John Anthony McGuckin. The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years. IVP Academic, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
John Anthony McGuckin has taught at Union Theological Seminary,
Columbia University, and Oxford University. His fields include Late
Antique Christian History and Byzantine Christian Studies. He has also
served in Orthodox churches.
This book is 1157 pages of writing. Each chapter discusses a time
period or a topic and is followed by excerpts from primary sources.
Part I of the book is organized chronologically, as it goes from the
second century C.E. to the eleventh century C.E. Part II is more
topical, as it includes chapters on ancient Christian stances towards
various issues. These issues include biblical interpretation, war,
hymnography, prayer, women, healing and philanthropy, church authority,
magic, wealth, slavery, sexuality, and art (particularly iconoclastic
controversies). After these chapters are appendices that summarize
church councils and list Roman popes, patriarchs of Constantinople, and
Roman emperors until 1453.
Part I is excellent in that it lays out the stories of key figures
throughout church history, in terms of their personalities, their
arguments, their beliefs, and what happened to them. It also lucidly
describes the beliefs of Marcion, Origen (specifically his view on
pre-existent souls and the human attempt to re-unite with God), and the
Manicheans. The Christological controversies are described, along with
what different perspectives believed was at stake. The theological,
ecclesiastical, and political differences and tensions between Western
and Eastern Christianity are also highlighted.
Part II is a useful resource for those who wonder how exactly to
assess Christianity’s contribution. Debates occur about what ancient
Christians believed. Were they pacifists until the time of Constantine,
indicating that Christians today should be pacifists? Were icons a
later development in Christianity, as some Protestant scholars narrate?
Were ancient Christians progressive or regressive about such issues as
gender, compassion for the poor, and slavery? McGuckin’s discussion of
these issues is balanced and, I would say, trustworthy. They highlight
diversity within ancient Christianity. While ancient Christianity does
not come off smelling like a rose in his telling, it does appear to have
progressive elements, rooted in Christian teachings.
Moreover, while McGuckin may have a faith-perspective, he is unafraid
of the historical-critical method, although he critiques marginalizing
spiritual and religious interpretations of the Bible in favor of it. In
one aside, McGuckin discusses how the Gospel of John fit into and spoke
to Alexandrian culture, with its emphasis on the divine logos and
personal immortality. McGuckin also questions whether certain New
Testament teachings about wealth and sex (i.e., asceticism) should be
considered eternal laws or instead were designed specifically for Jesus’
itinerant disciples, who were expecting the imminent end of the world.
Something that I found informative in this book was McGuckin’s
discussion of the biblical hermeneutics of Theodore of Mopsuestia and
the Antiochian school. They disdained Christological allegory of the
Old Testament, and they held that certain Old Testament prophecies that
many Christians applied to Christ actually pertained to events before
the coming of Christ, such as the time of David or Hezekiah. Contrary
to common belief, McGuckin states, the Antiochian school was not a
forerunner to the modern historical-critical method, which interprets
the Hebrew Bible in light of its historical context rather than Christ.
Rather, the Antiochian school’s approach was rooted in the belief that
the Old Covenant and the New Covenant were distinct from each other, and
thus writings in the Old Testament often related to the Old Covenant
rather than the New. This is a helpful insight. I have wondered why
the Antiochian school was willing to see certain Psalms as predictive of
Hezekiah but not of Christ: if they are suggesting that writings in the
Hebrew Bible can transcend their historical context and predict the
future, why not say that they predict Christ, since these interpreters
are Christians? McGuckin presented the rationale behind their
Another interesting topic was the relationship of debates on
iconography to Christology. Some on the pro-icon side accused the
anti-icon Christians of minimizing the incarnation: after all, was not
Jesus an icon of God when he was on earth? That must mean that icons
(visible representations of the divine) are all right! Some on the
anti-icon side, however, said that the pro-icon side minimized the
incarnation: what is important is the union of humanity and divinity in
Christ, they argued, and an icon is neither human nor divine and thus
cannot represent Christ.
This book was edifying and informative. It certainly will have a
place on my shelf, so that I can consult it when the need arises.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.
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