Read the Fathers

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Tag: why readers are reading

Why Read: Aaron Hayes

Blogger Aaron Hayes has enthusiastically recommended the Read the Fathers project. In one of his blog posts, which he has asked that we include as part of our series on why readers are reading, he lists five reasons  to read the Fathers. Here are his reasons:

1. You Will Know Your Family History.  Many Christians from a variety of traditions often refer to “our church family” and point out the frequent family language used throughout the Scriptures.  There is of course nothing wrong with this, but the view of family here is often limited to one’s local congregation.  Our family is MUCH bigger than this, and includes those who have gone before us (and are still alive in Christ).   In an age when orthodoxy is mocked and every opinion considered equally valid, reading and studying the fathers will show how temporal much of what passes for modern trendy theology and church is.

Michelangelo - Torment of St. Anthony

Michelangelo’s Torment of St. Anthony

2. You Will Be Inspired.  If as a Christian you do not weep at some point while reading the Martyrdom of Polycarp, you are doing it wrong.  And this is only one writing.  When you see these ancient Christians stand up to emperors, conquer the flesh, encourage the struggling, persevere through suffering, and do their best to live authentic Christian lives, it will make you want to “go and do likewise.”  This will also help you put our current situation in the West into perspective.  Speaking of the West…

3.  Restoring the West.  It is almost cliché to mention the decadence of the West, but the fact of moral, spiritual, and cultural decline is ever-present. One great way to help reclaim the culture is to rediscover our roots.  What is great about western civilization is founded on the Judeo-Christian and Classical traditions, and the church fathers were steeped in both.  Our own heritage is counter-cultural today, and one must be familiar with it in order to take action and educate others to “stem the tide.”  This is one way in which we can truly create culture, rather than just whine and complain about it.  Read Gregory the Theologian’s Poetry and set it to music if you must!

4.  It Will Help You Read the Scriptures.  As theologian Thomas C. Oden puts it, “The history of the church is a history of exegesis.”  The fathers knew the Scriptures extremely well (many had huge portions memorized), and many were active pastors teaching the Scriptures to their flock.  Reading how John Chrysostom teaches on Matthew, or how Gregory the Great deals with Job, will force you to dig into the text, and better understand the Scriptures yourself.  Even if you disagree with a conclusion, you will have to know why you disagree, meaning you are contending with Holy Scripture the entire time. The Holy Spirit has been with the church since Pentecost, so why not read how the Spirit guided what became some of the most foundational received doctrine in Christendom?

5.  It Will Help You Be Disciplined.  Self-denial and discipline, especially of the mind, are not popular in today’s entertainment and consumer driven culture.  We may admire those who are able to exhibit such behavior, but we rarely do anything ourselves.  By committing to do this in community, with a schedule and seeing how others respond, you will be amazed at how little time you will have for frivolous things.  In fact, if reading the fathers caused more Christians to get rid of most Christian self-help books based in individualist pop-psychology, many pastors would be in trouble (in a good way).  In a very real sense, reclaiming our classic Christian heritage could go a long way in regards to renewal in the church.

Why Read: The Pocket Scroll

For about six months now I’ve been reading The Pocket Scroll, a blog that is “a home for GK Chesterton’s ‘Democracy of the Dead’ and “a place for musings about the Great Tradition of Christianity.” The author—Scholiast—has just written a post about why he is going to join in reading the fathers. Here is one paragraph—you can read the rest at the blog.

I cannot recommend this idea enough. The challenges and wonders and mind-stretching ideas that come from reading the Fathers are exactly what the pocket scroll is about. I started this blog not only to have a place to work through some ideas but as a place to encourage others to meet with the texts that have formed the Christian faith and made it what it is today to help bring them to a place of deeper faith in God, greater awe before Him, fuller strength in the face of trouble, truer holiness in a licentious society.

I hope you’ll read some of the other posts at the Pocket Scroll, especially the series about “classic Christianity.” As the paragraph quoted above states, the whole blog is an argument for reading the fathers to learn a deeper faith and practice, and it contains a lot of helpful information about the Christian tradition along the way. That’s why I’ve taken the liberty including these excerpts as part of our series of posts on why readers are reading.

In the Pocket Scroll’s sidebar you’ll see the list of posts that make up the “classic Christianity” series. After reading the introduction, you might pay special attention to the post “What is Classic Christianity?” Here is a taste:

Paleo-orthodoxy seeks to learn theology from dead guys, to encounter the truths of orthodoxy in the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, drawing from the rich well of the first 1000 years of consensual Christian witness to the Truth. Classic Christianity reads these ancient Classics, seeking always the Truth, always Christ, always a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and God’s revelation to us. Classic Christianity seeks to be in communion with all that is good in the Christian tradition, drawing from the wells not only of the first 1000 years, but of the great Tradition as it gallops across the world and through time.

Be sure to also look at the second post, “Why Classic Christianity?” which is followed up by an excerpt from G. K. Chesterton on reading.

Why Read: Amy Cavender

[This is the second post in our series on why readers are reading. The author, Amy Cavender, is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Holy Cross and an assistant professor of political science at Saint Mary’s College. If you are interested in contributing a similar post (details here), please send us a note. —LAM]

An icon of Constantine, Helena, and the True Cross

Constantine, Helena, and the discovery of the true cross

When I first learned about the “Read the Fathers” project, I was immediately intrigued, and it didn’t take me very long to get signed up and to add the first year’s reading schedule to my calendar.

Why? What on earth would interest me in reading the works of the early Church Fathers?

Partly, it’s curiosity. I enjoy learning about matters religious, and I’ve not read the Fathers—so signing on for the project means I get to read something new, in an area that interests me.

But there’s more to it than that. The Church Fathers are part of the heritage that belongs to us as Christians, just as, for instance, the American Founders are an important part of the heritage that belongs to citizens of the United States. It certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the Founders’ works to be a good American citizen. Still, it’s worth knowing something of the history of the Founding if one wishes to understand what the United States is all about. Familiarity with the Founders’ written works provides an even deeper understanding of the American project.

I see the project of reading the Fathers similarly. Of course one can be a good Christian without knowing much about Church history or being familiar with the writings of the earlierst generations of Church leaders to follow the Apostles. But one’s understanding of and appreciation for Christianity in all its richness can be enhanced by both. That, far more than mere curiousity, is what’s prompted me to sign up.

Why Read: Megan V.

[This post is the first in what we hope will be a series of posts by readers explaining why they want to take on reading the church fathers. Megan V. draws from Mark Noll, Augustine, and T. S. Eliot to explain what has brought her to patristics. If you are interested in contributing a similar post (details here), please send us a note. —LAM]

A tree through a dirty window

 And He spoke a parable unto them. (Luke 18:1)

In an old country house, there was a window that looked out on a tall tree. The house’s owner would come and look through the window at the tree.  He could see the tree clearly, from its roots to its crown, because the window was kept clean and clear. Then the owner died, and no one came to the house for seventy years. No one cleaned the window, and it grew very dusty. Spiderwebs crisscrossed its surface. At last, a young woman came to the house. She reached the window and looked out, but the grime that covered the window after seventy years so obscured the tree that she could see only its shadow.

Just so, I have come to realize that the two thousand years between the early church and the contemporary one obscure (and sometimes even distort) my sight of the Christian faith. As seventy years covered the window with dust and cobwebs, so twenty centuries have covered the faith with so many political maneuvers, crusades, national re-awakenings and reformations, and even benign changes in the church service or Bible reading that sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between biblical doctrine and recent historical tradition. Ultimately, this is the reason why I am planning to read the Fathers: to see more clearly how Christianity was meant to be experienced, which is not necessarily how we experience it today.

Last spring, I read Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It was Noll who pointed out to me most clearly that what some people would consider ‘simple biblical truth’ (120) is in fact a recent invention, made popular by its historical and cultural contexts.

For example, I was raised premillenialist, and so as a child I assumed that believers way back to Paul accepted this position because it was ‘simple biblical truth.’ Not so. Premillenialism is popular in part because evangelials leaned heavily on its doctrines in order to cope with the massive social changes in 1800s America, such as increasing secularization and the Industrial Revolution. Timothy Weber suggests that “the premillenialist view of the future provided both a blessed hope and a way of understanding why things were going so badly. There [was] an ironic comfort in knowing that centuries ago, the Bible predicted this mess.” (qtd Noll 120). Its theological truth aside, there is no doubt that premillenialism was emphasized as important Christian doctrine partly because it spoke to an important emotional need two hundred years ago.

To take a less-doctrinal example, consider the chapters and verses added to Scripture. Noll points out that readers who rely on these for Bible study risk confusing actual biblical truth with human interpretation, necessarily added along with chapters and verses in the 1500s (134). To stop reading and start reading at what are sometimes arbitrary and always human divisions of God’s word is about as useful to good interpretation as chopping Michaelangelo’s David into twenty pieces for art appreciation. What was meant to be appreciated and understood as a whole is subdivided into so many little pieces that the original meaning is sometimes lost altogether. I re-read Galatians several years ago, and, finishing the book in a single sitting, I saw more clearly than ever before the stress Paul lays on Christian liberty. Yes, reading Galatians a few verses or chapters at a time is often more practical, and the verses were added for a legitimate need: the need to locate passages of Scripture easily and quickly. But their legitimate purpose does not change the fact that the chapter-and-verse divisions are a historical tradition, one which not only helps but also hinders believers’ ability to understand their faith.

In giving these examples, I am not trying to convince you to give up a belief in premillenialism or to seek out a Bible in which the chapter and verse divisions have been erased. To argue theological truth or hermeneutical practice is far beyond the scope of my post! No, my hope is point out that history does not wash over us, like waves over a rock, and leave us unchanged. Christian practice has been adapted and re-adapted to meet the particular needs of the moment, again and again within the last two thousand years. Yes, much crucial doctrine has been left intact, but there are also areas in which our understanding has been, like the tree through the dirty window, obscured and distorted by the grime of history.

So, I am back to my original point: In an attempt to ‘clean the window’ and see Christian practice without its historical detritus, I plan to read the early church fathers. Like the house owner who saw the tree through the clean, clear window, the church fathers saw the church grow up in its original cnotext, free of endless historical permutations. No, they were not necessarily closer to God or better able to interpret Scripture than we by virtue of the century in which they lived; we too are ‘guided into all truth’ by God Himself. Yes, the Church Fathers also experienced their faith through culture, but this is a problem that cannot be escaped until Heaven; this side of Paradise, all experience is through culture and time. The Church Father’s culture, not ours, was the original one to Christianity and so the one in which the events and practices and messages of the early church should be understood.

But these limitations should come as no surprise and do not undermine the importance of reading the Fathers: We have been warned that we will understand our faith only ‘through a glass darkly’, and in light of such a warning, it should be our goal to see as clearly as possible. It was the Church Fathers, not us, who stood at the window before it was made dirty by time and saw through it as clearly as human eyes can see. It is the Church Fathers, therefore ,who can help us clear our own vision of the contaminations of historical shifts and see our faith clearly. To read the Fathers is to ‘unweave, unwind, unravel’ the accumulated cultural shifts and confusion of the last two thousand years and see our faith in its appropriate setting, and our God in the culture to which He originally revealed Himself.

 

* Image courtesy of Flick user thisreidwrites // Creative Commons licensed

Why Do *You* Want to Read the Fathers?

A number of people have written to us to say that they are planning to read the church fathers. We’ve asked a few of them to write a brief (or not so brief) blog post explaining why they plan to join the reading group. We assume the reasons are as varied as readers.

If you would like to explain why you plan to read, please send us a note and we’ll be glad to consider your post. The post can be as short as 100 words, or whatever length suits you.

We’ll run the first post from one of our readers on Monday. We hope to hear from you.

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