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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