A New History of the Councils

From Harvard, here is a new survey of recent–“recent” being a comparative term–ecumenical councils in the Catholic Church, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II, by Georgetown University scholar John O’Malley, whose work we have noted before. The book looks like it would be especially helpful for people who need an introduction to the subject. The publisher’s description follows:

From one of our foremost church historians comes an overarching analysis of the three modern Catholic councils—an assessment of what Catholicism was and has become today.

Catholic councils are meetings of bishops. In this unprecedented comparison of the three most recent meetings, John O’Malley traverses more than 450 years of Catholic history and examines the councils’ most pressing and consistent concerns: questions of purpose, power, and relevance in a changing world. By offering new, sometimes radical, even troubling perspectives on these convocations, When Bishops Meet analyzes the evolution of the church itself.

The Catholic Church today is shaped by the historical arc starting from Trent in the sixteenth century to Vatican II. The roles of popes, the laity, theologians, and others have varied from the bishop-centered Trent, to Vatican I’s declaration of papal infallibility, to a new balance of power in the mid-twentieth century. At Trent, lay people had direct influence on proceedings. By Vatican II, their presence was token. At each gathering, fundamental issues recurred: the relationship between bishops and the papacy, the very purpose of a council, and doctrinal change. Can the teachings of the church, by definition a conservative institution, change over time?

Councils, being ecclesiastical as well as cultural institutions, have always reflected and profoundly influenced their times. Readers familiar with John O’Malley’s earlier work as well as those with no knowledge of councils will find this volume an indispensable guide for essential questions: Who is in charge of the church? What difference did the councils make, and will there be another?

The Book of Common Prayer

People often give the King James Bible as a rare example of a beautiful text put together by government commission. Another example dates from the same period. The Book of Common Prayer traces back to the Tudors and, like the KJV, has entered into the common consciousness of the English-speaking world. The text was approved in 1559 by only three votes in the House of Lords, with no support at all from the Lords Spiritual. I’m not qualified to speak on the theology, but, at least in terms of the beauty and dignity of its language, those bishops definitely had it wrong.

Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs has written a new history, The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography. (Princeton University Press) Jacobs is always worth reading and this new book looks very interesting indeed. Here’s a description from the publisher’s website:

While many of us are familiar with such famous words as, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here. . .” or “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” we may not know that they originated with The Book of Common Prayer, which first appeared in 1549. Like the words of the King James Bible and Shakespeare, the language of this prayer book has saturated English culture and letters. Here Alan Jacobs tells its story. Jacobs shows how The Book of Common Prayer–from its beginnings as a means of social and political control in the England of Henry VIII to its worldwide presence today–became a venerable work whose cadences express the heart of religious life for many.

The book’s chief maker, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, created it as the authoritative manual of Christian worship throughout England. But as Jacobs recounts, the book has had a variable and dramatic career in the complicated history of English church politics, and has been the focus of celebrations, protests, and even jail terms. As time passed, new forms of the book were made to suit the many English-speaking nations: first in Scotland, then in the new United States, and eventually wherever the British Empire extended its arm. Over time, Cranmer’s book was adapted for different preferences and purposes. Jacobs vividly demonstrates how one book became many–and how it has shaped the devotional lives of men and women across the globe.

Flying Bishops

9780520300378Being a bishop has not always been a safe job. In late antiquity, in fact, it could be positively dangerous–as it remains in some parts of the world today. Not surprisingly, bishops sometimes survived Roman persecution by fleeing (or worse–see the Donatist Controversy), which occasioned considerable consternation among the members of the flock who stayed behind. A book out today from the University of California Press, Bishops in Flight: Exile and Displacement in Late Antiquity, addresses the sad history. The author is religion scholar Jennifer Barry (University of Mary Washington) Here’s the publisher’s description:

Flight during times of persecution has a long and fraught history in early Christianity. In the third century, bishops who fled were considered cowards or, worse yet, heretics. On the face, flight meant denial of Christ and thus betrayal of faith and community. But by the fourth century, the terms of persecution changed as Christianity became the favored cult of the Roman Empire. Prominent Christians who fled and survived became founders and influencers of Christianity over time.

Bishops in Flight examines the various ways these episcopal leaders both appealed to and altered the discourse of Christian flight to defend their status as purveyors of Christian truth, even when their exiles appeared to condemn them. Their stories illuminate how profoundly Christian authors deployed theological discourse and the rhetoric of heresy to respond to the phenomenal political instability of the fourth and fifth centuries.

St. Patrick, Tax Collector

9780691184647From Princeton, here is an interesting-looking new biography of the 5th-Century Apostle of Ireland, St. Patrick Retold: The Legend and History of Ireland’s Patron Saint. The author is historian Roy Flechner (University College Dublin). I had not heard the story of Patrick’s being a revenue collector for the Roman Empire. But the resonance of being a reformed tax collector cannot have been lost on a preacher of the Gospel, or his audience. Here’s the description of the book from the Princeton website:

A gripping biography that brings together the most recent research to shed provocative new light on the life of Saint Patrick

Saint Patrick was, by his own admission, a controversial figure. Convicted in a trial by his elders in Britain and hounded by rumors that he settled in Ireland for financial gain, the man who was to become Ireland’s patron saint battled against great odds before succeeding as a missionary. Saint Patrick Retold draws on recent research to offer a fresh assessment of Patrick’s travails and achievements. This is the first biography in nearly fifty years to explore Patrick’s career against the background of historical events in late antique Britain and Ireland.

Roy Flechner examines the likelihood that Patrick, like his father before him, might have absconded from a career as an imperial official responsible for taxation, preferring instead to migrate to Ireland with his family’s slaves, who were his source of wealth. Flechner leaves no stone unturned as he takes readers on a riveting journey through Romanized Britain and late Iron Age Ireland, and he considers how best to interpret the ambiguous literary and archaeological evidence from this period of great political and economic instability, a period that brought ruin for some and opportunity for others. Rather than a dismantling of Patrick’s reputation, or an argument against his sainthood, Flechner’s biography raises crucial questions about self-image and the making of a reputation.

From boyhood deeds to the challenges of a missionary enterprise, Saint Patrick Retold steps beyond established narratives to reassess a notable figure’s life and legacy.

A New Translation of Second Nicea

9781786941275The Seventh Ecumenical Council, Second Nicaea (787 AD), is famous for its rejection of iconoclasm, a question that roiled the Byzantine state in the eighth century.  It’s the last council accepted as ecumenical by Eastern Orthodox Christians. (The Catholic Church has convened many since, including, most recently, Vatican II). All of which is to say that Second Nicea represents an important moment in church-and-state history.

Late last year, Oxford University Press published a new, two-volume English translation of the formal acts of the Council. Very few English translations exist, so this is an important addition to the scholarly literature. The book is The Acts of the Second Council of Nicaea (787),  and the translator is Richard Price (University of London). Here’s the description from the Oxford website:

The Second Council of Nicaea (787) decreed that religious images were to set up in churches and venerated. It thereby established the cult of icons as a central element in the piety of the Orthodox churches, as it has remained ever since. In the West its decrees received a new emphasis in the Counter-Reformation, in the defence of the role of art in religion. It is a text of prime importance for the iconoclast controversy of eighth-century Byzantium, one of the most explored and contested topics in Byzantine history. But it has also a more general significance – in the history of culture and the history of art. This edition offers the first translation that is based on the new critical edition of this text in the Acta Conciliorum Oecumenicorum series, and the first full commentary of this work that has ever been written. It will be of interest to a wide range of readers from a variety of disciplines.

Evans, “Armenia”

d2e932e91d41bfd9fef0256a3808e679The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is currently hosting a wonderful exhibit on Armenia during the Middle Ages. The exhibit contains major historical objects, including carved stone crosses, illuminated manuscripts, and reliquaries that have never traveled outside the country. And there is a connection for law-and-religion fans: Armenia was the first state in history to adopt Christianity as its religion, a generation or so before Rome (Marc DeGirolami, nota bene). Many of the objects on display reflect a particular relationship between church and state. Christian separationists rightly point to the potential for corruption when the church draws too close to the state, but there are advantages for the religion as well. It’s hard to imagine other institutions with the wherewithal to sponsor works of such beauty and intense spirituality, whose impact on viewers remains profound today.

Armenia bordered Christian Byzantium and Zoroastrian (and later Muslim) Persia, a position that often put it in a difficult political situation–what’s new?–but that also enriched its culture. Medieval Armenian culture was suffused with Christianity, as it remains, more or less, today. But that Christianity did not prevent Armenians from drawing from, and in turn influencing, surrounding cultures. So the exhibit will interest not only people who seek to understand the historical relationship between Christianity and the state, but among Christians and non-Christians in that part of the world.

Yale University Press has released the exhibit’s companion volume, Armenia: Art, Religion, and Trade in the Middle Ages, by Helen C. Evans, the Met’s curator of medieval art. Here’s the description from Yale’s website:

A fascinating exploration of art created by the varied Armenian kingdoms that connected the East and West during the Middle Ages

As the first people to officially convert to Christianity, Armenians commissioned and produced astonishing religious objects. This sumptuous volume depicts and contextualizes the compelling works of art that defined the rich and complicated culture of medieval Armenians, including carvings, liturgical furnishings, beautifully illustrated manuscripts, gilded reliquaries, exquisite textiles, printed books, and more. Situated at the center of trade routes that connected the East and West during the Middle Ages, Armenia became a leading international trade partner for Seljuk, Mongol, Ottoman, and Persian overlords, while also serving as a powerful ally to Byzantium and European Crusader states. Written by a team of international scholars, with contributions from Armenian religious leaders, this book will stand as the definitive text on the art and culture of medieval Armenia.

 

Law and Religion Colloquium Hosts Robert Louis Wilken

Wilken

Thanks so much to Professor Robert Louis Wilken (University of Virginia, Emeritus) for joining our colloquium this week to presenting chapters from his forthcoming book on the Christian origins of religious freedom. Professor Wilken is one of the foremost historians of Christianity and it was a great privilege to have him with us. Come again soon, Robert!

Camerlenghi, “St. Paul’s Outside the Walls”

9781108429511This forthcoming book, by Dartmouth art historian Nicola Camerlenghi, might seem a bit outside our jurisdiction. But as I said yesterday, art reflects and shapes the values of a culture, and scholars of law and religion ought to pay it more attention. Besides, the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls is one of the most important churches in history, with strong church-state associations. It was one of the first churches founded by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century, and its position outside the walls, in addition to reflecting the burial site of the saint for which it is named, reflects the sensitivity the emperor had to show pagans, who still made up the majority of Rome’s citizens.

And there’s another church-state association. Hildebrand, who went on to become Pope Gregory VII, was once abbot of the monastery attached to St. Paul’s–that Pope Gregory VII, from the Investiture Crisis. The monastery still displays his bony finger in a reliquary. I saw it myself once. Imagine, the finger that shook at Henry IV. What would Constantine have thought? If all this is not enough to qualify the book for a post, I don’t know what would.

The book is St. Paul’s Outside the Walls: A Roman Basilica, From Antiquity to the Modern Era. The publisher is Cambridge. Here’s a description from the Cambridge website:

This volume examines one of Rome’s most influential churches: the principal basilica dedicated to St Paul. Nicola Camerlenghi traces nearly two thousand years of physical transformations to the church, from before its construction in the fourth century to its reconstruction following a fire in 1823. By recounting this long history, he restores the building to its rightful place as a central, active participant in epochal political and religious shifts in Rome and across Christendom, as well as a protagonist in Western art and architectural history. Camerlenghi also examines how buildings in general trigger memories and anchor meaning, and how and why buildings endure, evolve, and remain relevant in cultural contexts far removed from the moment of their inception. At its core, Saint Paul’s exemplifies the concept of building as a process, not a product: a process deeply interlinked with religion, institutions, history, cultural memory, and the arts. This study also includes state-of-the-art digital reconstructions synthesizing a wealth of historical evidence to visualize and analyze the earlier (now lost) stages of the building’s history, offering glimpses into heretofore unexamined parts of its long, rich life.

Blowers, “Maximus the Confessor”

9780199673957Here is a new paperback from Oxford about a Christian saint and theologian famous for resisting the power of the state: Maximus the Confessor: Jesus Christ and the Transfiguration of the World, by church historian Paul M. Blowers (Emmanuel Christian Seminary). Maximus, who began his career as a high imperial official, was important during the Monothelite Controversy of the seventh century. The details of that abstruse theological and political debate are not important, at least to most Christians today, but Monotheletism was an imperial attempt to reconcile Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Christians. Like all such attempts, it failed, largely because of intransigence on both sides. Maximus strongly adhered to the pro-Chalcedonian position and counseled against compromise, which landed him in trouble with the emperor, who had him tortured and exiled for heresy. Shortly after his death, though, Maximus’s position prevailed within the empire, and he was named a saint. Personally, I regard Maximus’s inflexibility, and those of his counterparts on the other side, with some regret. The theological differences between Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Christians are narrow and should not be so difficult to resolve; that we have not been able to do so across centuries is a continuing scandal. But one has to admire Maximus’s integrity in resisting the state, even at the cost of harrowing physical pain. The authorities cut out his tongue and amputated his writing hand so that he could no longer spread his views. The description of the book from the publisher’s website follows:

This study contextualizes the achievement of a strategically crucial figure in Byzantium’s turbulent seventh century, the monk and theologian Maximus the Confessor (580-662). Building on newer biographical research and a growing international body of scholarship, as well as on fresh examination of his diverse literary corpus, Paul Blowers develops a profile integrating the two principal initiatives of Maximus’s career: first, his reinterpretation of the christocentric economy of creation and salvation as a framework for expounding the spiritual and ascetical life of monastic and non-monastic Christians; and second, his intensifying public involvement in the last phase of the ancient christological debates, the monothelete controversy, wherein Maximus helped lead an East-West coalition against Byzantine imperial attempts doctrinally to limit Jesus Christ to a single (divine) activity and will devoid of properly human volition. Blowers identifies what he terms Maximus’s “cosmo-politeian” worldview, a contemplative and ascetical vision of the participation of all created beings in the novel politeia, or reordered existence, inaugurated by Christ’s “new theandric energy”. Maximus ultimately insinuated his teaching on the christoformity and cruciformity of the human vocation with his rigorous explication of the precise constitution of Christ’s own composite person. In outlining this cosmo-politeian theory, Blowers additionally sets forth a “theo-dramatic” reading of Maximus, inspired by Hans Urs von Balthasar, which depicts the motion of creation and history according to the christocentric “plot” or interplay of divine and creaturely freedoms. Blowers also amplifies how Maximus’s cumulative achievement challenged imperial ideology in the seventh century—the repercussions of which cost him his life-and how it generated multiple recontextualizations in the later history of theology.

Kotkin, “Stalin”

9781594203800Rounding out this week’s posts, here is a new and well-received book from Penguin Random House, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941by Princeton historian Stephen Kotkin. The book focuses on the period of forced collectivization, during which Stalin consolidated the Communist regime and, in the process, killed almost a million people. The 1930s were also the time of the most vicious persecution of the Russian Orthodox Church, led by the so-called League of the Militant Godless. Tens of thousands of churches were closed, and hundreds of thousands of clergy executed. After 1941, when Stalin needed the help of the Church in rallying opposition to Hitler, the persecution lifted a bit, but the real damage already had occurred. Here’s a description of the book from the publisher’s website:

Pulitzer Prize-finalist Stephen Kotkin has written the definitive biography of Joseph Stalin, from collectivization and the Great Terror to the conflict with Hitler’s Germany that is the signal event of modern world history

In 1929, Joseph Stalin, having already achieved dictatorial power over the vast Soviet Empire, formally ordered the systematic conversion of the world’s largest peasant economy into “socialist modernity,” otherwise known as collectivization, regardless of the cost.

What it cost, and what Stalin ruthlessly enacted, transformed the country and its ruler in profound and enduring ways. Building and running a dictatorship, with life and death power over hundreds of millions, made Stalin into the uncanny figure he became. Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929–1941 is the story of how a political system forged an unparalleled personality and vice versa.

The wholesale collectivization of some 120 million peasants necessitated levels of coercion that were extreme even for Russia, and the resulting mass starvation elicited criticism inside the party even from those Communists committed to the eradication of capitalism. But Stalin did not flinch. By 1934, when the Soviet Union

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