Pillaging the Fathers

In the same Public Square column to which I referred in the post below, Joseph Bottum tells of a new “Center For Early Christian Studies” at that bastion of Evangelicalism Wheaton College. He quotes the newly appointed director:

“What is missing in American Protestantism is an understanding of the richness of the early Church. One looks at reformers such as Calvin, Luther, and Wesley and one sees the dependence on the early Church. The Reformation itself is a call to come back to the Church. It is a call to the Church to come back to the tradition of the Church.” This is meant to go beyond “pillaging” the Fathers of the Church by mining their writings for quotations to support preconceived positions. Rather, says Kalantzis, we “need to delve into it and truly live with them and understand them, where their conflicts were and what their thought patterns were. How else are we going to understand our faith if we don’t understand those who delivered it to us?”

My emphasis, of course, but not my words. Note that this is a Protestant who sees the danger of “pillaging the Fathers” to support preconceived ideas. May he who has ears to hear listen to what the Fathers are saying to the Churches!

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6 responses to “Pillaging the Fathers

  1. matthias

    I have just finished reading Eusebius’s THE CHURCH HISTORY . Although the version i read had been modernised as part of a PhD for Concordia Seminary in the US (i think judging by the dedication),yet I felt immense gratitude for the heritage we have. I think that many in the Believer’s Churches-Baptists/Pentecostals/Church of Christ/- should read this book or similar books to ensure that they are preaching and living the Gospel; not in error;to realise that the Prosperity Gospel is as much a heresy as gnosticism or Sabellianism;and to understand that they ,bought at a price-Christ’s Atoning Death- are in a Faith where many of our ancestors in the faith ,sealed it with their blood.
    I am conscious that whenever i take Holy Communion that i am directly linked with the many generations of Christians who have walked before me and who are now the great cloud of witnesses

  2. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Let me guess — the Fathers are saying to the churches The Catholic Church, The Catholic Church, The Catholic Church!

  3. matthias

    “Let him who has ears to hear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the Churches”

  4. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Yeah I remember when I bought my first book of patristic writings. It was edited by a Protestant, and I remember thinking How can anyone read these Catholic fathers and not be or become Catholic?

    Like the RCC hasn’t pillaged the Fathers for its own purposes. Right. But I was years away from finding that out.

  5. I’m sure the last remark is directed to me, so perhaps I might be permitted a reply?

    Mining (better than pillaging, no?) the Fathers for quotations that support particular doctrines is a practice almost as old as theology itself. Ironically, I first got the idea from a Roman Catholic seminary text called Faith of Our Fathers, which is actually quite helpful as a compendium of patristic quotes. Of course, this is less than satisfactory as a method, but I strive to provide the full references so readers can check the quotes in context for themselves and make their own minds up. Many of these texts are freely available on the net, thanks to “Protestant” websites!

    Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the resources to write extended essays on Augustine’s soteriology or the anthropology of the Apostolic Fathers, and if I did I would not regard a blog as the best place to publish them, assuming they were worthy of publication.

    However, if I can show that the world of the Fathers is a more complex and variegated world than Roman Catholics and Orthodox often contend, then I at least judge it a worthwhile endeavour.

    Of course, as a Lutheran, I would deny that I am mining the Fathers for “pre-conceived” “ideas”; because the subjects I am posting on are by and large based on the theological encyclopedia shared by all confessions, and therefore they are categories of doctrine, in other words teaching, words of life, not, heaven help us, “ideas”.

    Pax,
    Mark

    • Dear Mark and PE,

      Of course all sides can play the mining and pillaging game. I need only think of the way in which, in the past, Orthodox and Catholics have “mined” the Fathers for support on their position on the Papacy. We are, I am glad to say, leaving this nonsense behind and adopting a new method of sitting down together and reading the Fathers as a whole.

      What I am getting at, and what I take the point of the Wheaton College department to be, is that in seeking unity of faith we need to get beyond this and read the Fathers wholistically and in their context and in relation to one another. In otherwords, it is precisely “essays on Augustine’s soteriology or the anthropology of the Apostolic Fathers” that will aid us rather than finding proof texts from the Fathers that support our own particular ideas. We need to be able to the whole patristic collection together as a block, to weigh the different opinions according to the different authority and context of the author, and to say “Yes, this is the Faith of the Church”, or contra-wise. It is a matter of looking at the whole forest, and not a particular tree, or even a particular leaf.

      My favourite example of “pillaging the Fathers” and then building a whole theological point of view upon it is the way in which Lutherans like to cite St Jer0me as support for their practice of ordination by presbyters.