Why Study the Fathers?

Our generation is afflicted with a kind of historical amnesia, which, unfortunately, has not left the Church untouched. For instance, Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a professing Christian after a lifetime of skepticism, in remarks made in the account of his conversion, stated that in the final analysis “history is phony.” As he went on to say: “…in the case of the greatest happenings such as Christ’s life and death, historicity is completely without importance. It is very important to know the history of Socrates because Socrates is dead, but the history of Christ doesn’t matter because he is alive.” [Jesus Rediscovered (London: Wm. Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1972), 204]. In such an intellectual ambience—which is nonsensical to anyone who values the historicity of Christian origins—the question, “Why study the Fathers?” must be asked again and answered afresh. Listed below are a number of reasons that can be considered an initial step in this direction.

First, study of the Fathers, like any historical study, liberates us from the present [C.S. Lewis, “De descriptione temporum” in Walter Hooper, ed., Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: At the University Press, 1969), 12]. Every age has a certain outlook, presuppositions which remain unquestioned even by opponents. The examination of another period of thought forces us to confront our innate prejudices which would go unnoticed otherwise.

For instance, Gustaf Aulén, in his classic study of the atonement, Christus Victor, argues that an objective study of the Patristic concept of Atonement will reveal a motif which has received little attention in post-Reformation Christianity: the idea of the Atonement as a divine conflict and victory, in which Christ fights and overcomes the evil powers of this world, under whom man has been held in bondage. According to Aulén, what is commonly accepted as the New Testament doctrine of the Atonement, the forensic theory of satisfaction, may in fact be a concept quite foreign to the New Testament. As to whether he is right or not—and I think he is quite wrong—can only come by a fresh examination of the sources, both New Testament and Patristic.

Then, the Fathers can provide us with a map for the Christian life. It is indeed exhilarating to stand on the east coast and watch the Atlantic surf and hear the pound of the waves. But this experience will be of little benefit in sailing to England. For this a map is needed. A map based upon the accumulated experience of thousands of voyagers. Similarly, we need such a map for the Christian life. Experiences are fine and good, but they will not serve as a suitable foundation for our lives in Christ. To be sure, we have the divine Scriptures, an ultimately sufficient foundation for all of our needs (2 Timothy 3:16-17). But the thought of the Fathers can help us enormously in building on this foundation.

A fine example is provided by Athanasius’ doctrine of the Spirit in his letters to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis. The present day has seen a resurgence of interest in the Person of the Holy Spirit. This is admirable, but also fraught with danger if the Spirit is conceived of apart from Christ. Yet, Athanasius’ key insight was that “from our knowledge of the Son we may be able to have true knowledge of the Spirit” (Letter to Serapion 3.1). The Spirit cannot be divorced from the Son: not only does the Son send and give the Spirit, but the Spirit is the principle of the Christ-life within us. Many have fallen into fanatical enthusiasm because they failed to realize this basic truth: the Spirit cannot be separated from the Son.

Third, the Fathers may also, in some cases, help us to understand the New Testament. We have had too disparaging a view of Patristic exegesis, and have come close to considering the exposition of the Fathers as a consistent failure to understand the New Testament. For instance Cyril of Jerusalem in his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:5, which concerns temporary abstinence of sexual relations between married couples for the sake of prayer, assumes without question that the prayer is liturgical and communal prayer (Catechesis 4.25).

Cyril may be guilty of an anachronism, for he was a leader in “the hallowing of the time,” that is, the observance of holy seasons. Nonetheless, there is good evidence that such communal observances, in some form or other, are quite early. The liturgical life of the Church of Jerusalem in the fourth century was not that of Corinth in the first, but nevertheless there were links. Possibly it is the Protestant commentators who are guilty of anachronism when they assume that Paul meant private prayer; such religious individualism is more conceivable in the Protestant West than in first-century Corinth.

As T.F. Torrance writes, “[There is a] fundamental coherence between the faith of the New Testament and that of the early Church… The failure to discern this coherence in some quarters evidently has its roots in the strange gulf, imposed by analytical methods, between the faith of the primitive Church and the historical Jesus. In any case I have always found it difficult to believe that we modern scholars understand the Greek of the New Testament better than the early Greek Fathers themselves! [Space, Time and Resurrection (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1976), xii].

These three reasons are only a start towards giving a full answer to the question, “Why study the Fathers?” There are certainly other reasons for studying these ancient authors which may be more obvious or even more important. But these three reasons sufficiently indicate the need for Patristic studies in the ongoing life of the Church: to aid in her liberation for the Zeitgeist of the twenty-first century; to provide a guide in her walk with Christ; to help her understand the basic witness to her faith, the New Testament.