163. Five Principles for Interpreting the Church Fathers

June 1st, 2019

This article is an excerpt from my Letture patristiche (II-III secolo), “Studi di teologia” N. 54 (2015), pp. 139-141.

Recent decades have seen Evangelical theology express a renewed interest in the Church Fathers. This is all well and good. Rooted in the Bible, Evangelicalism at its best has always thought of itself in continuity with the apostolic gospel as it was proclaimed and taught in the early church, the medieval period, the Protestant Reformation, and Evangelical revivals up to the present day. In this positive retrieval, there is also the danger of an idealization of the Fathers (as if they were always right and always working with pure motives) and a wholesale and unwarranted appreciation of “tradition” (as if it was a monolithic body that is organically related to Scripture). In order to both affirm the Evangelical interest in the Fathers and suggest some caveats in practising it, here are five principles that can be useful to bear in mind.

1)  In reading the Church Fathers, practice the Sola Scriptura principle (the Bible alone is the inspired written Word of God and the ultimate authority), the tota Scriptura principle (the whole Bible is inspired and needs to be received as a whole), and the Scriptura sui ipsius interpres principle (the Bible is its own interpreter). As Protestant theologians, always remember that Scripture is the norma normans non normata (i.e. the norm of norms which cannot be normed). The Fathers are important, but not decisive; the Fathers are useful, but not definitive; the Fathers can be enriching, but to the extent that they are faithful to Scripture. In the words of John Calvin, “we hold that the Word of God alone lies beyond the sphere of our judgment, and that Fathers and Councils are of authority only in so far as they accord with the rule of the Word, we still give to Councils and Fathers such rank and honor as it is meet for them to hold, under Christ”.[1]

2) Cherish a theologically sober and realistic view of tradition. The Fathers are the cornerstone of church tradition. As the Protestant Reformation taught us, one can and must hold the Word of God over every theological elaboration of the past while, at the same time, treasuring the inheritance that generations of believers have consigned to subsequent ones. In J.I. Packer’s words, “Tradition, after all, is the fruit of the Spirit’s teaching activity from the ages as God’s people have sought understanding of Scripture. It is not infallible, but neither is it negligible, and we impoverish ourselves if we disregard it”.[2] The 17th century Huguenot pastor Jean Daillé (1594-1670) wrote in his work Du vrai emploi des Pères (On the Right Use of the Fathers, 1631): “Who does not know that a dwarf, mounting on the shoulders of a giant, sees higher and further away of the giant himself? We stand on the shoulders of this great and sublime Antiquity: we owe this position of advantage to it”.[3]

3) Deconstruct the rhetoric of the consensum patrum, the idea that says there is a unanimity of the Fathers and that the patristic body of writings is a homogeneous monolith. This reading of the Fathers is short-sighted and ideological. The Fathers must be evaluated one by one, work by work, section by section, thought by thought, always relating their specific writings to the whole of their work and the general context in which they wrote. It is not legitimate to assign to the Fathers a dogmatic consensus and a simplistic doctrinal continuity with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Take note of what the Puritan theologian John Owen (1611-1683) wrote:  “The joint consent of the fathers or ancient doctors of the church is also pretended as a rule of Scripture interpretation. But those who make this plea are apparently influenced by their supposed interest to do so. No man of ingenuity, who hath ever read or considered them, or any of them, with attention and judgment, can abide by this pretence. For it is utterly impossible they should be an authentic rule unto others, who so disagree among themselves, as they will be found to do, not, it may be, so much in articles of faith, as in their exposition of Scripture, which is the matter under consideration. About the former they express themselves diversely, in the latter they really differ, and that frequently”.[4]

4) Exercise theological discernment in assessing the historical dynamics in which the Fathers wrote. In general, their Christological and Trinitarian reflection is reliable in the ante-Nicene, post-Nicene, and Chalcedonian phases, although it is subject to a progressive infiltration of the devotional practices that eventually undermined it. After the “Constantinian shift” at the beginning of the 4th century, which transformed the self-understanding of the church into that of a religious and hierarchical empire, the ecclesiological, sacramental, and Mariological reflection of many patristic writings is vitiated by “imperial”, sacramental, and matriarchal categories. These areas are abundantly polluted by pagan parameters that have taken over from biblical teaching. The study of the Fathers therefore urges us to have a theologically responsible view of the “development” and “progress” of dogma (i.e. doctrinal elaboration after the closing of the biblical canon), away from naively simplistic accounts of it.[5]

5) Develop an awareness of systemic issues with important repercussions on the contemporary Christian identity. The Fathers are a field of study much sought after by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant theologies. In studying them, an exegetical and historical expertise is required, but it is not sufficient. There must be a systematic and ecumenical awareness of the issues involved because the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches both claim the Fathers as “theirs”, just as the Reformers felt they had inherited from the Fathers the rediscovery of the biblical gospel. In dealing with present-day readings of the Fathers, we have to deal with the Catholic and Eastern rhetoric of the “undivided church of the first millennium”, as if the way forward towards unity is a “return to the Fathers”. Behind these widespread expressions, there are hidden assumptions that are in danger of abusing the Fathers. The Evangelical study of the Fathers cannot be theologically naive or superficial with respect to the “ecumenical” game that is played on this field. The way forward to unity is a return to the biblical gospel.

In conclusion, John Calvin’s wisdom well summarizes the above mentioned five principles:

“While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in somethings it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamour, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages. Still, in studying their writings, we have endeavoured to remember (1 Cor. 3:21-23; see also Augustin, Ep. 28), that all things are ours, to serve, not lord it over us, but that we are Christ’s only, and must obey him in all things without exception. He who does not draw this distinction will not have any fixed principles in religion; for those holy men were ignorant of many things, are often opposed to each other, and are sometimes at variance with themselves”.[6]

We must be neither “patrophobic” (i.e. fearing the study of the Fathers) nor “patrolaters” (i.e. elevating them as absolutes). Evangelical theology needs to pursue a realistic reading of the Fathers under the supreme authority of Scripture and at the service of the cause of the gospel.


[1] John Calvin’s Letter to Sadoleto (1539). Notice the reversed Roman Catholic argument presented by John H. Newman (1801-1890): talking about the Fathers he argues that “They do not say, ‘This is true, because we see it in Scripture’—about which there might be differences of judgment—but, ‘this is true, because in matter of fact it is held, and has ever been held, by all the Churches, down to our times, without interruption, ever since the Apostles’”:Discussions and Arguments, II.1 (London: Longmans, 1891) p.46.

[2]J.I. Packer, Upholding the Unity of Scripture Today, “Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society” 25 (1992) p. 414.

[3] Quoted by G. Peters, I Padri della Chiesa, vol. 1 (Roma: Borla, 20073) p. 20.

[4]John Owen, The Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God as Revealed in His Word, with Assurance Therein (1678) in Works, vol. 4, ch. 9.2, ed. W.H. Goold, 1850-1853 (reprint: Carlisle, UK: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967) pp. 117-234.

[5]See R.A. Finlayson, The Story of Theology(Cambridge, UK: The Tyndale House, 1967): “By saying ‘development of doctrine’ we mean that the doctrine of the New Testament was gradually discovered and formulated as the human mind approached the material provided by divine revelation”. See also J. Orr, The Progress of Dogma (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901).

[6] John Calvin “Prefatory Address to His Most Christian Majesty, the Most Mighty and Illustrious Monarch, Francis, King of the French”, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536).

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162. Deciphering Vatican II: A New Book Especially Helpful for Evangelicals

May 1st, 2019

Reading Vatican II has often been a daunting experience for evangelicals. While navigating Vatican II, evangelicals are puzzled to find the restatement of traditional Roman Catholic teaching together with something that appears to contradict it. The chief example of the evangelical puzzlement is David Wells’ book Revolution in Rome (1972) where he attempts to make sense of the nuanced, juxtaposing, and cumulative way of the theologizing of Vatican II. After carefully reading its documents, Wells concludes that Vatican II on some strategic points (e.g. authority, ecumenism, religious freedom, the presence of the church in the world) seems to endorse “mutually incompatible theologies”, one conservative, the other progressive; one restating tradition, the other pushing beyond tradition. “How do we interpret this?” is the question that reflects the evangelical perplexity in coming to terms with the complexity of the Roman Catholic mindset as it is presented at Vatican II.

Scores of books have been written on Vatican II, the discussions behind its texts, the documents that were produced, and the controversial attempts to implement it. Its legacy is still a fiercely disputed matter in Catholic circles as well. This is to say that each new addition to the Vatican II library is a welcomed attempt at trying to navigate the deep waters of the Council. The recent book by Thomas G. Guarino, The Disputed Teachings of Vatican II. Continuity and Reversal in Catholic Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018) is particularly helpful for evangelicals for at least two reasons: First, since 2009 the author has been co-chairing the US-based “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” initiative and therefore is used to dialogue with evangelicals. Second, while never quoting David Wells, some of the evangelical perplexities contained in his book are discussed by Guarino with the intention of suggesting a Roman Catholic way to handle them.

Vatican II as “Profectus Fidei”?
The church has always been confronted with the issue of change in her understanding of the truth and her accounting of it in teaching, preaching, evangelizing, etc. This is why Guarino looks back to the 5th century at Vincent of Lérins’ distinction between change as profectus (i.e. the development of doctrine that preserves the core) and change as permutatio (i.e. a mutation that alters the core). Without denying the significant changes in language, style and tone that are evident at the Council, Guarino argues that “Vatican II was in the main a homogenous profectus of the earlier tradition” (21), i.e. an advancement and expansion of previous tradition that nonetheless maintained its fundamental landmarks.

The main thesis of the book is that “Vatican II is in clear congruence with the prior Catholic tradition – even while homogeneously developing it on certain points” (10). Each word here is important: “congruence” means compatibility with the past, but no mere repetition of it. “Development” means organic growth, even with points of relative distancing from previous formulations, while remaining faithful to the doctrinal whole. The elastic yet firm combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels is what characterizes Guarino’s appraisal of Vatican II. In borrowing Benedict XVI’s terms, instead of a “hermeneutic of rupture” one needs to come to terms with the meaning of Vatican II by using a “hermeneutic of reform” (21). The Council witnessed an “organic, homogeneous, architectonic growth” (5): a kind of change that occurred within the parameters of a coherent development that did not betray the well-established heritage of the church.

This reading of the Council is fascinating and in line with a typical Catholic et-et (both-and) hermeneutical approach. However, its overall plausibility is difficult to accept wholesale when, for example, one analyzes the evidence as far as the issue of religious freedom is concerned. After centuries of strong opposition to religious freedom and freedom of conscience by Roman Catholic magisterial authorities, after multiple papal encyclicals consistently condemning it (which Guarino fairly makes reference to on pp. 184-188), how is it possible to see in Vatican II’s approval of it an “organic” change that simply “developed” what had been previously taught? Why not simply say that Rome was wrong when it condemned religious freedom and then came to change its mind at Vatican II? Is it because the institutional church is believed to be indefectible (i.e. not erring nor making mistakes)? The fact that the Roman Catholic Church made a U-turn on religious freedom is a clear example that the willingness to preserve Rome’s continuity goes against the factual evidence. Guarino’s overall interpretation of Vatican II as simple “perfectus fidei” seems to squeeze the dynamics of the Roman Church into a one-fits-all type of approach, instead of accounting for its complexity. Is it not too simplistic and a way to protect the unsustainable claims of indefectibility within the Roman Church?

Three Key Words
Back to the central thesis of the book, there are three key words that one needs to become acquainted with. They are “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”. They form the vocabulary that is needed to try to make sense of Vatican II from within. Here is the way in which Guarino helps to clarify their meaning.

Development. Recalling J.H. Newman’s famous book, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (1894) Guarino acknowledges its profound influence on Vatican II. Development means “an unfolding of something that is already present implicitly or in germ” (57). According to Newman and Guarino, doctrine is inherently involved in an organic process of growth. The problem with this Roman Catholic view of development is always the same: what are the biblical boundaries of such a “development”? For example, can the Church develop its Mariology to the point of elevating two Marian dogmas (like the 1854 dogma on Mary’s immaculate conception and the 1950 dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption) without any biblical support? In other words, “development” without the biblical principle of Sola Scriptura (i.e. the Bible as the supreme authority for the church) safeguarding and guiding it can become a self-referential principle at the service of the institutional church. If the church can “develop” her own traditions even outside of the perimeter of the written Word of God, is it not a questionable development?

Ressourcement. The French word is another key term to enter the theological universe of Vatican II. It means “taking account of the entire theological tradition of the church” (59), be it the apostles, the fathers, the councils, the liturgy, and the witness of the Christian people. Vatican II is known for having paid more attention to the biblical sources of the faith as well as to patristic and liturgical sources. The “ressourcement” principle is important provided that the examination of the sources and their “weight” is put under the authority of the Word of God as the supreme source. Vatican II contained more biblical references than previous catholic documents, but it also stood in continuity with previous magisterial texts that had few Scriptural references and were primarily based on other sources (e.g. as it is the case with the Marian dogmas). Vatican II’s ressourcement added sources but did not subtract any even when Rome had developed its theology and practice outside of the Bible. It expanded the ability of the Roman Church to absorb new emphases without purifying it from spurious ones which had been previously embraced.

Aggiornamento. The final word that Guarino expounds comes from the Italian language and was used by Pope John XXIII. “Aggiornamento” means “bringing up to date” (66) the communication of the church by means of appropriating a different style and tone and making it more attuned with the modern mindset. “Aggiornamento” can give the impression that at Vatican II Rome really and substantially changed but it is closer to reality to say that the Roman Church went through a season of up-dating her language and attitude without relinquishing any of what was previously believed and pronounced. For example, the “anathemas” (i.e. curses) of the Council of Trent against the Protestants have been “updated” at Vatican II with a friendly and brotherly language but never renounced (and this means that they can be resuscitated any moment). The previous layer has been updated without being removed.

Guarino’s book does an admirable service to the evangelical reader in explaining the Vatican II vocabulary of “change”. Too often, evangelicals may have a superficial view of the Roman Catholic “change”. They can be impressed by the emphasis on Biblical passages that they find in post-Vatican II documents without properly understanding the fact that these biblical sources supplement rather than change the already established Roman Catholic sources which have shaped its teaching. It’s also possible that evangelicals might rightly appreciate the friendly tone of present-day Catholic theological language without necessarily knowing that “aggiornamento” adds a new style on top of what Rome has said and done in the past without cutting off its roots. In other words, the vocabulary of Vatican II should not be taken as implying that Rome is now open to a biblical reformation: it simply means that the Catholic Church, as Guarino argues, “was in continuity with the prior doctrinal landmarks” (read: the Council of Trent, the Marian dogmas, the dogma of papal infallibility) undoubtedly together with “true development” (199) that makes it more palatable to outsiders. The past is never renounced. It can be updated but remains untouched and continues to remain at the core of what the Roman Church is and believes.

A Paradigm Change
Beyond the already mentioned contributions of Guarino’s book to the understanding of Vatican II, this work has another strength, perhaps its most important one. In order to assess the theology of Vatican II, its “theological principles” need to be grappled with and the book helpfully summarizes them. Yes, the “style” of the Council is important (as suggested by J. O’Malley); yes, the keywords of the Council are foundational (“development”, “ressourcement”, “aggiornamento”); but what about its theological vision? From where did Vatican II derive its principles? And what were they?

Guarino’s contention is that “analogical and participatory thinking are crucial, though generally overlooked, themes at Vatican II” (25). In his view, analogical and participatory categories form the backbone of the Council. Analogical thinking means that similarities are stressed (rather than differences); everything is analogous to something else and therefore close, similar, next to it. Participatory category means that everything participates in one way or another to everything else; therefore, mutual indwelling and inter-relationships are underlined (rather than distance and separation). If pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism operated with a “univocal” approach (i.e. defining reality in one way only) followed by dialectical thinking (i.e. distancing itself from what was not aligned with its univocal definition), at Vatican II Rome learns to reframe its whole theological vision according to what is in common with everything else and what unites it with the rest of the world. “Dialectical difference was not the style of the Council – analogical similarity was” (73). Antinomies were replaced by analogies (75).

It is true that Vatican II does not use the traditional terms such as “primary and secondary analogates and intrinsic and extrinsic attribution” (27) but analogical and participatory thinking undergirds whatever Vatican II says. The Church of Rome is never called the “primary analogate” and the non-Catholic churches are never addressed as the “secondary analogates”; yet it is clear that Vatican II stresses what is in common between the two because they are analogous to each other. The same is true as far as participatory categories are concerned. When Vatican II speaks of the modern world in friendly terms, wanting to affirm and to embrace it, it does so assuming that “all human beings participate in the same created human nature, the ultimate ground of similarity among people” (26-27). The notion of a “diversified participation in a perfection” (80) undergirds modern Roman Catholic thought.

The is the theological background that allows Vatican II to talk about mutuality, friendship, partnership and cooperation with Protestants, Jews, Muslims, peoples of other religions, people of good will, the whole world. The Council promotes a “conciliatory approach – emphasizing unity with, rather than difference from, all others” (26). Again, in Guarino’s words, “the ‘others’ formally participate in the unique attributes of Catholicism and are therefore intensively related to it” (28). This is not the fruit of a generic kindness, but the result of a particular theological project based on analogical and participatory categories. This does not mean that the traditional claims of Rome being the only church, the perfect society, etc. are obliterated. They are no longer seen in exclusive and oppositional forms, but in analogous and participatory ways. It is no longer a matter of being “in” or “out”, inside or outside, but it is a matter of participating at various degrees to the same reality. “Without losing Catholic exceptionalism … the conciliar accent was placed on Catholicism’s similarity” (29) with other faiths. They are now considered as “partially similar to the Catholic faith and analogically related to it” (201). Elsewhere Guarino argues that “Catholicism did not change its self-understanding – but it did stress its close proximity to others” (131). Vatican II presents the view whereby Rome has the fullness of grace, but those who do not belong to it still participate in it at various levels of intensity. According to Guarino, all this happened and is happening “without betraying the material continuity of the faith” (44, i.e. the Roman Catholic faith). We are back to the Catholic dynamics of “development”, “ressourcement”, and “aggiornamento”, i.e. change without alteration, renewal without reformation, addition without purification.

Not Away From Thomism but Deeper into It
In pointing to the importance of this “paradigm change” (31) in the present-day Roman Catholic Church, Guarino stands on the shoulders of giants of 20th century Catholic theology such as Gérard Philips, Karl Rahner, Yves Congar and Joseph Ratzinger (30-31). His is not an isolated, fancy interpretation of Vatican II, but the mainstream reading of the theological principles at work in the Roman Catholic Church since the last Council.

Following Congar, Guarino further argues that the real theological mind behind Vatican II is not a modern theologian but Thomas Aquinas himself. It was Aquinas who “furnished the writers of the dogmatic texts of Vatican II with the bases and structure (les assises et la structure) of their thought (25, 74, 200). Thomas’ doctrine of analogy and his reinterpretation of the neo-platonic doctrine of participation form the foundational axes of the theology of Vatican II. While the Council avoided “the language of scholasticism” it did make use of seminal “scholastic ideas” (74); again, “while Thomistic language was absent at Vatican II, Thomist ideas were in plain sight” (201). While Vatican II practiced an eclectic type of “ressourcement” it was Thomas Aquinas who was the main source behind it. A modernized form of Thomism, perhaps away from the rigidity of 19th century Neo-Thomism, but always within the same tradition expanded in the dialogue with the modern world, was and is the framework that provides “the bases and the structure” of Rome.

Three provisional implications
What are the implications of such “paradigm changes” that occurred at Vatican II for evangelicals? They are Massive! Here are three tentative implications.

1) For the time being, Rome will not have an “oppositional” posture in relating to the non-Catholics but will always try to find commonalities, to underline unity, to stress fellowship, and to embrace evangelicals as much as possible. Evangelicals need to be aware that if they want to be faithful to the gospel they need to be “counter-cultural” and talk about gospel distinctives, biblical separation, covenantal allegiance to the Triune God that rejects idols and idolatry. Biblical truth always needs to confront and to refute error even if it comes from a traditional institution like the Roman Catholic Church.

2) Even after Vatican II, Rome is not committed to the biblical gospel but is dedicated to the all-embracing gospel of “analogy” and “participation” that has translated into Rome’s ecumenism, mariology, ecclesiology, inter-religious dialogue, mission, etc. Pope Francis may not even use the language of “analogy” and “participation”, but his message of “unity” and “mercy” is steeped into it. Evangelicals need to become more acquainted with the ground motives of present-day Roman Catholicism if they want to understand where Rome stands. The words used may be the same (gospel, grace, faith, conversion, etc.), but their meaning is different because Rome uses them within the theological framework of Thomistic “analogy” and “participation”.

3) When Rome changes, it does so according to its own pattern of change. This change implies degrees of renewal that are always in the context of substantial continuity with its well-established self-understanding. Evangelicals need to learn to understand the Roman Catholic dynamics of change if they want to account for both continuity and discontinuity in present-day Rome. The Catholic Church may even talk about the need for a “reformation”, but it will always be below the standards of biblical reformation and always in a way that self-protects the institution.

For all these reasons, Guarino’s book on Vatican II is particularly helpful for evangelical readers.

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