A History of Early Christian Doctrine before the Council of Nicaea

Written by Jean Daniélou Reviewed By Gerald Bray

This is the third and final volume of Daniélou’s massive history of Early Christian thought and is in every way a worthy companion to its predecessors. Daniélou’s approach to his subject is original, in that he departs from the usual treatment of the period to concentrate on what he sees as the three cultural milieux—Jewish, Greek and Latin—in which Early Christianity developed. Not surprisingly, it is the Greek volume which is the most convincing in its analysis of cultural influences on the Church, although the whole scheme of composition has been attacked—rightly—for its built-in tendency to create artificial divisions in what was essentially a highly eclectic, supranational intellectual atmosphere.

Daniélou is undoubtedly at his best when he is analyzing the work of individual writers; his chapters on Tertullian’s anthropology and Cyprian’s ecclesiology are masterly treatments of their theme and will long remain standard introductions to their subject. Daniélou draws widely on the research of continental scholars little-known in the English-speaking world, and for many readers this book may well be a valuable introduction to the scholarly contributions of Mohrmann, Quispel, Fredouille, Moingt, Cantalamessa, Siniscalco and many others. The bias however, must be noted—Latin and Catholic as opposed to Germanic and Protestant, on the whole. English readers will also appreciate his exposition of the Latin Fathers’ links with Stoicism, a fact which has been widely studied on the Continent but is still too little-known here.

Unfortunately, the excellence of Daniélou’s masterly treatment of individual writers is spoiled by his attempts at synthesis, which are both awkward and highly controversial, as he himself admits in his preface. Basically, he is trying to bring out the importance of Jewish Christianity for the pre-history of Christian literature, and more than a third of the volume is given over to a detailed examination of Latin writings which supposedly reflect this. Daniélou claims that there is a substantial body of literature, originally written in Latin by Jewish converts, which can be dated to the second century, i.e. before Tertullian. He takes us through V Esdras, the Adversus Iudaeos (which Daniélou ascribes in part to Tertullian himself), the Passio Perpetuaeand so on, demonstrating the many points they have in common with similar writings from a Judaeo-Syrian milieu. These links are very interesting, but they do not prove Daniélou’s thesis, since they cannot be relegated with confidence to a specifically Jewish environment. Likewise, the existence of anti-Jewish polemic proves nothing, and Daniélou’s argument that the Adversus Iudaeos must precede Tertullian’s Scorpiace is singularly bald and unconvincing (p. 38).

Likewise, his arguments for an early, possibly even a pre-Christian, rendering of the Scriptures into Latin, rests on suppositions which lack any sort of proof. His statement that the Pauline Epistles found in the possession of the martyrs of Scilli and AD 180 must have been in Latin, because the Scillitans were ordinary Christians (p. 7) is typical of his approach, in which a possibility is raised to the level of a certainty by verbal sleight of hand, and then used as a basis on which to build a whole edifice of primitive Latin Christianity.

The result of this approach is that when we come to the main tradition, i.e. Tertullian, we are told that his theology was conceived as a reaction against Jewish Christianity! Here the argument depends on Daniélou’s thesis, argued in the first two volumes, that gnosticism and allegory both originated in a Jewish or Judaeo-Christian milieu. The second of these is more obvious than the first, and it is refreshing to see a defence of the Latin typological tradition against the polarization between ‘scientific’ study of the Scriptures and allegory which was such a feature of the Greek-speaking world, as indeed it is of our own time. But Tertullian’s own assertion, in De anima 3, that he is attacking the influence of pagan philosophy on Christianity cannot simply be ruled out as a misunderstanding (p. 187); a man of his culture and brilliance may be expected to have detected Jewish influences, especially if they were really as all-pervasive as Daniélou makes out.

The value of this book is therefore one-sided; a mine of information about the literature and thought of Latin Christians, but highly suspect in its interpretation of the nature of Latin Christianity. The translation is well done, though the printing is poor, and Canon Baker’s postscript, which attempts to assess the relevance of the Latin Fathers for today strikes this reader at least as unnecessary, and on balance mistaken.

Gerald Bray

Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, where he teaches history and doctrine. He is a minister in the Church of England and the editor of the Anglican theological journal Churchman.