Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization

Academic journal article Journal of Markets & Morality

The Ascent of Christian Law: Patristic and Byzantine Formulations of a New Civilization

Article excerpt

John A. McGuckin

Yonkers, New York: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2012 (279 pages)

John Anthony McGuckin, Professor of Early Church History at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Byzantine Christian Studies at Columbia University, and author of twenty-three books, turns in this present work to a question he has found unanswered through decades of work as a theologian, historian, and Byzantinist: "What did Christianity do to build civilization?" (12). The question is more precise than "how did Christianity change or impact human society," and it affords McGuckin the opportunity to look at the Scriptural mandates for the life in Christ and the legal code of the Roman Empire in which the early church found itself to see how the church crafted an intelligent synthesis of the two. His focus is on the Byzantine East, but he does not neglect the early Latin Fathers in the least.

In a preemptive defense against peevish reviewers, McGuckin notes that he is not a canonist, a lawyer, or even a historian of law (11); neither is his book about canon law per se. This is for the better because it allows him to write a fine introduction to canon law for the educated layperson. He sets out to trace the

evolution of a sense of Church law ... alongside Roman civil law ...
for Roman civil law was softened, refined, and rendered attuned to
master principles of compassion, justice, and reformation by the
parallel presence of Church law in ways that other modern systems of
law ... simply cannot attain to. Here in the Byzantine Church's system
of juxtapositing two distinct but deeply conscient systems of law next
to one another, almost as two wings of the imperial administration, a
uniquely sensitized system that reflected both civic virtues and moral
values could be promulgated (235).

McGuckin succeeds admirably in sketching this synthesis.

The chapters of the book include considerations of Old Testament law from the perspective of the New Testament and the rise of postapostolic authority in the early office of the bishop; the classical foundations of law and polity in ancient Greece and Rome; early Christian proto-canonical collections; the canonical Epistles of the twelve Eastern Fathers; Tertullian and Lactantius; Augustine; the development of the Eastern Church's synodal process; the canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils; later Byzantine codifications of Roman imperial law; and the work of late Byzantine canonists. Each chapter of the book concludes with a recommendation of primary and secondary texts for further reading.

Throughout, McGuckin's command of history and theology informs his consideration of the canons and, in many places, makes for fascinating reading on that score alone (those who are mainly interested in church history will not be disappointed with the book). With regard to the canons themselves, he highlights the more interesting and influential ones, considers them in their own milieu, and often shows their continuing importance. For example, St. Athanasius's rules for readmitting Arian heretics to the church informs contemporary Orthodox involvement with ecumenism (82-83). Apostolic Canon 66 and St. Basil the Great's Canon 13 are why the Eastern Church has never developed a just war theory as the Latin West has done (84-85, 143-44). Canon 4 of the First Council of Nicea establishes that bishops rule their dioceses, but they are subject to the synod of bishops, of which the metropolitan is the president; this canonical structure is "the backbone of all Eastern Christian legal polity" (200). Indeed, this backbone is the norm everywhere in the Orthodox world to this day, and it is the main reason why the Eastern Church never developed anything resembling the Roman papacy.

An interesting note: McGuckin points out repeatedly (e.g., 181, 187, 197, 205) that for each set of canons issued by a synod of bishops, the very first canon sets the tone, as it were, for the whole collection. …

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