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.