On the Dangers of “Patristics”

            I could not be more excited about Patristics. These early figures from the Church’s history consolidated a theological substructure shared by the three major strands of Christianity: Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. Though foundational, it is impossible to “move past” these early fathers, as if we can take merely a couple glances at their work and keep building. In fact, when their labor is taken for granted in this way, we can often end up misunderstanding them unawares, building upon a shaky understructure. Especially on the other side of the Enlightenment, we desperately need the cool breeze of premodern Christianity to blow some wind in our sails.

            Additionally, the church fathers were theological powerhouses and astute readers of Scripture in their own right. We may today accept a generic, albeit stripped-down, form of Nicene Trinitarian grammar, but if we do not know why we accept this, we will misuse the grammar. We must enter the thought-world of these early fathers to understand simultaneously the simplicities and complexities of the Christian faith. All in all, there is much to be gained from reading the early figures: Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom, to name a few.  

            All that being said, I wish now to shed light on a potential risk. The risk is this: we may isolate individual figures from the Christian past and dissect them for their ideas, all the while neglecting their own liturgical, sacramental, and ecclesial contexts. In other words, when we view the fathers primarily as “thinkers” whom we must mine for “ideas”, we have exited their thought-world and forced them into ours. It must be said, some of this is inevitable. There is much to be gained by isolating the work of one father and utilizing the tools of historical-critical study to obtain insights. But we cannot stop there. After all, most of these figures were churchmen, bishops in the service of Christ’s holy flock. Frankly, to view them as independent thinkers ignores the Church in which they were seated. As St. Ignatius of Antioch says, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be” (Epistle to Smyrnaeans, 8).

            Alexander Schmemann saw this threat. He decries the historical and intellectual “reduction” of the church fathers, which results in viewing their works as “‘conceptual’ evidence to the exclusion of the living experience of the Church, from which the theology of the Fathers stems, to which it refers and bears testimony, without which it cannot be understood in its total and precisely ‘existential’ meaning and significance.”[1] Such reduction seals off the fathers from the life of the Church. Schmemann gives the example of an Orthodox priest “who wrote his seminary graduation thesis on St. Maximus the Confessor,” and yet who nevertheless “seek[s] help and guidance in his pastoral work in theories of psychotherapy and in clinical techniques derived from a vision of man totally different from the one implied in St. Maximus.”[2] Another more general example is the seminarian or academic who is all into “Patristics” but is personally detached from the life of the Church. To put it plainly, the people who love Jesus and can’t understand St. Maximus are the ones on behalf of whom St. Maximus wrote. Far from mere sentimental nonsense, this has direct consequences for our reading of and writing about the fathers.

            No doubt Schmemann’s reflections are restricted to his own Orthodox context, and he would take issue with me, an evangelical Protestant, importing his reflections into my own sphere. He is, after all, denouncing the separation of the church fathers from the explicitly Eastern Orthodox experience. I note this in respect to Schmemann and his authorial intentions. I maintain my transposition, however. After all, would it not be unfair to reduce Schmemann himself to his own historical context, ignoring the weight of his words to the whole catholic Church? Would not such a reading reduce his words to “‘conceptual’ evidence to the exclusion of the living experience of the Church”?[3]

[1] Alexander Schmemann, Church, World, Mission (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1979), 17.

[2] Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 18.

[3] Schmemann, Church, World, Mission, 17.

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