Theses on the Church Fathers

I’m doing a lot of reading and thinking about the Church Fathers right now… I’m gearing up to teach Patristics to 3rd year Roman Catholic seminarians at St. Mary’s and trying to make forward progress on Psalming Christ. And, since writing is one of the best ways for me to collect my thoughts, I might as well stick some of these thoughts out here for public critique and reflection!

So. Let me begin at the very beginning… I think that there are a lot of incorrect understandings about God, the Church, Christianity, and the Church Fathers floating around out there. I don’t think that most of these are because of deliberately deceptive teachers. Instead, I think a lot of these grow out of the gradual accreation–and passing on–of unquestioned assumptions about these things. Thus, I’m going to back up and be as explicit as I can about these things…

What the heck is “Patristics”?

Patristics is the study of the primary teachers and guides of the Christian Church defined as the organic community originating with Jesus and the Apostles that handed on the apostolic faith and codified it in the form that we identify as Nicene Orthodoxy.

The temporal boundaries on the field tend to be from the completion of the New Testament writings on the bottom end and extending up either to the end of the fifth century (i.e., ending around the year 500; is Gregory the Great in or out??) or else through the start of the eighth, conventionally ending in the West with Bede and in the East with John of Damascus.

Traditionally, classically, the field has been linguistically bounded and divided into the Latin Fathers and the Greek Fathers based on the languages in which they wrote (or in which their writings survive). Recent years have broadened this to include those Fathers who wrote and/or are preserved in Syriac, Coptic, Georgian, and Armenian (and other languages as well). The two chief reasons for the historical ignorance of or deliberate ignoring of these teachers are first, the general ignorance of those languages among the learned professors of Western Europe and America, and second, the historical reality that the churches using those languages developed in directions outside the bounds of Nicene Orthodoxy, namely in Miaphysite/Monophysite or Nestorian directions.

The root term “Patristics” literally means “the Fathers,” and the study of Patristics does focus around the writings of men who were usually in top ecclesiastical and often political positions in their respective times and places. However, Patristics is more than the study of elite men. We do possess a few writings from some Church Mothers. Also, many of the writings of the Fathers were commissioned and paid for by Church Mothers. Indeed, the majority of Jerome’s labors were written at the behest of a small group of important Church Mothers, namely Marcella, Paula, and Eustochium. Thus, “Patristics” and even “Fathers” should and in my usage does encompass men, women, and those who behaved outside of both of the conventional constructions of those terms in the world of Late Antiquity. (Church Parentals sounds kinda stupid, though, so I’ll keep using the more familiar term…) Finally, Patristics—I argue—is not only the study of the writings and thoughts of elite men, but rather the understanding of the faith and practices to which these writings refer and the manner of life they champion.

And that last sentences leads us to one more point of clarification that needs to be said before I can get to my theses proper… Christianity, especially in its first several centuries (and I will strenuously argue now as well), is not solely an act of intellect, of emotion, of will, of belief, of action, or of habit. Rather, it is a combination of all of these things and likely more beside. That is, we construct this field of study incorrectly when we label it as “Christian Thought”. (As, in fact, my Church History classes in seminary were titled!)

That brings us to my first thesis…

1. The Church Fathers should be seen not primarily as thinkers of important thoughts, but as teachers and guides to living a life suffused with the Scriptures and Sacraments that extends and enacts God’s priorities into our incarnate reality.

My point: all too often, the Fathers are seen or treated as idea factories or mines of doctrine to be cherry-picked. And, the Church has frequently used them in just this way (paging Aquinas…). While many of their statements do, on their own, contain important and true nuggets of Christian wisdom, we must recognize that their original purpose and intent was to guide Christians into proper Christian living, and fit most naturally into this context.

2. Study of the Church Fathers is often relegated to Dogmatic Theology, especially the development of doctrine with the focus on the Trinitarian and Christological controversies that hammered out the contours of Nicene Orthodoxy. This is overly narrow. They can should, and ought to inform our understandings of Scripture, Sacraments, Ethics, Spirituality, you name it instead of artificially and narrowly restricting them to Trinitarian Doctrine.

My point: Studying Patristics should be an exploration of the faith that they modeled and championed that centers around these fundamental questions:

  • Who and What is God?
  • Who and What is humanity?
  • How is the Church the nexus point between God and humanity?
  • How do the chief implements of the Church function, i.e.,
    • How do the Sacraments bond humans into the life and activity of God?
    • How do the Scriptures bond humans into the life and activity of God?

If the Church Fathers are guides, they are guides wrestling with the challenge Paul identified in Ephesians: How to bring the Body of Christ into the Mind of Christ. How to make the sanctified people of God actually sanctified people of God!

3. The thought of the Church Fathers (and I’d suggest Christianity itself) is best thought of as an interwoven net of concepts. If you start messing with one concept or teaching or practice, it has an effect upon the shape of the whole system. Furthermore, practices and doctrines are interwoven in such away that they’re not easily disengaged from one another.

My Thought: The descriptor I’d use for this kind of theology/theological system is “perichoretic.” This Greek word means “interpenetrating” and is usually used in theological circles to talk about the relationship between the three Persons of the Trinity. They are separate and distinct as Persons, but their Unity is due to a mutual interpenetration. Even as distinct Persons they are fundamentally in relationship so what we say of one of them also says something about the others. The way I’m using this in reference to Patristic and Christian belief and practice is that the compartmentalizations of modern theology—Hermeneutics, doctrine of God, Christology, Ecclesiology, the Sacraments—are not the discrete and hermetically sealed categories that theology lectures often pigeonhole them into. The idea of sanctity or Christian perfection, as I’ve said here many times, exists and must exist at the intersection of Christology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and sacramental theology. And this is how the Church Fathers wrote and taught. Doctrine, exegesis, habits of holiness, all flow together in a unified stream. If you start play with—or rejecting—some of the big theological concepts and themes, you’re likely messing with far more of them than you think. An understanding of the connective tissue that binds the body of thought into a coherent whole is necessary before you begin tinkering…      

4. When the Church entered the thought-world of the Roman Imperium it did so occupying a conceptual space shared by certain kinds of philosophical systems like Neoplatonism (that would read to modern people as religions) and mystery religions. Christianity started its life in the Roman world as an esoteric religion. The early Church Fathers assumed it and baked it into the structure of Christian intellectual work and doctrine.

My Point: This is a huge obstacle for most modern Christians to get a handle on because, certainly in the American context, Christianity is anything but esoteric. We’ll tell anybody everything about it! The notion of secrecy or reserving teachings seems not only alien but contrary to an evangelistic faith. To get what’s going on requires a recognition of how mystery religions worked and why.

I’ve not kept up on the latest currents of study on the mystery religions, but I understand them as Roman cultural appropriations of other people’s pantheons (i.e., the Isis of the Apuleius is not the Isis of ancient Egypt; the Mithras of the mithraeum is not the Mitra of the magi) where the center of the worshippers’ connection with the deity was in ritual actions the meanings of which were concealed from those not initiated into those particular mysteries. In short, they were esoteric religions because the central truths of their teachings were taught only to initiates. The Christianity known and communicated by teachers like Origen was likewise an esoteric form of Christianity. It functioned socially and intellectually like a mystery cult (which is an entirely different thing from saying that it was one or that it adopted a variety of things from other mystery cults/religions). Indeed—one of the clearest proofs we have of this fact is Origen’s  Contra Celsus wherein he writes a long treatise to specifically reject the claim of Celsus and others that Christianity was just that—a new mystery cult that just borrowed a whole bunch of stuff that other groups were already teaching! 

As the writings of Hippolytus and the catechetical instructions of Ambrose and Cyril of Jerusalem make clear, an adult convert’s initiation into Christianity was just that—a process of initiation where certain aspects of the faith were hinted at but held back, the unbaptized were kicked out of church at a given point, and only those who had been baptized observed, participated within and received the Eucharist. What made the Early Church’s Easter Vigil so dramatic and what inspired the Liturgical Renewal Movement to bring it back was precisely because of the impact of the event. A convert’s first experience of the Eucharist occurred right after their Baptism, and was supposed to be a dramatic experience! The mystagogical lectures following the event were designed to theologically tease out what happened and to enrich the new Christians’ remembrance of what happened. 

5. Even when Christianity became more public/popular/official, and—especially in the Latin West—catechumens were no longer dismissed because universal Baptism/Confirmation became assumed—there was still a tension between an exoteric faith and an esoteric Scripture. Or, to put it another way, while the faith was proclaimed in full, the Scriptures still remained cryptic or at least had a great deal of cryptic material in them.

My Point: Early Christians assumed that 1) All Scripture was inspired by God for the sake of our—present-day Christians—instruction for training in faith and good works. 2) Not all of it seemed pertinent to those goals. 3) But Scripture itself and the teaching of the Church said it was true nonetheless!

Origen assumed that the deep meanings of Scripture were veiled and ought to be veiled so that the uninitiated and unworthy could not learn the deep things of God and malign them. Also, the hiddeness of divine meanings meant that as a Christian grew in character, faith, piety, and wisdom, truths would be progressively revealed as the capacity to receive them was unlocked.

Augustine wrestles with this because he too will affirm these two points—Scripture is deliberately obscure to hide truths from the unworthy and so that the worthy can discover them with effort. Where he differs from Origen, though, is in the contention that Scripture teaches nothing obscurely which it does not also teach plainly.  Yet, Augustine still saw Scripture as a deliberately obscure document—and that the obscurity was a feature, not a bug.

Modern Christians get hung up on #2 above. We’re not nearly as convinced that all of Scripture holds coded messages for us to interpret that have immediate relevance to our contemporary situation. I’ll go out on a limb so far as to suggest that very few Episcopal churches have had sermon series or Adult Forums that have wrestled with the spiritual meanings of the names of the 42 watering holes visited by the Children of Israel in their trek through the wilderness.  Nor would I, as a fellow modern Christian, suggest that they should! 

What we lose in not doing this is a form of quite-serious play within the Scriptures and an intimate familiarity with the Scriptures that our patristic ancestors had. As I remind people again and again, allegorical and non-literal interpretations of Scripture are not only playful explorations of the text, but also ways of grappling with problems in the text that they were often more aware of than we are. Very few modern self-proclaimed biblical literalists knew the text as well as Origen and were able to catalogue without effort a host of literal errors or inconceivabilities like the ones he tosses out in On First Principles as the reason why non-literal senses are not only useful but often preferable at points.

6. Patristic readers did engage in some interpretive gymnastics to argue away problems in the text—but they did so around different topics and for different reasons than we do.

My Point: Often, modern interpretive gymnastics focus around moral mandates in the text. I.e., I feel personally judged or called out by this directive—maybe it really means something else. Or, this text is just reinforcing an archaic social structure that really has nothing to do with how I relate to God, therefore we can ignore it.  Our interpretive gymnastics thus protect our sense of our own dignity and goodness.  

Patristic interpretive gymnastics—even and perhaps especially the ones deemed heretical by Nicene Orthodoxy—were very often done in service of protecting the dignity of God. That is, it seemed that Scripture was saying something unworthy of God or a “proper” divine being which needed to be defended or argued away. Indeed, my sense is that much of the Trinitarian and Christological controversies settled by the Councils were attempts to protect the dignity of God and Christ from an overly close connections to humanity and materiality. 

Ok—I’ll stop there for now…

There are more things to be said, but I’ll just put these out here for now as I think about how these will influence how I want to shape this class…


3 thoughts on “Theses on the Church Fathers

  1. PatrickC

    Great post, Derek! Would you be willing to share the bibliography for your course? Robert Wilken’s Spirit of Early Christian Thought would seem to be in line with your perspective, but what texts do you have your students read?

  2. Joel Hatfield

    Thanks for this Derek.
    You touched on a definite weakness in the way that theology is taught in an academic setting. It has taken on a very scientific approach which tends to break it apart, rather than treating it as a whole that should unite Christian Thought. I look forward to seeing more as you develop the course.

  3. Derek A. Olsen Post author

    Yes–I’d be happy to share the syllabus once it’s worked up, and yes, I’m using Wilken’s book!

Comments are closed.