The Difficulty Of "Returning to the Fathers"

Post by
Alvin Rapien

One should not read the works of the Church Fathers alone or without commentary. Those who approach the writings of the Church Fathers should be careful not to fall into the methodology of an uncritical sola patristica.


The 20th century saw a major resurgence of theologians from the three major Christian traditions – Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant – going back to the early Christian sources immediately following the New Testament writings.

For Roman Catholics, ressourcement (a return to the authoritative sources) became a major focus between 1930 – 1960, particularly among Belgian, French, and German Catholic theologians, with particular influence stemming from the French Dominicans and Jesuits of Le Saulchoir (Paris) and Lyon-Fourviere. The ressourcement movement was largely a call for liturgical and biblical renewals along with a patristic “rejuvenation” within Catholicism.[1]

For Protestants, dialogue with patristic sources is present in the works of several influential theologians, such as Karl Barth, Thomas F. Torrance, and Thomas C. Oden.[2] The term “Reformed Catholicity” describes the Protestant “theological sensibility” and awareness “that, at this moment at least, theology stands in particularly acute need of resources from the Christian past if it is to find renewal.”[3] However, this “Protestant ressourcement” is usually marked by a critical reading of patristic sources while staying true to Reformed orthodox dogmatics.[4]

Fr Georges Florovsky’s assertion that the Church needs to “return to the Fathers” and to formulate a “neopatristic synthesis” has impacted Orthodox theologians ever since his proclamation in the 1936 First Orthodox Theological Conference. He defines this patristic return and neopatristic synthesis as the “task and aim of Orthodox theology today.”[5] However, returning to the authoritative writings of the early Church “does not mean to retreat from the present or from history; it is not a retreat from modernity… It means so much more – it is not only a preservation and protection of patristic experience but also the very discovery of this experience and the bringing of this experience into life.”[6] The only way for Orthodox theology to move forward, according to Florovsky, is to first look back.

Despite Florovsky’s claim that “Orthodox theology shall not be able to establish its independence from western influences unless it reverts to Patristic sources and foundations,” it is now becoming more and more common to see Western theological works building upon and in dialogue with the Church Fathers.[7] The assimilation of patristic quotes in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant works is a sign of two trends, the first positive and the second negative:

  1. The recognition of the invaluable insights of the early Church by Christians in various traditions may be a sign of ecumenical hope.
  2. The incorporation of patristic citations in mutually exclusive theological developments illustrate the difficulty of interpreting the works of the Church Fathers.

Our concern here is to elaborate on the second trend.

Prooftexting passages from Scripture is historically recognized as an issue within Christianity because it is an uncritical methodology that allows one to make biblical writings fit one’s ideology: “There are some things in them [St Paul’s letters] hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures” (2 Peter 3:16, NRSV). In Protestant fundamentalist settings, the phrase, “the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it,” is often used to silence perspectives contrary to one’s interpretation of Scripture. The rhetoric assumes that quoting this supposedly uninterpreted Bible, with its infallible perspicuity, will vanquish any and all arguments. In some cases, Christians may be so convinced of the clarity of certain translations that they label Bibles with the hermeneutically devious phrase, “NO INTERPRETATION NEEDED.”[8] There is a major misunderstanding regarding the historical circumstances of why a certain text was written, how texts and literature work, and how to properly exegete a text. For example, the New Testament’s statements regarding the Messiah within the world of Second Temple Judaism illuminate the message of the early Church. Interpreting the canonical Christian Scriptures divorced from an understanding of Old Testament and Second Temple language will always miss the historical message of the New Testament.

However, one can replace “the Bible” with “Church council,” “Church Father,” “The Fathers,” or some other ancient Christian authority to effectively argue in the same fashion: “The Canons say it, I believe it, that settles it.” Again, there is no sensitivity to the interpretive demands of citing a text and discernment regarding the different contexts in which the original text was written and its application in a contemporary context. Attempting to understand, for example, St Gregory of Nyssa without reflecting on his dependence on Origen and their use (and appropriation) of Platonic concepts will leave one with an incomplete and even skewed understanding of their works. Florovsky was no stranger to this phenomenon, arguing for a creative return to the Fathers:

“The authority of the Fathers has been re-emphasized and a ‘return to the Fathers’ advocated and approved. Indeed, it must be a creative return. An element of self-criticism must be therein implied. This brings us to the concept of a Neopatristic synthesis, as the task and aim of Orthodox theology today. The Legacy of the Fathers is a challenge for our generation, in the Orthodox Church and outside of it. Its recreative power has been increasingly recognized and acknowledged in these recent decades, in various corners of divided Christendom. The growing appeal of patristic tradition is one of the most distinctive marks of our time. For the Orthodox this appeal is of special urgency and importance, because the total tradition of Orthodoxy has always been patristic. One has to reassess both the problems and the answers of the Fathers.” [9]

Florovsky gives several hints as to what this creative return, with its recognition of self-criticism and assessment of the situation of the Fathers, implies. First, Christians must do more than just quote the Fathers. Appealing to quotations from ancient sources without explanation risks de-contextualizing the Fathers from their historical, doctrinal, and spiritual settings, therefore “abstract[ing] them from the total perspective in which only they are meaningful and valid.”[10] Second, Florovsky urges his readers to acquire, “the mind of the Fathers” (“phronema”). He asserts that this is intrinsic to “Orthodox theology, no less than the word of the Holy Writ, and indeed never separated from it.”[11] The third part of this creative return is the neopatristic synthesis. For Florovsky, “true historical synthesis consists not merely in interpreting the past, but also in shaping the future by a creative act.”[12] Orthodox theologian Paul L. Gavrilyuk explains the relationship between the “mind of the Fathers” and “neopatristic synthesis” in Florovsky’s approach:

“Properly understood, neopatristic theology was not intended to become a flight into an idealized patristic past from the contemporary theological problems. Rather, such a historical synthesis involved an expansion of the contemporary theologian’s mind beyond the epistemic horizon of modernity into the premodern thought of the Church Fathers… [For Florovsky,] ‘synthesis’ is not a feature of historical sources themselves, but something that a historian brings to bear upon the historical sources in the act of understanding. For each act of understanding, as a condition of its possibility, presupposes a unity of meaning. Understood along these lines, historical synthesis becomes a theologically informed and judgment-laden integration achieved by the historian.” [13]

Despite his vision for an Orthodox neopatristic synthesis, Florovsky’s project is sometimes critiqued for two reasons. First, the “mind of the Fathers” concept is too elusive and abstract, with hardly any guidelines as to how to regulate the concept.[14] Second, attempting to synthesize all the Church Fathers is a rather difficult endeavor, particularly because of their contextual differences. According to Gavrilyuk, even Florovsky did not always clearly differentiate between patristic figures.[15] Instead of a neopatristic synthesis, Fr John Behr prefers to speak of a patristic “symphony”:

“I would not speak about the neo-Patristic synthesis because the synthesis reduces everything to the lowest common denominator. I prefer to speak of symphony, to hear the different voices of the Fathers at any moment, whether it be the 2nd or any other century. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus and Saint Basil did not speak the same voice. These are different voices. And there are different voices through time. So, the point of reading the Fathers is not to synthesize all their knowledge into one definitive solution but it is like going back to the earlier scores of the symphony. You have to learn their parts in order that you are harmonized to the melody to sing your part today.” [16]

The difficulty in this “symphonic approach” is understanding the historical, philosophical, and spiritual contexts for each Father. For example, the context of St. Athanasius is a bit different than the context of St. Augustine. To be brief, the former was articulating theology in Alexandria against Arianism while the latter was in Hippo (modern Algeria) combating Pelagianism. However, such brief introductions are not sufficient for in-depth understanding. One must grasp the complexity of Athanasius using the term “homooúsios”and the controversy it sparked. The rhetoric of Pelagius needs to be kept in mind when reading Augustine’s statements regarding grace and free will. There is no cookie-cutter or fool-proof approach to understanding each and every Church Father.

Perhaps even more daunting than a strictly academic approach to the Church Fathers is understanding their spirituality – their ethos. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev asserts that it is impossible “to understand the Fathers if we do not share, at least to some degree, in their experience and endeavours.”[17] To understand the Fathers is more than just memorizing texts and understanding their theological arguments. It means being “faithful to [their] spirit and vision”.[18] This means praying their prayers, incorporating their practices of fasting and feasting, and living out the practical applications found in their works and homilies.

It may seem, at this point, that “returning to the Fathers” is not as easy as it sounds. Indeed, it is quite a difficult task. The distance in time, culture, and spirituality between modern Christians and the Church Fathers can be overwhelming and frustrating. Perhaps this is a healthy frustration, leading modern Christians to turn to others for guidance in reading patristic texts, rather than thinking that one is able to completely comprehend these texts without counsel. One should not read the works of the Church Fathers alone or without commentary. Those who approach the writings of the Church Fathers should be careful not to fall into the methodology of an uncritical sola patristica.

[1] Gabriel Flynn, “The Twentieth-Century Renaissance in Catholic Theology,” Ressourcement: A Movement for Renewal in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theology, eds. Gabriel Flynn and Paul D. Murray (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1-4.
[2] David W. Congdon, “The Future of Conversing with Barth”, Karl Barth in Conversation, eds. W. Travis McMaken and David W. Congdon (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014), 256-257. Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition(Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2014). Thomas C. Oden, A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 139, 241, 248-252.
[3] Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015), 12-13. The phrase “Reformed Catholic” was originally coined by William Perkins, A Reformed Catholike, 1601.
[4] Ibid., 13.
[5] Georges Florovsky, Aspects of Church History (Volume Four in the Collected Works of Georges Florovsky), trans. (Belmont, MA: Nordland Publishing, 1975), 22.
[6] Ibid., 181.
[7] Ibid., 200.
[8] James K. A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 39.
[9] Florovsky, Aspects of Church History, 22.
[10] Ibid., 18.
[11] Ibid., 17.
[12] Ibid., 209.
[13] Paul L. Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky and the Russian Religious Renaissance (Changing Paradigms in Historical and Systematic Theology), (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 96.
[14] Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2001), 232.
[15] Gavrilyuk, Georges Florovsky, 264.
[16] Accessed 1/23/16.
[17] Hilarion Alfeyev, “Theological Popevki: Of the Fathers, Liturgy and Music”, Shaping a Global Theological Mind, ed. Darren C. Marks (Aldershot, England.: Ashgate, 2008), 17.
[18] Ibid., 18.

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