Monday, June 26, 2006

Why Patristics?

I wanted to pick up a comment I made in the previous blog entry in which I mention that Mike Aquillina's Way of the Fathers encourages me to make similar experiments in what has been called patristiblogging. Perhaps it may be all the Latin and Classical Civilization exams I've been marking, perhaps this is tapping into a long-term plan, I thought I might start off my experiments with a few comments about why anybody would want to do anything so odd as reading the Fathers in this day and age.

If you sense a little defensiveness in the my tone, I suspect it is because we are living at a time when the Fathers are distinctly out of vogue. That shouldn't be entirely surprising at a time when the Bible itself is facing unprecedented (well, at least, since the early patristic era) challenges to its authority, not only in an increasingly secular society, but even among Christians. Aren't we, the critics say, talking about those old, white males who have oppressed everyone so long? Why, then, bother?

Why, indeed. Perhaps it's just my own interest in the arcane and underappreciated. Perhaps it is my mis-spent youth as a graduate student in Classics which give me an affection to the Fathers and the ability to read them in the original (even if I get few chances to do it). Perhaps it is because, as my wife likes to say to new acquaintances, I'm one of the few people who can say that they converted (at least, partially) because of reading Augustine (that is a slight exaggeration, but I was taking a beginners, intensive Augustine course when I became a Christian). I'm sure all of these personal reasons have a place in figuring out why I'm interested in patristics, but, somehow, I'm not sure they're enough to convince others why it is important to read the writings of these ancient Christians.

So, what then? How do I justify reading patristics? Well, it depends on who I'm talking to, but I usually make three points.

First, the Fathers are, usually, fairly good theologians in their own right. I think we as moderns forget this because we are put off by expressions of Christianity which are very different from their own. The Fathers carry with them rather different cultural baggage and deal with very different issues than we do today, so it is easy to dismiss them as primitive and underdeveloped in comparison to our own more enlightened understanding of faith and theology. Yet, the Fathers had to work out how to view the canon, how to understand the Trinity and other similar foundational issues. I submit that that needed at least as much, if not more, theological acumen than many theologians today have. As a result, despite their almost foreign sounding expressions, the Fathers really do bear listening to, if only because they were not theological slouches.

Second, the Fathers are a link to the apostolic teaching which we all claim to honour as Christians. In fact, they are rather closer to the apostles, who were, after all, the eye-witnesses of our Lord's life and death than we are. One of the passages in Irenaeius of Lyons which I enjoy is when he comments that he had met a very old Polycarp of Smyrna, who had met and been taught directly by the apostles and, especially, John. The idea that we have writers who are only one or two removes from the eye-witnesses to our Lord's life, makes me sit up and take notice. Perhaps they know something we don't know about our faith. All too often we moderns (and, even more so, post-moderns) are engaged in a deliberate project to forget our Christian past. I think that is deeply wrong-headed because we miss so much when we forget that our theology has not emerged sui generis.

Third, since the Fathers are so foundational in the formation of our theology, we really do need to read them in order to figure out why they came to the conclusions they did. It isn't that the Fathers are infallible, but we owe it ourselves to read them first hand to figure that out. All to many people leave it to others to tell them what the Fathers say and there is a lot of misinformation out there (witness, The Da Vinci Code). If we really expect to do decent theology, we need to understand what they said and why.

Would this convince everyone? Probably not. My hope is that someone out there will take pause and wonder if they shouldn't learn more about the Fathers. I think that part of the anemia which has afflicted orthodoxy in its various forms (this is a rather broad concept of orthodoxy, I concede) is because even orthodox Christians aren't familiar enough with their tradition to make it make sense to their fellow Christians in the pew. If I can contribute even a little to making the Fathers make more sense, I will be content.



Banshee said...

I like reading the Fathers because they're so contemporary. They lived in a modern world, in the middle of a society that was the most advanced of its day (except maybe China). Obviously there are cultural differences, but I think that's trumped by the modernity and the diversity of ideas and cultures that they had to deal with

Mike said...

The term "patristiblogging" is the brainchild of Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, whose site is quite entertaining:

Theocoid said...

Now you've done it—added another blog to my daily regimen.

Phil S. said...

Hi banshee, mike and theocoid;

Welcome to hyuperekperisou and thanks for the comments. Just a couple points to note.

First, banshee. This was one of the reasons that were in my head, but didn't reach my fingers. I think I hesitate a little on the term modernity, but the Fathers do manage to speak in an immediate way to many of the difficulties that we find ourselves in today. I think this is especially true of the earlier Fathers, who were dealing with a intellectual/religious world which was as diverse and then some as our own. So, they really do share some of our problems with religious pluralism etc.

mike; That's right. I'd heard that Father Z was where the patristiblogging term come from. I haven't quite had the chance to look him up (marking exams and last-minute school activities have been keeping me very busy), but he's on my list.

Thanks, I think, about adding me to your daily regimen. I do check my blog several times a day, although I usually post new posts weekly. Still, with the summer coming, I may be writing a bit more.


Jim said...

Post-modernism is like so last week. ;-)

I really do think it has more than run its course. I do find, however, that the word may not be out in the general thought.

One of the things I do, in my attempts to commend the faith to the world, is conversations with variouis young folks both internet chat and in person. The Enlightenment may well be an obsolete way of thinking to some, but it is alive and ill in at least some parts of the universe! I actually encounter those who believe in the idea of objective reporting unsullied by viewpoint. The of course, note that this idea is not present in the synoptics. ;;sigh;;

I shall at least read what you have to say about the fathers. My own reading of them is limited to English. None of them seem to have written in something I can actually read.


Phil S. said...


I take your point on modernity vs post-modernity. There is a school of thought which has argued that post-modernity has never really been the decadent expression of a bored academic intelligensia. I'm tempted by that view many days because Enlightenment ideas aren't anywhere near dead and they do seem to stand alongside post-modernity. Certainly, with my own students, I've seen a curious blend of both.

A quick anecodote to demonstrate what I mean. For the umpteenth time in the course, he asked how we knew if a source we were working on just made up the history. Now, that could be a post-modern, history is fiction and fiction is history thing or it could be a standard Enlightenment hermeutic of suspicion (don't trust your sources ever, they're lying to you). My answer was the same though. I told him that it is possible that the source was making up things, but, sooner or later, as a historian, he's going to have to make up his mind whether a source is reliable or not. That made him pause and think, which was rather the point.

You also point to a problem with current translations of the Fathers. In fact, it is a problem I run into when I'm teaching translations of classical texts as well. A lot of translations out there are written in rather complex English and really does need to be unpacked. For my own students (for classics), I call this the 'translating the translation' effect when the readers are fighting the text to make sense out of it. I'm not saying we dumb down our translations, but every generation does need to translate texts anew because languages and word meanings change. And, honestly, we're behind on the Fathers.

Yet, I find myself pausing when I think of translating myself. I am a historian who has learned how to translate. To some degree, I find my own translations rather too literal, so I must admit to a lack of confidence on this front. Yet, the work needs to be done.