Church History

By Foley, W. Trent | Church History, December 2012 | Go to article overview

Church History


Foley, W. Trent, Church History


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Book Reviews and Notes

This volume is a collection of thirty-two conference papers delivered at several meetings of Britain's Ecclesiastical Historical Society in 2009 and 2010. In the volume's introductory essay Andrew Louth remarks, "Anyone reading through the papers presented here will discover that ['Saints and Sanctity'] is a subject of very great diversity; no general message emerges from these pages" (xix). Indeed; yet that does not make this volume any less a delight to read. As Louth notes, the most obvious lesson that one draws from this collection is that the study of saints and sanctity invites a variety of approaches (xxii). Yet equally obvious is the extent to which sanctity here is configured as a topic appropriate for every time and tradition of ecclesiastical history. By my inexact count, six of these essays deal with the ancient period (that is, through the sixth century), eight with the medieval, ten with the early modern, five with the mid-to-late nineteenth century, and three with the twentieth century. Geographically, these essays gravitate somewhat toward England--as one might expect--but the volume also has papers centering on saints and saint-making in France, Italy, Ireland, Wales, Russia, Malta, and Australia.

In the essays on the early church, the ghost of Peter Brown looms large. Louth's "Holiness and Sanctity in the Early Church" expresses an appreciation of Brown's works on the holy man in late antiquity, yet also a critique on several fronts. One, for example, is that Brown--for all his brilliance at emphasizing the late Roman social context that gave rise to the holy man--failed to emphasize yet another crucial context: that of the early church's ever evolving understanding of sanctity--an understanding that grew out of its identification with Israel, developed through its early experience of martyrdom, and was transformed by the Constantinian settlement. Likewise, Peter Turner's essay, "Hagiography and Autobiography in the Late Antique West," takes as its starting point a critique Brown made of his own early work, namely, that it focused so much the holy man's impact on his society that it neglected his own personal quest for sanctity. Turner then goes on to compare third-person and first-person early Christian narratives in order to explore how, just to take one example, Augustine's first-person narrative in his Confessions reveals the ways in which that famous third-person narrative, The Life of Antony , took hold of Augustine's early imagination. Turner's piece thus does a fine job of showing what Brown admittedly ignored: how both the saint and his or her Life might influence the religiously minded individual. Finally, Alexis Torrance, while not mentioning Brown by name, opens his essay, "Repentance as the Context of Sainthood in the Ascetical Theology of Mark the Monk," with a 1981 quotation by Henry Chadwick, who gives a not so gentle ribbing to scholars whose instinctive response to reading the lives of the early saints is to offer "trendy non-religious explanations for the social needs that created them" (80). Surely Chadwick has Brown in mind here and, taking Chadwick's critique to heart, Torrance promises that his essay will keep religious or theological motivations firmly in mind. …

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