Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically)

About the Author
David Wagschal

[Part of the series “Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers“]

If we want to take theological engagement with the patristic tradition beyond the level of mere Romantic antiquarianism and popular promotion, we need to cultivate a much more rigorous approach to reading these texts than has generally been the case.

In my experience, this means that we need to become aware of four classic interpretative pitfalls:

  • The “Great Tradition” Trap
  • The Antiquity Trap
  • The Difference Trap
  • The Desperation Trap

1) The “Great Tradition” Trap

The patristic tradition tends to present itself as immensely broad, deep and universal in scope: it is the central Christian tradition, definitive in implications, and of unparalleled richness. It is the fundamental and core repository of theology by which all later developments should be measured. It is “catholic” in the sense of encompassing the “whole”—and orthodox in the sense of having developed, through struggle and controversy, the definitive version of Christianity. It is timeless, profound, and vast.

Those of us with historical training in pre-modern texts tend to recognize this self-presentation as a very standard form of pre-modern “propaganda”. Most pre-modern societies conceptualize themselves, and their traditions, as the central, principal human tradition: they are “the people”, and everyone else is peripheral (cf. China as the “Middle Kingdom”, or the Roman lake, the Mediterranean, as the “Middle-Earth Sea”). Pre-modern cultures tend to see their culture, learning, tradition, and language not as a culture or set of traditions—a civilization—but the culture, the tradition, the civilization.

The Greco-Romans, with their immense political and cultural empire, had this sentiment in spades: they were civilization, and pretty much everyone else was “barbarian” (ok, it’s a little more complicated than that, particularly in their relationship with older Ancient Near Eastern cultures—but broadly this is true). They could literally speak of their own empire as the “inhabited world” (the oikoumene), even though they knew perfectly well that many others lived outside of it. What they meant was that the Roman empire was the properly inhabited world—the civilized inhabited world.

The theology that was produced in the Greco-Roman environment naturally adopted this highly biased, solipsistic, “imperial” perspective: they were writing the theology, the central tradition, which would be of timeless, decisive, and universal significance for all.

Historians of pre-modernity—and particularly of Greco-Roman history—are very familiar with this tendency, and are not easily bamboozled by it. Theologians, however…? It seems to me that theologians are often rather less cautious. Intentionally or not, they often perpetuate this pre-modern Romano-centrism when they promote views of the patristic tradition as the “great catholic tradition”, or as unquestionably and straightforwardly “orthodox”—i.e. when they present the Greco-Roman tradition as definitive simply by default. (This is one of the many curious ways in which the churches act, unwittingly, as a voice for late Roman ideology in our modern culture.)

But here we need to be very clear: the Greco-Roman patristic tradition is a contextual theology of the late-ancient Mediterranean.

This observation is so important for building truly critical engagement with the patristic tradition that I’m going to obnoxiously repeat it three times:

The Greco-Roman patristic tradition is a contextual theology of the late-ancient Mediterranean.

The Greco-Roman patristic tradition is a contextual theology of the late-ancient Mediterranean.

The Greco-Roman patristic tradition is a contextual theology of the late-ancient Mediterranean.

In other words, it is simply one, local theology: that of southern Europe/the Levant/North Africa in the 3rd-6th centuries.

A Local Tradition

It’s worth dwelling on how local and narrow this tradition actually is.

At first this may not be immediately apparent. The late Roman patristic synthesis was adopted as the exclusive, and legally enforceable, religion of the Roman state and its medieval successors. As a result, it has had a vast influence both chronologically and geographically. In one form or another, it was the dominant theological synthesis from the 4th to the 12th C throughout the old imperial world and its successor states and missions. This included virtually all of Europe (west and east), North Africa, Turkey, and the Levant; and it also had significant influence outside of the old Greco-Roman sphere, including in Ireland, Ethiopia, the Caucuses and Persia. Even after the scholastic and Reformation “revolutions”, almost all core Christian theology and institutional life continued to bear its easily-recognizable stamp. To this day, this late antique synthesis is the authoritative theology of the Eastern churches, and it remains highly influential in the Roman Catholic church.

We should keep in mind, however, that the spread of this late Roman synthesis was very much the story of the transmission and passive adoption of an increasingly fossilized late antique core. It was not the story of a millennium of dynamic and creative development. In essence (and I don’t think this is a particularly controversial point) virtually all of the major ideas and institutions of the patristic “imperial synthesis” were in place by the 6th C. This included, among other things, the core Trinitarian and Christological doctrines (with their late antique philosophical scaffolding), a modified Hellenistic anthropology, a set of refined pre-modern exegetical methods, a repertoire of key iconographic and architectural forms, a set of core ecclesiological principles and church-legal forms, and a hierarchical-priestly social system. After the 6th C we see local processes of translation and adaptation (so we get, for example, Visigothic or Carolingian or Bulgarian “receptions” of the synthesis), but overwhelmingly, even in the old Roman heartlands of the tradition, the later history of the synthesis is the story of endless re-digestion and re-appropriation—a long meditation on the late Roman inheritance. Developments we do see are mostly attempts to clarify the older tradition, or to find its answers to new problems; they are not attempts to expand or critique it.

The remarkable stability, persistence and pervasiveness of the late antique tradition is due principally to one critical socio-political factor: the political establishment of late Roman orthodoxy. In a pattern that would be replicated in the Roman successor states, Christianity became the official, “established” religion of the Roman empire in the late 4th C. This meant that the state used its power to enforce adherence to one officially recognized version of the patristic synthesis. Adherence to this orthodoxy was treated as a condition of full citizenship. If you demurred, at best you eked out an existence as a second-class citizen subject to numerous civil disabilities; at worst you were subject to outright and brutal persecution. The churches encouraged and conformed to this model by strictly punishing any doctrinal deviance through the application of their own ecclesiastical sanctions (excommunication, ostracism, etc.)

This coercive approach to enforcing orthodoxy meant that throughout almost all of its development, patristic theology—i.e. Roman imperial orthodoxy—was never subject to searching, profound, free critique of a type we would now consider normal for theological discourse. Certainly it brooked no competition. As a result, there was very little potential for the intellectual horizons of the late Roman synthesis to be expanded beyond their original scope. It was simply too dangerous. Instead, this coercive environment encouraged only constant reference and re-reference to the established tradition. If you wanted to do something different, your best bet was to re-arrange the existing furniture, not build a new house. As you can imagine, this meant that new ideas after the 6th C were hard to come by. (Historians spend a lot of effort today squinting to find them!)

This doesn’t mean there was no variety within the patristic tradition. There was always a certain internal latitude: the theological horizons of, say, John Chrysostom were quite different than those of Pseudo-Dionysius; Cassian was different from Augustine; Basil from Pachomius. There were well-known differences of emphasis between Greek and Latin thinkers, and even greater ones if we extend out of the Greco-Roman world proper into the Syrian or other “oriental” traditions. We can also detect differences in the outlooks of rural and urban Christians, monastics and non-monastics, learned and illiterate peoples.

There was also dissent in the patristic period. The ability of pre-modern states to enforce conformance was limited: deviance could find safety when it was hidden by the powerful or along the peripheries, outside the reach of the centre. Further, the late Roman and early medieval worlds were wracked by doctrinal controversies, particularly the Christological disputes. So, doctrinal deviance was not impossible, just very costly.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of modern (or even medieval, and certainly Reformation) theology, the differences among these various positions or visions were minor: they were mostly different postures adopted within the same basic late-Roman intellectual framework. Even the doctrinal controversies (e.g. non-Chalcedonianism vs. Chalcedonianism) ran along familiar, established lines of late Roman Christological thinking. What we don’t see is the questioning of fundamental assumptions, or the entrée of truly novel ideas that might shake the very foundations of the late Roman world-view: new approaches to doctrine, anthropology, metaphysics, scripture, church, social structure. At best, we hear hints of these, along the margins, in radical “heretical” movements—mostly quickly snuffed out. A real challenge to the late Roman synthesis doesn’t emerge until the high medieval western scholastic revolution—and then quite indirectly, deferentially and perhaps unintentionally. Only with the Reformation does serious, structural critique come out into the open.

Despite its geographical and chronological influence, then, throughout most of its development, the patristic tradition never really expanded beyond its late-Roman 3rd-6th C Mediterranean horizons. It remained a kind of fossilized late-antique repository, a precious treasure to be revered and carefully protected and transmitted by the state and church—but not to be critically examined or developed. It thus remained surprisingly local, monolithic, and unchallenged.

Breaking the Spell

It is critically important to regain a sense of perspective on the patristic tradition. Because of this tradition’s historical preeminence, its own internal rhetoric, and the Romantic allure today of anything pre-modern, it remains far too easy to fall under the “patristic spell”. We too easily think that patristic theology is completely exceptional, definitive in method and content, and possessed of the only real metaphysic. We unreflectively think that it was a great historical crucible of doctrine and belief (the “great catholic tradition”) in which alternative visions of Christianity were tested and refined in a long, slow process of purification. We assume that somehow all of the answers are already there, just waiting to be unpacked—precisely how the ancients tended to view their tradition, and wanted their tradition to be read (ah, Rome: you die so hard!).

But once we recognize that it was simply one, local, relatively unchallenged 3rd–6th C Mediterranean theology—albeit a very influential and state-supported one—we suddenly regain the ability to approach this theology in a much more sober way. We can suddenly start openly posing questions such as: Why exactly should this period’s theology be privileged (vs. others)? What are its strengths and weaknesses? What answers does it have? What answers doesn’t it have? What should be preserved? What should be let go? How do we judge the value of this tradition versus others?

In other words, we can start to treat this theology as we would any other theology: say, 19th C Tractarian theology, or 17th C Neo-Scholasticism, or 20th C Process Theology. This is a much healthier, and much more serious, way to approach the patristic tradition.

It is important to note that, even when we regain this perspective, it is still possible to argue that the patristic tradition should retain some type of centrality in the Christian tradition—that it should maintain the privileged position that centuries of political establishment accorded it. But we’re reminded that this is an argument that needs to be made. This should not be thought of as prima facie evident: it’s not. No one should be forced to begin by assuming this is true.

Regaining this perspective also serves as a reminder that the Protestant critique of the earlier tradition, today much disparaged, was probably a lot more reasonable than it first appears. One often hears the sentiment that we should dismiss the Protestant critique simply because of the preposterousness of any attempt to challenge the vast, ancient consensus of the patristic tradition. The argument goes that, simply as a matter of probability, the chance that a few 15th–16th C theologians might be right, and a millennium of tradition wrong, is slim. Isn’t it prima facie ludicrous that the Protestants could dismiss so much tradition, so much wisdom, so much hard-earned experience, to create a credible new theology? (I once held this view; I consider it the single greatest theological mistake of my youth!)  

But once we realize that this “vast” tradition is really just the local theology of the late antique Mediterranean, and that the “ancient consensus” was almost entirely a coerced consensus, this argument begins to look much weaker. Is it really a matter of a few 15th–16th C theologians confronting a vast sea of ancient theologians? Or is it a few 15th–16th C theologians confronting a few late antique theologians?

I think it is the latter. And I also don’t think the Protestants acted in ignorance, as is also often claimed. It is true that the Protestants didn’t always have access to a broad range of patristic sources (particularly the eastern fathers), but, as my friend Maria Simakova constantly reminds me, the patristic tradition didn’t have that many thoughts: you don’t have to read tons of it to understand its core ideas.1

I have argued (and will argue) that Luther, in particular, understood the patristic tradition perfectly well: he had a preternatural, almost uncanny way of putting his finger on precisely the core instincts and dynamics of the older tradition.

What Luther was doing was simply realizing that the older tradition had weaknesses—and so he began to confront it. But the ancient tradition has been so hard-wired against critique (and truthfully knew almost none), that even today we struggle to get our head around the idea that Luther might have truly been challenging this ancient synthesis: it’s still so much easier to believe that he was simply ignoring the ancient tradition, or was ignorant of it. Likewise, we ourselves, over the last century, approach these texts critically only with the greatest difficulty.

It’s time to change this: we need to break the spell and bring the patristic tradition down to earth, understand that it is a theological tradition like any other, and perfectly fallible—and that as surely as it had strengths, it also had weaknesses. It is not beyond serious critical analysis: far from it. In the long run, the preservation and appreciation of this ancient tradition requires an open, honest, and authentic approach to these texts. So let’s get at it.

Next post: A few more (simpler) traps: The Antiquity Trap, The Difference Trap, and the Desperation Trap. Then on the Gregory of Nyssa!

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  1. I’ve several times on this blog tried to summarize its key theological concepts. Here’s a quick list:

    • Christian belief is essentially about gaining true knowledge about God (and Jesus tends to become first and foremost a communicator or mediator of this knowledge); getting correct knowledge is absolutely critical: thus the endless Trinitarian/Christological debates.
    • Scripture is understood as the fundamental revelation of God – a kind of sacred text – and Christianity is consequently understood as a huge exercise in exegesis of this divine text.
    • Salvation is conceived as a gradual transformation and training of the human soul/person, and usually as a kind of cooperative effort between humans and God.
    • The world is the natural and necessary object of Christians’ transformative work – i.e. the world/state/family is to be transformed into a foretaste of the kingdom to come, and the kingdom is, as much as possible, to be realized now; everything is to become sacralised/deified.
    • As a result of the last two points, Christianity is overwhelmingly conceived as an exercise in moral/ethical improvement: it provides the commandments, techniques and energy for a holy “way of life” – for the individual, the family, society, the state, the world.
    • The church, as the instrument and vessel of this divine transformation, legitimately exercises a significant, even coercive, authority, power, and control in the social and cultural realms, and (therefore) maintains a concrete, unified, institutional presence.
    • Reality is perceived as fundamentally hierarchical.
    • Providence, and the image of God as all-powerful, all-mighty, all-knowing, all-everything, is extremely important.
    • There is a huge value placed on harmony, order, and obedience. []
4

Patristics Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers

About the Author
David Wagschal

A major theme in modern theology has been the rediscovery and re-appropriation of late antique and medieval traditions.

This “pre-modern turn” has been multifaceted and cross-denominational. Its immediate roots can be found in a series of Romantic-inspired movements of the 19th C (the Tubingen school, neo-Lutheranism, the Slavophiles, neo-Thomism, the Oxford movement, etc.) which sought to correct a variety of perceived modern errors through the revival and repristinization of pre-modern theologies. Early in the 20th C a sublimated form of it can be felt pulsing through thinkers such as Karl Barth, an early post-liberal, who emphasized the creative retrieval and preservation of earlier orthodoxies against the depredations of the liberals; or, in the Catholic world, in late neo-Thomists such as Étienne Gilson or Karl Rahner, who sought to counter the aridities of neo-scholasticism with a dynamic, new, and historically informed Thomism. Perhaps its most important incarnation was the great Catholic ressourcement and nouvelle théologie movements of the early mid-century, whose proponents (Congar, De Lubac, Daniélou, von Balthasar, et al.) initiated a program of Biblical and liturgical reforms predicated precisely upon a renewed engagement with pre-modern theological sources. These reforms enjoyed an influence far beyond the borders of Catholicism, not least through the production of the primary text series Sources chrétiennes. In the East, Orthodox theology underwent its own 20th C pre-modern revival in the works of thinkers such as Georges Florovsky, Dumitru Stăniloae, John Zizioulas, and the theologians of the “Paris school”. Like the late neo-Thomists, these Orthodox theologians sought to counter the “manual theology” of early-modern Orthodox neo-scholasticism with a new, historically-engaged exploration of the church fathers. Their success has been so marked that today, at least within the Orthodox diaspora, “patristics” has become almost synonymous with “theology”.

Within the last thirty years, however, interest in pre-modern theology has become much more widespread, almost mainstream. A mark of this is the extraordinary attention now being paid to late antique and medieval theologians by Protestant and Evangelical thinkers. This interest sometimes emerges very indirectly. Hauerwas, I have argued, can be read as an astonishingly straight-forward revival of the old imperial orthodoxy (albeit “communally miniaturized”), although Hauerwas himself does not appear to be entirely conscious of this. (Something similar, I suspect, could be observed of most late-20th C post-liberals.) Much more directly, Radical Orthodoxy represents almost a caricature of the pre-modern turn. It attempts to revive not only central elements of the pre-modern Christian tradition, but even its ancient metaphysical underpinnings (!). Less boldly, but more influentially, thinkers like Robert Jenson or Jaroslav Pelikan, among many others, have cultivated a simple openness to pre-Reformation sources that has now rubbed off on several generations of seminarians, sparking widespread interest in pre-modernity.

Nowhere is the pre-modern turn more evident than in Biblical studies. A surge in interest in pre-modern methods of exegesis (allegory, typology, etc.) and patristic “reception” of Biblical texts has produced a growing body of commentaries, monographs and theoretical works dedicated to the insights of pre-modern exegetes.1 This has now made its way into the popular literature: witness, for example, the production of the ambitious Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series—published by an evangelical press (and note the Ancient Christian Doctrine series by the same editor). The phenomenon has even touched the realm of Biblical theology, where the (perhaps) most innovate recent development, the New Perspective on Paul, can reasonably be read as a retrieval of the Old (pre-Reformation) Perspective on Paul, if in a slightly modified form!

Another area where the stamp of the pre-modern can be felt profoundly is liturgy and aesthetics. Open a hymnal in almost any church and you can find the results of pre-modern “liturgical archeology”; and certainly it’s much easier to find Romanesque or Byzantine imagery in a Protestant (or, indeed, Catholic or Orthodox!) church today than it was a hundred years ago.

In sum, an interest in pre-modern theology and theologians has now entered the bloodstream of contemporary Christianity. There is a new-found fascination with all things patristic and medieval.

But There Is a Problem

This movement faces a significant challenge: it almost entirely lacks a critical discourse.

By this I mean that it is surprisingly difficult to find theological assessments of patristic and medieval authors that consider both the strengths and the weaknesses of their arguments; that allow the texts to challenge us and us to challenge the texts; that exercise both sympathy and suspicion.

Instead, much of the modern theological2 study of patristics is pervaded almost entirely by an atmosphere of veneration and wonder—and, above all, promotion. The dominant message of most patristic studies is: “I am unearthing lost ancient wisdom which, although foreign to our ears, holds a vital message, and recovering this legacy is critically important to contemporary theology.” The tone of these works is thus almost always sympathetic and reverent: patristic authors always have something important to tell us, and it behooves us to spend considerable effort to listen and re-appropriate this legacy. This sympathy especially manifests in scholars’ eagerness to promote the difference in style and method that pre-modern works represent compared to contemporary theological discourses: they are different, new, and therefore exciting. (Although conversely it is sometimes the fathers’ affinities with post-modern discourse that excites attention.) As a result, in more popular works, “starry-eyed” is probably not an inaccurate characterization of this movement’s élan.

This tonality in part reflects the Romantic origins of the pre-modern turn, with its quasi-mystical sense of history as a deep, primeval repository of wisdom that is to be revered and venerated. But it is also a function of the fact that pre-modern theological research is still in very early days. Although the study of pre-modern theology has progressed immensely in the last century, scholarship is still effectively in the phase of unearthing and recovering these works: establishing texts, translating, and building basic hermeneutic frameworks for understanding pre-modern content. At this stage of research sympathy is the default, and largely appropriate, historical modus: how else can we justify spending research dollars and time on these texts if we don’t start with the idea that they might be valuable?

The ecclesial context of the rise of patristics must also be taken into account. In virtually every church where a patristic revival is to be observed, the motivation is always to find an authoritative solution to contemporary problems or crises: scholasticisms of early modern Orthodox or Roman Catholic theology, the challenges of liberalism, the perceived failures of historical-critical exegesis, etc. Patristics has thus almost everywhere been born into a polemical context where a highly sympathetic reading has been part of the agenda from the outset: these texts will make refreshing and authoritative contributions to theology.

Towards a More Critical Appreciation

It is important, however, that we begin to take the next step towards a more critical appreciation of the patristic and medieval legacy.

Why?

First, excessive sympathy towards one’s topic does not make for good historical research. It tends to produce one-sided and imbalanced analyses that privilege certain (desired) readings over others. The result is often anachronism and eisegesis (reading-into a text) as texts are lifted out of their original contexts and made to speak more directly to contemporary issues than they are able. In such circumstances it is very easy for them to become little more than ciphers for modern debates and to be used to further specific theological agendas covertly.3

More importantly, good theology demands a much more rigorous critical approach to these texts. The pre-modern turn has everywhere been motivated by a desire to renew and repristinate Christian faith and Christian communities. Today, with Christianity flagging (at least in the global North), this motivation has taken on existential importance: churches are desperately looking for new solutions. But what if the pre-modern turn is a wrong turn? What if it has consequences we haven’t foreseen? What if these texts might hurt us as much as help? It is clear that we want these texts to be saying things that are good, holy, productive, true. But are they? How do we even know? At this juncture in Christian history, going down a wrong path could be catastrophic.

As someone writing in the Lutheran tradition, I am (of course) especially sensitive to the theological problems posed by pre-modernity. Christianity has seen a sustained, and at times even brutal, critique of the pre-modern tradition before: the Reformation.4 But it’s amazing how this earlier critique has almost vanished from contemporary discourse. Today, Lutheran and Reformed theologians with ecumenical sensibilities largely downplay their traditions’ earlier critiques of the patristic and medieval traditions, and instead try to read their history less in terms of rupture and more in terms of continuity with the pre-Reformation past (this is, in fact, the primary manifestation of the pre-modern turn in most “mainline” Protestant churches). This has left us in a problematic situation: the traditions which are most likely to produce a critique of the pre-modern tradition appear to be on as much of a “honeymoon” with these texts as everyone else. Christianity’s traditional watch-dogs of the pre-modern—love them or hate them—are not on duty. This means that everyone’s guard is a bit down. Who is really putting these texts through their paces?

In the next while, I want to try my hand at a more critical, and I hope balanced, reading of some of the classics of the Greek patristics tradition, particularly from the 4th-6th centuries. I choose the Greek fathers simply because my theological education focused on the Greek tradition, and my professional specialization is in the Greek East (also I can read Greek comfortably, while my Latin is very slow, and my Syriac/Coptic/Ethiopic/Armenian non-existent!).

My plan is simply to provide a kind of section-by-section commentary on a series of important texts, offering observations and questions. My goal is to work primarily with whole texts, as this is too often neglected.

First up will be Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration. Other authors will likely include Athanasius, Gregory of Nazianzus, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Pseudo-Dionysius; probably Origen too. We may eventually stray into the 7th C (Maximus the Confessor) and the 8th (John of Damascus). We’ll see!

But first, NEXT POST: Patristic Prolegomena: Four Pitfalls of Reading Ancient Texts They Probably Didn’t Teach You in Seminary!

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  1. A fairly recent review can be found in William Lamb, The Catena in Marcum Leiden 2012:3-25. []
  2. This is an important distinction to make, as there is now a large “secular” study of patristic authors which is, in fact, much more critical in tone—but its concern is mostly social-historical and literary. []
  3. This has happened quite frequently in modern patristic revivals: Catholic and Orthodox theologians have been tempted to “smuggle” Protestant and secular-philosophical insights into their tradition through “the fathers”, and Protestants vice versa! []
  4. You could argue that the medieval scholastic “re-boot” of the late antique tradition also represent a profound, if indirect critique…but that’s a complex issue we’ll save for another time! []