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Questions for the Ages

This post and the comments are meant to be light-hearted (for once). A friend posted on Facebook a poster of N.T. Wright with the caption, "I don't always read the Bible, but when I do, I read it with 1st century eyes and 21st century questions." To be quite honest, I'm not sure what the point was of the poster. Is this supposed to be a good thing? (I think so.) But what about the, "I don't always read the Bible" part? Isn't that supposed to be a bad thing? (Especially for a bishop.)

But never mind all that. The inspiration came after that, when a commentator asked, "What would a 1st century question be?"

It's sometimes fun to take things like that with absolute literalness, and my answer was that a 1st century question would be, "Do Gentile Christians have to be circumcised?" Then I got on a short roll:

A 2nd century question would be, "Was Jesus a gnostic teacher?"

A 3rd century question would be, "Is the Holy Spirit still giving direct prophetic revelation?"

A 4th century question would be, "Is the Son of the same substance with the Father?"

A 5th century question would be, "Is Mary the Mother of God?"

Then Rome fell, and things got kinda rough, so a 6th century question would be, "Is that my crust of stale bread or yours?"

By the 7th century in England they had recovered enough to debate energetically over burning questions like, "How should monks be tonsured?" and "What is the correct date of Easter?"

Okay, readers, you get the picture. I realize I'm making it tough for you by stopping just there. That's just where I ran out of steam. Up until then I'd been able to do it off the top of my head with just an occasional Google check to make sure that the Council of Ephesus really did take place in the 5th century and the Synod of Whitby in the 7th. (No, I didn't remember the names of all the councils, but I remembered what they were debating.) I don't think I could keep going quite so effortlessly from the 8th century through about the 12th, and by the 13th century there are almost too many questions being debated to choose from.

So readers, have fun. Try to think of a question for a century that was actually being discussed by Christians in the West during that time period. You can also go back and add one to a century already mentioned above.

Please: This is not an invitation actually to debate these questions among ourselves. This is, for once, an invitation to do something fun. (Yes, I did chicken out on the 6th century, though I found a funny substitute for a real question. You can fill that one in if you think of something good.)

Comments (31)

In the spirit of having fun, a question for the 15th Century: how come the Turks renamed Constantinople, Istanbul? (Never mind they really didn't change the name until the 20th Century, Christendom lost the city in 1453.)

21st century question: Why didn't anyone before us notice that women could be pastors and that Jesus and Paul were pro-gay?

21st century is too easy, Michael. :-)

22nd century question: Should the priesthood be 100% women, or only 90%?

Ah, the great sixth century: the age of Ss. Benedict, Boethius, and Gregory.

Maybe: "How does a man live a just life in an unjust world?"

Or: "How can we make earth reflect heaven as nearly as possible?"

Or (from the contemplative side): "How does a soul achieve union with God?"

Oh, yes, how silly of me to forget Boethius.

We could add, "Is God in time?" and "How can Platonism be wedded to Christian theology?" just for Boethius.

I also, for the record, feel foolish having forgotten Benedict in the 6th century. I actually didn't forget Gregory but had trouble turning my knowledge of Gregory into a question being discussed at the time.

Here's an early (before St. Paul) first century one: does celebrating the Lord's Supper on Sunday have any bearing on the Sabbath observance? Or vice versa?

Late 4th or early 5th century question: Where does it say in Scripture who has the authority to decide what the canon of Scripture is? (Since the canon was settled then at the councils of Hippo and Carthage).

16th century question in honor of Magellan (borrowed from the "Ask Father Russell" series of infamy): If a Catholic is on a cruise around the world during the Easter season, and he has not fulfilled his Easter duty before Trinity Sunday, and on that day he is knocked unconscious and doesn't wake up until Monday, and then the ship crosses the international dateline and it is back to Sunday again, can he still fulfill his Easter duty?

Well, you DID say fun! I shoulda been a Jesuit in an earlier life.

Was the International Date Line recognized in the 16th century?

9th century question: does God's predestination of some to heaven and others to perdition count as double predestination or does the fact that by predestining some to heaven necessitates the non- chosen's damnation make a single predestination.

or perhaps more importantly since monasticism is a sort of slavery to God do monasteries have to go though the local legal process of acquiring slaves in order to get recruits.

S.T., was that question about monasteries and slaves an actual live issue? I never knew that. And I don't quite know what it means. Who would be the slaves they acquired? Was the idea that perhaps the novices or newly received monks should be listed in some registry as slaves that were property of the monastery? Or was the idea that the monasteries would buy slaves who might have had no ambition of being monks and then force them to become monks?

Off topic for this thread, but topical for W4 in general...

A few pictures of this on a sign that says "this is the freedom you are fighting for" would do wonders to kill the desire of most conservative 18 year olds to join the military and fight the jihadists.

Okay, sickening, but yes, definitely OT.

1st century: When is Jesus coming back? He told us he was coming back during our lifetime!

2nd century: But seriously, when is Jesus coming back? Surely it's got to be any day now.

3rd century: Jesus has to be coming back soon, right?

22nd century: Why did the West abandon Christianity in favor of scientific atheism?

Those aren't nearly as brilliant as the self-congratulatory Dunsany thinks they are.

The FB poster referred to sounds like a take on the famous Dos Equis "most interesting man in the world" posters, but using your favorite theologian. One I just re-shared from Fr. Aidan Kimel is of Metropolitan John Zizioulas which reads: "I don't always write on being and communion, but when I do its always personal. Stay ontological, my friends."

For the 8th century: "Are Christian religious images idolatry?"

"Those aren't nearly as brilliant as the self-congratulatory Dunsany thinks they are."

Yeah, reading Hal Lindsey back into the early Church would seem to indicate a somewhat less-than-valid hermeneutic.

Excellent, Craig. Right in the spirit.

Yeah, reading Hal Lindsey back into the early Church would seem to indicate a somewhat less-than-valid hermeneutic.

But don't all Christians look the same?

The second question I wrote can probably best be explained by its most famous case. The controversial, Theologian Gottschalk had be given to a monastery in Saxony when he was 8 along with part of his father's inheritance as was common in those days. However Gottschalk hated it, so once he reached the age of majority he took his inheritance and fled. The monastery demanded that he return, since the Abbot did not approve his leaving the monastery and even if he did, Gottschalk would have no right to the money. So they took it court. Gottschalk's argument was that monasticism was a sort of slavery to God and no free Saxon could be given into slavery without two Saxon witnesses to the process, whereas in his case their were none. The monastery's rebuttal was that there were two Frankish witnesses and a Frank counts more than a Saxon. Their argument did not sit well with the Saxon judge for obvious reasons and so Gottschalk won the case, though the monastery never truly accepted the decision and caused him problems when he entered the priesthood. Sorry for the long winded story but I thought the example was the best way I could explain it.

Skeggy, I'd never heard of Gottschalk of Orbais. Calvin before Calvin, it appears (from some googling). Fascinating story, thanks much!

13th century question: Why in the world does Tommy d'Aquino believe that pagan philosophers like Aristotle can think their way to God, or that the god they reach is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

OK, I admit it. That was a 20th century question from Karl Barth.

Michael, I was going to cry foul, but I accept your fix.

You could make a fine 13th century question out of it though: why in the world does Tommy D'Aquino try to baptize a pagan philosopher whose thought is so far off from Christian philosophy? (Taking "Christian theology" as it was, previously, put into context with neo-Plantonism, more or less).

But I'm not sure people _in_ the 13th century thought of it that way, did they? My impression is that the greater problem is that there were already people pretending to baptize Aristotle but doing it badly--namely, the Averroists.

Skeggy, that's a fun story. Though I am not sure that it illustrates "slavery" in the normal sense - in today's sense, at least.

So they took it court. Gottschalk's argument was that monasticism was a sort of slavery to God and no free Saxon could be given into slavery without two Saxon witnesses to the process, whereas in his case their were none. The monastery's rebuttal was that there were two Frankish witnesses and a Frank counts more than a Saxon.

Seems to me that critical is the "monasticism was a sort of slavery", which even on its own terms includes the qualifier "of a sort". I am not clear on the entire panoply of rules, but surely a person taking on permanent vows of obedience to the superior is not the kind of submission we want to easily and readily equate with "slavery" for today's commentary. Other arrangements would come much closer to the mark: (1) I guess the monasteries had serfs much like a landed baron had serfs. And (2) IIRC, the monasteries had young children "given" to them by their fathers, either for being educated or creating a kind of de-facto orphan of the child, with a view to the child becoming a monk or nun as an adult. But I was under the impression that at least according to the RULES (whether the rules were followed being a different story) that always meant that the child could leave upon his or her majority if they did not want to take vows.

Maybe I am reading modern sensibilities into it, but here is a description that I thought was straightforward:

Basil was very welcoming for children and he agreed to receiving them in monasteries, even at an early age: "Since our Lord said: "Suffer the little children to come unto me" and the Apostles praises him who from a babe had learned the sacred writings, and orders us to bring up our children "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord", we are of the opinion that every age, even the very earliest, is suitable for their admission. And thus such children as have lost their parents we adopt of our own free will, being desirous, after the example of Job to become fathers of the orphans."

Concerning children, whose parents are alive, he asks that witnesses be present, when they give the child to a monastery, so as to avoid further complications. In all these cases,however, the monastery or the orphanage is a place to feed and educate the children, but Basil protects their freedom to choose their future life, depending on their personal inclinations.Following a long tradition, both philosophical and legal, he refuses to take seriously the word of a child.

His argument to refuse that children be admitted inside monasteries as monks or nuns is their inability to realize what is at stake. For girls, he considers that it is important to wait until they have reached their 16th or 17th birthday to give them the veil. Then, they are mature enough to understand what an ascetic life means and it is possible to hold them responsible if they fail to keep their promise to remain a virgin. In the Long Rules, he writes: "it is not proper to consider children's words entirely final in such matters, but she who is above sixteen or seventeen years, and is mistress of her faculties, who has been examined carefully and has remained constant and has persisted in her petitions for admittance, should then be enrolled among the virgins, and we should ratify the profession of said virgin, and inexorably punish her violation of it."


Looks like Gottschalk's superiors weren't in agreement with Basil on that. It sounds like a typical legal wrangle: Gottschalk apparently didn't have some other legal recourse, such as appealing directly to his being too young to take full vows when he was committed as an oblatus, so he took the available route of arguing that, if they were going to treat him as having been permanently committed to the monastery by his father, the process should *at a minimum* meet the usual standards for binding a free Saxon into slavery.

Lydia, it wasn't a question they did ask; it was a question they should have asked.

To me it seems like the monastery was corrupt and more interested in the money than in keeping Gottschalk, but the inheritance was his by right so they were a package deal. Also the abbot had a very good relationship with the bishops in the surrounding area, so much so that they prevented him from becoming a priest for a long time until he found a bishop that would ordain him merely because that bishop disliked the bishops who refused to. The church was depressingly political at the time. Which is probably why he did not go to an ecclesiastical court but a secular one. I don't think secular courts would have accepted church documents like Basil as they were still wedded to older Germanic forms of customary law. Which is why I think Gottschalk took the route he did. But it was certainly an era of funny arguments. Gottschalk's ally and defender in the predestination debate, Ratramnus, also wrought a treatise on the contemporary debate on whether the dog-headed people of India could be saved. It seems as though he thought they could but finding a translation of the work is nigh impossible.

The poster is a parody of the Dos Equis slogan, "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis" (associated with their "Most Interesting Man in the World" spokescharacter). I don't know for sure what the reason for the first half of the slogan is, but I guess it must be meant as a perfunctory "Don't get drunk" disclaimer, the way other beer companies say a quick "Always drink responsibly" disclaimer at the end of their ads.

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