Deacon Rick Bauer

THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: Books to read in the New Year

by Deacon Rick Bauer

Here is the long-awaited sequel to Rod Bennett’s celebrated “Four Witnesses: The Early Church in Her Own Words,” a page-turning spiritual adventure following the lives and words of Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons. “Four More Witnesses” invites readers to enter again the world of the early, influential Christian leaders and writers, this time meeting Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, and Origen.

What did these witnesses have to say on the necessity of baptism? What did they think of “eternal security” and confessions to Church elders? What about Mary and her role in salvation history? Christian writers addressed all of these questions, and many more, in the decades following the Apostles — an era when even the Creed was still a work in progress. Bennett has a gift for making realistic narrative from saintly writing — a way of taking evidence and structuring it the way a story might be told. This gift created a text that reads with purpose and development instead of a set of prooftexts used in an argument. As Mike Aquilina from the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology (no stranger to early church history himself) writes, “Bennett uses the words of the Fathers themselves, but recast so that they flow like the words of a modern novel — an adventure or a mystery. Hermas, Clement, Hippolytus, Origen: you’ll think of them as friends forever after reading ‘Four More Witnesses.’”

This is no second-tier set of historical figures to understand, either. We know them as we have come to know those who were their disciples. Hermas was a contemporary of Clement of Rome, and was a part of a group known as “the eight witnesses.” Clement of Alexandria was a disciple of Irenaeus. Hippolytus and Origen were both disciples of Clement of Alexandria. These witnesses were not working as individuals but in relationship to other saints. There is a “chain of custody” to the early traditions and texts that came to form the dogma and inspired writings of the Christian religion.

Origen Adamantius is one of the four men revealed in this engaging book, and is probably more familiar to us than the others. I always had a certain sympathy for this man, whose contributions and mistaken understandings were both epic in magnitude. Personally, I feel a sadness for one who got pretty close to sainthood, but whose mistakes cost him in the jockeying for sainthood in the early church. If the church is indeed the field hospital that Pope Francis envisioned, we can see Origen as a skilled surgeon, studied in the scriptures, making sure that the temptations others had to disregard the Old Testament in light of the gospel of Christ was never followed. His only mistake was not imitating the caution of others before sharing his insights, many of which were absolutely correct. His understanding of the geography of Palestine (after spending decades of study in the libraries of Alexandria, he moved to the Holy Land) was helpful in allowing him to do some of the first textual analysis and study of the early gospels, some of them little more than first and second editions of these precious scrolls. He certainly showed himself to be worthy of being entrusted with this important task.

Our second recommendation this month is “A Theology of Paul and His Letters: The Gift of the New Realm in Christ” by Douglas Moo, New Testament professor at Wheaton College.

St. Peter offered the first “book review” of the writings of St. Paul, observing in his epistle (2 Peter 3:16) that Paul’s “letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”  Not only did Peter offer what we have found out ourselves — some of these texts are difficult to fathom, and some have interpreted them incorrectly, leading to their own harm and to division in the church — but we also learn that the writings of St. Paul are also in the blessed company of “the other scriptures,” which certainly they are.

It has been a personal joy to see scholars of St. Paul crossing confessional lines in recent years to understand his thought better, including Catholic scholars like Tim Gray and Brant Pitre, as well as legendary Catholic professors such as Father Raymond Collins, who taught at Catholic University of America before retiring in 2006.

We also have come to appreciate the insights of Protestant Pauline scholars like Moo. No longer regarded as the tortured, guilt-ridden figure depicted inaccurately by both Luther and Augustine, we can read St. Paul in a true sense of harmonizing his letters with the teachings of the gospels and of other leaders in the early church. We have left the world that denigrated Paul for “ruining” the primitive gospel of Jesus, and have moved to craft newer biblical theologies of Paul that respect the Rule of Faith in surprising ways.   

 Engaging, insightful, thorough, and wise, this substantive St. Paul’s theology offers extensive engagement with the latest Pauline scholarship without sacrificing its readability. This volume brings insights from over 30 years of experience studying, teaching, and writing about Paul into one comprehensive guide that will serve readers as a go-to resource for decades to come.

Father Collins inspired me as a much younger man to see a Catholic St. Paul. Christian unity was a problem in the early church and St. Paul proposed practical ideas for bringing Christians from Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures together “in a basic unity of faith,” he said. We applaud all of the contributions of Pauline scholars everywhere, we benefit from their writings and study, and we learn how this foundational apostle, thinker, preacher, evangelizer, brother and friend left his mark among the faithful down to our own lives today.

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