[This Sunday is the feast day of Saint John Damascene, Doctor of the Church (676 – 4 December 749). He is most famous as one who defended the veneration – not to be confused with worship! – of sacred images and icons. In significance, his writings in the Eastern Church are comparable to those of Aquinas in the West. There are so many of his writings I would love to share; but, today I will simply leave you with two examples of his work, one is a prayer.]
Heal our passions, Cure our diseases, Help us out of our difficulties, Make our lives peaceful, Send us the illumination of the Spirit. Inflame us with the desire of thy son. Render us pleasing to Him, so that we may enjoy happiness with Him, seeing thee resplendent with thy Son’s glory, rejoicing forever, keeping feast in the Church with those who worthily celebrate Him who worked our salvation through thee, Christ the Son of God, and our God. To Him be glory and majesty, with the uncreated Father and the all-holy and life-giving Spirit, now and forever, through the endless ages of eternity. Amen. (from Sermon 3 on the Dormition)
So, then, He had by nature, both as God and as man, the power of will. But His human will was obedient and subordinate to His divine will, not being guided by its own inclination, but willing those things which the divine will willed. For it was with the permission of the divine will that He suffered by nature what was proper to Him. For when He prayed that He might escape the death, it was with His divine will naturally willing and permitting it that He did so pray and agonize and fear, and again when His divine will willed that His human will should choose the death, the passion became voluntary to Him. For it was not as God only, but also as man, that He voluntarily surrendered Himself to the death. And thus He bestowed on us also courage in the face of death. So, indeed, He said before His saving passion, Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me , manifestly as though He were to drink the cup as man and not as God. It was as man, then, that He wished the cup to pass from Him: but these are the words of natural timidity. Nevertheless, He said, not My will, that is to say, not in so far as I am of a different essence from You, but Your will be done, that is to say, My will and Your will, in so far as I am of the same essence as Thou. Now these are the words of a brave heart. For the Spirit of the Lord, since He truly became man in His good pleasure, on first testing its natural weakness was sensible of the naturalfellow-suffering involved in its separation from the body, but being strengthened by the divine will it again grew bold in the face of death. For since He was Himself wholly God although also man, and wholly man although also God, He Himself as man subjected in Himself and by Himself His human nature to God and the Father, and became obedient to the Father, thus making Himself the most excellent type and example for us. (Exposition of the Faith, Book III, Chapter 18)
Brian LePort sparked quite the discussion yesterday with a question about “must read” theologians.
So what makes someone a bonafide “must read if you are serious about biblical/theological studies”? Who would you say is a must read, why, and what is your criteria? Also, is given “must read” always a must read (e.g. I don’t image Barth matters to those who spend their days in textual criticism or the Gospel of Thomas)? Is there anyone who is always a must read?
From there, the discussion ranged rather far afield, with most of the discussion focusing on whether people like Barth and Torrance qualify as must-read theologians. I commented early in the discussion and started to comment again toward the end. But, my comment got too long. So, I decided to turn it into a post of its own. Then that got too long. So now I think I’ll end up with a short series on what it means to say that someone is a “must read” theologian.
Reading the comments on Brian’s post, I was intrigued by how difficult it seems to be to keep separate the question of whether someone is a must-read because of their historical significance and whether they’re a must-read because of the inherent value of their theology. In this post, then, I’m going to comment on what I think makes for a must-read theologian in the former (historical) sense. Tomorrow, I’ll comment on what it means to be a must-read theologian in the latter sense. And, I’ll try to follow that up with a third post offering my list of must-read theologians (in both senses).
For me, determining whether someone falls into the former category (historical must-read) really has to do with the extent to which understanding that person is necessary for understanding a significant portion of Christian theology. For example, one simply must have some understanding of Augustine and Aquinas to have any real grasp of what’s been happening in Western theology pretty much ever since. The same would hold true in the East for theologians like Athanasius, John of Damascus, and Gregory Palamas (to name just a few). For me, people like these constitute the “giants” of theology – people we must read to have a deep understanding of entire Christian traditions. (This isn’t to say, of course, that their theology is necessarily better than that of other, lesser-known theologians; only that their theology has had a level of historical influence that places it in a distinct category.)
After these giants, there is a secondary level of historical must-reads, those people who are necessary for understanding their generation, and certainly had significant influence on later thinkers, but never rose to the level of defining an entire tradition. In this category I would put people like Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Bonaventure, Melancthon (depending on how you understand his impact on the Lutheran tradition), and others. These are important figures and well worth studying in their own right. But, for me, they are only must-reads for people specializing in their era of church history or who want a more thorough grasp of the particular tradition they represent.
Much of the debate about theological must-reads, though, focuses on a third category – those people who are are still alive or who died fairly recently. This is a debated category because it’s nearly impossible to assess their historical significance yet. Personally, I would not categorize any living theologian (or even any of those who have died recently) as a historical must-read. I think you need to be at least a generation or two removed from a person before you have any hope of making that kind of assessment. Each generation has its larger-than-life theologians who are largely forgotten by later generations. (And, that’s not a knock against their theology. Every generation needs people to rise up and engage the theological task in ways that are meaningful for that generation. Most will not be talked about by later generations, but they still performed a valuable and needful task for the church.) So, for me, if you were alive and writing within the last forty years, you would probably not qualify yet as a historical must-read. Indeed, as we’ll see in tomorrow’s post, even forty years is barely enough time to make this kind of assessment.
So, my main must-read category is reserved for those who are historical must-reads, primarily those who are theological “giants” because they established a theological trajectories for entire traditions.
We’ve started posting a number of papers and abstracts that some of the Th.M. students wrote during last semester’s class on the Greek Fathers. The class started with Irenaeus and Origen as two fathers who exercised a profound influence on the later Greek Fathers. We then worked our way from Athanasius to John of Damascus. So far we’ve posted the papers that were written on Irenaeus, Origen, Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John of Damascus. We’ll be posting a few others over the next couple of weeks.
We also compiled a working Greek Fathers Annotated Bibliography. This is far from an exhaustive bibliography, but it does provide good resources on each of the individuals studied as well as a number of resources on theosis.