06 December 2006

Why Study the Church Fathers?

A weekend flight to Dallas and substitute teaching for a high school math class (I don't know anything about math; fortunately quizzes were the order of the day) allowed me the opportunity to rediscover yet another book in my library. This one I had used when teaching in my former parish, but I had never read it "cover-to-cover." So I started at the beginning, with the introduction.

The book is Mary and the Fathers of the Church by Luigi Gambero (Ignatius Press, 1999). Fr Gambero opens the introduction by explaining why the exploration of early Christianity generally and patristic writings specifically is good and fruitful. From the start, he admits that this study can be frustrating since it can raise so many historical-critical problems. I would add that frustration also occurs when one approaches the Church Fathers as the final authority, or at least a deciding factor, in matters of faith. When this is the approach, the Fathers are often read outside of their historical context as we insist that they speak to our questions in our day. In his volume, Fr Gambero diligently seeks to understand each particular Father and writing in its own specific historical and theological context. As such, he lays down this "rule" which, I think, should be uppermost in the minds of all who study the Christian writers of any era:

The purpose of such research cannot be the search for a verification of our religious creed and our personal Christian life, or a quest to make sure that we are being faithful to the patrimony of faith (depsitum fidei) entrusted by the Lord to his apostles and to the Church. The teaching of the Church, in every age of her history, is sufficient to guarantee this certainty, because it embraces the whole treasury of tradition, rendered present and alive by the faith and Christian action of the people of God.

Our interest in rediscovering the very beginning of the Christian tradition becomes more understandable if considered from a different perspective. For us, retrieving the orgins of Christian doctrine can be like tasting the fresh waters of a spring, where the word of God is poured out by the pen of man under the illuminating and charismatic impulse of the Spirit, where the first Christian generations found nourishment for their faith, prayer, and life. We, too, know the wellsprings of this inspiration: Sacred Scripture and the apostolic tradition, the marvelous works of the Holy Spirit, acting in the lives of the scriptural authors and Fathers of the Church to make them authoritative witnesses and outstanding heralds of the good news of Jesus, through their preaching, writings, and living example. (p. 17)

1 comment:

Dixie said...

When this is the approach, the Fathers are often read outside of their historical context as we insist that they speak to our questions in our day.

I recently found out how easy it is to fall into this trap. I was not studying the Fathers at the time but CS Lewis', The Pilgrim's Regress. I linked a number of the protagonist's encounters in that book to the behaviors of specific modern Christian sects and secular philosophies. Oh...I thought I was absolutely brilliant in how I connected the dots! ;) In actuality, Lewis was addressing various non-Christian philosophies prevelant in his specific place in time and in his academic setting--and these do not correlate directly with those of the current age.

So...there has to be a mechanism to keep one grounded in his reading and interpretation of historical writings. In my situation with Lewis I had a good study guide. But when it comes to reading the Fathers, Father Gambero reminds us this mechanism is the teaching of the Church. I find much comfort in this.