The History of the Church by Eusebius of Caesarea | On Christian Teaching by St. Augustine of Hippo.


Of all the titles on my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge, these are two of about ten or so that I was particularly nervous about. There's a few reasons for this: firstly, they both mark a great change in direction of the literature of this age I'd grown to love - it moves from the pagan myths and legends of the golden age and the Stoic philosophies of Seneca into Christian theology. Secondly, it's an awful thing to write that one doesn't like a saint, but I really do not like St. Augustine's writing. As for Eusebius of Caesarea - it's said, even by his translator (G. A. Williamson), that writing wasn't his strong point, and Eusebius himself said he was only "moderately capable". It didn't inspire much confidence. But now I've read them both and I intend in this post just to say a couple of words on each.

I'll start with Eusebius of Caesarea. He was a Palestinian bishop of Caesarea Maritima in the 4th Century A.D. who wrote (in Greek), among other things, The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine (Ἐκκλησιαστικὴ ἱστορία). For this he is sometimes referred to as the Father of Church History. The scope of this work is impressive, not least because as his translator pointed out all the sources were compiled in a day when there weren't even indexes: his dedication to this work and the sheer amount of tireless research he must have done is astonishing, and for that I admire Eusebius and however difficult I found his style my admiration far outweighed my frustration (which, in all honestly, was considerable at times). The work is divided into ten books that, as promised by the title, cover the early church's history from Christ to Constantine (Emperor of the Roman Empire form 306 - 312 A.D.):

  • Book I: On Christ, his works, his contemporaries, disciples, and his correspondence with Abgar V, one of the first Christian kings (if not the first) in Osroene in Upper Mesopotamia (now modern day Turkey).
  • Book II: Covering the development of Christianity from the reigns of Tiberius (14 A.D. to 37 A.D.) to Nero (54 A.D. to 68 A.D.) and including commentary on the works of the Apostles and the deaths of Peter and Paul.
  • Book III: Christianity during the reigns of Vespasian (69 A.D. - 79 A.D.) to Trajan (98 A.D. - 117 A.D.) including the writings of the apostles, the corruptions of Christianity, and religious persecutions.
  • Book IV: From Trajan to Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180), describing bishops and the hierarchy within the church, the writing of the bishops, and their martyrdoms.
  • Book V: Continuing through the reign of Marcus Aurelius to Severus (193 - 211) and on the theme of bishops and hierarchy, the denouncement of Marcion of Sinope who argued that Christ was the true God, not God who was described in the Old Testament, and the settlement of the date of Easter.
  • Book VI: The end of Severus' reign through to Decius (249 - 251) detailing Origen's work, a theologian born in Egypt around 184 and who died in Lebanon in 253. He also writes on Origen's contemporaries and the continued persecution of Christians.
  • Book VII: From Trebonianus Gallus to Gallienus (253 - 268) - dwelling on Cyprian, a bishop of Carthage, and Dionysius, Bishop of Alexandria and later Pope (248 - 264). Eusebius then writes on Sabellius (a priest and theologian), Novatus, Nepos, Paul, and the Manichees (all of which Eusebius describes as heretical).
  • Book VIII: From Diocletian (284 - 285) to Maximin (286 - 305), Eusebius writes on the further persecution of Christians during Maximin's reign and the many many thousands of Christians martyred. This is continued into Book IX.
  • Book X: In this final chapter Eusebius writes on what he believes is the end of the persecution of Christians during the reign of Constantine (306 - 312), the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity.
That is the briefest of summaries of The History of the Church. Now, I've read in some reviews that this work is unreadable: it's not at all, but whether it is enjoyable or not is a different matter. It is very interesting indeed and a very valuable source, and it is certainly one I would read again and consult in the future. It's not an easy read, but it is worth the attempt.

On to Augustine: I mentioned that I didn't like Augustine's works, and this was largely decided by reading On Christian Teaching (De doctrina christiana). There was a touch of irritability in this, and even a bit if impatience, which made this for me an unpleasant read, coupled with the fact that I did find it rather tedious. It's divided into four books with a prologue. The prologue acts as a defence against Augustine's critics, claiming that some critics will simply not understand him, others who don't use his teachings effectively, and those who believe they don't need his guidance. Perhaps wrongly, this is one of the parts I imagined to sound a little abrasive. In Book I Augustine writes on existing Christian doctrine and the interpretation of it. He begins,

"There are two things on which all interpretation of scripture depends: the process of discovering what we need to learn, and the process of presenting what we have learned. I shall discuss the process of discovery first, and then that of presentation."
He then writes on the nature of signs and things referring to Plato in a rather complicated discussion I can't even pretend to grasp. He finishes with a discussion on the nature of love and on loving God. Book II continues the theme of signs and then discusses the seven steps to wisdom needed for scriptural interpretation: fear of God, faith, knowledge, strength, good counsel, purity, and then wisdom itself, highlighting the flaws of a logical approach. In Book III he writes on ambiguity, what is literal, and what is allegorical. In the final book he seems to use Cicero's work on rhetoric to advise preachers and the like on how to effectively communicate and explain the Bible and theology.

On Christian Teaching is another particularly hard work but unlike Eusebius it's made me decide to leave St. Augustine well alone from this moment on. Theology has never been a strong point of mine however interested I may be in it, so I am glad I made the attempt and have no doubt that those with more theological brains will enjoy it. Given how influential it is, I don't regret making the attempt!

Comments

  1. I own that copy of History of the Church by Eusebius, and now that I've read your overview, I'm a little intimidated -- just a little. But I have such an interest in the topic, it may be enough encouragement to get me started. On the other hand, since I loved Confessions, and I am almost done with City of God, so far I have found this Augustine very enjoyable. I've not looked into On Christian Teaching, but I'll probably add it to my TBR someday. It "sounds" interesting, but again, the theological philosophy can trip me up. In City of God, I find myself reading his philosophical tangents w/o really deciphering them. Philosophy of any kind is not really all that digestible for me.

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    1. I wouldn't be too intimidated. It's not easy but it is fascinating :) Glad you're liking Augustine - it must just be me (trust me not to like a saint, I do feel bad about that!). And yes, philosophy - I get on with it marginally better than I do with theology, but still I'm pretty darn poor at both. I think it's my brain, I'm the sort who will never get it!

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  2. i've found, over a long life, that religious persons mostly worship themselves... hence i've never taken it very seriously... sometimes i even think that scientists do the same thing... but at least the latter attempt to understand what's real, like rocks and sand... Blake: "grains of sand"... possibly peace can only be attained by not thinking about any of it, which is why Buddhists meditate, i guess...

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    1. That sounds a bit harsh! :) I've not read enough to comment but there is, in what I have read, a sense of certain authors taking themselves very seriously indeed. But I've not read enough, and most has been ancient / medieval. I suppose I ought to read more, but that said I can't see me particularly seeking out more than what comes my way...

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