Religion Booknotes

Women Deacons in the Early Church

Historical Texts and Contemporary Debates

John Wijngaards

Crossroad, $24.95, 240 pp.

Originally published in Great Britain in 2002, this American edition of John Wijngaards’s study of women deacons is a work of polemical scholarship. Its basic thesis is that for nearly a millennium women in the Eastern Church were ordained to the deaconate, but that shortly before the end of the first millennium the practice ceased. The fact that women were called “deaconesses” in the early church is not in dispute: Pliny the Younger referred to them as such in a letter to the Emperor Trajan at the beginning of the second century. The argument concerns whether or not deaconesses were ordained in the sacramental sense of the term.

The first part of this volume mounts a strong argument, supported by a cadre of liturgical scholars and historians, that women were ordained in the strict sense of the term. Wijngaards analyzes the surviving sacramentaries of the early Byzantine Church and compares the ordination rites for men ordained to the same office. He uses parallel columns to display the liturgical texts from both rites. His conclusions are similar to those of many other major scholars who have examined the same texts.

There is one leading antagonist to this line of argument, the late French scholar Aimé Georges Martimort. His Deaconesses: An Historical Study (English translation, 1986) argues vigorously against such an interpretation. Using the same evidence, he concludes that such ceremonies were rites of commission, not true ordinations, for nuns, among others-nuns who served the church but not in the traditional ways male deacons did. Martimort’s work has been the primary source for those who vigorously oppose women’s ordination to the deaconate as an authentically sacramental rite. Wijn¬gaards examines Martimort’s thesis but finds it, to put it mildly, wanting.

The discussion might seem as if it is merely part of a scholarly dustup, except for one very telling conclusion. If Wijngaards is right (and he has a lot of scholarly company), then the following question has to be addressed: If women, at least in the Christian East before the fateful schism of 1054, were sacramentally ordained to the deaconate, and if the deaconate is part of the sacrament of orders, on what basis can it be argued that women cannot more fully share in sacramental orders by being ordained to the priesthood? Some authors, like Phyllis Zagano, have argued that ordination to the deaconate is detachable from the larger question, as does the notable Orthodox prelate and theologian, Kallistos Ware (who believes that women may be ordained as deacons). But Wijngaards will have none of it.

It is beyond my competence to adjudicate the final resolution of this debate, but it is abundantly clear that the discussion of women’s ordination cannot be bracketed from the scholarly exploration underway in examining the precise character of the ordination of women to the office of deacon. Wijngaards not only sets out the parameters for this debate but also supplies a good collection of translated primary texts, a rather full bibliography, and copious footnotes for those who wish to track the discussion further. One thing is clear: the scholarly debate was not closed by Mortimort’s monograph; instead, his paper has served as one of the fundamental elements in the discussion.


Christianity and the Transformation of the Book

Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams

Harvard University Press. $29.95, 384 pp.

The volume by Grafton and Williams is also concerned with early Christianity, but it advances no hotly contested thesis. Its argument is simply that, in the third and early fourth centuries, a scholarly enterprise emerged that laid the basis for the subsequent Christian intellectual enterprise. The central actors in the story are two formidable scholars: Origen of Alexandria (c.185-c.254) and Eusebius, bishop of Caeserea (260-340). Eusebius had been trained by Pamphilus (a student of Origen), who was martyred in 310 during the last great Diocletian persecution. The central accomplishment of these two towering figures was the production of a new kind of book and the accumulation of what we might call a comprehensive research library.

In the first two chapters, Williams describes Origen’s career and focuses on his massive Hexapla-a six-columned codex that includes the entire Old Testament in Hebrew, the Hebrew transliterated into Greek letters, and four other Greek versions of the Old Testament. While the original codex is now lost, parts of it have survived. Williams writes about its production, the shape of a typical page, and why it was created in the first place. Not only does she deal with technological innovation and the place of biblical criticism, she also addresses some fascinating questions. Did Origen employ a Hebrew scribe to handle the Hebrew and its transliteration? Was Origen’s purpose to subsume the Hebrew Scriptures under the penumbra of Christian interpretation? How was the text used and consulted, and to what end? Williams’s conclusion about this monumental work is straightforward: “The Hexapla was one of the greatest single monuments of Roman scholarship, and the first serious product of the application to Christian culture of the tools of Greek philology and criticism.”

Eusebius, often referred to as the “father of church history,” continued the library acquisitions begun by Pamphilus, who had been a wealthy presbyter. Not merely a book collector, Eusebius was a scholar who, among other things, compiled his famous Chronicle, a complicated text that attempted to correlate the chronology of the entire “known” world by utilizing both pagan and biblical sources. Such a work required not only technical expertise (how to arrange the columns of dates and incidents) but also a broad familiarity with literatures other than the Bible. To complete the Chronicles, Eusebius also had to have exact copies of the biblical materials, especially the variations in the Septuagint. This, in turn, demanded that he carry on the critical work of Origen. As this book makes clear, the project was worth the effort. Eusebius learned from the format of the Hexapla, for example, that a “tabular presentation could make information take on radically new meanings.”

The book might seem arcane to those lacking a background in patristic studies, but it is nonetheless a fascinating exercise in intellectual history that highlights the crucial role books played in the rise of Christianity. As Grafton and Williams demonstrate, by making a historical parallel between the story of Rome and the biblical narratives, the church fathers made it easier for Constantine (whose biography Eusebius wrote) to see something prophetic in the course of history. This point was later underscored by Augustine in his voluminous work on the “two cities.” Further, the creative work of these ancient fathers would be reinvigorated in the Renaissance, when authors like the Spanish scholar Ximenes (the precursor of modern biblical scholarship) and others would produce polyglot Bibles. Finally, thanks to the stories so ably told in this work, one realizes that scholarship in the name of truth is a very ancient calling in Christianity.


Do We Worship the Same God?

Comparing the Bible and the Qur’an

George Dardess

St. Anthony Messenger Press, $12.95, 166 pp.

George Dardess is not a professional scholar in comparative theology, but
he has long been a participant in the Christian-Muslim dialogue. Dardess
has ¬studied classical Arabic with an imam, and in the preface he expresses gratitude to those Muslim clerics who surveyed his manuscript before pub¬lication. A permanent deacon in the
Diocese of Rochester, New York, Dardess has traveled the country giving workshops on Islam.

The title of his book asks a provocative question, and the answer Dardess gives is hedged with qualifications. Certainly, any devout Christian would agree with Muslims that God is “the most beneficent / the most merciful,” as the opening sura of the Qur’an has it; and would agree that God is to be adored. But the same Christian would find Islam’s adamantine rejection of the Triune God unacceptable. Thus the need for clarification and qualifications.

Dardess sets out to ask basic questions-about creation, angels, future rewards, prayer, etc. He then juxtaposes scriptural and Qur’anic texts to outline points of convergence and difference. Those not familiar with the Qur’an will find this an interesting exercise. Among other things, it illustrates how different the Qur’an is as a text, how its structure is unlike that of the Bible, and how difficult it can be to read if one starts with biblical presuppositions. Muslims believe the Qur’an cannot be translated because the Arabic text is the literal word of Allah. Dardess does a good job of elucidating for Christians what would otherwise be a very difficult text to encounter.

It is not surprising that medieval Christians thought Muslims were, at best, Christian schismatics, or, at worst, here¬tics. Dante puts the Prophet in the infernal circle of the schismatics in the Commedia. It might seem to a Christian that the Qur’an reflects heterodox ideas that had been common in the second century among certain Christian sects. For instance, in common with the Gnostics, the Qur’an denies that Christ died on the cross. Muslims’ view of the Trinity seems to place Mary as the third person instead of the Holy Spirit. The Qur’an demonstrates some familiarity with the noncanonical gospels, and there is a vague parallel with the Christian Beatitudes in sura 25. But, as Dardess points out, despite the similarities there is a considerable difference in tone.

In general, this is an irenic work that strains to be honest on both Christian and Islamic understandings. It presents a balanced treatment of the various meanings of the highly charged word jihad. Good discussion questions are provided at the end of each chapter, and the author’s honest attempt to avoid stereotypes is another strong point. If the book has a limitation, it is that it settles on comparing biblical to Qur’anic texts with little discussion of the “five pillars” of Islam (the obligation to fast in Ramadan, the requirement to do works of charity, the equal obligation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, etc.). As a consequence, it does not take up the very things that distinguish and separate Christians from Muslims. Still, what Dardess does, he does adequately well, so I may be asking too much of a brief book.


Bede Griffiths

Friend and Gift of the Spirit

Meath Conlan

Templegate, $20, 128 pp.

When I was in graduate school, I happened on The Golden String by Bede Griffiths. It described his conversion, first, to the Christian life and then to monasticism. After nearly two decades as a Benedictine monk in England, Griffiths left for India to embrace a life that would link monastic living to the model of the Hindu ascetics. Over the decades, he gained a worldwide reputation, not only as a prolific author, but also as a champion of interreligious dialogue. In a series of books, he drew another vision of Christianity, using the contemplative strand in his tradition-represented by such figures as St. Clement of Alexandria, the Pseudo Dionysius, and the like-to enter into a conversation with both Hindu and Buddhist thought. Griffiths’s works drew out a Christology tilted to the high Christology of John and the late epistles of Paul.

Griffiths had a reputation for being a truly holy man, and his modest ashram became a magnet for visitors and seekers from all over the world. Meath Conlon, a priest from Australia, wrote to Griffiths about his own work in the desolate outback of Australia, and from that initial correspondence sprang a long friendship, including a sabbatical Conlon spent with Griffiths in India. Later, Conlon invited the old man to lecture in Australia, which happened to coincide with a tour by the Dalai Lama and led to their meeting.

Conlon has written not a biography but a series of vignettes about Griffiths gleaned from their time together in India and Australia. Each of the brief chapters includes photographs pertinent to the subject Conlon is describing. The book is easy to read, and in addition to its biographical elements, it includes a brief analysis of the thought and spiritual practice of Griffiths. First-time readers of Griffiths may find this the perfect introduction to the master’s works. Conlon also supplies a brief bibliography of Griffiths’s works in print.

Having read some of Griffiths’s books, I have never been able to make up my mind about what I think of him as a theologian. My ambivalence comes, mainly, from the fact that I am too much an amateur when it comes to reading Eastern texts. Griffiths has always seemed to me to shortchange the Christian emphasis on history (with profound consequences when thinking about the Incarnation). One of his basic theses is that the West overemphasized the transcendence of God. As a consequence, he saw the Eastern focus on divine immanence and on interiority as a needed corrective. I would argue that such a balance is easily found in someone like Augustine. Still, entering into a dialogue of “Yes... but” is itself is a salutary thing, and that may be Griffiths’s greatest long-term gift to theology.

Griffiths brought to the fore the deeply contemplative side of the Christian tradition that seems to have become marginalized in the West. I am convinced that dialogue with the East is best located within the contemplative culture. The point was made eloquently by Griffiths in both his life and his thought, and by Thomas Merton. Now it is endorsed at the highest echelons of the church.

Published in the 2007-03-23 issue: 

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.

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