Monday, October 16, 2017

The Path of Christianity (John Anthony McGuckin) -- A Review

THE PATH OFCHRISTIANITY: The First Thousand Years. By John Anthony McGuckin. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017. Xviii + 1207 pages.

The history of Christianity is filled twists and turns that need to be documented, explored, and interpreted. One cannot understand church history outside the flow of history itself, because every religious act occurs within the broad stream of world history. That means even those of us who approach the history of Christianity from within, may believe that God’s providence plays a role in the story, but we still use the same principles and tools that any historian might use.  As a church historian myself, I appreciate those persons who write from within the faith community, but also have an appreciation for the complexity of the story and take their task as a historian seriously. Such is the case here with The Path of Christianity, written by John Anthony McGuckin.  


McGuckin is an archpriest of the Romanian Orthodox Church, currently serving as rector of the Orthodox Church in Lytham St. Anne’s, England, as well as serving on the faculty at Oxford University. Before this he held a chair at Union Theological Seminary and was Professor of Byzantine Christianity at Columbia University. His area of expertise is early Christianity, especially in the eastern church. This expertise is very apparent here.

His book The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years is massive. It is thorough. You might even say it is nearly encyclopedic. While McGuckin suggests that the book is designed to be used as a textbook, I see it as being more a reference book. I cut my teeth on Latourrette's two volume history of Christianity, which is itself a substantial set, but still nowhere as massive as this book, which only takes us to the Great Schism in the mid-eleventh century. When it comes to choosing a text, I would think that Justo Gonzalez' two-volume textbook would be more appropriate for all but the most advanced courses (and that includes seminary courses). Nonetheless, for those interested in diving deeper into the history of early Christianity, this will be a valuable addition to one’s library.

McGuckin's background is firmly in the eastern tradition, but he has good grasp of the overall flow of early Christian history. He helps the reader connect theology with culture and political structures. At times he seems to want to explore every possible thread, which makes the book more complex and lengthy. It's easy to get lost in the details, but that is why it offers the serious student a foundational text, just not an introductory one.

The book is composed of two parts. Part one is titled "The Church's Pilgrim Path." In this first section McGuckin provides the narrative foundation, beginning with he calls "The Fertile Second Century." He introduces the reader to key teachers and groups, and shows us how Christianity began to theologize the faith, laying the foundations for much that comes later. He then moves forward through persecutions, Roman religious and political context, and on through the third century and beyond to the embrace of Christianity by the Roman imperial government. McGuckin reminds us that Constantine looked to Christianity for stability, and thus needed a stable foundation, whatever that might be. What we discover is that the imperial court preferred Arianism over its rival. As time passes we see how parties emerge, dividing the church and the empire. Part one takes up the first 759 pages of the book, concluding with the chapter titled "The Great Parting of the Ways," which explores the path to separation of east and west, Greek and Latin. He narrates the tensions surrounding two incompatible claims of universal jurisdiction on the part of Popes in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was now proclaiming himself the Ecumenical Patriarch. This conflict combined with rival definitions of the procession of the Spirit, made separation inevitable. It was also a moment at which Byzantium was about to enter its period of decline, while in the west Christendom was about to “enter into its most luminous phase in the dawn of the second millennium” (p. 749).

Whereas part one took the reader on a chronological journey from the first to eleventh centuries, though the journey is often circuitous, part two is topical in orientation. This section is titled “A Winding Road: Select Themes and Ideas,” and as such it enables the student/reader to dive deep into specific topics. The chapters range from biblical orientation to hymnody. McGuckin suggests that this “diachronic approach,” is offered in recognition that “real life rarely follows such a straightforward, linear movement as the recorded formal narrative might suggest.” Therefore, in part two he approaches the conversation in a different form, focusing on “key structural ideas, themes, and obsessions” (p. xviii).   There are twelve chapters in all. They focus on biblical interpretation, church and war, Christian hymnography, prayer, women in the early church, healing and philanthropy, church authority, magic, wealth, slavery, sexuality, and ancient Christian art. The way these chapters are structured, the reader does have an interesting opportunity to explore aspects of the Christian faith that a straight linear program would not.  This topical emphasis also allows the reader to gain a greater sense of where Christians were of one mind and where they diverged.

To take but one issue that remains divisive among Christians today, and that is the Christian attitude toward war, the early church was not of one mind. Jesus might be understood to preach nonviolence, even as the New Testament speaks of coming judgment. McGuckin suggests that the “records of the Christian church, therefore, show the coexistence, however uneasy that juxtaposition might be, of both pacifistic and militaristic strands.” He suggests that efforts to portray the church as being pacifist until Constantine came on the scene is too simplistic (p. 795). That seems to be the theme throughout these sections. There is diversity of thought and practice, even as we must understand developments within church life in their historical context. Thus, for instance, when it comes to the role of women. The church emerged within a patriarchal world, and it reflected that world, at least to a point. However, he acknowledges developments in scholarship that have given us a broader picture and have shown a diversity of views and practices regarding the role of women.  

In both part one and part two, the chapters end with a "short reader," providing excerpts from primary texts. This is a helpful component, because reading text is always useful if one wants to get a true sense of what was being taught and said. Accompanying the reader, is a nice bibliography, which offers suggestions for further reading. These will be helpful if the book is used as a textbook, as well as a reference book.

I did not read the book cover to cover. I sampled and skimmed and explored sections of the book, which was sent to me by the publisher for review. From what I read, McGuckin is a thoughtful, careful historian. He understands the subject matter, and guides us through it. He notes in the preface that the contents of the book emerged in the process of teaching early Christian history over a period of thirty years in both the United States and Britain. Thus, the material has been tested in a classroom setting. That is good to know. I do think, however, that the book could use some editing to make it more concise. I might also suggest the inclusion of illustrations and maps. Perhaps he could create sidebars or text boxes with biographical introductions to key figures. While I still think Gonzalez’s text will be more useful in class settings, this is an amazingly comprehensive work, and perhaps will serve as a capstone on a career. 

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