Book Review: Vivid snapshots of the early church
Early Christianity – Theology shaped by Saints
by Paul Haffner, Gracewing, 454pp, £20.00.
reviewed by Guy de Gaynesford
There is no shortage of books dealing with the Early Church – studies of its saints, its history, its theological and philosophical controversies, schools of thought, the development of its liturgies, and so on – and every year new volumes are added to the shelves. The first six centuries of the Church have come under increasingly intense academic scrutiny, as we have felt the attractions of returning to the sources, and banishing the obscurity that seems to cover those distant centuries. And yet, in the midst of such specialised research, there is a need for a very different form of presentation of the period – an introduction that lays before the reader the big picture of the Church’s development, and the personalities that dominate it.
A mosaic of a thousand pieces
Haffner’s Early Christianity – Theology shaped by Saints is an ambitious project. In twelve chapters, ranging from “Mary Mother of God” to “Monks and Missionaries”, from “The Early Popes” to “The Role of Women”, from “Sacramental Life” to “The Fall of Rome”, he lays before the reader a remarkable Aladdin’s cave of facts and information, colourful vignettes, and biographical detail. This is no sweeping chronological narrative, pace Henry Chadwick’s “The Early Church” – a grand, single, and seamless presentation of organic growth and development – but instead a mosaic made up of a thousand smaller pieces, each one providing its own particular element of colour, and which, when taken as a whole offers an extraordinary single image of the Church through these formative years.
Setting papal priorities straight
These tesserae come in a variety of different shapes, some charming - for example, the tradition that Our Lady sewed an episcopal stole for Lazarus, whom her divine Son had raised from the dead; while others are a great deal more disturbing - such as the account of forty Christian legionaries martyred by being exposed naked on a frozen pond near Sebaste in 320 AD. In contrast, some are deliciously dramatic: who would not have wanted to be present at the audience granted by Pope Anastasius I to the redoubtable noble Roman matron Marcella, who was scandalised by the Pontiff’s hesitation to condemn the heresies of Origen, contained in his theological work de Principiis, and insisted on seeing the Pope personally in order to set the papal priorities straight? Others cast fresh light on familiar elements of the picture: did you know, for instance, that at their height, the Roman gladiatorial games swallowed one third of the Empire’s income?
Some elements of the book have a straightforward and informative character, bordering on the prosaic, for example, that it was St Peter’s successor, St Linus, who decreed that women should cover their heads when entering Church; while others are more than a little surprising. I smile at the irony of the celebrations of 248 AD which marked the one thousandth anniversary of the founding of the city of Rome being presided over by the then Emperor, Marcus Julius Philippus, who was Syrian by birth and nicknamed ‘the Arab’.
This book is clearly intended to serve as an introduction to the period, rather than as a piece of original research, and as such, Haffner has gathered a breath-taking array of information. Sometimes narrative in style, sometimes apologetic, occasionally conversational, and at times even leaning towards the poetic, our author is always informative as he lays out the factual foundations of the origins of the Church. Chapters on the role of women in the Early Church, as well as on the formation of the canon of the New Testament will be of interest to many.
Faith and reason before Aquinas
Particular mention should be made of the chapter on Faith and Reason, in which Hafner establishes, in brief outline, the contributions made by Christian thinkers to the world of philosophy and, in particular, the consistent premise on which generation after generation of Christian apologists based their presentation of the mysteries of the Faith – that is, on the principle that the Christian faith is both consistent with reason and is well served by it. Haffner establishes that the Church did not have to wait until the thirteenth century to discover the Five Ways of St Thomas Aquinas. Many of these are beautifully anticipated in the writings of the Fathers of the second, third and fourth centuries.
St Athanasius of Alexandria (the fourth-century contemporary of his more famous namesake of Alexandria), and St Theophilus of Antioch (writing some two hundred years earlier, in the middle of the second century) respond to challenges eerily similar to those we encounter today (“Show me your God!”) with arguments that will later be refined and reformulated into Aquinas’ argument from design and his argument from contingency. Haffner gives evidence and strength to the truth that many of our contemporaries find inconvenient today – that the faith has always respected reason rather than opposed it; that it has applied reason to demonstrate the reliability of claims it makes, and far from being founded on a fundamentalist philosophy of either fideism or superstition, regards both as forces contrary to the faith and which must therefore be resisted.
If there are weakness in the presentation, they flow from the nature of the project – such a broad canvas cannot linger on significant subjects for long, and the sections dealing with the sacraments, and with the great heresies that stimulated the Church into some of the loftiest and definitive statements of faith, are tantalisingly brief – and it is a pity that space could not have been devoted to a brief examination of the patristic interpretation of scripture. In addition, it may not be a service to clarity if a list of the outstanding Fathers of the Church includes the names of men who denied the faith, or were condemned for heresy, such as Tertullian, Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia.
Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from this book, and a useful bibliography provides further avenues of study for the reader whose interest has been stimulated. Haffner has provided a fascinating collage of snapshots into the world of the early Church, the vivid colours of which will surprise and delight in equal measure.
Fr Guy de Gaynesford, MA, STL, is Rector of the School of the Annunciation, a Catholic Institute of Higher Education for the New Evangelisation, based at Buckfast Abbey, Devon