Patristics Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers

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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 perhaps the most innovative recent development, the New Perspective on Paul, could even be read as a retrieval of the Old, pre-Reformation Perspective on Paul, if probably unconsciously, and in a 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”, even propogandistic, 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.


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! []

Comments 4

  1. Sounds great! I had my own infatuation with pre-modern theology but lost interest after a while. I have never directly thought about why that happened. So, I look forward to your analysis to shed some light on that experience.

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Thanks for your note! I look forward to hearing your reflections as the series progresses.

  2. As someone who doesn’t have your background, this “turn” was something barely discernible for me until it hadn’t been pointed out. Effectively, I’ve been swimming in these waters my whole church life. The first time I really became aware of it was when I read Luther’s introduction to the German Mass — where he outlines his approach to liturgy — and was baffled by how it differed from what I was taught in seminary and through recent Lutheran writing on liturgy. Only after some research did I figure out the disconnect: the current party line in liturgy was shaped by the Liturgical Movement of the 60s & 70s onward, which mostly involved repristinating patristic and Orthodox texts and rituals in a Protestant or Vatican 2 Catholic context. What is that party line, you may ask? Basically: liturgy as transformative ritual / sacraments as participation in the divine life. Just watch how people talk about the sacrament of the altar in Lutheran textbooks now vs. ANY time from 1520 to 1950. In the mid 20th-century, we rediscovered the “Eucharist” as participation in the divine life versus the (admittedly often stodgy) classical Lutheran understanding of the “Lord’s Supper” as a one-directional gift God gives to us. Or look at the fascination with the “catechumenate” via Hippolytus. It sometimes turns our theology of baptism on its head: instead of God claiming the sinner, it’s now an extended process of formation. And so on. I rarely mention these things to anyone because I just sound like a curmudgeon, and I want to guard against my less than charitable tone and motivation. But it does irk me quite a bit how uncritically it seems several generations of Lutheran liturgists have swallowed a highly problematic legacy hook, line, and sinker.

    1. David Wagschal Post

      Thanks for this, Robin. You’re absolutely right, and these examples are tremendously useful. The Liturgical Movement is really among the best examples of the influence of this “turn” — and of the lack of sustained critical engagement among contemporary theologians (and I know what you mean about it being considered a bit gauche to point this out). I particularly like your point about the rise of the catechumenate paradigm; that is something I need to return to. (I think I may add Cyril of Jerusalem to the list…)

      Reflecting on your points, what is interesting to me is the starkness of the contrast between how obviously at odds with Lutheran theology so many of these developments have been, and yet how silent Lutheran theologians have been. From a purely historical perspective, this is very curious: why? I sometimes think that one of the most underappreciated aspects of 20th C theology has been the effective disappearance of a classically Lutheran perspective from mainstream theology. I suppose WWII had a lot to do with this…

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