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Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics

Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics: Issues and Challenges for the Twenty-First Century

Johan Leemans
Brian J. Matz
Johan Verstraeten
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  • Book Info
    Reading Patristic Texts on Social Ethics
    Book Description:

    Can writings of the church fathers related to the field of social ethics be of value to contemporary discussions on the topic? In addressing this question, the authors of this book discuss the exciting challenges that scholars of both early Christianity and contemporary Catholic social thought face regarding the interaction of historical sources and present issues.

    eISBN: 978-0-8132-1910-3
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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    (pp. xi-xviii)

    This volume investigates the potential for a dialogue between the social teachings of the Fathers and the living theology of Catholic social thought today. Although creating a dialogue between worlds of ideas separated by fifteen centuries would seem to pose some difficulties, the contributors to this volume express such wide-ranging concerns that one wonders if success is even likely. At the same time, this volume explores several important features of any attempt at a dialogue.

    This dialogue was constructed with Catholic social thought in mind, but this and other phrases deserve clarification before proceeding further with an introduction to the...


    • 1. Texts That Create a Future: The Function of Ancient Texts for Theology Today
      (pp. 3-29)
      Reimund Bieringer

      The relationship of the present to the past is constitutive for Christianity and many other religions. In the religious context of the earthly Jesus, texts of the past that have come to us as Old Testament play a decisive role. They are consulted to explain the present and to anticipate the future. The authors of the texts that have been handed down to us as the New Testament made ample use of their Bible to make sense of the Jesus event. They saw continuity between what the texts of the past had been saying and what they understood to be...

    • 2. Challenges in Approaching Patristic Texts from the Perspective of Contemporary Catholic Social Teaching
      (pp. 30-42)
      Pauline Allen

      From a twenty-first century perspective, whether one reads patristic socioethical texts in the original or in translation, there are difficulties, pitfalls, and caveats. One of the most important facets to take into consideration when reading these texts is their genre. A homily delivered live in the ancient Church, for example, would be a public event, often taking account of audience reaction and of the circumstances behind its delivery (the presence of catechumens, newly baptized, imperial family; commemoration of local saints; recent natural disasters, and so on). Typically homilies on socio-ethical themes were delivered during the periods of fasting and in...


    • 3. Social Ethics and Moral Discourse in Late Antiquity
      (pp. 45-63)
      Peter Van Nuffelen

      The term “patristic social ethics” may convey the impression that the Church Fathers—already an immensely varied group of individuals covering at least half a millennium—shared a number of systematic views on social issues. It seems to suggest that they held a set of norms and rules, which can be reconstructed through the careful reading of their sermons, letters, and dogmatic works. On such an understanding, patristic teaching on property, poverty, or usury, takes the form of a coherent, discrete body of doctrines. Such an approach might work well for theological topics, for example, the interpretation of the Trinity...

    • 4. Wealth, Poverty, and Eschatology: Pre-Constantine Christian Social Thought and the Hope for the World to Come
      (pp. 64-84)
      Helen Rhee

      Christian eschatology and otherworldliness have been used and misused throughout history. On the one hand, they were used by Christians to justify maintaining the socio-political or religious status quo resulting in either a tragic neglect of social injustice or a passivity toward social reforms in the present age.¹ On the other hand, they were used to justify socio-political and religious radicalism and violence to the point that Christianity may be seen in some quarters as a militant opponent of social process and tolerance.² While it is true that the eschatological orientation and “otherworldliness” of early Christian teachings did not directly...

    • 5. The Audience(s) for Patristic Social Teaching: A Case Study
      (pp. 85-100)
      Wendy Mayer

      When we reflect on the audience of social teaching by the Fathers of the Church, it is not unnatural to look first to the most overt of patristic media for the delivery of moral instruction—the sermon. In a book titled The Media Revolution of Early Christianity, however, the author, Doron Mendels, challenges us to broaden our perspective. He proposes that Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, an overtly nonethical text, nonetheless has at its core the message that the Catholic Church represents the right order in society. This message, he argues, permeates the stories recorded, and is demonstrated “in many ways, such...


    • 6. Out of the Fitting Room: Rethinking Patristic Social Texts on “The Common Good”
      (pp. 103-123)
      Susan R. Holman

      The Leuven Expert Seminar dialogue on “The Church Fathers and Catholic Social Thought” offered an extraordinary opportunity to explore what patristic sources might offer in the ongoing construction of modern Catholic social thought, and particularly how they might encourage religious dialogue for justice and goodness internationally. In this chapter, I apply this challenge to explore the use of patristic ideas as they relate specifically to the ethical rhetoric of “the common good.”

      Unlike the heterogeneity of Protestant social action rhetoric and the intentional mystery of Orthodox theologies, Catholic social teaching is very systematic. It may not be amiss, therefore, in...

    • 7. “That which has been wrung from tears”: Usury, the Greek Fathers, and Catholic Social Teaching
      (pp. 124-160)
      Brenda Llewellyn Ihssen

      In the sixteenth year of the reign of Emperor Trajan, a woman who is described as “aged about 66 years, with a scar in the middle of her forehead,” and who, being accompanied by her son—who also had “a scar in the middle of his forehead”—acknowledged in writing the recovery of a loan for the amount of 1,612 silver drachmae, as well as interest on the loan.¹ The debtor was one of the fortunate ones: she had taken a loan and managed to repay both the loan and the interest to her creditor. Sadly, evidence remains that many...

    • 8. The Principle of Detachment from Private Property in Basil of Caesarea’s Homily 6 and Its Context
      (pp. 161-184)
      Brian Matz

      I have two sons. The older of my boys, now age four, enjoys building elaborate sets with his wooden train tracks. The younger of my boys, now age one, enjoys “playing” with his older brother by tearing apart the train set as it is being built. The four-year-old is understandably upset, and some sort of physical behavior is displayed to retrieve the tracks from his younger brother. What is a parent to do in this situation? I suggest the problem is not simple. The older boy has applied his time, energy, and talents into constructing something new from which he...

    • 9. Social Justice in Lactantius’s Divine Institutes: An Exploration
      (pp. 185-206)
      Thomas Hughson

      This inquiry interprets a fourth-century Church Father’s main work in reference to social justice, a characteristic theme in Catholic social thought and Catholic social teaching.¹ The overall perspective is postcritical in the sense of probing for a relation between an ancient text and a modern or postmodern context in Church and world. That approach does not derogate from critical study, on which it relies, though a postcritical purpose inherently assumes that readers from later contexts can bring new questions to the text as well as submit to its otherness. Moving from critical exegesis of a biblical passage to preaching an...


    • 10. The Church Fathers and Catholic Social Thought: Reflections on the Symposium
      (pp. 209-221)
      Richard Schenk

      The topic assigned to me is to say something both of what was accomplished by the articles in this volume and of what tasks have been identified by them for future research. The volume brings to the surface a deep ambivalence about the legitimacy and extent of developing Christian social teaching today by reference to patristic texts. The manuscript seems to result in something of a “split decision.” The task for the near future of a set of ongoing quaestiones disputandae comes directly from that ambivalence. These notes therefore proceed in two steps, beginning with a restatement of the argument...

    • 11. The (Im)possible Dialogue between Patristics and Catholic Social Thought: Limits, Possibilities, and a Way Forward
      (pp. 222-232)
      Johan Leemans and Johan Verstraeten

      In his First Homily on the Love of the Poor Gregory of Nyssa exhorts his congregation to care for large groups of fugitives who had found their way into Nyssa. He vividly describes their awful fate: sleeping rough in porticoes, drinking together with animals from water springs, depending on alms for their survival. Both the phenomenon of fugitives and their awful fate are a picture that is worldwide in our cities of the twenty-first century. Equally recognisable are some of the ways by which Gregory tries to convince his congregation to open their hearts for these people as well as,...