form, it may have been proposed just as a matter of tendencies rather than direct apostolic descent. Or anti-apostolic descent, whichever.) Anyway, you can see where it makes me think of some of the ahistorical theories of Wiccan origins.


  7. Oh, and of course I wouldn’t care, except that it’s one of those things that keeps coming up, every time you think it’s gone away. 🙂

  8. I actually attend a Baptist church that, no more than ten years ago, would have taught baptist successionism (their handbook even stated that they are not protestant, which I still don’t get). Anyways, it’s not just a US thing (even if it is more prevalent), as I vaguely remember reading a quote from Spurgeon asserting the same thing.

    I’ve been thinking about the “right use of the Fathers” lately as well. I wanted to call it “Stop Church Abuse.” The Father’s seemed to be used as a way to bully the ignorant and to overwhelm them with all that they don’t know (it works especially well if you’ve read the original Greek or Latin) into a state of bewilderment. The only solution is to agree completely with your interlocutors position and become Roman Catholic or Orthodox. As I see it, it fails to make the distinguish the right question for the right subject matter. What the Early Church did or believed is not the same question as whether or not it is actually the teaching of the Apostles. It may help us understand the Apostolic teaching better (Everett Ferguson has a good lecture given at the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies on the technical details of such an endeavor), but it must be controlled by the actual subject matter in question (i.e., the Apostolic teaching). This is not some pious biblicism founded upon ignorantly assumed tradition (though there are those who base their position on such faulty grounds), but a basic methodological principle.

  9. @Ryan, I think you are right. There is a basic question of flawed methodology underlying all this, and a silence on some of the problems caused by adopting this line. A book does need to be written, it seems. Whether I am the man I do not know, since it would come best from an academic. But, fault de mieux, perhaps I should.

    @Maureen: thank you for these details, which I clearly need to look into. However since it is now 00:34, perhaps I can leave it till later? 🙂

    @Steve: love the Arnobius! We really can get tips from the fathers who lived when Christianity was illegal. Must look more at your blog!

  10. Dear Roger,

    Your post has really challenged me, since condemning the lack of attention of evangelicals to ancient Christian theology has been one of my temptations lately.

    Coincidently, just after reading your text today, I came accross a very interesting article discussing the evangelical appropriation of so-called “patristic hermeneutic” in the current issue of Themelios: “Canon as Tradition: The New Covenant and the Hermeneutical Question”, by Mark R. Saucy (http://tiny.cc/08woi).

    And thank you for your informative work. That’s truly a blessing. In such a weak educational context, in Latin America, I have virtually no access to first-class theological resources. The internet has been an excellent compensation, and am thankful for people like you.

    God bless.

    São Paulo, Brazil

  11. Thank you for your note. That article by Mark R. Saucy is well thought out. Calling patristic exegesis or theology “normative” begs a whole load of questions; for sometime between the close of the New Testament period and the beginnings of the Patristic period, the church moves from being a Jewish group open to Greeks to first a Greek movement, influenced by Greek ideas — as was natural — and then also a Latin movement, with Tertullian expressing Christian ideas in Roman terms. We today, of course, express Christian ideas in our own idiom; but all of us lose something of the original in so doing.

    Thank you for your kind words! Isn’t it daft that all this state-funded effort remains inaccessible to those who pay for it?

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