Read the Church Fathers because you disagree with them

St Augustine, by Philippe de Champaigne. You probably disagree with him.

Several months ago, we were visiting with a friend who had recently started reading through a book of daily readings from the Early Church Fathers with her husband. (I assume it was Nick Needham’s.) She talked about how each month was taken from a different Church Father, and how she and her husband were enjoying it — not that they always agreed with the readings.

I hadn’t thought about it, but it soon came into my mind that here is a reason to read the Fathers — my reason for this reason will come soon.

This idea came to me again yesterday when I finished reading said friend’s draft of a novelisation of the life of St John Chrysostom (he does have one of the more exciting patristic biographies). At the end there was an Author’s Note talking about how some of the practices and beliefs of Christians in John’s day are at variance with evangelicals, but we can learn so much from him and his commitment to Jesus.

So this is the reason, and it’s fairly straightforward. In a few points:

First, the Fathers, and not merely ‘ancient Christians’, are the Fathers (and Mothers, let’s toss in Egeria and Perpetua!) for a reason. Their arguments about many of the core doctrines of all Christians — Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Protestant — are the foundation of everything that follows after. Their modes of exegesis were the norm for hundreds and hundreds of years, in many ways until the 1800s. They were good at what they did, so they are worth reading.

Second, because of the above, we could also say that they come ‘approved’ — that is, they are not off their rockers, they are not meandering through the forest. We are talking about holy men who have committed themselves to Christ and His Gospel, often, like Chrysostom, suffering for it. Even if we disagree with them, we aren’t having to slog through some of the less savoury corners of theology out there.

Third, because of the first two, disagreeing with them can help us in a few ways. It should hopefully humble us as a reminder that faithful Christians need not have the same mind about some things. And then, thus humbled, I hope any of us would think deeply about how important the issue at stake is. And then, thus further humbled, if we think it is not necessarily very important, perhaps we could use this introspection to wonder if we should change our mind.

But if we don’t change our mind, I do hope that charitable reading of Church Fathers with whom we disagree will make us understand why we believe what and how we believe as well as help increase humility in our hearts.

‘Yesterday I was crucified with Him. Today I am glorified with Him!’

From St Gregory of Nazianzus

Yesterday I was crucified with Him. Today I am glorified with Him! Yesterday I died with Him. Today I am made alive with Him! Yesterday I was buried with Him. Today I rise again with Him! To Him who suffered and rose for us, let us offer — what? Maybe you’ll think I’m going to say we should offer Him gold, silver, costly tapestries, or crystal-clear precious stones. But such things are the earth’s mere vanishing stuff, forever limited to this world, generally owned by bad people — the world’s slaves, the bondsmen of this world’s Prince.

No, let’s offer Him our very selves, that which is most valuable to God, and most fitting as an offering! Let’s give back to the Divine Image what is made according to that Image. Let’s acknowledge the dignity of our own creation; let’s honour Him who is our Model. Let’s experience the power of the Mystery of His salvation, and the purpose of His death. Let’s become like Christ, since Christ became like us. Let’s become divine people for Him, since He became human for us.

He took upon Himself the worse, to bestow on us the better; He became poor that we, through His poverty, might become rich; He came down to lift us high; He was tempted that we might gain victory; He was shamed to glorify us; He embraced death that He might give us salvation; He ascended heavenwards that He might draw to Himself those who were lying prostrate, fallen through sin. Let us give all, let us offer all, to Him who gave Himself as the price of our redemption and our reconciliation. But we can give Him nothing as precious as ourselves.

Oration 1.4-5, trans. Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, 25 March

The suffering of the impassible God 1: St Gregory of Nazianzus

Council of Chalcedon

One of the beautiful doctrines of the ancient church is the communicatio idiomatum, the teaching that everything about Christ’s divinity can be stated about his humanity and vice versa. It leads to startling statements like, ‘One of the Most Holy Trinity was crucified and died for us!’ Philosophically, it is a means of maintaining the unity of Christ in light of the fullness of his humanity and the fullness of his divinity.

The doctrine is important because of the fact that Jesus is affirmed by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 as possessing two natures but in a single person. This language of two natures is a fifth-century development, and it took a couple of centuries until St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) fleshed it out beautifully and magnificently after St Leo the Great’s use of such language in 448 had already rent the fabric of the church in two.

Nevertheless, there are hints of Leo’s insight already in the late fourth century. Thus St Gregory of Nazianzus (320-390):

Everything glorious in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His Deity, that nature in Him which is non-physical, far above sufferings; everything lowly in Scripture concerning the Son, you should apply to His condition as the God who took our nature upon Him, humbling Himself for your sakes and was incarnate (we may as well sake ‘became Man’), and afterwards was glorified. (Third Theological Oration, 17, trans. Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, 12 March)

St Gregory, however, is a bit subtler than Leo’s Tome. St Leo straightforwardly says that the humanity suffered, the divinity wrought miracles. St Gregory, on the other hand, posits everything about the humanity still to the divinity — in His incarnation as a human. And remember, St Gregory of Nazianzus is he who wrote, ‘What has not been assumed has not been saved,’ demonstrating that he believes in the fullness of Christ’s humanity.

St Gregory of Nazianzus – Hold fast to the Trinity

I set before you the One Deity and Power,
Found in the Three-in-Unity,
Embracing the Three one by one, equal in essence and nature,
Neither increased nor decreased by ideas of greater or less;
In every way equal, in every way the same,
Just as the loveliness and hugeness of the heavens are one:
The infinite oneness of Three Infinite Ones,
Each of whom is God when seen individually in Himself.
As the Father is God, so is the Son,
And as the Son is God, so is the Holy Spirit;
And the Three are likewise One God when seen together.
Each is God because they are of the same essence,
And they are One God because of the single principle of Deity.
The very instant I conceive of the One,
I am enlightened by the brightness of the Three;
The very instant is differentiate them,
I am carried straight back to the One.
When I regard any One of the Three, I think of Him as the Whole;
My sight is filled to the brim,
And the greater part of what I am thinking of eludes me!
I cannot grasp the greatness of One of the Three
So as to reckon a greater greatness to the Others.
And when I see the Three together, I see only one torch,
And I cannot divide or share out the Undivided Light.

-Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism, ch. 41, translated by Nick Needham, Daily Readings: The Early Church Fathers, March 7