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: The Antiquity Trap, The Difference Trap.

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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. []

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