Impressions of “When the Church was Young: Voices of the Early Fathers,” by Marcellino D’Ambrosio

Church Fathers are the ancient writers, sometimes bishops, sometimes saints, who defended the orthodox catholic church during the first several centuries. I became interested in the early Fathers as I began to realize the great role they have in teaching the faith, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and the implicit role they have in destroying it, according to Mormon thinking.

The age of the early Fathers begins as the first students of the Apostles wrote, and ended with the dawn of two new civilizations: Medieval Europe and Islam. During this era core, teachings of the Church — such as how many persons of Christ are there (one), how many substances Christ has (two, true man and true God), and how many persons are Christ (one, there’s only one Jesus Christ, Son of God) — were written down. This era includes fathers who lived before, during, and after the First Council of Nicaea, whose words became binding on all Catholics after the council.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father, the only-begotten;
that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made both in heaven and on earth;
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.
But those who say:
‘There was a time when he was not;’ and
‘He was not before he was made;’ and
‘He was made out of nothing,’ or
‘He is of another substance’ or ‘essence,’
or ‘The Son of God is created,’ or ‘changeable,’ or ‘alterable’
— they are condemned by the holy catholic and apostolic Church.

When the Church was Young traces the development of Nicene Christianity from the immediate post-apostolic era to just before the rise of Islam. The oldest of the Church Fathers are those who knew and learned from the apostles For instance, Ignatius of Antioch and Polycarp may have actually known the Apostle John. Gregory the Great, one of the very last Fathers in this book, overlaps with the Middle Ages. Indeed, his papacy is the close of the Patristic period and at the opening of *Medieval Christianity: A New History.

When the Church was Young reads like a quicker prequel to Medieval Christianity, like Ball Lightning is a breezy prequel to The Three Body Problem. The major points of development are presented, and the time around the Arian Heresy in particular is very well reported. I learned a lot from this book.

I was pleased at the presentation of two Church Fathers, Augustine of Hippo of John Chrysostom. I have read Augustine’s Confessions and Chrysostom’s mis-named Against the Jews, and the description of these Fathers matches my understanding of what I read. Likewise, the short descriptions of The Protoevangelium of James and The Shepherd of Hermas do not contradict what I read.

That said, while this is an introductory history of the early Church through the Fathers, it is not a neutral history. In Christian theology, people who propound beliefs that are later called heretical are not themselves heretics, as they did not have the advantage of the Church’s teaching when writing their ideas. D’Ambrosio, whose interest is in teaching correct Christian beliefs, does not spend much time on heretical or abandoned beliefs of the early Church Fathers. This leads to an accurate if biased depiction of the early Church. This is particularly obvious in the section on Origin, who is repeatedly defended against accusations of heresy without ever which of his beliefs were identified as heretical.

In How God Became King, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright criticized the out-sized importance the Nicene Creed, and its derivatives, have in Christianity. The Nicene Creed was written to refute Arius, and insist that Christ was God, not a creature. The fathers were successful in this. Christological precision is important, but not more important than the person of Christ, His kingdom, or His teachings. Indeed, while I find the Mormon rejection of the Nicene Creed (on the complaint the concept “substance” is not found in the Bible) hypocritical, as Mormonism itself imports Greek philosophy into its cosmological system, Mormons are certainly right that the focus on the Greco-Roman interpretation of the Scriptures, instead of the Hebrew con-text of the written Word, has clouded much of our understanding. Marcellino D’Ambrosio does not seem to realize this. Worse, the hygienic purity of terms in Greco-Roman philosophy can lead to a lack of awareness of the “unseen realm,” and the world of flesh, demons, and supernatural entities which inhabit the cosmos.

I was disturbed to learn of the early church practice that the Sacrament of Reconciliation could be obtained only once or twice a lifetime. Something like this is referenced in Shepherd of Hermas, but I did not realize Shepherd was either reporting a literal procedure, or itself had been taken literally, later on. In my current state I participate in this sacrament bi-weekly, and if anything this does not seem enough. I do not think I would have done well with the early Christians, who seem to live lifestyles of the religious orders in particular, except as someone like the church father Ambrosia of Milan who was not baptized until just before he was named a bishop.

I enjoyed reading When the Church was Young. I have a better grasp of the life of the early Church, controversies which shaped the terms and phrases used and the learning about the ecclesiastical transition into the Middle Ages. I wish the narrative had contained more depth on what the Fathers actually believed, and I would have enjoyed learning about John of Damascus, who commented on the Qur’an, and viewed it as a form of Arianism.

I read When the Church was Young in the Audible edition. The author has a brief summary of the Church Fathers available online.

Qur’an I: The Opening

Nearly ten years ago, Gabriel Said Reynolds published “The Qur’an and the Bible” in First Things. That has now been expanded into a book, The Bible and the Quran, which is centered around a translation of the Koran into English, with notes by Reynolds.

The first Surah, corresponding to “chapters” or “books”, of the Koran is also the shortest, and is called “The Opening.”  It is short enough to reproduce in full:

In the Name of God, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
All praise belongs to God, Lord of all the words
the All-beneficent, the All-merciful
Master of the Day of Retribution
You do we worship
and to You do we turn for help
Guide us on the straight path
the path of those whom You have blessed
— such as have not incurred Your wrath, nor are astray
Qur’an 1: The Opening

In the First Things piece Reynolds notes that the Catholic bishop Paul of Antioch argued in the 12th century the three-fold definition of divinity was not merely rhetorical, but referred to the persons of the Trinity.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost,
the God of one substance,
trinity of natures.

From the humble monk Paul of Antioch, Bishop of Sidon,
letter to one of his Muslim friends in Sidon. …

There are substantial attributes having the value of names, of which each is different from the other, since God is unique, neither sharing nor dividing. Moreover, it says at the beginning of the Book:

“In the name of God, the Benefactor, the Merciful,”

it is confined to three attributes to the exclusion of the others. – attributes which, for us are the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that which means a living speaking being. Besides, it is said in this Book:

“In the name of God…”

Moreover it is said in this Book:

“Say: Call upon God, or call upon Mercy, but whatever name you call Him by, to Him belong the most beautiful names…”
Paul’s Letter to the Muslims” (translated by Dr. Nafisa Abdelsadek) circa AD 1200 Paragraphs 1, 32

Like the writer of the Qur’an and Bishop Paul, the Gospel account uses a tri-fold formula for one Name:

Go therefore
and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them
in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
Matthew 28:19

Three comparisons are included by Reynolds to this Surah: the Our Father (as found in Matthew and Luke) and the first Psalm. Like the Our Father, Surah 1 has a general ‘downward’ trend, starting at celestial purity and ending in temptation…

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Matthew 6:9-13

The same pattern is also in the first of the Psalms:

Happy the man who has not walked in the wicket’s counsel,
nor in the way of offenders has stood, nor in the session of scoffers has sat. But the LORD’s teaching is his desire, and His teaching he murmurs day and night.

And he shall be like a tree planted by streams of water,
that bears its fruit in its season,
and its leaf does not wither —
and in all that he does he prospers.

Not so the wicked,
but like the chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicket will not stand up in judgment,
nor offenders in the band of the righteous.

For the LORD embraces the way of the righteous,
and the way of the wicked is lost.
Psalms 1:1-6

The first Surah reads like a part of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Like the “Our Father” and the First Psalm it is a short prayer that presents the glory of God, the fallen nature of man’s sin, and a gradation of holiness between them. Like the First Psalm “The Opening” is a clear textual unit, and like the “Our Father” it is a threefold invocation of God.

Every book I read in 2018

Last year I copied my friend Tanner Greer and listed every book I read. I am stealing his idea again. As with last year’s list, the best book I read in every category is bolded. And like last year I will give special attention to one work: Jordan Peterson‘s Maps of Meaning is the rare book that changes how you read other books.

And Thomas Merton‘s work is that rare book that changes your daily life.

The Holy Bible

The Book of Exodus
The Book of Leviticus
The Book of Numbers

The Apocrypha

The Protoevangelium of James
The Shepherd of Hermas, translated by Daniel Robinson

Christian Apologetics

How God became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, by N.T. Wright
To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age, by Robert Barron with John L. Allen, Jr.
Manual for Spiritual Warfare, by Paul Thigpin

Christian Writings

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson
Four Quartets, by T.S. Elliot
My God is the LORD: Elijah and Ahab in the Age of Apostasy, by M.B. Van’t Veer
The Seven-Storey Mountain, by Thomas Merton

Comparative Religion

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief, by Jordan B. Peterson
The Orthodox Christian Church: History, Beliefs, and Practices by Peter Bouteneff
Wrestling the Angel — the Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity, by Terryl L Givens

Business Strategy

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
Beneath a Surface: The Inside Story of How Microsoft Overcame a $900 Write-down to Become the Hero of the PC Industry, by Brad Sams
Dogfight: How Apple and google Went to War and Started a Revolution, by Fred Vogelstein
Hit Refresh: The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone by Satya Nadella with Greg Shaw and Jill Tracie Nichols
We Were Yahoo!: From Internet Pioneer to the Trillion Dollar Loss of Google and Facebook, by Jeremy Ring

Politics and Political History

Dangerous, by Milo Yiannopoulos

Science Fiction

Ball Lightning, by Cixin Liu