Friday, September 26, 2008

Hunting Heresies in the Fathers

I don't normally rant much. I argue. I consider. I think out loud, but, really, I'm not so much of a ranting type of blogger. Perhaps my blog would attract a greater audience if I did, but that isn't necessarily the kind of audience that I want to attract. But, still, once in a while, we all rant, so I'm going to use some of my ranting quota up today.

What I'm going to rant about is the tendency that some theologically trained people have to play 'hunt the heresy' when they're reading a Church Father. That is, they look for, they hunt for some indication that x or y Church Father isn't really orthodox as we think, but really expresses a heretical view which would later be condemned. The earlier the Father, the easier this is, of course, because the earlier Fathers didn't know about the increasingly defined boundaries of orthodox doctrines like the Trinity or complicated theological issues like it, so their more fuzzy expressions on these issues open them up to condemnation post facto.

So, we see Justin Martyr accused of ditheism and/or subordinationism. Or, we see Gregory Nazianzus accused of proto-Nestorianism. And so on, and so on, and so on.

This isn't to say that the Fathers didn't make doctrinal mistakes. To take two extreme examples, we still read Tertullian and Origen, even though we know that some of their ideas weren't exactly within orthodox bounds in their day, much less our own. Tertullian's extreme temperament led him to rigid views about asceticism and prophecy which drove him from the orthodox church. Origen's passion for Platonism (I note, a passion second only to his passion for the Bible) led him to accept certain Platonic positions he would have been better to have avoided. I don't think there is any Father I've read that there hasn't been moments when I've shaken head at something which wasn't quite on. That is inevitable in anybody we read. We don't agree with everything that anyone reads. As a blogger, I wouldn't expect everyone who reads me will agree with everything I've ever said.


Holy anachronism, Batman! If we look at the development of doctrine, we can see a process of greater explanation and clarification over time as the Church dealt with challenges and questions from outside and inside the Church. That was inevitable and good because it means that the tradition was (and is) dynamic; responding to problems by explaining further. Doctrine didn't fall from the skies or sprang out of the apostle's foreheads fully formed. It developed in response to problems posed the Church over time.

If we understand this development of doctrine, how could we note expect earlier Fathers to express themselves on a given doctrine in a less clear way than later Fathers, who recognized different challenges than their predecessors? We can't, of course. The Church Fathers were quite bright, but they weren't soothsayers who could look into their ecclesiological crystal balls and discover what the future Church would define as heretical. It is anachronistic to expect the same precision in a Justin Martyr as we find in an Athanasius or Cyril of Alexandria. This seems to be a straightforward historical insight, but, apparently, there are a fair number of people who don't get this.

So, why do we keep these heresy hunts going? One (largely innocent) reason is that some writers are playing 'Name that Heresy' as a way of showing their theological knowledge. One can show their erudition by being able to label a heresy by its true name. Given the huge number of heresies out there (particularly the Trinitarian ones), it is often a considerable achievement to name the right one, much less discover it in a previously unexpected place. Of course, this kind of heresy hunt is something of an intellectual pissing contest, since it really is intended to show off the extent of one's theological knowledge against all challenges. That is, admittedly, vanity, but, perhaps, we can comfort ourselves that these contests don't mean that the contestants are attacking a particular Father per se or even orthodoxy, but are merely showing off. Its not good, but it need not be subversive.

A second less innocent motive is heresy hunting in the context of inter-denominational apologetics and polemics. In this kind of heresy hunt, we see writers (often, but not always Protestant) search the Fathers in order to find something wrong in what they are saying. What they are doing in reading the Fathers isn't reading them to understand them or to take insight from them, but rather they are reading them the way that a lawyer reads a hostile brief--they are looking for dirt and evidence to beat the other side with. There is an implicit violence in some apologetics and polemics because the desire isn't always to debate and persuade, but to intellectually beat the opposition into submission. Either we manage to silence them by repeated out-of-context quotations across the head or we make it very clear that they are just too stupid to know when they've been whupped. The net result, however, is rather different because we usually wind up with both sides beating their intellectual chests and declaring themselves the victors, while more neutral observers scratch their heads at all the fuss.

What bothers me about this particular use of the Fathers or even this style of apologetics is not only that it is entirely pointless, but it actually is spiritually damaging. When the Bible warns us about vain arguing and enjoins us to build each up in faith, it didn't mean intellectually cudgel each other until our voices are raw and nerves jangled by the anger and the heat (not light) generated. If we do this, we miss what the Fathers can teach us and the good things they say because we are always looking for the negative and the useful, not for the positive and beneficial things we can learn from these great teachers. This is a breakdown of charity, more than anything else, and the fact that we are talking about charity to long dead writers, doesn't change the fact that that is how we are called to act towards other Christians, live or dead.

A last reason to hunt heresies is much more insidious and damaging. This heresy hunt seeks to prove the Fathers, those bastions of orthodoxy, were, in fact, crypto-heretics (by the standards of previously chosen definition of rigid (usually modernist) orthodoxy, we can challenge the claim that orthodoxy ever really existed. Instead, we can present is as a later construct, used against alternative Christianities by later, oppressive churchman, whose real interest were institutional and venal.

This is a much more worrying motivation for this game than the previous one. The first motivation for 'the Name that Heresy' game is vain, but not necessarily malicious. The second is perhaps malicious (against another group of Christians), but isn't intended to undermine Christian claims about Jesus. In this third type of heresy hunt, there is an agenda here that I think we, as Christians need to challenge. The logic of this position is to deny the existence of an apostolic and orthodox faith and discredit orthodox Christian beliefs. The spiritual damage done by this position, I don't think, needs to be explained.

Now, to be rational again, I'm not saying that we don't identify heresy when we see it. We are called to speak truthfully to each other, so if we see each other moving in a spiritually damaging direction, we are supposed to try to point them out. If we accept that heresy is spiritually damaging, we need to discern it and to point it out in love, but firmly. That is perhaps why I can get worked up to write a rant on this issue. Heresy is rather too serious a spiritual issue to trifle with and it bothers me when we throw around accusations vainly, uncharitably and tendentiously.

So, what I'm saying is that, while you read the Fathers, read with discernment by all means, but remember history and remember charity. If a Father expresses himself in a fuzzy way, assume the most orthodox construction you can. If he is in error, chalk it up to human frailty and move on. For that matter, perhaps we should do likewise with each other as well. Assume orthodoxy as much as you can, point out error and move on.



mike said...

Phil, you're allowed to rant when you're right - and you are.

CMWoodall said...

somebody once blogged about a book entitled "Reading scripture with the Church Fathers".
Their comments stuck with me.

*It is a different thing to read "with" the Fathers than to read "through" the Fathers.

Roger Pearse said...

Excellent post. The third kind of heresy hunting -- always practised by heretics, of course! -- is pretty nasty and seems to be a subtext in too much writing.

Tim A. Troutman said...

Right on.

Phil Snider said...

Thanks very much for your comments. I figured I had one good rant coming, so this seemed a good place to put it.


Polycarp said...

Phil, love the post. I have to admit that as I study the Fathers more, I have come to appreciate them in their setting.

Jim said...

Rant on! I think you have a point well made.


Kenny said...

Phil - I wouldn't call this a rant. It is a good point, and well reasoned. I agree with you that many people need to change the way they read the Fathers. But I think you are missing one important reason why some Protestants use the Fathers in the way you describe. This is not to excuse it, but merely to claim that it is part of a more complex phenomenon.

Protestantism is by definition reactionary. It's Protestantism because it's 'protesting' something. This is an instance in which it is reactionary in a bad sense. What happens in many cases, I think, is that certain (usually Catholic, but sometimes Orthodox) writers use the Fathers as a bludgeon to beat down this or that Protestant idea. Now, forget for a moment the pointlessness of prooftexting from the fathers against a Protestant who doesn't take Tradition to be nearly as authoritative as you do. (I'll let you forget this because I have, or try to have, a higher view of Tradition than most of my fellow Protestants.) Still, this isn't a very healthy or helpful way of using the Fathers either. Eventually a beleaguered Protestant, if he's well-read, responds, "your beloved 'Fathers' don't even accept Chalcedonian orthodoxy!" (or whatever), and produces a prooftext for this claim. Reactionary (but not, for that reason, excusable).

There are two reasons this whole endeavor is counter-productive. Firstly, we aren't beginning with a shared understanding of how our reading of the Fathers should effect our theological beliefs. Secondly, we aren't sitting down together to engage seriously with Patristic exegesis - we're just writing polemics. A third complaint might also be brought up, namely that the whole process relies on the assumption that we read the Fathers only in order to improve our abstract theological understanding (or, worse, to validate our current understanding and invalidate our opponents'), which is not the only reason why they wrote. The whole thing is rather ugly.