Cult of the Saints

            As a fairly reformed fellow, I have an instinctive disgust for sainthood in the sense that Peter Brown uses it in Cult of the Saints. The idea of specially sanctified individuals making intercession on our behalf rubs me the wrong way – after all, isn’t Christ alone supposed to be the mediator between God and Man?

Still, Brown does a fantastic job delineating exactly how sainthood fit in the context of late antiquity: how it worked within a Roman model of patronage and both responded to Roman concepts of death and the supernatural. It does make me curious, however, how the cult of the saints has changed, particularly in since the Enlightenment and how sainthood is being used by African Christians who face a partial cultural divinization of ancestors. Does venerating saints provide a way for these cultural expressions to happen without leaving the fold of the Christian faith, or are they simply a capitulation to an unchristian culture? I don’t know, but Brown’s discussion of the cultural politics of sainthood show that these questions are very much live within the older Christian tradition itself. Late antiquity has a lot to say to the African church today (I think you lent me a book about that, right Dad?)

One of the things I found fascinating about Brown’s work methodologically here was his use of dialectic to discuss cultural patterns. The graves of the martyrs, he claimed, were places fraught with power in part because they were unclean places. The grace of God, as shown through the martyrs suffering, transformed death into victory and made places that were usually despised into sites of pilgrimage. Thus Brown connects martyrdom with the resurrection – a chief paradox of the Christian faith. That, needless to say, is cool. Dialectic has always seemed deeply helpful to me, but I was never entirely sure how. It is good to read an example of it being used with faithfulness to historical texts and as a way to illustrate rather than being used to force historical facts to fit with pre-conceived theories.

All of these good things being said, however, I still have trouble with the concept of sainthood as practiced in the cult of saints. It smacks more of magic and paganism than a true Christian practice ought. Although Brown is, I am sure, correct in saying that the cult of the saints worked against late Roman practices in helpful ways, it seems to have grown stagnant throughout the middle ages. In biblical language, the saints are the community of believers in a particular city – that is the way that Paul uses the concept to be sure. And how can we make distinctions in grace between members of the church? After all, we are all covered by Christ’s righteousness and can do nothing by our own strength. We do see differences in levels of sanctification – the older members of our churches do deserve respect, for they’ve grown more in the faith than those of us who are younger. Still, because we share the same mediator, these men and women do not have a special access to God that the younger among us lack.

But, with these caveats, Brown does some really fun work here. This book was originally a series of lectures, and his voice still comes through. As part of an increased self-education in early Christianity, Cult of the Saints was very helpful. I’m just not going to pray to St. Peter for help anytime soon.


James Petigru Boyce

I have friends (hard as it is to believe), who are fascinated by higher education, its problems, and possible solutions. Having just come out of an institution with serious problems, as well as serious virtues, it can be easy to wish the whole thing away and daydream about starting over again. Couldn’t we start a college that actually did things right, without having to worry about the messiness of historical legacies?

That is why a book like Thomas Nettles’ James Petigru Boyce: Southern Baptist Statesman is so helpful. This is another in the American Reformed Biography series, and fits with the rest of the series in its focus on an often overlooked figure who acted as a denominational organizer and activist in the 19th century (with Nevin and Dabney proceeding this and Van Til providing 20th century imput). As such, it ought to inspire us, as well as give us a little historical perspective and humility. Boyce devoted his life to founding the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – quite a feat in the 19th century South, interrupted by the Civil War and in a tradition in which (at that time) even convincing people that theological education was necessary could be difficult. Still, Boyce prevailed, working extraordinarily hard and devoting vast amounts of his extensive personal resources to the cause. He attempted to found the seminary with a distinctly Calvinist Abstract of Principles (or at least, so Nettles argues) to ensure the continued faithfulness of the faculty to some basic baptistic principles.

This Abstract of Principles has been the source of quite a bit of controversy over the last couple of decades, as the SBC attempting to figure out exactly where it lies confessionally, and as parts of it moving away from a broadly evangelical theology into a more determinately Calvinist mode. Nettles lies firmly, as we might expect, in the Calvinist camp, and parts of this biography read as a justification for SBTS being traditionally a reformed school. Al Mohler is seen, in this perspective, as a return to Baptist tradition and away from the lukewarm liberalism of modern years.

I can’t judge too much of the value of this argument, because, for one, that isn’t my tradition. Still, I should note that this kind of inclusion of history into modern polemics always makes me a little nervous. Especially when we consider the special problems of church history (in which hagiography is an ever-present danger), its use in polemics and politics is dicey. Boyce was many things, and I have no difficulty believing that he was orthodox or even reformed. But we have to take care not to fit him into our own conception of orthodoxy or reformed Baptist. Look, for example, at his beliefs on slavery or gentility (Refinement of America came to mind regularly as I read this) – these aren’t parts of the modern reformed tradition today, but they were certainly an important part of how he viewed himself and his role in the seminary and denomination. The past is a foreign country, and we ought to remember that.

On the other hand, one of the great values of history is the lessons that it can teach us (prime example: avoid land wars in Asia). If we fail to use history polemically, we can make it merely a useless academic exercise, helpful only in satisfying vain curiosity. Perhaps I should just say that in this particular work, the polemic aspects felt tacked-on and not a vital aspect of the argument. Polemic history can be done better. Still, as a biography, I found it both inspiring (in the best sense of Christian biography) and humbling. I just pray that God will use me as well as he has used Boyce.


Definitions are always difficult. As my dad taught me, if you can define the terms, you always can win the argument. That’s a lesson that MacArthur uses in Slave, as he takes a look at some of the New Testament’s language and tries to interpret it in a way that is more faithful to both the original context and our current cultural situation. Thus, rather than translating it “Paul, servant of Christ” he puts it “Paul, slave of Christ” – both more faithful to the original Greek (as far as I understand it) and a word with more weight than a mere translation of “servant.”

That, according to MacArthur, is what we mean by Christian – a slave of Christ, one who acknowledges God in Christ as his true Lord and Master. Although this carries a bad odor in our modern society with our constant desire to preserve as much personal freedom as we can, it is the true reflection of what Christianity is. As Dylan puts it – you’ve gotta serve somebody, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’ve gotta serve somebody.

That is one of the strange things about this book: MacArthur alternates between attempting to prove that his understanding of Christianity is a true historical one (which it is) and making claims that this is a more biblical reunderstanding of the Christian faith. Needless to say, this is something that desperately needs to be heard within the context of a feeble American Christianity (and needs to be spoken to my weak faith as well), but it is also something of a truism in the kind of circles that I usually run in.

As I said to a friend when checking this book out, Slave is the kind of book that is very Geneva. Having gone to a school that is committed to the Lordship of Christ in all areas (in a good Neo-Calvinist means), this didn’t have anything new to me, precisely. Still, having old chestnuts repeated isn’t terrible for devotional reasons. I always need to be reminded to keep reorienting my life toward God “as the eyes of a servant look to the hand of the master” (Ps 123:2).

Now, of course, we face the problem of actually applying this principle to life. If I say that I am perfectly willing to do whatever God wishes, how can I actually know what God wishes me to do? This leads us, unfortunately into the tricky area of calling and vocation, which I really don’t feel like touching on right now, so we’ll pass over it.

It is interesting to compare Slave with These Three are One, which has a much looser conception of who God is. MacArthur’s conception of the Lordship of Christ would read as authoritarian and misguided to Cunningham. Although Cunningham, I’m sure, still falls into a orthodox conception of who God is, somehow, the slave-master language seems very harsh for him. Rather, he would probably talk about a relationship of participation in the divine – something like the orthodox deification. Which is also a traditional way to view the God-man relationship, and has some scriptural support.

Like I said, Slave doesn’t break any new ground, not that I think it was actually intended to. Rather it fostered devotion, and a renewed commitment to the kinds of practices of personal piety and devotion that I ought to be committed to in the first place. And as such, it served its purpose well, although not quite as groundbreaking as the author suggested or seemed to want.

Relearning the Alphabet

The other difficult part about this project is writing something on every book I read. I hope that it doesn’t steer me away from fiction or poetry, but that might be what ends up happening. Otherwise, I’ll push through them too fast, and end up with a backlog, like I have now.

I recently reread a volume of Denise Levertov: Relearning the Alphabet. She is one of my favorite modern poets, so whenever I feel like reading poetry I usually turn to her. Luckily, McCartney has a fairly significant collection, so I don’t need to break my budget spending twenty bucks on a 50 page book. On the other hand, I feel slightly guilty that I’m not supporting the arts. But, with my current financial situation, I’ll just settle for supporting my local library.

I should probably comment on the poetry itself, which is difficult for me (not being a terribly good critic of literary form). Still, I should note that her politics here are very much of the 1960s (which is perfectly fine, albeit overbearing at times). She certainly doesn’t ascend to the height of political poetry, but she conveys her horror at war, and her deep sympathy for the protestors and their work.

What I find interesting about Levertov is the way in which she combines her early political action with religious themes later on. The religious poems strike a deep cord with me, but they do flow out of her earlier nature and political work. Her body of work is connected on more than merely formal grounds. I don’t know exactly how to define this (taking more English classes would have come in handy), but it is there, and it is powerful.

Poetry seems to occupy at best a liminal place in American culture. We have a handful of poets that we appreciate as a matter of course, but they are all safely dead: Homer, Dante, Frost, Eliot. At the same time as most people rarely read anything by a living poet, there is a wave of people wanting to write poetry – a glance at some of the leading periodical’s acceptance rates make that clear. So, we have exploding supply and a dwindling demand.

Since our culture is so terribly fragmented, we do not have an agreed standard of what a good poem is. We can agree what a bad poem is (certainly there is enough clearly bad poetry produced), but agreeing on the qualities that make a poem good is beyond us. Even if this isn’t beyond the power of people who have to make this decision daily (editors, mainly) on the popular level it certainly is, even for those with a decent liberal arts education. I cannot judge Levertov on technical grounds, and if I could, my criticism would be intelligible to very few people. To reinvigorate poetry as a discipline, it would seem necessary to either educate the audience better or come as a culture to a better agreement as a culture of a standard for good poetry.

These Three are One

Every once in a while, I find myself having distinct, strong, reactions to a book. I blame this mainly on my own confusion rather than any defect in the book but it is interesting to see when it actually happens. These Three are One (David Cunningham) has an interesting approach to trinitarian theology on a lot of different levels, and I find myself having a couple of different, fairly strong, reactions to it because, in part, of the intellectual environment in which I have found myself buried over the last four years.

On one level, I find myself responding to it enthusiastically. Cunningham writes well, and does theology in such a way that a mediocre student like me can more or less comprehend it. As he puts it in the beginning: “I’ve spent much of my scholarly life wading through great, thick tomes of dense prose – only to be reassured that, indeed, Christians ought to keep on believing precisely the same things they have always believed. . . . I vowed that I would never write one” (xii).  And he doesn’t. He makes some claims that are different. And he doesn’t bore us too much doing it: I was able to get through it as I was heading out to Boston and back for a wedding.  It served as a useful companion in the boredom that any airport invariably inspires.

And what is more, Cunningham makes some claims that I think are well supported and help me think through my own political and economic beliefs a little more.  These mainly come through his references and reliance on Milbank (whose magisterial Theology and Social Theory I’ve still not made my way through. At some point, when I have a masochist reading partner.) As he puts it in his critique of modern Trinitarian thought: “A specifically trinitarian account of God, with all kinds of practical ramifications following in its wake, cannot be brought into the nation-state’s embrace; it thus poses a genuine threat to the state’s idolatrous demand that it receive our highest allegiance” (53). Needless to say, I have made this argument before, most strongly in a paper that I wrote for the Howard & Hargrave Patterson Award here at Geneva. I based my argument more on the transcendent nature of God and the folly of placing any man-made constructs near him in authority, but we have the same central point, I think.

All of that being said, I do have some serious problems with Cunningham’s work, most notably how he thinks of authority. He seems to view the Christian faith as something that is fundamentally traditional, and the sensus fidelium has the ultimate authority for revelation. While scripture provides a necessary and helpful guide to tradition and to guide this sense of the faithful, it doesn’t quite seem to be authoritative to him. This might be placing the matter a little too strongly, but it still seems as though Cunningham does not place enough power in the revelation of the triune God. This is why he can so easily encourage the replacement of the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit with “Source, Wellspring and Living Water” (which, as he says, does have some scriptural merit, but isn’t used as extensively in scripture or the church tradition as the older language). The way he argues places equal emphasis on past theologians as on Scripture. In this, we can see some of the difficulties of doing trinitarian theology from a biblicist perspective. Unfortunately, I’ve not quite read enough about the Trinity to discuss this other than to point out that problems exist.

In reading These Three are One I find myself torn between deeply appreciating its merits, as a theology that attempts to do many things right (the political theory mentioned above being only one of them) as it goes against much of what I believe about Christianity (the Biblical authority issue above being only one of my problems). Still, I deeply appreciate the work that Cunningham did, and I learned quite a bit about Trinitarian theology from this book. Even though I think I disagree with many of his practical proposals (such as the revised language that he proposes), that doesn’t negate the importance of the text.

Christianity and the Transformation of the Book

From my position on the outside of academia, the digital humanities seem to be important, though not so much at Geneva. In a senior state-of-the-field class, we devoted a class session and readings to the topic, and I must admit that I found it a little silly. Are we to assume that because of technical innovation that our whole method of thinking about history and society needs to change? More than anything else, I got ticked because I couldn’t see how it fit in with everything else that we were studying – deep, complicated theory questions. From this we turn to a discussion of Youtube.

In Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, Grafton and Williams make a convincing argument about something very similar that happened in late antiquity. They argue that Origen, Eusebius and other Christian scholars sparked a tremendous advance in the material production of scholarship – in Origen’s Hexapla (a massive OT is parallel columns of Hebrew, LXX, and several other translations), Eusebius’ Chronicle and the massive scale of book production in Caesarea at that time.  They argue that these kinds of technical advances gave them unmatched scholarly resources and helped shape the discourse of historians and exegetes for the “millennial project of Christian scholarship.”

And what is more, as far as I can tell, they outline some of Origen and Eusebius’ advances well and tie them in very interestingly to a history of late antiquity. In fact, they force me to do a little reconsidering of my earlier discounting of the digital humanities concept. The fact is, simply, that someone with the internet available and a modicum of common sense has access to an immense amount of data and ways to index and search it. There are significant limitations to the reliability of these sources, but it gives us a huge advantage over these ancient scholars.

Even discounting the internet, the cheap availability of books would be amazing to these scholars, as would be the ease of use that printing allows. Honestly, the Gutenberg revolution seems to guide my personal reading habits just as much as the digital age does. Still, the searching and indexing functions of computers are invaluable in attempting to find resources (even at your friendly local library). I’m still a little confused about the precise innovation of the digital humanities but after reading the work of Grafton and Williams I can acknowledge that the technical innovation that it provides is definitely worth discussion, even in a theory-focused class.

(a sidenote: Just as interesting as I find the technical aspects of Grafton and Williams’ work, I also am fascinated by their sense of the long tradition of Christian scholars. This might just be my reading into the text my own sense of lineage with the Christian tradition, but I do wonder if Grafton and Williams see themselves as continuing in this line. I am curious if they see their faith tradition as similarly like that of Origen and Eusebius. I know that reading about the faithful scholarly work of these men is inspiring to me as I consider a career spent in very different modern academia.)

The Christian Tradition

As promised, now I get to discuss Pelikan’s Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture (since 1700). Rereading this, I realize how critical I am, and I certainly didn’t intend to be quite this nasty. That being said, it seems to me that this book has serious problems.

When I say this book bored me, please understand that I am very easily entertained. At times, I’ve even been known to read an academic monograph for fun, and Mr. Bean continues to crack me up. There are probably several reasons why I found this book frightfully dull, but I’ll only address a couple here.

First, I have no idea who the audience for this book is supposed to be. It goes into too much detail to be assigned as a textbook for undergraduates, and yet not nearly enough detail for experts in the field or even for a good graduate class. The whole text (all of his The Christian Tradition) weighs in at ~1500 pages, which is a mammoth achievement, but hardly enough to do justice to the entire sweep of church history. Why does this matter? I’m not sure he knew his audience, which shows a dreadful lack of attention to some basic rhetorical rules (thanks Dr. Haas!) If he isn’t awake enough to make that kind of judgment, why should I be awake enough to read him?

Second, Pelikan, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have a thesis for the whole text. Each individual chapter has one (and usually argues well: chapters 2 and 3, in particular, rehash much of Turner’s argument in Without God, Without Creed), but the work as a whole just meanders along, telling history in the form of “X happened, and then Q happened.” I would chalk this up to my general lack of knowledge, and inability to read a complicated academic text, but he doesn’t provide an epilogue and his forward singularly fails to orient the reader. Also, one of the main goals of my college education was to enable me to read and understand complicated texts. To fail this blatantly to recognize a thesis at least shows Pelikan’s inability to signpost well.

The strongest thing I can say about the unity of this text is that it all relates (as he promised in the introduction) to specifically church dogmatics. He doesn’t go off into trails on particular theologians, much, but tries to sum up traditions and how these traditions reacted and reflected the changes of modernity. And that is a tremendously valuable task. The church as a whole is at least as important and as worthy of study as individual theologians such as Barth or Kierkegaard.

Another point in Pelikan’s favor is his willingness to take on a project of this depth and complexity. He wrote a history of the church’s theology from the apostolic age to Vatican II. That is a tremendous achievement, requiring a huge amount of learning and skill. He planned and wrote the text over the course of some forty years, and the work he put into it shows. I just wish that it was presented a little more cohesively, with a tighter focus on making an argument. Then this could have not merely been a chronicle, but an actual history.