Recovering the Church Fathers
The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, by Fra Angelico

The Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church have – rather providentially happily – been the subject of a bit of a renaissance among Christians in recent decades.  This recovery has been spurred on by the ecumenical movement (which, in part, moved forward by looking back), and by the awakening, in some corners of Protestantism, of a desire to recover the roots of Christian worship and thought.  But how do we re-appropriate them today? Is it simply a matter of dusting off old books, that we might quote the occasional Augustine or Chrysostom and sound informed? Fr. Alexander Schmemann, in a book I cannot recommend enough, says this misses the point entirely:

A mere reading of the Fathers, useful and essential as it is, will not suffice.  For even patristic texts can be made, and are often made, into “proofs” of theological systems deeply alien to the real “mind” of the Fathers.  The “patristic revival” of our time would miss completely its purpose if it were to result in a rigid “patristic system” which in reality never existed.  It is indeed the eternal merit of the Fathers that they showed the dynamic and not static nature of Christian theology, its power always to be “contemporary” without reduction to any “contemporaneousness,” open to all human aspirations without being determined by any of them. If the return to the Fathers were to mean a purely formal repetition of their terms and formulations, it would be as wrong and as useless as the discarding of the Fathers by “modern” theology because of their presumably “antiquated” world view. (145-146)

I am grateful to professors like Warren Smith and others at Duke who taught me to appreciate the Fathers, not just as part of the “history” of the Church, but as vital conversation partners today.  Fr. Schmemann has provided me with an excellent reminder that we are meant not merely to “use” or “reference” the Fathers to further our own theological and ecclesiological agendas, but to pray and think with them: lex orandi, lex credendi.

6 thoughts on “Recovering the Church Fathers”

  1. I may get the book you recommend.
    The Early Church Fathers read along with other historical writers help us understand the world Christianity was birthed into The Early Church Fathers help us understand how the early church understood the teaching of Christ and the apostles. We read of common practices of this new religion, the division, the strife, and the blessings.

    Every discipline has a history behind it and someone somewhere has written something. From medicine, law, archaeology, sophists, to the worship of gods all are recorded and written of. Pictures are painted in the arts. Stories are told in the plays. The culture becomes clearer and the language of scripture becomes clearer.
    History is an aid to understanding, an apologetic tool and an instructor.
    Great stuff.

  2. D, if you do read Schmemann he will attempt to cure you of referring to Christianity as a “new religion.” Instead – following a strong line of other Christan thought – he argues that Christianity is the only real alternative to secularism or religion. Tolle lege! Thanks for stopping in.

    1. I don’t think he will cure me.
      Religion is clearly defined as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

      Sounds right to me.
      Have a great holiday.

  3. Yes, all those things are true about religion. But Christianity is not about the universe or a moral code, it is about God’s mission to recreate the world through the incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 😉

    1. Religion:
      Christianity in particular is about all the things you list.
      It is also important to God that His creation survive, sustain, and grow.
      That is clearly evidenced by all the works God has put in place to accomplish the goal.

      What I struck by when I read the writings of the ECF is their assuredness, bluntness and the ability to answer questions all men seeks without apology and in detail.
      They tread where few leaders of the church today would tread.
      Christianity is about the big picture. Much bigger than we can imagine me thinks.

      I stumbled into a great site yesterday in search of something.
      It is called “Christian History for Everyman”.
      Pretty good site.

  4. I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the page
    layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what
    youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content
    so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or 2 pictures.

    Maybe you could space it out better?

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