Development of ‘Fathers’ of the Church 2: The Role of Christological Controversy

If, as posited in the last post on this theme, the fifth and sixth centuries are the era of the development of the concept of ‘Fathers’ of the Church, it is worth noting that this also the era of the unsolved Christological crises, beginning with the accession of Nestorius to the See of Constantinople in 428.

Normally, we imagine that the ‘Nestorian problem’ was dealt with in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon, but the history of Byzantine Christianity demonstrates how far wrong we are in such an assessment. Not only was there an uprising in Palestine against Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, there was also a general uprising throughout Egypt in favour of Dioscorus, the ‘Miaphysite’ (Monophysite — highly conservative Cyrillian) Patriarch who opposed Chalcedon’s Latin, Leonine settlement.

Theologians throughout the eastern Mediterranean were opposed to Chalcedon, and their opposition did not die down with time. As one generation of Mia/Monophysites died, a new generation rose up to take its place. Thus we move from the generation of Dioscorus to that of the brilliant representatives of that movement, Philoxenus of Mabbûg and Severus of Antioch. They would in turn be succeeded by the likes of John of Ephesus and Jacob Baradaeus (two of the founders of the Syrian or ‘Jacobite’ Orthodox Church). Dioscorus’ most recent successor, who was part of a line from him through the likes of Timothy Aelurus (‘the Weasel’), Pope Shenouda III, recently died.

On the other hand, despite the accusations of ‘Nestorianism’ hurled at Leo and Chalcedon by Severus of Antioch and his fellow Miaphysites, those Christians who saw themselves as in line with Nestorius found themselves forcibly excluded from the Roman Empire under Justinian in the early sixth century; they accordingly went to Persia and beyond, forming the ‘Church of the East’, and have had the misnomer ‘Assyrian Orthodox’ applied to them in the past. In Diarmaid McCulloch’s A History of Christianity, you can see a photo of a Chinese monastery founded by the Church of the East in the Middle Ages as well as a stele with both Chinese and Syriac on it, showing a Christian thoughtworld sensitive to local Taoism. Modern scholarship seems to have taken to calling the Church of the East and its historical forebears ‘Dyophysite’, a term that I feel muddies the waters, because it could be applied to Latin and Chalcedonian theology just as easily.

The years following 451, in other words, were not a time of Christological ease and theological straightforwardness. Everyone was vying for position as the accepted orthodoxy of the imperial church, especially the Chalcedonians and the conservative Cyrillian Monophysites.

As they fought and argued and sought to prove that they were the true successors of the Apostles and the Holy Fathers of Nicaea, both sides were busily pushing forth the same theologians as evidence for their orthodoxy. In a world already relatively traditionalist, the traditionalism of the succeeding generations of Christologians was sealed. To prove they were truly orthodox and in line with tradition, out would come Sts. Athanasius and Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus and Cyril of Alexandria. Both sides would distance themselves from Nestorius and Eutyches.

A major result of this traditional, patristic approach to doing theology is that both sides pretty much have the same Church Fathers for the period before 451. The possible exceptions are Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, who had particular teachings condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 during the Three Chapters Controversy, much to the chagrin of many western bishops — the eastern bishops, who felt these men and their positions too ‘Nestorian’, were willing to grant this concession to their Miaphysite opponents.

After 451, the traditions mostly diverge, although Abba Isaiah of Scetis, from an anti-Chalcedonian monastery in Gaza, is among those ascetics revered by both sides of the conflict surrounding Chalcedon. Thus, Leo the Great and Maximus the Confessor are Church Fathers to the Chalcedonians, while Severus of Antioch and Philoxenus of Mabbûg are Fathers to the anti-Chalcedonians, and Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius are Church Fathers of the ‘Nestorians’.

What this also shows us is that a Church Father is not simply any ancient Christian writer. Not for the people who were alive in the fifth and sixth centuries — let alone the rest of the Byzantine and Mediaeval worlds — at any rate. It may be healthy for us to have Severus of Antioch in the Routledge Early Church Fathers Series alongside Leo the Great. It is probably not so bad to read the exegesis of Julian Eclanum beside Augustine of Hippo, or Theodore of Mopsuestia with Cyril of Alexandria. But for many Christians of much of the history of Christianity, these pairs of authors are not pairs of Fathers, but of a Father and an opponent, a heretic even.

Development of ‘Fathers’ of the Church 1: The Catena

A Gathering of the Holy Fathers

One of the developments in Christian thought we see in the fifth and sixth centuries is the concept of  ‘Church Father’. This development is one reason why D H Williams draws his ‘suspicious Protestants’ to the patristic period as it existed specifically before AD 500 — these are the writers who are considered by later writers (the later Fathers themselves!) as Fathers of the Church.

The Council of Chalcedon provides us with one of our early examples of this growing concept when it drafts its Definitio Fidei, which it introduces with the words, ‘Following the holy fathers,’ ie. of Nicaea, Constantinople I, and Ephesus I. These men themselves shall be calledSancti Patres in due course.

Other evidence for this growing perception of Fathers of the Church in the fifth century is found in the appearance of testimonia in writings in the disputes of the day. Testimonia are passages from previous writers one gathers together in a series (either a catena — lit. a chain — or a florilegium — lit. a gathering of flowers) appended to the end of a work or sometimes as the whole work itself. They are gathered together to add weight to one’s own position. An example of this is Theodoret of Cyrrhus, who appended testimonia to one of his letters.

Another early example is Leo the Great who appended Testimonia to his so-called ‘Second’ Tome, Ep. 165, to Emperor Leo I, seeking to demonstrate the validity of his two-nature christology. Leo includes passages from Hilary of Poitiers, Athanasius, Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Theophilus of Alexandria (via Jerome), Cyril of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nazianzus in his patristic testimonia. The inclusion of these testimonia is, no doubt, part of Leo’s own growing awareness that his own authority and argumentation were not ending the crisis he’d hoped to resolve at Chalcedon. He turned to his forebears in the faith, to authoritative authors to bolster his position.

Testimonia patrum as either florilegia appended to ‘original’ works or as catenae that comprised the entirety of a work really got rolling in the sixth century. An example of theology that was entirely rooted in patristic catenae is found in Leontius of Byzantium, who wrote his own discourses on Christology principally through the lens of previous writers.

The process really got moving, however, as biblical commentaries. Both East and West in the sixth century began an original endeavour of creative editing that produced an endless variety of comments and combinations on the text of Holy Scripture. Each editor, using either earlier catenae or his own extensive reading, would produce a commentary on the Bible full of short snapshots from the Fathers on the passage at hand (kind of like IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture).

These were not merely editorial technique, however. One can quote only what one chooses. One can purposefully misquote. One can accidentally misquote. One can splice two quotations together. Furthermore, the successors of one such anthologiser can simply add more quotations without doing damage to the text (it happens thus with Leo, Ep. 165 that some manuscripts have more passages than others).

What a patristic catena on a passage of Scripture can provide its creator is a comprehensive view that pretends to take into account all of the data. When done well, as in Bede, it can provide us with a single theological vision. It also creates for its readers the illusion of a consensus Patrum. ‘This,’ thinks the reader of a catena on Gen 6, ‘is what the Fathers thought!’

As the same Fathers are resorted to time and again in these anthologies, the thought of the Byzantine and medieval worlds is not always as divided as some would have you believe. As well, these people keep turning up again and again. They hold pride of place as the medieval and Byzantine Christians seek to interpret their Bibles in a faithful way that is true to their tradition and heritage.

In the East, this reading and rereading of the same Fathers means that by the age of Justinian, it not earlier, the Mono/Miaphysites and the Greek/Syriac Chalcedonians have almost the same way of thinking, just different words. They have read and reread Athanasius, Cyril, the Cappadocians, et al., time and time again as they seek to uncover the truth about the nature(s) of Jesus, and both sides have constructed catenae of testimonia from the Fathers to prove the other side wrong.

I believe that the patristic catena is one of the main reasons that East and West; Latin, Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Armenian; Chalcedonian, Anti-Chalcedonian, and ‘Nestorian’; monks and bishops, all have a fairly similar grouping of Ante-Nicene, Nicene, and pre-Chalcedonian Fathers. For 1000 years they were reading quotations from these same people, all strung together, as they sought to interpret Scripture and theology.  These people are the common patrimony of all Christians, everywhere. They are the Fathers.