Saturday, 5 March 2011

William Weedon on Reading the Fathers

Pr William Weedon recently posted this comment on reading the church Fathers over at Sentire Cum Ecclesia, after the author of that blog, erstwhile Lutheran pastor come Roman Catholic, David Schuetz, had suggested that I "spin" the Fathers to my own purposes when I quote them on my blog Lutheran Catholicity (link provided in right-hand column).
"I have been subjected to the same criticism as Pr. Mark on this [well, at least I'm consoled by being found in such illustrious company, William - MH], but I would simply like to point out that if you READ the fathers as a whole, you will find that they as a whole do not agree with anything wholly today – neither Rome, nor the East, nor the Lutherans, nor the Calvinists, etc. Nor ought we expect them to. The Lutheran use is to attempt to hear them out on the salient questions that were posed in the 16th century where those questions come close to areas that they dealt with in their own day: the role of grace in salvation, for example, and what exactly is meant by the word grace or the word faith, and what is the role of Scripture in determining the dogma of the holy church. My point is simply that it would be a mistake to assume that “they can’t mean that” when “that” would challenge the position of one’s church. Rather, look them square in the face, let them say what they say, hear them out, attempt to understand them, and allow them challenge our thinking – they may be right on a given point, they may be wrong, but we need to hear them out without bending them to dogmatic presuppositions that undo the actual words they say and the clear meanings they convey."

Before I comment on William's words, I must say in self-defence that I actually add very little commentary to the quotes at Lutheran Catholicity, apart from historical notes, so I'm not sure what David means by "spinning". Perhaps I've offered a few opinions along the way, but I really prefer to let the Fathers speak for themselves (such as Bernard on the Immaculate Conception; it's difficult to "spin" that!) and I always try to supply referencing so readers can follow the quotes up for themselves in context. In fact, if I have anything beyond a few notes of my own, I prefer to post that here at 'Glosses...', because I don't want to clutter Lutheran Catholicity up with too much extraneous stuff (for that reason I've been considering deleting all comments, including the one where David suggests I'll be happy after I die to suffer in the very Purgatory whose existence I deny - sic!). I have also promised to consider any corrections offered by readers who think I may have taken a Father wildly out of context, but I've never received any such corrections. Now, it is probably the case that David considers any interpretation of the Fathers that fails to comply with post-Trentine Roman Catholic dogma as "spinning". But surely that only reveals his own biases? The reality, as William writes, is much more complex, and most patristic scholars working today would agree, I'm sure.

What William has written above is quite true and needs to be acknowledged. The Fathers need to be heard on their own terms, and they often say things a Lutheran is bound to reject, for instance the doctrines of grace are not always clearly grasped by them (Cf. Torrance's book on the Apostolic Fathers) and many of them were prone to Millenial speculations. As I wrote over at Sentire, I'm not claiming that the Fathers were proto-Lutherans; that would be anachronistic and silly. What I am trying to show is that Lutheran doctrine can be shown to stand in organic continuity with a particular stream of evangelical (i.e. Gospel-oriented) witness that flows through church history, sometimes with vigour, sometimes as little more than a trickle, but it is always there, it never dries up completely. Melanchthon referred to it as a tide that rises and falls. Lutheran theology may indeed be a development of this stream, but if so it is because of the greater insights into scripture that early Renaissance scholarship availed to the Lutheran reformers(need we mention the correction of Augustine's errors, born of his lack of Biblical languages?), and because the Lutherans were answering questions pertaining to soteriolology (the doctrine of salvation) that had become particularly acute by the late Middle Ages, and not only among theologians.

Reading the Fathers can be a little like feeling for a light switch in an unfamiliar, darkened room - you might have to grope about for quite a while before finding light - but then it's worth it! Personally, I find the ancient Fathers quite bewildering at times because of the strangeness (to me, anyway) of the world they lived in. I feel more at home in the thought-world of the High Middle Ages, when, with names such as Anselm, Abelard, Bernard and the like, the centre of theological gravity began to move to northern Europe and the foundations of the brilliant scholasticism which reached its pinnacle in the great Lutheran theologians of the 17th century were laid down. But that's just me!

By clicking on the post title, you can go to the original discussion, brief though it is. William's blog, Weedon's Blog, can be found in the 'Correspondence Tray' in the right-hand links column. Thanks William!


Jnorm said...

Pr Mark Henderson,

As long as you provide an online link or book and page reference to your quotes then I really don't see a problem with it. We all should have the freedom and right to quote the Fathers and other christian witnesses, and allowing others to know where we got it from is always a good thing.

Pr. Mark Henderson,

This is off topic, but what does the Pr. stand for? Does it stand for Pastor, Preacher or something else? I never knew Lutherans had a different way in addressing their clergy. I hope you didn't mind me calling you Father a few times in the past. I will use Pr. if that is more appropriate.

Have a blessed weekend!

Anonymous said...

I appreciate Lutheran Catholicity. Thank you. I also appreciate the Christ centered focus on the Incarnation that is found in the writings of the Church Fathers.


Pr Mark Henderson said...

Thanks Rick & John for your support.

John, Pr stands for Pastor, which as you know just means shepherd, or better 'under-shepherd' under the great bishop and shepherd of the flock, our Lord Jesus Christ. No offence taken if you referred to me as Father in the past.