Sunday, December 4, 2011


Johan Leemans, Brian J. Matz, Johan Verstraeten (ed.), Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for Twenty-first-century Christian Social Thought. CUA Studies in Early Christianity. Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011. Pp. xviii, 272. ISBN 9780813218595. $34.95.

Reviewed by Christopher M. Hays, Keble College, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics is a collection of essays produced by a seminar on the Church Fathers and Catholic social thought held at the Catholic University of Leuven in 2007. The seminar assembled experts in the fields of patristics and theological ethics in order to evaluate how the reflections of the Church Fathers might inform contemporary Catholic social thought. This volume is a valuable resource to scholars interested in Christian social ethics or hermeneutical appropriation of patristic writings.

The book proceeds in four parts, the first of which ("Approaching Patristic Socio-Ethical Texts") examines the hermeneutical possibilities and challenges of relating patristics to modern Christian social ethics. Reimund Bieringer's essay, "Texts that Create a Future: The Function of Ancient Texts for Theology Today," opens with a tight overview of the history of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment hermeneutical theory, spanning the period of time in which scholars became aware of the gulf between ancient texts and modern interpreters. Bieringer delineates a few prominent attempts to bridge that gap (Ricoeur, Heidegger, Gadamer). He then offers his own hermeneutical reflections on how classical texts can help generate new futures, and proffers an example of the fruits of these reflections, a provocative analysis of a sermon by Theodoret of Cyprus.

Pauline Allen's contribution, "Challenges in Approaching Patristic texts from the Perspective of Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching," counterbalances Bieringer's essay by underscoring the distance between patristic thought and contemporary Christian ethics. To this end, she describes some unique theological beliefs (origins of private property in Adam's fall, the imminence of the parousia) and social practices (acceptance of slavery, and the inclusion of "shares for the poor" in one's will) that characterized patristic ethics. Turning to modern writings, Allen indicts the gross neglect of patristic insights in modern Catholic social teaching and points out that the few extant citations of the early Fathers tend to be without proper historical context and cavalierly harmonized with modern ideas.

The two essays of Part I thus move in opposite directions, in one sense: Bieringer holds out hope for the hermeneutical appropriation of patristic texts in contemporary discourse, while the Allen emphasizes the breadth of the gulf between patristic reflection and contemporary discussion. This tension, the editors note, aims to stimulate a healthy caution in contemporary Catholic endeavors to draw on the wisdom of the early Church.

Part II, entitled "Contexts for Patristic Socio-Ethical Texts", is a rather bric-a-brac selection of essays that attempts, from various angles, to illuminate how historically and culturally embedded the patristic writings are. It aims to provide a sharper picture of the contours and idiosyncrasies of early Christian documents, as an important step in the process of drawing on the wisdom of the Fathers for our contemporary situation.

In "Social Ethics and Moral Discourse in Late Antiquity," Peter Van Nuffelen issues a warning against the all-too-common efforts to systematize patristic perspectives on a given doctrine; the essay is essentially a plea to avoid historical reductionism. To illustrate his case, Van Nuffelen addresses the topics of caritas and liberalitas. Whereas patristic scholars have often argued that Christian caritas either supplanted or fused with the classical virtue of liberalitas, Van Nuffelen argues that the literary evidence simply cannot be boiled down in this manner. Instead, he demonstrates that two ideals continued to exist concomitantly and were appealed to selectively according to the needs of the author or orator.

In the second essay of this section, Helen Rhee illuminates the crucial role of eschatology in the formation of patristic ethics in her contribution "Wealth, Poverty, and Eschatology: Pre-Constantine Christian Social Thought and Hope for the World to Come". Rhee explains that in patristic theology the threat of judgment is repeatedly tied to the subjects of wealth, poverty, and almsgiving. In the same vein, she notes how patristic texts emphasize a dualism between this world and the life to come, according to which a person was encouraged to store up heavenly wealth through earthly generosity. Her description is solid and illuminating, and she ranges across a much broader selection of texts than are typically addressed in treatments of pre-Constantinian social ethics.

In "The Audience(s) for Patristic Social Teaching: A Case Study," Wendy Mayer illustrates the importance of the historical context of patristic texts. Engaging with the works of John Chrysostom, Mayer discusses issues such as authorial agenda, audience presuppositions, and the fact that many patristic works were aimed at multiple audiences, with correspondingly diverse aims. These may be somewhat elementary points to the scholar of patristics, but the volume as a whole intends to facilitate conversation between patristic specialists and Catholic moral theologians; since Catholic social teaching seldom evinces sensitivity to such contextual considerations, Mayer's essay is a welcome corrective.

It is in Part III of the volume ("Issues in Patristics and Catholic Social Teaching") that the authors undertake to make constructive suggestions about how patristic writings might benefit contemporary Catholic social thought. Four different subjects are addressed in turn.

Susan R. Holman's essay, "Out of the Fitting Room: Rethinking Patristic Social Texts on 'The Common Good'", is a splendid interpretive experiment. Seeking to evaluate the propriety of utilizing patristic texts for contemporary social teaching (a propriety which she construes in terms of respecting the historical embedded-ness of patristic texts), Holman takes up the notion of the "Common Good". She asks whether patristic writings can appropriately be brought to bear in the contemporary discourse on the common good, in spite of the fact that the standard pedigree of reflection on the common good begins with Aristotle and then leaps 1,600 years to Aquinas. Holman demonstrates that patristic authors did have a concept of the Common Good, and, using Basil of Caesarea, shows that the idea is indeed Aristotelian in derivation. She then evaluates the way in which the Common Good is construed in a number of the Fathers' works, and notes that there is a significant continuity between patristic ethics and contemporary Catholic social thought regarding the common good. While not obscuring certain divergences between the language and thought of patristic and contemporary texts, she contends that the similarities are significant enough to justify a reflective and extended conversation on this essential theme between patristic writers and modern Catholic ethicists. Holman's cautious but ambitious essay is one of the gems of this collection; she models careful research and hermeneutical reflection while opening up a space for truly profitable dialogue between ancient and contemporary ethics.

In view of the fallout of the subprime lending crisis in 2008, Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen takes up the Fathers' teachings on usury in an essay entitled "'That which has been wrung from tears': Usury, the Greek Fathers, and Catholic Social Teaching." This essay describes the social, theological, and exegetical grounds on which the Fathers resisted usury, and sketches the demographics of the people within the Christian communities who practiced usurious lending. Ihssen turns the hermeneutical corner by underscoring the continuity between Greek patristic and contemporary Catholic ethico-theological presuppositions pertinent to contemporary finance. She closes with the suggestion that the Fathers' outrage against usury should likewise be directed towards modern expressions of exploitative lending that result in the same sorts of misery today as they did 1,500 years ago. It is a delight to read a Church-historical essay that addresses contemporary finance in such a pointed way, though I will leave it to economists to press Ihssen about the legitimacy of her criticism of moderate forms of interest as usurious.

Brian Matz's contribution, "The Principle of Detachment from Private Property in Basil of Caesarea's Homily 6 and Its Context," begins with a summary of ancient discussions on property rights before Basil. Matz claims that within Christianity there was a shift in the early centuries from a concern for the "renunciation" of private property to an emphasis on "detachment" from worldly possessions. Matz then zeros in on Basil's sixth homily, where he analyzes the various ways in which Basil utilizes detachment language. Matz goes on to delineate how private property has been construed in modern Catholic social teaching, and concludes with suggestions about the way in which the homiletic strategies used by Basil might enrich contemporary Catholic discourse on property. The final topical investigation linking patristic insights with contemporary ethics is "Social Justice in Lactantius's Divine Institutes: An Exploration," by Thomas Hughson, S.J. Hughson tackles the theme of social justice, first defining the notion and noting its prominence in Catholic social teaching. Turning to early Christian writings, Hughson acknowledges that patristic texts by and large assumed the inexorability of the status quo and almost never had any plan for the transformation of society. Against this accurate generalization, however, Hughson produces Lactantius' Divine Institutes, which he argues is the first Christian work to imagine the transformation of society by means of the education of a (potentially) virtuous Christian emperor (Constantine). Hughson argues that the Institutes contain what could be called both "prophetic" and "kingly" politico-theological content, and illustrates the points of contact between Lactantius and modern political theology. Like the contribution of Holman discussed above, this is a splendid essay, and it makes makes a compelling case for the potential of Lactantius' work to inform contemporary thought.

Over the course of this collection it becomes clear that the seminar in Leuven was not without rocky moments and skepticism over the viability of the proposed interdisciplinary dialogue. The fourth part of the volume ("Reflections on the Theme") nonetheless makes synthetic and productive suggestions on how such collaborative work might proceed.

Richard Schenk, O.P., contributed the essay "The Church Fathers and Catholic Social Thought: Reflections on the Symposium." This excellent piece summarizes important themes of Paul Ricoeur's Memory, History, and Forgetting, appropriating Ricoeur's insights to argue for a model of memory and constructive forgetting which could facilitate engagement with patristic insights; such a model is capable of grasping previously forgotten insights of the patristic documents, which might stillrebuke and enrich our contemporary reflection, all the while allowing the Fathers' various short-sighted or destructive perspectives to slip back into historical ignominy. Schenk makes a further appeal to contemporary ethicists to recognize the distance between the ancient texts and modern discourse, as well as the polyphony of the patristic witness. He suggests, nonetheless, that the diversity of perspectives in the early Church might in fact benefit contemporary Catholic social thought, offering a deeper appreciation of the value of diverse contextualizations for their social teaching.

Johan Leemans and Johan Verstraeten close the collection with their contribution "The (Im)possible Dialogue between Patristics and Catholic Social Thought: Limits, Possibilities, and a Way Forward." This essay offers an account of why the seminar's attempt to stimulate conversation between patristic theology and modern Catholic social thought proved challenging. The authors suggest that, some difficulties notwithstanding, this interdisciplinary engagement is valuable as a means to clarify the theological development of the Church's doctrine and at the same time to enrich the homiletic and paraenetic repertoire of contemporary writers and preachers. Leemans and Verstraeten also suggest that such a conversation provides a unique opportunity for patristic scholars to emerge into contemporary ethical dialogues, and that research interrelating patristic and contemporary ethics would also facilitate ecumenical dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox tradition, via discussion of common theological predecessors.

While it might have been easy for readers to lose the argumentative thread as they meandered through Parts II and III of Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics (since, though the essays of those sections are valuable as specialist contributions on patristic social ethics, their interrelationship is sometimes difficult to remember), the editors were wise to frame the collection with the hermeneutical discussions of Parts I and IV. As a whole, the volume issues a sobering warning about the complexity of bringing patristic ethics to bear on contemporary social discourse; nonetheless, it provides some theoretical parameters to facilitate that discourse. No doubt the conversation will prove difficult, but the hermeneutical groundwork laid here will be an excellent aid to anyone interested in appropriating Church-historical insights for contemporary ethics. In sum, this book adroitly negotiates precarious terrain, and makes real progress towards a more learned and more effective Catholic social teaching.

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