Reading the Patristics
Like America’s Founding Fathers, the Patristics are often invoked but seldom actually read. They are often referenced but seldom actually quoted. Though they are at the heart of traditionalist sloganeering, they have in fact, only rarely actually contributed to the traditions they supposedly have inspired. Today they are the great unknowns, these Church Fathers. Even in those communions which place much emphasis on Apostolic Succession--the Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and Copt--there is scant knowledge of those who succeeded the Apostles. Their words and works are seldom more than anecdotally revered.
The irony of this goes beyond the obvious--the fact is the writings of the Patristics are imminently readable and widely available. The earliest Christians were both literate and literary. They were people of the Book and of books. As a result, their refined letters, sermons, tracts, commentaries, manifestos, credos, dialogs, proverbs, epigrams, and sagas were carefully, preserved, anthologized, and preserved through the centuries. The harried and persecuted believers during the imperial epoch took solace in their pastoral wisdom. The pioneering Medievals grounded their worldview on Patristic foundations throughout the era of Christendom. The reforming Protestants carefully considered their precepts during the tumultuous days of the Reformation. Indeed, nearly every generation of Christians through the end of the nineteenth century made a study of their ideas an elementary aspect of classical education.
Alas, reading their works demands a certain amount of diligence, thoughtfulness, and discernment--as is necessarily the case with all substantive writing--which is probably why reading and studying the Patristics passed out of favor during the late great twentieth century.
Theoretically, the Patristics continue to be appealing to us. We repeat the pious reforming litany--let’s get back to the pattern of the early church; let’s restore the integrity of pure, primordial worship; and let’s strip away the accumulated layers of traditional practices, rituals, and ceremonies. Somehow we imagine that the Patristics support us in this. We suppose them to be simplistic, primitive, and primal. So, we are often surprised to discover them to actually be complicated, refined, and mature. And if there is one thing that the modern church is in rebellion against, it is depth, sophistication, and acumen. The result is that we carry on with a blithe don’t confuse me with the facts naiveté.
In fact, all the great controversies of our day were controversies in their day--and the Fathers of the faith addressed them substantively. Questions of soteriology and Christology, questions of liturgy and epistemology, questions of hermeneutics and ecclesiology were all dealt with in some detail. And the answers they often gave were anything but simplistic, primitive, and primal.
Through the writings of the Patristics we are brought to see the abandon with which the Christians gave themselves to their new faith. We see evidence of the struggle for moral purity that Christians were compelled to wage amidst the corruption of paganism. To “come out from the world” was to the believer of that day no mere figure of speech, but the actual entrance into a new moral atmosphere. We see their passion for maturity and substance--a maturity and substance that was evidenced in everything from their liturgies to their apologetics. Perhaps though, the most dramatic element to notice in reading the Patristics is the early and persistent emphasis on covenant--the idea pervades Polycarp’s encouragement to those being persecuted; it invades the discussions of liturgy in the letters of Ignatius to the Ephesians and Romans; it is evident in the anthologized sayings of the Didache; and it is the theological backdrop of the semi-apocryphal writings of Barnabas and Hermas.
Indeed, this is the great theme sounded by the Patristics. Even as they described their dynamic ecclesiology, as they illumined their substantive liturgy, and as they affirmed their salient, articulate, and stalwart theology, they were simultaneously driving home this essential sociology of home. They understood only too well that there is no place like home. But a token of Heaven, our true Home, the covenant community in which we temporally make our home is yet a place of joy, of peace, of plenty, where supporting and supported, dear souls mingle into the blissful hubbub of daily life. No matter how benevolent, no matter how philanthropic, and no matter how altruistic some social or cultural alternative may be, it can never hope to match the personal intimacy of godly domestic relations. Except in the rare and extreme cases where strife and bitterness have completely disintegrated familial identity, there is no replacement for the close ties of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, parents and children, aunts and uncles, kith and kin--and their extensions within the family of families known as the Church. Though under siege in our day, covenantalism was recognized by the Patristics as the glue that holds societies together.
As a result, reading these Fathers is not merely an exercise in antiquarian curiosity--it may well be, apart from the study of the Scriptures themselves, the most relevant of all our educative pursuits.
Studying the Patristics
On Saturday April 17, Servant Group International and King's Meadow will sponsor After Acts--a one day Church History Conference from 10:30 AM to 3:00 PM at Christ Community Church in Franklin, TN. I will be speaking on the subject of the early part of the Patristic period. I'll profile some of the most remarkable individuals and the specific issues with which they had to deal throughout their lives and ministries. More information about this exciting opportunity will be forthcoming.