BMCR 2007.05.20

From Clement to Origen: The Social and Historical Context of the Church Fathers

, From Clement to Origen : the social and historical context of the church fathers. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Pub, 2006. 1 online resource (vi, 171 pages). ISBN 9780754682400 $89.95.

David I. Rankin’s From Clement to Origen is an examination of how the early church fathers fit into the historical context of the ancient Roman Empire. More specifically, Rankin examines the literary styles of patristic writers in relation to their contemporary pagan counterparts. In that context he is especially concerned with examining the manner in which the main philosophical schools of thought from the period can be seen as influencing patristic writing. The particular writers that he examines begin with Clement of Rome, the first century author of an epistle to the church in Corinth. He considers other writers such as Minucius Felix, Cyprian, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons and Clement of Alexandria. He also includes documents whose authorship is either unknown or disputed such as Hermas’ the Shepherd, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Epistle to Diognetus. He even considers authors whose orthodoxy would eventually be questioned, such as Tertullian and Origen.

Brief biographical sketches followed by examinations of the fathers’ writings are structured not in a chronological or topical arrangement, but rather in a geographicarrangement. Rankin looks at writings from four areas of the Empire. Those areas are Rome, Carthage, Antioch and Asia Minor, and Alexandria. Each place offers a distinctive perspective, but a number of important shared characteristics and linkages are established. Irenaeus of Lyon is placed with Antioch and Asia Minor because of his background and cultural influences. Readers may disagree with such a categorization, but, given the geographical arrangement of four centers, it is much better to include Irenaeus there than to exclude him from the book because of his association with Lyon.

Each chapter is divided into sections that examine particular writers from the area under consideration. The author’s intent, however, is not simply to examine the unique features of the area as they relate to Christian and pagan intellectual exchanges. The locations serve as a useful, not an essential, frame upon which to build the thesis. It is worth mentioning that Rankin presumes a Christianity that was very much an urban phenomenon. The book would have been strengthened by reference to Wayne Meeks’ The First Urban Christians. A sense of the social and cultural contexts of the urban setting would lend a sharper focus to the picture. Rankin does, however, do a very good job of focusing on the literary and intellectual aspects of Roman culture that permeated early Christian literature.

Rankin uses K. Tanner’s Theories of Culture: A New Agenda for Theology as a foundation to build his thesis. It is clear throughout the book that Rankin acknowledges a pervasive influence upon the Ante-Nicene writers in terms of rhetorical style and philosophical concepts. Yet he also sees these writers as not working simply within the boundary framed by ancient philosophy and rhetoric, but rather at that boundary. This assertion is Tanner’s. Rankin develops it further in a specific reference to the Epistle of Diognetus, which describes Christians as living in the world, but not truly belonging to it. Rankin notes, “They live in the world in which they live; they can only express themselves in the language of that world” (p. 145). This is not a daring thesis, but the book does provide a well-articulated argument. In the end, Rankin’s point is very well substantiated by numerous examples from several parts of the Roman Empire.

The introductory chapter considers Plato, Aristotle, and Seneca as influences upon Imperial Roman thought, education and writing, and consequently upon early Christian thought and writing as well. Rankin notes that the fathers were educated or familiar with rhetorical styles. Throughout the book, all the fathers are linked to Stoicism. Middle Platonism is also considered as a major influence. In fact, he goes as far as saying, “Athenagoras is a Platonist within the Christian camp” (p. 124). Some may see the lack of an examination of Cynicism and its relation to early Christianity as an area where Rankin could have offered more.

There is surprisingly little on Cynicism in the book. One might argue that Christians wished to gain the acceptance of society and to become positively influential members, such as the Stoics, rather than critics and rebels against society, such as the Cynics. But too much to ignore has been written by John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack, and others, placing Jesus and his early followers in a context of Cynic philosophy. This has been an important topic for studying the historical figure of Jesus and it also deserves consideration when writing about the philosophical background of early Church fathers.

Rankin takes into account regional variations relative to philosophy by going beyond comparisons between Christians and pagans. He also considers regional variations among and between non-Christian intellectuals. For example, he notes that the East was less Stoic and more Middle Platonist and Neo-Pythagorean than the West. Such an analysis allows the author to take the reader beyond generalizations and explore the relation between Christian and pagan philosophical thought more deeply by using the geographical approach. And yet, there is surprisingly little elaboration on the distinctiveness of each geographic area relative to the theologians themselves.

Rankin does provide a good analysis of rhetorical style from the period and its manifestation in Christian literature. He notes that what we tend to think of as apologetic literature is actually protreptic. Attempts at converting and persuading non-Christian readers followed a very standard formula for ancient writers. They all include an exordium, narratio, probatio, and a peroratio.The literary conventions of ancient writers are demonstrably not different, whether they are Christian or pagan. This point is asserted effectively throughout the book.

The cultural aspects come through as clearly and as significantly as the philosophical ones. The fathers accept Roman rule as legitimate, even ordained by God, although they clearly reject the imperial cult. Social dichotomies such as honestior/ humilior and patron/ client relationships are given due consideration, although there is nothing original in this part of Rankin’s book. He does give important comparisons between Christian and pagan society that illuminate these circumstances. For example, in Hermas the paterfamilias is contrasted with the bishop.

Christians themselves recognized the shared characteristics their theology had with ancient philosophy. Rankin gives examples of Christians seeing Socrates or Plato as in tune with Christianity, but ahead of Jesus’ time. Rankin uses Justin Martyr and Tatian as two examples of the Christian assertion of Jewish prophets pre-dating the great philosophers. It was important for Christians to have a counter-argument for the appearance that Christian thought imitated philosophers. Such a perspective lent itself to Christianity gaining social acceptance just as honoring the emperor would. However, the author also considers the distinctions that Christian writers insisted on making between their beliefs and those of the wider society. While they prayed for the emperor and the empire, they refused to offer cult to the emperor.

This book would be of value in an upper-level or graduate class in history, philosophy, or literature. Since both the philosophical schools and the Christian writers are written about in a way that does not presuppose familiarity by the reader, the book can serve as a valuable introduction or as a starting point for further discussion on a number of topics related to the social and historical context of the Church fathers.