Thursday, 27 December 2012

On Reading the Fathers


Here's an interesting site devoted to reading the Fathers of the Church with others on the net - sort of like those virtual reading groups who focus on the Classics. The readings are from the 19th century English translation edited by the German Swiss-American scholar Phillip Schaff (modern edition pictured), to whom we are indebted for his labours, although it consists of very stilted English by today's standards. It nevertheless has the advantage of being readily available on the net here.  The site's editors reckon that with their timetable the whole set can be read in seven years!

The aim of this project is commendable; there is far too much reading about the great theologians of history and too little reading of them, which accounts for the ease with which modern commentators find a ready acceptance of their distortions of ancient, medieval and Reformation theologians (cf Barth's reading of Calvin, Newman's reading of the Fathers or any number of modern readings of Luther). A first-hand acquaintance with the Fathers reveals they are not as formidable as one might think, although they can be heavy going in parts.

However, I would add a few caveats to anyone considering participating:

First, be sure you have read the entire Bible at least once before embarking upon this project. Not only is this recommended on theological grounds (scripture is primary), but you won't be able to understand the Fathers without doing so.

Secondly, frankly, not all of the Patristic writings contained in Schaff are worth devoting the time to read; there are great works like those of Augustine, Athanasius and Basil which have contributed massively to theological understanding along with many lesser writings which really only have historical or scholarly interest.

Thirdly, the Fathers themselves, even the greatest ones, could and did err on doctrinal matters. Holy Scripture is the only infallible doctrinal authority in the Church by which even the writings of the Fathers should be judged, as they themselves requested.

Fourthly, do not fall for the "chronological fallacy", as I have seen otherwise intelligent people do who suppose that because the Fathers were closer in time to our Lord and the Apostles they held to a purer form of Christianity than we do today. The truth of the matter is that even the Apostles contended with error within the Church and that pattern continued into the first centuries of Christian historyand continued down to the present age.  

Incidentally, when they're not expounding Scripture, the writings of the Fathers are generally apologetic in nature; that is, they wrote to defend the faith against error and heresy. The Fathers were not innovative theologians like many who make their living writing and teaching theology in academe today; they were first and foremost churchmen, although by their apologetic endeavours they deepened our understanding of the Christian faith. In the early church articles of faith - for example the two natures of Christ - were often understood simply on the basis of what Holy Scripture taught or recorded for our salvation unless and until a heresy arose which contardicted scripture and necessitated a response. These responses, often becoming officially defined dogmas of the church, elucidated Christian doctrine but it is important to note that they did not develop that doctrine in the sense of adding something new to it, as John Henry Newman argued in the 19thC. in defence of Roman Catholic innovations. Newman's theory is untenable but has nevertheless been quite popular, especially among Roman Catholics who are otherwise hard-pressed to show how their church today is a continuation of the ancient catholic church of the Fathers. Pace Newman, the Fathers themselves would have been mortified to think they were adding something new to or developing the teaching of Holy Scripture.

The early Lutherans held the Fathers in high regard but they did not read them with rose-coloured glasses. Here's Philip Melanchthon on authority in the Church with passing comments on the Fathers (and if you would like to read some categorised quotations from the Fathers that might be of interest to Lutherans and other Reformation Christians, visit my blog Lutheran Catholicity):

 "Therefore I shall tell in orderly fashion what the church is, that it should be heard, that approved testimonies should be used, and that nevertheless the doctrine should be judged from the Word of God in order that the highest authority should remain the authority of the Word, according to the saying: 'If anyone teaches another Gospel let him be anathema' [Gal. 1:8].
"First, when I say church, I do not understand popes, bishops, and others who approve of their opinions. . . . I call the church the assembly of those who truly believe, who have the Gospel and the sacraments, and are sanctified by the Holy Spirit, as the church is described in Ephesians 5 and John 10[:27]: 'My sheep hear my voice.' "It is necessary that this true church always remain, because the kingdom of Christ is everlasting and it is written [Mt. 28:20]: 'I shall remain with you until the end of the world.'
Nevertheless, we must know that this true church is not always flourishing equally, but often is
only small, and is to be divinely restored later when true teachers are sent, as in Noah's time the church was oppressed and an assembly of only a few persons. . . .
"These words admonish us most earnestly that we should not think of the church as a secular state, nor measure it by the succession of bishops, nor by the degree or position of popes, but declare that the church is with those who retain the true doctrine of the Gospel. It is necessary that there be in that assembly some who truly believe. For to this assembly belong the promises. Isaiah takes away this venerable title from his princes and high priests, and says a small seed is left in the people who were called the people of God. . . .

"I have cited these testimonies for this reason, so that first it might be considered what the church is, and so that the mind may be led away from the carnal opinions which imagine that the church is the papal state tied to the orderly succession of bishops, as kingdoms are upheld by an orderly succession of rulers. But with the church it is a different matter, for it is an assembly not bound to an orderly succession, but to the Word of God. The church is reborn where God restores the doctrine, and gives his Holy Spirit. Paul testifies in Eph. 4[:11] that the church is ruled and preserved in this manner, not by orderly succession: 'He gave gifts to men, apostles, prophets. . . .' He teaches that the true church is where Christ is at work and where he bestows true teachers. . . .Let us not permit ourselves to be scared away from the Word of God by the false protection of the name church.
"Second, after it has been said what the true church is, one must add that the true church is small and consists only of saints. It retains the true doctrine of the Gospel, the articles of faith, or, as Paul calls it, the source of the truth. Yet this same true church sometimes preserves the doctrine purely and clearly, but at other times less so. . . ."There remains some true church, which holds fast the articles of faith, but at times less pure, obscured by some incorrect opinions and holding some erroneous views. . . ."For Paul says: 'No man can lay another foundation except that which has been laid. But one builds on it gold, another wood, stubble . . .' [1 Cor. 3:11] He understands the foundation as the article of faith, that is, the sum and substance of the Christian doctrine, the doctrine about the benefit of Christ. But to this, he says, some add useful teaching, explanation, and true spiritual acts of worship; this he calls gold. Others add stubble, that is, opinions which are not fitting and contain something erroneous, even as in the beginning immediately ceremonies were laid down which brought errors in their train.

"Thus I consider Ambrose a true member of the church. Nevertheless, he says about the fortyday fast: 'The other fasts are voluntary; this one is necessary.' This opinion is stubble added to the doctrine of faith.
"Basil added monasticism, although it is stubble, and praises this kind of life with excessive and  false praise, although he was rebuked by his bishop. Scripture frequently reminds us that it is not a light error to institute new acts of worship. . . .

"Furthermore, writers often felt more correctly than they spoke, because most were quite negligent and improper in speaking, and they borrowed many statements and formulas from the common people which contain something erroneous. Thus Augustine takes the term satisfactions from the common people, although he openly rebukes the errors about satisfactions. He tortures himself in explaining the statement 'Every sin is voluntary' when he discusses original sin, although the saying is a civil saying that speaks about outward transgressions. . . .
"I have added these things in order to show that the ancients at times borrowed unsuitable ways of speaking from the people, as is accustomed to happen in all ages.

"If the one man Paphnutius had not objected, the opinion of those who wanted a decree made that priests should abstain from their wives would have been approved. Custom defeated Cyrian [sic] and many others, so that they approved prohibition of marriage.
"Likewise, the entire Nicene Synod, overcome by the consensus of the crowd or of the time,
approved the canons of penitence which afterward brought forth intolerable errors. Great examples frequently deceive even the godly, as the example of Antony darkened the understanding of many. Until now I have been speaking of the godly. Although they are holy, very many are weak. . . .
"From all this the conclusion follows: Although the true church, which is small, retains the
articles of faith, that true church can hold errors which obscure the articles of faith. Moreover, many fall in such a way that they completely approve of wicked errors against the articles of faith, although some do perhaps return to their senses."
Philip Melanchthon, Commentary on Romans, trans. by Fred Kramer (Concordia, 1992), pp239ff.

Btw, the best introduction to Patristic theology for the educated lay reader or undergraduate level theological student can be found in Part 1 of Swedish scholar Bengt Hagglund's History of Theology, which also covers the Medieval, Reformation and Post-Reformation periods equally adeptly.

10 comments:

Lvka said...

Basil added monasticism


You don't say... and what exactly, pray tell, were John the Baptist and Elijah the Prophet ? And how many wives did Christ, Saint John or Paul the Apostles have ?

Lvka said...

even the Apostles contended with error within the Church and that pattern continued into the first centuries of Christian history

..and just like the Holy Apostles, through their own writings and council, blotted out the heresies and errors in question, so did the Church Fathers, through their own writings and synods, blot out the heresies and errors of their time.

Lvka said...

Thus I consider Ambrose a true member of the church

My, how very generous of you... And just who are you exactly ? And would the Saint repay you the favor ?

Mark Henderson said...

"You don't say... and what exactly, pray tell, were John the Baptist and Elijah the Prophet ? And how many wives did Christ, Saint John or Paul the Apostles have ?"
Melanchthon's point, Lucian, is that Basil over-valued monastic life to the point of making it a form of worship and thus meritorious. The Biblical figures you cite did not teach this.

" ..and just like the Holy Apostles, through their own writings and council, blotted out the heresies and errors in question, so did the Church Fathers, through their own writings and synods, blot out the heresies and errors of their time."
You shouldn't place the writings of the Fathers on the same level as the Apostles; even Orthodoxy does not do this.

"My, how very generous of you... And just who are you exactly ? And would the Saint repay you the favor ?"
Perhaps I'll turn the question around: would he recoignise you as a member of the church? Or any Eastern Orthodox or ROman Catholic of the 21st C.? There are lines of continuity and discontinuity between the Fathers and all of us.

Lvka said...

My point was that both Fathers and Apostles established truth by coucils and consensus. No single individual was infallible, but the body was.

would he recoignise you as a member of the church? Or any Eastern Orthodox or ROman Catholic of the 21st C.?

Yes.

Mark Henderson said...

"My point was that both Fathers and Apostles established truth by coucils and consensus"
Well, there were false councils too, Lucian, which taught error. But the Lutheran church too establishes truth by concord - under the authority of scripture. But you do often find that it is one man contra mundum at the beginning, eg Athanasius on Christology and Augustine on Pelagianism.

"Yes".
Let us hope so, but would he regard the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches as pure or impure churches?

Lvka said...

All 300+ bishops sided with Saint Athanasius against Arius. That Arians gained political power and persecuted the Orthodox, including the Saint, who had to flee, is another story altogether.

Mark Henderson said...

But politics has often intruded into the decisions of church councils, which is one reason why their decisions have to be scrutinised int he light of scripture. Anyway, the Council of Nicea didn't fully resolve the Arian question, that didn't happen until the 1st Council of Constantinople in 381. Now here's an irony - Athanasius's election as bishop was uncanonical because he wasn't yet 30 years old!

Lvka said...

Arianism destroyed Arianism. It was a doctrine founded upon Greek philosophy, and upon its inability to distinguish between person and nature, the general and the particular. Ultimately, it splintered into countless little sects, as human philosophy is in constant flux, finally being swallowed up into the large mass of Orthodox.

Canons are general rules, but they also allow for exceptions (called indulgences or leniences).

Mark Henderson said...

So, first you're saying thge Councils destroyed Arianism, now you're saying Arianism detroyed Arianism? ;0)
Btw, Arianism is still with us; don't you have Jehovah's Witnessess in Romania?
Re canons I'm familiar with the practice of economia; seems to me it could be open to corruption?