Winter Break Reading Review

There’s something nice about winter break and getting to read what one actually wants to read. Of course, I do enjoy the reading for most (if not all) of my classes, but there is a difference between choosing a book and having a book forced upon you. This winter break, I read three books that I received for Christmas. Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart, On the Unity of Christ by Cyril of Alexandria, and The Biblical Canon by Lee Martin McDonald.

The first book, Defending Constantine, was essentially a biography of Constantine with theological implications against the so-called “Constantinianism” of Yoder and Hauweraus. To be honest, I was surprised at how much of the book was actually biography. Leithart did confess this at the beginning, though, so I have only my subconscious desire for a theological battle royal to blame. As to the actual content, I found Leithart’s  attempt to place Constantine in his (i.e., Constantine’s) historical, political, philosophical, and religious context to be enlightening and interesting. Who would have thought that it was intellectually honest to understand and judge a person in their own context?

In summary, his point is to show that when compared to the Emperor’s around him, Constantine enacted significant changes to the Roman Empire that were significantly Christian. Of these, he emphasizes again and again the abolishing of sacrifice. One interesting, and corollary, point is that if Constantine was just a politician who was trying to keep peach by shutting the Christians up, ending sacrifice across the Empire (which was not completely Christian) is a really stupid political move. Now, I’ve heard various figures as to how much of the Roman Empire was actually Christian (Stark, in Cities of God, says about half, whereas Leithart here guesses a significantly smaller number), so the force of this argument depends on such figures. Nonetheless, I find it to be a valid, and often overlooked, fact of Constantine’s reign. As for drawbacks, I found his reliance on mostly secondary literature to be a little suspicious, but not to the point where I completely distrusted his conclusions. Also, I don’t think I was thoroughly convinced of his re-reading of the entire biblical narrative as one of warfare. I liked his critique of those who try to blame all of the Churches’ problems on Constantine or Constantinianism (if one must attach an historical figure to the ideology, Theodosius or Justinian would probably be more accurate, but I think it would be more descriptive of an individual’s name wasn’t used), just not his solution. As Chesterton said, “The reformer is always right about what is wrong. However, he’s often wrong about what is right.”

McGuckin’s translation of this little and classic work is both accessible and enjoyable. Unfortunately, I did not allow myself to wade through the text as I would have and rushed through it in one sitting. Over all, I found the text to be a clear refutation of Nestorianism, sometimes pedantic and other times profound. It is set as a dialogue and so, as is usual in Ancient and Medieval dialogues, the conversation is littered with praises of the speaker and criticisms of the “enemy.” Modern readers often find this to be annoying, if not ridiculous (though, I’m sure the Ancient or Medieval person would find the American’s incessant apologetic for believing anything at all to be even more annoying and ridiculous). However it may affect ones sensibilities, I do not think it is not enough to detract from the main argument. I look forward to reading it again and examining the argument at a closer level.

After I did a paper for my New Testament class arguing that Jude considered 1 Enoch to be Scripture, I became interested in the history and development of the Canon. There were a few books to choose from, but in the end I choose McDonald’s volume because it seemed to be the most comprehensive single-volume work. While the book was comprehensive and covered a broad range of information and debates, I was ultimately unsatisfied with the work. First I shall say some positive features of the book. I appreciated his insistence that on must always return to the evidence. As with my Jude paper, must of what was argued against Jude thinking 1 Enoch was Scripture were based on previous conclusions that 1 Enoch was not Scripture and therefore Jude couldn’t possibly have thought that it was. Secondly, McDonald asks some penetrating and unsettling questions about how the Canon was formed and the implications for Christianity today. Thirdly, he lists Early Church Fathers and their Canon lists in the appendix and that alone made the book worth it’s salt.

However, there were many downsides to the book. First (and this may be just a preference), I found his style to be cumbersome. Now, I am a philosopher more than a rhetorician, but style does make a difference. Secondly, while he attempted to focus on the primary sources, he often became caught up in other debates. To spend the entire paragraph saying, “This person says this, but this other person says that, and this third person, who in my opinion has proved both of those other people wrong, says this,” takes away from the argument more than it helps it. Now, because the book is in introduction to the issue of Canon studies, he must interact with those debates, but the way he did it was distracting. Thirdly, his training at Harvard Theological Seminary came through as he often made assertions about the dating of certain NT documents (such as 2 Peter or the Pastorals) with the swipe of the “Scholarly Consensus” hand. I’m not saying he has to agree with the more conservative opinion (I myself have questions about 2 Peter), but at least interact with those arguments. Over all, I think the book was a good introduction to the issues of the history and development of the Canon, but I would not call it the best. Unfortunately, my other studies will probably prohibit me from delving further into this issue. I hope that, someday, my Patristic studies will allow me to assess some of the primary literature.

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3 thoughts on “Winter Break Reading Review

  1. Pingback: New Books Day, pt 2 | A Word About Words

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