Full disclosure, I was provided review copies of the modules I review in the post. No requirement was placed on me for my acceptance but to write an honest review.
Given the current cultural ethos which seeks to tear down “the patriarchy,” it might seem odd to some readers that I’d be highlighting studies in “Patristics.” This is understandable, as so few people have spent time in this field. There is no denying that much of Christianity became enmeshed in a patriarchal system which relegated women to second class citizens. Nor can we deny that this system continues to impose its will on much of the church today, continuing to tell women if they suffer unwanted sexual advances or are demeaned because of their gender it is their fault. This is wrong today, and it’s always been wrong.
But, despite that fact that the patriarchal bent of the early church aided its the subservience to a damaging patriarchal system, the field of Patristics is not about propping up that system. Rather, it’s about exploring the development of thought and worship in the early church—the controversies, the struggles, and the pastoral guidance which helped shape Christian language and thought for thousands of years. The vast majority of the works which have been passed on to us have male authors, hence the name of the field, but in reality it’s about the development of catholicity—the “universal” Christian faith. This is a huge part of my own story, and it has some ugly warts. But the presence of those warts is partly why I’m so interested in this field.
Why I’m Writing
My first foray into the formal study of Christian theology happened at Eastern University, née College. At that time the theology department included a man named Dr. Christopher A. Hall, whose doctoral work was on Patristics—the study of the people who shaped Christian theology and worship in the early centuries of the Church. As such, our explorations of theology—and theological thinking—were always done against the backdrop of the story of the Church. Particularly the story of the early Church. This approach changed the way I approach both theology and worship, and has had a profound impact on the way I pastor.
So when I was offered review copies of some new Patristic Accordance modules to review I jumped at the chance. As much as I have been impacted by including Patristic thought into my approach to Scripture and spirituality, I don’t have much in the way of digital resources to integrate it with my current workflow. I’m happy to see this is changing.
Jumping in with Popular Pastristics
Five volumes of the Popular Patristics Series are on sale as a package for $59.90 through June 22. They may also be purchased individually.
The release of five volumes from the Popular Patristics Series, by St. Valdimir’s Press, brings some excellent resources to the Accordance platform. This series, as one might surmise form the title, is designed to bring a particular segment of Patristic thought to a modern audience. Each volume deals with a different aspect of Patristic thought, and provides an accessible English translation for interested students of both history and theology. The world in which each work was written possessed much different assumptions, and worked from much different experiences, than ours. As such, each book also includes a helpful introduction which provides readers with some footing as they venture into the minds and hearts of the authors. Controversies which, to us, may seem odd are painted in a way which helps readers grasp the stakes from the author’s point of view. There is a tendency, especially when materials like these are made part of a study platform like Accordance, to skip over contextual materials and “just get to the meat.” But, because Patristic thought and context is so different from our own, I can’t recommend enough to spend time reading the introductions for each volume.
The Popular Patristics Series are actually books, meant to be read in large chunks. This is different from the way many people use Accordance, which breaks larger texts up into smaller chunks for study and analysis. For this reason it’s been my experience that modules like these as most accessible on the mobile versions of Accordance, best read with page turning enabled to give it a more book-like feel. Accordance installs these books in Tools ==\> Writings
Three Treatises on the Divine Images, volume 24 in the series ($11.90), is perhaps the book which will give Protestant Christians the most consternation, as it deals with a subject on which most will find themselves opposed. For reasons unknown, early in the Eighth Century the Byzantine Emperor issued an edict ordering the destruction of icons, claiming that venerating them was an act of idolatry. The three essays in this work are a defense of icons as divine images and offer insight into the spirituality the three authors are defending. While their words may be difficult for Protestants to read, and many may even want to dismiss this book outright, it’s important that people allow these authors to speak form their own vantage point. Of the four works included in this purchase, this may be the most valuable for many Accordance users, because it offers direct insight into something for which which Protestant Christianity had a much different conclusion.
Four Desert Fathers: Pambo, Evagrius, Macarius of Egypt & Macarius of Alexandria, volume 27 in the series ($14.90), contains works highlighting four Fourth Century Egyptian Christian hermits. Westerners, who have very little experience to either asceticism or monasticism, can find value in exploring why these four saints opted to live out their faith they way they did as well as the controversies in which they found themselves. There is a tendency among Protestant Christians, in particular, to romanticize the Early Church as being a time of religious “purity 1 but when we read the accounts of people who lived through that era of Church History, we find a much different picture. The history of Christianity’s theological development is complex, and often messy. This volume can help us see this, and the opening essay is a fantastic primer.
St. Macarius the Spiritbearer, volume 28 in the series ($12.90), serves as a companion volume to Four Desert Fathers—delving further into the thought of Saint Macarius the Great 2 than the earlier volume had room. Unlike it’s companion volume, Macarius the Spiritbearer contains writings which convey his thoughts, and not an account of his life. For anyone interested in dipping their toes into a ascetic Christian mindset, this is a good work to explore.
On the Lord’s Prayer: Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, volume 29 in the series ($12.90). This volume contains three ante-Nicene 3 reflections on the Lord’s Prayer—written in order of presentation by Terullian, Cyprian, and Origen. I didn’t have time to read through each essay for this review, but it’s fascinating to see how each writer makes the case that Jesus’ prayer should be the model for Christian prayer, an understanding which is still common to this very day. Some points may feel alien to modern readers—Origen’s hostility toward his physical reality is on full display in the opening chapter of his reflection, for example—but those types of disconnect is part of the point of works such as these.
Give Me a Word: The Alphabetical Sayings of the Desert Fathers, volume 52 in the series ($18.90), communicates the remembered utterances of the desert ascetics as they pursued their lives of holy solitude. The sayings are alphabetized by the name of the monk attached to each saying, making the material more accessible then if it was arranged by subject or chronology. This way, a reader can delve into all the included sayings of a particular monk and see how their thought moves over time. This book, more than the other volumes released from this series, would work as excellent devotional reading. Some of the wisdom offered may seem odd, but there is much on which present-day disciples of Jesus might chew.
The Four Desert Fathers (Tagged Greek with English Translation and Notes)
On sale for $19.90 through June 22, 2020.
Of the recent Patristic offerings made available for Accordance, this is perhaps the one for which I’m most excited. It includes stories and sayings from over one hundred different Christian ascetics, including a few women, recounting how they communicated their understanding of the faith to those who sought them out. The Greek text of this volume has been morphologically tagged, which opens up students of the language to do deep dives into the structure of these writings using all of Accordance’s excellent tools, and the English translation has been updated somewhat to make it more accessible for Twenty-First Century readers 4. This is a tool which would be most useful for any academic studying the spirituality of the Desert Fathers, as it allows researchers to see how language is used in among these thinkers and allows it to be compared to both other early Christian thinkers and the Greek New Testament.
But why on earth would a volume like this be helpful to a pastor of a small baptist church in Palmyra, NJ? While I don’t possess the depth of knowledge of Greek Patristic scholars own, I can use the Greek to see how these early ascetics were using Jesus’ words and images as they communicated their faith. I find this fascinating. It is most helpful in moving me beyond my own blind spots, and helps me see how Jesus’ teaching was filtering through the people who made up this unique and memorable way of following Christ. During my exploration of the module, for example, I wanted to see how these disciples interacted with the second of the two greatest commandments, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I was fascinated by many of the reflections, but one which stood out is a quote from Abba Poemen, “These three things are of capital usefulness: that you fear the Lord; that you pray to God without ceasing; and that you do good to your neighbor 5.” Here is not only the “golden rule,” but both of the greatest commandments and a third emphasis—to pray to God without ceasing. Snippets like this make we want to delve further into development of Christian Spirituality and discover when praying with out ceasing became linked to the two greatest commandments. Because unceasing prayer is a very good way to open ourselves up to loving both God and neighbor.
If you’re interested at all in both the development of Christian spirituality and the original languages, this is a module worth checking out. My one critique of this particular volume is the lack of any introductory material which explain the nature of the work or of the desert fathers. It would make the module more accessible for new students in this field.
The story of Christian spirituality and theology is both deep and many-threaded. Exploring some of the less-travelled paths of our spiritual tradition, for Western Christians at any rate, is a both a challenging and rewarding endeavor. Accordance has done a good thing by making these materials available to their users, and the sale price for these material is well worth the buy-in for curious students.