Book Write-Up: The Path of Christianity, the First Thousand Years

John Anthony McGuckin.  The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years.  IVP Academic, 2017.  See here to purchase the book.

John Anthony McGuckin has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Columbia University, and Oxford University.  His fields include Late Antique Christian History and Byzantine Christian Studies.  He has also served in Orthodox churches.

This book is 1157 pages of writing.  Each chapter discusses a time period or a topic and is followed by excerpts from primary sources.  Part I of the book is organized chronologically, as it goes from the second century C.E. to the eleventh century C.E.  Part II is more topical, as it includes chapters on ancient Christian stances towards various issues.  These issues include biblical interpretation, war, hymnography, prayer, women, healing and philanthropy, church authority, magic, wealth, slavery, sexuality, and art (particularly iconoclastic controversies).  After these chapters are appendices that summarize church councils and list Roman popes, patriarchs of Constantinople, and Roman emperors until 1453.

Part I is excellent in that it lays out the stories of key figures throughout church history, in terms of their personalities, their arguments, their beliefs, and what happened to them.  It also lucidly describes the beliefs of Marcion, Origen (specifically his view on pre-existent souls and the human attempt to re-unite with God), and the Manicheans.  The Christological controversies are described, along with what different perspectives believed was at stake.  The theological, ecclesiastical, and political differences and tensions between Western and Eastern Christianity are also highlighted.

Part II is a useful resource for those who wonder how exactly to assess Christianity’s contribution.  Debates occur about what ancient Christians believed.  Were they pacifists until the time of Constantine, indicating that Christians today should be pacifists?  Were icons a later development in Christianity, as some Protestant scholars narrate?  Were ancient Christians progressive or regressive about such issues as gender, compassion for the poor, and slavery?  McGuckin’s discussion of these issues is balanced and, I would say, trustworthy.  They highlight diversity within ancient Christianity.  While ancient Christianity does not come off smelling like a rose in his telling, it does appear to have progressive elements, rooted in Christian teachings.

Moreover, while McGuckin may have a faith-perspective, he is unafraid of the historical-critical method, although he critiques marginalizing spiritual and religious interpretations of the Bible in favor of it.  In one aside, McGuckin discusses how the Gospel of John fit into and spoke to Alexandrian culture, with its emphasis on the divine logos and personal immortality.  McGuckin also questions whether certain New Testament teachings about wealth and sex (i.e., asceticism) should be considered eternal laws or instead were designed specifically for Jesus’ itinerant disciples, who were expecting the imminent end of the world.

Something that I found informative in this book was McGuckin’s discussion of the biblical hermeneutics of Theodore of Mopsuestia and the Antiochian school.  They disdained Christological allegory of the Old Testament, and they held that certain Old Testament prophecies that many Christians applied to Christ actually pertained to events before the coming of Christ, such as the time of David or Hezekiah.  Contrary to common belief, McGuckin states, the Antiochian school was not a forerunner to the modern historical-critical method, which interprets the Hebrew Bible in light of its historical context rather than Christ.  Rather, the Antiochian school’s approach was rooted in the belief that the Old Covenant and the New Covenant were distinct from each other, and thus writings in the Old Testament often related to the Old Covenant rather than the New.  This is a helpful insight.  I have wondered why the Antiochian school was willing to see certain Psalms as predictive of Hezekiah but not of Christ: if they are suggesting that writings in the Hebrew Bible can transcend their historical context and predict the future, why not say that they predict Christ, since these interpreters are Christians?  McGuckin presented the rationale behind their hermeneutical approach.

Another interesting topic was the relationship of debates on iconography to Christology.  Some on the pro-icon side accused the anti-icon Christians of minimizing the incarnation: after all, was not Jesus an icon of God when he was on earth?  That must mean that icons (visible representations of the divine) are all right!  Some on the anti-icon side, however, said that the pro-icon side minimized the incarnation: what is important is the union of humanity and divinity in Christ, they argued, and an icon is neither human nor divine and thus cannot represent Christ.

This book was edifying and informative.  It certainly will have a place on my shelf, so that I can consult it when the need arises.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.  My review is honest.

 

 

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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