Category Archives: Book Review

Review of The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity

We are grateful to Johannes J Knecht for this excellent review of Karl Shuve’s recent work. Johannes is a PhD candidate in St Mary’s College. Warm wishes to him and Stefania on their upcoming wedding. 😉


Shuve, Karl. The Song of Songs and the Fashioning of Identity in Early Latin Christianity. The Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford/New York, Oxford University Press, 2016. xx + 236 pp. Hardback: £55.-.

Karl Shuve’s monograph concerns the development of the use and exegesis of the Song of Songs in Latin traditions up until Jerome. Shuve observes that the Song grew to become “one of the most popular and influential books of the Bible in Europe during the Middle Ages.” (p. 1) The seeming oddity of this popularity has been extensively discussed by modern scholarship: why would male, monastic and ecclesiastical communities draw from an erotic love poem—which supposedly is the plain sense of the text—to defend and argue for ascetic principles? (pp. 4-5) It is with aiming to resolve this paradox that much of recent scholarship has been concerned. Shuve, by contrast, challenges this assumed plain reading of the text: “Rather than presuming that early Christians shared our presuppositions about the ‘plain’ meaning of the Song and then asking how they reconciled it with an ascetic agenda, I examine how patterns of citation and allusion can help us to understand what were the ‘automatically recognised’ meanings of the Song in the Christian communities of the Western Roman Empire and how these meanings were subsequently contested, changed, and subverted in response to cultural and theological conflict.” (p. 13) In other words, Shuve aims to describe a gradual exegetical development within the Latin tradition that would account for the very natural ascetic associations with the Song in subsequent centuries.

Shuve’s work is divided into two main parts, each containing three chapters. Part I looks at the use of the Song of Songs in North Africa and Spain (pp. 23-106), whilst the second focusses on Italy (pp. 109-208). The first chapter describes how in the work of Cyprian of Carthage and the theology of the Donatists (as found in the work of Augustine and Optatus of Milevis), the Song is used to argue for the impregnability of the church’s boundaries. The ‘enclosed garden and sealed font’ (Song 4:2) signify that only those who are actually inside the garden and close to the water have access to the vivifying power of the church’s sacraments. Any sacrament—and baptism most pertinently—administered outside the strict boundaries of the church cannot be regarded as efficacious. (p. 31) Shuve explicates that Cyprian does not aim to make the ‘erotic imagery’ acceptable, but “Cyprian quotes the Song because he presumes that it has independent probative value regarding the nature of the church’s boundaries and the efficacy of its sacraments.” (p.36) Although the underlying baptismal theology changes with the Donatists, the hermeneutical approach to the Song remains the same: The Song describes the boundaries of a separated, pure community. (p. 48)

Chapter 2, turning to the works of Pacian of Barcelona, Tyconius, and Augustine, explains how in the work of Pacian and Tyconius the Song is again used in an ecclesiastical manner, be it to argue for the plurality of the church. Pacian uses the image of the garden to further his argument that, just like a garden is made up of a myriad of plants, so too is the church made up of a variety of people. (pp. 58-60) Tyconius, in turn, uses the Song (i.e., 1:5 and 1:7) to argue for the ‘bi-partite’ nature of the church—a current offspring of Abraham both containing boni and mali, two ‘peoples.’ As Shuve summarises Tyconius’ approach: “Maintaining the boundaries of the church is a futile exercise. There will be evil and impurity within.” (p. 65) Lastly, Augustine, realising the truth residing in Tyconius’ appreciation of the pure church’s hiddenness, reallocates Song 4:12 and 6:8 in the eschaton. Again, even though the content of the ecclesiastical theology changes significantly, the Song remains a source for reflection on the nature of the church. It is in the third chapter that Shuve describes a significant development in the exegesis of the Song, found in the work of Gregory of Elvira. Whilst maintaining the tradition of using the Song to explain ecclesiology, Gregory introduces two crucial aspects: I) the separated identity of the church also implies moral purity and chastity, and II) Gregory starts using the image of a virgin and an adulterous women to describe the church in relation to the profane, outside world.

The fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters—the second part of the book—focus on Ambrose of Milan and Jerome. Ambrose, on Shuve’s telling, “fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Song’s interpretation in the West.” (p. 109) Ambrose utilises the multivalence inherent to the image of the bride in the Song to apply the meaning of the Song to the integrity of the virgin’s body (cf. De Virginibus), her soul (cf. De Virginitate), and the church. (pp. 17, 115)  “This turn to identifying the bride with the individual Chrisian—and, more specifically, the individual virgin—is in marked contrast with the well-established Latin tradition of understanding the bride to be the corporate church.” (p. 109) For Ambrose in De Virginibus, the individual virgin stands as a physical, tangible image of the purity, holiness, and hope of God’s salvation and the church. (p. 123) Just as the virgin’s body is protected against intrusion, so too must the church be protected. (p. 125) De Virginitate, written after the De Virginibus, aims to couple more strongly the physical integritas with the integritas of the soul. (p. 132) “Ambrose, in effect, transforms the soul into a virgin.” (p. 136) This interpretation of the Song’s bride is further worked out in the fifth chapter in relation to the ‘Virgin Soul’ (pp. 139-50), the ‘Virgin Church’ (pp. 150-8), and the ‘Virgin Mary’ (pp. 158-72). Shuve ends with a chapter on the work of Jerome. Although Jerome has a distinctly different approach to the place he gives to virgins in society—critique rather than support the ecclesiastical authority in the city, as Ambrose had argued—Jerome as well has a thoroughly ascetic reading of the Song.

Shuve described how the ascetic readings of the Late Antique and Early Medieval church were thoroughly based on and grounded in the Song’s ecclesiastical interpretations of the earlier Latin traditions, exemplified by Cyprian, the Donatists, Pacian, Tyconius, and Augustine. Simply put: The Song’s garden or dove typifies the enclosed church (Cyprian and the Donatists), the enclosed and protected church, in turn, becomes the pure and chaste church, of which a virgin is the image (Tyconius). This image subsequently opens the door to connect the Song’s bride with the physical integritas of the consecrated virgin, and by extension the integritas of her soul (Ambrose and Jerome). Seen from this overarching narrative, Shuve’s suggestion that ascetic, monastic readings of the Song in the later Middle Ages follow quite naturally from the manner in which earlier traditions had read the Song, seems quite convincing indeed.

Review of A Companion to Job in the Middle Ages

We are grateful to Prof. Mark Elliott for this review of a new book in Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition series. Prof. Elliott serves as Professor of Historical and Biblical Theology in St Mary’s College at the University of St Andrews. You can find his research profile here.


Franklin Harkins and Aaron Canty, A Companion to Job in the Middle Ages (Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition, 73; Leiden-Boston: Brill,2017.

This is a truly outstanding collection of essays, one of those rare cases where the word ‘Companion’ is well deserved, because it leads the reader over the ground so well, mixing information with insight. Even where there is not detailed inspection there is at least a sketch and pointers towards further research.

The second chapter (K. Steinhauser, ‘Job in Patristic Commentaries and Theological Works’) is to be singled out for the wide-range and depth and ease with scholarship. Job as ‘athlete of God’ was the Pelagian poster boy. For Julian of Eclanum (57) ‘God permits the good to suffer in order to demonstrate their devotion and increase the merit’, and Ambrose while taking sin and Job 14:4-5 seriously held that Job was not a type of Christ but rather a virtuous example for Christians. (Job and David in the Psalms complement each other in Ambrose’s treatment.)

All this helps explain the pre-history to what many assume to be the starting point: Gregory the Great’s Moralia. Carol Straw then takes this on and shows how Gregory viewed Job’s suffering as excessive, being more than his sin-virtue account deserved, such that (analogously to Christ) Job was due recompense for that amount. Yet on the other hand Job in his protesting was ignorant, due to an incomplete submission and thus in danger of pride, such that restoration required forgiveness by God of Job. The lesson was: ‘When something bad happens, blame yourself, confess, and do penance’ (100) The Glossa Ordinaria draws heavily on the Moralia and could be held to be ‘128 ‘better than Gregory himself at transmitting his blunt moral lessons.’ Yet there is an issue that Lesley Smith deftly shows us: we do not have a proper critical edition of the Gloss (apart from the late Mary Dove’s edition of The Gloss on the Song of Songs), and Rusch’s early modern printed edition cannot simply be relied upon.

Franklin Harkins then offers a masterly treatment of Job in Lombard’s Sentences and Albert and Thomas’ commentaries. Whereas Albert sees Sir 24:5-6 as framing subject matter of Sentences, ‘Thomas and Bonaventure understand Job 28:11 as determinative of the material of Book I and of the fourfold causality if the Sentences, respectively.’ (133) The one who ‘probes the depths of the rivers and has brought hidden realities out into the light’ is applied to both Christ and the theologian.
Albert liked Job 26:14 (‘since we have hear barely a drop of his word, who will be able to behold the thunder of his greatness?’) The ‘small word’ is that about creatures; much trickier to comprehend is the ‘thunder’ that is the doctrine of God. ‘It is precisely because human words are inadequate to explain fully the theological mysteries set forth in the Sentences that Albert, Bonaventure and Thomas have repeated recourse to divine discourse-the words of Job and other scriptural books-in their efforts to shed as much light as possible on these sacred truths.’ (135) So it is on hard questions such as ‘whether God enjoys himself’ that theology has to give way to biblical exegesis. This is a surprising and fascinating theme. Is the similitude to God a vestige? Well yes, in that it represents God in a ‘confused’ way. Let the mystery ‘sink in’.

A second chapter on Albert (by Ruth Meyer) traces how the great Dominican viewed the dialogue in terms of a formal disputation. Elihu claims to have received revelation such that his statements should be regarded as first principles: but that is precisely not how to practice theology, and he badly misrepresents Job’s position. However, Job himself finally receives such illumination. Eliphaz contends that one receives recompense in this life, Bildad thinks that happens only after death, while Zophar is agnostic about that. As with the previous chapter, Scripture is held by Albert to be deeper than theology in its symbolic form. Job is morally exemplary and mirrors God’s wisdom-led providential ordering of the world. Job’s testing built up his faith. Lyra too has a sympathetic view of Job who is praised for honesty and speaking truthfully about God: A. Canty is a sure guide in leading us through Nicolas’ interpretation.

The chapter by Ronald Rittgers on Job in the German Reformation is a model piece of scholarship, pointing the way to uncharted territory (e.g. Lavater on Job), while making good use of what scholarship is available (e.g. Clines on Luther’s interpretation. Luther liked the Vulgate’s (mis-) translation of Job 9:28 ‘verebar omnia opera mea’. Rittgers traces how the importance of humility receded in Luther’s interpretation. The point was that for the righteous, any suffering does not proceed from divine wrath. Testing means more something like ‘strengthening’ ‘Job felt utterly abandoned by God and yet was in fact very close to God’s heart.'(269) God even allows saints to falter in adversity in order that a deeper salvation emerge. The presentation of J. Brenz’s exegesis is disappointing, only because, in the form of a continuous commentary, it is so similar in content to the Wittenberg Reformer: one should know one’s poverty apart from God’s sustaining presence. Likewise, for Osiander, Job’s cursing the day of his birth meant ‘he learned that the vice of impatience was deeply rooted in his nature, something he would not otherwise have recognised’ (275). Tantalisingly, we only get a snippet of the Catholic Eck’s response to this: Job was actually cursing the “day” of human mortality and sin as he looked forward to the eternal day of salvation. Reinforced by the brief study of lay Lutheran theologians like Linck and Weller is the notion that Job is indeed sinful and in that risks the removal of God’s protection, a hypothetical possibility for believers. It would have been good to have had the Catholic riposte to ‘Job the sinner’ outlined, but perhaps that was not that different from Gregory the Great’s observations.

This reviewer’s lack of expertise means that Part 2 of the book (roughly one-third) is devoted to ‘Vernacular and popular perspectives’, i.e. non-theological reception of Job, will be treated cursorily. One learns about: Church architecture and Job’s relationship to purgatory, Peter of Riga’s presentation of Job as a prototype for Christ, whereas in Old English Literature ‘Job’ speaks of Christ and the Church. For Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales Job is an illustrious penitent and for Lollards one whose virtue reflected adversely on the 14th-century church as it proudly ignored God’s law.

The book is well supplied with a bibliography although it is odd to see a number of primary sources listed under ‘Johannes’.

 

Book Review: The Freedom of God for Us—Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity

Today’s post features a book review by Jared Michelson, a postgraduate research student in St. Mary’s College. We are grateful to Jared for his contribution.


The Freedom of God for Us: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity, Brian D. Asbill, Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015 (ISBN 978-0-5675-2071-5), pp. 240.

In The Freedom of God for Us: Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Divine Aseity, Brian Asbill undertakes a dogmatic and genealogical sketch of Barth’s evolving account of divine aseity. This essay, which began as a dissertation under John Webster, succeeds with impressive brevity in accomplishing three tasks. First, Asbill carefully excavates the development of Barth’s doctrine of divine aseity with special focus on the evolution of the doctrine from the Göttingen Dogmatics (GD) to Church Dogmatics (CD) II/1, without neglecting the breadth of Barth’s career. Second, Asbill situates the doctrine of divine aseity within the larger setting of Barth’s doctrine of God. Third, Asbill locates Barth’s account of aseity in, and puts it in conversation with, the development of the doctrine in the western tradition—his brief but helpful narration of the doctrine’s evolution stretches from Anselm to Pannenberg—and contemporary debates in Barth studies.

Let me briefly summarise the argument. Chapter one identifies the historical antecedents of Barth’s doctrine of aseity, identifying the key dogmatic functions of aseity in the tradition. He concludes the chapter by identifying four dogmatic questions in contemporary Barth studies which Asbill hopes his retrieval of Barth’s doctrine of divine aseity will clarify. Chapter two outlines Barth’s evolving account of aseity. Asbill largely accepts McCormack’s portrait of Barth as an enduringly dialectical theologian, and intriguingly contends that corresponding to this dialectical consistency there exists an ongoing commitment to divine aseity. Chapter three is a description of Barth’s revelational objectivism and actualism. Chapter four discusses the employment of noetic and ontic dialectics in the GD and CD. Asbill likewise distinguishes between a complementary dialectic characterised by ongoing polarity and tension, which he associates with Hermann, with Barth’s supplementary dialectic, in which the divine No and veiling is teleologically ordered to be sublimated by the divine yes and unveiling. Chapter five argues that in the GD, Barth employs the dialectic between personality and aseity in order to identify the inherent insufficiency of creaturely concepts to denote divine perfection. Asbill likewise contends that at this stage, Barth is in danger of projecting the Realdialektik, which characterises divine revelation to creatures, into the divine being itself. Barth’s struggle at this stage to adequately affirm the undialectical peace of God’s life in se sets the groundwork for CD II/1. Asbill outlines the resolution of this tension in chapter six, as he argues that in CD II/1, divine veiling is Christologically ordered to unveiling and the dialectical denkform between love and freedom is employed not to create tension with God’s life, but to emphasise the final unity and compatibility of the divine perfections. Chapter seven provides an anatomy of the fundamental features of Barth’s account of aseity, as Asbill contends that Barth’s account of aseity grounds revelation in God’s self-demonstration and self-movement, affirms God as this particular triune God rather than generic deity, binds creaturely knowledge of God to God’s self-interpretation, and ensures that divine aseity denotes God’s readiness for movement towards the creature. In chapter eight, Asbill explicates the dogmatic functions of aseity in the CD. The weight of the chapter distinguishes Barth’s account of aseity as the self-sufficient readiness of God to be ‘with us’ in Jesus Christ, from abstract accounts of aseity which threaten to undermine the dignity and integrity of creaturely existence. Asbill closes the volume in chapter nine offering a few critical questions of Barth, wondering whether Bath’s account of aseity, despite his stated aim of rendering a trinitarian account of the doctrine, pays sufficient attention to the operations of Father, Son, and Spirit. Additionally, Asbill questions Barth’s dialectical ordering of love and freedom, negatively evaluating its serviceability for Barth’s aim of articulating the unity and peace of the immanent divine life. Asbill concludes by reassessing the four debates within contemporary Barth studies which he introduced in chapter one.

Given that Asbill does not hesitate to address himself to some of the most controversial debates within contemporary Barth studies, and equally, is not reticent to offer some critical corrections of Barth’s account, it would be impossible for him to please all readers. However, his synoptic approach, which always keeps an eye on Barth’s broader dogmatic aims, makes Asbill’s portrait of Barth’s account of divine aseity difficult to dismiss. Asbill addresses four contemporary debates: assessing whether God’s pronobeity is contingent or necessary in light of divine aseity; evaluating accusations that Barth’s account of aseity is a reversal and extension of modern conceptions of the autonomous subject; determining whether the dogmatic function of aseity is to establish the divine presence with creatures or to safeguard the integrity of God’s immanent life in his revelatory acts; and finally, appraising the debate between traditionalism and revisionism with reference to trinity and election. Of these I was surprised to find that I was least satisfied by Asbill’s answer to the question of whether Barth’s account of divine aseity is overly determined by modern notions of autonomous subjectivity. Asbill responds to this charge by contending that such a reading of Barth only succeeds by falsely substituting an abstract voluntarism in the place of Christology. However, one need not have reached a decision on the question of whether Barth’s doctrine of God is overly determined by this modern vision of the autonomous subject to wonder if mere recourse to Barth’s Christological determination of the divine will is sufficient to settle the question. One might wonder whether Barth’s portrait of God as a self-positing being, of the trinity as an I-Thou relation, and of God’s self-determination and self-affirmation through the language of ‘decision,’ are sufficiently serviceable concepts for safeguarding Barth’s affirmation that God is utterly a se in his condescension pro nobis. A stronger version of this worry concerning the relation of Barth’s doctrine of God to modern conceptions of autonomous subjectivity, would not straightforwardly (and incorrectly) insist that Barth inserts indifferent voluntarism in the place of a willed determination to be pro nobis in Christ, but might wonder about the fittingness and serviceably of Barth’s portrait of the divine being-in-act which undergirds and explicates the Christological determination of the divine will. This should not be read as a criticism of Asbill, but a testament to the insightful and pressing questions which are raised in this impressive book. The Freedom of God for Us is an indispensable entry, not merely into discussions surrounding divine aseity, but to the wider field of studies concerning Barth’s doctrine of God, and likewise, to the most heated debates in contemporary systematic theology ‘after Barth.’

Book Review: The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea

Today’s post features a book review by Adam Renberg, a postgraduate research student in St. Mary’s College. We are grateful to Adam for his contribution.


Johannessen, Hazel. The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2016. Hardback. 272 pgs. $91/£71. ISBN: 9780198787242.

The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea by Hazel Johannessen serves “to explore the ways in which Eusebius’ ideas about the demonic influenced and interacted with his thinking on a range of other subjects that comprised his political ideas” (203). Johannessen’s main emphasis focuses on correcting (in her view) the unfair assessment of Eusebius as a naïve triumphalist by arguing that Eusebius’ conception of the demonic suggests “doubts, fears, and hesitations” (16) concerning the state of the Church and the world in the Constantinian Empire.

In the first chapter, ‘Eusebius’ Works,’ Johannessen discusses the Eusebian corpus, including questions of genre, dating, and composition. She reviews the relevant debates for these issues with focus on Historia Ecclesiastica, Praeparatio Evangelica, Demonstratio Evangelica, De Laudibus Constantini, Vita Constantini, and Contra Hieroclem—the works most relevant to her study. Lastly, she considers methodology, identifying the potential pitfalls of surveying a scholar’s works and forcing them into a philosophy or theory. This chapter introduces readers to the political thought of Eusebius, arguing that he remained largely consistent, despite living in turbulent political times.

Chapter two, ‘The Nature of Demonic Threats,’ provides the foundation for Eusebius’ understanding of the demonic in its various facets. While Johannessen notes similarities with Neoplatonic conceptions of demons, especially in Porphyry, she argues that Eusebius primarily follows Origen’s conception of the demonic in a characteristically Christian cosmology. Demons, for Eusebius, are physical, present, and external beings who hate goodness and use their status above humans to lead them astray. Demonic beings (demons and Satan) led primitive humanity away from God and are likewise seeking to do so in the present age.

‘A Divided Universe,’ the next chapter of this book, sketches out Eusebius’ cosmology. Johannessen argues that his conception of the universe is “fundamentally divided between hostile spiritual opponents” (74). She notes that Eusebius speaks of angels and demons in opposites: rational vs. irrational, light vs. darkness, good vs. tyrannical. Then, she discussed Eusebius’ dualistic tendencies, emphasizing his view of the division between the spiritual and physical realms. Ultimately, she clears Eusebius of proper dualism as God maintains complete control throughout Eusebius’ oeuvre and theological system, despite his discomfort with and sidestepping of the implications of God creating and using evil. Demons, then, are a real presence who seek to deride God’s plan, but ultimately serve his purposes.

After surveying Eusebius’ cosmology, Johannessen moves onto the demonic in other facets of his thought. Chapter four, ‘Demonic Influence and Human Responsibility,’ surveys demonic influence on humankind. To do this, she discusses an important word for Eusebius’ conception of free will, προαίρεσις, which becomes the foundation for her discussion. Johannessen argues that Eusebius is positing an understanding of free will as a deliberate choice between good or evil. Demons do not impede this decision (Eusebius leaves little room for demon possession), but they do seek to deceive human beings. Johannessen then writes about the nature of moral character, noting a person’s ability to succumb to or escape from demonic influence. In other words, Johannessen traces the implications of the demonic for an individual who has changed their moral behavior, from immoral to moral and vice versa. Then, she makes certain claims about Eusebius’ soteriology founded on his conception of free will and the demonic.

Chapter five, ‘Demonic Activity and Historical Progress,’ argues that Eusebius does not see the Roman empire as the triumphal end of history, directly challenging scholarly consensus that Eusebius was a political optimist. She does this by showing how demons interacted in history before and after the incarnation. This includes demons leading people into polytheistic worship before Christ, while after the incarnation engaging in persecution and heresy. She briefly engages with Christology in this section, yet emphasizes the role of bishops as the present (intellectual) key to salvation.

The final body chapter, ‘Demonic Tyranny and Virtuous Kingship,’ discusses Eusebius’ political conceptions. Here, Johannessen examines Eusebius’ conception of virtuous kingship through the negative: by his understanding of tyrants. Johannessen argues that readers gain a stronger understanding of virtuous kingship by showing what poor kingship looks like. She discusses broader non-Eusebian conceptions of tyrants and what constitutes a ruler being labelled as such. Then, she argues these tyrants were enslaved to demons in Eusebius’ thought and therefore were unfit to rule. This unqualified rule is not based on a king’s vices but on the ruler’s relationship to demons. The following section places significant importance on μίμησις (imitation), as leaders imitated either the divine or the demonic and their subjects followed suit. A virtuous king imitates God, while tyrants imitate the devil and the demonic.

Johannessen writes succinctly and clearly, but this work contains significant shortcomings. Like many other monographs adapted from PhD theses, this book is at times redundant, overly-qualified, and oversteps the boundaries of what she is able to say about Eusebius’ thought. While focused on the demonic, she flattens other facets of Eusebius’ thought, such as soteriology and Christology, to serve her purposes. While she rightly seeks to push scholarship towards a healthier understanding of Eusebius’ political theory, she reduces the political to the demonic alone. In other words, the demonic becomes the primary source for understanding Eusebius political theory and cosmology, which neglects other aspects of his thought that are more prominent throughout his work. She also tends to read the demonic into texts that are not immediately relevant.

Johannessen succeeds at her goal to discuss facets of Eusebius’ thought in relationship to the demonic, but she places the demonic as the key to understanding Eusebius correctly. She thereby reduces broader facets of his thought into oversimplified argument which better accommodates her non-triumphalist reading of Eusebius. More positively, she evens out an area of Eusebius’ thought which was largely ignored, opening up further research and understanding of Eusebius’ theology. This monograph also provides an interesting window into Neoplatonic and Christian conceptions of angels and demons in the fourth century, containing quality word studies and insights into this turbulent time. Despite the pitfalls in Hazel Johannessen’s The Demonic in the Political Thought of Eusebius of Caesarea, the study is enjoyable, fresh, and well worth a read.