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.

Historians share this fascination in spades. It’s probably why most of us became historians. We have an almost mystical sense of connection with the past. When we walk through historical sites, or even museums, I think most of us are powerfully drawn to the physical remains of antiquity. We feel a kind of “resonance”—I know I do!

I’ve probably felt this most strongly when encountering manuscripts. There is something about seeing and touching centuries-old hand-written texts that absolutely captivates: one is somehow connecting physically with the generations and generations of people who read, touched, and experienced these very texts. One is overwhelmed by a sense of richness—that one is encountering a great and precious treasure: the “wisdom of the ancestors”.

A milder version of it can be experienced when you take the first step in reading an ancient text in the original language. Seminary students, I think, experience this when they first start to learn Biblical Greek: there is something powerful about directly connecting with the language and thought of very ancient authors.

It is interesting to speculate on why humans exhibit this fascination with the past. No doubt it has something to do with how we construct our identities. But I suspect our fascination with the past evolved as a way to safeguard the transmission of essential knowledge in pre-literate societies. In these societies, you need to constantly hold on to the traditions of the elders: where to hunt, how to make nets, where to strike camp, which plants are safe to eat, etc. Without books or other means of writing, losing this knowledge is actually very easy, and very dangerous. So strongly valorizing the past is a kind of survival mechanism. Our instincts constantly tell us: hold on to the ancient traditions, because if you don’t, you might die.

Whatever the case, today, in an academic context, these instincts can become a serious liability. They translate into a systematic prejudice towards favouring the old over the more recent. This means that when we crack open ancient texts, our minds tend to scream: “Wow! This is old! Therefore it is more important! It needs to be taken more seriously! It needs to be read more sympathetically! It has more to say! It is wiser! We need to give it a greater benefit of the doubt! We need to listen more attentively! We need to spend more time sorting out what it might be saying!”

Of course, none of this is true. There is no reason that the ideas or texts of someone writing five hundred years ago should, by virtue of their age alone, be taken more seriously than those of someone writing five years ago. One could even argue the opposite: more recent texts better take into account changed circumstances and new arguments, and are closer to the existential situation of the present.

But rationally the ideal is surely to give both ancient voices and modern voices equal benefit of the doubt: allowing each to contribute ideas that can be judged on their own merits, by the same standards, without bias either for or against simply on the basis of age. This is, in fact, a methodological necessity for any type of serious and rigorous historical theology.

However, unless you very consciously ward yourself against the “Antiquity Trap”, this type of balanced critical stance is difficult to adopt. Time and again I have encountered historians who are willing to go through all sorts of contortions to wrangle profound meaning, wisdom, or complexity from ancient texts—contortions they would never bother going through with more modern works. Or, more commonly, historians simply don’t subject ancient texts to the same standards of criticism as they would modern texts.

Mostly this is harmless, but it can take a dangerous turn in theology when ancient texts endued with quite horrific ethical stances—pro-slavery, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, etc. (among the chief reasons not to take ancient texts too seriously)—are suddenly taken as profoundly important, normative and worthy of veneration simply because of their age. Now: such texts should perhaps not be dismissed from theological conversations because of the ethical failings of their age (although that argument can be made); but certainly they should be accorded no special preeminence either.

So: the Antiquity Trap—watch out for it! Older is not necessarily better.

3) The Difference Trap

This trap is related to the previous. Ancient texts are often alluring precisely because of their difference from modern texts. Their style, their emphases, their imagery, their manner of argument and composition—all can be refreshingly evocative for modern ears unaccustomed to the rhythms and patterns of ancient composition. Ancient texts often read as exotic, exciting, new.

In the case of Greco-Roman texts, these differences have their root in an educational setting which placed a huge emphasis on imitation, a formalized system of composition (rhetoric), and, by late antiquity at least, a comparatively rigid set of canonical models. This educational environment created a literary world that was, in comparison with ours, unusually stately and ornate. Literary production was largely the work of an aristocratic elite, and it sounded that way: stylized, formalized, sophisticated, and tending towards the baroque. While today we might value directness and clarity, ancient authors (to speak very broadly) delighted in allusiveness and suggestion; instead of the straightforward and concise, they valued the complex and elaborate; instead of the naturalistic and vibrant, they preferred the stylized, formulaic, and hieratic. If modern writing tends toward the functional and utilitarian, ancient writing tended towards the decorative and artistic.

As a result, the ancient patristic tradition, both textually and visually, possesses a very different aesthetic than we are accustomed to—and not just a different aesthetic of style, but a different “aesthetic of thought”. The thought-world of antiquity was more mythical, more literary, more narratival than our own—it was, to use a tired phrase, a little more “enchanted”. An excellent example are the quite fantastic forms of exegesis that can be found in ancient interpretations of the ancient poets (notably Homer). Here every small detail can be read as having many layers of (entirely improbable) meaning. Likewise ancient biographies of kings/philosophers/heros/etc. are filled with the miraculous and astounding, with the material constantly massaged to fit the subjects into established literary “types” (vs. more naturalistic presentations focusing on the individuality or particularities of the subjects). Similarly, ancient philosophy tends to be transacted more in highly literary genres—dialogues or oratorical declamations—than technical logical treatises. Even ancient histories, although identifiably the forerunners of our own “objective style” of historiography, tend towards much greater use of stylized anecdote, decoration and downright invention that we would today find tasteful or professional. Everywhere there is a huge emphasis on moral pedagogy (everything is meant to teach us a moral lesson). And everywhere literary and intellectual production is much more prone to the re-use and re-employment of establish bits of tradition than the creation of something new: one observes an intellectual preference for tradition-bricolage vs. creative synthesis.

All of which, admittedly, makes for quite fun and interesting reading.

But fascination with such “difference” comes at a price. In particular, it is extremely easy to slip from fascination with the exoticness of something to an unjustified or uncritical preference or acceptance of that thing. “Wow: I’ve never seen this before: it must have something to say. It must be better than the regular stuff I’m used to! It is refreshing, therefore it must be superior.” This is particularly true if we’re feeling alienated or dissatisfied with our quotidian reality (e.g. modern theology). It provides a kind of escape—at worst, a fantasy.

But here the critical reader needs to keep their head firmly fixed on their shoulders. Yes, ancient exegesis might be refreshingly different—but is it better than modern? Why exactly? What precisely are its strengths, and what precisely are its weaknesses? Yes, ancient histories make for rather wild reading, by modern standards: but do we actually prefer them to modern? Why? Why not exactly? The allusive and compilative nature of ancient composition is intriguing; but is this really preferable to modern systematic argumentation?

These are the type of questions that need to be asked. But it is difficult. It’s easy to lapse into a kind of Romantic dream-world where every “different” text, no matter how ridiculous or banal, becomes invested with Rich and Deep Meaning. One has to maintain a strong sense of basic honesty in reading these texts: sometimes they are genuinely interesting and challenging, and have something important to contribute; but sometimes they are just boring, silly, or even a little dumb—as is the case with texts from any period!

Keeping the contexts of these ancient texts in mind also serves to inoculate us from some of the worst excesses of rose-tinted reading. It’s easy to think of the world that produced these ancient texts as a quainter version of a 21st century liberal-democratic society: modernity, but with more marble. But the ancient Greco-Roman world was nothing of the sort. This was a world of ghastly slave states, endemic and constant violence, routine and institutionalized brutality and rapacity, grinding poverty, arbitrary and corrupt government, enormous inequality—it was a horrific world. I think even one week in the Roman world would have traumatized most of us for life—and I don’t say that that any sense of exaggeration. Ancient agrarian societies were, by modern standards, moral abysses. And their literary monuments were overwhelmingly the production of the small and extremely oppressive elite that ran and exploited these societies. This doesn’t meant that we shouldn’t engage with texts from these ages—or that they don’t have something important to say to us. It just means that we need to approach them with a full sense of just how “different” these worlds were!

Next: 4) The Academic Sympathy Trap, 5) The Desperation Trap. Then: Gregory of Nyssa!

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