23 Days with St. Victorinus of Pettau

As I look back on my education beginning in grade school all the way through grad school, I must admit that history stood as one of the subjects that I enjoyed the most. I always found it interesting to look back on our past and relish in the descriptions of the golden times historians described; that is, until my second history course in the university. 

My professor for that class had the remarkable ability to make history boring. Now, I know that many think history is dull. After all, who really cares about all those dates and events as they often seem to have little to do with our lives in the present. Well, that professor, unfortunately, compelled me to be a part of that group of us who believe the study of history is indeed a useless pursuit. Even my tedious note taking, recording of his lectures, and listening to them over and over, did absolutely little to raise my final grade in that class from a “C.”

It wasn’t until living in an Orthodox country and ultimately grad school that my interest in history was revived. I became fascinated with the early Christian movement and her growth. Eventually, my interest turned to the writings of the Church Fathers during my doctoral studies. I felt, as I do now, that to really understand the early church, I needed to understand the fathers. So, my doctoral work focused a great deal of attention on those early faithful witnesses of the true doctrines of the church passed down to us.

One of my doctoral professors, more than any other, spurred my interest even further. Sitting in his lectures and having discussions with him outside of the classroom did as much to compel me to study history as my university professor did to dissuade me. Even after my studies, he continued to encourage me and graciously interacted with me as I pursued my scholarship of the Church Fathers. I am forever grateful to Dr. Thomas C. Oden (1931-2016) and how he built into my life and pursuit of knowledge about the early church. Because of him, I am much more comfortable with identifying myself as paleo-orthodox than as Reformed or Arminian.

Introducing Bishop Victorinus of Pettau

This book is about a third century bishop’s commentary on Revelation. St. Victorinus is a recent discovery of an early Church Father on the shelves of our personal library. He wrote many commentaries on books of the Bible. Unfortunately, what remains are only two of his works: On the Creation of the World and The Commentary on the Apocalypse by the Blessed John. What interests me about Victorinus is that The Commentary on the Apocalypse is the first commentary on Revelation in our possession written by an early Church Father. Others, as we’ll see, have made mention of the vision of John, yet no one attempted a complete work on the book until Victorinus.

We know very little about the bishop’s life. Jerome offers us what might be the most complete historical description of Victorinus and it is not much of an account:

“Victorinus, bishop of Pettau, was not equally familiar with Latin and Greek. On this account his works though noble in thought, are inferior in style. They are the following: Commentaries On Genesis, On Exodus, On Leviticus, On Isaiah, On Ezekiel, On Habakkuk, On Ecclesiastes, On the Song of Songs, On the Apocalypse of John, Against all heresies and many others. At the last he received the crown of martyrdom.” (Lives of Illustrious Men 74)

On his life, context, and the actual writing of his commentary, we will address as we progress through this book. For now, it is of note that Jerome, who was born sometime in the 340sAD in Strido of Dalmatia then later moved to Bethlehem, includes Victorinus among his list of 135 learned people of the church.

How to use the Book

The vision for this book is practical, doxological, and theological. Many today think of the study of theology as I once thought of history; either boring or of little benefit to our present lives. This, I’d suggest, is an unfortunate result of the divorce between the head, heart, and hands that are so much a part of a proper pursuit of knowledge; especially knowledge about God. I’m hopeful this book will challenge you to think practically about what it means to be a faithful witness. It should draw you to a worshipful posture as you encounter God in Revelation. Finally, I hope your love for theology, the study of God, will inspire you to live out your faithful witness among others.

To provide context, each chapter begins with a reminder to read the corresponding chapter in the book of Revelation. At the end of each chapter is a section on personal reflection. Some of these questions are weighty, others less so. I hope you’ll use them to think more deeply about what we might learn from Victorinus. Even though he wrote nearly 1,800 years ago, the one thing I noticed in reading his commentary is how little things really change. Humanity continues to struggle with political, economic, and societal challenges. So, I think there is much we can learn from a bishop in the early church.

You might be tempted to read this volume rather quickly as it is a good airplane book. You can easily finish it on a flight of a couple hours. Or, you can thoughtfully engage the material over the next 23 days as a devotional book taking your time to work through Victorinus’ exposition on Revelation. I hope you’ll attempt the former. And even if you do the latter, I trust you’ll return to the book to reflect more deeply on the implications for your personal life and witness.

The book would also be a great tool for a small group Bible study or house church. While you might not want to spend 23 weeks studying Revelation, you could easily incorporate seven reflection topics each week for a four-week study while encouraging participants to use the book for their daily devotions.

Go more Deeply

The study of Revelation has occupied a significant portion of my time during the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020-2021. Such a global spreading of a virus that claimed the lives of nearly three million people naturally draws our attention to other historic plagues. Matt Till and I wrote about this in a small book on plagues in the early years of Christianity and how that church grew in spite of them (Cooper and Till, 2020). Yet, reading about the plagues in the Roman Empire also makes me aware of how technology and medical advances have given us a remarkable ability to address such pandemics.

Even so, a plague combined with ongoing political, economic, and societal unrest certainly draws our attention to the end times. For that reason, as well as for a growing percentage of Christians around the world, even among evangelicals, who believe that Jesus is not God nor the Bible is the word of God, Revelation is an important text to consider. It not only claims to be inspired, but it also clearly reveals the glorious resurrected Christ to paint a portrait of Jesus-as-He-truly-is.

If you would like to go more deeply in your understanding of the book of Revelation, please consider our online study entitled Rediscover Jesus through Revelation. You can find more information at masterclasses.ephesiology.com/courses/rediscover-jesus. In this 10-week study, you’ll discover what it means to be a disciple of Jesus living in challenging times. You’ll see the mission of Jesus’ disciples along with the gospel they proclaimed. I hope you’ll also discover some of this in the book that is in your hand now.

Evangelicals and History

Evangelicals are notorious for only looking back to the last 500 years for our history. What often escapes us is the fact that the Reformers contemplated the Church Fathers to find their anchor for Christianity of the 16th century. If there were ever to be a serious contemporary reformation, it must do the same. The history of evangelicalism doesn’t begin with Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and others. It begins with Justin, Origen, Tertullian, and Bishop Victorinus. It is to that third century bishop with his concern for the churches in his care that we now turn. 

I hope by the end of this book, you will be encouraged and challenged as a faithful witness to follow in the steps of Bishop Victorinus and the third century church.

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