Thursday, April 28, 2011

Some Great Books I've Read Recently

Profs don't just read books, or even predominantly, it seems to me. Articles from scholarly journals dominate my reading time anyway.

Nevertheless, at a transition moment like this, when I begin to think about what I want / need to read over the summer, it occurs to look back and see, well, how wisely have I spent my reading time?

1. On God and Christ, St. Gregory of Nazianzus 

The Theological Orations + the Two Letters to Cledonius put out by SVS Press.

This has got to be the all-out winner of my recent reading. I cannot say enough about this collection. Its topics focus on the divinity of Christ against the Arians (Orations 2-3), the divinity of the Holy Spirit against the Arians and the so-called Pneumatamachoi or Macedonians (Oration 5), and the soul of Christ against the Apollinarians (the letters to Cledonius). Of special note should be the first oration which is one of the best, if not the very best, presentation of what 'theology' is I have ever come across.

2. The Donatist Church, Frend

This is a classic and essential study for anyone wishing to gain a good hold on Augustine's historical context. The Donatists were intolerant rigorists who did not believe in second chances for sinners or in the validity of the sacraments of sinful priests. They were in the majority of Christians in (non-Egyptian, i.e., Western) Africa in the 4th Century. This book was as depressing as it was fascinating: depressing because of the fanaticism that appeared amongst these people - does not one expect more from Early Christians, no matter their stripe? An expensive book to get ahold of: thanks Carleton U!

3. On The Unity of Christ, St. Cyril of Alexandria

This was an amazing work too, by someone I'd like to get to know much better. Another SVS Press production. I assigned this in Christology.

4. On the Cosmic Mystery of Christ, by St. Maximus Confessor

This has to rank number 2 to the happy surprise constituted by Nazianzus. Also assigned in Christology. I cannot begin to state how profound a thinker St. Maximus is and how pleasing he is to read. This book is a sort of hybrid title given by the translator / editor. Actually, much like the book by Nazianzus, it is a collection of individual shorter works, more or less related to each other.

5. Volumes 1, 2, 3 and (so far) half of volume 4 of Quaesten's Patrology.

This is a huge chunk of reading, as you may have guessed. Each volume is roughly 4 or 5 hundred pages. They are all very good; very enjoyable reads; at no time other than during the 4th would one ever get winded. (The fourth was not written by Quaesten, and is not as good as the other three.) What is 'patrology,' you ask? These books are devoted to cataloguing all the works written by early Christian writers (broader subject than Patristics, obviously). I won't get into the details of the arrangement of subject matter, but I definitely plan to read all 4 again! I can think of no better place to get a handle on all the literary offerings of Early Christianity. My favourite volume is the first, devoted to the Apostolic Fathers and the Gnostics. Volume 3 is my next fav., devoted to the Golden age of Greek Christian writing.

6. Aquinas' Summa: Background, Structure and Reception, Torrell.

A very interesting and profitable read. Was considering it for my Thomistic course next year, but have decided to use O'Meara's, Thomas Aquinas Theologian instead. Torrell is very good, but a little boring in its relatively long chapter on Thomist before the French Revolution.

7. Tractates on the Gospel of John, Volume 1, of St. Augustine's (#s 1-40)

A wonderful read. I highly recommend it.

8. Homilies on the First Epistle of John, St. Augustine

Wonderful, rightly famous, but not as exciting as the Tractates mentioned above.


I've read countless fragments of books, and am making my way through several books at the moment. Most noteworthy of these include:

- Hugh of Amiens, Ryan Freeburn. An exciting new work by a young medievalist (yes, my friend and colleague here at OLSWA!)

- On the Grace and Humanity of Jesus Christ, Jacques Maritain. Very interesting. I fundamentally disagree with his departure here from St. Thomas, vis, Maritain's conception of Christ's knowledge as a mere potency in habit, as it seems to me so far he thinks of it.

- Answer to Faust a Manichaean, St. Augustine. I am reading this as a part of my work on a book on Augustine's Christology. It is a large work, but very rewarding.

- The Perfection of the Universe According to Aquinas, Blanchette. I have been working on this one since Spetember! Good book, but not exciting.

- Marcion: The Gospel of the Alien God, Harnack. His classic study. Very good. Recently reissued.


My point in detailing all this stuff is not to show off my erudition (!), but to mention some books and their worth reading. Now, for the general Catholic, I wouldn't equally recommend all of them. I would probably recommend for such a person St. Maximus' first. Next, I would recommend Augustine's Tractates on John. Every Catholic would certainly draw profit from these two works.


My priority for the summer lies with two things:

1) Reading everything that I will be assigning next year. I have an inflexible rule not to assign anything the whole of which I have not myself first read. This includes: two books by Michael Burleigh, Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes, which I will be assigning in my Modern Church History course; the O'Meara book referred to above for my Thomistic class, and a some additional works in Thomas' intellectual background., i.e, biographies or studies of Anselm, Lombard, Albertus, perhaps Boethius; for Patrisitics: a book of letters betwixt the Cappadocian Fathers, entitled, The Fathers Speak, and for that class, perhaps The Second Church: Popular Christianity A.D. 200-400 by Ramsay MacMullen, and I'm sure some other primary sources as well.  

2) My current writing projects, including that book on Augustine's Christology and an article I have been working on for some time on Confessions' pedagogy.


  1. Good inflexible rule that . . . I hadn't thought of it that way but realize that's been my practice since I started teaching theology. Your reading list is very impressive.

  2. It makes sense, Claire, especially in weeding out things that should have been weeded out. It might be interesting in and of itself, but often enugh if you let readings deviate from the script too far students get confused and discouraged. Even great books have chapters and sections that should be passed over, even if they are valuable in and of themselves. This is the thing I have found.