Read the Fathers

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Tag: how to read

Advice on Reading

[Reader Andy Evans wishes to post this brief quotation on how to read. Someday I’d like to post about the relation between faith and Wissenschaft in reading the church fathers. —LAM]

I came across this bit of sound advice from Fr. Stephen Freeman, an Eastern Orthodox priest whose blog I enjoy reading from time to time.  I think it is very helpful for all of us as we begin our seven-year journey:

“Reading the Church Fathers is something that should be done generally for personal edification and not as a means of gaining expertise, much less authority. If they are read with one eye on God and the other on your heart, then you will have done well. But too much knowledge, unsupported by prayer and a grounded ascetical life, is not only unhealthy, it can become a positive danger to those around you….”

Reading as Whim and Discipline

Hugh of Saint Victor

Hugh of Saint Victor

On a whim I read Alan Jacobs‘s The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction a couple of weeks ago.1 I had secretly hoped that the book would be a screed against my inability to pay attention to anything, but on that score I was mostly disappointed. What I found was better: a discussion of the paradox between reading as discipline and reading as whim. Jacobs is of the opinion that reading should be driven by whim rather than by lists of recommended reading. I have experienced, as you likely have, a curious inability to read many books once I’ve put them on my list of books to read. But when I follow my whims I tend to do a lot of reading: to wit, reading The Pleasures of Reading led me to Hugh of Saint Victor’s Didascalicon, and Hugh led me to Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didascalicon. People do and should read by Whim (with a capital W), Jacobs argues, because such reading is motivated by pleasure. But not an aimless pleasure: “In its lower-case version whim is thoughtless, directionless preference that almost invariably leads to boredom or frustration or both. But Whim is something very different: it can guide us because it is based in self-knowledge.” Whim that is based on self-knowledge leads to reading that is more pleasurable.

The second meaning of Whim has room, I think, for conceiving of reading not only as whim but also as a discipline. You could scarcely decide to read seven pages of difficult prose every day for seven years without letting whim get the better of you, but you also cannot expect to read the fathers without some discipline. The way forward is to rely on both whim and discipline, to subject the flights of whim to a discipline which will yield a higher pleasure.

The discipline we’re attempting with Read the Fathers is akin to the ancient and medieval monastic disciplines (studio) in two ways. First, reading is a discipline because it involves, well, hard work. But this is hard work that leads to joy, not drudgery. The twelfth-century monk Hugh of Saint Victor, who wrote an introduction to Christian learning called the Didascalicon, described how pleasure (love) and discipline (hard work) combine to accomplish a task.

Hard work and love make you carry out a task; concern and alertness make you well advised. Through hard work you keep matters going; through love you bring them to perfection. Through concern you look ahead; though alertness you pay close attention.

Second, and more important, reading is a discipline because it requires holiness and in turn refines the soul. Here is Athanasius, describing the discipline necessary to read the Scriptures, to which the Fathers will inevitably make us turn, and in turn to know Christ, who is the fount of all joy:

But for the searching of the Scriptures and true knowledge of them, an honourable life is needed, and a pure soul, and that virtue which is according to Christ; so that the intellect guiding its path by it, may be able to attain what it desires, and to comprehend it, in so far as it is accessible to human nature to learn concerning the Word of God. For without a pure mind and a modelling of the life after the saints, a man could not possibly comprehend the words of the saints. … He that would comprehend the mind of those who speak of God must needs begin by washing and cleansing his soul, by his manner of living, and approach the saints themselves by imitating their works; so that, associated with them in the conduct of a common life, he may understand also what has been revealed to them by God, … and love the God and Father, in Christ Jesus our Lord: through Whom and with Whom be to the Father Himself, with the Son Himself, in the Holy Spirit, honour and might and glory for ever and ever. Amen. (On the Incarnation, §57)

Get ready for seven years of whim and discipline—and pleasure.

How Not to Read the Fathers

[With this post we welcome Scholiast as a contributor. Scholiast previously wrote a post about why one should read the fathers, published on his own blog and excerpted here. In our last week before our reading begins, we will run several posts about how to read. Scholiast starts this series with some helpful suggestions about how not to read the fathers. —LAM]

The Church Fathers (11th-century Kievan image)

The Church Fathers (11th-century Kievan image)

In a little over a week, this exciting, ambitious project to read most of the Church Fathers will begin. I thought I might offer some insights into dangerous ways of reading that many of us are tempted to use from time to time as we meet with the Fathers. These ways of reading are suspicion, the related habit of heresy-hunting, ‘they’re just like us’, and prooftexting. A fifth way is not necessarily unhelpful but could be dangerous, and that is independent, devotional reading.

Suspicion

As you know, I dislike suspicious readings of texts, as discussed earlier this year in relation to Perpetua. This is a form of reading that is hostile — the least respectable of all interpretations is always taken. For example, one of my Presbyterian students read Leo the Great’s third sermon on his accession and declared that it looks like Leo is worshipping Peter! The same student later said that St. Francis’ Rule of 1221, in calling for ‘obedience and reverence’ to Innocent III, was distracting people from Christ and directing them to worship the Pope. Sigh. This is the sort of hostile reading that certain kinds of Protestants engage in with anything that resembles a pope or papism.

A friend of mine has this trouble with his students at an unnamed evangelicaliberty university who are automatically opposed to anything that looks ascetic or includes celibacy because it looks like Roman Catholicism and doesn’t contribute to evangelism.

Be ready for things in the Fathers that look Roman Catholic. They’re there. But do not assume the worst possible reading of all. Please. It tires me.

Heresy-hunting

Heresy-hunting is like suspicion. I first learned of this at Phil Snyder’s now-defunct blog Hyperekperissou. In this framework, people read the earlier Fathers looking for later heresies. So Justin is accused of being a Monarchianist or Cassian of being a Monophysite or even a Pelagian (!). We cannot back-read later orthodoxy or heresy onto the earlier Fathers. I believe that this stems from conservative Protestants, probably evangelical, who wish to discredit all Christian history between St. John’s vision on Patmos and Martin Luther on the one hand, and liberal Protestants, probably Anglican (quite frankly), who wish to find a way to justify their own eccentricities and dress them up like ‘progresive’ orthodoxy.

You will inevitably find things in the Fathers that sound like heresy to you. Ask what heresy, why this guy looks like a heretic, and why he is still a Church Father if he has allegedly committed ‘heresy’.

They’re Just Like Us

I once read this series of Christian romance novels called ‘The Mark of the Lion.’ True story. Anyway, what I found remarkable there was that late first-century Christians, rather than looking like the Didache look a heckuvalot like 20th-century nonconformist/free church evangelicals. Like Baptists, in other words. This, of course, was probably derived from not reading the Fathers. More commonly, this looks like something another friend of mine encountered at another evangelical university where a student pulled out Clement of Alexandria and said, ‘Look, third-century Christians believed in justification by faith!’ It is most commonly done by Orthodox who claim that Luke was the first iconographer and have all their modern, Byzantine practices confirmed. This practice, even if not used polemically, completely ignores the historical context of the writers involved.

Ancient Christians are very much like us. They believe in Jesus, that faith in him will save us. They pray. They have the same Bible. But they are not us. They are different. Be thankful for the similarities, but be wary of imagining that you and Aphrahat the Persian are the same.

Prooftexting

This is another dangerous way of reading the Fathers. It is often used in anti-Orthodox and anti-Catholic polemics. Passages such as St. Epiphanius of Salamis tearing down images in his local church are used in arguments with other Christians to prove to them that they are not as much like the early Christians as they thought. Sometimes the argument from silence is, that no Ante-Nicene Father seems to pray to saints — ha ha! You Orthodox scum are hellbound idolaters! Or it is clear from the Didache that the fasts were not the 40-day long abstinence-fests of Roman Catholicism originally. Ha ha! You Papist pagans have corrupted your own Tradition!

This is very, very dangerous. For example, we have Christian images that pre-date Epiphanius. So not all early Christians were iconoclasts. And, although the earliest pray-er to saints I can positively affirm is St. Paulinus of Nola, the Martyrdom of Polycarp seems to include relics and a saint’s shrine; Polycarp died in 155, so he’s not exactly a latecomer to the Christian tradition. Furthermore, although 40-day long abstinences are a development in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, by Melito of Sardis’ (d. ca. 180) time there seems to already have come into existence proto-Lent.

For every prooftext you can draw from the Fathers to fight the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, they’ll find a way to defang it. All you’ll do is fight with fellow Christians and get nowhere.

Devotional Reading

Devotional readings of the Fathers are not inherently bad. This is when you read a passage or text from the ancient Church and say, ‘Wow, this really speaks to my situation.’ Or you say, ‘Hey, this helps with x, y, or z modern problem.’ Or something like that. This is not a bad way of reading. I do it. I even do it on this blog.

But we have to distinguish between what the Fathers may say today and what the Fathers meant. Sometimes they are the same thing. Sometimes they are not. To help you distinguish, most modern translations of the Fathers come with handy introductions. Some, such as certain volumes in the Ancient Christian Writers series, have commentary. There are also handy introductory books such as Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series. Resources like these can help us distinguish between what Leo the Great means to me as a 21st-century Christian facing all the challenges this world holds, and what Leo the Great meant as a fifth-century Christian facing all the different challenges his world held.

I hope you can avoid these kinds of readings. The Fathers, I believe, are best read on their own terms and for your own edification — not as fuel for the battles for Christian identity that have raged since before 1054.

Originally posted at the pocket scroll.

A Book Sale, and Augustine on the Physicality of Books

The opening folio of a fifteenth-century manuscript of The City of God

Starting today and running through November 26, Christian Book Distributors is having a “Black Friday” sale on The Early Church Fathers—the compilation of English translations upon which we’ve based our reading schedule. If you are committed to the long, seven-year haul (or if you want to sink an investment to keep yourself motivated!), the entire thirty-eight volume set will be sold for $220, with free shipping within the U.S.A. At less than $6 a volume, this is probably by far the lowest price one could expect to pay for an extensive set of patristic literature.

Should you get the bound paper set? We’ve already noted a couple of drawbacks to this edited collection, in addition to the sheer bulk of nearly forty volumes looking for shelf space. The entire set has been made available free online (including all editors’ introductions and annotations), so if you’re reading this post, you already have all that you need to read the fathers.

Yet we know some of our readers may feel that the physicality of a book forms an important part of their reading experience. You are in good company if you feel this way—no less an eminent reader than Augustine of Hippo frequently pondered over his interaction with bound parchment texts—sometimes to an obsessive degree. When requesting that his recently completed City of God be copied, he wrote to the Carthaginian Firmus:

There are twenty-two books, which are too many to put together in one volume. If you want to make two volumes, they should be divided so that one volume has ten books and the other twelve. Those ten, of course, refute the vanities of non-believers, but the rest present and defend our religion, although, where it was more opportune, I defended our religion in the first ten and refuted their vanities in the last twelve. If you want more than two volumes, you must make five. The first of them should contain the first five books, in which I argued against those who maintain that the worship clearly not of gods but of demons contributes to the happiness of this life, while the second volume should contain the five that follow against those who think that many gods, whether such gods or any whatsoever, should be worshiped through sacred rites and sacrifices on account of the life that will be after death. Now the three other volumes that follow should have four books each. For we divided that part so that four books would explain the origin of that city, the next four its progress or, as we prefer to say, its development, and the final four the ends due to those cities.1

For Augustine, it was supremely important that the physical division of his writings not interfere with the conceptual divisions.2 One disadvantage to our seven-page reading regimen is that it risks obscuring the larger whole of a work, and keeping the physically bounded copy in one’s hands may lend a firmer sense of orientation, especially within longer works like The City of God. For this reason I for one am planning to read the fathers using paper books, either The Early Church Fathers set or other translations that we recommend along the way. Whether that’s the best choice for your situation is, of course, entirely up to you.

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