Notes from Deep church conversation series: No 2 - Discovering the missing half of Christendom and stumbling across the Fathers of the early church.


The second in the Deep Church lecture/conversation series led by Professor Andrew Walker was another great evening. Andrew suffers from Parkinson's and it was a measure of the great character of the man that despite not feeling at his best he engaged us with another fascinating evening of curiousity growing theological and historical insight.

Conversations in this series:

1. The Spirit is Real but he is a person not a force: lessons from Pentecostal, Charismatic and Orthodox traditions. (Link to my notes). 2. Discovering the missing half of Christendom and stumbling across the Fathers of the early church. 3.Living with Ambiguity: facing up to difficulties in scripture and Christian doctrine. 4. On being a theological teacher: notes from the frontline. 5. The ecumenical vision of C S Lewis: moving towards a generous orthodoxy. 6. From certainty to hope: why I know less now than I did when I was 18.

But first a correction... I must start however with a correction to my week 1 notes. I mentioned there that the doctrine of the Trinity was established by such creeds as the Nicene and the Anathanasian - but as Andrew has enlightened me the latter is mostly likely much later and the only creed that the Eastern and Western church share is the Nicene one. I apologise for any other errors that creep into my notes, the origin is going to be me and my dodgy note taking - so expect this to be a regular feature!

Overview of conversation 2: Andrew's talk and the Qs that followed covered the following areas: 1. Church history is important: Dan Brown, The DiVinci Code, Constantine and Council Nicea 2. From Pentecostal to Athesiest to Russian Orthodox - tales of discovering the missing half of Christendom (Eastern Orthodox Church) and a new life building bridges between East & West 3. Church Fathers - the good, the bad and a theology of need. Thanks to Andrew who has run his eyes over these notes - although any continued errors in interpretation are mine rather than his...

Church history is important: Dan Brown, The DiVinci Code, Constantine and the Council of Nicea

Andrew read out some exerts from Dan Brown's book, The DaVinici Code, about Contantine and the Council of Nicea. Dan, in the book gives the impression that Constantine was just a pagan using christianity for his own ends and to sure up his power. Or in other words, Christ's divinity etc was all made up by the Council because Constantine told them too.

Andrew then contrasted Dan's fictional account with the historical narrative, highlighting, for example, how Constantine may have been baptised on his death bed but that was quite a common practice; he may have chosen sunday as a holiday but christians in the 2nd century were celebrating worship on a saturday or sunday and by 4th century it was common practice to celebrate mass on the sunday and celebrate both the Lord's death & resurection. Andrew also explained that whilst it was true that Constantine arranged the Council of Nicea, he did not rig it nor did the Council meet to decide on Christ's divinity per se, more what form his divinity took (as Andrew mentioned last week the struggle for the early church was not so much whether Jesus was God but whether he was a man).

For more on this, see these following links that I found, for a great site contrasting the Divinici Code with the historical accounts of both Constantine and the Council of Nicea. Please note Andrew's health warning about searching on the internet for info: "there are 2 dangers with the net - porn and religion!"

2. From Pentecostal to Athesiest to Russian Orthodox - tales of discovering the missing half of Christendom and a new life of building bridges between East & West

Andrew continued his account he started last week of how he grew up in the pentecostal tradition, went to bible college but then became an agnostic and then an atheist. He recounted he was perfectly happy as such, especially as it was the 60s, until he had a dream one night of him being at some form of old fashioned dance, like a 'Gay Gordon,' where a man he knew was Jesus invited him to dance. At first he refused but the man said that if he did not dance he would have no part of him so Andrew allowed himself to be led on the dream dance floor and felt estacically happy. Andrew recounted that he woke up the next day and came up with all sorts of reasons why that dream was not about Jesus, from bad pizza to surpressed homo-eroticism, but as he recounts in the days that followed the dream faded but the Lord of that dream did not.

Andrew related how he tried to read his bible but he found had lost the ability to read through christian eyes so instead connected through church history. It was then that he discovered both the Church Fathers and the Eastern Orthodox church after seeing one of the leaders of the Russian Orthodox church on TV conversing with respect and humour with a feminist. Having managed to get an appointment to see the man, Andrew at the meeting began by ranted on about the evils of the Orthodox Church and why it got what it deserved. When Andrew ran out of things to say the Bishop paused for 2 mins (which felt like a very long time) Then he said: 'Now why have you really come to see me?' After a year or so Andrew decided to join and the bishop asked me "What makes you think we want you?' He then said Andrew could come in but he wanted me to build bridges with the churches I had I had left behind. That's what he has been trying to do for most of his adult life. The bishop told him ' give talks on Russian Orthodoxy but never preach it: only preach Christ.'

[With the same health warning as before, I found this article on East meets West to be useful back ground reading as someone not famliar with the Eastern tradition]

3. Discovering the Church Fathers - the good, the bad and a theology of need

The good...

Andrew in his reading of church history came across the Church Fathers . For Andrew the first thing about these men is that they were 'brilliant' and he was shocked by how much of the Patristic tradition existed unnamed as such in the protestant church and left wondering how he could have not heard of them before. Something he has clearly remedied now :) - not least as he put the Q - 'can you do good theology if you do not do/know history?' Or to shape the issue through the eyes of C S Lewis - if it was good then it is still good today.

It also raised a Q later of why do we belong to the tradition that we do? What has shaped the tradition, what is the theology behind it that in turn now shapes us?

The Church Fathers themselves were based in such places as Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, Alexandria, and Constantinople. The Sees (Dioceses) were by and large built around commercial centres or cities (senior Russian bishops still carry the title Metropolitan (though Andrew says he should have said in in the talk that these werecommercial/political/intellectual centres with Jerusalem being the exception - its role was mainly symbolic).

The Fathers were part of the See for that city-region and the Bishops of each See were independent of each other - it was not til much later that the Rome Bishop decided he needed to have authority over all of the others. It was not until the 10th cent that the Eastern Churches felt that Rome was clearly pushing for universal jurisdiction - moving from the first among equals to ruling patriarch. (Incidentally, Andrew did not mention in the talk but added in his email clarifications that, at the Council of Nicea it was the bishop of Alexanddria who who used the title pope not he bishop of Rome).

This meant that the church fathers also thought in different languages and had different cultural perspectives in engaging in theology. So, for example, at the Council of Nicea only 11 of the 318 bishops who attended were from Rome, there was no Catholic church or Orthodox church but just the church and a recognition that as such the bishops needed to commune with each other.

The Church Fathers kept the faith, they reflected on the New Testament and via creeds agreed on key doctrines such as salvation, christology and the Holy Spirt. They also had their areas of special concern, for instance St. John Chrysostom was very concerned for the poor. Andrew has asked me to clarify that his comment that he made in the lecture that St John Chrysostom was an Arab is actually speculation based on the fact that he was from the Antiochean See.

Andrew has asked me to say that when he got too tired, he did not make clear that there are two Saint Cyrils in the early centuries. Cyril of Jerusalem (3rd Cent) and Cyril of Alexandria (late 4th - 5th cent). The latter is remembered principally for his defeat of Nestorianism.

The bad...

The church fathers were imperfect e.g, some were:

- anti semitic, the dark side of St John Chrysostom; - anti sex, although as Andrew clarified many of the Desert Fathers were not against sex - seeing it more positively than Augustine - but there was a tendency amongst the Fathers towards stoicism with its risk of downplaying the goodness of the material and natural creation; and - anti women [as Jase highlighted in this post on whether christianity is irredeemably sexist] although as Andrew clarified he did not say that the Fathers were anti women collectively (he would argue that the Cappadocians - certainly Gregory of Nyssa - were not) though many were.

In reflecting on the imperfect nature of the church fathers, Andrew reflected a balanced view in that the Holy Spirit was continuing his work in the church and therefore no one had perfect insight/doctrine and it is the same, for examoke, with considering Calvin, someone who Andrew appreciates for Calvin's theological contribution but where Andrew can differ by not advocating the burning of heretics.

Theology of need...

Andew highlighted that the earliest of the Church Fathers was as close to the NT as we are to the Victorian era and that had a significance in that every christian knew of someone who knew someone who had known the Lord. History, as Andrew pointed out, is ambiguous and is not a solution to the problems of theology. However in engaging with the problems of theology, history becomes another tool in the tool box. One of the issues is that the culture of the Church Fathers was an oral one, it was one of apprenticeship where information was transfered face to face. That meant that texts were not as important to Christians in the early church as they did not have bibles per se on the other hand for the first 200 yrs they could talk to someone face to face who knew someone who knew somone who had known the Lord.

As time passed that connection stretched to someone who knew some one who heard of some one who knew someone who knew the Lord... which meant that the Church Fathers were bible scholars and studied the texts that they had available. They were also highly practical in that their theological reflection was shaped by the responses to the crisises of the church, the heresies etc rather than some sort of systematic theological process. For Andrew this is a key reason why took 400-500 to form key doctrines like that of the trinity and the nature of Jesus as these are not clear in the NT and therefore needed this time for people to question, reflect and unpack what is hinted and guided by the holy spirit, as we all are, form the key doctrines.

Further reading

This link is to a document from Andrew Walker recommending particular books following on from this lecture for those interested in ex