Tuesday, April 26

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 first century 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.

Speaking in a general way, the epoch of the Fathers was, in the Western Church, the first five centuries after Christ. In the Eastern Church, the Patristic Age may be extended to embrace John of Damascus in the middle of the eighth century. Scholars have traditionally arranged the writers, not unnaturally, into four groups. In the first group are the Apostolic Fathers and the Apologists, or those writers who were roughly contemporary with the formation of the New Testament canon. These all wrote in Greek. In the second group are those writers from the third century—approximately from the time of Irenreus to the Nicene Council. They wrote partly in Greek and partly in Latin. In the third group are the Post-Nicene Latin Fathers—those writers from the age of the great Ecumenical Councils. In the fourth group are the Post-Nicene Greek Fathers—those writers from the Golden Age of Byzantium.

Most modern collections of the Patristics include only writings from the first group—which is a great pity. To ignore Clement of Alexandria means that we lose much of our knowledge of classical antiquity. John Chrysostom can no more be left out of the world of letters than Chaucer or Shakespeare. And the Confessions of Augustine is one of those rare books which belong to the whole human race, and should always live. That said, the first and formative period of the Patristics—the Formative Period—is a great place to start.

At the beginning of this early period, we know that at least one Apostle was yet living; Christianity was only fairly born into the world. At its close a universal, transnational, and multi-ethnic church existed, holding in her hands a defined canon of Scripture. The eighty-five years intervening thus witnessed one of the most important movements in human history; and, when we reflect that almost the only knowledge we have of that movement is gained from the scanty remains of the Patristic writings, we shall scan the documents closely, to see the forces working behind them. Indeed, according to Gibbon, “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” It was indeed the flood-tide pause, before the pagan civilization of the ancient world ebbed back into its ocean of oblivion.

But virtually no eye was then so practiced in reading the marks of the ages as to see in that universal lull and happiness a presage of the world’s decline—with the possible exception of Augustine. Still less was there anyone to note that then, at the very climax in the history of one age of the world, there was crystallizing into form a power which would scatter from the world the darkness of its impending night, and illumine the nations with a more than Antoninian brightness. No pagan could note this. Pliny, writing to Trajan of the worshipers of Christ in Bithynia, never dreamed of such a destiny for their faith. And virtually no Christian could forecast it; for only a few visionaries as yet regarded Christianity as a power for transforming this world—rather most still saw it as something in antagonism with the world, which latter was soon to be swept away with all its vanities and pomps.

Fortunately, though we have to study the secular history of that age largely in its coins and architectural remains, and in the writings of its panegyrists and satirists and philosophers, the Christian history of the day was well documented by the Patristics.

Through the pages of Clement we catch glimpses of the disciples at Rome, toward the close of the first century, suffering persecution at the hands of Domitian. We see these disciples, even before the hand of persecution is withdrawn from them, taking thought for the welfare of their brethren at Corinth, where the Church is suffering from internal dissensions. Clement, writes to the Corinthian brethren, urging submission to spiritual authorities. His letter contains a prayer which, it is thought, may have formed a part of the earliest liturgy. Thus we detect the beginnings of the vigorous ecclesiastical organization, and of the elaborate order of worship, which grew up in the influential church at Rome.

A half century later, a letter of Dionysius of Corinth shows us that the Roman congregations had been contributing money to the poorer churches of Greece, and had again, by her bishop, Soter, written a letter to the Corinthians. The latter, treasuring the letter, read it on the Lord's Day, as they did the former letter written them by Clement. This same Dionysius, as we learn from Eusebius, wrote various other letters to churches "for instruction in sound doctrine, for correction in discipline, for repression of heresy." To one of these letters Pinytus replied, urging Dionysius to “Impart at some time more solid food, tenderly feeding the people committed to him with a letter of riper instruction, lest by continually dwelling on milk-like teaching they should insensibly grow old without advancing beyond the teaching of babes.” Here we notice, as an important characteristic of this formative period, a free and filial intercommunication between the churches, and an interest both in one another's outward welfare and in a common soundness in the faith.

By the epistles of Ignatius in the earlier part, and by the letter of the churches of Vienne and Lyons in the latter part of the period, we are brought to see the entire abandon with which the Christians gave themselves to their new faith. Martyrdom, instead of being deprecated was often even courted as a privilege. Death by martyrdom, we must remember, was comparatively infrequent in this period. By the second quarter of the century the number of Christians, notwithstanding their social and political insignificance, must have been very great; and there was at no time anything amounting to a universal persecution. The terrible sufferings of the Christians at Vienne and Lyons, in 177, had had nothing approaching a parallel since the days of Domitian. Still there was enough of persecution to keep always alive the martyr spirit, and no conception of the growing Church of the second century is complete that does not make this spirit prominent.

>Then, standing out through every epistle and apology, especially appearing in the Shepherd of Hermas, we see evidence of the struggle for moral purity which 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. Reading the Shepherd, and remembering that it appeared in the midst of a society differing little from that satirized by Juvenal. we no longer wonder at the esteem in which it was held by the early Christians, but we almost join with them in calling it an inspired book.

As the period advances, we find that Christianity is becoming more and more conscious of its own existence and importance in the great world. Whereas the earlier Christian writings were simply letters or writings from one to another among themselves, before the middle of the century Christian works come to be addressed to others outside the body of believers. The latter part of the period therefore is known as the Age of the Apologists, which name implies that the new. society of faith was no longer wholly unknown; that it had found its voice, and was speaking for itself. Reaching at first only the humble and unlearned ranks of society, the new faith had in it that which appealed powerfully to the philosophic mind. Mere sophists, of course, despised it; but the true lovers of wisdom began to see in it a diviner philosophy than that of the Academy or the Porch. Not a few among them embraced Christianity, and became its most zealous defenders and propagators, often retaining in their new calling the philosopher's cloak which they had worn before conversion. The services of these philosophers were of two kinds. They were evangelists, “men inspired with godly zeal to copy the pattern of the apostles,” says Eusebius, “teaching Christian doctrine by word of mouth in all the centers of learning.” They were also writers, preparing treatises in exposition and defense of the faith. Such explanatory and apologetic writings make up the larger and the characteristic part of the later Christian works of the period.

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.

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