Fathers of the Church

My Christmas present to readers of this electronic journal this year will be to tell you to go read the Church Fathers. I should mention that you are getting this advice already “used,” or at least secondhand. I already wrote a column saying the same thing in a different way in my (very) secular newspaper column, suggesting to the (mostly very) secular readers of it that, say, Irenaeus of Lyons would be a good place to start. But it strikes me now that Christian people should also consider reading the Church Fathers.

Even I should consider doing so, which is how this whole idea got started. Lately I have found myself immersed in them — and very glad of the immersion, and of the increasing excitement that comes from dispersing the fog and finding an ocean where I’d expected a pond.

Many years ago, as a vertiginously High Anglican, I made an inadequate start. You know: Augustine’s Confessions, and then a dip into City of God. These are often taken as discrete works, as classics for Everyman to consume along with, say, Mansfield Park and Great Expectations.

Augustine will indeed serve in all seasons, and for a particular reason is more immediately accessible today than any other ancient Christian writer — for the whole modern or post-classical world, and most of its attitudes, are incarnated in him. Even to the least initiated, he may feel like a contemporary of ours, this side of the Wall of Antiquity.

As one looks back over time, it becomes harder and harder to appreciate, in its own context, the magnitude of the “creative genius” that made this transformation possible, from “ancient” to “modern” sensibilities — first in Augustine and then, gradually, in everyone who followed in his wake. In the manner of our English Shakespeare, he steps decisively out of time — so that centuries are required to realize how “new” he is; and more centuries are still required to discover what else lurks within the old text. Yet Augustine is that much bigger and more consequential than Shakespeare: for what we call today “the West” was, in some sense, invented by him, seemingly almost singlehanded.

 

But it was not invented out of nothing; and it is in reading Scripture, and then rereading Scripture in the light of the earliest Church Fathers, that the path emerges from there to here. Things — infinite things — that are implicit in the teachings and life of Christ are unraveling or uncoiling and unfolding over time, as the nymph turns into the dragonfly before our eyes.

Yet there is something almost as grand, and in some respects even grander than Augustine, in Origen. One of the thrills of my own earlier life was finding (in a Protestant translation) his long epistle “Against Celsus” — in which the great genius of Alexandria is put to the trouble of explaining not only what “improbable things” Christians believe, but why, to a highly educated and very sophisticated and skeptical representative of the intelligentsia in the ancient pagan world.

Origen is directly on the path from Christ to Augustine. I wish when I had first found him I had been equipped with Hans Urs von Balthasar’s marvelous book Spirit and Fire, a “thematic anthology” of Origen’s writings; for the contemporary reader needs the direction of such a learned but lively Catholic hand, if he is not to become bewildered by the very range of Origen’s mind, almost invariably more orthodox than first appears.

Origen was enthralling to me, as a then-recent Christian convert, because he touched the ground I had recently walked over. There were moments in which it seemed that he was writing not to Celsus but to me. I realized that, superficial as my education had been, it was in one respect quite thorough. I had had instilled in me, by my well-meaning teachers, a pagan sense of the ancient pagan world: I actually expected Christian apologists to be intellectually deficient and drowsy, in comparison to the great pagan philosophers. and in point of style diffuse and embarrassing. It was a shock to discover such a sharp blade — and more where he came from.

Moreover, I’d been disposed, by the Protestant environment in which I was raised (as everyone in North America is raised), not to expect the earliest Christian writers to be very Catholic. Only recently has this “nervous twitch” been entirely cured — this fear that what is recognizably “Roman Catholic” will not emerge until Augustine’s time or later; that the first few centuries belong equally to all denominational comers.

Ignatius of Antioch is our man for this (though hardly the only one). He flourished — to the point of martyrdom — under the reign of Trajan (98 to 117 A.D.) and is known to us only as the author of letters written to various local churches while himself en route to Rome for his own execution. These fragments, recovered in Greek, Latin, and Syriac recensions, are so obviously imbued with Catholic dogma — uttered unselfconsciously and unambiguously and unmistakably, in such an unquenchably joyous spirit — that Protestant scholars long assumed they’d been faked. But such is the progress of scholarship that it is no longer possible even for them to try this on. “He’s there and he’s bare,” to paraphrase our contemporary idiom — and as infallibly Roman as Pope Pius IX.

 

I would go on, but this column is already coming in sight of its word count. Read Hans Urs von Balthasar, perhaps, as a guide to the early Fathers; or read Newman, who provides another viable route from our world to one that was younger. And discover, once you have arrived there, that the world has not changed. The myriad gnostic heresies are still on offer in their modernized forms; the “free market” of spacey “alternative religions” is still with us; the threat of persecution for orthodoxy remains; and the demands made upon us by Our Savior have not been altered over time. The pope in Rome will always be besieged by the media of the day, and terrible things will continue to happen.

Those “alternative religions” (including in our age everything from Communism to Environmentalism to Hippie Buddhism to Lesbo-Feminism to Radical Islamism) have the luxury of becoming extinct over time and being replaced by “fresh” gnostic alternatives to catch the breeze of fashion, so that they do not need to worry about internal consistency. Catholic Christianity does not have that luxury, and generation after generation we must pick up all the pieces and move on.

But there will be no generation in which our people will not benefit immensely by anchoring themselves, not only in the wise reading of Scripture, but in the Fathers and Doctors of the Church. That literature is vast and various — more than a lifetime’s reading for anyone — yet perfectly coherent, as it all revolves around our common Sun in Christ.

And in its very breadth and wealth it provides the antidote to the “five-foot bookshelf” — to the constraining spirit in what remains of our university humanities departments. For there is a mental five-foot bookshelf installed in almost every graduate: the list of commonly accepted “classics,” with whose paperback blurbs he is familiar. It is a five-foot shelf on which four feet at least are occupied by standard secular “classics” — including the bloated remains of the Victorian age, represented in every paperback line.

Young educated Catholics need to know that their heritage cannot be accommodated in those five feet (Migne alone is 400 folio volumes); and Catholic educators need to know that they have failed, terribly, to make the Catholic literature apparent to their young charges. For we live in a corner of the Catholic universe; it does not live in a corner of this.

 

Image: Altarpiece of the Church Fathers, Michael Pacher (1483)

David Warren

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David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

  • Marymk

    Thanks, this was a great reminder for me, to continue a perusal of texts of the Fathers posted on New Advent, something I started to do a little at a time some years ago.

  • Mike

    Roman? I would say the Fathers are/were certainly Catholic. One finds in them the source of everything that is Greek Catholic and Orthodox. Specifically Roman? No.

  • Rouxfus

    Treat yourselves , or better, give someone else this Christmas to a wonderful 2.99 stocking stuffer for your iDevice: an app called iPieta, which contains not only a significant chunk of Catholic prayers, litanies and novenas, but the Douay-reims bible, commentaries, writings of the saints, not the least of which are the works of the Church Fathers. It also inludes a liturgical calender (ordinary and extraordinary), papal documents, council docs, and several catechisms. I have no relationship with the publisher, other than an eternal debt of gratitude to them for creating this amazing resource of the faith.

  • Robert Hartley

    Hans Urs von Balthasar was a heretic, not a “guide to the early Fathers.” You should know better.

  • Marthe L

    to Rouxfus: This “app” seems really interesting… but I am not familiar with that new technology of “iDevice”. Could you direct me, and probably other old-fashioned people like myself reading this, towards something like a Web site containing similar treasures? Please?

  • Joe Paul

    With regards to Mike’s comment about the Church Fathers being more Greek or Orthodox as opposed to Roman Catholic, it should be noted that there was no such thing as the Greek or Orthodox Church at the time of the Church Fathers. I believe that these names did not come into vogue until several hundred years later when they rejected the primacy of the bishop of Rome which had been readily accepted up until that time. No offense is meant, however it is precisely the attempt to apply labels to ones faith which the Apostle spoke to when he noted that no of us were saved by Paul or John the Baptist but by Jesus Christ and our first and only allegiance is to the one Church that he founded upon the Apostle Peter. To read the Church Fathers and not see this is to deny their words and the testimony that they gave often at a cost of their lives. May we all be faithful to the one true Church through which our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ continues to speak to us by.

  • Rouxfus

    Martin – sorry about the confusion – an iDevice is simply my nickname for the Apple iOS mobile devices. iPieta runs on all of them.

  • craig

    Mike and Joe Paul, I would not read too much into David Warren’s use of “Roman” in context. He was not implying nor addressing any discrepancy between Eastern and Western faith, but the one that so clearly exists between Rome and (particularly) the descendants of Calvin. There is a foundational myth popular in low-church communions (Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.) that their beliefs are those of the early church, while the doctrines truncated and excised from Scripture and Tradition by their ancestors were “Roman accretions”.

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