Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages

By Challancin, James | Pastoral Music, March 2012 | Go to article overview

Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages


Challancin, James, Pastoral Music


Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages Pope Benedict XVI. Fortress Press, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-8006-9851-5. 316 pages, paperback, $16.99.

In brief, reflective sketches, Pope Benedict XVI presents the great theologians, monks, missionaries, reformers, mystics, and spiritual writers of the Christian tradition, East and West. It is amazing what Benedict is able to communicate in usually just three pages. Each sketch gives biographical information, the historical circumstances, core thinking of the person, the person's impact on the Church, and a reflection of what the person's life and thought mean for us today.

Over several years, Pope Benedict originally worked up these sketches for his public audiences. Because of their original use, there is a simplicity and directness to them. The pope also communicates a personal reflectiveness and love about these great figures in the history of the Church.

The book presents the sketches in chronological order, but it also groups them together to give coherence to the particular era in which the person lived. It begins with "Heirs of the Apostles." If one has studied the documents of the Second Vatican Council, the names of these writers will be very familiar.

The second group is "Great Teachers of the Ancient Church." Benedict begins with the four doctors of the Eastern Church-St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. John Chrysostom. The sketches of these doctors, among many other things, show how serious and widespread were the controversies around the Arian heresy.

The Western figures, probably more familiar to us, include St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. Leo the Great. Benedict reflects on many others as well.

With his reflections on Augustine, Pope Benedict takes up for the first time the relationship of faith and reason. For Augustine, "I believe in order to understand" and "I understand better to believe" (page 109). This is a major theme in Benedict's own teaching, and it is mentioned often in the sketches in this book.

The third part is "Monks and Missionaries." While the first two parts were heavily theological, now the concerns become evangelization, morality, the spiritual life, and ways of prayer. The "Jesus prayer," very popular today, finds its origins in this period. A relatively unknown figure-John Climacus-saw it as leading "to a state of quiet and inner peace," an "invocation that is continuous, like breathing" (page 160).

The last grouping is "Mystics, Mendicants, and Scholastics." In this era, the great preachers and thinkers, not only the mystics, deliberately expressed how their work must be founded in faith and love nourished by prayer.

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