Monday, August 04, 2014

What is Patristics?

My research is in the field of Patristics. Technically it's not, but really it is. Often people have very little idea what I'm talking about. So in this post, and possibly some subsequent ones, I will attempt to briefly introduce my field, why it's important, and what I'm doing.

1. What is Patristics?

Patristics is a word that derives from the word pater (virtually identical in both Greek and Latin) meaning 'father'. In this context it refers to 'Church Fathers', which we use to talk about early Christian men, and some women ('Church Mothers'), who were writing in the first few centuries after the time of the New Testament. Patristics, then, is the study of these writings and their ideas.

The field of Patristics starts just after the New Testament, with a group of writings and writers known as the Apostolic Fathers. They are the writings from the very end of the 1st century and through the first half of the 2nd century. 'Apostolic' in this sense means not that they were Apostles, but that they were the generation who came directly after, and may have had contact with, the Apostles. The writing of this second and third generation differs remarkably from the New Testament documents, and reveals the churches 'working out' both theology and practice in their context.

As the churches grow and develop over the first few centuries, they face many challenges both in theology and practice, and this is reflected in their writings. Many of the things we take for granted as 'Christian' are in fact the outworking of these early Christians reading the Scriptures, and working out what did it mean to live in faithful obedience to Jesus and his Word in those days.

The Patristic era is often given different end dates. Some date it right through until 787 (the 2nd Council of Nicaea). Personally, I date the end in the West (i.e. Western Europe and Latin writing) to Gregory the Great, who was the Roman Pope until his death in 604; in the East (the emergent Byzantine empire and writing in Greek) I date it a little later, to John of Damascus, who died in 749. At about both these times you see a new shift in how Christian writers and thinkers refer to the past. John of Damascus is a good example, since in his own writings he provides a synthesis of the 'fathers' who have gone before. This period sees a shift to treating the Fathers themselves as a body of authoritative theological reflection, and the subsequent period as an elaboration on that.

While traditionally Patristics has often focused on Greek and Latin literature (where my own focus lies), there are other writing and theological traditions, of which the most important would be the Syrian tradition, representing the development of Christianity outside the context of the Roman Empire.

2. Why bother? The objections and difficulties of Patristics.

A. Who cares what 3rd century Christians wrote about?

Early Christians wrote about a lot of things. Some of them seem irrelevant. But theology is always relevant because God is always relevant. It matters today that the Son is a divine person of the same substance with the Father. It matters today that the Spirit is according equal honour and worship with the Father and Son. It matters today that we confess the same God.

B. Didn't they syncretise with Greek philosophy?

There is a view, sometimes found in 'folk' forms and sometimes in academic forms, that as Christianity moved out of its Jewish origins it 'melded' with Hellenism and created a Hybrid. This is usually seen as a 'Bad Thing' (tm). It's both a hopelessly massive over-generalisation, and a misapprehension about cultures, ways of thinking, and a form of presentism.

Yes, Christianity did move into a Graeco-Roman context. And yes, Christians often utilised language and thought-forms from that context. Which is exactly what you do today. You try and find ways to understand theology that fit your context, express it in the language and culture of your terms. Early Christian writers were quite well aware of their own context - they often had sophisticated training in literature, philosophy, logic, and argumentation, and they were both self-critical about that, and debated about what could and could not be applied to theological discussion. Furthermore they sought to understand and explicate the Scriptures in their linguistic and cultural context. The extent to which they succeeded is a good question, the mere acknowledgement that they did is simply a recognition of the process at work in all contextualisation.

C. Protestants have no business worrying about those Catholic and Orthodox writers.

This objection arises from a narrative that mistakenly views church history as composed of two 'real' periods: 30-100 AD, and then 1517 onwards Eurocentric culture. It misunderstands that for most of the early period there was no 'Roman Catholic' church, nor was there an 'Eastern Orthodox' church in the sense that the term is understood today. There was simply 'the Church'. Protestants emerge out of that tradition just as much as other branches do. Moreover, early reformers knew and made use of the Church Fathers extensively. These writers aren't 'Roman Catholic' or 'Eastern Orthodox', though sometimes people like to claim they are; that's just intra-Christian apologetics. If Protestants claim to be a confessional form of Christianity built on the Creed of Nicaea and Constantinople and the Definition of Chalcedon, then they have no choice but to meaningful engage with Patristic studies.

D. We've moved on.

I sometimes hear this in the context that now we are 2000 years post-Jesus, we live in an entirely different context, and we understand things 'better'. All of which is temporal chauvinism with historical myopia. Yes, we do live in a different context. But we will certainly learn to deal with it better if we look at how other believers engaged in their context. More than that, our context emerges from their context. To simply ignore the Fathers is to be collectively memory-less. As if we were Jews in the time of Jesus who said, "Who cares about the Exodus and the Exile? We don't need to remember those things because we're in Judea and we've got the Temple". Christians are en-storied people who are grafted in to a community with a history; we move forward but we don't move 'on'. We keep 'coming back' to our history and our origins.

E. It all seems so technical. Why not just read the Bible?

Because we're not alone. Christianity isn't about sitting in a room with you, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit. It's also about being part of a family, part of a community, that stretches across time and space. Reading the Fathers is about reading with others, so that we read the Scriptures together. Patristics is rarely a rarefied technical journey into esoteric theory (though sometimes it is); it is far more often the attempt to read and understand the Bible, the very thing we also ought to be doing today.

3. Why Patristics? The value of patristics for the ongoing life of the Church.

If we are confessional Christians, Patristics is essential. The theological debates and controversies of the first few centuries produced profound theological reflection on core areas of Christian belief: the nature of God, Christology, Soteriology, Ecclesiology. Especially in the 4th and 5th century there was concerted effort to discern what do the Scriptures teach us about the nature of God, the Incarnation, and the person and work of Christ. No Protestant, R.Catholic, or E.Orthodox believer can reasonably claim to be so excepting fidelity to the Creed of Constantinople and the Definition of Chalcedon, even if only implicitly.

And yet one great danger is that we take the creeds and formularies, and set them adrift. Those creeds arose in a context, and with a theology attached to them, that arose out of exegesis. If we do not engage with the theology and exegesis of the Fathers, we have merely an empty form of words into which we eisegete our own ahistorical dreamings.

If we are communual Christians, who exist as part of the body of Christ, then we are called to read Scripture not in isolation, but in fellowship with other believers. The communion of saints is trans-locational, trans-ethnic, trans-lingual, and trans-temporal. These are believers who lived closer in time, language, and culture, to the Biblical periods, than we. As well, they engaged in deep and sharp analysis and reflection upon the Scriptures. We rob ourselves and our children if we neglect them.

If we are finite, historically-conditioned believers (which we must be), then engagement with our past equips us to understand not only them, but us. For we are their philosophical and theological descendants. There is no bypassing the past, ignoring tradition, and 'just' reading the Bible. Even to ignore this tradition is to make an engagement, a totally ignorant and foolish one, with the Patristic legacy. We are shaped by this legacy whether we like it or not, which is why we must actively engage with it.

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to plagiarism. I don't hold a cyclical view of history that says we will 'repeat' it, but so much of what is thrashed out theologically today is dealt with by the Fathers. To ignore it generally means to repeat it. Most heresy is not new at all. Engagement with the Fathers allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Lastly, it is spiritual formative. To read and study the Fathers is to read and study the Scriptures, is to study and know God. They are guides and conversation partners, older and well-established, whose insights have already stood the test of time. Instead of being caught up in the latest evangelical fad or pop speaker, we may indeed grow closer to God in holiness as we share the journey with ancients.

In my next post on this topic, I will spend some time introducing the major time-periods and some authors within Patristics.

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