How Not to Read the Fathers

The Church Fathers (11th-century Kievan image)

As you know, I spend a certain amount of my time reading the Church Fathers and about the Church Fathers. And I hope that you do, too — or that you will soon! A few patterns of reading are, I believe, quite unhelpful. They are suspicion, the related habit of heresy-hunting, ‘they’re just like us’, and prooftexting. A fifth way is not necessarily unhelpful but could be dangerous, and that is independent, devotional reading.


As you know, I dislike suspicious readings of texts, as discussed earlier this year in relation to Perpetua. This is a form of reading that is hostile — the least respectable of all interpretations is always taken. For example, one of my Presbyterian students read Leo the Great’s third sermon on his accession and declared that it looks like Leo is worshipping Peter! The same student later said that St. Francis’ Rule of 1221, in calling for ‘obedience and reverence’ to Innocent III, was distracting people from Christ and directing them to worship the Pope. Sigh. This is the sort of hostile reading that certain kinds of Protestants engage in with anything that resembles a pope or papism.

A friend of mine has this trouble with his students at an unnamed evangelicaliberty university who are automatically opposed to anything that looks ascetic or includes celibacy because it looks like Roman Catholicism and doesn’t contribute to evangelism.

Be ready for things in the Fathers that look Roman Catholic. They’re there. But do not assume the worst possible reading of all. Please. It tires me.


Heresy-hunting is like suspicion. I first learned of this at Phil Snyder’s now-defunct blog Hyperekperissou. In this framework, people read the earlier Fathers looking for later heresies. So Justin is accused of being a Monarchianist or Cassian of being a Monophysite or even a Pelagian (!). We cannot back-read later orthodoxy or heresy onto the earlier Fathers. I believe that this stems from conservative Protestants, probably evangelical, who wish to discredit all Christian history between St. John’s vision on Patmos and Martin Luther on the one hand, and liberal Protestants, probably Anglican (quite frankly), who wish to find a way to justify their own eccentricities and dress them up like ‘progresive’ orthodoxy.

You will inevitably find things in the Fathers that sound like heresy to you. Ask what heresy, why this guy looks like a heretic, and why he is still a Church Father if he has allegedly committed ‘heresy’.

They’re Just Like Us

I once read this series of Christian romance novels called ‘The Mark of the Lion.’ True story. Anyway, what I found remarkable there was that late first-century Christians, rather than looking like the Didache look a heckuvalot like 20th-century nonconformist/free church evangelicals. Like Baptists, in other words. This, of course, was probably derived from not reading the Fathers. More commonly, this looks like something another friend of mine encountered at another evangelical university where a student pulled out Clement of Alexandria and said, ‘Look, third-century Christians believed in justification by faith!’ It is most commonly done by Orthodox who claim that Luke was the first iconographer and have all their modern, Byzantine practices confirmed. This practice, even if not used polemically, completely ignores the historical context of the writers involved.

Ancient Christians are very much like us. They believe in Jesus, that faith in him will save us. They pray. They have the same Bible. But they are not us. They are different. Be thankful for the similarities, but be wary of imagining that you and Aphrahat the Persian are the same.


This is another dangerous way of reading the Fathers. It is often used in anti-Orthodox and anti-Catholic polemics. Passages such as St. Epiphanius of Salamis tearing down images in his local church are used in arguments with other Christians to prove to them that they are not as much like the early Christians as they thought. Sometimes the argument from silence is, that no Ante-Nicene Father seems to pray to saints — ha ha! You Orthodox scum are hellbound idolaters! Or it is clear from the Didache that the fasts were not the 40-day long abstinence-fests of Roman Catholicism originally. Ha ha! You Papist pagans have corrupted your own Tradition!

This is very, very dangerous. For example, we have Christian images that pre-date Epiphanius. So not all early Christians were iconoclasts. And, although the earliest pray-er to saints I can positively affirm is St. Paulinus of Nola, the Martyrdom of Polycarp seems to include relics and a saint’s shrine; Polycarp died in 155, so he’s not exactly a latecomer to the Christian tradition. Furthermore, although 40-day long abstinences are a development in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, by Melito of Sardis’ (d. ca. 180) time there seems to already have come into existence proto-Lent.

For every prooftext you can draw from the Fathers to fight the Orthodox and Roman Catholics, they’ll find a way to defang it. All you’ll do is fight with fellow Christians and get nowhere.

Devotional Reading

Devotional readings of the Fathers are not inherently bad. This is when you read a passage or text from the ancient Church and say, ‘Wow, this really speaks to my situation.’ Or you say, ‘Hey, this helps with x, y, or z modern problem.’ Or something like that. This is not a bad way of reading. I do it. I even do it on this blog.

But we have to distinguish between what the Fathers may say today and what the Fathers meant. Sometimes they are the same thing. Sometimes they are not. To help you distinguish, most modern translations of the Fathers come with handy introductions. Some, such as certain volumes in the Ancient Christian Writers series, have commentary. There are also handy introductory books such as Routledge’s Early Church Fathers series. Resources like these can help us distinguish between what Leo the Great means to me as a 21st-century Christian facing all the challenges this world holds, and what Leo the Great meant as a fifth-century Christian facing all the different challenges his world held.

I hope you can avoid these kinds of readings. The Fathers, I believe, are best read on their own terms and for your own edification — not as fuel for the battles for Christian identity that have raged since before 1054.


Perpetua and the Hermeneutic of Suspicion

I have spoken here before of the need for a ‘hermeneutic of love’ in dealing with patristic writings, drawing on NT Wright’s work on the concept (and now glad to see Miroslav Volf’s criticism of the ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ in Captive to the Word of God). I was recently reminded of how important yet — perhaps — uncommon a way of reading this is.

I am auditing a class on Early North African Christianity, but can only make it to the fortnightly post-graduate seminars attached to the class. The first set of texts discussed in this class were the Acts of the Scillitan Martyrs and the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity.

When these were discussed in the mixed class with both post-graduates and undergraduates, apparently some of the undergrads had decided that suspicion and mistrust were the best ways to read ancient Christian literature.

People said that Perpetua was ‘un-Christian’ for allowing her father to be beaten and her child to be raised without its mother — that she was being selfish in pursuing her desire for martyrdom at the expense of others.

As well — and this happened in the postgrad seminar as well, but more subtly — this martyrdom account was likened to militant Islamic suicide bombers. No joke.

And at the postgrad seminar, one of the people there noted that he was concerned over the fact that here we had an older, charismatic man leading a group of enthusiastic youths to their deaths in martyrdom. He also felt that the text was imbalanced and produced a troubling picture of Christianity since all it talked about was martyrdom.

So. Here’s the hermeneutic of suspicion in full swing.

As regards Perpetua being ‘un-Christian’ in allowing her father to be beaten rather than recant her Christian faith, one of my friends pointed out that, according to our earliest Christian traditions and writings, what she was doing was the most Christian thing, for Jesus said that he would divide families and that we are not to love our earthly families more than him.

I reckon that an overemphasis in certain ecclesiastical groups within Scotland on the need for social action and that social action is what makes the true Christian has produced this result.

To compare Christian martyrs with suicide bombers misses the point of each type of death. Suicide bombers seek not just their own deaths but the deaths of those around them. Theirs is a tactic of fear and terror; suicide bombing is a form of terrorism, of violence on the part of the so-called ‘martyr.’

Martyrs who die for their faith, who die because they refuse to engage in the religious practices of others or because they refuse to recant their faith or because they refuse to give up practising their own faith — whether they have sought to be killed by the authorities or not — are in an entirely different circumstance. When they die, no one else dies with them. They may choose death, but they choose death because they have been given the options of denying their religion or dying. And so they die for a very modern, contemporary reason — religious freedom, a basic human right.

Concerning the older, charismatic man leading the youths, who else in Roman society would? Saturus, Perpetua’s catechist, was a man versed in the faith and who was instructing these young people in the faith. They were arrested. Did they put themselves forward for martyrdom? Were they informed against? The text does not say. It simply says that they were arrested.

The hermeneutic of suspicion says that this charismatic man manipulated them and made them drink the Kool-Aid.

The hermeneutic of love says that they came to faith freely, and when that faith was tested, he helped them stay firm.

Finally, the criticism that the text is imbalanced is just ridiculous. All Christian texts are, therefore, imbalanced. The Rule of Benedict does not talk about evangelism; is it imbalanced? St. Leo the Great, discoursing about Christology in the Tome, does not discuss ethics; is he, on that score, imbalanced? Luther’s 95 Theses have little to do with anything other than indulgences; are they thus imbalanced? The Book of Revelation has little to give us in terms of how to live — is it imbalanced?

Books are, to borrow from Miroslav Volf’s Captive to the Word of God, social relations. Someone, somewhere, is using the medium of writing, using that particular book, to communicate something. In the Passion of Perpetua, that something is the martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicity, and their fellows. Why should we expect a full view of the Christian life, of normal ethics, of worship, of prayer, of distinct belief? I do not expect a martyr story to give me these.

In fact, apparently only spurious martyr stories give us these things because the Roman judges were not concerned with them; the martyrs had no chance to discuss the ins and outs of daily Christian life and belief.

So Perpetua. It is sad to see someone who should be an example of faith treated with such suspicion, to see a text that should give us strength scorned in such a way. If there is to be a specifically Christian reading, should it not seek to treat not just the living, but the writings of the dead, with love?