Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Three

About the Author
David Wagschal
Saint Jerome in his Study Artist: Antonello da Messina. Wikimedia.

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

In my last few posts (part one, part two) I have been outlining five interpretative pitfalls that can derail even the best-intentioned attempts at reading patristic theology. Without an awareness of these five “traps”, it is extremely difficult to attain to the level of critical analysis that the “pre-modern turn” in modern theology so desperately needs.

These traps are:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

In this post we’ll conclude the series with the last two: the Academic Sympathy Trap and the Desperation Trap.

4) The Academic Sympathy Trap

You may not be aware of this trap if you haven’t spent much time in the academy. Even within the academy we don’t discuss this phenomenon as much as we should.

Its essence is simple: academics, particularly historians, tend to develop a very strong attachment to their subject. We almost always reflexively become advocates or promoters for our research: we will show how important, dynamic, misunderstood, or underappreciated our topic/thinker/idea/period is.

This develops naturally. To become an academic, you need to spend years—probably at least six to eight—doing nothing but becoming a world expert in one very small area of study. This is a grueling, socially isolating exercise, requiring enormous hours and effort and with little material reward. It takes place in an environment of intense competition and often unforgiving scrutiny, and where years of work can potentially end in disaster (if you are wrong, if you fail your defence, if someone publishes before you do, etc.).

Psychologically, to survive, you almost have to believe that what you are studying is incredibly significant, rich, and special. There is no possibility that your topic is banal or of little worth. And if your topic hasn’t generally been treated as worthy of special attention—well, all the better: you double-down on your enthusiasm as you fearlessly revise the accepted narrative, and champion the true and neglected value of your subject.

In most cases, unless you’re studying something truly horrific (the history of torture, the Nazis, etc.), you develop a genuine sympathy for your subjects, and you even begin to identify with them to some extent. In effect, you spend years trying to get into your subjects’ “heads”, and they slowly get into yours too. Certainly you start to feel that it is your duty to get people to understand their contributions in the best light.

These tendencies are reinforced when you enter the academic job market, or try to advance in your career. Your livelihood depends on continually convincing others that your research is deeply significant: your area, your subject is Important, Unique and Special. You become a bit of a cheerleader.

The result of all of this is that, on some level, almost all academic writing is “promotional” in tone. This can be quite subtle, and often is more a matter of omission than commission. Its most typical form is when a historical subject is presented in an energetic and enthusiastic way without any kind of further contextualization. For example, a book might present the intricacies and development of Stoic philosophy as a fascinating study in human thought—but neglect to consider Stoicism’s (well-known) role in bolstering the oppressive and brutal social structures of antiquity. Or a study might wax lyrical on the compositional strategies of a neglected author as evidence for dynamic and creative thinking—without, however, noting that such strategies are easily identifiable in virtually any other text, ancient or modern. An even subtler version occurs when an ethically problematic topic—for instance, slavery, or the brutal power politics of pre-modern institutions—is treated so even-handedly and clinically that the topic almost becomes normalized. Such works almost cry out for some kind of ethical contextualization, for some sort of acknowledgement: “Oh and yes, all of this was horrible!”

Such contextualizations are avoided, however, because they are seen as implying “value judgments” on the historical material—and this is a big professional no-no. Historians are taught that they are not to judge their material, compare it to other developments/eras, or otherwise assess its substance; that is, they are not to ask whether the material is ultimately truthful, valuable, intelligent, or useful. Instead, they are to maintain a professional distance, simply exploring and presenting the historical material “on its own terms”, and by its own standards, as much as possible.

This professional distance is important: it is a way of avoiding modern triumphalism and anachronism. After all, it is hard to produce insightful historical work if you immediately dismiss your subject because of its substantive shortcomings. You can’t, for example, provide a very insightful description of ancient science if all you do is catalogue every mistake it made; or you won’t get far in describing Roman imperial ideology if you just complain that it is undemocratic. No: good historians have to suspend their own world a bit in order to enter into their subjects’ universe.

But by not adding “value critique” one still implicitly judges the material, only positively. By not considering the “dark” side of Stoicism, one leaves the impression that it has a purely positive value today: it’s only fascinating—not fascinating and appalling. By highlighting only the interesting rhetorical and compositional strategies of ancient historians—and ignoring the factual deficiencies and “creativities” that would render them unpublishable today—one subtly leaves the impression that these ancient works might be almost more valuable and dynamic than modern histories. By not subjecting ancient patristic writers to the criticisms of modern metaphysics, theology, and ethics, but only enthusiastically exploring their own thought-world on its own terms, you leave the impression that these theologians are somehow uniquely and exceptionally valuable—almost beyond critique, in a class of their own.

Professional historians know to filter out this “historian’s bias”. Most classicists, for example, fully realize how horrific the classical world was. But they don’t expect every historical work to spell out the dark side of the ancient world—because we all know it. If they write a work on the glories of Roman architecture, they don’t necessarily spend enormous amounts of time detailing the horrific structures of oppression and poverty that made this architecture possible. If they write a work on ancient science, they don’t spend pages and pages detailing its utter absurdities from the perspective of modern science. In each case the reader is supposed to understand that the enthusiasm and energy around a topic is not meant to be taken as ethical approval or substantive promotion—it’s meant to champion the historical study of the material. Historians are saying: “these works are terribly important, historically”. They are not saying: “these works are terribly important, period.”

But when research starts to be digested more broadly, it’s very easy to start to think that historians are saying the latter.  And here is where the problems begin. This is particularly true when people look to historical figures/works as authorities—precisely as happens in theology. Then this “historian’s bias” can become very misleading.

Let me give an example from my own work. I studied a topic—Byzantine church law—which has been treated very dismissively by the literature. Like a good academic, I produced a book that enthusiastically demonstrated that this ancient law is actually a lot more interesting, complex, and coherent than has generally been recognized. I tried to show that, if we are just a bit more sensitive to how the Byzantines understood and defined law—and not simply dismiss it, since it doesn’t conform to modern expectations—we can suddenly gain considerable insight into how this important part of their world worked.

Now, as an academic, all I intended was to promote a greater understanding of Byzantine church law as a historical phenomenon and to reinstate it as a must-know topic in a historical discipline overwhelmingly dominated by western-centric narratives. Well and good.

But I’ve discovered that many people who read my book take it as a kind of manifesto of support or approval for this ancient form of law—as if I’m trying to promote it! They take it as an ethical vindication of this ancient system!

Nothing could be further from my intention. Although certainly there are aspects of this ancient world that serve as useful counterpoints or challenges to our modern conception of law, broadly speaking I would never promote this system: it’s effectively totalitarian (i.e. requires absolute and coerced adherence to a certain worldview); it has little sense of procedural consistency or fairness by modern standards; it presumes an (oppressive) aristocratic social and cultural structure; it’s sexist; it presumes slavery; etc. You would never want to be subject to this system, and you’d never want a friend to be either. Yes, it is a fascinating subject of historical study; but clearly its place is exclusively in the past. We’d no more want to resurrect this system than we would the Roman government or Roman economy.

To me, this should be obvious. But enough people have taken my book as a kind of substantive promotion of Byzantine law that I have come to realize that we historians really do write in a bit of a code, which can be misread. Our enthusiasm for our work, and our tendency to promote our subject, can easily be taken the wrong way. And, if people start to think that, for example, we are actually promoting pre-modern worldviews—well, this can become downright dangerous.

So: be warned! Always take academic enthusiasm with a grain of salt. You always need to re-add the ethical value judgment! A history book is not going to provide critique. You need to provide it.

5) The Desperation Trap

This is a trap that is specific to contemporary Christian theology.

Critical analysis of the patristic tradition requires a critical awareness of our own context as readers of these ancient texts. The more honestly we can assess our contexts and needs, the better.

Unfortunately, Christian theology’s current context is not a comfortable one. Over the last few centuries Christianity’s intellectual, political and social power has crumbled, especially in the developed world. I don’t need to belabor this point: everyone knows the story of declining membership, political and social marginalization, etc.

As a result, fear, sorrow and desperation (often disguised as anger or dismissive triumphalism) have become leitmotifs of Christian thought. This is understandable. It’s not a bad thing to be a religious minority. But it’s very difficult to become a religious minority when you were once the dominant religious-cultural force in society and were invested with considerable material resources and power. Christianity’s massive “fall” in the last hundred years or so means that Christians feel like they are under siege, and that they are losing their whole world. Everywhere in the church there is tremendous grief as we see the old world pass. And many are fighting to retain as much of this old world as they can, or maybe even re-establish it.

But this is where we need to be very cautious and self-aware when we start to turn to the patristic tradition. The key is to realize that the patristic world of the 4-6th C represents an almost exact inverse of our current situation. Late antiquity was when membership in the church was sky-rocketing; when the church was becoming established, wealthy, and powerful; when theologians were becoming major figures of social and political importance; when the dignity and honour of the church were written into law, and Christianity became the privileged religion of the state; and when Christianity was starting to become the major locus of cultural, intellectual and aesthetic excellence. Perhaps most importantly, this was when Christianity had a long, glorious, powerful future ahead of it, when its horizons were really opening.

Is it any wonder that many who want to re-establish “Christendom” are so interested in this period? Late antiquity was the period when precisely everything that is unraveling today was being built.

But this is exactly why we need to be exceptionally cautious in our assessment and appropriation of this period. Precisely because it represents such a perfect inverse of our current weakened state, and because we are so desperate for what it seems to offer, we can easily lose our heads: dazzled by the seductive allure of this ancient world, we might leap blindly—lemmings over a cliff! Our great need to restore our sense of dignity might make us ignore or downplay problems and weaknesses of the old synthesis. Desperation does not make for good decision-making.

So precisely because this ancient world represents such an exact inverse to our current weakness, we need to be extra-critical and extra-dispassionate when we approach these ancient sources. We need to proceed very cautiously and very methodically. Perhaps we should, in the end, retrieve some of this ancient world; but, if so, we need to be damn sure of exactly what it is we are getting ourselves into!

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So: that’s it! That’s my five pitfalls of reading pre-modern texts that they probably didn’t teach you about in seminary. I’ll continue to refer to them as we plow through some actual patristic texts.

With these under our belt, let’s start our patristic journey next post with our first text: Gregory of Nyssa’s Catechetical Oration.

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Preparing to Read the Fathers (Critically): Part Two

About the Author
David Wagschal
Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale

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

This post is a continuation of the previous, where I suggested that, 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 evident.

In my experience, I’ve discovered that we need to become aware of five classic interpretative pitfalls:

  1. The “Great Tradition” Trap
  2. The Antiquity Trap
  3. The Difference Trap
  4. The Academic Sympathy Trap
  5. The Desperation Trap

(Yes, I’ve added the fourth since last time!)

Last post I discussed the most important of the traps, #1 The “Great Tradition” Trap. Now: Trap #2 and Trap #3.

2) The Antiquity Trap

Humans have a fascination with old stuff. When we visit historical sites, we often want to see the oldest buildings or the oldest sections of an archeological excavation—and if possible we often want to touch them, to feel them. Likewise when we visit a cemetery, we are often interested in identifying the oldest tombstones. When we tour a city, we always want to tour the “old town”. In our homes, we often treasure our oldest book, or our oldest photographs. In our families, we are fascinated by seeing how far back we can trace our lineages.

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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.

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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”.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Final post and Epilogue]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition
For part four, see Why the Permeative Tradition is Failing
For part five, see The End of the Road for the “Divine Church”

Letting Go of Coercion and Control

What about Christian behaviour in Reformation 2.0? Here I believe we will see a huge change: the repudiation of Christianity’s deep investment in practices of control and coercion. This shift will be another collateral effect of the final rejection of permeative theology.

The old theology understood salvation as above all an exercise in ethical transformation and development. On both the individual and societal level, the divine kingdom was to “break in” and begin now, in this world. Permeative theology therefore thought of the Gospel, the word of God to humanity, as fundamentally a blueprint for right living – i.e., as a law. This gave Christianity license to prescribe, often in very great detail, the correct moral, social and political way of life for its members, and indeed, for the whole world.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Five: The Church]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition
For part four, see Why the Permeative Tradition is Failing

The End of the Road for the “Divine Church”

It is a deep and bitter irony that “the Church” has probably become one of Christianity’s greatest liabilities. By “the Church” I mean the idea of the Christian church as a divine institution which mediates and communicates salvation to believers and the whole world. This is “the Church” as a concrete human – yet divine – organization that is necessary for our salvation.

This concept of church is a collateral notion of permeative theology: it is permeative theology’s social expression. Today, it is normally justified with some type of “incarnational” theology, although traditionally its theological articulation has been more diffuse, broadly based in a Neo-platonic vision of a sacred polity that is a step up the “divinity ladder” from other social structures and that communicates higher spiritual realities to lower, more earthly realms.

There are several problems with this idea.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Four: Theology Concluded]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition

Why is the Permeative Tradition Failing?

Right, so, why will Reformation 2.0 roll back the permeative tradition?

A survey of 20th century theology would suggest that most theologians are inclined to do exactly the opposite. The last century has, if anything, witnessed a widespread revival and retrieval of the permeative tradition, even within Lutheranism, the traditional home of the disjunctive tradition.1 Within some circles, particularly the Protestant post-liberal movement and among the theologians of “Radical Orthodoxy”, the permeative tradition has re-emerged with such zeal that its expression occasionally borders on caricature. If anything, contemporary theology’s leading instincts are almost the precise inverse of the four points of Reformation I’m suggesting in this series.

But we should be very skeptical of this revival. I believe we’re witnessing a phenomenon common to the end of many social and cultural movements: just before the final demise of a cultural structure, a last, usually exaggerated, attempt to re-enact and retrieve its traditional forms emerges. Julian the Apostate’s highly artificial 4th C revival of paganism comes to mind as a good example. When it was finally clear – in the late 4th C – that paganism was in true collapse, that is when we saw an exquisite and elaborate neo-pagan traditionalism articulated. I believe this is exactly what is happening with much of theology of the past century. It seems to be a general phenomenon that, when the carpet is being finally pulled from under our feet, humans instinctively leap backwards (at first). But this movement always signals the end: a last attempt to hold the old structure together before it finally succumbs – and something new emerges.

But why is the permeative tradition poised to “succumb”?

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  1. The so-called Finnish school is only the most obvious example. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics points in the same direction in a subtler, but profounder way. []

The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Three – Theology]

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture

Part Three: Into the Heart of the Storm

The next major change I envision pertains to our core Christian theology: we will roll back the “permeative” theological tradition – i.e. the theology of deification, sanctification, or incarnation.

This is a huge change, and needs considerable explanation. But this will be at the revolutionary heart of Reformation 2.0, so bear with me.

What is the Permeative Tradition?

The permeative theological tradition is so pervasive that even professional theologians often do not realize that it is “a” position, or that there might be an alternative.

Permeative theologies think of God’s actions in the world as quasi-physical energies or forces that spread and “permeate” throughout the cosmos and human nature. Salvation is understood as a gradual process in which one is progressively infused with these divine energies/grace. In this view, the whole point of God’s actions is to slowly assimilate the world to God through the gradual working of God’s energies to transform the world into the divine. Generally the cosmos is conceived as a hierarchical spectrum of being, in which creation is meant to progress ever further towards the higher, more spiritual realms where the world finds it truest reality/being. The ethical life of humanity is also understood as on a spectrum, where sin has a quantitative character which can be gradually – and quite truly – purged and cured. The idea of a graded, gradual ascent is critical: one is always struggling to move up through higher levels of knowledge and ethical realization to realize one’s (true) divine life.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Two – Scripture]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For Part One, see “A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now”

Into the Storm

So I think it’s about time that I throw down the gauntlet and start to outline what I think the next reformation is going to look like. What is going to change, and what isn’t?

My prediction is that Reformation 2.0 will be both radical and not-so-radical.

The Gentle Showers

Let’s start with the not-so-radical bit.

This time around, I’m pretty sure our “externalities” are not going to be a big issue. When we think about reform, our minds go back to the 16th century and we tend to worry about major changes to our everyday experience of Christianity – to rituals, aesthetics, structures. We are usually deeply intimidated by this, because our identities are bound up with these practices and structures.1

But Reformation 2.0 will, I suspect, be happy to leave the majority of current Christian practice intact. In fact, a hallmark of Reformation 2.0 will almost certainly be its tolerance of a huge variety of forms for Christian existence. Holiness folks? You will be able to keep your passion and praise. Orthodox? Your liturgical beauty and ethnic traditions won’t need to be diminished. Christian Reformed? You won’t lose your simplicity and austerity. Lutherans? You can keep your singing and informality. Traditional Roman Catholics: keep your Tridentine mass, if you want. High Anglicans: go wild – use as many “thees” and “thous” as you please! And if you aren’t into any of this – perhaps you prefer a house church, or other informal spiritual group – actually, that’s fine too.

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  1. Why our identities have gotten so deeply enmeshed is these practices and structures is something we need to question – but that’s another post. []
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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part One]

About the Author
David Wagschal

There’s hardly a week that goes by where I’m not somehow reminded of the pressing need for Reformation 2.0 in the Christian church. A bitter sermon; a conversation with a frustrated Christian friend; a depressing news story about this or that church; the silly or embarrassing behaviour of a church leader. I can’t seem to escape it. Everywhere I look I see evidence that the old synthesis is fraying: pastors seem to be regularly and systemically burnt out; theologians are angry, cynical and uncertain; the laity is tired and perplexed; churches stand empty. Sadness, anger and frustration linger everywhere. Distortion and exaggeration seem to be on the rise. Most of all: people seem oddly disconnected from church, even when they don’t want to be. It’s like no one exactly fits the old mold anymore. We’re all standing “outside” of the system now, in different ways. It’s weird.

The atmosphere is so strange. I feel like I can almost smell the storm coming. It’s not all negative: there is a kind of new, almost wild hope in the air too. But something is going to give; and soon.

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