Tag Archives: Athanasius of Alexandria

C S Lewis: You can, and must, teach a new church old books


C S Lewis and an Old Book

C S Lewis and an Old Book

These days I’m posting from the Tradition chapter of “Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.” The past couple of days have been dedicated to Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). This post begins to look at what he proposed to do about this syndrome of amnesia.

Lewis’s solution to the detachment from tradition in modern society

In his Cambridge lecture (“De Descriptione Temporum”), Lewis insisted that we needn’t think of history as nostalgia or slavish following of past wisdom. He reminded his listeners of the freeing effect experienced by those in therapy who surface and deal with forgotten elements from their individual pasts. Similarly, he argued, “I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually without knowing it enslaved to a very recent past.”

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past . . . because we . . . need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. . . . A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.. . . .”[1] Continue reading

How important was the closing of the NT canon to the early church?


St Athanasius at Clarence Gate

St Athanasius at Clarence Gate (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

In a recent short paper on the topic of Scripture and tradition, a student of mine wrote the following:

“While combating the Arian heresy, Athanasius, the Egyptian bishop of Alexandria, was exiled under false pretenses.  In 367, just returning from exile, he wrote perhaps the most important document to the early church, the Festal Letter. In it was a list of Christian books he said were inspired of God. Christians had long debated which books should make up the New Testament, but Athanasius’s list of 27 writings marks the first time a church leader identified the very books Christians today called the New Testament. (Stephen M. Miller, “How we got our Bible A Gallery of Mavericks and Misfits,” http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1994/issue43/4318.html). The books, which were declared as ‘sacred scripture,’ “were confidently believed to be inspired writings, divinely dictated word by word.”[1]”

This insistence that the Festal Letter was the most important document of its age seemed to me a typically Protestant misemphasis. Not that the books of the New Testament were unimportant. They were central to the life and thinking of the early church–indeed, in ways that we can only palely imitate. However, I wrote in the margin:

“Note that many other documents, including proto-creeds, were considered more important to the church at the time than the Festal Letter, which was something of a “blip” on the early church’s radar. Canon formation was just not a major issue for Christians of the time; they felt comfortable that the bishops, the church itself, the Holy Spirit superintending, the “rule of faith” in the proto-creeds . . . all of these would guarantee apostolic truth. It wasn’t that important to them whether this or that book was declared “canonical.” They were all edifying. They all had a certain authority. Whether some were of the highest authority or not (canonical) was a matter open to discussion, but they didn’t feel this threatened the integrity of the faith.”

I based my response to the student on understandings gained from Baptist patristics scholar D. H. Williams (Baylor University). I don’t think I am overstating the case: tradition, including the rule of faith and the teaching role of the bishops, was simply the primary guarantor of apostolic truth in those early years. Canon had not yet taken on that role, as it does with Protestants today.

What do you think? Did I overstate my case in the response to this student? I am not a Patristics scholar–hence my reliance on Williams (and other things I have read). I am open to correction and constructive debate on this.


[1] Evans, G.R., Faith in the Medieval World. 49.